Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
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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January 11, 2012 | 2:12 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
The only reason I have decided to respond once again to Rabbi Wolfe and the legion of hatemongers he now heads, is for the sake of my children. I raised them to love Chabad for its ahavas Yisrael, its heart, and its humanity. Read the comments that are attached to Rabbi Wolfe’s attacks on me and what you’ll see is something utterly unrecognizable. A frenzied rabble accusing me of being a Christian, invoking Hitler’s name and mine in the same sentence, demanding that I be thrown out of Lubavitch – or worse! And rhetoric so inflammatory that is borders on incitement.
I just returned from Israel where the country was up in arms over a Charedi man who spat in the face of an eight-year-old girl and where another Charedi man was arrested the next day for calling a female soldier a ‘whore’ on a bus for refusing to move to the back of the bus. Read the comments attached to Rabbi Wolfe’s diatribe and it is the natural continuation of such dangerous, religious fanaticism. Only this time, tragically, it is Chabad. We are witnessing a battle for the very soul of the movement. Will Chabad be overtaken by ignorant extremists who condemn a book that they have never even seen, let alone read, and call for the excommunication of a Rabbi who has devoted his life to fighting the battles of the Jewish people? Will they call for the book to be burned if not banned?
My children go to school in Crown Heights, and I am becoming very concerned at these sickening, stomach-turning comments and attacks. The incendiary comments being posted on Crownheights.info and Collive are a violation of Judaism and Jewish values. The incitement must stop.
One would expect that Rabbi Wolf who is an educator would be more responsible before launching a rabble-rousing personal attack. One shudders to think of the example he is setting for the impressionable young minds who are his charge. Rather than engaging in an intelligent discussion of the subject, based on Jewish sources and facts, he continues to indulge his rank ignorance of the Second Temple period and early Christianity, libelously claiming that I am advocating that Jews embrace a Christian Jesus while in fact the very essence of the book is that true story of Jesus is of a Jew who adhered to Jewish law and taught his followers to do the same.
Kosher Jesus is a work of scholarship and it is difficult to convey its complexities in a defensive article on a website. But one of the core ideas which Rabbi Wolf in his abysmal illiteracy of the development of early Christianity and the Talmudic take on Jesus overlooks is that, according to the Talmud, there are at least two major Jesus figures. He is confusing the Talmud’s Yeshu , who was a student of Yehoshua ben Perachia (Talmud Bavli, Sotah, 47a), with the Jesus who would later be connected to Christianity. The two cannot be the same person since no one disputes the fact that Yehoshua ben Perachia died about one hundred and thirty years before the destruction of the Temple, that is, at least one hundred years before Jesus was even born, which makes it impossible for Christianity’s Jesus to have been his disciple. The Seder Hadoros likewise explains, based on these Talmudic sources, that there were two major Jesus figures. (Josephus goes further and speaks of approximately 22 historical figures of the time with the name Yeshu). Hence, Rabbi Wolf’s continued insistence that I am asking Jews to embrace Jesus is a deliberate attempt to simplify an extremely complex and scholarly argument. That’s the problem with the knee-jerk religious extremism. It dismisses nuance and seeks to create bogeymen.
My book Kosher Jesus explains all of this. It is designed to educate Jews like Rabbi Wolfe who are utterly ignorant of the source materials. Indeed, one of the reasons that Jews fall prey to Christian missionaries is that they don’t know the facts. Rabbi Wolf would prefer to keep them in the same darkness where he himself resides, even if it robs them of the immunity to missionary arguments that Kosher Jesus offers. The reason missionaries make inroads in converting Jews is most of our people are utterly ignorant of missionary arguments and how to respond, and Rabbi Wolfe has now done terrible damage in our ongoing efforts to combat Christian missionizing.
Rabbi Wolf could have easily read the book, or at least got in touch with me, prior to his unforgivable call that a Jew and fellow Rabbi be expelled. He did not do so because his purpose is seemingly to attack rather than enlighten.
His focus on the Israeli Haaretz newspaper account of my press conference in Jerusalem was deliberately taken out of context. I said that Jews should embrace the truthful version of Jesus as opposed to the heavily edited Christian depiction. What missionaries seek to do in converting unsuspecting Jews is portray Judaism as a failed religion that was replaced by Christianity. Their intention is to show Jews that without a divine Jesus they cannot achieve salvation from sin. But contrary to those preposterous claims, Christian scripture is itself absolutely clear that Jesus kept the entire Torah and advocated that any Jew who did not would be cast out from heaven. It is this Jewish Jesus that I am asking Jews to reclaim. My intention is inspire Jews who have embraced Christianity to come back to their people and keep every letter of Jewish law as Jesus himself both advocated in the New Testament and adhered to himself. Jesus, according to even Christian scripture, led a completely Jewish life and was killed by the Romans for opposing their tyranny and paganism, as the source material quoted in Kosher Jesus explains. How absurd that Jews would accept a deliberately distorted version of Jesus’ life – designed to appease Rome and blame the Jews for Jesus’ death – rather than discovering the truth.
