Off the Shelf: New books explore unsettled feelings about Jesus, Spinoza

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Few figures have evoked such ambivalence among Jews as Jesus and Spinoza. They stand among the most influential Jews in history, but their teachings have been perceived as being at odds with normative Judaism, and their impact has been chiefly outside the Jewish tradition. Centuries later, we still cannot decide whether either represents the wise son or the wicked one.

In recent years, we have seen more scholars confront this ambivalence by revisiting and reappraising these figures. And, indeed, the past several months have seen an impressive flow of books by Jewish authors on both men. 

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s “Kosher Jesus,” which seeks to “reclaim” Jesus as a religious Jew battling Roman tyranny, has received great attention, chiefly for the violent reaction it has elicited among some Orthodox Jews. The prominent Canadian rabbi and scholar Immanuel Schochet has determined that “Kosher Jesus” is heretical and issued a ruling “that it is forbidden for anyone to buy or read this book.”

For serious students, however, the more problematic quality of Boteach’s work is that it relies on flimsy research.  That is not the case with new books about Jesus from four major figures in classical Jewish studies.

Both Princeton scholar Peter Schäfer’s “The Jewish Jesus: How Judaism and Christianity Shaped Each Other” and

U.C. Berkeley professor Daniel Boyarin’s “The Jewish Gospels” portray the dynamic relationship of early Christianity and Judaism, showing that there was much more exchange between the two traditions than has been acknowledged. Boyarin will discuss his findings, including the impact of recent textual and archaeological discoveries, at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 22.

And Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler’s “The Jewish Annotated New Testament” draws from a vast array of rabbinic and historical sources to uncover the Jewish underpinnings of Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings, and to illuminate the complex historical background of the New Testament. They have managed to create an effective bridge for people like myself who bring a fair amount of baggage that inhibits relating to Christian texts.

Without becoming apologists, they also offer interesting readings of problematic passages. For example, through the centuries Matthew 27:25 (“May his blood be on us, and on our children!”) has often been taken as a license for persecution of Jews. Levine and Brettler assert that early readers of this text would have interpreted it to refer not to an eternal cycle of punishment, but to the Romans’ decimation of the Jews fewer than 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion.

Also notable this winter are two books focusing on Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century Dutch thinker who was famously excommunicated by the Sephardic community of Amsterdam (although few realize that the excommunication actually preceded the publication of any of his works).

In “A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age,” Steven Nadler explains why Spinoza’s“Theological-

Political Treatise” of 1670 quickly became one of the most controversial and influential books in Western philosophy. It is also Spinoza’s most direct discussion of religion in general, and Judaism in particular. In it, Spinoza challenges the notion of chosenness, denies Mosaic authorship of the Torah, and offers a critique of Judaism’s system of mitzvot by drawing a distinction between those commandments that reflect Divine law and those that reflect sectarian ceremonial traditions.

Retired Stanford professor Irvin Yalom’s “The Spinoza Problem” is a different animal entirely. In alternating chapters, the historical novel traces the evolution of Spinoza and Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi Party’s chief racial theorist and a virulent anti-Semite.

What is the intersection of this unlikely pair? It stems from a historical incident, when Nazi troops under Rosenberg’s command confiscated the contents of the Spinoza Museum in Rijnsburg. Yalom develops the conceit that Rosenberg was himself troubled deeply by the respect that the great German writer Goethe had accorded the Jew Spinoza, and this became a fixation.

The novel’s language is sometimes stilted by the standards of fiction — a symptom of focusing on ideas, rather than events or relationships. However, particularly for those of us who have a difficult time staying alert through a book of philosophy, having the “character” Spinoza explain his beliefs in clear terms can be an attractive substitute for reading the original works. 

Mark your calendars:

Peter Cole will be at the JCC of San Francisco at 7 p.m. March 28 (in discussion with local Kabbalah scholar Daniel Matt) and at the Osher Marin JCC at 7 p.m. March 29 to discuss his upcoming volume, “The Poetry of Kabbalah.” Many know Cole as the co-author of last year’s book “Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza.” However, his greatest gift is as an extraordinarily sensitive and skillful translator of Hebrew poetry.  These evenings with him will be rewarding for both students of mysticism and lovers of poetry.

Howard Freedman is the director of the BJE Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All of the books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.