The Boteach Delusion

A Review of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's Kosher Jesus

I once enjoyed the dubious privilege of being called a liar by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. When Shmuley sensed the tide of opinion in the hall was against him, he wisely withdrew the charge only to retract his apology later while we were shaking hands. I was amused rather than upset by the incident but since then I’ve never really been able to take Shmuley seriously.

Although his latest book has received praise from both Jewish and Christian reviewers, even allowing for my mildly jaundiced attitude, there is little positive I can find to say about it. The genius of Shmuley Boteach is his ability to blend pop psychology with rabbinic ideas and market it as Jewish wisdom. Kosher Jesus is a pop version of Hyam Maccoby’s Revolution in Judaea, The Mythmaker and Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil (a fact which, it must be said, Shmuely freely acknowledges). It’s the kind of book I could imagine being written by a hybrid clone of Richard Dawkins and Dan Brown.

Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling sorry for Shmuley that some of his fellow rabbis have denounced Kosher Jesus as heresy even though they haven’t read it, a fact that tells us more about the rabbis than it does about Shmuley or his book. In spite of the brouhaha over the book (or maybe because of it) Kosher Jesus became an immediate best seller. Even though I feel some sympathy for Shmuley, I am far from impressed with Kosher Jesus.  

The rabbi’s contention is that Jews and Christians have for centuries misunderstood Jesus. Shmuley’s kosher Jesus (as opposed to the unkosher Jesus of historic Christianity) was a ‘wise and learned rabbi who despised the Romans for their cruelty to his Jewish brethren, who fought the Romans courageously and was ultimately murdered for trying to throw off the Roman yoke of oppression. He was a man who worked to rekindle Jewish ritual observance of every aspect of the Torah and to counter the brutal Roman occupation of his people’s land’ (p xvii).

According to Shmuley, the Gospels were doctored by Gentile editors who did their best to expunge the Jewishness of Jesus and tried to make Jews the bad guys and the Romans the good guys. Under Gentile editorial control Jesus was made to say, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…’ something no self-respecting Roman-hating, freedom fighter would have ever said.

No doubt many Jewish readers will enthusiastically assimilate Shmuley’s Gospel hypothesis. But if Shmuley’s contention is correct, wouldn’t at least a few copies of the original, undoctored ‘Jewish’ Gospels have survived? Among the 5,686 Greek copies of the Gospels still in existence, not one copy of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John differs in any significant way from the majority of the available copies. 

Rabbi Boteach’s imaginative revisionism gives us a Judas Iscariot who is the creation of editors of the Gospel who were intent on demonising the Jewish people in order to curry favour with Rome. The Jew-hating spin doctors thus created an archetypical villain who would become a symbol of the Jewish people as a whole, a Frankenstein monster so evil that for a moderate consideration he would betray the King of the Universe. And, lest the symbolism be too subtle, the anti-Semitic revisionists named their creation ‘Judas’.    

Shmuley’s Jesus might be kosher and his Judas might be an invented straw man but his apostle Paul was a walking, talking, unkosher Gentile convert to Judaism who fraudulently claimed to have been a disciple of the great Jewish sage Gamaliel. According to Shmuely, Paul was a manipulative liar capable of bullying Peter into eating non-kosher food; he single-handedly reinvented Jesus, founded ‘Christianity' and peddled his new religion ‘almost exclusively’ among Gentiles.  

Don’t get Shmuley wrong, however. Although he wants Christians to know that everything we believe – from the doctrine of original sin to the return of Christ – has been constructed on a foundation of anti-Semitism, paganism and downright falsehood, he has no desire to ‘denigrate or deny Christian doctrine’ (p. 160). But For Shmuley, even though Christianity is a total falsehood, it is the way for Christians to reach God, just as Islam is the way for Muslims to approach God. Judaism is the way for Jews to approach God, the only difference being that Judaism is right and all the other religions are wrong. Rabbi Boteach doesn’t mind Christians supporting Israel and opposing anti-Semitism; he just wants us to stop trying to persuade Jewish people to believe in Jesus (or at least the unkosher Jesus of traditional Christian theology).

Shmuley thinks Luke’s Gospel has 31 chapters, that Damascus was an ‘Assyrian city’. On page 107 he states quite rightly that, ‘Using one’s tongue to assassinate the character of an innocent victim … is immoral.’ Five pages later he informs us that Paul could not have been a disciple of the celebrated Rabbi Gamaliel because Paul was not a great scholar and seems to have been incapable of reading Hebrew.

On page 113 Shmuley accuses Paul of misquoting Deuteronomy 21:23 to give it a ‘fraudulent meaning’. To prove that Paul ‘misrepresents this verse utterly’, Shmuley cites Galatians 3:13 in which, he claims, Paul says: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole."'

According to the end note, he is quoting from the New International Version; only he isn’t. The NIV translation reads: ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree."' Where did ‘pole’ come from?

Shmuley then presents his idiosyncratic exposition of Paul’s argument. Christians have always thought ‘the tree’ to which Paul refers is the cross on which Jesus was hung but, according to the rabbi, Paul ‘explains that the pole refers to the Torah, the Law of Moses.’ Hence, according to Shmuley, ‘Paul bases one of Christianity’s core doctrines on a misrepresentation.’

Thus, Shmuley hoists himself on his own petard.

Kosher Jesus is a confusing farrago of poor logic, pseudo-scholarship, character assassination, gross misunderstanding, wishful thinking and misrepresentation of Christian doctrine. The book has been carelessly cobbled together and is full of spelling errors that should have been picked up by proof readers (for example, he refers to a ‘fundamental tenant of Judaism’); on page 127 Shmuley tells us Jesus was crucified on Sunday; on page 126 he has Constantine converting to Christianity in 312 CE, while on the next page the date becomes 321 CE.

Gregory Zuckerman describes Shmuley Boteach as being ‘among the most provocative and creative minds in public discourse.’ Creative is right. I will defend unequivocally Rabbi Boteach’s right to publish what he wants but, for the reasons stated above, Kosher Jesus will not be available from the CWI Bookroom.

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