Rabbi Wolf could easily have used the very same computer with which he sent his harangue to COLlive to simply Google my name where he would have encountered tens of audio and video debates between me and leading Christian missionaries where I am at the forefront of combating efforts to evangelize Jews and reverse the trend by bringing Jews who have converted to Christianity back to Judaism. Those efforts are the reason that Christian missionaries are feeling so threatened by the book and working overtime on a response.
In my book I actually included blurbs from leading missionaries who condemn my conclusions due to how it proves that Jesus never intended to do anything but get Jews to keep Rabbinic Judaism. That is why at the press conference it was Christian reporters rather than the Jewish journalists who debated the book’s conclusions. (The full audio and video of the press conference will be made available on my website.) They argued that my book, which demonstrates from Christian and Jewish sources that Jesus never claimed to be divine and struggled to uphold the Torah, is insulting to Christianity.
I have repeatedly said that I mean no insult to Christianity. But I do intend to trace back the major teachings of Jesus back to their original sources in the Torah as a means of demonstrating, not only that Jesus never meant to found a new faith, but also to show how the light of Judaism has permeated the world, even if our faith is given little credit and today goes by a different name.
Here are some simple and basic examples from the Sermon on the Mount:
Jesus: Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5)
Torah: The meek will inherit the earth, and enjoy peace and prosperity. (Psalms 37:11)
Jesus: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. (Matthew 5:8)
Torah: Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart. (Psalms 24:3-4)
Jesus: If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (Matthew 5:39)
Torah: Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him… (Lamentations 3:30)
Jesus: But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)
Torah: Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalms 37:4)
Jesus: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. (Matthew 7:7)
Torah: You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13)
Jesus: Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:23)
Torah: Away from me, all you who do evil… (Psalms 6:8)
Jesus: Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. (Matthew 7:6)
Torah: Do not speak to fools, for they will scorn your prudent words. (Proverbs 23:9)
Rabbi Wolf should let up on his vicious attacks and read the book or at the very least call me to discuss the source materials. He should tell his braying masses that there is no place for hatemongering in Judaism. To bring an end to this madness, I am prepared to meet him in public debate on this subject at any reasonable time and place of his choosing to end this madness. It is a serious offer and I await his response.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is the international best-selling author of 27 books, won the London Times Preacher of the Year competition at the Millennium, and is recipient of the American Jewish Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. Kosher Jesus will be published in February 1st by Gefen. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
January 10, 2012 | 12:29 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
On CNN a few weeks ago I was asked whether I agree with the sentiment that Tim Tebow’s religious displays in football games are overdone and out-of-place. “Oh yes,” I replied, “it certainly is. Faith should have no place in sport. Indeed, I believe that the only thing that should be allowed at football games are truly dignified displays like women jumping up and down in lycra with pompoms and cleavage, and bare-chested, pot-bellied men with their teams written across their stomachs, and people wearing cheese hats on their heads. But faith? G-d forbid.”
Yes, I’m a Tim Tebow fan. And not only because he’s the underdog who pulls off miraculous victories, the scrappy boyish quarterback who always snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. Nor because he is openly religious and celebrates the fact that amid his love for football there are things in life infinitely more important than sport. No, I’m a Tim Tebow fan because frankly my dear he just doesn’t give a damn. Here is a guy who has decided who he is, what his convictions and principles are, and will stick with it whatever the criticism, whatever the price. And in age where people have such wobbly identities, that kind of enthusiasm for one’s core beliefs is positively infectious.
The attacks on Tebow are bizarre, the hatred shown to him by critics strange. People seem to loathe his missionary work more than Beth Roethlisberger’s treatment of women (Ben’s repented, so let’s move on). They seem more offended by his morality than by Kobe Bryant’s infidelity. Tebow is touching some real nerve.
