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February 1, 2012

In the discussion of Jesus, Jews should go on offense

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/in_the_discussion_of_jesus_jews_should_go_on_offense_20120201/

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By the time the dust settles on the ferocious battle over my book, “KosherJesus” – and it will settle – the reputation of several people will have been affected. Rabbi Yitzchok Wolf of Chicago, who started the controversy by writing that both the book and I should be banned from Chabad while admitting he had never read it, will have compromised his standing as an educator. After all, what kind of educator doesn’t believe in making educated statements?

Rabbi Immanuel Schochet, I predict, will be known over the next few years for the book he banned more than any book he wrote, so devastating was his declaration of “Kosher Jesus” to be heretical without offering a single argument to back up his claims.

His son, Rabbi Yitzchok Schochet, whose two-decade obsession with me would be flattering if it weren’t so disquieting, will have undermined his credibility further with his invention of three judges at his father’s debate declaring him the victor over Dr. Michael Brown. And while this construction out of whole cloth was well-intentioned – designed as it was to make his father appear better – all it did in reality was make all rabbis look worse. His issue is no longer with me but now with the many Christian missionaries attacking him for his fabrications about the debate with Brown.

Then there is the cowardly Rabbi who seemed to attack me without having the courage to even mention my name.  He was always friendly to me and we even talked about a number of large-scale educational projects we could work on together.  He never once voiced a word of complaint about my books or actions.  And yet when it became fashionable to attack me, he retroactively decided to condemn – in the most vicious language imaginable – both me and my past work. I will reciprocate his compliment by leaving him to his own nameless oblivion.

Now we have Michael Skobac, the education director of Jews for Judaism attacking “Kosher Jesus” and beginning with an unfortunate, gratuitous, personal, cheap shot that only undermines his argument, saying that I revel in the attention my book is receiving and that I am “desperate.” I really have to wonder, is there no one who can discuss this book without getting personal?

Judaism does not fear intelligent discussion. It is not a closed-minded religion. So let’s leave the personal invective out of this and go back to the issues. Indeed, I am grateful to Skobac for at least offering his reasons for fearing my book and for tacitly breaking with Schochet by not declaring the book heretical because he knows the suggestion is ludicrous and cannot be sustained. Indeed, given Skobac’s fairness, I would appeal to him and Jews for Judaism to please refrain from the dissemination of a pirated PDF copy of the book to others for comment—not only because it is illegal and unethical, but because it is an earlier version and is riddled with errors. As Rabbi Gil Student tweeted after being sent a bootleg copy of “Kosher Jesus” by another party, “Woe to the generation in which rabbis send each other illegal copies of books.”

Now let’s consider Skobac’s points.

Skobac first writes that the pamphlet of his which I quote where he entertains the possibility that Jesus was a Torah-observant Jew who never sought to invent a new religion was “written with a counter-missionary agenda, directed primarily to Jews who have embraced Christianity. The goal was to provoke them to consider the possibility that Jesus did not deny the binding nature of the Torah and did not claim to be divine.”

Unfortunately, this argument just doesn’t work. When you put something on the internet, it is there for the entire world to see, and the idea that there is an intended audience becomes completely irrelevant.  Furthermore, it is deceptive to claim that your pamphlet applies to one group of people but not to another. Indeed, one of the foremost anti-missionary arguments against Paul of Tarsus is that he seems to do precisely this:

“… And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law, that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.  Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.”(1 Corinthians 9:20-23)

People like Rabbi Skobac regularly criticize Paul for seeming to change his arguments based on whom he is addressing. But truth is truth. It does not change no matter whom your audience is. Rabbi Skobac cannot say that the letter he quotes from Rabbi Yaakov Emden where the basic theory of my book is endorsed only applies when addressing “Jews who have embraced Christianity.” I could easily have hid behind the same argument and said that Kosher Jesus is written primarily for a Christian audience – which it is – and that Orthodox Jews are not its intended readership. Still, the book must have universal application and I have therefore defended the book vigorously in Orthodox Jewish forums and against Orthodox Jewish attack.

