Is Shmuley kosher?
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Is Shmuley kosher?

Boteach's scholarship is wide of the mark with 'Jesus'

Tzvee Zahavy received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He taught advanced Talmud, halakhah and Jewish law codes, Jewish liturgy, Jewish history, and religious studies at seminaries and at major research universities. He is a prolific author and published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish texts. Visit www.tzvee.com for links. He also worked for 20 years for major banks and hedge funds as an information technology expert. See www.zahavy.com for details.

Readers of The Jewish Standard need no introduction to Shmuley Boteach. He writes a regular column for this newspaper and lives on a large corner property in Englewood that he would like to convert into synagogue-owned land, thereby saving himself $63,000 a year in property taxes. This comes despite his long-held opposition to the tax exemption granted to his neighbor, the Libyan government. Shmuley, as he likes to be called, is also being talked about as the next chief rabbi of the British Empire (he says he is not responsible for such talk), and is currently pondering a run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

It is because of such hoopla that we find Boteach quite entertaining. He is a public personality who always has something interesting to say. He also has a talent for turning his opinions into books, television shows, lectures, and the like. In short, he is a successful entertainer.

Boteach’s biggest best-selling book was “Kosher Sex,” and he is a self-styled expert on relationships and child-rearing. He heals broken marriages, fixes parents, and has time to lend his advice to confused celebrities around the world, such as the late Michael Jackson (he wrote a book about that, too: “The Michael Jackson Tapes”).

Now, the rabbi seeks to resolve the 2,000-year-old misunderstandings between Judaism and Christianity with a book of 239 pages, “Kosher Jesus,” that he says was written to help “Jews and Christians bridge their differences and come together….”

Well, was Jesus “kosher”? For most Jews, that question automatically demands an absolute no-brainer answer. No, Jesus was not – and is not – kosher. There are a great many reasons why Jesus cannot be considered kosher – meaning in a narrow sense, “(of a person) observing Jewish food laws” or “satisfying the requirements of Jewish law,” and in a wider sense, “proper” or “acceptable” to Jews.

It is not surprising, then, that some of my Orthodox rabbinic colleagues believe that this book itself is not kosher. Keep in mind that getting a book banned is the dream of every author and publisher. The “Banned in Boston” label makes people curious. In theory, it sends sales skyrocketing. Label Shmuley’s book “Banned in Crown Heights.”

Crown Heights is the seat of the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Rabbis from that movement have banned this book. (Shmuley comes to us from Chabad-Lubavitch.) According to news reports, the Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis have labeled the book “apikorsus” (heresy).

In a detailed and diffident review on the Amazon web site, Rabbi Eli Cohen of Jews for Judaism Australia (he is also Chabad-Lubavitch) wrote about the book’s contents, “Boteach’s recommendations are an affront to Jews and Christians, and will only appeal to those who are uninformed in matters of religion and history.”

Decades back, my own teacher, Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, opposed on principal all doctrinal dialogues with Christianity. “There cannot be mutual understanding concerning these topics,” he said, “for Jews and Christians will employ different categories and move within incommensurate frames of reference and evaluation.” This remains the official position of most Orthodox rabbis.

Accordingly we ask, is Boteach’s Jesus book kosher? Let us break this question down into components:

“¢ Is this book a work of kosher scholarship? No, it is not scholarly. It is a popular reading of some Christian texts.

“¢ Is it kosher theology or history? No, it is Boteach’s personal opinions, not advanced by any authorized religious body, and not produced by the academic canons of historical research.

“¢ Is it a kosher basis for advancing interfaith dialogue? No, it is too lightweight, too personal, and too idiosyncratic to have an impact on that field of discourse.

In more detail, let us explain why this is not a study with academic merit. To be such a work, it would need to rest on accepted mainstream scholarship in a discipline, and contribute new insights using the methodologies and tools in a field. Boteach invokes mainly one derivative work on Jesus. It was written by Haim Maccoby, a professor whose writing has little influence in religious studies. Boteach selects this work because Maccoby called Jesus a “chasidic Pharisee” – exactly the characterization that Shmuley required for his thesis.

It appears, however, that Boteach has no independent expertise in New Testament Greek; has no knowledge of the complex issues of studying the synoptic Gospels, or of decoding the Greek Epistles of Paul; and has no serious grasp of the scholarly literature of learned journals and monographs.

Boteach follows Maccoby, ignores most other existing scholarship, makes his own judgments about the meanings of the texts he has read in English translation, and bases his arguments on his own insights uninformed by a world of scholarly publications.

Now, Boteach may be correct in everything that he says, namely, for instance, that Jesus was a classically trained rabbinic scholar, that he never ate non-kosher food, that he was a miracle worker in good rabbinic fashion, and that almost all his teachings derive from the Torah, and so on. Because he lacks credentials and expertise, however, his reconstructions lack credibility.

Overall, it is probable that many people will not like this book. Scholars will find it of limited value because it ignores the critical methods and substance of recent disciplinary research, and because Boteach cannot read Greek (or if he can, shows nothing of such a skill here). Theologians and practitioners of Judaism will deem it unacceptable because it dismisses many basic precepts of traditional interpretation and theology, and stands thereby outside of the main traditions of Jewish theology. Rabbis and other clergy, therefore, will judge that this book is of little use for interfaith dialogues.

Popular readers who like Boteach to begin with, however, may enjoy this book, too. It is a rich mélange of many ideas and insights into a variety of subjects. It jumps from topic to topic with verve, keeping the reader on his or her toes trying to keep up with the rabbi’s zigzagging lines of thought.

And even though many will condemn this book for one reason or another, we surmise that, yes, Boteach will continue to be lauded and listed, primarily by the media, as one of America’s leading rabbis (or, as he styles himself, as “America’s rabbi”). He is a rabbinic pop star, a highly visible and always engaging entertainer with unbounded energy and enthusiasm.

There is one more small, personal criticism that we have of this book, coming to it as a writer, a scribe, a person who has written and published several books of our own. Boteach’s “acknowledgments” rubbed us the wrong way. That short section of a book is an occasion for respectful appreciation, a sincere tribute to those who helped you in creating a new written work of value. Boteach’s nods to his helpers in “Kosher Jesus” reeks of sarcasm, with a self-deprecating spurt of cynicism. Speaking of his audience with Benedict XVI, for example, he says, “I was honored to accommodate the pope’s request to have an autographed copy of my picture.” Thanking his wife, Boteach observes, “To my wife, the luckiest woman in the whole world, what can I say other than you won the lottery.”

In thanking people in such fashion, Boteach seems to mock in public his relationships with his editors, his wife, the head of the Catholic church, and you name it. In our humble experience, having read thousands of volumes with acknowledgments, mockery in the thank-you section is not a good idea for any writer. If you are obviously joking and cynical and sarcastic in the acknowledgements at the end of the volume, you leave us wondering if maybe you were not serious anywhere else in the book.

Tzvee Zahavy, a Yeshiva University-ordained rabbi, is author of numerous books about Judaism and Jewish prayer and liturgy, including, “God’s Favorite Prayers” (2011 in paperback and for Kindle), “Kosher Prayers,” an anthology of texts from Yerushalmi Berakhot (2012 for Kindle), and most recently “Kosher Talmud,” an elegant translation of Bavli Hullin (2012 for Kindle). He lives in Teaneck.

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