By Shmuley Boteach
Publisher: Gefen Publishing House (86 Cedarhurst Ave., Ste. 134, Cedarhurst, NY 11516; 516-593-1234; www.gefenpublishing.com)
Review Author: Hurd Baruch
“The world today needs both a philosophy of peace and leaders of peace. I feel deeply that Christians and Jews can supply both in great measure…. Surprising as it may sound to Jews, one of the important keys to it all is Jesus.” With these inviting words in his introduction, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach seems to be heading off to square the circle, reconciling Jews and Christians through a new treatment of Jesus. It is indeed a curious treatment, though hardly a new one.
Attempting to reassure his Jewish readers, Boteach reviews an extensive list of Christian beliefs that Jews cannot accept, ranging from original sin to the virgin birth, from repentance to salvation. As for Jesus Himself, Boteach states that “the belief that God can be human is the ultimate heresy,” and “the most compelling reason for Jews’ inability to accept Jesus as the messiah is his failure to fulfill the messianic prophecies as given clearly by the Hebrew biblical prophets.”
So, what’s left for Jews to admire about Jesus? To hear Boteach tell it, Jesus was “a wise and learned rabbi who despised the Romans for their cruelty to his Israelite brethren, who fought the Romans courageously and was ultimately murdered for trying to throw off the Roman yoke of oppression.” Jesus is reduced to a would-be messiah who tried but failed in His political mission to liberate the Jews. Focusing on the scene on the Mount of Olives, Boteach says that Jesus told His disciples to collect swords “to seize the Temple by force.” According to the rabbi, this would have been a good deed, because the temple was under the control of corrupt priests (read: Sadducees) and other “traitors” in league with the Romans. Before the revolt could be mounted, however, the Roman centurions swooped in and took Jesus off to execution “without so much as a trial or a hearing.”
Rabbi Boteach develops at length a thesis of how Christians came to believe a very different story about Jesus after the emergence of a stranger “with a strong mystical bent” who reinterpreted Jesus’ life and death: “He shocks the devoted disciples by suggesting their rabbi was more than a man, more even than the messiah. He suggests the rabbi was outright divine — literally the son of God. This ‘stranger’ ascribes a meaning to the rabbi’s death that the original followers never could. The rabbi did not die in vain, this stranger argues. His demise constituted part of his mission from God, the fulfillment of an ancient, divine plan. The rabbi had been sent to die for the sins of mankind. Without his death, all humanity would have been eternally condemned for its sins. Furthermore, the rabbi came to this earth on a spiritual mission rather than a political one.”
By now you’ve probably guessed that the revisionist bogeyman was none other than Paul of Tarsus, whom Boteach asserts was probably a pagan convert to Judaism, and not a Pharisee, much less a student of Gamaliel. Key to Paul’s success, in the face of the Jerusalem Church, which fought him because it knew better, was the attraction Paul’s religion had for pagans: They were tired of the decadence of the Roman empire, and they yearned for spiritual invigoration and salvation — particularly a salvation that required only faith and not good deeds. The disciples of Jesus ultimately succumbed to the new blood and funds contributed by converted pagans. The final break came after the revolt in A.D. 66, when the Jewish religion became anathema to Rome: The followers of Jesus, in order to survive, had to “purge the teacher of his Jewish identity as a political and religious expediency.” They rewrote history so that Jesus appeared to be oppressed by His fellow Jews, not by Rome, and who was in turn hostile to His countrymen and not to the foreign oppressors.
The concept that the Christian religion is the work of St. Paul’s falsifying the life and death of Jesus is, of course, not new. It is interesting, however, in an Alice-in-Wonderland sort of way, to see how Boteach develops his thesis by means of selective Gospel proof texts and the denial of any texts that might counter his interpretations, such as those that clearly indicate that Jesus was at odds with the Pharisees. Didn’t Jesus condemn certain Pharisees as a brood of vipers? No! How could He have said anything so inconsistent with the beautiful teachings of the Sermon on the Mount? That must have been added long after His death, Boteach suggests. Similarly, Jesus’ famous statement, “Render unto Caesar…,” was put into Jesus’ mouth posthumously, Boteach argues, because Jesus was “a good man” who “would never have advocated blindly accepting Roman rule.”
Boteach relies on some very dubious sources, including John Dominic Crossan, who has made a career out of Jesus revisionism, for the proposition that Barabbas was probably a fictional, anti-Semitic character. Boteach even gratuitously slurs Pope Pius XII, whose beatification, he says, “would be a sin against God.” His claim is based on the skewed account of the pontiff found in John Cornwell’s book Hitler’s Pope. On the other hand, Boteach ignores those rabbinic sources that contradict his personal picture of Jesus. In attempting to refute the charge of blasphemy at the trial (which he doesn’t think actually happened), Boteach ignores Jesus’ acknowledgment that He is the Son of God (Mk. 15:62), and only focuses on His statement that the high priest would see Him at the right hand of the Power. The rabbi calls this latter statement a laudable ambition to which millions of Jews aspire! And even if Jesus had claimed to be God, He wouldn’t have been charged with blasphemy; He would have been told to go home and get some sleep. In summary, the Jesus whom centuries of Jewish scribes, including the great Maimonides, have condemned “cannot be the same rabbi and Jewish patriot written about in this book.” Well, that’s one judgment of Boteach’s with which we can all agree!
