Another Midrash on Lamentations

Every morning we translate sections of Eichah Rabbah (Lamentations Rabbah) at the summer intensive class in L.A. I am taking through MJTI (mjti.com).

Lamentations is my kind of book. I believe that life has a hard edge to it and God, though present, makes his absence felt. That sounds contradictory, I know, but you likely can see through the apparent contradiction if you try.

Just this morning a close friend wrote to me of her disappointments and sense of loss. Faith is often in spite of rather than because of the happenstances of life. I believe it is good to speak to the brutal realities, to keep an edge of melancholy in our God-talk. God gives a hard road and looks for faith anyway.

In last week’s exploration of a midrash from Eichah Rabbah (see “Pt 2, A Consoling and Disturbing Midrash for People of Faith”) I retold a parable whose punchline has God in the days of Messiah saying to Israel, “My children! I am amazed at how you have waited for me all these years!”

It is an interesting thought: that faith is surprising, even to God.

I’ll share with you another midrash, one we worked on this week, and my translation (with much help from other class members and Rabbi Kinbar):

And Moses was crying and weeping until he reached the Fathers of the World (Abraham, etc.). Immediately also they (the Fathers) tore their clothes and they rested their hands on their heads and they were crying and weeping until the gates of the Beit HaMikdash. As soon as he saw them, the Holy One, blessed be He, immediately it happened: “and Hashem Elohim of hosts proclaimed that this day is for weeping and lamenting and tearing out hair and donning sackcloth” (Isa 22:12). And if it were not scripture, as it is written, it would not be possible to say it. And they (the Holy One, Moses, and the Fathers) were weeping and went on weeping from this gate to this gate like a man whose dead person lays before him. And the Holy One, blessed be He, was wailing and saying, “Woe to him, to the king who in his young years will succeed but in his later years will not succeed.”

The midrashes on Lamentations often show God mourning with Israel. This is not to say that God did not cause the judgment to fall on Israel, but that even so he mourns. In at least one midrash, God has to ask the angels how to mourn. The omniscient God doesn’t know how (a profound thought).

It helps to understand this midrash if you know the law about an onein, a person whose loved one has died and is not yet buried (“his dead person lays before him”). An onein does not have to recite Shema or keep any of the positive commandments. They are excused from anything they say in grief, including words of doubt about God.

In this story, Moses is weeping over Israel’s devastation and is joined by the Patriarchs and then the Holy One. The midrash centers on a verse in Isaiah where God declares a day of mourning. The sage reads it as though God is participating in the mourning.

And God is an onein. His dead loved one (metaphorically Israel) lies before him. He is excused for anything he says.

What he does say is shocking. He utters a proverb about kings who have early success and late failure. He implies that this is the case with himself. This casts doubt on the whole issue of whether God will be able to redeem and heal the world.

The point of such a midrash is not to deny the messianic hope. It is to explain our human condition of despair. It is to say that God shares our despair and is with us in mourning.

Some people cannot get past the idea in these stories that biblical characters and God do fictitious things. That is the point. No one is expected to believe these stories as non-fiction. They are stories illustrating surprising truths and elements of life.

And if the shocking messages of these midrashim disturb you, they are doing their job. But those who might criticize the midrash should read the texts from which they are derived. Lamentations is an utterly realistic book about devastation. And the ideas and wisdom of the sages is biblical in the ultimate sense: it is true to the revelation and is not a replacement for the revelation.

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Overcoming Learning Paralysis

Learning. We all, like Tevye in that scene in Fiddler on the Roof, romanticize the possibility of becoming learned, of engaging in some regular, daily bliss of study.

Why do so few succeed?

The Paralysis of Too Many Choices
Being in this class with MJTI, a summer intensive in L.A., I am reminded that Jewish learning (the same can be said of Christian learning) is a matter of choosing specific priorities from among an astronomical field of subjects.

Think of the Bible, for starters. It has only a certain number of pages, but the depth and complexity is overwhelming. It is misleading to see the relatively few words of the Bible. Perhaps you could get a better image of the colossal amount of information in the Bible by going to a university library and seeing the shelves of reference and commentary on it.

Why not just start on one end of this massive collection of commentary and read twenty pages a day until you are done? You will finish somewhere in the lifetime of your great grandchildren!

