Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has been accused of nothing less than apostasy by at least one of his fellow rabbis, all thanks to his newly published book, “Kosher Jesus” (Gefen Publishing House: $26). And I am confident some Evangelical Christians will reach the same conclusion if only because Boteach insists that Jesus was not “holier than any other human being and certainly not divine.”
If Boteach has managed to offend both Jewish and Christian fundamentalists, he must be doing something right.
The search for the historical Jesus is an enterprise that started at least a couple of centuries ago. Thomas Jefferson and Albert Schweitzer are among its more famous practitioners, and Bart D. Ehrman, whose book “Forged: Writing in the Name of God — Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are” was reviewed in The Journal last year, is perhaps the best-known among the contemporary Bible scholars who have undertaken the same quest. Nowadays, the historical Jesus is variously seen as an early and enduring symbol of social revolution, feminism, gender equality, liberation theology and much else besides.
Boteach is a standout among those who ask us to consider Jesus as a historical figure, and for more than one reason. First, as author of the best-selling “Kosher Sex” and a frequent guest commentator on television, he has been called the single most famous rabbi in America. Even more surprising, however, is the fact that Boteach is an Orthodox Jew who was taught to associate Jesus with “the suffering Christians laid upon Jewish communities for two thousand years.”
“In my neighborhood, we did not even mention his name,” Boteach writes. “We said ‘Yoshke,’ a Hebrew play on his name, or some children learned to say ‘cheese and crust’ in place of ‘Jesus Christ.’ ”
Now Boteach is rejecting what he calls “the fictional, anti-Semitic Jesus” and reclaiming the historical Jesus in a quite remarkable way. Christian depictions of Jesus, he insists, “ripped a Jewish patriot from his people.” Jesus, at least according to Boteach, “defined himself and his Jewishness in much the same way as today’s Torah-observant Jews.” So Boteach’s goal is to teach his Jewish readers to “see in the Christian Bible one of our rabbis, Jesus, ever our brother” and to “celebrate the family bond we have with Jesus.”
Boteach credits the late scholar Hyam Maccoby for opening his eyes to what he calls “the real truth of the Jewish Jesus.” He also explains that his own take on Jesus has been “sharpened by challenges, years of discussion, and debate … with Christian scholars all around the world.” Significantly, his disputations have always been in service to the idea of rapprochement between Christians and Jews, whom he regards as “allies” and “spiritual kin.”
To his credit, Boteach does not overlook the 2,000 years of anti-Semitism in thought and action that have blighted the history of Western civilization. But he wholly acquits the historical Jesus of any taint of Jew-hatred and blames the Christian spiritual leaders and theologians who never actually knew Jesus, starting with Paul and continuing for generations thereafter, for “one of the greatest acts of character assassination in all of human history.”
Thus, for example, he points out that there are at least two ways to understand the famous saying of Jesus: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” According to Christian tradition, Jesus was rejecting Jewish law in favor of a new covenant between God and all of humankind. But Boteach points out that the saying “is wholly in keeping with the Talmud, which says, ‘The Sabbath is committed to your hands, not you to its hands.’ ” The real point, according to Boteach, is that Jesus “allowed his followers to break the Sabbath to preserve life, as any other rabbi would do.”
Jesus was surely a revolutionary, according to Boteach, but he was rebelling against Roman oppression and not against Jewish tradition. Here begins the rationale for the remaking of Jesus in the Christian Scriptures: “The early Christians, led by Paul, needed to promote the idea that Jesus was a religious reformer rather than a political rebel,” he explains. “After all, they couldn’t upset Rome, which already looked disdainfully on the fledgling Church.” Thus was Pilate absolved of any role in the Crucifixion in Christian Scriptures, and the biblical life story of Jesus was “edited to reflect a conflict between himself and the Jews.”
“Kosher Jesus” is not a work of scholarship. Rather, it is a kind of sermon in print, an earnest effort at ecumenicalism, gracious and appealing, but uncompromising in its Jewish assumptions. In many of its passages, “Kosher Jesus” can be seen as another example of Boteach’s self-appointed mission to build bridges between the Jewish people and the wider world. But he never compromises his own Jewish beliefs. Quite to the contrary, by insisting that Jesus was a good Jew, he is seeking to accomplish exactly what the title promises — he is putting a hechsher on the historical Jesus.
If Jewish true believers are unwilling to entertain the notion that Jesus was actually a shayna Yid — “a beautiful Jew” — what will Christian true believers make of the same remarkable assertion? By giving us a Jesus that even the Jews can love, he is denying the fundamental belief of Christian theology that Jesus was not merely the long-promised Messiah of Jewish tradition but literally the son of God.
Boteach, perhaps with a twinkle in his eye, asserts that Christians should be able to hold two apparent contradictions in their heads at the same time. “After all, Christian theology itself claims that Jesus was both wholly human and wholly divine, which is also a great contradiction,” he writes. “Why then can he not be both the namesake of Christianity and a hero of the Jewish faith?
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