Is Boteach's 'Kosher Jesus' a treif idea?
Dr Harry Freedman on the uproar over a new book arguing that Jesus was not the Christian messiah but a Jewish hero
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Jesus was an observant Jew, a loyal patriot who fought to save Israel from Roman tyranny. His message was distorted by Paul, the architect of Christianity. This resulted in Jesus's alienation from his people. We should not be deceived by Paul, Rabbi Boteach tells us, who was "a brilliant but unstable character, prone to manic extremes".
In Kosher Jesus, Shmuley Boteach argues that it is time for Jews to re-evaluate their relationship with Jesus, in order to strengthen American Judeo-Christian values. Judaism and Christianity should come together "to achieve Godly goals and virtuous ends through the personality of Jesus himself".
Boteach makes out an emotional case for Jews to reclaim Jesus. He argues that Jews should reject the image painted by the editors of the Christian Bible who took "a Jewish sage and lover of his people, put a white hood on his head and a swastika on his arm and sent him out spewing vitriol against his people". On the contrary, Boteach tells us, Jesus was an anti-Roman revolutionary, zealous for his people,
But this argument is not as clear-cut as Boteach would have us believe. That Jesus sought to lead a rebellion against Rome was most lucidly advanced by Hyam Maccoby, in his rigorously argued book Revolution in Judea. Boteach acknowledges his debt to Maccoby's scholarship but sensationalises his conclusion. He asserts that the fact that the Gospels contain little anti-Roman material and much that is anti-Jewish demonstrates that Jesus was actually a Jewish partisan fighting against Rome, whose position was reversed by the later, Roman-aligned church. It is a curious argument but one that is expressed with tremendous conviction.
In fact, although it is clear from the earliest Christian texts that Jesus had a revolutionary agenda, the probability is that he campaigned against the ruling priestly factions in the Temple. Rome was of little interest to him. He was a preacher, not a soldier.
It's of no surprise that Kosher Jesus has attracted fierce criticism. Not because the author has little sense of history or of text-critical analysis. Nor because, in advising his readers that Jesus was an observant Jew, he tells them no more than they would glean from even a cursory reading of the Christian Bible. Nor even because of its provocative language, or its excursions into Christian theology. The criticism does not focus on the construction of the book or its scholarship. It focuses instead on the impact the book is likely to have, were it to be read.
The angriest censure has come from Jewish anti-missionary groups. Unlike Britain, Jewish communities in North America face an ongoing struggle against Christian missionaries who prey on lost and impressionable Jewish youngsters. Rabbi Michael Skobac, of the Canadian counter-missionary organisation Jews for Judaism, considers that the book plays into the hands of the "tremendous forces of assimilation and conversion bearing down on the Jewish people".
Much of the anger of Jewish anti-missionary groups is due to the fulsome praise that Boteach bestows on Christian evangelists for their support of Israel. While there is no doubt that these groups have been instrumental in shaping American policy towards Israel, their support should not be unconditionally welcomed. It is not altruistic. Evangelists consider the Jewish state as a necessary precondition for the Second Coming. By so fulsomely embracing the Evangelists, Boteach has set alarm bells ringing.
Criticism of a more personal nature has come from the Chabad community, whence Boteach hails, which appears to feel a deep sense of betrayal. Rabbi Immanuel Schochet called for Kosher Jesus to be banned, declaring that in 40 years of anti-missionary work he had never read a book, "let alone one authored by a purported frum Jew, that does more to enhance the evangelical missionary message".
Christian voices are no less censorious, albeit a little more gentle in their language. David Parsons, of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, dismissed the book by declaring that "Jews and Christians have been building bridges towards each other and exploring the Jewishness of Jesus for several decades now, long before Boteach saw the need to set us all straight."
Whatever one thinks of this book, calls for it to be banned should not be heeded. Jews have always studied Jesus; Ramban won a famous disputation in Barcelona in 1263 by studying and refuting Christian teachings. And Jews do not ban books; we know what it is like to have our books burnt, we need not do it to others.
Kosher Jesus is a disturbing, sensationalist book. There is little doubt that it was intended to be, although it is not clear why. Ultimately its challenge feels hollow, it provides us with no new knowledge which warrants the author's exhortation for Jews to re-evaluate Jesus. Still, whatever one thinks of its kashrut, there is a heart-warming moment at the end when the author expresses his gratitude to his wife, "the luckiest woman in the world".
Dr Freedman is author of 'The Gospels' Veiled Agenda: Revolution, Priesthood & The Holy Grail'