A Neoconservative Jesus, Certified Kosher

As I read Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s popular new book, Kosher Jesus, I couldn’t help smiling, remembering the first time I was assigned to teach a unit on the origins of Christianity. I figured it made sense to start with the historical Jesus himself. So I plunged into the most reputable scholarly literature, to separate fact from fiction. It didn’t take very long to realize that there was, and is, no fact.

I was soon entertaining my students by telling them, in all seriousness, that Jesus is like a huge inkblot in a Rohrschach test. Everyone sees what they want to see. what any New Testament scholar claims to see tells us nothing for sure about the factual reality of Jesus. But it tells a lot about even the greatest scholar’s own presuppositions, worldview, values, and beliefs.

Kal v’homer, as they say in Hebrew (“how much more so, then”): an Orthodox rabbi with few scholarly credentials and limited credibility in the academic world, who argues that the most valuable way to interpret Jesus today is to see him as an Orthodox rabbi in a fully Orthodox Jewish context. It’s no surprise how often scholars and non-scholars alike end up saying, in effect, “Hey, Jesus was an awful lot like me!”

Jesus Could Not Have Studied Talmud

One proof that Jesus was a full-fledged rabbi, according to Boteach, is his frequent use of the kal v’homer, “how much more so,” style of reasoning: arguing from a smaller example to a larger or more obvious case. It’s one of the standard rules of logic in the Jewish Talmud.

Indeed, Boteach claims, the source of “most of Jesus’ statements was the Talmud.” Here is a good reason to be skeptical about this book and its author: the Talmud was compiled at the earliest some four centuries after Jesus died, and only an infinitesimal portion of its words are attributed to rabbis who might have lived before Jesus’ time.

But if that’s a small reason to be skeptical, how much more so the blurbs on the book’s back cover. When I saw I saw the glowing praise from Glenn Beck and Pat Boone, I wondered, What in the name of a higher power is going on here? Or is it, perhaps, in the name of a lower power? An equally glowing endorsement from Alan Dershowitz, well-known defender of all things hawkishly Israeli-Jewish, gave me a hint.

When I turned to the acknowledgments (the part of a book I always read first, to get a context for the book and the author), I realized that there was no secret to be unearthed here. The faith of Christians, “especially evangelicals,” inspired the book, Boteach writes: “Evangelicals’ love of Israel, as well Catholic admiration and respect for Judaism, is as responsible for this book as anything else.”

Christians and Jews Are Now Brothers

The full picture begins to emerge in the introduction. After some perfunctory praise of the last three popes, Boteach gets down to his Glenn Beck-ish business: “The American Evangelical community has proven the most stalwart and reliable friend of Israel in the United States.” Christians and Jews are now “brothers” because “together they confront the implacable foe of Islamist terrorism.”

Later Boteach writes that “Christian Evangelicals have proven themselves stalwart when it comes to foreign policy, fighting terrorists, and standing up to evil.” An estimated 60% of the US armed forces are evangelicals, he claims (with no source cited), “and they have been leaders in our fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.”

Of course the obligatory myth of Israel’s insecurity plays its part here: “Israel is being delegitimized by hateful enemies the world over and is besieged by enraged enemies.” Jews should “capitalize on Christian overtures of goodwill so as to remain strong in the face of adversity.”

But this is not a typical “any friend of right-wing Israel is a friend of mine” argument. Boteach has a more complex case to make, parts of which we’ve heard plenty of times before, most notably from Hyam Macoby (the scholar to whom Boteach acknowledges his biggest debt). Jesus was a patriotic Zealot, “calling his men to arms. An armed insurrection against Rome was his battle cry.” “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword,” was his true motto.

Yet Boteach’s Jesus is less a Zealot than a neoconservative.

“The West confronts the challenge of Radical Islam. … Jews and Christians have so much in common, we must unite behind our democratic values… The forces of light always fight with the forces of darkness.”

Indeed, the forces of light must now preserve civilization itself. In the face of today’s problems—“financial crisis, decline of our values, the deterioration of the family, rampant greed and materialism… terror and war”—the only way to overcome our “hopelessness” and “fear” is to “return to the values and principles that define us. The Jewish Jesus I have laid out before you embodies these Judeo-Christian values.”

In Boteach’s Rohrschach test, the Jews, including Jesus, are lovers of peace and justice. The Romans look like dark savages who cared only for military power. That’s precisely why Jesus tried to summon up as much military power as he could to throw off the yoke of Rome. To leave the Romans out of Jesus’ story “would be the equivalent to writing a history of Poland from 1939 to 1945 without mentioning the Nazis”—who are, we are clearly supposed to see, the missing link between ancient Romans and today’s “Islamist terrorists.”

Every Soldier a Redeemer

What about that pesky Sermon on the Mount? Yes, Jesus tells us to love our enemies. But, aha, “Jesus does not tell us to love God’s enemies”—a stunning example of rabbinic casuistry. Jesus would want us to love “an irritating colleague,” for example. But it’s “a very different thing to love the murderous Ahmadinejad or Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the abominable head of Hezbollah.”

Boteach’s Jesus never commanded love of evildoers, because it “would be immoral.” As a rabbi, Jesus knew well that “the only kind of hatred Judaism could [and apparently did, Boteach believes] condone is hatred of evil. …Battling evil is essential to Jesus’ self-definiton”—and in that battle no means can be taken off the table. To argue that Jesus would have urged Jews in Nazi Europe or blacks in the South to turn the other cheek “would make a sham of his teaching.”

Boteach’s Jesus didn’t claim to be divine. But he did aim to be a messiah, because he wanted to “rescue Jews from political oppression” and “put an end to the folly of war. …All of us should live by his example. …Every American soldier in Afghanistan… can consider himself or herself a redeemer chosen to give women dignity and people freedom.”

Yet it is “not man’s arms… but man’s attachment to a just and benevolent Creator” that brings victory. To be a redeemer is, apparently, to go to war without placing real value on war—to be a Jew or a good Christian, not a Roman or an “Islamist terrorist.”

If all of this seems a bit too contradictory, well, says Boteach, it’s no more so than saying that Jesus was human yet divine: “It’s not so strange to hold two simultaneous and seemingly contradictory views of Jesus.” Yet we should all emulate this paradoxical Jesus, just as we should, Boteach urges, emulate soldiers who fight war to end war and religious people who hate in the name of love.

If anyone were paying attention to Glenn Beck anymore, they would no doubt see him smiling—though for far different reasons than I smiled—as he read Kosher Jesus.

Chernus@Colorado.EDU'

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado and author of “MythicAmerica: Essays.” He blogs at MythicAmerica.us.