I believe it is this. America is a religious country, and sincerely so. Ninety-two percent of the population believes in G-d, who is even on our money. It is a Church-going, Synagogue-supporting nation. But it loves compartmentalizing religion. Keep it in the Church, but not in the schools. Put G-d in Presidential campaigns, but never in the popular culture. Aside from those who pay for their air time, like Joel Osteen, notice that you never see religion on TV. There are a thousand different reality TV shows on the cable networks about everything under the sun. That is, except faith. You never see religion it in a concert hall or in Rock and Roll. And aside from the occasional mention of G-d by a coach or a player in an interview, you never see it in sport.
Until Tim Tebow.
Tebow brought prayer to the secular cathedral of the stadium, and infiltrated the foremost religion of all, worldwide sport. What Tebow is most guilty of, and what gets him under people’s skin, is breaching the line that all are supposed to respect, namely, that which separates the secular from the religious, the holy from the profane, the sacred from the everyday. G-d is a serious subject. People want Him in their lives, and will turn to Him at the appropriate time. But not in their recreation. We just want to have a good time. We want to see bone-crunching tackles, running backs diving into the end zone, not people on their knees in prayer.
So Tim, take it to the Church, man. We’ll catch up with you later. We came to watch touchdowns.
But people like me admire Tim Tebow precisely because we don’t believe in these artificial lines. We believe in live and let live. We’re not here to ever impose our faith on anyone else. But we won’t accept having it knocked out of us either. We’re not fanatics. We don’t argue that it’s our way or the high way. We’re not going to make you pray but less so are we going to allow you to forbid us to practice our faith. It’s a free country. Some want to spike the ball in the end zone, some want to get on a knee and give thanks. Who does it bother?
Public schools should never have mandatory prayer. But as the Lubavitcher Rebbe argued, they should have a moment of silence where students can choose to reflect on something higher if they so choose. G-d should not be mandated at school but He need not be chased out either.
Religion should obviously not be enforced in public schools, but parents should get vouchers to send their children to religious schools if they so choose. It’s their tax money, after all.
So hack away at that artificial line, Tim. Pray away on the Gridiron. Keep on visiting orphans in your down time while your colleagues do their thing. Keep on being you. We’re rooting for you. And you’re plenty large, whether you win the big game or not.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is the international best-selling author of 27 books and has just published “Kosher Jesus.” He 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. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
January 3, 2012 | 11:23 am
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Two forms of religious extremism confronted me last week as lectured in the United Kingdom and launched my book Kosher Jesus at a press conference in Jerusalem. The first was at Limmud where a full one percent of all Jews in Britain gathered for a Jewish studies conference that has by now become the most successful Anglo-Jewish export in recent history. Every Jewish group was represented, that is, with the exception of the orthodox Rabbinate who boycott the event because of the Reform and Conservative (Masorti) Rabbis present. This is in sharp contrast to Limmud NY where, for example, Yeshiva University—responsible for ordaining the vast majority of modern orthodox Rabbis in the United States—sends an official delegation.
The second and more insidious example of frightening religious intolerance hit me as I landed in Israel and discovered a country up in arms about Haredim (poorly translated as ultra-orthodox) who had spit on an orthodox eight-year-old girl for immodest dress and another Haredi man arrested for calling a female Jewish soldier a ‘whore’ for refusing to move to the back of a bus. On New Year’s Eve Haredi activists donned Holocaust prison garb with yellow ‘Jude’ stars in a vulgar attempt to allege Nazi-like persecution at the hands of Israeli society when in truth all they accomplished was to trivialize the gassing of six million Jews. The finishing touch was placing their own children in concentration camp garb before the world’s media which added the violation of innocence to the defamation of the Jewish state.
There is a common thread uniting these stories. Religious extremism festers when decent lay people are cowed into submission by fanatics whom they falsely believe to be more religious than them. But there is nothing holy about Rabbis refusing to teach 2500 young Jews who are pining for Jewish knowledge. More importantly, it is an abomination to faith for men to treat women abusively. A black coat will never redeem a dark heart and a long beard is poor compensation for a shriveled soul.
Their defenders pointed out that these heinous acts are perpetrated by only a small number of Haredim. True. But in the face of Islamic terror outrages we in the West rightly demand that mainstream Islamic leaders condemn the extremists, lest their silence make them complicit in the violence. The Jewish community must be judged by the same standard and Rabbis of every stripe must condemn this abuse as sickening and contrary to the core of Judaism.
Other defenders maintained that while the behavior was deplorable, secular women were also at fault by insensitively visiting religious neighborhoods immodestly attired and inflaming local sensibilities. Sorry. Judaism’s core value is freedom of choice and men calling themselves religious can choose to transcend even the most incendiary provocation. Violence in the name of G-d is never allowed, a point we have repeatedly made to some of our Muslim brothers who justify Palestinian suicide bombers with arguments that “Israeli humiliations” provoke the murders. The Jews suffered extermination at the hands of the Nazis. But that never led them to blow up nurseries and buses, and Haredim who feel provoked must register their protests respectfully and lawfully. The Talmud is clear: a religious man who humiliates a woman by calling her a whore in public has lost his place in eternity.
