Saturday, January 28, 2012
Kosher Jesus' Lack of Historical Context (Part I)
This past Thursday night, Miriam and I went to a book launching event for Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's Kosher Jesus. For those of you not following the issue, the often controversial Rabbi Boteach has managed to generate a firestorm of criticism for writing a positive book about Jesus. Rabbi Immanuel Schochet has gone so far as to ban the book and forbid anyone to read it. This is despite the fact that the book has yet to actually be officially released to the public. Much as I love controversy my motive for going was that Rabbi Boteach was being interviewed by Miriam's and my favorite rabbi in the Los Angeles area Rabbi Yonah Bookstein.
Before the event I was speaking to Rabbi Bookstein about what he was going to discuss and suggested going through some of the historical precedents for taking a positive view of Jesus. Rabbi Boteach is certainly not the first traditional Jewish rabbi to take a positive view of Jesus as a basically upright observant Jew. In the fourteenth century for example Profiat Duran called Jesus a "pious fool" and wrote an anti-Christian polemic that argued that Jesus and even Paul were practicing Jews, who never intended to start a different religion. This sort of historical discourse is important for dealing with Haredim, such as the ones trying to ban the book, in that it allows one to counter-attack based on history. If they wish to argue that something goes against Jewish tradition, point out the historical precedents and then argue that they are the ones going against Jewish tradition in that if they are to be consistent they would have to write off from Jewish history formally figures who formally were in perfectly good standing.
At the event I took the opportunity to ask Rabbi Boteach a question having to do with historical context. I challenged him over his claim that Christians seeing the Jewish Jesus would lead to a more human understanding of Jesus, which in turn would lead to a more tolerant Christianity. My problem with such a claim is that we have ample historical precedent from the history of Jewish-Christian relations that an emphasis on the humanity of Jesus does not necessarily lead to greater tolerance of Jews. On the contrary, it can lead to anti-Semitism by focusing attention on the cause of Jesus' suffering. This was the case during the high Middle-Ages. Christians "discovered" the humanity of Jesus. This led to a plethora of artwork showing Mary with baby Jesus actually drawn with baby features and gave us the Christmas creche we have today. This also led to an emphasis on Jesus' physical suffering on the cross. The divine Jesus could never possibly feel pain; only the human Jesus could suffer. Rabbi Boteach response was that the Jews were not responsible for the death of Jesus, the Roman were. This is in fact a major point of his book. While this answers the question whether Christian readers will take Rabbi Boteach's arguments to anti-Semitic conclusions, it does not answer the question I was asking of why we should be willing to draw a straight line between a human Jesus and a tolerant Christianity when historically this has not necessarily been the case.
Having now read the book and been underwhelmed by it, I would like to focus my criticism not so much on Rabbi Boteach's depiction of Jesus, which while simplistic I essentially agree with, but on the lack of proper general historical context for first century Judea, two thousand years Jewish-Christian relations and modern scholarship on Jesus. Plenty of people will want to attack Rabbi Boteach for embracing Jesus and for advocating closer relations with Christians. My approach to the issue might lead to a different and more fruitful discussion. Furthermore, as someone from the pro "Jesus for Jews" side, I believe that there is a much better case to be made for a "kosher Jesus" than what Rabbi Boteach presents, one that avoids the tired old debates of did the Jews kill Jesus and to what extent is the Church responsible for anti-Semitism, and instead focuses on productive history. Before the other side roasts him, makes him a martyr and helps him sell millions of books, Rabbi Boteach should not escape from answering the side whose banner he wishes to carry.