Shmuley, Christian Zionists and the Rebbe
Guest post by Daniel Friedman
Rabbi of Beth Israel Edmonton and Christian Zionism Scholar at the University of Alberta
Can Christianity and Judaism re-embrace after two millennia? Rabbi Shmuley certainly thinks so. His newest product, Kosher Jesus, aims to revive the historical Jewish Jesus, in an effort to build bridges between the Jewish and Christian religions. And in an age when Israel’s entire legitimacy is under attack, shouldn’t we do everything in our power to stand united with Evangelical Christians, who unconditionally support Israel? This book is the result of the perfect storm – the Hollywood Rabbi, combined with the unprecedented Christian support for Israel over the last decade, combined with the ideological confusion of Chabad since the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1994.
The first factor – Rabbi Shmuley’s status as rabbi to the stars is something that’s obvious to everyone. You start with Kosher Sex, which projects you to stardom, you follow that up with Kosher Adultery and before you know it, you’re up to Kosher Jesus. What next? That’s anyone’s guess, but as long as we have Rabbi Shmuley – we can rest assured that he will continue to push the envelope and at the very least, keep us entertained. Don’t get me wrong, personally, I think Shmuley’s a great guy and he must be commended for the amount of good he has done in the world, but first and foremost, he’s a celebrity.
The second factor – Evangelical Christians. Here’s where he is absolutely wrong. Shmuley writes in a Jewish Week op-ed, “At so many public Christian events in support of Israel, pastors refer to Jesus haltingly if at all, afraid to offend Jewish sensibilities, while the Jews likewise are on guard to ensure that they are not accused of being used as props for a covert Christian evangelizing effort. If Jesus can never be mentioned we risk the relationship becoming a fraudulent one, with mutual suspicion growing on both sides.” As a scholar of Christian Zionism, I too am a huge believer that Evangelicals are the best friends we have and we must do everything we can, to encourage their support. But the fact that they do not dare mention the word ‘Jesus’ at a rally in support of Israel is of the utmost significance. You walk into one of these rallies – Shmuley’s right, you can stab a knife through the tension in the room over the Jesus issue. But it’s that tension that is driving the relationship. The fact that every time they get up, they need to convince us that they are our friends, that they love us unconditionally, that they are remorseful for Christian past misdeeds, that they are not trying to convert us – that is what is makes us so powerful in their eyes and in reality. Drop the Jesus tension and we’re done – game over. What’s more, the reason we need the State of Israel is in order to eternally perpetuate our Jewish identity. Once that identity is called into question, because we all can be friends of Jesus, the borders have come down between us and them. Where does that leave the future of the Jewish people? Yes, we need their support, but we need to make those lines of demarcation between Judaism and Christianity abundantly clear, otherwise it will be the beginning of our downfall.
The third factor – Chabad. Following the Rebbe’s death, the Lubavitch movement was in crisis. After years of believing he was the Messiah, what now? What followed was a process of rationalizing how the Messiah could in fact rise from the dead and therefore that the Rebbe could keep his Messianic status. Now, while it may be true that there are traditional Jewish sources to account for such a belief, the problem is that up until now that was not normative Jewish belief. Rather, that was the line that demarcated Judaism from Christianity. Jews believe in a Messiah who comes from the living, Christians believe in a Messiah who comes from the dead. But due to the emotional and psychological crisis that engulfed Chabad, they were able to use the traditional interpretive process to find sources that justified their ongoing belief in the now-deceased Rebbe as Messiah, and it was irrelevant to them that they had crossed over the demarcation line between the two religions. That was all fine for many years and Chabad has gone on to grow and continue to do the wonderful work they do in outreach.
Fast forward eighteen years and enter Rabbi Shmuley in 2012, who says, well if we can employ that investigative and interpretive process vis-à-vis the Rebbe, let me take a look at Jesus and see who he really was. And all hell breaks loose. Now I’m not saying that this was how Shmuley came up with the idea. I believe that he sincerely wanted to build bridges with the Christian community. But the previous taboo for traditional Jews of engaging with Jesus had effectively been removed in Lubavitch. And while he presumably made no conscious connection, there is no doubt that due to his affiliation with Chabad, he saw no objection to the discussion. And that’s why Chabad has gone ballistic over Shmuley’s latest book, with pronouncements of heresy and excommunication from prominent Chabad rabbis. For years, they paid scant regard to his antics, simply dismissing him as an individual, no longer connected to the movement. But now they realize what their eighteen year old silence has wrought. If Shmuley can’t distinguish between Kosher and Jesus, then where does that leave the rest of Chabad?