In the UK draconian standards have long governed what purports to be a modern orthodox community. Travel to any college campus where Chabad and other orthodox groups are active and you will see female students serving as presidents of Jewish student organizations and regularly delivering Torah speeches at prayers. Yet in Anglo-Jewry the question of whether a woman can serve as a mere officer of an orthodox Shule or deliver a Dvar Torah remains hotly contested.
There is something magical about England’s Jews. They proudly hold on to their Jewish identity, generously support an endless array of Jewish social welfare organizations, and have a higher percentage of children in Jewish education then we do in the United States. But there are now only 250,000 Jews in all the United Kingdom and the community can ill afford any kind of internal, civil strife, especially given the rapid rise of anti-Semitism in the UK where Israel is regularly lambasted as being more wicked than North Korea.
But British Jews are curiously submissive to their Rabbinic leadership, even when they feel in their gut that some of the rulings contravene basic Ahavas Yisrael and basic decency. The Baal Shem Tov extolled the virtue of ordinary Jews who were not Rabbis. Even non-scholars are aware of common courtesy and must pressure their spiritual leaders to work with non-orthodox colleagues to increase Jewish learning and defend the State of Israel.
At Limmud I was peppered by journalists asking whether I was a candidate for British Chief Rabbi and the strange speculation reached a fever pitch when The Jerusalem Post published a long feature on the conference’s third day exploring the possibility.
I spent eleven years of my life building Jewish student life in Oxford and six of my nine children were born in Britain. I am deeply attached to the country and the community. But the office of a Chief Rabbi, which muzzles its occupant from reaching out to thousands of young Jews for fear of offending right-wing sensibilities, cannot cater to anything but vanity and egotism. And while I am certainly not immune to those ills, I have never allowed myself to be silenced for any title and never will. A Chief Rabbi is not an Ambassador but a leader. The office must be expanded from its current focus on mesmerizing the BBC, thereby perpetuating a myth of Jewish subservience and the need for Jews to win non-Jewish approval, and focus instead on electrifying Jewish youth, before it can attract serious candidates.
The Jewish homo religiosus is not the submissive man of the spirit but rather Yisrael, the rebellious man of faith. And if we Jews are enjoined to emulate our patriarch Jacob who wrestled with an angel, then surely we must also respectfully challenge our spiritual leaders and reclaim our human voice.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach was the London Times Preacher of the Year at the Millennium and will this month publish Kosher Jesus, a ten-year study of Jesus’ Jewishness and his life as a Rabbi, based on early Christian and Jewish sources. www.shmuley.com.
December 20, 2011 | 11:20 am
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Chanukah is Judaism’s most universal holiday with deep resonance for all Americans.
Our great country was founded by refugees who escaped religious persecution in Europe and were prepared to cross an ocean in order to found a colony where they could worship as they chose. Indeed, freedom of religion applied as a principle of colonial government goes back to the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649 which provided that “No person or persons…shall from henceforth be any waies troubled, molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof.” By 1777 Thomas Jefferson himself had drafted The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, one of only three achievements Jefferson instructed be put on his tombstone.
For Jews, however, practicing our religion has never been as straightforward. Throughout history we have had to fight and die simply to observe our faith. Chanukah represents a triumphant moment in the second century BCE when that struggle was victorious.
After Alexander the Great conquered the Middle East, he allowed the lands under his control to continue observing their own religions. But a century later one of his successors, Antiochus IV, massacred the Jews, banned the practice of Judaism, and desecrated the holy Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs on the altar. The Priestly family of Matisyahu the Hasmonean, led his courageous son Judah Maccabee, revolted and miraculously defeated one of the world’s greatest military powers. They purified the Temple and relit its candelabra, the menorah. A further miracle occurred when the special oil necessary, of which there was only enough for a day, lasted eight. Ever since, the Menorah is lit in homes and public squares as a universally regarded symbol of religious freedom.
But as America continues to fight wars abroad there is an even deeper resonance with the holiday.
