My friend Mark Gerson has long been pushing me to write a column about how "being religious" should be defined first by ethical behavior and only after by ritual observance. Boy was he prophetic.
Unless you've been a space-tourist with Virgin Galactic the past few weeks you will know that on Feb. 1 I will publish "Kosher Jesus," the true story of Jesus' Jewish life -- culled from early Christian and Jewish sources -- that portrays Jesus as a Torah-observant teacher who instructed his followers to keep every letter of the Law, whose teachings quoted extensively from the Bible and rabbinical writings, fought Roman paganism and persecution of the Jewish people, and was killed by Pontius Pilate for his rebellion against Rome, the Jews having had nothing whatsoever to do with his murder.
Though a revolutionary theory, Publisher's Weekly has just glowingly reviewed the book as an "informed and cogent primer on Jesus of Nazareth. ... a brave stab at re-evaluating Jesus through an intensive look at the New Testament and historical documents ... and a well-researched analysis that will certainly reopen intrafaith and interfaith dialogue."
But the book's announcement has led to a vicious assault against me by religious Jewish extremists who have described "Kosher Jesus" as heretical and sure to open Jewish doors to Christian missionaries, even though the book does precisely the opposite by educating both Christians and Jews in the source materials of why Jesus could not have been divine or the Jewish Messiah. The book grants immunity to missionary encroachment.
At the forefront of these attacks has been a Chabad website, COLLIVE, which published a tirade from Rabbi Yitzchok Wolf, Dean of a Chabad day school in Chicago, who demanded that I be publicly condemned and thrown out of Chabad over a book he admitted he had not even seen let alone read (and this man is responsible for educating young minds). My requiest for a right to reply was originally granted but was removed within the hour by COLLIVE editor-in-chief Mica Soffer who wrote, "I removed your response ... [because] its contents were not on par with our editorial standards, being that we are a frum (orthodox) website. Parents do not want their children to be reading a discussion about J[esus] or reading quotes from J! ... It goes without saying that impressionable Jewish children should not be reading about this topic."
Huh? If you're concern is for children, I wrote back, then why did you publish a venomous public assault, rabbi-on-rabbi, especially if you've declared the whole subject of Jesus to be taboo? What on earth did this have to do with a website that for the most part publishes wedding and birth announcements? And is it fair that I get attacked without the right of reply?
Soffer quickly shot back, "You do have a point. Rabbi Wolf's article will be removed." And so it was, for about 12 hours, until Wolfe's tirade was reposted, without Soffer informing her readers of her commitment to remove it, and this time with 209 incendiary comments so severe that some my friends told me to get security and avoid Crown Heights. Soffer followed this e-mail with a public post on COLLIVE where she defended her actions in publishing "the back-and-forth exchange..." as having been done "In the spirit of unity and love for one another, and in consultation with the COLLIVE editorial advisory board -- comprised of a select group of respected rabbis and educators."
Here are some of the comments COLLIVE published about me in "the spirit of unity and love," all overseen by unnamed "rabbis" and for the express purpose of "protect[ing] children":
Why does all this matter? Because a battle is being waged for the soul of Judaism between a lunatic fringe that is slowly encroaching on the mainstream -- as we have seen recently with religious men spitting on little girls in Beit Shemesh, Israel -- and those who believe Judaism must always be informed, educated, open and loving. But the religious middle risks being cowed into submission by the crazies. And I love Judaism in general, and Chabad in particular, too much to ever allow ignorant hate-mongers to overrun it, which is why I have fought back against these hateful attacks. Young Jews, especially in Chabad, are now watching these public threats against me carefully to see what might happen to them if they do something unconventional to spread the light of Judaism. Will they too be ostracized and subject to incendiary incitement and attack -- the fear of which might explain why Chabad, for all its emphasis on "Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge," is not producing the world-class thinkers that were once its hallmark -- or will those who might disagree with them do so respectfully and ethically? The Rebbe especially distinguished himself as a world-class intellectual possessed of encyclopedic scholarship on an endless array of religious and secular subjects which he utilized to bring Jews back to their roots.
It remains to be seen whether the Chabad leadership in Chicago and Crown Heights will distance themselves from these extremists. Because if Chabad -- the most open, loving, devoted and tolerant of all Jewish religious groups -- risks being corrupted by fanatics, then G-d help everyone else.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach was the London Times Preacher of the Year at the Millennium and won the American Jewish Press Associations' Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. Kosher Jesus will be published February 1st. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley, or go to www.shmuley.com
Follow Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RabbiShmuley