And consider that many of us want to learn not only Bible, but history, theology, ethics, archaeology, and more. Draw from the Christian and Jewish traditions and you get even more: Talmud, midrash, halacha, sages, creeds, councils, church fathers, and on and on.

Just a note worth making: Orthodox Judaism has developed a priority of Talmud study. But it appears that Messianic Judaism, while not neglecting Talmud in the future, may go a different route, emphasizing midrash study. (I’ll blog more about this later).

The point is, with so much to learn, we hardly know where to begin.

The Paralysis of Too Little Time
Granted our lack of time, we wonder if learning is even worthwhile. I am one of the fortunate ones who can devote forty hours a week to study. Many people are fortunate of they can find a quarter hour a day.

When you consider the galaxy of material and your oh-so-slow spacecraft, exploration seems impossible.

The Paralysis of Controversy
As if all this weren’t hard enough, there is galactic warfare going on. If we read a Christian work, does it matter if they are Reformed, Wesleyan, Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox? Can that liberal Jewish philosopher be worthwhile or only a medieval commentator?

What is the possibility of getting well-rounded material in the midst of the shooting, dog-fights, and differing battle strategies that surround us?

Pointers Along the Way

–Small revelations are worthwhile, so if you don’t have time to learn it all, just be engaged and you will see the stars from many angles even if you don’t chart the galaxy completely.

–Choose important subjects. For Messianic Jews (and I think Christians would do well here also), my opinion is that the Pentateuch and the four gospels are primary. They are foundational. Judaism has a reading cycle for the Pentateuch. The gospels and Acts can be read (these are five books, just like the Pentateuch) alongside the Torah.

–Don’t be paralyzed. A little work is better than no work.

–Get yourself teachers. Find good referrals for books, instructional materials, and helps. I have made recommendations here in the past under the category of education (you can search by categories on the right side of this blog page).

–Be part of a community that studies. If possible, don’t invest your time too heavily in a community that places no value on it.

–Find yourself partners, people to discuss with, and so on. Don’t overlook your own immediate family members.

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Day 1, Summer Rabbinic Intensive

It would be dull for me to recount every day what happens here in Beverly Hills with the rabbinical school of MJTI and the summer intensive class we are enjoying. But I think I can get away with telling you about day one. What happens the rest of the week will be an extension.

I arrived at LAX at 10:15 and Roz Kinzer, wife of Mark Kinzer, was there to pick me up. This is a hospitable group and very tight knit. No cabs needed here.

Everyone arrived within a three hour span and soon we were eating a lunch brought in from a local kosher restaurant here in Beverly Hills (this is an Orthodox Jewish area with a large concentration of Iranian Jews).

There are seven students and two faculty here. Two more faculty will participate later in the week. This is a lot of attention poured out on a small class of students. It’s an intensive, so after lunch we get right to work.

There are two classes which are part of this intensive week. One is a more rigorous, academic subject: translating, discussing, and commenting upon Eichah Rabbah, the midrash on Lamentations, taught by Rabbi Carl Kinbar (of midrashetc blog fame). This is about understanding rabbinic literature and thought. It’s about sharpening our Hebrew skills (rabbinic Hebrew is harder than biblical as it mixes in Aramaic, has much more vocabulary, and uses off forms).

The second class is more practical in nature, about being better congregational rabbis and seeing better spiritual community in our communities. The title of the class is Ruach in Jewish Space and Rabbi Rich Nichol is the man for this class, a long-time congregational rabbi who has built a deep community and who is well integrated in the Jewish and Christian worlds of Boston.

We began with an around the table introduction and discussion of the issue of divine presence and spiritual power in the congregation. People, starting with Rabbi Nichol, shared stories and observations about miraculous events and the cautions and promise of interpreting these happenings. Are healings through prayer real? Has God in recent times spoken prophetically through some people at some times?

I’m not going to be able to do justice to the topic here. Some readers are, more like me, skeptical of these miraculous events because of exaggeration and even outright lies that religious communities have engaged in, claiming to manifest the miraculous. Other readers are so expectant of miraculous appearances of the divine presence, this all may seem like a non-issue.

Let’s just say that God’s immanent Presence, his Glory, his Name, may show up in places we might be skeptical about. And there is no good explanation about why he heals in one case and not in a thousand others.