The ancient world glorified men at arms. Heroes were those who could pulverize their enemies on the battlefield. Their names – Agamemnon, Achilles, Hannibal, and Caesar – remain legend, both in myth and history. Walk through the streets of Rome and you will be electrified by the site of ancient monuments to generals and battles, from the Arch of Titus, celebrating the slaughter of the Jews in the years 66-70, to the Arch of Constantine to Trajan’s column. The glory of war does not end there but stretches all the way to the modern world with European Kings and princes continuing to even marry in military uniform, as did Prince William in his nuptials with Kate Middleton. Great men are those who perform heroic feats of military daring and win grandeur by vanquishing their foes.
The Bible, however, with its vision of men one day beating swords into ploughshares and its promise of a future of eternal peace, sees war as savagery in every case but self-defense. The men of Arthur’s roundtable may be born for adventure. But the Biblical knight of faith is born for service.
On Chanukah the Jews – the people of the book, not the sword – are forced to take up arms to defend their right to worship G-d according to their conscience. They score a stunning military victory against the successor armies to the world’s greatest conqueror. And how do they celebrate? Not by erecting a single victory arch, staging a parade, or slaughtering their captured foes in public, a favorite among the jeering Roman masses. Rather, they rededicate G-d’s temple and light the candles of the menorah to demonstrate the human capacity to bring light to a world made dark with violence and bigotry, a tradition carried forth till the present day in Jewish homes and public squares everywhere.
Today Israel is falsely accused of being a militaristic state that tramples on the rights of others. But walk the length and breadth of the Jewish state and you will find holy sites and ancient ruins, memorials to dead soldiers and commemorations for victims of terror. The one thing you will never find is a single celebratory arch – either ancient or modern – commemorating a military victory. Even when, in 1967, Israel pulled off one of the most spectacular military victories of modern times, defeating three Arab nations with ten times the soldiers hell-bent on its destruction, Israel never celebrated the victory. Chanukah sums up the Jewish attitude toward war: you fight only when you have to, never when you want to, and whatever the result, you never rejoice but mostly cry. War is a necessary evil. Only in peace is there glory to be won.
King David was Judaism’s greatest warrior. Today he is remembered, however, for the beautiful Psalms he sang to G-d with harp and lyre. His wish was to build G-d a Temple in Jerusalem but the Almighty refused. He has shed blood in battle, even though it is was to protect his people from slaughter.
The lesson for America? We fight because we have an obligation to stop the bad guys from slaughtering the innocent. But we never revel in the fight. Rather, we pray for our brave men and women in uniform – living torches of freedom – to come home and brighten our lives with their luminous and warm hearts.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” was the London Times Preacher of the Year at the Millennium and is the author, most recently, of Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself. (Wiley) In January he will publish Kosher Jesus. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
December 16, 2011 | 11:28 am
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
A journalist friend of mine emailed me at 1am Friday morning to tell me that Christopher Hitchens had died. The news brought with it a deep sadness and I instantly recited the Jewish prayer upon hearing of the passing of a friend, “Blessed is the true Judge.” That instinctive religious action captured the paradox of our unpredictable friendship, born in battle in four public debates – stretching from 2004 until 2010 – on G-d, faith, evolution, and religion, but solidified over food at kosher restaurants, kosher wines, and, of course, healthy swigs of whisky.
We were planning, over the last few months, to do another debate on whether the Jews are the Chosen people, and given Hitchens discovery that he was Jewish only when his mother revealed it to him in his twenties, the subject held a particular interest for him. Back and forth we went, trying to find a time that might suit him as he awaited the literal return of the voice he had lost to his treatment against esophageal cancer. His mother had also told him that she planned to move to Israel where the Jews were making the desert bloom, a move that was never carried out due to her tragic suicide. In one of my many interviews with Hitchens on my radio show I asked him, given his mother’s growing attachment to her people, what it would have meant to him for her to live to see the substantial Jewish intellectual following he would one day amass, and he told me that it would have made him very happy to see her proud. He further shared with me how, amid his passionate atheism, he took pride in his Jewishness due to Jewry’s immense emphasis on learning and scholarship and being the people of the book.
When I first heard that Christopher was sick I called upon all fellow people of faith to pray for him and asked him on my radio show if the gesture offended him. He responded that he was deeply flattered even as he was sure there was noone listening. But pray we did, a great many of us, because amid his being the most famous atheist in the world, there was something immensely likeable about him that endeared him to friend and foe alike. He was religion’s most vociferous enemy but you could not help but develop an affection for him due to his warmth, wit, and, bizarre as it may sound, humility. Unlike hate-filled atheists like Richard Dawkins whose principal contribution to the world is to detest people with whom they disagree, Hitchens may have had a problem with G-d but he had no such problem with His children. He was one of the world’s most strident and eloquent defenders of human freedom, going so far as to break with the left-wing intelligentsia in strongly supporting the invasion of Iraq to protest Saddam’s brutalization of his people. Indeed it is immensely ironic – or if you’re more inclined to faith, providential – that he died on the very day that the United States announced the end to the nine-year war in Iraq, a conflict that he brought his unparalleled eloquence to defend because of his hatred of tyranny in all forms.
