Rabbi Shmuley walks on forbidden waters

In the second of a two-part interview with ‘America’s rabbi,’ Shmuley Boteach defends his latest book against critics and calls it a ‘theological bridge’ for Christians and Jews to come together

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (Courtesy)
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (Courtesy)

There’s only one thing that could make some traditional Jews more uncomfortable than a public conversation about sex: the J-word. Jesus. Many of them, in fact, won’t say the name ‘Jesus,’ preferring instead to call him, say, “J.C.” When Rabbi Shmuley Boteach first published “Kosher Sex” more than a decade ago the title alone pushed the buttons of many in the Orthodox world. Now, he’s taken on another one of the community’s biggest taboos with the publication of “Kosher Jesus.”

The notion that Jesus of Nazareth lived and died as a practicing Jew has become widely accepted by scholars. But Boteach’s assertion that Jesus was a cherished member of the Jewish community whose teachings are rooted firmly in the Jewish canon is eliciting howls of protest, mainly from his own community –- the hassidic Chabad Lubavitch sect.

In an interview with the Times of Israel, Boteach responds to these critics and discusses his motivations for writing “Kosher Jesus.”

The idea that Jesus was a committed Pharisaic rabbi who lived and died as a Jew is not new. Are there any scholarly hiddushim (novelties) in the book?

From the incitement and attacks on the book from parts of the Jewish community — mainly Chabad Lubavitch — you would think the arguments are positively novel, revolutionary, inflammatory, and conspiratorial.

From the incitement and attacks… you would think the arguments are positively novel, revolutionary, inflammatory, and conspiratorial

By the way, there’s a new development I want to make you aware of. The first major Chabad figure to defend the book has come out and said that critics of the book are ignorant. Rabbi Moshe Gutnick, a dayan [judge] on the Sydney Bet Din [Jewish court] called it “ludicrous” to say “Kosher Jesus” is heretical.

You’ve said one of the purposes of the book is for “Jews to reexamine a lost son.” Is that happening? Rabbi Jacob Immanuel Schochet, a prominent Canadian Chabadnik, wrote that the book “poses a tremendous risk to the Jewish community” and said it is “forbidden for anyone to buy or read this book, or give its author a platform in any way, shape or form to discuss this topic.” Your reaction?

Irresponsible and ignorant. If he really believes what he’s saying, he should detail what’s so dangerous and heretical. I’ve never heard someone banning a book without giving any explanation. To ban a book is medieval at the best of times. To write a letter and to say, “This book is heretical, trust my judgment, I am the authority” is arrogant and un-Jewish. Judaism is a religion of scholarship. To not provide scholarship and arguments is the height of irresponsibility.

To ban a book is medieval at the best of times

I think this bespeaks a troubling trend within the Chabad community. The only people who’ve had a problem with the book at all worldwide are Lubavitchers. I care deeply because Chabad is my community. I’m Chabad at my core. It’s how I raised my children and it’s how my children want to marry.

Why do you think Chabad specifically is so hostile to “Kosher Jesus”? Does it perhaps touch a nerve within the movement, which has within it many thousands of members who believe the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is still the Messiah?

I think the book highlights a dual trend in Chabad. One is the abrogation of its scholarly orientation. Chabad is the greatest activist organization in the world. Nobody does more for Judaism than Chabad. They’re more productive than the next organization by orders of magnitude. But the community is losing its scholarly edge. When you have a book that some people are saying, “It’s heretical, but I never read it,” or “I read it, it’s heretical, but I won’t tell you why,” and then people turn around and say, “Yeah, that makes sense to me” – to me, this is the first troubling trend in an organization which boasts world class writers, thinkers, and scholars. To squash original ideas as long as an author can sustain his reasoning within the corpus of Jewish law should not be problematic.

You’re asking why Chabad is specifically opposed to my book. It’s because Chabad has lost the passion to reach the Christian world

The second trend that’s troubling is that the Rebbe was a universalist. Whenever the Rebbe spoke on television for his major speeches, he always addressed the non-Jewish world. You’ll notice that in the 16 years since the Rebbe passed away, Chabad has grown, it’s doing more work to benefit the Jewish people than ever before, but the one campaign of the Rebbe that Chabad has dropped entirely – even though it was one of the Rebbe’s earliest, most passionate campaigns – was the Jewish responsibility to the non-Jewish world. Chabad has dropped that like a hot potato.