Rabbi Nichol read from The New American Judaism by Rabbi Arthur Blecher. Blecher in one section debunks the myth that Judaism is a religion of rationalism, devoid of belief in heaven, hell, Satan, miracles, and direct communications from God. I was surprised to hear that major leaders of denominational Judaism have made statements denying that such beliefs are Jewish.

I read rabbinic literature and later writings in Jewish thought. The idea that Judaism excludes the supernatural can only be held by people who choose to reject a large portion of the tradition. And yet when some Jewish leaders make such statements, they don’t tell their readers that they have ignored much of Jewish thought in coming to this conclusion.

Rabbi Nichol suggested that a healthy and growing Messianic Judaism (we are a tiny movement). Most Jewish people who have faith in Yeshua either attend a mainstream church or keep their interest in Yeshua a private matter at home, an intellectual and spiritual interest which does not call for joining or participating with others (sadly).

But Rabbi Nichol says a growth in three areas is requires rabbis and other leaders in the synagogues who have:

(1) Knowledge: mature and heartfelt engagement with the Jewish world and the Church — meaning a deep knowledge of both traditions with Judaism as the home.

(2) Love: genuine and expressing itself in the norms of Messianic Jewish life (halacha) — meaning that we teach people to live by a higher ethic, one which changes lives.

(3) Power: a spiritual power of the level and diversity that only Yeshua can provide — meaning that people see in our communities something suprarational, a mystical union with God, and the occasional presence of the miraculous.

In the opening session of the class on Eichah Rabbah, Rabbi Kinbar happily informed us that most of our time together would be used in chevruta study (pairs working together to translate and discuss). We’d already read a lot of material and done some translation of midrashic texts in preparation for the class. Afterwards there would be more writing to do. But while together, we would study in the traditional manner in pairs.

It would be harder and take more space to describe the discussion that ensued. Lamentations Rabbah (and the biblical book of Lamentations) is about relationship between us and God in light of disaster, abandonment, absence.

We talked about the nature of midrash (see my posts from last week, Part 1 and Part 2 of “A Consoling and Disturbing Midrash for People of Faith”). We talked about God’s absence and presence in the world. We talked about study as digging through material for small revelations as opposed to a different kind of study, seeking to build edifices of theology that explain everything. We talked about the practical value of midrash for educating our synagogue members and for building a stronger future for Messianic Judaism. We talked about the similarities and differences between the midrashic writings and other rabbinic writings. Midrashic thought has a lot of value and aligns so well with the spiritual, mystical, theological emphasis in Messianic Judaism.

I finished my evening late into the night talking one on one with Rabbi Kinbar about rabbinics the future of Messianic Judaism, the intersection of New Testament and midrash, and more.

Knowing God is an eternal pursuit and I believe even in the world to come we will never know all there is to know. I feel as though here, I am being hastened in the pursuit and motivated to bring it back to my friends at Tikvat David in Atlanta. I’d say that is what a summer intensive rabbinical class should be.

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PODCAST: Yeshua in Context – Crucifixion Irony

Mark

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(Un)wanted Words of Faith

This is an observation that clobbered me this morning around 6:00 a.m. over my first cup of coffee. Words of faith and insight are largely unwanted, unappreciated.

I had just finished a small bit of blog-hopping, reading the words of a few online acquaintances about faith. I saw some recent posts with no comments, no love in return to these people for filling with web with words of faith.

But it isn’t just the crowded traffic of words on the internet. It’s also in the synagogues and churches. Few come.

And it isn’t just in places of worship, it’s in the literature and entertainment fields as well. Words of faith are muted, rarely peeking out, for the most part unwanted.

By contrast, I, as a Messianic Jewish rabbi, was reading the words of a Conservative Jewish scholar (Jacob Milgrom) and a Catholic New Testament scholar (Raymond Brown) this morning. And my soul was on fire.

I suspect the yawning public staying away in droves has no idea what they are missing. Things that do not profit, to paraphrase something I read yesterday from Maimonides, fill up our viewscreen. And I’m not suggesting that out interests should in any sense be limited to theology.

But life is more than possessions, thrills, or a good laugh.

And I shouldn’t overstate my cynicism. The lonely words of friends on the internet certainly do reach people we will never know in full.

