If you want to learn about Judaism in the time of Jesus, read Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler’s The Jewish Annotated New Testament. But circus act Shmuley Boteach’s latest, Kosher Jesus is not going to help Jews understand Jesus or Christians understand Judaism. Instead, it’s going to line Shmuley’s pockets and get him headlines so he can run for Congress.
Unfortunately, the rabbis that have put a ban on his book have only done him a favor, casting him in every La-Z-Boy Intellectual Jew’s favorite role: the Orthodox Rebel. And of course, a Chabadnik talking about Jesus is probably the last thing Chabad wants right now, because it is just reflexively going to draw unfortunate comparisons.
But those rabbis and anyone else who engages with this guy are simply swallowing the bait, myself included (though I doubt very much I’m of much help either way). Shmuley knows the Orthodox world very well, of course. His quip that “we are people of the book, we aren’t the people who ban books,” must be deliberately disingenuous because as anyone familiar even in passing with the Orthodox world in general, and the Da’at Torah world of the Haredim in particular, bans on books (including the entire Israeli National Library), media, and even lox on bagels are par for the course.
I’m not posting those examples to make fun of them. I don’t agree with them; but the point is, Shmuley is aware of them and his feigned outrage is proof of his total lack of good faith here.
But what really bothers me is that Jesus is simply not “kosher.” And nothing I’ve read addresses this squarely.
It doesn’t matter if he observed every last rule that Mea Shearim could ever produce regarding shabbat or his diet. If I really have to explain why this is the case, then you’re probably not my intended audience. But if you’re not following me, I’ll say this. It’s a sign of our times that “kosher” has generated a sense of meaning that means basically, “someone who doesn’t eat pork and who doesn’t drive on shabbat.” It doesn’t mean, “someone who cancels loans in the seventh year and who would never eat a grafted fruit.” In other words, it has come to mean a certain kind of member of a certain kind of Orthodox Jew, not someone who observes all of halakha, but, rather someone who does so in a very certain way.
Here’s a great example. A group wants to start a new certification for food produced ethically (but which must be certified by Orthodox kosher certification first) and in accord with Jewish law regarding the environment, workers, and animal treatment. They are shelled by the Haredi establishment:
A new seal for kosher products and establishments being promoted by the Conservative movement is reportedly about to appear alongside those of Orthodox kashrus agencies. The “Magen Tzedek” certification is intended to signify adherence to certain standards regarding labor, treatment of animals, safety, environmental concerns and corporate integrity.
Such issues are worthy ones but they are well covered by governmental regulations and other areas of halacha, as determined by recognized Torah authorities. They have nothing to do with kashrut.
The same government agencies that aren’t good enough to supervise whether milk really comes from cows is good enough to take care of all of those things?
So, under this kind of definition of “kosher,” Jesus gets called kosher. Rhetorically, of course, this is largely meant to distinguish Jesus from his followers, like Paul of Tarsus, who basically repealed Torah law. The theory is that if we can show the gentiles just how observant Jesus himself was, they’ll think differently about Judaism.
Ha. This shows that what’s needed as much about Christian education about Judaism is Jewish education about Christians. This type of reasoning is no more likely to penetrate their considerations as are the reductiones ad absurdum in this post are likely to talk anyone out of their “strict” Jewish observances.
So, just to make it clear: under Jewish law, Jesus was a false prophet, a false messiah, and, as such violated prohibitions in the Torah. If we accept the stories in the New Testmanent, he was also a sorcerer or a magician, also in violation of prohibitions in the Torah. And those are prohibitions I can list without breaking a sweat.
But, even under the sociological definition of Shmuley’s community, Jesus probably violated shabbat (unless you assume the kind of leniency regarding healing that it is very doubtful the Haredim would). And of course all of this is an exercise in limiting the scope of the discussion to favor one side of the argument. Even if the Jesus of the Gospels were in fact “kosher” no Christian who can be called such believes in only the Gospels without the rest of the New Testament.
This isn’t to suggest that we shouldn’t be more tolerant in our religious discourse or that we should talk negatively about a figure venerated by two billion people. But I simply disagree that we do any good in that vein by making up false compromises that don’t exist. The point is whether or Jesus was “kosher” by any particular person’s definition is irrelevant to Christians in respect to their own beliefs and an affirmative answer more or less spits on 2000 years of Jewish history and suffering.
UPDATE: Check out this review of the book on The Forward containing, inter alia, this quote:
Boteach has the noble goal of improving the relationship between Christians and Jews, yet his approach here is problematic, as well. By severing the good Jewish Jesus from bad Christian teachings about him, he casts all Christian beliefs — about, for example, Jesus’ uniqueness and significance — as groundless and fantastic. Far from building a bridge between Jews and Christians, his portrait of Jesus will be rejected by most Christians as irrelevant and even insulting.