There is no Chabad effort to reach the non-Jewish world. You’re asking why Chabad is specifically opposed to my book. It’s because Chabad has lost the passion to reach the Christian world.

This book has something to enrich the average Christian American. And yet, Chabad says, “You’re a rabbi, why are you writing for the Christians? Christianity is treif [impure]. Why are you even reading the New Testament? What’s going to happen to someone else who reads the New Testament?”

But Chabad is supposed to be dedicated to Jewish messianism, but how can they make an impact on the world when Jewish messianism is predicated on the idea that Jewish ideas and values have an impact on the world, on the larger culture?

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach being reflective. (photo credit: Courtesy)
A reflective Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. (photo credit: Courtesy)

You’ve said that one of the purposes of “Kosher Jesus” is to encourage Jews to “reexamine a lost son.” Outside of Chabad, are you hearing positive feedback from other Orthodox groups?

Of course. Let’s reverse the question — I’m only having troubles with Chabad. I’ve preached about this book in Orthodox shuls all over the US and world. I just lectured in Sydney, Melbourne. I launched the book on the West Coast at Nessah, one of the largest Orthodox congregations in Los Angeles. The Orthodox, well, Modern Orthodox, world loves the book. It’s very popular; there’s been no criticism at all.

Let’s get to the book’s subject matter. Tell me about the portions of the Talmud that specifically discuss Jesus’ heresy. How do you reconcile those with the book’s basic premise?

The Jesus of the Talmud is not the Jesus of the Gospels

In “Kosher Jesus,” the book is clear that the Jesus of the Talmud is not the Jesus of the Gospels. The Jesus of the Talmud is a student of Yehoshua ben Perachya, who died about 110 years before Jesus was born (Talmud Bavli, Sotah, 47a). So the name Yeshu was very common at that time. Josephus lists 22 major figures named Yeshu during the second temple era. The Seder Hadoros says there were two major Yeshus. Rabbi Yechiel of Paris says the Jesus of the gospels is not the Jesus of the Talmud. It’s a well-established tradition. The timing does not work out.

Can you provide specific examples of how the book is bringing Christians and Jews together?

The book has created a theological bridge for Jews and Christians to come together and discuss those aspects of Jesus that are that much more understandable to the average Christian. Without the Jewish Jesus, how are we to understand the Eucharist? Obviously, the wine was part of the four cups of wine of the Passover Seder, since Jesus was arrested on Passover. Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, one of the Christian’s holiest sites. What is Gethsemane? It’s Gan Shemani — an olive press. Why was Jesus hiding in an olive garden the night of his arrest?  Mary Magdalene is Mary m’Migdal — Mary from the city of Migdal. Jesus grows up in Capernaum. What’s Capernaum? Kfar Nachum. And so on.

You can’t understand the New Testament or the life of Jesus without understanding his Jewishness and the religion he practiced

You can’t understand the New Testament or the life of Jesus without understanding his Jewishness and the religion he practiced. Christian evangelicals in particular are desperate to learn about the Jewishness of Jesus. In fact, two summers ago, Time magazine listed in its annual ‘10 Ideas Most Changing the World’ issue the Christian rediscovery of the origins of Jesus as Idea #7.

There just aren’t enough materials out there. This book is there to bring Jews and Christians together through a new understanding of Jesus even though Jews and Christians understand him in a completely different way. Jews are never going to accept Jesus as the Messiah and rightly so. That will never change in the Jewish religion and it dare not change. Having said that, it doesn’t mean that we can’t appreciate that Jesus brought the teachings of Judaism to billions of people. To places that we otherwise would not have reached. And no less an authority than Maimonides himself says that.

Rabbi Boteach's 'Kosher Sex' was published in 2000 (photo credit: Courtesy
Rabbi Boteach's 'Kosher Sex' was published in 2000 (photo credit: Courtesy

You’ve endured similar criticism from the traditional Jewish community before. You are, after all, the guy who wrote “Kosher Sex.” Are you used to the attacks?

Look, if someone just says, “You wrote Kosher Jesus and it’s a hillul Hashem [desecration of God’s name],” it doesn’t bother me because people haven’t read it and they don’t know what they’re talking about.

When “Kosher Sex” first came out 13 years ago, it was attacked viciously. And here we are now and it’s the main book that Birthright Israel groups give to young Jews who come to Israel because it portrays sexuality in a wholesome light and young people want guidance in their relationships more than anything else.


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