Book Review: Kosher Jesus
by Jeremy Rosen
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Gefen Publishing House.
Once again Shmuley Boteach has ventured bravely into an area that most Jews prefer to avoid. He argues that “Jesus a wise learned rabbi who despised the Romans…worked to rekindle Jewish observance of every aspect of the Torah…was willing to die to end Roman dominion and renew Jewish sovereignty in ancient Israel.”
He rightly points out how much the Christian world has changed for the better in its attitude towards Judaism in recent years. The Catholic Church in Europe, beginning with the saintly John the 23rd and accelerated by the last two popes has completely revised its old theology of ‘Displacement’ and teaching of ‘Contempt’ for the Jews. The Pope sat a rabbi next to him this year at Assisi. While the old Protestant Churches have adopted the Palestinian narrative lock stock and barrel and are now the coldest towards Israel and the Jews (even though some heads such as the Archbishop of Canterbury have very good personal relationships with Jews).
The most dramatic change is the emergence of the Southern Baptist Church in the USA, the huge charismatic church that contains the strongest most passionate, unquestioning supporters of Israel. At the same time they pray for everyone of us to see things their way and be saved or destroyed in the battle of Armageddon which they reckon will take place around Megiddo in Israel and those who don’t believe will be eliminated. Only then will the Messiah return (be funny if he turned out to be the Lubavitcher Rebbe).
Out of his genuine friendship and affection for his Christian admirers Shmuley is trying to remove the 600 Pound Gorilla in the Room, the fundamentally different way Jews and Christians see Jesus of Nazareth. He wants Christians to understand Jesus was not God but a nice loyal Jewish boy ( forgive me, I can’t stop myself recalling the line from ‘The Life of Brian,’ the Monty Python movie , “he’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy”). And he wants Jews to stop thinking of him as a heretic and the founder of a religion that persecuted them for two thousand years. I know his heart’s in the right place but I’m afraid he’s not going to please many people with this book.
He leans heavily on the work of Hyam Maccoby who was an English academic (grandson of the Kamenitzer Maggid). He masterfully showed how little in the Gospels made any historical sense and how contradictory and improbable their narratives were. Judea at the time was choc a bloc full of radicals, rebels, saints, charismatic healers and Teachers of Righteousness to use Dead Sea Sect terminology. Any one of whom or even a combination, could have served as a model.
There is nothing in the Gospel narrative about the words put into his mouth that would have been offensive to the Pharisee, Rabbinic school of Judaism. Politically they were divided as today between the peace party and those refusing to compromise. But neither would have objected to anyone claiming to be the Messiah which to them was simply the term used for an anointed leader who would throw off the occupation and restore Jewish sovereignty. After all many of them supported Bar Cochba who tried to do just that in 132. And the proof of the pudding was in the eating. If you won, you’d be the Messiah and of you failed, a corpse. Neither was being the ‘Son of God’ a problem because the bible calls us all sons and daughters of the one God. And for any human to have claimed he actually was God would in the eyes of his contemporaries in Judea, simply have consigned him to the ranks of the delusionary. The teachings ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels are all to be found in Jewish sources and those that seem to challenge Jewish authority can equally be interpreted, as Shmuley does, to support them as against the Sadducee ideology. Anyway the Gospels simply don’t seem to know the difference between Sadducees and Pharisees.
Since Geza Vermes the Regius Professor at Oxford wrote “Jesus the Jew” in 1973, academics have been trying to recast Jesus as a Jew. But it is all rather fanciful because we have absolutely no direct, first hand evidence whatsoever that Jesus actually existed. The Gospels were written several generations afterwards and in Greek for a Gentile audience. Josephus who might have been a contemporary and refers to him, never met him and his record is not to be relied on. St Paul who Maccoby cast as the founder of Christianity only met Jesus in a vision on the road to Damascus. We have no more facts about the actual man said to be Jesus than we do about Noah. The Gospels are important documents but not proofs of existence. I am not talking about the legacy or about the significance of the myth, simply the facts. Orthodox Jews often refer to uncensored scurrilous Talmudic references, usually in code, but we don’t know when they were written and whether they reflected later tensions.
A lot of people were trying to make the world a better place as the Roman Empire began to unravel. If you read Daniel Boyarin, particularly ‘The Radical Jew: Paul and the politics of identity’ you will know that it was almost impossible to tell many Jews from many Christians or Nazarenes in the sectarian turmoil, splits and persecutions of those days. It wasn’t really until Constantine’s Council of Nicaea in 325 that the dividing lines were finally drawn between Jews and Christians and between those who believed Jesus was a man and those who believed him to be God.
I felt, reading this book, the way I did after reading Freud’s ‘Moses and Monotheism.’ You can make out a case for almost anything but since the objective facts are so few if any at all, it’s all theory. I do not believe there is any point in trying to recast a religions ‘myth’ or narrative. What Judaism has that Christianity does not is the tradition of Midrash which does internally, re-examine and recast bible stories.
Whoever we are, we believe what we are taught, conditioned, persuaded and we act on the basis of those convictions. Variety in itself is healthy. What we religious folk, must do is stop persecuting people for thinking differently, not try to persuade then to change their ideas. That is why Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik “Ž (1903-1993) laid his ground rules for inter-faith dialogue that still define the dominant orthodox position. We should engage in mutually beneficial interaction over causes and matters of joint concern. But to try to engage in Theological Disputation is pointless. I would only want to qualify this by saying it is always beneficial to study other points of view, “Know what to reply even to the Epicurian” Avot.2.14.
I respect and value all religions that try to make this world a better place and increase love between humans. I despise any religion that tries to impose its world view on others. It doesn’t matter who that religion has as a founding figure, or what tales it tells. What counts are actions. For all Shmuley’s valiant efforts of reconciliation, no committed Jew is going to follow Jesus as a role model over Hillel who said virtually the same things. Just as no believing Christian is going to take Hillel over Jesus. Interestingly Shmuley put Maimonides on a higher level than Hillel, so we contentious Jews can’t even agree amongst ourselves.
Shmuley is not a professional historian. His potted history has the odd slip and debatable judgments. For example, it was not Pompey who started using the term ‘Palestinia’ instead of ‘Judea.’ It was Hadrian. Pharisees and Sadducees did indeed co-operate despite their differences as the Mishna Yoma shows. But still, like all his books, it’s a fun romp and it makes you think and examine your own ideas. And that, after all, is what any good teacher really wants.