Hitchens continued that trend by using his mighty pen to inveigh against any political regime whom he perceived to trample on the innocent. As an essayist he had no equal and as a debater – and I have seen more than my fair share – he had few who could better him. One only entered into the verbal boxing ring with him with the keen knowledge that it would be a fight to the death.
But for all his fame he was evinced an accessibility that made him unique. Write him an email and, after a day or two, he would invariably write back, not just a line but many paragraphs. And there was always some unique turn of phrase that brought a smile.
Not that it was always like that. After publishing G-d is Not Great, I detected a hardening in him against people of faith that I found out-of-character and, in February, 2008, we held a take-no-prisoners debate at the 92nd St. Y over the existence of G-d that has now been viewed by nearly three quarters of a million people. He had written in his anti-religious screed that Jewish courts in Israel had ruled that a Jew may not save the life of a non-Jew on the Sabbath. I publicly pledged to buy 100 copies of his book for 100 Rabbis if he could cite even a single such instance and he quoted a source that later turned out to be a famous fraud perpetrated by academic Israel Shahak. I was incensed and wrote Hitchens that he had always prided himself on the truth and had to correct the false information he had disseminated. He wrote back that he would amend the assertion in the book’s next printing, and our relationship cooled.
But while the announcement of his esophageal cancer did not soften him on G-d, it did soften him on people of faith, surprised as he was at the huge outpouring of support and prayer from people of every religion. We agreed to stage a public discussion on the afterlife which took place before 1000 people at the Cooper Union in September, 2010, the night before Yom Kippur, Judaism’s holiest day. The debate saw an entirely new exchange between me and Christopher, one where we did not seek to eviscerate each other’s arguments so much as soberly and respectfully discuss one of life’s most profound mysteries. When the debate was over I sent him a case of kosher wine for the Jewish holidays and told him its purpose was to have him and his friends toast, “L’Chaim,” the ancient Jewish call for a long life. He wrote back that he was grateful for the gesture and had already finished the case.
I have no doubt that Christopher Hitchens will have an afterlife. As one of the most original and provocative writers of his generation, his words will continue to mesmerize, incite, confound, and entertain. As an atheist who challenged America’s deeply held religious convictions, he will continue to serve as a thorn in the side of those who believe that religion requires no rational defense. And for those of us who were privileged to know him, he will be remembered as a warm and engaging presence who, ever the iconoclast, was never afraid to swim alone against strong social currents.
No doubt you are now finally resting in peace Christopher given that, wherever you are, you finally have the answer to that great question of G-d’s existence you always debated.
Shmuley Boteach, ‘America’s Rabbi,’ is the best-selling author of 26 books, including Moses of Oxford and the forthcoming Church of Evolution, which is a response to the recent spate of atheist books against religion. Follow him on his website www.shmuley.com and on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
December 13, 2011 | 4:38 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Can a man who cheats on his wife be trusted with public business?
In the recent Iowa Republican debate, Governor Rick Perry of Texas attacked Newt Gingrich’s admitted infidelities. “If you will cheat on your wife, if you will cheat on your spouse, then why wouldn’t you cheat on your business partner?” Perry’s inability to recall the government agencies he would to eliminate has already shown that he is not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree. But his latest statement betrays not bad memory but bad judgment.
An important fact I have learned from the numerous couples I have counseled, as well as from the events and lives of historical figures, is that private betrayal does not necessarily imply public dishonesty. First, the impulses for each are very different. For the most part a man cheats on his wife not because he wishes to be deceptive or even to obtain sex. Rather, he cheats out of a sense of brokenness and out of desperation to feel desirable. If sex was what he was truly craving, he would have it with his wife. Rather, men with deep-seated insecurities feel the need to be desirable to the opposite sex. In fact, of the estimated 50% of married men who cheat on their spouses, 48% of men surveyed in this demographic claimed that emotional dissatisfaction was the main driving force behind their affairs, as my colleague Gary Neuman shows in his book, The Truth about Cheating: Why Men Stray and What You Can Do to Prevent It. Many of these men sadly find it easier to open up about their feelings and concerns to their mistresses than their wives because they are cheating primarily out of a sense of failure and pain. The mistress makes them feel successful and soothes their agony. So why can’t their wives do the same? As I explain in my book The Broken American Male, the man who sees himself as a loser will view the woman dumb enough to marry him as a loser squared. It is specifically the stranger who has made no commitment to him— the woman who has not allied herself with failure—that can assuage his macerated ego. Hence, men who are often otherwise honest in every other area of life still have affairs. Cheating on your wife is a terrible sin and a horrible violation of a marriage. But it does not mean that the person cheating will be a crook in the rest of his life or a failed public servant, as indeed some of our greatest Presidents have demonstrated.
