An intense verbal battle has erupted between Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and a number of prominent rabbis over Boteach’s controversial new book, “Kosher Jesus,” in which the media-savvy rabbi and author of over twenty-five books claims that Jews should “reclaim” the Christian icon as an observant Jew whose mission was to restore Torah observance, and should promote the concept of Jesus’ “Jewishness” to Christians. According to the rabbis condemning the book, Boteach’s ideas go beyond the bounds of classical Judaism and could have the consequences – albeit unintended – of leading many nonobservant Jews to embrace Christianity.
“This book poses a tremendous risk to the Jewish community,” Rabbi Immanuel Schochet, an emeritus professor of philosophy and religion at Toronto’s Humber College and spiritual leader of the city’s Congregation Beth Joseph wrote in an open letter. “It must be rejected for being heretical.” Rabbi Schochet went on to state that, as a publication that “enhance(s) the evangelical missionary message and agenda, 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.”
In a lengthy response, Boteach said he “must retain the right to defend myself against the appalling and libelous charge of heresy,” and stated that Rabbi Schochet “did not provide a single argument to back up his claims.” Regarding Rabbi Schochet’s assertion that “Kosher Jesus” will strengthen missionary activity targeting Jews, Boteach called his book “the ultimate argument against Christian missionaries, (offering) significant information to argue convincingly against any Christian attempt to evangelize Jews.”
Another of Boteach’s critics, Rabbi Michael Skobac, Director of Education and Counseling at Jews for Judaism in Canada, has written that Boteach’s effort to encourage Jews to re-examine Jesus “ignores age-old rabbinic policies enacted to distance Jews from non-Jewish religions, and inevitably encourages the exploration of the New Testament, a book that certainly cannot be deemed ‘kosher.’” Taking on Boteach’s argument that Jews should be learning from Jesus, Rabbi Skobac writes that “any teachings of his that are not consistent with those of Judaism have no validity for Jews.” Skobac then says he is even more troubled by “Boteach’s implication that Jesus was a prophet and that the Christian scriptures were divinely inspired. These are specious and dangerous ideas that run contrary to traditional Jewish belief.” Skobac concludes his points by declaring, “For an orthodox rabbi to urge Jews to embrace Jesus is incredibly irresponsible, as it will inevitably facilitate the slide by some down the slippery slope toward Christianity.”
Responding to Skobac’s criticisms, Boteach said that it is perfectly legitimate for Christians to view Jesus as “a teacher and prophet, but not divine,” so that they can be part of the “Noachide covenant,” and he adds that he uses the word ‘prophet’ here in the ‘overall sense of the word,” similar to its use by historians describing the late Dr. Martin Luther King. He then defends his book as serving to enable Jews to “take pride in their tradition” by helping them realize that “Jesus’ teachings are based almost entirely on the Torah, and to the extent that they were modified, it was done after Jesus’ death by Paul and others mostly in an effort to appease the Romans.” Boteach also defends his book as offering “the textual proofs as to why Jews reject the divinity and messiahship of Jesus, so that both Jews and Christians are well aware of what we can never embrace about him.”
Rabbi Eliezer Gurkow, rabbi of Congregation Beth Tefilah in Canada and a resident scholar on the website askmoses.com, has also come out strongly against Boteach’s new book. “Regardless of the book’s content there is a real danger that unlettered Jews will be made vulnerable to Christian proselytizers,” Gurkow writes, “who might easily quote Shmuley out of context to demonstrate that America’s Rabbi doesn’t think [Jesus] is all that dangerous.” In this regard, the Internet scholar notes further that Boteach writes on his Facebook page, “Judaism gave the world G-d, Now His name is JC.” Gurkow comments that while Boteach clearly means to say that Judaism is the foundation of Christianity, an “enterprising missionary” could use this statement to claim that “Shmuley Boteach declared the real G-d of the Jews is…. [Jesus]!”
In his critical commentary on “Kosher Jesus,” Rabbi Eli Cohen of Jews for Judaism in Australia calls out Boteach for ultimately offending both Christians – who would certainly take issue with his assertion that Jesus should not be viewed as a divine being – and Jews, who could never reconcile their religion with the view that Jesus was a prophet and a holy man. “Does Boteach honestly expect the Jewish community to re-examine and learn the teachings of Jesus?” Rabbi Cohen asks. “This suggestion contravenes rabbinic enactments against the study of non-Jewish sacred texts, including the Christian Scriptures. Jews have never been, nor will they ever be, quick to buy into anything that is associated with Jesus or with the Christian Scriptures. Since Boteach acknowledges that the teachings of the Christian Scriptures in their current form are unacceptable, his proposal to Jews is all the more perplexing.”