Note: Phillip Lester is a Jewish Christian residing in New Jersey. The debate took place at Safra Synagogue in Manhattan.
“For the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
For those of us who have come to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ, we express our admiration and gratitude daily. Our songs and hymns are filled with adoration for the amazing grace displayed by the Sacred Head who once was wounded. For us who are being saved, there is peace and assurance that come from knowing the Creator of the universe has reconciled us to Himself having made provision for our justification from sin through the redemption found in His Son (Romans 3:24-26; 5:1; 8:1-2).
However, the power of the atonement provided by the Messiah’s death on the cross remains a mystery to many brilliant minds. Nowhere was this more evident than in the recent debate between Dr. Douglas Jacoby and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on the topic Judaism/Christianity/Islam: Which is the true religion of Peace? Although everyone was disappointed that the third member of the debate, representing Islam, was not able to attend, the debate went forward. [On the day of his flight from Toronto, Canadian citizen Shabir Ally was denied a visa by the U.S. immigration. Jacoby and Boteach spoke little about Islam, focusing rather on Christianity and Judaism.] As someone who was fortunate to attend this debate in New York this past Tuesday night, I feel compelled to share my reactions and observations.
Douglas opened up the debate with some distinctions between the historical (authentic) Christian faith and how it has been played out in history. He provided a very concise survey of the way both Judaism and Christianity share a history of violence as well as a legacy of teachings of peace. He pointed out the precedents for violence found in early portions of the Torah (death penalty, genocide of the Canaanites, etc). However, in contrast to these teachings, he showed that no such precedent is found in the teachings of Jesus, and consequently violence was never characteristic of early Christians. He rightfully pointed out that early Christianity was known for its pacifism, and that violence was never associated with Christianity until the late 4th century. (This is actually what impressed the emperor Constantine about Christians, in the first place.) Unfortunately, after Rome took over as a church state, systematic violence and persecution were inflicted on those who would not conform to the mother church. History shows how “Christianity” associated with “Catholicism” took on very violent patterns in the name of religion. These patterns of persecution played out in later years against Muslims and Jews in the crusades, the inquisitions, pogroms and most recently in the Holocaust in which the Pope, at the time, cowardly stood by while the genocide in Europe occurred. (By the way, all this has been well documented in the book by the Messianic Jewish scholar Dr. Michael Brown in his book Our Hands are Stained with Blood).
By acknowledging this history, I believe Douglas provided a helpful and unbiased analysis of the distinctions he introduced. This was a commendable approach that helped prepare the foundation for his premise.
Rather than respond to this analysis of history and scripture, Rabbi Boteach took the discussion in a totally different direction. From the time he began to speak, the Rabbi focused on gay rights, abortion, and Osama bin Laden. The Rabbi excelled in departing from a Biblical foundation, and turned the debate into a platform for preaching about social issues with the standard for truth going from Hebrew Scriptures more into how Jewish values – and specifically his particular views – promote peace today. Although he avoided taking a stand on controversial issues, he did however seek to poke holes in his caricature of current Christian approaches to these issues. He skillfully intertwined anecdotal stories while highlighting current issues. Boteach is to be commended for his love of America and his passion for values that build healthy families and marriages. In his own right, he is a great voice for traditional values that promote belief in God, strong family and country.
The debate showed there is much common ground and mutual admiration for the shared values of godly living, family, benevolence for the poor, and breaking down of prejudice. On these values both Douglas and Shumley were in agreement.
Issues raised in the debate also included: tolerance, the exclusivity of truth, and the issue of sameness. This in my opinion was really a nonsense topic that the Rabbi skillfully waxed eloquently on. For example, “why he loves America”, “why Christians will never change the world,“ etc. The Rabbi has a penchant for making Christians look as if they have to make someone the “boogey man” in order to get their values across, while Boteach insinuated he had found a superior approach. He implied the whole focus on going to heaven was a selfish one and sought to downplay the reality of “hell.”
The Rabbi had to resort to using some unfair associations. We saw this most clearly in his position by taking Christian love to an extreme. He got a lot of mileage from his attack on Doug’s comment regarding “love even for Osama bin Laden.” This was taken out of context from their earlier debate this summer in Chicago. It served the Rabbi as an emotional distraction, a false characterization, forcing Doug into a defensive position. This detracted from the real issues that Christian peace advocates, such as Romans 12 – “Do not be overcome by evil – but overcome evil with good."
The one significant point I would have liked to focus on was the Rabbi’s admission to his “confusion” over the cross which he sees, to put in his own words, as a “celestial human sacrifice.” The Rabbi, in spite of his brilliant mind and gift for oratory, remains confused over the real depth of meaning found in the cross of Jesus. It appears that the meaning of the death of Jesus from a Biblical understanding remains beyond his grasp.
