Appreciating Jewish History: an Example

I’ll post “Messianic Issues that Matter, Week 4” tomorrow since today is a holiday. Besides, I didn’t blog after Monday of last week (an unprecedented blog silence for Messianic Jewish Musings). And “Messianic Issues that Matter, Week 3” deserves a bit more discussion and fleshing out.

I said that the issue that matters in week 3 was, “We want to see a greater interest in Jewish history and culture.”

I encountered a perfect example of this need today on Facebook. On a Facebook page started by a friend and dedicated to Messianic Judaism, I encountered a typical anti-Jewish comment by an uninformed Christian. Note: hundreds of thousands of Christians are well-informed. This commenter was not one of those well-informed people. But I am not making general statements claiming that Christians are ignorant on these matters. I am merely saying a segment of Christians continues to misunderstand Jewish history, church history in relation to the Jews, rabbinic literature, and the kinds of things we in Messianic Judaism want our Christian friends to know.

Even more appalling is that this anti-Jewish comment came on a page with so-called “fans” of Messianic Judaism. I wonder if this guy attends an allegedly “Messianic” congregation.

I had posted a comment from my Daily D’var on the Facebook page, as I do every day. It was a comment related to John 12:37-43. I said:

The apostles and early Yeshua-community found in the scriptures a testimony of sayings relating to the life of Yeshua. The verses are used midrashically.

A commenter replied:

Huh? Midrashically? Why have anything to do with books that call Yeshua a bastard, a fornicator, and a sorceror?

Reconstructing the Commenter’s Chain of Reasoning

How did this uninformed, anti-Jewish commenter come to this opinion? Here is my guess as to his reasoning. Let me know if you think I am guessing wrong:

(1) He sees the word “midrashically” and this alerts him: the topic is rabbinic literature.

(2) He has read of the “Yeshu” passages in the Talmud (and perhaps something about the medieval “Toledot Yeshu”) which speak of Yeshua as the child of rape by a Roman soldier and a sorcerer who stole the name of God to use as the basis of magical deeds.

(3) He has judged all rabbinic literature to be of the same mind and that these “Yeshu” passages characterize the entire corpus of rabbinic literature regarding Yeshua.

(4) Therefore he rejects all rabbinic literature as anti-Yeshua of-the-devil lies and errors.

(5) Therefore it is not at all possible that the apostles would have been a part of this steam of Jewish life or would have used any scriptures midrashically, as I had claimed.

(6) Also, therefore, Jesus-followers, whether Christian or “Messianic,” should avoid all things related to rabbinic literature.

Refuting the Ignorant

I responded with three basic arguments. If there were a a greater appreciation of Jewish history and culture, I would not have to explain such things to people. If people spent a little less time on “World of Warcraft” and “Farmville,” perhaps they could improve their lives by reading a little history. I highly recommend Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews. It is a very readable and relatively thorough treatment.

(1) Rabbinic Literature is not a unified voice.

Those who have not read Mishnah and Talmud and Midrash and the medieval commentators have no idea how diverse Jewish thought is. Many imagine that the Talmud is like a Bible, that all Jews read it daily, that the opinions are all in agreement, and that the whole thing is anti-Christian. But, if you actually read Talmud you will find it is a record over several generations of . . . not unified agreements and creeds to live by, but debates. Yes, the Talmud is the record of disagreements and compromises on what the practice of Torah should be. You will find numerous contradictory opinions and schools of thought in Talmud and other rabbinic literature. You cannot read the “Yeshu” passages as if these are the opinion of all Talmudic sages and especially not as the opinion of Judaism as a whole. There are many opinions.

(2) Rabbinic Literature does not reject Yeshua.

I worded this carefully and will stand by my wording. Feel free to attempt to prove me wrong. I have at least two strong bases for my statement: (a) Judaism and its formative literature reject the false anti-Jewish gospel that the Church was proclaiming and in many cases still is today and (b) the sages often came to positions and rulings favorable to Yeshua’s teaching and the practice of Messianic Judaism. As to the first, I have written about it many times, but the Church has been telling Jewish people that the gospel for us is to quit being Jewish, abandon our heritage, and to follow a Jewish Messiah by becoming un-Jewish! At the same time, the Church Fathers and even more so the medieval Church were denouncing Jews as devil-spawn, synagogues as brothels, and during some periods were imprisoning, torturing, and killing Jewish people in Christ’s name. I wish I mere making this up. It’s well-known history and you can find it easily in history books. As to the second point, it is also well-known that many of Yeshua’s criticisms of religion in his day are mirrored in the rabbinic literature. And mystical Judaism went on to affirm in many ways a view of God and distinctions within his nature that is compatible with the Father-Son duality of the apostles.