Skobac then says that there is “no evidence” that Jesus was a devout Rabbi or holy man, when the whole purpose of Kosher Jesus is to demonstrate precisely the opposite. He is well aware of the fact that many scholars who have preceded me, most notably Hyam Maccoby whom I quote extensively, believe precisely the opposite to be true and that many scholars have provided abundant evidence to support this conclusion, a great deal of which I synthesize in Kosher Jesus. I suggest the reader read Kosher Jesus and decide for themselves.

But Skobac’s main complaint is “Boteach’s implication that Jesus was a prophet and that the Christian scriptures were divinely inspired.”  So let me be clear.

“Kosher Jesus” has three principal purposes. The first is to educate Christians as to the Jewishness of Jesus so as to deepen the authenticity of their own faith. The book maintains that Christians cannot fully understand or appreciate their religion without examining its Jewish origins. Embracing the Jewishness of Jesus will, of necessity, force Christians to focus on the humanity rather than the divinity of Jesus, something the Noachide covenant demands. Though there are many halakhic, Jewish legal opinions as to what is required of a Noachide, I would just point to what Rabbi Isaac Herzog, the second Chief Rabbi of Israel, wrote in his book T’chuka L’yisroel al Pi Hatorah.  In it he concludes that Moslems have the status of gerei toshav – in this context, people who live by the Noachide covenant –  and after a long discussion in the matters of the Trinity, he explains that Christians have this same status. 

According to this line of thought, if Christians sees Jesus as a teacher and prophet, but not divine, then they join in the Noachide covenant.  Islam, as well, sees Muhammad as a prophet and, while Judaism would disagree and reject the prophecy of Muhammad, there is nothing wrong with Muslims believing in Muhammad as prophet, and Judaism, of course, respects Islam as a monotheistic faith.

Second, the book argues that the light of Judaism has permeated the world but is seldom given credit for doing so. Hence, Jews rarely take pride in their tradition. They see how huge Christianity is compared to how tiny we are when the truth is that Jesus’ teachings are based almost entirely on the Torah and to the extent that they were modified it was done after Jesus’ death by Paul and others mostly in an effort to appease the Romans.

Third, the book offers the textual proofs as to why Jews reject the divinity and messiahship of Jesus so that both Jews and Christians are well aware of what we can never embrace about Jesus.

Based on this, was Jesus a prophet? Not to the Jews, of course.  As “Kosher Jesus” argues forcefully and with many proofs, he was another rabbi and a martyr for his people whose memory was later ripped away from us and whom we should reclaim. If the evidence points to his being a devout member of his people, why should we allow him to be taken from us without resistance? But can non-Jews who have discovered the existence of G-d and some of the essential teachings of the Torah from the teachings of Jesus see him as a prophet who brought the knowledge of G-d to the masses? As long as he is not deified, then yes, of course. Why would Skobac be concerned with my labeling Jesus a prophet to the non-Jews? It’s his deification that is the problem. Indeed, the term prophet is regularly used even in modern times for people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and it is in this overall sense that I use the word.

Here it is important to note the opinion of Rabbi Yaakov Emden. Rabbi Emden was one of the greatest Talmud scholars of the past millennia and held that Christianity was mistaken in rejecting the laws of the Torah and believing Jesus to be divine, and hoped for the day when all would recognize Judaism to be G-d’s revealed religion. Nevertheless, in his commentary to Ethics of Our Fathers, as translated by Blu Greenberg (Judaism 27:3 1978 p 351-363) Rabbi Emden goes even a step beyond my conclusions in his understanding of Christianity. I quote:

“In his commentary Eitz Avos (40b-41a) on Pirkei Avot (4:11), Emden describes Christianity as a ““religion in the service of God,” a religion which God sees as good and, therefore, He sustains it; it came to spread the word of God to those ‘who, until then, had worshipped wood and stone, who denied the existence of God altogether, who did not believe in good and evil, or in the afterlife. Christianity spread the notion of one God, one Ruler of all the universe who metes out justice to His creations. Christians accept the seven Noachide Laws and many other mitzvot which they voluntarily take upon themselves. In addition to these good qualities, God also gave them prophecy through their righteous ones, and through these prophets gave them laws and commandments by which to live.  Because of all this - because they met these tests of a holy community - their religion was upheld and maintained by God.” Emden continues: these two families, Christianity and Mohammedanism, which God selected as vehicles to bring faith into the world, were never brought under the yoke of mitzvoth (commandments) of the Torah; their fathers never gave it to them, nor did they stand at Sinai; neither were they slaves in Egypt; therefore, they are not obligated for the 613 mitzvos and are thus exempt from the prohibition of shittuf (loosely translated here as the Trinity).  Emden concludes with the repetition of a previous theme: though some of their evil ones cause us sorrow with their violent actions and false accusations, there are righteous ones who protect us from those who rise up against Jews, and wise ones among them who search for truth in our works and find no fault in our faithfulness to our Torah and mitzvot.”

