One afternoon in early February, a sad-eyed man in a faded parka was standing on a corner in Midtown Manhattan. He was timidly trying to distribute cards for a nearby sandwich-and-salad shop, but the crowd brushed past him. Not far away, two young women were more successful. Smiling and twittering, they thrust upon pedestrians handbills that asked: “Who really killed Jesus? A public debate in response to the upcoming film, ‘The Passion.”’
These fliers had pictures of the two men who would be debating. One of them, 37-year-old Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, is a popular preacher, educator, radio talk show host and author of 14 books, including Kosher Sex: A Recipe for Passion and Intimacy. He and his wife, Debbie, have seven young children.
The second speaker, Dr. Michael L. Brown, seems to be just as energetic as Rabbi Boteach, if not so colorful. He is a teacher and writer with a doctorate in Semitics from New York University. He identifies himself as a Messianic Jew. When he was 16, he became convinced that Jesus—Yeshua in Hebrew—is the Jewish Messiah, and for more than 30 years he has been testifying to that belief both here and abroad.
The debate, to which admission was free, was held on Feb. 10 at 7:30 p.m. in the New York Hilton, a vast caravansary of 46 floors and 1,980 rooms on Sixth Avenue at 53rd Street. Here the Beekman Parlor, as it is rather grandly called, had been set up for 750. By the time the debate started, all these seats were taken; latecomers sat on the floor with their backs against the wall.
Laura J. Fels, a representative of Chosen People Ministries, which sponsored the debate, estimated attendance that evening at about 1,000—half Jewish, she thought, and half Gentile.
Chosen People Ministries was founded in New York City in 1894 by Hungarian-born Rabbi Leopold Cohen, who believed that Jesus is the Messiah. The organization has offices on East 51st Street in Manhattan and aims to be a bridge between the Jewish and Christian communities.
Both speakers at the Hilton were first-rate, but they had different styles. Dr. Brown is tall and has the air of a scholar whose intensity is clear but controlled. Rabbi Boteach is short, bearded and fiery. He throws his arms wide when he reaches operatic crescendos.
Dr. Brown began the debate by saying: “This is not a Jew-goy discussion; it is a Jew-Jew discussion of the greatest Jew who ever lived.” He then developed two themes. After a historic overview, he called upon Christians to recognize and renounce the sin of pandemic anti-Semitism. Next, he said: “I want to ask my Jewish people: Have we missed and rejected the Messiah?”
As for the question on the handbill, “Who really killed Jesus?” Dr. Brown’s answer is substantially that of the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions issued by the Second Vatican Council in 1965: “Christ in his boundless love freely underwent his passion and death because of the sins of all men so that all might attain salvation.”
Rabbi Boteach thinks the Messiah has not yet come. Jesus, he said, was a man of peace and “all he wanted to do was to enforce observance of the Torah and throw off the Roman yoke.” His crucifixion was the work “of the Romans and only the Romans.” Since Mel Gibson’s film had not yet been released, Rabbi Boteach had not seen it, but he was convinced that it is “absolutely false and defamatory.” He became particularly worked up when he learned that the movie presents Pilate in a sympathetic light. “Pilate,” he shouted in one of his lively riffs, “was the Saddam Hussein of the ancient world.”
There was no meeting of minds, of course, but no evidence of bad feeling either. As the discussion drew to a close after more than two hours, Rabbi Boteach said: “Personal choices are what counts. God demands that we behave as good human beings.” To which Dr. Brown, prompting applause and laughter, neatly replied: “In your preaching, you are not far from the kingdom.”