By Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Gefen Publishing House, 263 pages, $26
Despite Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s best efforts in “Kosher Jesus,” some Jewish teachers and their messages are not worth reclaiming. Whether because of their fanciful interpretations of the Bible or their odd religious agendas, they are best ignored. I have in mind not Jesus but Hyam Maccoby, the late, idiosyncratic religion scholar. Boteach says that his writings were, “more than any other works of scholarship,” his most trustworthy guide to early Christianity and essential to his efforts to construct a portrait of Jesus the Jew.
Maccoby, in works from the 1980s and ’90s, claimed that Paul — a conniving gentile pretending to be a Jew — distorted Jesus’ starkly political message. Boteach seems not to know that this strange, conspiratorial reading has been almost universally rejected by scholars since it appeared. Indeed, Boteach, relying on Maccoby’s speculations, goes further. He presents this questionable historical reconstruction to buttress a religious argument that modern Jews and Christians should embrace Jesus as a model of devotion to both God and the people of Israel.
Read Do Jews Curse the Christians?, the Forward’s review of Ruth Langer’s new book about the birkat haminim prayer.
A “kosher” Jesus, Boteach argues, is the “authentic” Jesus: a Torah-observant Jew and an active opponent of Rome. Sadly, he notes, New Testament authors falsely presented him as an antagonist of his own people and of the Torah. Also falsely, they saw him as divine. Once these distortions are removed, Jews need not shun him, and he even can serve as a bridge between Jews and Christians.
Boteach’s work depends on retrieving the historical Jesus from the character portrayed in Christian tradition. One commonplace is that such reconstructions usually end up resembling the people doing the reconstruction. Liberal Christians find a liberal Jesus; conservative Christians find a conservative Jesus. While Jews historically ignored or lampooned Jesus, modern Jewish scholars sympathetic to him (such as Abraham Geiger and Martin Buber) also fit this model, praising or criticizing qualities with which they agreed or disagreed. Boteach sees a Jesus in his own image, but his reconstruction is nevertheless distinctive.
Most of the earlier Jews who studied Jesus and his teachings without overt hostility were liberal and anti-Orthodox. Boteach’s Jesus, as one might expect in the book of a traditional rabbi, is highly traditional, as committed to the Torah as any rabbinic sage. Boteach rejects anything that clashes with this portrait, such as Jesus’ critiques of biblical commandments on the Sabbath or on kashrut, as a later interpolation. His simplistic criterion is that “everything Jesus taught had a biblical and rabbinic origin.” In this ostensibly historical portrait, Boteach affirms as accurate only that which mirrors his version of traditional Judaism. Even when he turns to Jesus’ political agenda, Boteach, arguing that Jesus zealously sought “to reestablish an independent Jewish commonwealth,” by force if necessary, makes him resemble a modern religious Zionist.
In addition to his overreliance on Maccoby, Boteach approaches biblical and rabbinic texts in an uncritical and ahistorical manner. He relies on deeply conservative and unscholarly Jewish and (unique for an Orthodox rabbi) Christian assumptions about how to study texts. On the one hand, like many traditional Jews, he ignores contemporary critical scholarship of rabbinic literature and is indifferent to questions about dating or context. He anachronistically and incorrectly portrays the talmudic rabbis as influential in Jesus’ day, undermining his comparisons to their work. Bafflingly, he cites Maimonides’s medieval standard for determining if someone is a messiah as if it explains disputes about messianism in the first century.
His assumptions about Christian sources are similarly credulous. He treats the New Testament Book of Acts, used cautiously by scholars because of its divergence from earlier sources and because of its author’s distinctive theological views, as entirely reliable. This is something only very conservative Christians do. He overlooks all diversity and development in Christian theology, referring to only the most traditional claims about sin and salvation. These oversimplifications are then employed to support his contrasts between good (that is, Jewish) values, such as spiritual struggle and growth, and bad (that is, Christian) values, such as unattainable perfectionism.
A reader reasonably might expect more scholarly competence in light of Boteach’s boast of “twenty years of in-depth study” of Christianity. Boteach ignores, however, the writings of such prominent scholars as John Meier, E.P. Sanders, Paula Fredriksen and others who have rigorously treated all these topics. He prefers websites, fringe scholars and outdated works which is especially odd when important work continues to be done, with new books by Daniel Boyarin and Peter Schafer on Jesus and Judaism soon to appear.
Boteach’s choices are often inexplicable. For example, he cites repeatedly the completely obsolete 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia rather than, say, the revised 2002 New Catholic Encyclopedia. He relies extensively on Michael Brown, a Jewish believer in Jesus with a degree in Hebrew Bible, to explain the New Testament. By contrast, his few brief references to serious scholarship are either superficial (he seems to know Amy-Jill Levine’s work only through a Time magazine article he cites) or incorrect (he misrepresents the main argument of Krister Stendahl’s book on Paul).
Boteach does make some helpful points. By drawing on the first-century writings of Josephus and Philo, he presents a more accurate portrait of Pontius Pilate than is found in the Gospels. He surveys murky topics, such as views of the Jews in the Second Temple and early rabbinic periods on messianism and the afterlife. Often, these topics have been poorly understood by Christians, especially when they relied exclusively on Christian sources. Unfortunately, the prevalence of Boteach’s simplistic and ahistorical views obscures these valuable efforts.
Boteach has the noble goal of improving the relationship between Christians and Jews, yet his approach here is problematic, as well. By severing the good Jewish Jesus from bad Christian teachings about him, he casts all Christian beliefs — about, for example, Jesus’ uniqueness and significance — as groundless and fantastic. Far from building a bridge between Jews and Christians, his portrait of Jesus will be rejected by most Christians as irrelevant and even insulting.
He paints ancient and modern Christians as duplicitous or intolerant, as he lapses into traditional anti-Christian polemics about misunderstanding Scripture. While it is true that Paul may misstate a biblical verse or wrench it out of context, from Boteach’s denunciation one would think (wrongly) that no rabbi ever did the same. While it is true that Christians have been intolerant, Boteach’s sharp contrasts to Jewish peaceableness are too simplistic.
The rabbi cannot seem to decide what he really thinks about Christianity. Are Christians potential religious allies against injustice? Or are they inherently misguided because their “foundational principles” enshrine selfishness and passivity? It is frustrating, but also revealing, to watch Boteach struggle. Intellectually, Boteach, in his role as provocateur, seems to want to say something good. His gratitude for improvements in Christian teachings about Jews since the Shoah is genuine. Emotionally, however, he cannot break free from anger at historical Christian mistreatment of Jews. He speaks bitterly (and anachronistically) of New Testament authors who “put a white hood on [Jesus’] head and a swastika on his arm.”
This struggle to find a way to discuss Christianity is important, for it illustrates the challenges of the growing closeness between Jews and conservative Protestants. Boteach largely ignores liberal Christians, though they have been far more eager to rethink negative portrayals of Jews. While conservative Christians have recently found common cause around political issues such as support for Israel, a serious religious dialogue still awaits. The project is a vital one, and it is unfortunate that Boteach’s intention is far more impressive than his execution.
Adam Gregerman is a scholar at Baltimore’s Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies.