I was thrilled when I read that Rabbi Shmuley Boteach had taken on the very controversial subject of the Jews adopting Jesus as a “member of the tribe” in his new book, Kosher Jesus. I was less exuberant when I went to Barnes & Noble to purchase it, and found that it was catalogued on the Christianity shelf and not under Judaism, even though it was titled Kosher Jesus, with the word kosher first, and written by a rabbi.
Unfortunately, it continued downhill, with a few uphill dashes from there, although on balance I am pleased Boteach wrote this book. The rabbi tried hard to make the case that Jesus was not only a Jew, and a practicing Jew, but that everything about him arose from his Jewishness and Jewish heritage and learning, including his famous creeds and deeds. Boteach turned Jesus into his version of an Orthodox Jew of that time, who only came to Jerusalem during his final days to fight the Romans, and for which he was put to death by the Romans.
Boteach’s essential thesis is that the Christians got it wrong. Nothing special was written about Jesus by other rabbis and scholars of his time, and everything he said and did, and how it was recorded in the New Testament before Paul was taken from the Torah, the Talmud and the great Jewish thinkers. Even Jesus’ so-called miracles were common at the time, and really no big deal. Yes, Jesus had a following, and called himself Messiah, but so did others. No credit is given to the unique life he led, and the way it was all woven together to lead people to a new understanding of their lives.
Boteach sees the Jesus story as a Jewish thing, and actually not such a big deal, so in keeping with creating better Christian-Jewish relations today (which have improved), his message to the Jewish community is to get over it. The divinity of Jesus, which is anathema to the Jewish community, as well as the anti-Semitic overtones in the New Testament, he ascribes to Paul’s retelling of the story. Boteach does that well.
Aside from what I imagine will be significant unhappiness in the Christian community about his historical revisionism, Boteach missed what I consider was an important opportunity to make a significant contribution to our times. I also have spent extensive time, as Boteach clearly did (the in-depth nature of his research is apparent), over the past 10-20 years reading and learning about Jesus and his times and his importance to Jewish understanding of Christian thinking and as well as a greater understanding of our Jewish people and Israel in historical context.
Why did I start this journey of learning? I wanted to understand what it means for the Jewish people to be in Israeltoday, and how that relates to our earlier experiences in Israel each time we were conquered and lost our homeland. I wanted to learn from history, so we don’t make the same mistakes and lose our land again.
I traveled back 2,000 years to the last time we had Israel, and there was Jesus. I found that it was a most significant time even as I traveled further back into history another thousand years. During that time, the Jewish people intermittently controlled Israel, built not one, but two Temples (which were both destroyed), and lived under the domination of the Babylonians, then the Greeks and Romans in the few hundred years before the Common Era. All of this history led up to a more secular ruling class of the Jews, who cozied up to their Greek and Roman authorities.
By the time Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, the high priest was appointed by the Romans, and the Temple had lost much of its original Jewish character. It appears that this is the Jerusalem that Jesus arrived in to change. And it should not be dismissed, as Boteach does, for we are facing some of the same conflicts today, and we must learn from them, and listen to people who are standing up for our people, Jews and Christians alike. How many of our current Jewish organizational leaders are in office simply because they were close to the current power structure, and how many have turned into apologists at a time when we need strength?
Boteach sees Jesus’ concern solely about the Roman influence, and he does not touch on the subject of Jesus, a Jew, calling on other Jews to change their ways. Dangerous to Roman authorities? You betcha! Dangerous to the Jewish leaders who had sold out their people and religion for money and power? Yes, certainly. Sufficient to get the Jewish high priests and Romans to team up against him? That’s certainly a possibility, and his sentencing and death could not have happened but for the Roman authorities. Truth is, this last one—that Jewish high priests and Roman leaders were teaming up against him--gets us in trouble, so we Jews and Christians should simply take a pass on it. I would assume that if there were some Jewish leaders against Jesus, there were also others in his camp. Yet historically, the Jewish community cannot accept the blame that the Jews killed Jesus.
