I never expected to be in the middle of a public dispute between three Orthodox Jewish rabbis, a dispute that involves the banning of a book about Jesus, and one that is being played out in the Huffington Post. The Post, on its part, chose not to publish my column that corrected some of the misinformation written about me. So much for journalist ethics.
Rabbi #1. Over the last decade, I have developed a close friendship with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the man hailed by Newsweek as “America’s most famous rabbi.” What makes the friendship unique is that the friendship has been developed in the midst of more than twenty intense debates we have had on whether Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, from the Hilton Hotel in Manhattan to a famous lecture hall in Oxford, England.
Obviously, I have taken the “yes” position and Rabbi Shmuley the “no” position, and, in keeping with our differing viewpoints, Shmuley insists on referring to me as a “Jew who converted to Christianity,” a description that I reject to the core of my Jewish soul. (Simply stated, if Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, believing in him does not constitute converting to a different religion.)
Here is where the plot thickens. Partly inspired by our debates, Shmuley wrote a book entitled Kosher Jesus, and it has caused a firestorm of controversy in the traditional Jewish community, as a number of prominent rabbis have expressed their concern that it will encourage Jews to read the New Testament and find out more about Jesus. For traditional Jews, that is not a happy proposition, especially given the 1,500 year history of the sometimes bloody, “Christian” persecution of Jews.
As expected, I am frequently targeted by Shmuley in his book, albeit in a friendly and respectful manner. At his request, I wrote an endorsement for Kosher Jesus while at the same time expressing my profound disagreements with it, finding the book far more offensive for traditional Christians than for traditional Jews. Interestingly, I have already read posts by other rabbis saying that if I’m endorsing the book, it must not be good for Jews!
Rabbi #2. Rabbi Dr. J. Immanuel Schochet is a world class scholar of Jewish mysticism and philosophy, a famed opponent of Jewish believers in Jesus, and a member of the Lubavitch Hasidic Jewish community, one with which Shmuley has close ties.
In response to a flood of inquiries he received about Kosher Jesus, he made an official legal pronouncement (called a halakhic decision in Jewish law), banning the reading of the book and calling on Shmuley to recognize “the error of his ways and . . . make amends by retracting the book.”
I also have a connection with Immanuel Schochet, having debated him before an audience of almost 600 at Arizona State University in Tempe Arizona on March 30, 1995. (More on that shortly.)
Rabbi #3. Rabbi Yitzchok Schochet is a prominent Orthodox rabbi in England whose name has been floated as a serious candidate for Chief Rabbi of the UK. He is also the son of the aforementioned Immanuel Schochet.
In Shmuley’s regular column in the Huffington Post, he lambasted Dr. Schochet’s book-banning pronouncement, stating that it was totally out of character for the learned rabbi. Shmuley also made reference to previous dealings he had with Rabbi Yitzchok Schochet, prompting Yitzchok to request a guest column in the Post in order to reply to charges Shmuley brought against him.
The Post complied, and in Rabbi Yitzchok’s column, he defended his father and explained that his father would not engage in debates with “missionaries,” with the exception of one time: “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.”
Putting aside the silly comment about me being “the tragic Jews for J[esus] proponent” (I would wish such a “tragic” life on everyone I know), Rabbi Yitzchok’s description of the event was completely erroneous.
This was confirmed in detail by the moderator of the debate, Dr. James White, who wrote to me: “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.”
Dr. White, however, offered his own assessment of the debate: “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.”
In the coming days, it will be interesting to see what happens with the controversy surrounding Kosher Jesus. For my part, I’m writing my own major response, which should stir the waters even more. And so the debate continues!