In my neighborhood, we did not even mention his name. We said “Yoshke,” a Hebrew play on his name, or some children learned to say “cheese and crust” in place of “Jesus Christ.” In a synagogue sermon, rabbis might refer to Jesus – exceedingly rarely – by saying “the founder of Christianity.”
Fundamentally, we understood Jesus as a foreign deity, a man worshipped by people. The Torah instructs us never to mention the names of other gods, as no other god exists except God. We also understood Jesus to be as anti-Jewish as his followers. Was he not the Jew who had rebelled against his people? Was he not the one who instructed his followers to hate the Jews as he did, instigating countless cruelties against those with whom God had established an everlasting covenant? Was he not also the man who had abrogated the Law and said that the Torah is now mostly abolished?
So begins Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s narrative in the Preface to his latest (and perhaps most controversial) book Kosher Jesus. Rabbi Boteach paints for us, a typical picture of how an Orthodox Jewish boy growing up in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood understands the Christian Jesus.
The picture isn’t very flattering to Christians.
You might be wondering why Rabbi Boteach would choose to write a book about Jesus. After all, most Jewish people are, at best, neutral about the existence of the itinerant Jewish rabbi who wandered the through the countryside and towns of Roman occupied Judea in the First Century of the Common Era. Why would an Orthodox Jewish rabbi draw attention to Jesus in anyway? If you’ve been reading the media stories about the sort of attention this book has been receiving, you already know it’s been less than complimentary, both from Christian sources and the Orthodox Jewish community. This book seems to please no one.
So why did Rabbi Boteach write it?
Kosher Jesus sets the stage for Jews and Christians to bridge their differences and come together for the first time through the personality of Jesus himself – the hero, martyr, and teacher that they both share.
This paragraph, taken from the cover flap of the book, provides an “in a nutshell” summary of Boteach’s reasons for creating this much-talked-about work, and it provides us with his goal: to create a connection between Judaism and Christianity across the back of the Jewish Jesus.
Was he successful in achieving his goal?
Not as far as I can tell today, at least on the surface. Of course, it may take months, or even years, to determine the larger impact on the Jewish and Christians communities. One immediate effect we can see is that just about every one with a vested interest in the “reputation” of Jesus is talking about this book. A number of Orthodox Rabbis have outright forbidden their communities to even read the Boteach book (and nothing makes a book more irresistible than when it has been censored) and I can only imagine what (if anything) Christian Pastors are telling their flocks about “Kosher Jesus” from the pulpit.
If Rabbi Boteach had the goal of drawing attention to his book and himself, he has certainly succeeded. He has been known as “the media Rabbi” and has attracted criticism more than once in the past for his statements and associations (particularly with the late Michael Jackson). If his goal was to start a great deal of dialog (polite and otherwise) around the subject of his book, the Jewish Jesus Christ, he has succeeded in this as well, at least in the short term. But is he going to be able to inspire Jewish and Christian audiences to find something in common by “sharing” Jesus?
As I’ve been reading this book, I’ve shared a few of my own insights in various blog posts. I focused on how the Christian community might see the book in my prior write up, Kosher Jesus: The Undivine Savior. In order to emphasize the “Jewishness” of Jesus and make him even somewhat attractive to other Jews, Boteach had to completely deconstruct traditional Christian theology about the “Lord and Savior,” transforming him from the Son of God and prophesied Messiah, to a man born of two Jewish parents, a carpenter turned Rabbi, who fancied himself a would-be Messiah (in Judaism, the Messiah is not expected to be supernatural and particularly not expected to be divine), and ultimately, a man who died as a noble but failed political dissident.
Not exactly the typical Christian view of Jesus.
Scholars who have reviewed this book (and I’m no scholar) have criticized Boteach for his heavy usage of material created by Hyam Maccoby regarding Jesus. In fact, Maccoby’s own views on Jesus have been characterized: Maccoby’s thesis as “perverse misreading” and concluded “Thus I must conclude that Maccoby’s book is not good history, not even history at all.” (Steven T. Katz The Holocaust in Historical Context: The holocaust and mass death before the modern age 1994 “Maccoby’s last work has been devastatingly reviewed, and quite properly so, by John Gager, “Maccoby’s The Mythmaker,” JQR 79.2-3 [October–January 1989], 248-250; to which Maccoby replied, “Paul and Circumcision: A Rejoinder,” JQR). So to use the vernacular, Boteach may have “shot himself in the foot” when he decided to base his depiction of Jesus almost completely on Maccoby’s work.
Since I can’t speak from a Jewish point of view, I must wonder from a Christian perspective, how Rabbi Boteach expects to unite Jews and Christians around their “commonality” in a Jesus Christ who is so unlike the Jesus most Christians find in church? Also, in answering the Christian question, “Why the Jews Cannot Accept Jesus” (Part IV of the book), Boteach creates a Jesus who absolutely must be rejected by Judaism as Messiah, and he describes any person or group who worships a man as if he is a god as idolatrous. Christianity’s insistence on a “three-in-one” God adds polytheism to the mix, and both idolatry and polytheism are anathema to the staunchly monotheistic Jewish people. Rabbi Boteach depicts a church that has to be hopelessly confused to believe Jesus is God, yet Boteach also says this:
I say this not to offend Christian believers, nor to dissuade adherents from living a Christian life. (pg 149)
But if, by definition, Christians are deluded by a terrible misunderstanding of the New Testament text, heavily biased editing of the original teachings of Jesus, and the traitorous actions of the Apostle Paul, to believe that a young Jewish rabbi and revolutionary is actually God incarnate, how can Rabbi Boteach not dissuade believers “from living a Christian life?” He’s just spent the first two-thirds of his book explaining why Christianity has everything completely wrong about who Jesus was, what he saw as his purpose in life, and especially the fact that he has no power to forgive sins and save souls. If anything, Boteach seems to have pounded home the final wedge that will forever separate Christians and Jews.
