In recent weeks, the pages of various Crown Heights community blogs, the Algemeiner Journal and the Huffington post have hosted a series of op-eds, responses and rejoinders about Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s new book, “Kosher Jesus.”
Taking a step back from the criticism over an (as of yet) unpublished book, noted more for its “fun romp” than its pinpoint historical accuracy or groundbreaking scholarship, one must question the motivation for Boteach’s stream of op-eds.
The initial response, written by Rabbi Yitzchok Wolf, while strong in its condemnation of Boteach’s choice of subject, was hardly brilliant prose and rambling in nature. When Boteach’s response was pulled from the sites, he felt it necessary to bring the discussion to the Huffington post in a series of articles, making claims of ‘Religious Incitement,’ allegorical (one hopes) ‘Crucifixion,’ and a ‘Global Ban’ on his book.
He quotes, at length from anonymous comments left on these community blogs, and notes that “the more incendiary ones... hav[e] been scrubbed under my threat of legal action for incitement.”
At this point, the reader must take pause. Why is Shmuley so upset by anonymous comments on a community blog? I understand his personal response to the comments. They were rude, vicious and cruel - but that, for better or for worse - is the nature of the Internet. Anyone who is offended by anonymous, trollish, comments on ANY website - be it Youtube, Huffington Post, Reddit or a series of community blogs - has either never been on the Internet before or is so naive as to not know that these comments are as baseless as writing on a gas station’s bathroom stall.
I don’t think Rabbi Boteach can be accused of either of these traits.
Had Boteach let the matter go, the issue would have died out within a day. The nature of these blogs is to bring in a constant flow of new stories to drive in hits and with them, ad revenue. What is more, the Crown Heights, and even global Chabad, community is hardly Boteach’s target audience. We’re speaking about a few thousand readers, many of them hostile to Boteach’s legacy after his acrimonious split with Chabad’s leadership in the UK well over a decade ago. Given Boteach’s long-term association with the movement, there may very well be an issue of pride at hand. Nevertheless, these sites, and the communities they represent, are hardly a major demographic for his book. As such, the question remains, what was the motivating the force behind his response?
In truth, despite claims of a global ban against his book, Boteach would only be so lucky for such a response. Had a real ecclesiastical ban been acted against the book, it would have been quite the sensation. Boteach has already tried to draw parallels between the Internet trolls and the current religious tension in Israel. With heightened media attention to Beit Shemesh, news of a ban against Boteach would be written up in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other periodicals of note. It would become an instant best-seller.
Though the rabbinic and communal response hasn’t succeeded to this degree, by keeping the issue alive, Boteach has been able to create controversy around the book and with it . . . the potential for sales.
Boteach has said as much himself. In a tweet Friday, he wrote “controversy over #kosherjesus seems 2 have made it a best-seller. climbing publishing charts everywhere. but prefer people read it” and his website currently announces the “West Coast Launch of Rabbi Shmuley’s Blockbuster and Controversial book...”