A Response to Rabbi Schochet
Rabbi Immanuel Schochet, who recently issued a letter banning anyone from reading my book Kosher Jesus, calling it heretical, is someone whose writings and lectures I have long admired. I also twice had the pleasure of hosting him at the University of Oxford where he spoke to my students.
Nevertheless, I must retain the right to defend myself against the appalling and libelous charge of heresy. America is not Iran and Rabbis in the American Jewish community are not the Revolutionary Guard. We are different to the Khomeinis of the world who ban books and declare interdicts against their authors. We Jews are the people of the book, not the people who ban books. To the extent that Rabbi Schochet found anything objectionable in Kosher Jesus – and since it is only being released on 1 February I fear the book’s detractors sent him a pirated, electronic copy that is unlawfully being circulated and which is full of errors – he could easily have contacted me or publicly stated his objections. But banning a book on the charge of heresy without any mention whatsoever of what the heresy consists of is outrageous, an affront to decency, and a betrayal of scholarship. Calling an author a heretic without backing up the charge is positively scandalous.
Rabbi Schochet seems to have significantly changed his approach to Judaism and Christianity since his lectures under my auspices. Back then he orated openly on Jesus and the New Testament, rebutting missionary claims and engaging missionaries in public dialogue and exchange. There are hundreds of his tapes that attest to this fact. But in the letter he sent to Chabad websites, where I have been pilloried for the past week, he suddenly refuses to even mention the name Jesus, capitulating to the websites demands that Jesus be referred to as “J” and banning my book and calling it heretical without citing a single example as to why. What motivated him to betray his own reputation as a scholar? He himself wrote in his condemnatory letter, “It is not normally my style to write letters of condemnation.” So what changed?
Kosher Jesus is, after all, a book which Publisher’s Weekly – the platinum standard in book reviews – called 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 a brave stab at re-evaluating Jesus through an intensive look at the New Testament and historical documents… and a well-researched analysis that will certainly reopen intrafaith and interfaith dialogue.” If Rabbi Schochet disagreed with Publisher’s Weekly, surely he should have cited scholarly arguments – even a single one – based on Jewish sources, rather repudiating the very essence of scholarly discourse by bizarrely resorting to medieval book banning. Many people, myself included, look up to Rabbi Schochet and respect him specifically because he is one of the few outstanding scholars of secular subjects in Chabad. No doubt they will be deeply puzzled by his self-denigrating act of banning books on community noticeboards that normally focus on birth and engagement announcements and which have few, if any, journalistic standards.
I had already experienced something similar, about 14 years ago in Britain, when Rabbi Schochet’s son, Yitzchok, with whom I am friendly and who is a communal Rabbi in London, debated me in his synagogue on my best-seller on The Jewish Guide to Adultery: How to Turn your Marriage into an Illicit Affair, which uses Talmudic wisdom about erotic attraction to create passion in marriage. I will never forget how Rabbi Yitzchok Schochet proceeded to tear pages out of my book in front of the hundreds in the audience, as he went through his arguments, and cast them on the floor. I did not find this to be a dignified form of debate and said so. Destroying books in public is not the sign of a gentleman. Nor is it the sign of someone who is serious about intelligent debate. We Jews have had our experiences with those who destroy books.
Rabbi Yitzchok Schochet has also been strangely obsessed with Kosher Jesus ever since it was announced, Tweeting incessantly about it, including this one from last week, in advance of his father’s coming condemnation, “It’s not petty inciteful posts u should bother with. It's what's brewing behind the scenes by real experts that should worry u.” And moments after his father’s letter was published he Tweeted, “BREAKING NEWS: Worlds leading Jewish cult buster and authority on missionaries condemns @RabbiShmuley book.”
Indeed, his father, who wrote this bizarre attack on me out of the blue calling me a heretic, had an absolute responsibility, as part of full disclosure, to mention in his letter that both his son Yitzchok and I are being openly discussed as possible candidates for the position of Chief Rabbi of the UK, with significant media speculation as to my candidacy growing over the past two weeks even though, despite many high-profile endorsements, I have said I am not a declared candidate.
But be that as it may, as a renowned scholar, I believe, Rabbi Immanuel Schochet should treat books differently. A great expert of both Jewish and non-Jewish subjects is surely someone who respects scholarly publications, even ones he disagrees with, and should raise intelligent challenges and cite source material to corroborate his objections. But to ban a book outright and command thousands of people with such utter authoritarianism that they dare not read it, with absolutely no explanation? This has no place in scholarly discourse and is the kind of action that tarnishes the reputation of a serious scholar. I deeply respect Rabbi Schochet and am humbly offering to engage in a written or oral debate on the subject of my book at any reasonable time and place of his choosing.
But in defense of my book, let me say this: Kosher Jesus goes back to the original gospel source materials to uncover the real story of Jesus and portray him for whom he was prior to later Christian editors significantly modifying the story to accommodate the Romans. Jesus was, as many have argued before me, a Torah-observant Jew whose mission it 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 Pontias Pilate – the Saddam Hussein of the ancient world – for doing so. Jesus was a martyr for his people who never claimed to be divine, who never changed the Torah, and who would be scandalized to see his teachings – nearly all of which I trace 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. But Jesus himself said the opposite, in Matthew 5:18, that anyone who does not keep the whole Torah would be cast out of heaven.