God is the one great truth. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are paths that bring us to Him. One finds God through personal discovery usually directed by the faith in which one is reared, practiced by one’s ancestors. The merit of any religion is established not by a test of its theological claims but by the goodness of its followers. Therefore, any religion that leads to a good and Godly life has authenticity and truth, even if we cannot embrace all of its theological claims. (pp 149-50)
That probably seems like an insane statement to most Christians. We are taught that no one comes to the Father except through Jesus (John 14:6), so either you’re in or out. We are taught that the only way to God is to “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:31). There are no other options, according to traditional Christianity. There is only one doorway to salvation and it’s not through anything we can do. Our only participation in our own salvation is belief and faith in Jesus Christ.
But in Judaism, it isn’t what you believe, it’s what you do that matters. If, in the name of your religion, you feed the hungry, visit the sick, build an orphanage for homeless and abandoned children, or act as a peacemaker between a feuding husband and wife, then that is how you will be judged. You could be a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim and it’s all the same. That seems to be what Rabbi Boteach is saying, and that is the basis on which he expects his readers to build the bridge between Judaism and Christianity, using the Jesus we see in his book.
In real life, it doesn’t work out that way. Judaism, unlike Christianity, doesn’t believe there is a single path to God, but it does believe there are specific paths. If you’re a Jew, your path is the Torah, living a life of righteous acts, prayer, and ritual worship. If you are any other people group or religion, your path is in obedience to the Seven Noahide Laws. If you are compliant to these seven basic requirements, (these laws are deceptively simple, since they can be subdivided into almost a hundred “sub-laws”) you merit a place in the world to come and are considered by the Jews as a righteous Gentile.
But by definition, a typical Christian cannot be considered a righteous Gentile because, in believing Jesus is God, the believer violates the prohibition against Idolatry. There have been exceptions, such as those Christians who, during the Holocaust, made great efforts to protect the Jews from the Nazis and who rescued Jewish people from being sent to the death camps, but those exceptions are few and far between. It is also true that the Talmud has much to say about Jews maintaining good relations with everyone, including idol worshipers, for the ways of peace:
“They said of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai that no man ever greeted him first, even idol worshippers in the market” [i.e., Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai was the first to greet every person, even idol worshippers] (Berachot 17). At the same location the sage Abaye advocated soft speech and words of peace to everyone, especially including idol worshippers.
“[it is proper to] support the idol worshippers during the sabbatical year… and to inquire after their welfare [commentators: even on the days of the holidays of their idols, even if they do not keep the seven Noahide commandments] because of the ways of peace.” (Shevi’it 4,3)
The rabbis taught: ‘We support poor Gentiles with the poor people of Israel, and we visit sick Gentiles as well as the sick of Israel and we bury the dead of the Gentiles as well as the dead of Israel, because of the ways of peace.” (Gitin 61a)
Nevertheless, the Tanya, an early work of Hasidic philosophy used heavily in Kabbalah, has less complementary things to say about all non-Jews:
The souls of the nations of the world, however, emanate from the other, unclean kelipot which contain no good whatever, as is written in Etz Chayim, Portal 49, ch. 3, that all the good that the nations do, is done out of selfish motives. So the Gemara comments on the verse, “The kindness of the nations is sin” — that all the charity and kindness done by the nations of the world is only for their self-glorification…
as quoted from
“Lessons in Tanya”
I know I’m throwing a huge monkey wrench into the machine, but it’s important to define the barriers to Rabbi Boteach’s stated goals, both from the Christian and Jewish perspectives. All I’m saying is that nearly 2,000 years of strife between Christians and Jews will not be repaired for the sake of a single book which depicts the historical Jesus in a manner that most Christians and Jews will not be able to accept.
So what’s good about this book? More than you might think, given everything I’ve just written. Actually, I think Christians can benefit from quite a few things Boteach has to say about Jesus, not in terms of historical accuracy, but in introducing the believer to the Jewish Jesus. There is no doubt that Jesus was (and is) a Jewish man and rabbi who taught lessons that were completely consistent with the Law of Moses, who did not break the Shabbat or any of the other mitzvot as Christianity imagines, and who did not expect even the tiniest portions of the Torah to be extinguished until Heaven and Earth themselves were extinguished (Matthew 5:18).
Christian supersessionism is responsible for the legacy of crimes against the Jewish people which the church suffers from even today. It is also the source of a terrible misconception about who Christ was and is, both in relation to the descendents of Jacob and to the non-Jewish disciples of Jesus. If we can absorb some sort of understanding of the Jewish identity of Jesus into the theology and doctrine of the modern church, perhaps we can be instrumental in building a better bridge between us and the Jewish people. We might also (and this is probably an unintended effect by Rabbi Boteach, but it fits so well) find a way, as Christians, to understand those Jews who have faith in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and who also continue to live a completely Jewish ethnic, cultural, and religious life.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s book Kosher Jesus is both deeply flawed and irresistibly compelling. For many, it will be “the book you love to hate” but it is also a window, albeit a shaded and distorted one, into the Jewish perspective on the Jewish Jesus. If you are a Christian who cannot tolerate any portrait of your Savior besides the one you encounter in the pew of your church on Sunday morning, then this book will seem horrifying. However, if you are a little adventurous and want to seek out the portions of wheat this book offers among the chaff, then Kosher Jesus may be worth your while. I don’t agree with a great deal that Rabbi Boteach had to say about Jesus, but I also learned a few things. I don’t regret reading his book.