Friday 16 March 2012

The Boteach Delusion

A review of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s Kosher Jesus

I once enjoyed the dubious privilege of being called a liar by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. When Shmuley sensed the tide of opinion in the hall was against him, he wisely withdrew the charge only to retract his apology later when we were shaking hands. Since then, I’ve never really been able to take Shmuley seriously.

Even allowing for my mildly jaundiced attitude, there is little one can say positively about Shmuley’s latest book. Some of Shmuley’s fellow rabbis have denounced Kosher Jesus as heresy even though they have not read the book, a fact that tells us more about the rabbis than it does about Shmuley or his book.

Even though I feel sympathy for Shmuley, I am far from impressed by Kosher Jesus. It’s the kind of book you could imagine being written by a hybrid clone of Richard Dawkins and Dan Brown.

Shmuley’s contention is that Jews and Christians have for centuries misunderstood Jesus. Shmuley’s kosher Jesus (as opposed to the unkosher Jesus of historic Christianity) was a ‘wise and learned rabbi who despised the Romans for their cruelty to his Jewish brethren, who fought the Romans courageously and was ultimately murdered for trying to throw off the Roman yoke of oppression. He was a man who worked to rekindle Jewish ritual observance of every aspect of the Torah and to counter the brutal Roman occupation of his people’s land’ (p xvii).

According to Shmuley, the Gospels were doctored by Gentile editors who took care to expunge the Jewishness of Jesus and to make Jews the bad guys and the Romans the good guys. These rogue editors made Jesus say such things as, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…’ something no self-respecting Roman-hating, freedom fighter would have ever said.

Under Rabbi Boteach’s imaginative deconstruction, Judas Iscariot become a creation of later editors who were intent on demonising the Jewish people. These Jew-hating spin doctors created an archetypical villain who would become a symbol of the Jewish people as a whole, a human being so evil that he would for moderate consideration betray God himself. And, in case the symbolism was too subtle, they gave their creation the name ‘Judas’.

Shmuley’s Jesus might be kosher but, according to him, the apostle Paul was most definitely non-kosher. Shmuley’s unkosher Paul was a Gentile convert to Judaism and a manipulative liar who fraudulently claimed to have been a disciple of the great Jewish sage Gamaliel. He went ‘almost exclusively’ to Gentiles and bullied Peter into eating non-kosher food.

But don’t get Rabbi Boteach wrong. Although he wants us to know that everything Christians believe – from the doctrine of original sin to the return of Christ – is constructed on a foundation of anti-Semitism, paganism and downright falsehood, he has no desire to ‘denigrate or deny Christian doctrine’ (p. 160)!

But even though Christians are wrong, Christianity is the way for Christians to reach God just as Islam is the way for Muslims to approach God. Judaism is the way to God for Jews, the only difference being that Judaism is right and the others are wrong. Rabbi Boteach doesn’t mind Christians supporting Israel and opposing anti-Semitism; he just wants us to stop trying to persuade Jewish people to believe in Jesus.

Those things apart, the book is a confusing farrago of poor logic, pseudo-scholarship, gross misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Christian doctrine and wishful thinking.

Shmuley thinks Luke’s Gospel has 31 chapters, that Damascus was an ‘Assyrian city’.

On page 107, Shmuley states that. ‘Using one’s tongue to assassin ate the character of an innocent victim … is immoral.’ Five pages later he informs us that Paul lied about being a disciple of Gamaliel because was not a great scholar because he seems to have been incapable of reading Hebrew. On page 113 Shmuley accuses Paul of misquoting Deuteronomy 21:23 to give it a ‘fraudulent meaning’.

To prove that Paul ‘misrepresents this verse utterly’, Shmuley quotes Galatians 3:13: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole”.’

Shmuley states that he is quoting Galatians 3:13 from the New International Version of the Bible; only he isn’t. The NIV translation reads: ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree”.’ Where did ‘the pole’ come from?

Shmuley then goes on to expound Paul’s argument. Christians have always thought that ‘the tree’ Paul refers to is the cross on which the Lord Jesus was hung. How wrong we are for, according to the rabbi, Paul ‘explains that the pole refers to the Torah, the Law of Moses.’ Hence, ‘Paul bases one of one of Christianity’s core doctrines on a misrepresentation.’

Thus, Shmuley hoists himself on his own petard.

Gregory Zuckerman describes Shmuley Boteach as being ‘among the most provocative and creative minds in public discourse.’ Creative is right.

I will defend unequivocally Rabbi Boteach’s right to publish what he wants but, for reasons stated above, Kosher Jesus will not be available from the CWI Bookroom.

1 comment:

  1. Mike,

    Thanks for the post.

    Boteach's misconstruing the gospels and Paul is unfortunate.

    Still, I'm optimistic. I think this book is a step in the right direction for Jewish-Christian relations, a start to mending the divide.

    That a Chabad-Lubavitch Orthodox rabbi can say Jesus was kosher is a small miracle, even with all the other Pauline nonsense and misinformation in the book.

    Even a few decades ago, this would be unheard of.

    I'm optimistic.