Thomas Jefferson had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemmings, a slave he owned who may have had no choice in the matter. Though he had already lost his wife for a number of years before this relationship began, his actions in this regard are still deeply troubling. Yet, he remains the author or our independence and one of the principal founders of our nation. Franklin Roosevelt saved the world from Hitler. But he could not save his marriage after his infidelity with Lucy Mercer, which left his wife Eleanor romantically cold to him till the day he died. John Kennedy is remembered as one of modern history’s most inspiring leaders. Yet the ego gratification he required from women is legend, and the same was true of Lyndon Johnson. LBJ’s compassion for America’s poor which led him to promote the Great Society and to expand school lunch programs did not prevent the pain he caused his wife with his repeated infidelities.
The fact that so many males in office are guilty of cheating should not surprise us. Personal struggles with self esteem that drive numerous politicians to seek validation from the electorate are many times the same force that drives their need to feel desirable to women. Yet this does detract from the immense good that they are able to do with their lives. It was Aristotle who said, “No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness.”
Conversely, the irony of the secure and content man is that, since he feels comfortable in his own skin and is satisfied with his place in the world, he often achieves less professionally because he has less to prove. He does, however, sleep much better at night, and happily with the woman he married, even though he may have fewer accomplishments than his colleagues who are consumed with feelings of inadequacy.
For those like Governor Perry who believe that men who cheat on their wives are not to be trusted in the public sector, I remind them of men like Richard Nixon. He appears to have never strayed from his marriage vows to his wife Pat, whom he loved deeply, though that had little bearing on whether or not he always told the truth to the American public. Likewise, I would be shocked if a man as disciplined as President Obama has ever been unfaithful to his wife, whom he genuinely loves and respect. But with the moribund state of the economy, the high jobless rate, and his inability to effect any meaningful change in Iran’s race to become a nuclear power, his effectiveness as a family man has not translated into effectiveness as a President.
I personally never much cared for the press coverage of what transpired between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky and found the whole episode tawdry and possessing little redeeming public value. Yes, it is sad that with his actions Bill Clinton caused great pain to his wife as well as substantial disruption to the nation. But Clinton’s great disappointment as a President was his failure to kill Osama bin Laden when he was presented with several opportunities to do so and, of even greater significance, his inaction in the face of the genocide in Rwanda. The fact that an American president in an age of mass communication did not even have a single meeting with his senior staff to stop the quickest slaughter of innocents in world history – 330 dying every hour and 800,000 dying in three months—is a far greater stain on his presidency than anything left on a dress.
Newt Gingrich made terrible mistakes in his marriage and has acknowledged his need to repent. But none of that has compromised his phenomenal moral clarity on issues like identifying Hamas and Fatah as being nearly identical in their mutual support for terror acts against Israeli civilians or their unbridled hostility to Israel. I cannot say the same of President Obama whose private moral commitment to his family is sterling, but whose foreign policy allows Assad of Syria to continue to slaughter his people and who pressures Israel to make concessions to terror organizations sworn to its destruction.
And it is here that my evangelical brothers and sisters like Rick Perry can learn something from Judaism. While Christians emphasize the perfection of Christ, and utilize the question “What would Jesus do?” in order to judge people by this infallible standard, the Hebrew Bible has not a single perfect man or woman. All make mistakes and all are imperfect, especially in the realm of family. Abraham has a broken relationship with Ishmael. Jacob fractured his children’s filial love by favoring one son, and David had the incident with Bathsheba. But each is remembered as a great personality of the Bible and human history because, amid their private failings, they wrestled with their nature to be better and contributed mightily to establishing G-d as a living presence among the earth’s inhabitants. The moral: even imperfect people can contribute mightily to the perfection of the world.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has just published Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself (Wiley) and will shortly publish Kosher Jesus. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley
November 30, 2011 | 7:30 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
I have watched with mild amusement as the debate surrounding the beliefs of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman have gained steam. Aren’t the Mormons weird fanatics? Should we trust people who have such strange beliefs with high office?
This is an interesting question coming from my Evangelical brothers and sisters, whose belief that a man, born of a virgin, was the son of God, only to die on a cross, and then be resurrected — a belief that is, with all due respect, not exactly the most rational belief either. It is equally interesting coming from Orthodox Jews, like myself, who believe that the Red Sea split, a donkey talked to Balaam, and the sun stood still for Joshua.
But it is equally strange coming from evolutionists like Richard Dawkins who have said, without a single shred of evidence, that life on our planet may have been seeded by space aliens. Even those evolutionists who reject Dawkins’ faith in extraterrestrial life have a belief system of their own, namely, that intelligent life somehow evolved capriciously and accidentally from inorganic matter, even though the possibility of complex organisms evolving without guidance is mathematically nearly impossible. This is how Julian Huxley, who stemmed from the world’s most famous family of evolutionary proponents, put the probability of the evolution of a horse: “A proportion of favorable mutations of one in a thousand does not sound like much, but is probably generous … and a total of a million mutational steps sounds a great deal, but is probably an understatement. ... With this proportion, we should clearly have to breed a million strains (a thousand squared) to get one containing two favorable mutations, and so on, up to a thousand to the millionth power to get one containing a million. … No one would bet on anything so improbable happening … And yet it has happened!” Yes, even men of science can believe things that can be construed as highly irrational.
Now, do I believe that Joseph Smith found ancient tablets written in reformed Egyptian in upstate New York, that Jesus Christ appeared to the people of South America as recorded in the Book of Mormon, or that when a Mormon dies he becomes a god and gets his own planet? No. Respectfully, I do not. Nor should it matter. It is what a person does, rather than what he believes, that counts. It took four years for the Dalai Lama to be identified as the reincarnation of his predecessor in a process that to Western eyes can appear highly arbitrary. Yet, the Dalai Lama remains one of the most respected men alive because of his commitment to world peace and good works.
Misguided attacks on groups like the Mormons stem from a willful desire on the part of many to fraudulently identify people with a different faith system as fanatics and, therefore, a brief discussion of religious fundamentalism is in order.
The most confusing story of the Bible involves God’s commandment to Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. What was the God who would later declare that all human — and especially child — sacrifice to be an abomination, thinking?
The most insightful commentary I have seen on this story comes from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, who says that the key to the story is to see Isaac not as an individual but as a religion. Who was Isaac? He was Judaism. He was the person who would continue Abraham’s belief system. With his death, everything that Abraham had taught in terms of his rejection of paganism and the belief in one God would be lost.
The test, therefore, was this: Would Abraham follow God’s commandment to kill off his religion or would he put his religion before God’s will? What really mattered to Abraham? God or Judaism? And if they were to be put in conflict, what would he choose? The religious fanatic is the man or woman who has ceased to serve God and has begun worshipping his or her religion, making that faith into yet another false idol. Religion is solely the means by which we come to have a relationship with our Creator. But when it becomes a substitute for God, it becomes soulless and fanatical, seeing as there is no loving deity to temper it. It is in this light that we can understand why an Islamic fundamentalist is so deadly: In order to strike a blow for the glory, not of the deity, but of Islam, he is even prepared to go against God’s express commandment not to murder.
Hence, our concern need not be with a person’s faith in public office. It does not matter if he or she is Jewish, Evangelical, Mormon or Muslim. What does matter is whether the person’s faith is focused on relating to God and, by extension, caring for God’s children, or whether that person sees the purpose of his or her high station to promote a particular religion. It is easy to identify the difference. People who are in a relationship with God are humble and do their utmost to refrain from judging others. Their proximity to a perfect being reminds them of their own fallibility. Their experience of God’s compassion leads them to be merciful and loving. But those who worship a religion are arrogant and think they have the only truth. They are dismissive of other people’s beliefs and maintain that advancing the cause of their religion is more important than life itself. The rabbi in Israel who recently made the strange comment that soldiers should face a firing squad rather than listen to a woman sing is a classic example of this heresy.
Those who worship their religion evince the classic characteristic of cult members. Whereas a real faith system is empowering and makes one strong and capable of operating outside one’s own faith community, cult members can only identify with other members of their group and require the environment of the cult in order to function. They don’t have beliefs. Rather, they take orders.
I see none of these characteristics in Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman — who graciously hosted me along with my guest, Elie Wiesel, in the governor’s mansion in Utah a few years back — or any of my countless other Mormon friends. All should be judged on their merits as people and politicians, whatever their faith and whatever their beliefs.