Friday, February 10, 2012

Kosher Jesus?

There is nothing Kosher in Judaism about belief in a man being the son of God. The very idea is considered a form of idolatry.

Let me hasten to add that I do not mean to cast any aspersions on Christianity. They believe as they will and there are legitimate opinions among the Rishonim that Shituf – the idea of having more than one God is permissible for non-Jews as long as one of them is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

I also realize that Christianity is a monotheistic religion. The belief in the divinity of Jesus is part of a theology that includes belief in a trinity. This is explained along monotheistic lines. But I am not here to debate the theology of Christianity versus Judaism. I am here to discuss Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s new book Kosher Jesus.

Rabbi Boteach has been virtually pilloried by members of the Orthodox rabbinate – across the Hashkafic spectrum for trying to ‘Kasher’ a man in whose name the Jewish people have been tortured and killed time after time over the centuries. I completely understand this reaction. But I am not sure it is useful in determining who Jesus really was and what his actual beliefs and practices were.

Based on reviews of his book (I did not read it) he seems to want to say that Jesus was a Jewish patriot who observed the Mitzvos and tried to get other Jews to do so. This may or may not be the case. I am certainly not a historian.

I happen to agree with Rabbi Boteach that our relationship with Christians today is a lot better than it ever was. And that we ought to do whatever we can to enhance that. Christians – especially Evangelicals and the Catholic Church have done a 180. They no longer see us in a bad light. I really believe that things have changed.

Nor do I believe we are required to believe the worst of Jesus. In my view he remains an enigmatic figure. Nonetheless I agree with those who say that Rabbi Boteach’s well intentioned efforts in redefining Jesus are misplaced.

Part of the outrage at him is based on how Christendom over the centuries has used Jesus as an excuse to torture us. Or to force us to convert. That has over time created a backlash of terrible descriptions of the man as evil in various ways. For example - the Talmud makes references to a figure like that who is clearly seen as evil. It even places eternal damnation upon him. But it is far from certain that the person the Talmud talks about is Jesus. However because of the history persecution against the Jews by the Church - rabbis over the centuries were quick to believe that the person in the Talmud was him.

Then there is the drive by the Church over the course of history to convince us that Jesus is the son of God. The Jewish people have always been the targets of Christian missionaries who have worked day and night to win us over.

Some examples:

They have tried torture - as in the Spanish Inquisition.

They have tried debate as in the Vikuach. This was an historic debate between the Ramban (Nachmanides) and Pablo Christiani, a Jewish apostate who converted to Christianity and became a monk.

All of this adds up to centuries of animosity towards us at one level or another - culminating in the Holocaust. I personally believe that the Holocaust would not have happened without a theology that blamed the Jews (and all their descendants collectively) for the death of their god. The hatred of the Jews over the centuries can - at least in part – be traced to this theology. Thankfully the theology was changed at least in the Catholic Church by Vatican II.

Since the Holocaust they have tried kindness and persuasion - as in convincing Jews who lack any significant Jewish education that one can be a practicing Jew and still believe in Jesus as the Messiah and savior.

So what’s so bad about rehabilitating Jesus in Jewish eyes? Other that the fact that it is mere speculation on Rabbi Boteach’s part - nothing by itself. But if one takes into consideration the missionary work still going on in trying to convert us – Rabbi Boteach goes too far.

The idea of making hero out of him plays right into the hands of missionary organizations like Jews for Jesus. They have a particularly insidious approach to their mission. They actually promote observance of many of the Mitzvos. But they pointedly include a belief in Jesus as the Messiah. This is one of their beliefs too. Ultimately they will convince you of his being a deity.

The have very carefully researched Judaism to find areas of commonality so that they can easily blend their theology into ours. The idea of a Messiah is after all a Jewish concept. One of the most recognized of the Rambam’s 13 principles of faith is our belief in the coming of the Messiah.

Well Christians believe it too. Only they say he was already here in the person of Jesus, died, and will have a second coming at the ‘end of days’. And oh... by the way he was the son of God. Judaism also believes in the coming of the Messiah at the ‘end of days’. The relatively minor point of dispute is whether he was already here or not. The slippery slope should be obvious to anyone. Making a hero out of him adds fuel to this fire. We shouldn’t be doing anything to further that goal!

It was interesting to see the vehement opposition of one particular antagonist. Rabbi Dr. J. Immanuel Shochet - a Lubavitcher Chasid - published a letter that makes many of the same arguments I do. But he has banned the book as heretical without explaining why. I find it curious to see the level of condemnation by a man who actually defends the idea of the Late Lubavitcher Rebbe being resurrected to fulfill his mission on earth as the Messiah. Even though he does not personally believe that, he says that this idea has many sources in Jewish religious literature – including the Talmud! It is therefore a legitimate Jewish belief, says Rabbi Shochet.

Nor is the idea of a man becoming ‘God clothed in a body’ foreign to him. Atzmus U’Mehus Meluvash BaGuf! This is how the late Rebbe came to be seen by many Lubavitchers even when he was still alive. While they can explain this as not actually deifying him – if you combine the idea of their late Rebbe being resurrected as the Messiah with the concept of God clothed in a body… well that’s pretty close to Christianity’s belief about Jesus! They too have their explanations.

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” - William Shakespeare