I was asked to comment on the unprecedented hullabaloo over Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s latest book Kosher Jesus on his recent visit to Australia. I wish to emphasize that I make my remarks in my personal capacity as a Rabbi and declare I am a friend of Rabbi Boteach. I do not represent any movement or organization nor should my remarks be construed as representing the view of any organization or person other than myself. I write solely in the pursuit of truth and giving a friend a “fair go”. I have read the book and spoken to Rabbi Boteach about it, and I make the following observations.
I think Rabbi Boteach’s intentions are proper and sincere. The suggestion that he is a heretic is simply ludicrous and those who make that charge simply do not know Rabbi Boteach. I know him to be fully devoted to authentic Torah Judaism.
Furthermore, one who suggests that the book is in some way a support for Christianity and its teachings, has obviously not read the book. It is a comprehensive, conclusive and systematic theological refutation of the major tenets of Christianity. (See in particular Part iv of the book.)
Where Rabbi Boteach is controversial (but in my view not heretical) is in his attempt to rehabilitate Jesus himself a hero and a loyal Jew from whom Jews can learn , and in similarly making the message of Jesus a message primarily for the pagan gentiles bringing them to belief in the one G-d . In that assertion he strays from the mainstream Jewish understanding of Jesus including that of Maimonides and others who considered Jesus at best mistaken and at worst a heretic.
It must be said that there were those such as Rabbi Yaakov Emden who took a more sympathetic and positive approach to the persona of Jesus and Paul and their teachings for the gentiles , however to date I have not found any Jewish teacher who extends that positivity to Jews learning from Jesus as a hero, as Rabbi Boteach suggests we do. He also has an inherent problem in that suggestion as clearly, from a Jewish perspective, the gospels are influenced by pagan teaching and early Christian teaching much of which is antithetical to Judaism, so how does Rabbi Boteach know which teachings in the gospels are indeed authentically those of his “rehabilitated” Jesus?
Furthermore a title such as “Kosher Jesus” as well as sections praising Jesus may be taken out of the context of the rest of the book by missionaries and used in their work to mislead and proselytise Jews. Indeed many who may have otherwise not been critical of the book are severely critical of the title. When I discussed this with Rabbi Boteach he was convinced in his mind that the average reader was of sufficient intelligence to read the entire book where the refutation of the Christianity of the missionaries was apparent. Those who I have spoken to in the anti-missionary movement are not so convinced.
All that said none of the above criticisms leads to a charge of Heresy. Heresy is when one denies any of the principles of the Jewish faith and Rabbi Boteach does quite the opposite. He explains how the tenets of Christianity as practiced are indeed totally unacceptable to Judaism and attempts to show how Jesus never deviated from traditional Jewish teaching. According to Rabbi Boteach it is Christianity that has got it wrong, both about Jesus and Judaism.
To differ on the understanding of the persona of Jesus and whether or not Jesus was an observant believing Jew who taught Rabbinic Judaism, is not in and of itself a matter of Heresy, it is a matter of historical interpretation. Boteach is not attempting to change or re-interpret Judaism at all, rather he is attempting to fit the historical Jesus into the mold of a believing Jew. He passionately believes doing so will lead to a greater rapprochement between Jew and Christian and lead to a better world. One may consider his approach unwise, or even erroneous, but I cannot see how it can be considered heretical.
That said , there is one theme in the book, which I have raised with Rabbi Boteach, which on face value is heretical . It can be summed up in Chapter 36 where he writes ” I don’t believe G-d gave only one truth…. Judaism is true ... but… Judaism permits and encourages a diverse world”. This theme is I believe heretical. Unequivocally Judaism believes that G-d gave only one truth to the world, the truth of the Torah. Everything in the world, every belief every ism is assessed through the prism of the Torah.
If Rabbi Boteach means that not every human being has to worship G-d as a Jew , that is correct and gentiles can find a portion in the world to come through the seven Noachide laws - living just lives believing in G-d. However this is not an alternative truth. This is because the Torah says that is how Gentiles can reach the world to come. They must believe in the One G-d and they must practice the Noachide laws as principles taught in Torah. There is indeed no other truth - only the truth of Torah. The truth of Torah allows diversity - but all within the context and approval of Torah.
Rabbi Boteach assures me his intent was not to suggest multiple truths other than the Torah, but rather that not everyone has to believe as a Jew. He in facts alludes to this when he writes “Judaism permits ...a diverse world” - he knows that for something to be permissible Judaism must permit it. However the wording as published is certainly very problematical and I have suggested that to be true to himself and Judaism he corrects the language for future editions.
Is “Kosher Jesus” kosher? My friends in the anti-missionary movement say definitely not. On the other hand some of my rabbinic friends say they don’t understand the fuss - it has been said before by Rabbi Yaakov Emden and others - and other than the title it is spot on. Shmuley believes his book will change the world. Will his aspirations come to fruition? You and time will be the best judge of that.