For an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, Shmuley Boteach has a deeply unorthodox streak.
The bestselling author and TV host has written books on “Kosher Sex,” “Dating Secrets of the 10 Commandments” and his relationship with the late pop star Michael Jackson.
But nothing he has done in a career as one of America’s best-known rabbis has caused quite the stir of his latest book. Even before its publication this month, Boteach came under withering attack in his own Orthodox community, with critics accusing him of exploiting controversy to boost sales and some going so far as to accuse him of heresy.
The title of Boteach’s book? “Kosher Jesus.”
The book focuses on the Christian savior’s Jewishness, portraying him as a hero who stood up to Roman rule of Palestine and paid with his life. In keeping with Jewish theology, it does not accept his resurrection or his divinity. And it emphasizes Boteach’s belief that the New Testament intentionally deflected blame for the crucifixion from the ruling Romans and redirected it — unfairly, Boteach believes — on the shoulders of the Jews.
Given all that, one might expect Christians to take exception. But Boteach’s Jewish critics were way ahead of the curve.
“Boteach’s latest book is apikorsus and must be treated as such,” Rabbi Yitzchok Wolf of Chicago said on an Orthodox news site Jan. 10, using a Hebrew word that roughly translates as heresy. Wolf said he had “utter contempt” for the book — or, at least, for the title.
That, as it turns out, was the only part he had read.
“I am not the consumer that seeks to consume such writings,” he said.
Rabbi Jacob Immanuel Schochet, a prominent Canadian cleric, wrote that the book “poses a tremendous risk to the Jewish community” and proclaimed that it was “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.”
Both Wolf and Schochet, along with most of the other early critics, are affiliated with Chabad, a large organization of Hasidic Jews known for their strict religious observance. Boteach has a long and tempestuous relationship with the organization.
“I expected ... to be criticized by some Christian clerics,” but not by Jews, Boteach said one night recently, discussing the book before a friendly crowd at a Beverly Hills synagogue.
Boteach is not the first Jew to write about Jesus. His book is based on the work of the late Hyam Maccoby, a Jewish scholar in Britain. Numerous Christian writers have also explored Jesus’ Jewish roots. Still, it is perilous turf for a Jewish writer, especially an Orthodox rabbi.
Boteach says the book is designed to win over both Jews and Christians to a message that he believes has been lost to the mists of history and misunderstanding: Rather than being a divisive figure, Jesus can be a bridge between the faiths.
“We in the Jewish community have a choice,” he said in an interview. “We can either, as has happened for 2,000 years, allow the Christian community to teach us about the Christian Christ, or we can take the initiative and the responsibility of teaching the Christian community about the Jewish Jesus.... He was a Jew, after all.”
Christians, he said, can benefit from a new understanding of Jesus’ humanity. “Embracing Jesus’ Jewishness begins to elucidate his story, his life, his passionate beliefs,” he writes in the book.
That’s fine, said Darrell Bock, a professor of New Testament studies at the Dallas Theological Seminary and a leading authority on the life of Jesus. But, he said, Boteach is wrong in some of his details and not likely to convince Christians, who will be turned off by the presumption that Jesus was fully human.
“The book is a mixed bag,” Bock said. “There are some points that he’s making about the Jewish roots of Jesus … that are certainly the case. But there are other points he is making about Jesus’ mission and the way the Jewish leadership handled him that are probably not an accurate reflection of what took place.”
Jewish critics say they are worried that Christians will use Boteach’s book to try to convert Jews. They also say he is deliberately exploiting controversy.
Boteach insists that is not the case, although he has hardly been shy about it. Then again, shyness is not really a term that applies to a man who claims to be “America’s rabbi.” (That title could change — his name has come up as a potential successor to the chief rabbi of England.)
Boteach was incensed when an Orthodox website refused to publish his response to Wolf’s criticism, saying that it wasn’t appropriate for Jewish children.
“We are the People of the Book,” he said. “We aren’t the people who ban books.”