Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Kosher Jesus' Lack of Historical Context (Part IV)

(Part I, II, III)

To turn to Rabbi Boteach's treatment of Christianity. Considering that this is a book that is about reconciling Jews and Christians, one would expect Rabbi Boteach to take a positive view of Jewish-Christian relations. And there is much within the Christian tradition to support such a view from Augustine's witness doctrine to the active philo-Semitism of early modern Protestant millenarians. This is not to let Christianity Pontius Pilate itself from numerous crimes against Jews, but there is certainly room, particularly for American Jews who have benefited so greatly from American Christian society, to be charitable to Christianity and see its crimes as crimes of Christians instead of Christianity. The account that Rabbi Boteach delivers is absolutely crude, in a sense even worse than his treatment of the Romans. For example he calls Augustine an anti-Semite. Calling John Chrysostom an anti-Semite is one thing as would calling the later writings of Martin Luther, but to accuse Augustine of anti-Semitism is to render the very term meaningless. By this logic any Christian who ever believed that Judaism is a historical relic and that Jews are better off simply converting to Christianity is an anti-Semite. That would render almost all Christians anti-Semites and leave any Christians not interested in making radical changes to his theology no reason to work with us. We would also be left with no word to describe those with a psychological obsession with Jews as incarnations of evil and wish to cause them physical harm.

If we are to accept Rabbi Boteach's narrative of Jewish-Christian relations, it all started with a misunderstanding over who killed Jesus. Early Christians for political reasons decided to blame the Jews instead of the Romans. Christians soon came to believe their own nonsense and for nearly two-thousand years, before Vatican II and the publication of Kosher Jesus, have unfortunately hated and murdered Jews. Rabbi Boteach does not paint a clear picture of this history, something about Crusades, pogroms and Pope Pious XII working arm and arm with Hitler to carry out the Holocaust. It is like Rabbi Boteach is giving a summary of Rabbi Joshua Trachtenberg's Devil and the Jews, possibly through vague recollections of anti-Christian polemics heard in yeshiva, without any of the nuance, which Trachtenberg did not have much of in the first place.

Now that the misunderstanding has been clarified, thanks to Rabbi Boteach's brilliant efforts, Jews and Christians can finally come together in the recognition of their common heritage. Jews should forgive Evangelical Christians because they support Israel and uphold traditional values in American society. What Rabbi Boteach likes about Evangelical Christians efforts to uphold traditional values is unclear, because he also attacks them for causing divisiveness and for focusing too much attention on gay marriage. So it is mainly for taking right wing positions on Israel I guess. Catholics are nice to mainly because, unlike Rabbi Boteach's Evangelical friends, they are not trying to convert us these days, passed Vatican II and the two recent pope have visited synagogues. Of the greatest importance, Rabbi Boteach has personally met with Pope Benedict XVI, shaken hands with him and can assure us that he is a really nice guy.                

I try to place myself in the place of Rabbi Boteach's assumed audience, Christians, and picture how I would react to this book if I were a Christian. I would be offended by the mere fact that someone from a different group has the nerve to tell me what to think about issues critical to my faith, attacks what I believe in ways that sound suspiciously like the pot calling the kettle black, and is dishonest enough to deny that he is even doing any of this. And this would be before I actually opened the book. At which point I would add that he has the hypocrisy to accuse me of blaming him for killing my Lord and the same time as he blames me for killing his grandparents. The fig leaf about not blaming people for the sins of their parents would not count for much as Rabbi Boteach himself clearly does not believe it as demonstrated by his obsessive insistence that Jews (the real ones and not the fake traitorous Jews, who obviously have no Jewish descendants alive today) did not kill Jesus. I would come away thinking that Jews are arrogant, self-righteous, think that the entire world runs around them and that only their interests matter. In other words what Aspergers are routinely accused of applied to form a mild anti-Semitic neurosis.

What was Rabbi Boteach thinking when he wrote this book? From his presentation it is clear that he is an excellent public speaker and would make for an effective politician. Thinking of him as an entertainer with political ambitions, I think, explains a lot. He is not running for public office, (though he does want to be Chief Rabbi of England) but as the rabbi for Christians. In this it is only a relatively minor annoyance that the Jewish community has yet to accept him in this role just as long as non-Jews think that he represents Judaism or at least see him as representing what Judaism should be. It says something that Rabbi Boteach brags not just of meeting the pope, but of being good friends with Christian missionaries and of having spoken at missionary training schools. Tuvia Singer at least has to make up his Christian alter-ego to present Christian missionary tactics to Jewish audience. The fact that Rabbi Boteach wrote a book about Jesus for Christians instead of Jews also says a lot. Add to it the almost messianic tone in which he writes about this book as if he expects that this one book will change Jewish-Christian relations forever. Like a politician, Rabbi Boteach does not really think in terms of ideological positions to be supported, but in personal relationships to be maintained. Ideology is a role to play in order to get on stage. The point being to get on the public stage and secure the best possible position and ideology must not be allowed to get in the way. Now that Rabbi Boteach has his public role as the rabbi he is free to use his personal charisma to make as many friendships and gain as much influence as possible even from the people he is supposed to be in opposition to.

Reading Kosher Jesus as a politician's speech explains why Rabbi Boteach thinks he can get away with offending both Jewish and Christian audiences. He had to know that Jews would be offended by the concept so he wrote a book that is in practice very Jewish in the hope that any Jewish readers would be assured of whose side he was on. On the other hand he hoped that Christians would just focus on the premise of a rabbi who likes Jesus. Like any good politician, Rabbi Boteach works in generalities in the hopes that each part of his audience will only hear the part they would already be inclined to hear. Keeping things as shallow as possible is critical, because it hinders anyone from taking him seriously intellectually and criticizing him. How can you criticize ideas that are not really there? It is the sentiments that count anyway and the beauty of sentiments is that, unlike ideas, they can contradict each other without there being a problem.

Rabbi Boteach could have written a valuable book, making the case to Jews to rethink Jesus and by extension their Christian neighbors. To defend himself he could put in something above the grade school level of scholarship that he did and presented himself as just a humble representative of a tradition. Instead Rabbi Boteach needed to be the rabbi for Christians, something unique and incredible to match his inner vision of himself; in essence he needed to be his own Kosher Jesus.   


Adam Zur said...

most books that come out in the frum world are not really meant to be accurate.. For years i have noticed this--starting with the Jewish press.
most of the time it did not bother me. i admit i read rabbi miller's books against evolution and such and liked them as i like him as a person also. But eventually for some reason the pseudo intellectualisms just got to me.(to some degree i was protected from the general nonsense in the orthodox world because i was in the Mir where there was real pursuit of truth. After all in my yeshiva there was the author of the "Sukkat David" which is brilliant work of Talmudic scholarship. But this just put me in a bubble that would eventually bust when i discovered the lies of corruption of the general orthodox world.)

Dani said...

He's now running for office.

eli said...

you mentioned tovia singer. i'm curious to hear your thoughts about him?

Izgad said...

I remember listening to tapes of his lectures when I was in high school. He failed to annoy me. Overall he does a good job of going through the basic traditional Jewish anti-Christian arguments. I do not see him as anything profound though.