The ferocious battle that has been waged in the press and blogosphere over my new book, “Kosher Jesus” (Gefen Publishing House), in the weeks leading up to its publication next week, has obscured both its message and the reason for its publication.
The book goes back to the original gospel source materials to uncover the true story of Jesus and portray him for who he was prior to later Christian editors significantly modifying the story to accommodate the Romans. Jesus was a Torah-committed Jew whose mission was to restore Jewish observance fully among his Jewish brethren and fight Roman persecution. For doing so he was turned over by the Roman collaborator, High Priest Caiaphas, who owed his office to the Romans, and was murdered by the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate. Jesus never claimed to be divine, never changed the Torah, and would be scandalized to see his teachings — nearly all of which “Kosher Jesus” traces back to their earlier Jewish sources — misused to persecute his people. It was Paul, who never met Jesus, who later deified him and said he came to get rid of Torah practice.
Publisher’s Weekly reviewed the book as an “informed and cogent primer on Jesus of Nazareth … a brave stab at re-evaluating Jesus through an intensive look at the New Testament and historical documents … and a well-researched analysis that will certainly reopen intrafaith and interfaith dialogue.”
Far from the book being heretical, as a prominent Chabad rabbi claimed when he banned both it and me, my views on Jesus are conveyed by one of the greatest rabbis of the past millennium, Rabbi Jacob Emden, who wrote in 1757 that “it is exceedingly clear that the Nazarene [Jesus] never dreamed of nullifying the Torah.”
Rabbi Emden cited Matthew (5:17-19), in which Jesus said, “If any man … sets aside even the least of the Torah’s commandments, and teaches others to do the same, he will have the lowest place in the Kingdom of Heaven, whereas anyone who keeps the Torah, and teaches others so, will stand high in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Why is it necessary for Jews to reclaim the Jewish Jesus and educate Christians about the source of his teachings? First, virtually all Jewish ideas that have shaped the world have been taken from our people without attribution so that Judaism is treated today as a discarded relic with little contemporary relevance. We gave the world God. Today his name is Jesus. We gave the world the Sabbath. Today it’s called Sunday. We gave the world the Ten Commandments. Today it’s called morality. And we gave the world the biblical insistence that all humans are created equally in the image of God. Today it’s called democracy. As a result, young Jews are not even aware of the transformative ideas of their own faith, which might explain their lack of attachment to it.
Second and more urgent, in the past few decades Evangelical Christians have emerged as the most stalwart supporters of Israel, the ones who travel to the Jewish state to show their love even while bombs fall on Israeli cities. Many Jewish critics question this support and attribute to it ulterior motives. I disagree. Christian Evangelical support for Israel is real and must be appreciated. They believe in the Bible and they believe that through the Jewish people they will be blessed. They yearn and hunger to discover more about the Jewishness of Jesus in order to experience their own faith more authentically, and it is the responsibility of the Jewish community to provide this vital information.
At so many public Christian events in support of Israel, pastors refer to Jesus haltingly if at all, afraid to offend Jewish sensibilities, while the Jews likewise are on guard to ensure that they are not accused of being used as props for a covert Christian evangelizing effort.
If Jesus can never be mentioned we risk the relationship becoming a fraudulent one, with mutual suspicion growing on both sides. The political bridge of support for Israel is not enough. A theological bridge must exist as well.
“Kosher Jesus” proposes that Jesus the Jew, rather than Jesus the Christian, be that bridge. It is not for Christians to teach the Jews about Jesus, as has been attempted for so many centuries, but rather, for the Jews to teach Christians about how Jesus lived, prayed, worshipped, and died as a Jew.
This book is written for Christians who hunger to learn more about the Jewishness of Jesus, even as they disagree significantly with my conclusions. And it is written for Jews to finally be knowledgeable about the real story of Jesus so that they can engage in this relationship authoritatively and with an immunity to missionizing efforts. In an age of Jewish-Christian rapprochement, ignorance of Jesus is no longer an option.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the best-selling author of 27 books. His newest work, “Kosher Jesus,” will be published on Feb. 1. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.