We can use Jesus’ example as a warning today, a wake-up call for our own people. And that is the direction I would have actually expected Boteach to have gone (and he still can in his commentary and talks). Back in the 1920s, Rabbi Stephen Wise spoke out for the Jewishness of Jesus, and others have studied Jesus as a Jew, some even as a Jewish prophet (I am not speaking about Jews for Jesus or conversion). The difference between Judaism and Christianity--and no Jew of note takes us there, nor should nor can--is that the Christian community views Jesus as the Messiah, the son of God, or God himself. That is not a Jewish interpretation of Jesus’ life, nor will it ever be. Christians will just have to accept that Jews will always remain certain that the Christians got it wrong (this is a point on which to agree to disagree, although a distinctly central point).
This perspective does not belittle Jesus and his life. It raises it. Jews can admire the life he led, and the way he led it. They can learn from him, and what he did. Boteach is right on target here; the learning must come from the pre-Paul Jesus, the real Jesus, yes, perhaps the Jewish Jesus. In the Jefferson Bible, President Thomas Jefferson tried to strip Jesus of his religious overtones; Boteach tries to fit him neatly into Orthodoxy.
I am convinced that we should kosher Jesus; I am just not convinced that Jesus was kosher. I do think Jesus understood that what comes out of one’s mouth is more important than what goes into it (“listen and understand, what goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of the mouth, that is what defiles them”). Boteach’s interpretation insists that that is not something Jesus said or meant because Boteach wants to portray him as completely kosher. I would say that you don’t have to be Orthodox to be a good Jew, although I have the utmost respect for Orthodox Jews and their traditional practices. But I don’t have the sense that Jesus was so traditional.
Where I do agree with Boteach, and this is important, is that perhaps Paul, and then Augustine, created a new Jesus in a new story, that fomented an antipathy towards the Jewish people and the Jewish rabbinic tradition in its formative stage as Christianity was also being launched. This was a time the Jewish people and religious practice were being transformed by the destruction of the Temple and the forced exile of the Jews from Israel. An extraordinary moment for our people with extraordinary and long-lasting consequences.
Yes, Rabbi Boteach creates an important conversation for Jews about Jesus as a Jew, our acceptance of him, and raising his status in our community to a man worthy of our open respect. And for that I applaud the rabbi. I just think that there is too much stretching to make Jesus a traditional Jew, which I don’t think he was.
In modern parlance, as Robert F. Kennedy showed in his words and deeds, it may be said that Jesus saw wrongs, and tried to right them — of the Jewish people and humanity and, yes, the Roman rule of Israel. We can and should celebrate him, and respect him as a Jew and as a human.
There are those in our Jewish community who have seen this book as an outrage and even called for it to be banned. Others have ostracized Boteach for writing this book. Some have expressed their concern that at a time when we are losing too many Jews who have chosen to abandon our traditions, this book glorifies Jesus and makes him and Christianity more attractive. We need not fear. We, as Jews, are stronger than that, and our religion, story and heritage are extraordinary. We need not avoid confronting this historic person, a Jew, who has had such a monumental impact on the course of humanity.
As Jews, we should recognize that the Christian world found a new spirit, a new spirituality, in the life and message of Jesus, whether altered by Paul or not, and just accept that. But the message is not the same for us, and the Christians need to accept that. We don’t need to lecture the Christians on how they are wrong. And I would hope that, as Rabbi Boteach opens the door a bit more, the Christian world continues its education about the Jewishness of Jesus.
As Israel once again faces dangerous threats from outside forces in our times, we need to know our history. As many in the Christian community stand with us today in support of Israel, and as the Jewish community now stands with the Christian community as it faces its own difficulties in many countries, we can bring more understanding, and closeness, into today’s Judeo-Christian communities by continuing the discussion that Rabbi Boteach has started.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Long Island Jewish World group of newspapers, including Manhattan Jewish Sentinel.