This is the ultimate argument against Christian missionaries and my book, for those Jews who care to read it, will offer significant information to argue convincingly against any Christian attempt to evangelize Jews.
Far from this theory being a heretical, as Rabbi Schochet says, it is expressly conveyed by Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697-1776) who, as Michael Scobak, head of education for the orthodox Jewish anti-missionary organization Jews for Judaism, notes in his pamphlet The Da Vinci Code: A Jewish Perspective was “one of the greatest Talmudists of the past 350 years.” Rabbi Emden, in 1757, authored a well-known letter about early Christianity which I quote:
Therefore, you must realize – and accept the truth from him who speaks it – that we see clearly here that the Nazarene and his Apostles did not wish to destroy the Torah from Israel, God forbid; for it is written so in Matthew (5:17-19), the Nazarene having said, “Do not suppose that I have come to abolish the Torah. I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. I tell you this: So long as heaven and earth endure, not a letter, not a stroke, will disappear from the Torah until all is accomplished. If any man therefore 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.” This is also recorded in Luke 16:17. It is therefore exceedingly clear that the Nazarene never dreamed of nullifying the Torah.”
Scobak himself goes further and adds, “The Torah-positive stance taken by Jesus was maintained after his death by his disciples based in Jerusalem under the leadership of his brother James. Many of this group believed that non-Jews recruited by Paul should fully convert to Judaism by becoming circumcised and observing the entire Torah. Paul disagreed, and James chaired a conference in Jerusalem to decide the issue (Acts 15:1-29). Obviously, if the Jewish disciples led by James were not totally Torah observant themselves, they would have never insisted that all converts must maintain this standard and become Torah observant. James resolved the issue by deciding that Paul’s Gentile recruits would not have to convert to Judaism, but just observe the seven universal Noachide laws… The dominant voice of today’s Christian Bible is clearly Paul’s, either through his letters and epistles or through the writings of others under his influence. What a stunning example of history being written by the victors! For all intents and purposes, Christianity as we know it today is an invention of Paul. And all this, despite the fact that Paul never even met Jesus!”
So here you have Scobak, an orthodox Rabbi who heads education for the world’s most respected Jewish anti-missionary group, agreeing with my thesis which Rabbi Schochet, without a single source, calls heretical. It is now Rabbi Schochet who must explain his objections lest he be guilty of character assassination without justification, a grave sin in Judaism known as motzi shem ra.
But in reality this battle is about something far larger than me. Rabbi Schochet, through no fault of his own, came of age when Christians were seen primarily as proselytizers and as enemies of our people. But the past few decades have changed everything. Christians are today the State of Israel’s best friends. They visit Israel and support it arguably even more consistently than the Jewish community. They travel to Israel to show their love even during wars, with bombs falling on Israeli cities. Still, there are Jews who question their motives and wish to undermine the relationship.
No matter how much the Pastor John Hagees of this world support Israel, or Glenn Beck, who gave a beautiful blurb for my book, some Jewish critics will say that they are doing so for ulterior motives, their love for the Jewish people not being genuine. I disagree. Jewish evangelical support for Israel is real and must be appreciated. And this book is written primarily for my Christian brothers and sisters who hunger to learn more about the Jewishness of Jesus, even as they disagree significantly with my conclusions.
Many Christian personalities endorsed the book – so desperate are they to learn more of the Jewishness of Jesus and the Jewish origins of Christianity – even as they profoundly disagree with my insistence against the divinity of Jesus and the abrogation of the Law. 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.
No matter the pressure, I will not submit to a Judaism that is about censure, anti-intellectualism, close-mindedness, or contempt for scholarship. I believe in a Judaism that is orthodox, Torah-based, informed, modern, engaging, open, educated, fearless in the marketplace of ideas, and confident in its ability to win intelligent debate.
And why shouldn’t Judaism get the credit it deserves for the values it has disseminated to the world through Christianity. 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 no contemporary relevance.
We gave the world G-d. Today his name is Jesus Christ. We gave the world the Sabbath. Today it’s called Sunday. We gave the world the Ten Commandments. Today it is called morality. And we gave the world the Biblical insistence that all humans are created equally in the image of G-d. Today it’s called democracy. As a result, young Jews are not even aware of the transformative ideas of their religion, which might explain why they take insufficient pride in their tradition.
It’s time these universal Jewish ideas that have so influenced the world be traced back to their original source. It’s time that the Jewishness of Jesus be rediscovered by Christians. It’s time for the light of Judaism to brighten the world and for the Jews to live up to their ancient Biblical mandate as a light unto the nations.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach was the London Times Preacher of the Year at the Millennium and received the American Jewish Press Associations’ Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary as well as the National Fatherhood Award for his national TV Show Shalom in the Home. The international best-selling author of 27 books, his newest work Kosher Jesus will be published on February 1st. Follow him Twitter @RabbiShmuley.