Similar views regarding the righteous deeds of Christians are expressed by great rabbis such as Menachem Ha-Meiri, Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz, Rabbi Moshe Rivkes, among others.  In a statement adopted by the Rabbinical Council of America in 1964—though it discouraged many aspects of interfaith dialogue—it in part states, “Each religious community is endowed with intrinsic dignity and metaphysical worth.”  Maimonides, in examining the life of Jesus, though he disagreed with Rabbi Emden in many ways, says something similar, even as he rejects the Christian teachings taught in the name of Jesus as false:

[Jesus’ purpose] was to straighten out the way for the King Messiah, and to restore all the world to serve God together. So that it is said, “Because then I will turn toward the nations (giving them) a clear lip, to call all of them in the name of God and to serve God (shoulder to shoulder as) one shoulder.” (Zephaniah 3:9). How is this? The entire world had become filled with the issues of the anointed one and of the Torah and the Laws, and these issues had spread out unto faraway islands and among many nations uncircumcised in the heart, and they discuss these issues and the Torah’s laws. These say: These Laws were true but are already defunct in these days, and do not rule for the following generations; whereas the other ones say: There are secret layers in them and they are not to be treated literally, and the Messiah had come and revealed their secret meanings. But when the anointed king will truly rise and succeed and will be raised and uplifted, they all immediately turn about and know that their fathers inherited falsehood, and their prophets and ancestors led them astray.” (Laws of Kings 11:10–12.)

As for Maimonides’ strident criticism of Jesus as a heretic who led the Jews astray, I explain in Kosher Jesus that the Talmud’s Jesus’, upon whom Maimonides bases himself, is not the Jesus of the gospels, as Rabbi Yechiel of Paris, and other authoritative Jewish sources, have maintained.  It is a known fact that the name Jesus had been exceedingly common in Second Temple times. Rabbi Gil Student recently published an informative piece on this issue entitled Three Easy Steps to a Kosher Jesus which is well worth reading.

“Finally,” Skobac writes, “I never wrote or implied that Jews should reclaim Jesus or embrace him. These are meta-themes of Boteach’s book and a tremendous cause for concern… [Jews will] think of the Jesus praised by Tim Tebow! For an Orthodox rabbi to urge Jews to embrace Jesus is incredibly irresponsible, as it will inevitably facilitate the slide by some down the slippery slope toward Christianity.”

This is perhaps my principal point of departure from Skobac.

Today there are tens of thousands of Jews who have converted to Christianity in the US and the tide of assimilation is increasing. Perhaps the swarm of Jewish anti-missionaries who have ganged up to malign my book ought to consider a new approach to combat the problem. Kosher Jesus is that new approach. It argues that rather than Jews always playing defense it is time for us to go on the offensive. Jews convert to Christianity? For what? The real religion of Jesus was Judaism, not Christianity. Jesus taught the Torah, kept all the mitzvot, and preached to all his students that they must do the same or they would be the least in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:18). Our argument to our Christian brothers and sisters – and especially to Christian missionaries – must be that every time they convert a Jew to Christianity they diminish from themselves the opportunity to discover the truth about Jesus, what he taught, and how he lived. Christians need Jews to discover the truth about their faith rather than the reverse, a point I have made in countless lectures before Christian audiences. We must teach Christians about the Jewishness of Jesus rather than Christians teaching Jews about the Christianity of Christ. Jesus was always a Jew and never a Christian. Period.