(3) We Messianic Jews need rabbinic literature (and Christians should be familiar with it).

There is no point in silly, self-made Torah observance. Many “Messianic” groups are down on rabbinic literature but style themselves as Torah-observant. Nonsense. The book of Judges was characterized by people being their own authority and everyone doing it their way. But Torah is about the nation keeping Torah together, with standards. Individual opinions need to be noted but brought into keeping with communal opinions. There is much room for diversity, but there is no room for abstaining from the conversation altogether and making autonomous rulings (out of ignorance). Christians should be more aware of Jewish history and that includes a familiarity with rabbinic literature. How can the Church ever relate to Jewish people when Jewishness is unappreciated and misunderstood?

What are your thoughts or questions about rabbinic literature? I am not setting myself up as the expert who can answer all questions as the biblical text is my specialty, not rabbinics. But I’d love to hear from you and I can try and provide direction, further reading, or perhaps answer simple questions.

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9 Responses to Appreciating Jewish History: an Example

  1. Carl Kinbar says:

    “Rabbinic literature” is a really vast body of writings. I’m going to focus on the sages of early Judaism (until the seventh century C.E.).

    The sages were immersed in the Tanakh and deeply concerned about (1) the love relationship between God and the community of Israel, and (2) how to live out the Torah’s instructions in the Jewish community of their day. The first is aggadah (midrash, more or less) and the second is halakhah.

    Soon after the death of the apostles, the church lost all interested in these two things. Jews became “the other” and Judaism was anathematized.

    Their writings are profound, beautiful, challenging, and sometimes perplexing. They give shape and substance to Jewish life and they tell us things about God, Torah, and Israel that we can find nowhere else.

    In order for us to be worthy of the name “Judaism,” we need a critical mass of men and women who are dedication to study these writings and work out their relationship with the Brit Hadashah and Messianic Jewish life today. In other words, we need our own sages. IMO, there are signs that this is beginning to happen.

    There is another reason for studying the sages’ writings. They share a large portion of the concepts, world view, and modes of expression that also permeate the Brit Hadashah. The parallels are often very striking. A growing knowledge of rabbinic writings will deepen our comprehension of, and connection with, the Brit Hadashah.
    Rabbinic literature doesn’t have a whole lot to say about Yeshua, at least not directly, but what it does say is negative. As you point out, the sages have diverse opinions on matters. However, you can’t avoid the fact that whatever opinions expressed about Yeshua are negative.

    Yeshua as we know him is absent from the writings of the sages. The sages were meant to write about God, Messiah, Torah, and Israel. Yeshua is meant to be embedded deep in the fabric of Israel’s life and thought. His absence removed more than one-quarter of the whole—it affects everything. This absence is staggering, wouldn’t you say?

    Rabbinic literature—in particular the writings of the early sages—is profound and profoundly needed in Messianic Judaism. At the same time, we need our own sages to remedy, in a very deep way, the absence of Yeshua.

  2. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Derek – Great post!

    Carl – Great addition to the discussion!

    Happy 4th!

  3. Even an Orthodox Jew will acknowledge that it is well nigh impossible to gain an authoritative grasp of the rabbinic tradition in one lifetime, since the territory to be covered, part of which is called ‘the sea of Talmud” is so vast. Yet due to a tradition of culturally engrained prejudice, many are prepared to dismiss the entire rabbinic corpus as irrelevant or worse, most often on the basis of hearsay. The religious Jewish world held fast to fidelity to the God of their Fathers, whom they held and touche through the glove of rabbinic tradition for two millennia of persecution, poverty, pillage, exile, murder and marginalization. That they did so in the context of the rabbinic tradition should give facile critics pause.

  4. Bob Williams says:

    I’ve been a “Messianic Gentile” for the better part of 20 years. Yet, it has only been in the last two to three years that I’ve moved away from the sort-of anti-Talmudic position of the commenter you write about. I was taught that we follow Torah, not the Rabbis; we keep “Biblically kosher,” not “Rabbinicaly” kosher; We don’t believe in the “oral-Torah.” I picked up the notion along the way that, when it comes to Rabbinic literature, you either accepted its majority opinions as authoritative along with scripture or you reject it altogether. At the same time I knew that this was a vast body of literature with much information about 2nd temple Judaism and therefore valuable to scholars in understanding the apostolic scriptures. So, I guess, we need Christian (or Messianic) Talmudists, but the Talmud we can do without. I suppose this is like saying the aggadaic material is Okay just don’t give me any halakhah.

