Sunday, January 29, 2012

Kosher Jesus' Lack of Historical Context (Part III)

(Part I, II)

To get back to Rabbi Boteach's view of the Romans, for an author asking readers to show some charity to Jews, Rabbi Boteach's attacks on the Romans are particularly shrill. In fact I would go so far as to say that Rabbi Boteach's statements against Rome compare to that of the most vitriolic Christian denunciations of Jews as deicides. If you think I am exaggerating, I would point out that Rabbi Boteach repeatably compares the Jewish situation under Roman rule to Jews living under Nazi occupied Poland. This is a complete distortion of the Roman record. Not to exonerate the Romans, but they were more than just oppressive conquerors, who held gladiatorial games. Far more than the power of its army, Rome succeeded because it possessed an effective bureaucracy and a legal system that others wanted to be ruled by. Rome did not just beat it's opponents into submission; it seduced them into willingly joining the empire. The same Philo and Josephus that Rabbi Boteach uses to show that Pilate committed atrocities were overall very positive about Roman rule, particularly about Augustus and Tiberius. We know from Roman sources that Julius Caesar was particularly popular with the Jews of Rome. Rabbi Boteach talks about Pompey desecrating the Temple, but somehow leaves out the fact that he was invited in by Jews to help out in a civil war. For all of Rabbi Boteach's talk about the Pharisees being Jewish patriots trying to lead their people to freedom, R. Yohanan b. Zakai smuggled himself out of the city and surrendered to Vespasian, who was such a heartless monster that he spared the city of Yavneh allowing for the survival of rabbinic Judaism. Even later generations of rabbis had a difficult time completely condemning the Romans and admitted that the Romans did benefit Israel through their building projects. Did the Romans kill many Jews? Yes. Were they great humanitarians? No. Were they the Nazis? No.

Clearly Rabbi Boteach obsession with condemning the Romans, as can be seen from the book and how he answered my question, leads him to further misunderstandings of the nature of Roman rule. He uses the fact that the Romans do not play a larger role in the Gospel stories as evidence that the texts were edited to reflect a pro Roman bias. Obviously there was such a process, which has been obvious to scholars long before Rabbi Boteach, but that is beside the point. The Romans do not show up more because part of their not completely barbaric policy of occupation was to grant large measures of native self rule to provinces in the empire. It should be no more surprising that non-Jews do not play a larger role in the Gospels than it should surprise readers to not find many non-Jews in the American edition of the Yated. The lesson we should take from the relative absence of non-Jews is that the New Testament is, for the most part, a Jewish book written for Jews.

Keeping the comparision with contemporary Jewish rhetoric is important in exonerating the New Testament from charges of anti-Semitism. Boteach claims to wish to do this, but in practice seems to do the opposite. Jesus and his followers were Jews. The books of the New Testament, for the most part, were written as Jewish books. It makes no more sense to call the New Testament anti-Semitic than it would be to call the Yated anti-Semitic for what it says about other Jews. For that matter I am sure Rabbi Boteach would not want to be called anti-Semitic for speaking out like he did against those within Chabad, who are denouncing him nor would he want his Jewish opponents labled as anti-Semites.   

It is almost as if Rabbi Boteach has this fear that if his readers do not place all the blame on first century Romans they will blame twenty-first century Jews. This is a counter-productive attitude toward anti-Semitism as it makes our denial of responsibility a little too earnest, as if we have something to hide. Christians should not blame me for killing their Lord not because my ancestors were not shouting in the streets of Jerusalem for Jesus' blood to be on their hands and mine, but because I most certainly did not call for it and it should be obvious that I am the sort of person who never would think of doing so.   

1 comment:

Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...

It is almost as if Rabbi Boteach has this fear that if his readers do not place all the blame on first century Romans they will blame twenty-first century Jews.

I think you're right on the money with this. This huge concern about blame was a major preoccupation among the popular Jewish writers and theologians I studied in college-- if Jesus was killed, they reason, we need to make sure that "the right" people get blamed-- be they the Romans or the Temple Priests (who conveniently aren't around anymore to blame), but certainly, certainly not the Pharisees from whom modern Judaism claims spiritual descent from.

This makes sense for people writing 50 or 100 years ago when Christians were still killing Jews for deicide and Jews' guilt was an article of faith and doctrine. But it's odd for contemporary Jewish writers to continue belaboring the point as if it's still the most pressing issue facing Jewish-Christian relations. To me it suggests that they simply aren't paying attention.