When Rabbi Shmuley Boteach approached me to read the manuscript of his newly published book “Kosher Jesus,” I was reticent and even a bit cautious, given the massive and diverse audience of people likely to be affected by his unique perspective on the subject of Jesus. Having now read the book, however, I can say that I was pleasantly surprised to find that his approach resolved many outstanding questions that I myself have struggled with in my religious studies, particularly as they relate to Christianity and its impact on Judaism throughout history.
Still, I felt the need to interrogate Boteach further in order to discover what his intentions had been for penning this latest work on a conspicuously controversial topic. As it turns out, his earliest efforts to uncover the real facts regarding the origin of Christianity stemmed from his exasperation by the treatment unsuspecting Jews received from Christian missionaries who would target them in an attempt to convert yet another Jew to Christianity. So alarmed was Boteach at the pervasiveness of this kind of missionary work that, as a young scholar learning in yeshivah, he was often memorizing long passages of the New Testament in his Hebrew Bible classes. After all, how could he counter the words of others if he had no real knowledge of what they were saying and why they were saying it?
In the past few weeks, vitriolic attacks have been hurled at Boteach and are even now gaining momentum. The attacks, which range from throwing him out of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement to threatening him with burning at the stake, often seem to come from those who, themselves, have no real knowledge of the rabbi’s thesis, or the scholarship behind his argument.
Simply put, “Kosher Jesus” traces the Jesus narrative in its original sources and demonstrates how Jesus, in fact, was a Torah-observant Jew who fought to uphold Judaism in the face of pagan dominance and Roman persecution. Following the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66 C.E., however, Jesus’ followers began to strip him of his Jewish identity in order to sever any link between Jesus and the increasing Roman animosity toward the Jews.
With the passage of time and the rising hegemony of Christianity, an alternate narrative of Jesus ultimately prevailed, one in which Jesus is depicted as an enemy to his people who was eventually killed by them.
Not only has this thoroughly Christian narrative caused centuries of Jewish persecution, it also has offered a distorted view of Jesus that perverts the very essence of Jewish monotheism. Yet Jews have fallen for this depiction of Jesus so thoroughly that his name has been all but blotted out from the Jewish vocabulary.
Boteach takes on these issues without pulling any punches, aiming the purpose of his book squarely at contemporary Jewish salvation while simultaneously enlightening Christians about Jesus’ original desire to spread Jewish teachings and values and, moreover, how he never intended to found a new faith. Unlettered Jews are continuously the target of missionaries who prey on the dichotomy of Jesus the Jew and Jesus the Savior in their relentless efforts to lead Jews into Christian belief.
This missionary offensive certainly has done its fair share of damage through the generations of converts from Judaism and in terms of the cultural impact the mainstream Jesus narrative has had on the existing Jewish identity. The Christian alteration of biblical figures and passages has weakened the essence of Jewish interpretations of Scriptures, and dismantles what should be the Jewish defense against those who would seek to lead them away from their faith.
Boteach’s study is brilliant because it factually and painstakingly dissects the historical logic that Christianity upholds as its narrative of Jesus. In so doing, Boteach offers an unadorned image of Jesus as a Jewish fighter who came to Jerusalem to rescue the Temple from Roman dominance. For these efforts, he was turned over to the Romans by the corrupt Jewish High Priest Caiaphas, a Roman stooge who acted as Rome’s police enforcer.
The merits of this interpretation are borne out in the evidence itself, yet the prejudice against this alternative view runs so deep that, when a Jew such as Boteach seeks to expose the truth, even other Jews cry out its denial.
Having followed the stream of invectives that have been thrown at the book and at Boteach especially from among the Chabad-Lubavitch, I find myself wishing to purchase a copy of “Kosher Jesus” for every Chabad emissary around the world. They should read and understand Boteach’s research for what it really is, rather than be swayed by the rants and responses of others. They should also be empowered by the tremendous value this book provides in helping any and all understand the real place Jesus has in both Jewish and Christian history.
My offer is made openly and seriously. I await a response from the Chabad-Lubavitch leadership.
In the final analysis, Boteach provides Jews with the ammunition to disarm missionaries who peddle the narrative of Jesus as “god the son” with a new historical approach to Jesus as simply a son of God, as are all other human beings. As the Book of Deuteronomy articulates quite beautifully, “You are all children to the Lord Your God.” We indeed are God’s children, each and every one of us.