It has become very evident that Kosher Jesus is not just a “soundbite and headlines” as Skobac derisively writes. It is already, in pre-publication, a best-seller on many of Amazon.com’s lists. It is now receiving, thank G-d, glowing reviews from disinterested parties. Library Journal has just written, “Boteach writes with clarity, force, and intelligence, and his Kosher Jesus is an excellent resource for parish libraries, Jewish worship communities, individual seekers, and all interested in the historical Jesus.” Publisher’s Weekly reviewed the book as an “informed and cogent primer on Jesus of Nazareth. Boteach, rabbi and author of the international bestseller Kosher Sex, takes a brave stab at re-evaluating Jesus through an intensive look at the New Testament and historical documents. This well-researched analysis will certainly reopen intrafaith and interfaith dialogue.”

It must also be pointed out that anti-missionaries, through no fault of their own, often employ a myopic view of Christians whereby our principal interaction with them is when they come to convert us. This is not the case and this sort of thinking must change. Christians are our best friends today. A tiny, tiny minority are missionaries. Rather than allowing the relationship to be based on fear where we never ever engage in dialogue out of a concern that they may convert us, I believe precisely the opposite is true.

It is time for the Jewish community to stop playing defense and go on offense. We should stop fearing assimilation and start sharing with the world the universal wisdom and values of Judaism, beginning with demonstrating the Jewish sources of Jesus’ teachings

The political bridge of support for Israel is not enough. A theological bridge between Jews and Christians must exist as well. Kosher Jesus proposes that Jesus the Jew, rather than Christ the Christian, be that bridge. It is not for Christians to teach the Jews about Jesus, as has been attempted for so many centuries, but rather, for the Jews to teach Christians about how Jesus lived, prayed, worshipped, and died as a Jew.

This book is written principally for Christians who hunger to learn more about the Jewishness of Jesus, even as they disagree significantly with my conclusions. And it is written for Jews to finally be knowledgeable about the real story of Jesus so that they can engage in this relationship authoritatively and with an immunity to missionizing efforts. In an age of Jewish-Christian rapprochement, ignorance of Jesus is no longer an option.

Skobac and others seem to evince little faith in the Jewish community. For them, Jews are for the most part uneducated and therefore susceptible to missionary charms. But if that is the case, then stop attacking books like Kosher Jesus that seek to teach them. Indeed, write more of your own books to educate our nation and let our people know!

This is the reason you’re seeing so many anti-missionaries attack the book. They want us to fear Christians. And yes, we have to stop missionaries. In Oxford, New York, and countless other venues, I worked to do precisely that. And in this book there is an entire section which will offer the Jewish reader invaluable textual proofs to counter missionary encroachment. But that is no longer the essence of the relationship between Christians and Jews. It has changed.

Skobac, Schochet, and others risk becoming dinosaurs if all they focus on is how much Christians want to convert us. Today, Christians want to learn from us.

But there is a problem.

At so many public Christian events in support of Israel, pastors refer to Jesus haltingly if at all, afraid to offend Jewish sensibilities, while the Jews likewise are on guard to ensure that they are not accused of being used as props for a covert Christian evangelizing effort. If Jesus can never be mentioned we risk the relationship between Jews and Christians being a fraudulent one, with mutual suspicion growing on both sides. We are at a stage where the light of Judaism can finally shine through to the entire world, if only we have the courage to embrace the opportunity.

And this is what you’ll continue to see in this debate on Kosher Jesus. Two world views. One says that Jews today are not very religious or knowledgeable and therefore highly susceptible to missionaries and there goes Shmuley Boteach opening the door to missionaries to proselytize us.

But then there is another group who value the new Judeo-Christian relationship of allied friendship and want the Jews to be the ones to take their rightful place as, in the words of Pope John Paul II, “elder brothers and sisters in the faith”.

Shmuley Boteach, whom Newsweek calls ‘the most famous Rabbi in America,’ was the London Times Preacher of the Year at the Millennium and received the American Jewish Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. The international best-selling author of 27 books, this week he will publish “Kosher Jesus.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley. His website is www.shmuley.com.

Rabbi Shmuley wishes to thank his assistant Daniel Abraham for contributing source material to this column.  The column is dedicated to the memory of Machla Debakarov, a close friend of Rabbi Shmuley, who died last year. May her memory be an eternal blessing.

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