Lessons on Cultural Sensitivity and Exaggerated Metaphors
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and his new book "Kosher Jesus" recently came under attack by Rabbi Yitzchok Wolf, an Orthodox Rabbi based in Chicago. Rabbi Wolf accused Rabbi Boteach of attempting to proselytize Jews to Christianity and promulgating heretical views. Rabbi Boteach retorted that if Rabbi Wolf read his book he would see that in it he explicitly renounces Jesus' divinity and claims of messiahship, and rather embraces the Jesus that was Torah observant. Rabbi Boteach then lobbed an attack on two Orthodox Jewish blogs and its editors for not posting his response in full with quotes from the New Testament. My point is not to discuss the merits or demerits of Rabbi Boteach's scholarship or my personal viewpoint on the book, but to reflect on lessons of cultural insensitivity and the misuse of the hyperbolic religious extremist metaphor in the debate. Orthodox Jews have throughout history shunned the acceptance of Jesus and it should be no surprise that an Orthodox Jewish blog would refuse to publish quotes from the New Testament and refuse to entertain a discussion on the historical Jesus.
Should Rabbi Boteach be offended that certain members of the Orthodox-Jewish community are renouncing a book titled "Kosher Jesus" and not giving him a platform to promote it? Of course not. Should Tim Tebow be offended if he was not invited to speak at a reproductive rights forum or an atheist convention? Of course not, because Tebow knows that he espouses the pro-life viewpoint evident in his anti-abortion Super Bowl ad. Praying to Jesus on national television would not bode well at the atheist convention. With this in mind, would it be appropriate for Tim Tebow to publicly proclaim his exclusion from these events as a sign of radical extremism?
Likewise, consider the Jews reacting to Boteach's book on Jesus. In their minds, whether right or wrong, the book is calling for a radical change in traditional Judaism. It calls for embracing a figure who has historically been a symbol of Jewish oppression. Although the book disclaims Jesus' divinity and messiahship, it also calls for the true Jesus to be embraced by Jews. Most Jews would find that notion radical and highly controversial to say the least, so is it appropriate for Rabbi Boteach to label the Jews who renounce his book as mindless religious extremists?
The vast majority of anonymous comments on the privately run Jewish blogs COLlive and CrownHeights.info are disclaiming the view that Jesus should be embraced and using harsh, albeit mean-spirited and counterproductive words to criticize Rabbi Boteach for even suggesting it. Close-minded? Yes. Mean-spirited? Definitely. Contemptible? Absolutely. Religious extremism? No. Of course the cherry-picked comments that Rabbi Boteach cited are extremist and borderline criminal but the vast majority of comments were renouncing the concept of the book in no uncertain terms, not calling for the authors lynching. The reaction should have been expected (albeit not excused). Rabbi Boteach also incorrectly asserts that COLlive and CrownHeights.info are "Chabad website[s]" seeking to crucify him when in realty both websites are Orthodox community news blogs, not websites endorsed or sponsored by the Chabad movement. The comments on these independent blogs do not represent the viewpoints of the Chabad movement, whose official website is Chabad.org. Also Rabbi Wolf is admittedly not speaking on behalf of the Chabad movement.
When Rabbi Boteach uses language like "religious Jewish extremists" to describe Jews that reject a book about Jesus, it trivialize true religious extremism and ignores the deep-rooted cultural sensitivity that Jews have about the subject. It trivializes real religious extremism like forced female genital mutilation, stoning of suspected adulterers in certain Muslim countries, blowing up of abortion clinics, committing hate crimes against gays and other terrorist and criminal acts in the name of religion. The phrase "religious Jewish extremist" is a crude and inappropriate descriptor to label Jews that shun a particular interpretation of Jesus.
PETA's "Holocaust On Your Plate campaign" was also a crude and inappropriate metaphor to represent the viewpoint that chickens are wrongly being slaughtered and factory farming is cruel. Using images of the Holocaust in this context trivializes the barbarity perpetuated by the Nazis. Likewise, the haredi in Israel donning concentration camp garb to symbolize a perceived cultural hegemony was also an inappropriate use of the Holocaust metaphor. In similar vein, Rabbi Boteach's religious extremist metaphor is inappropriate and inaccurate and serves to trivialize the concept of true religious extremism.
We should seek cultural sensitivity with those who have a different view than us, whether they are the insular Amish society, the Muslim community or the Orthodox Jews rejecting Jesus in Crown Heights. We should use accurate metaphors so as not to trivialize true suffering and oppression taking place in the name of religion. Let us disagree and voice dissent in the spirit of the Jewish traditions emphasis on debate, but we should be respectful about it.
CORRECTION: The author added the following sentences to the fourth paragraph following its publication: "Contemptible? Absolutely. Religious extremism? No. Of course the cherry-picked comments that Rabbi Boteach cited are extremist and borderline criminal but the vast majority of comments were renouncing the concept of the book in no uncertain terms, not calling for the authors lynching. The reaction should have been expected (albeit not excused)."