“The Mormons are our brothers, the Christians are our kin. So long as they support and defend the Jewish people through their current persecution, that will always be so, whatever their beliefs, and we owe them our gratitude.” – Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
“And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ [Messiah], the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.” – Matthew 16:16-17
Shmuley Boteach is the favorite rabbi of many a Mormon, and his goodwill towards the LDS community is warmly reciprocated. His collaboration with Mormons dates from his days as a Chabad shaliach at Oxford University, where he befriended Michael Benson, scion of a prominent LDS family and the current president of Southern Utah University. I became one of Rabbi Shmuley’s fans after reading his bestseller Kosher Sex, and I have always appreciated his passionate advocacy of a Jewish-Christian alliance for Israel.
It is therefore with some reluctance that I post this response to his recent essay, “Jewish Ingratitude to Christians.” After calling on Jews to show more gratitute towards Evangelical Christians for their steadfast support of Israel, the good rabbi shocks the Christian reader with the following exhortation: “It would behoove our Christian brothers and sisters to conclude that they have much more to learn about the authentic historical Jesus from Jews than any misguided attempts at converting them. Indeed, not only must these attempts be emphatically resisted by the Jewish community with overwhelming scholarship, but precisely the opposite is true. Christians must learn from the Jews to reject any deification of Jesus, which he, as a Pharisee, would have seen as the ultimate sacrilege and which is the subject of my upcoming book on the Jewish Jesus. They must follow Jesus as teacher and prophet rather than divinity. Every human being is a child of G-d, and not just Jesus, as the Bible makes clear in Deuteronomy.” If this is really the thesis of his upcoming book, I would advise him to change editors.
Let me be clear where Rabbi Shmuley and I differ. I certainly understand why Jews reject Christianity. Indeed, given the way in which Christianity was presented to Jews for many centuries (“Believe in our three-in-one God or go to hell – heck, we’ll even hasten the trip for you”), it’s a wonder that any of them converted voluntarily. Every Christian seeking to understand Judaism’s arguments against Jesus’ Messiahship should pick up David Klinghoffer’s insightful book “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus.” [Though it must be added that his arguments will hardly trouble Mormons, since it is impossible to remove Jesus from the Book of Mormon and other modern scriptures].
I also understand (and wholeheartedly support) efforts by Jews to resist efforts by Jews for Jesus and other Evangelical groups to target them for conversion to Christianity. I have attended Jews for Judaism events in the past, and believe that if a Jew is asked to choose between Judaism and Evangelicalism, he should always choose to remain Jewish.
However, Rabbi Shmuley’s assertion that Jesus was a “Pharisee” who resisted any attempt to deify Him flatly contradicts the New Testament. It is one thing for a rabbi to say that he does not accept the New Testament Gospels as scripture; it is quite another to suggest that Christians do not understand their message. In the interest of space, I shall only quote from selected verses in the first Gospel, Matthew, in an effort to show why the rabbi’s argument is mere wishful thinking.
In the third chapter of Matthew, Jesus is baptized, following which “the heavens were opened unto him,” the Spirit of God descended like a dove, and a voice from heaven declared “This is my beloved Son.” In the next chapter, the devil tempts Him to throw Himself from a pinnacle of the temple. Jesus’ response? “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” In the seventh chapter, Jesus clearly states His authority over entry to heaven: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven…Many will say unto me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name?...And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you…” In the ninth chapter, Jesus declares His divine ability to forgive sins: “But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith he to the sick of the palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house.”
How else can one interpret Mat. 11:27 (“All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him”) or Jesus’ bold declaration to the Pharisees that He was “greater than the temple” and “Lord even of the sabbath day?” As stated above, Jesus agreed with Peter’s acknowledgment of Him as the Messiah. Three verses later, He gives Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus goes on to declare in the nineteenth chapter that He will “sit in the throne of his glory,” then prophesies in the next one that He will rise on the third day from the dead. When Caiaphas, the chief priest, asks him whether he is the Christ (Messiah), the Son of God, Jesus answers: “Thou hast said,” then announces that He will soon be sitting on the right hand of power in the clouds of heaven. After hearing this, Caiaphas rends his clothes and accuses Him of blasphemy. In the clearest example of Jesus’ claim to Messiahship, Roman governor Pontius Pilate twice refers to Him as “Jesus which is called Christ” (Mat. 27:17, 22). In the final chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is resurrected, says that all power is His in heaven and earth, and commands that henceforth people should be baptized in His name.
Anyone trying to make a serious argument that Jesus was a Pharisee has an impossible task – how to reconcile that assertion with Matthew chapters 12, 15, 16, and (especially) 23, inter alia. Good luck with that.
A while ago a friend invited me to join his Talmud study group led by a rabbi. I was excited to learn the truths of the oral Torah, and read “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Talmud” and Adin Steinsaltz’s “The Essential Talmud” in preparation for the first class. However, at the same time an Orthodox Israeli friend made me aware of rabbinic writings in the Talmud that condemn Jesus and are rarely mentioned in public by Jews (to his credit, Klinghoffer does discuss them in his book). I was so offended by those writings that I decided not to study the Talmud. If the rabbis could be so wrong about Jesus, I reasoned, I could not have faith in anything else written in the Talmud. In short, I realized that Jews and Christians have very different ideas about Jesus, and that they simply have to agree to disagree on His divinity and Messiahship.
I will gladly read anything Rabbi Shmuley writes on Jewish themes in the New Testament and/or Jewish religious practices at the time of Jesus. However, it is not clear to me why Christians should turn to him for a greater understanding of the “authentic historical Jesus.” The New Testament clearly and repeatedly states that Jesus was the Messiah and that He was (and is) divine. Christians believe this; Jews do not. However well-written Rabbi Shmuley’s upcoming book may be, it is unlikely to add to Christians’ understanding of the identity of their Savior.
I will be speaking at the Jewish Community Center in Salt Lake City on January 12, 2011. I will also be speaking with Rabbi Alan Cohen in Kansas City on January 16.