Rabbi Boteach’s efforts have already drawn the wrath of a prominent orthodox rabbi in Toronto, Immanuel Schochet, who called his book “heretical,” concluding that “it poses a tremendous risk to the Jewish community.” So, what will the public make of a book that could be considered heretical by both Jews and Christians? They will probably make it a bestseller, like Boteach’s book Kosher Sex. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
The Sin-Eater: A Breviary
By Thomas Lynch
Publisher: Paraclete Press (36 Southern Eagle Cartway, Brewster, MA 02631; 800-451-5006; www.paracletepress.com)
Review Author: Micah Mattix
Thomas Lynch is an outlier in contemporary poetry. He did not attend a master of fine arts program, nor does he currently teach in one. Instead, he studied mortuary science and took over the family funeral home in Milford, Michigan, in 1974, where he still serves as director. He now divides his time between Milford and an ancestral cottage in County Clare, Ireland.
Lynch published his first book of poems, Skating with Heather Grace, in 1984. In that volume, Lynch eschewed the “elliptical” style that has tempted so many poets writing after John Ashbery. His diction is simple; his subject matter, the stuff of all great poetry — death, love, and loss — is expressed with self-deprecating humor.
After a very successful excursus in nonfiction with the award-winning The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (1997) and the touching memoir Booking Passage: We Irish and Americans (2005), Lynch has returned to poetry with The Sin-Eater: A Breviary (2011).
These poems follow Argyle the sin-eater through the countryside of Clare County as he practices his “scapegoating.” The practice of sin-eating is described in John Aubrey’s 17th-century work The Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme. When the body was laid out, Aubrey notes, “a Loafe of bread was brought out, and delivered to the Sinne-eater over the corps, as also a Mazar-bowle of maple (Gossips bowle) full of beer, which he was to drinke up, and sixpence in money, in consideration whereof he tooke upon him (ipso facto) all the Sinnes of the Defunct, and freed him (or her) from walking after they were dead.” Sin-eaters were usually poor, and Aubrey remembers one in particular who was “a long, leane, ugly, lamentable poor rascal.”
Lynch’s Argyle, like Aubrey’s sin-eater, is “a narrow, hungry man.” He is an outcast, hated but needed by the locals. And while sins “against virgin girls and animals” make him nauseous — lying awake at night, sick and in pain, he contemplates “steady work with nuns whose vices / were rumored to go down like tapioca” — what pains him most is his loneliness. In “Argyle’s Vapors,” for example, Argyle, “sore at heart,” stands at the doorway of his shed, “looking out at nothing / The wind blew through him as if he wasn’t. / As if he were, himself, a door ajar / through which one had to go to get nowhere / and wanting to go nowhere, there he stood — / a spectacle of shortfall and desire.” He dreams of “the touch of female flesh” and, walking “aimlessly throughout the western places,” he thinks of his absent family, the silent “hordes,” the “voices” of his “dead.”
Yet, as the book progresses, Argyle becomes a sort of Christ figure. Much “scorned by men” and “much put-upon by weather,” Lynch writes in “Argyle at Loop Head,” “The weeping of keeners brought him hither, / fresh grief, fresh graves, lights in dark localities — / such signs and wonders of mortality / drew him towards the living and the dead / to foment pardon in a bowl of beer.” Despite the locals’ “whispering contempts” and “begrudging thanks,” and despite the priests’ occasional threats of “holy violence” against him, Argyle continues his practice of sin-eating — an eating, according to Lynch, that is as effective at removing the sins of the deceased as the Eucharist is at removing the sins of the living. In “Argyle’s Eucharist,” for example, Argyle reflects, “the miracles were more or less the same: / a transubstantiation, sleight and feint, / a reconfiguration of accounts / whereby he took unto himself the woe / that ought betide the rotting decadent.” In fact, in some instances Argyle’s means of grace is considered more effective than the priests’ because of his generous “distribution.” In “He Posits Certain Mysteries,” Argyle eats the sins of a boy who committed suicide and, therefore, did not receive a requiem, rosary, or “consecrated ground,” as if, Argyle reflects, “the boy had flown outside the pale / of mercy or redemption or God’s love.”
Argyle is, in other words, the Christ to the Pharisaical priests. Given the Church’s shortcomings in Ireland over the years, this is not an entirely unfair comparison. The problem is that Lynch is less concerned with correcting the errors or excesses of the Church than he is with proffering a tepid relativism that is neither prophetic nor profound but one of our time’s favorite platitudes. In “Argyle on Knocknagaroon,” Lynch writes, “because he could not readily discern / the plan Whoever Is In Charge Here has, / he wondered about those who claimed to have / blessed assurances or certainty: / a One and Only Way and Truth and Life, / as if Whatever Breathes in Everything / mightn’t speak in every wondrous tongue; / as if, of all creations, only one / made any sense. It made no sense to him.” And so Argyle the Christ figure denies the very words of Christ.
While The Sin-Eater is a wonderfully conceived work that has moments of keen insight and great humanity, Lynch uses the distinctly Christian categories of agape love and divine grace to call into question the distinctiveness of the Church. It is a rather clichéd take on modern spirituality that unfortunately spoils an otherwise promising work.
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