Reviewed by Gil Student
In the food industry, kosherization is a method to purge a vessel of non-kosher absorption. It is achieved through the use of boiling water or intense heat, depending on the manner of non-kosher use. In attempting to kosherize the Christian Gospels, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, an author and media personality, wields inflammatory literary and historical tools to remove Christianity from its own history.
After diving in to rescue Jews from missionaries by ferociously beating back Christianity, Rabbi Boteach needlessly diverges from traditional Jewish theology. While this book has already been denounced by a number of rabbis from Rabbi Boteach’s Lubavitch sect, these condemnations—not book bans, but disavowals of the book’s content—are worthy of a broader demographic.
Kosher Jesus is a passionate but confused book. Following the idiosyncratic approach of English scholar Hyam Maccoby, Rabbi Boteach argues that the basic claims of Christian theology are founded on early Christian historical revisionism that Jesus the Jew would have found offensive. In Rabbi Boteach’s reading, Jesus preached a messianic gospel in the Jewish sense—freedom from external rule, self-governance in a sovereign Jewish country. He opposed religious hypocrisy and encouraged devotion to Torah observance. A learned Jew, he would have condemned any attempt to identify God with a human being or divide Him into a Trinity. Despite his predictions of an imminent political redemption and spiritual renewal, Jesus was captured and brutally executed by the Romans as a rebel leader.
Rabbi Boteach accuses later disciples, particularly Paul, of distorting these teachings as a cynical marketing ploy. Through shameless editing, Paul inserted into the Gospels the religion of convenience that potential converts wanted. He taught that Jesus preached loyalty to Rome, freedom from burdensome religious observance and a host of familiar pagan concepts including virgin birth and divine incarnation. These heresies would certainly have offended Jesus’ profoundly Jewish sensibilities.
Kosher Jesus is a passionate but confused book.
Rabbi Boteach’s claim to have unearthed the true Jesus story becomes nothing less than a eulogy for Christianity. Oddly, Rabbi Boteach proceeds to muddle his own message while addressing his Christian readers, offering an incoherent denial of his conquest:
“I do not seek to undermine Christians’ belief that Jesus was divine. If he was a great rabbi that fought to free the Jewish people from Roman rule, he is still the same Jesus Christians have treasured for millennia.”
The truth is that Rabbi Boteach’s arguments demand abandonment of Christianity. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, the Christian faith has no basis. Yet Rabbi Boteach inconsistently advises Christians to devoutly cling to their beliefs in the Trinity and resurrection, even while insisting they accept his demonstration of their historical falsity.
In magnifying the contrast between “righteous Judaism” and “fraudulent Christianity,” Rabbi Boteach betrays Lubavitch theology by insisting that Judaism values only the choice to do good. Jesus did not battle his desires, yet without struggle there can be no true good deed. However, the foundational text of Lubavitch theology, the Tanya, teaches that the completely righteous person has no evil inclination and need not struggle to do what is right. Could not Christians claim that Jesus was such a Chassidic tzaddik? To forestall that argument, Rabbi Boteach surprisingly abandons Chassidism.
In an ecumenical fervor, Rabbi Boteach insists that Jews must study Jesus’ teachings, which with his interpretations are entirely consistent with Jewish tradition. But why not just study Judaism from the Talmud and Hebrew Bible? He explains, “I don’t believe God gave only one truth . . . For God, truth is like a puzzle. When you put all of the pieces together, the contributions from different faiths—under the umbrella of the Ten Commandments—build a higher truth.”
This religious relativism is sacrilegious nonsense that Rabbi Boteach could only have intended as a feel-good sound-bite and not as a serious theological statement. Mutually exclusive religions cannot be combined without emasculating one, or all of them.
Jewish tradition interprets the Biblical injunction “that ye seek not after your own heart” as forbidding the study of other religions. While exceptions are sometimes made for those engaged in scholarly pursuits, Rabbi Boteach goes far beyond that in endorsing widespread Jewish study of the Christian Gospels. This suggestion, which presumes that all such readers will adopt Rabbi Boteach’s tendentious interpretations, is not only irresponsible but also contrary to Jewish law.
While Rabbi Boteach’s book begins with many well-constructed counter-missionary arguments, it lapses into incoherence and deviance from traditional Judaism. To live up to its name, Kosher Jesus requires its own kosherization.
Rabbi Gil Student writes frequently on Jewish issues and blogs at TorahMusings.com.