    At the time, I would have placed myself more or less within the “One-Law” camp. But, I thought it made sense that many Jewish believers would tend more toward the Rabbinic “style” of observance (out of cultural identification w/ greater Judaism) but, us gentiles shouldn’t worry so much about such things. As I encountered the “Divine-Invitation” argument for gentile participation in Torah, I also found teachers with a respect for Talmud -for halakhah, not as an authoritative voice but as the voices of a debate on observance that we need to enter. I’m still not sure gentile observance needs to look just like (messianic) Jewish halakhah but it ought to be informed by Rabbinic thought with careful consideration of Apostolic witness and practice.

    As a movement, MJ still has a long way to go in forming a body of halakhah for its Jewish and its Gentile members. We need to reach that critical mass Rabbi Kinbar mentions and we need to have a serious discussion about these issues. As we continue the debate I think there is great wisdom in what Derek says: “There is much room for diversity, but there is no room for abstaining from the conversation altogether and making autonomous rulings (out of ignorance).”

  5. rey says:

    Midrashically is just a magic word for this:

    “We know Jeremiah 34 is really about the northern tribes being in Assyrian captivity, but in order to remain Christian we must PRETEND that it is about Herod killing babies in Bethlehem. We know that Hosea 11:1 is about how God loved ISRAEL and called ISRAEL out of Egypt as his SON, his FIRSTBORN, but in order to remain Christian, we must pretend it is about Jesus’ baby-vacation in Egypt, as Matthew says.”

    In other words the word “Midrash” means “an imaginative twisting of scripture that we resort to when it is proven that the scriptures don’t say what we want them to.”

    • Derek Leman says:

      Rey, I’m enjoying my long morning answering your 12 comments from yesterday. Man, when you comment, you really comment. I think you meat Jeremiah 31 about Rachel weeping for her children (cited midrashically by Matthew in Matthew 2). I think Rabbi Kinbar has already replied to you. Let me add my voice and say: Rey, you must not know what midrash is. You seem to think that references to the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament are supposed to be proof-texts. This is the kind of reading many who have not studied the intertextuality of the Bible will make. It is common for people who have little education in biblical literature and history to read the New Testament citation of Jewish scriptures in this way. It is sad to me that many people of faith never get beyond these simplistic readings and appreciate the depth and poetic beauty of scripture. I agree, if my faith depended on thinking Jeremiah 31:15 was a proof-text for Jesus being Messiah, my faith would be in big trouble.

      Derek Leman

  6. rey says:

    This sort of “Midrash” only works on Gentiles, and Messianic Jews, despite all protestations to the contrary, are Gentiles and illiterate in the Tanakh. Paul only got away with claiming to be an apostle, and with twisting Psalm 32 in Romans 4:6-7, and with contradicting Exodus 34 and Numbers 18 in Romans 4:5 with his claim that God “justifies the ungodly” (by faith alone to boot)–Paul, I say, only got away with this because his Gentile audience was not literate in the Tanakh. So also Matthew only got away with the twisting of the Tanakh that he displays in his first two chapters because he also had a biblically-illiterate Gentile audience.

    • Derek Leman says:

      Rey, I’m enjoying answering all 12 of the comments you left yesterday for me. I’m on my second cup of coffee and patiently answering all the little bombs you left. This is a clever argument (not really). It’s sort of like this: you are stupid, Messianic Jews, because you are gentiles, but I, as a Jew, read the Tanakh in a superior fashion to you. Forgive me if your argument here does not impress. You did make some better ones. So I know you are capable of making good arguments. Let me cite a few errors in your comment: (1) Messianic Jews are Jews, but it is true that there are many gentiles in our movement (who usually use other terminology for themselves and avoid calling themselves Messianic Jews). (2) You seem to equate midrash (homiletical, loose interpretation designed to make a theological point) with p’shat (contextual interpretation based on grammar and history). (3) You suggest we are not Jewish enough because we don’t understand midrash, but you don’t seem to know what midrash is at all. (4) You may be right that Paul’s audience was largely ignorant about the Hebrew Bible, but 2,000 years have passed, my friend, and I assure you there are excellent “gentile” interpreters of Tanakh today. Yet Paul’s writings are still held in esteem by many who have not “discovered” as you have that Paul is (according to your claim) a fraud.

      Derek Leman

  7. Carl Kinbar says:

    Rey, I think you meant Jeremiah 31. Perhaps you’re not familiar with the body of midrash about Rachel weeping (esp. Eichah Rabbah and Seder Eliahu); it so happens that Matthew’s use is in line with Chazal’s.

    Modern scholars — Jews, Christians, and seculars — have long recognized strong similarities between the hermeneutics of midrash in general and of the Brit Hadashah in particular. If you reject midrashic interpretation in the Brit Hadashah on formal grounds, you must reject Chazal’s midrashic interpretation as well.

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