During the course of more than 20 debates with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, he and I have become dear friends despite our intense theological differences. In fact, in the Acknowledgements section in his controversial new book Kosher Jesus, Shmuley stated that “our exchanges have served as one of the sources of inspiration for this book.” Within the book, where my writings are one of his frequent targets, he describes me as “the world’s leading Jewish-Christian missionary-scholar and my longtime debating adversary, even as we have become close friends.”
In light of the relationship we have enjoyed, one that is mutually respectful and yet ruthlessly honest, I have been dismayed to see the outright dismissal of Shmuley’s book in some ultra-Orthodox Jewish circles, to the point that it has been publicly banned by Rabbi Dr. J. Immanuel Schochet, whom I also debated in 1995 (more on that in a moment).
To be candid, I would have expected the book to be far more offensive to Christians than to Jews, since the Jesus that Shmuley presents is very different than the Jesus of the New Testament documents, and he argues strenuously against Jesus’ divinity and his Messianic claims. Why aren’t major Christian leaders calling for the book to be banned?
After all, if Shmuley is right about Jesus not being the Messiah (an argument, of course, that I would absolutely reject), then the very foundation of the Christian faith has been overturned. Why then should it be perceived as more of a threat to the Jewish community?
Just last year, Oxford University Press published The Jewish Annotated New Testament, representing the combined effort of a number of top Jewish scholars, and this landmark publication is receiving approbation in both Jewish and Christian circles. Why then the great uproar over Shmuley’s book?
Jewish scholars and even rabbis have been reclaiming Jesus the Jew for decades (or even centuries if we go back to the famous 1757 letter of the Talmud scholar Rabbi Jacob Emden). And they have done this despite the horrors of 1,500 years of “Christian” anti-Semitism and despite the fact that, at times, the Church has transformed this Jewish rabbi him into an “unkosher Christ.” Yet scores of books have been written about by Jesus by Jewish scholars (including two with the title Jesus the Pharisee, one by a rabbi and other by a professor). Shmuley’s book simply continues in that tradition.
I fully understand religious believers wanting to preserve the integrity of their own communities, and they certainly have no obligation to give exposure to dissenting views. On the other hand, it is healthiest when our beliefs can withstand scrutiny and criticism and challenge, and that’s why Shmuley and I have committed ourselves to ongoing public dialog and debate, with the hopeful goal of the edification and education of our listeners.
But not everyone sees things that way. Last Friday, the Post carried a column written by Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet entitled "Not Everything Is as Kosher as It Seems.” (Rabbi Schochet is the son of the aforementioned Rabbi Immanuel Schochet, a world class scholar of Jewish mysticism and philosophy, and a famed opponent of Jewish believers in Jesus.) In his column, Rabbi Schochet spoke disparagingly about such debates, mentioning one in particular.
“To be sure,” he wrote, “there was one debate my father did have when asked to challenge Michael Brown, the tragic Jews for J proponent. This was in the presence of a panel of judges who would determine the winner of the debate. Notwithstanding my father's victory and inasmuch as he felt that one time necessary, he still regretted it thereafter.”
Now, he is quite correct in mentioning my debate with his father (which took place on March 30, 1995, before an audience of almost 600 at the Arizona State University at Tempe Arizona), but he is quite incorrect in his description of the event: There was no panel of judges, nor was a victor declared. (His comment that I am “the tragic Jews for J proponent” need not be dignified with a response, whatever he meant by it.)
Dr. James White, the moderator of the debate, emailed me on January 22, 2012, stating, “It is now being claimed by the Rabbi’s son, Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, in a Huffington Post piece, that this debate took place before ‘a panel of judges’ and that Schochet was proclaimed the victor by this group of judges. This is simply false. I was the only moderator of the debate. There were no judges, there was no panel. There was no proclamation of a victor: that was left to the listeners to decide, as in the vast majority of such debates.” (The debate was audio and video taped and released in unedited form to the general public, so all details can be easily verified.)
As far as the verdict of the listeners, Dr. White wrote, “The audience was primarily Christian, and I would imagine the vast preponderance of the audience, myself included, considered the debate rather one-sided in Dr. Brown’s favor.”
That, of course, is a matter of opinion, and others can freely dispute it. What is not a matter of opinion is that Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet gave a false and misleading picture of the debate (I assume unintentionally, and I hold no malice towards him), a description that was as inaccurate as his comment that I “once” debated Rabbi Shmuley (unless “once” is roughly equal to more than 20 times).
The title of his column, then, serves as a cautionary warning – and an ironic one at that – since, indeed, “not everything is as kosher as it seems.”