Along with his failure to grasp the cross and messiahship of Jesus, he attempts to downplay any need for a sacrifice for sins today. In spite of the fact that it is rooted in Jewish teaching, there was certain mockery in his view of the concept of blood atonement. He sought to deny its relevance for today. I believe it should be pointed out that although it appears repugnant to the Rabbi, it remains a central teaching of the Torah. It's not a Christian idea, it's not man’s idea, but rather God’s idea (Leviticus 16-17).
Much discussion centered on Matthew’s gospel regarding – the Jewish nation’s role in the arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus. The statement “Let his blood be on us and our children” [27:25] drew a lot of attention by Boteach as evidence of violence supported in the NT. He then took Luke 13 to try to show that the real culprit in the execution of Jesus was the Romans and not the Jews. However, using a text without a context is nothing more than a pretext. Schmuley is notorious in his debates for taking verses out of context to serve his purpose. Along the same lines, the Rabbi attempted to dance around the Talmudic reference to the Jews and the death of “Yeshu”. He says that could not be a reference to Jesus of Nazareth, I believe to exonerate the Jewish leaders in the execution of Jesus Christ. His effort to diminish any Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus was nothing more than a manipulation of the texts and avoiding the clear unbiased interpretation.
Jacoby in his closing message attempted to steer the discussion more towards the issue of the Messiahship of Jesus, but Boteach avoided the point. Instead, he strategically emphasized the popularity of the name of Jesus and the many false messiahs of his day. I would have liked to see some mention that Messiah’s coming was tied into a time frame and the prophetic evidence that pointed to that time period as being the time most Jewish scholars recognized as the time for Messiah to arrive [as Doug emphasized in his Chicago debate with Boteach earlier this year].
While the Rabbi showed much admiration for evangelical Christianity, he didn’t seem to make the connection between Christians' compassion and zeal and the Cross. I believe focusing on this connection would have helped the debate stay on course. Judaism, in spite of its beautiful Torah-based values, still offers no power to change the selfish human heart. The spirit and drive behind early Jewish Christianity and the quality of peace that characterized the Gentile/Jewish world as a result of messiah’s coming would have made for a better discussion. To a certain degree, Douglas did touch on this point when he took time to describe his extensive travels and the quality of relationships he has observed among disciples of Jesus. His description of unity and love expressed by Christians towards those who at one time who were arch-rivals and enemies made for some of his strongest points. Once again, a reminder that the most convincing evidence of God’s power at work in the gospel is witnessed in changed lives. As in the first century, so it remains today (1 Thessalonians 1:4-9). There is truly nothing in traditional Judaism or Islam that can match that radical level of transformation of individual lives today (Titus 2:11-12) brought about by the cross.
Admittedly the topic was a broad one. More concise distinctions of the debate topic would have served to set some boundaries and result in a more poignant discussion. The moderator, unfortunately, did not moderate a very structured debate at all. He allowed too much rambling from the topic and served more to accentuate certain points of interest.
However, in spite of lack of equal time and failure to keep strict time constraints, the atmosphere promoted a fair exchange of ideas and a nice balance of humor as well as intensity. Douglas Jacoby’s godly humility, loving spirit, and self-control were a powerful testimony of being led by the Holy Spirit. His ability to handle unexpected questions showcased his deep Biblical knowledge, skill as a debater, and the keen mind he has been blessed with. His overall theme of seeking Biblical truth and the depth of peace made possible through Jesus came across loud and clear (Psalm 119:165).
From Rabbi Boteach's assistant:
We hope you had a safe flight home. It was a pleasure to meet you. We received such great feedback on the debate last night. It truly was a magnificent event. You and Shmuley make a really good duo... -- Kennia R.
From a Christian perspective:
Doug, I am so grateful to have spent some time with you and extremely proud to have been able to support my older brother in Christ at Safra Synagogue. Bringing colleagues that I've been reaching out to was extremely encouraging, and you planted some seeds that I will continue to water. – Alex L.
It was a pure joy... We would love to see you at broadcast level in front of thousands, perhaps millions – debating for the Lord. You have a gift and I think that although the atmosphere of Tuesday evening’s debate is making an impact, you have the ability "play ball in a higher league." Forgive me for being forward but, I have tremendous faith in you, brother! Keep dreaming — and add a few more logs to that fire that God has put in your heart. -- Jay B.
From the perspective of a seeker:
Douglas, it was such a pleasure listening to you debate last night about the peace of Christianity. I enjoyed talking to you after the debate about the complexity of there being "one truth"... – Kari B.
From a Jewish perspective:
Dr. Jacoby: It was a pleasure meeting you last night and I thank you for the spirited, lively and necessary debate... May you keep up all your good work in spreading your words of God and peace. – Ezra L.
The three-way debate is expected to take place in 2009 in Toronto, where Shabir Ally resides.