But you may ask yourself: are words of faith unwanted by me? Are those who write them unappreciated? Do I write my own words of faith? Does my soul thrill with the electric spark of life beyond the narrows? The wise sage said, “Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Eccl 12:12), but some words we can’t truly live without.

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CLARIFICATION: I am not complaining that too few people comment on my blog. Actually, I get a lot of love and feedback publicly and privately. I have a lot of readers. My meditation here is noting with sadness that some worthy blogs seem to get few readers or attention, that words of faith in general are too little appreciated, and a little nudge to you, dear reader, to highly value the regular penetration into your soul of words of faith.

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Pt 2, A Consoling and Disturbing Midrash for People of Faith

In Part 1 (day before yesterday), I gave a prelude to a midrashic parable which I will share with you today. It is a parable explaining, in a very narrative way, a possible meaning of Lamentations 3:21. It’s not just any possible meaning for Lamentations 3:21. It is the meaning the sage wanted us to see. As I explained last time, midrashic interpretation is playful and creative (it’s eisegesis). It’s like Buzz Lightyear “flying” in Toy Story. It’s not interpretation with objectivity in mind, it’s interpretation with style.

THE ORIGINAL SCRIPTURE
Here is Lamentations 3:21 as a prelude now to the parable, which I will fully unfold in parts: But this do I call to mind, therefore I have hope.

In context, the speaker is observing the unspeakable tragedy that speaks of God’s absence or abdication or abandonment. God has shot his arrows into the speaker’s heart (3:13). God ground the speaker’s teeth into the gravel (3:16). He caused the speaker to say, “I have lost all hope” (3:18).

But there is a strange this which the speaker remembers and has hope because of (zot in Hebrew). What is the this?

THE MASHAL (PARABLE), David Stern’s translation (Parables in Midrash)

R. Abba bar Kahana (3rd generation Amora, c. 300 CE) said:

It is like a king who married a woman and wrote her a large marriage-settlement (ketubah). He wrote her: So many bridal chambers I am building for you; so much jewelry I make for you; so much gold and silver I give you. Then he left her for many years and left for the provinces. Her neighbors used to taunt her and say to her: Hasn’t your husband abandoned you! Go! Marry another man. She would weep and sigh, and afterward she would enter her bridal-chamber and read her marriage-settlement and sigh [with relief]. Many years and days later the king returned. He said to her: I am amazed that you have waited for me all these years! She replied: My master, O king! If not for the large wedding-settlement you wrote me, my neighbors long ago would have led me astray.

Following this mashal there will be a nimshal, an explanation or moral of the story with the relevant verses.

Hopefully you can already see where this parable is going without reading the nimshal, but additional insight sometimes comes from the explanation. Plus, in many cases the scriptural issue being discussed is not known at the beginning of a parable and while I gave you the scripture from the beginning, a good strategy for telling parables is often to wait until after the story to explain.

Also, remember last time I passed on David Stern’s observation that the Lamentations Rabbah could have achieved the same interpretation more simply, by directly comparing Lamentations 3:21 and Deuteronomy 4:44 and interpreting the word “this” by direct analogy. But the story adds something. At the end, I will talk about what the story adds dimensionally to this midrashic interpretation.

THE NIMSHAL (EXPLANATION), David Stern’s translation

Likewise: The nations of the world taunt Israel and say to them: Your God does not want you. He has left you. He has removed his presence from you. Come with us, and we will appoint you to be generals, governors, and officers.

And the people of Israel enter their synagogues and houses of study and there they read in the Torah, “I will look with favor upon you, and make you fertile . . . I will establish My abode in your midst, and I will not spurn you” (Lev 26:9, 11), and they console themselves.

In the future, when the redemption comes, the Holy One, blessed be He, will say to Israel: My children! I am amazed at how you have waited for me all these years!

And they will say to him: Master of the Universe! Were it not for the Torah You gave us, in which we read when we entered our synagogues and houses of study, “I will look with favor upon you . . . and I will not spurn you,” the nations of the world long ago would have led us away from you.

That is what is written, “Were not your teaching my delight, I would have perished in my affliction” (Ps. 119:92). Therefore, it says: “This (zot) I call to mind; therefore I have hope” (Lam 3:21).

THE REDIRECTING OF THE ORIGINAL CONTEXT
The “objective” reader of Lamentations 3 will not determine that the “this” in vs. 21 is the regular study of Torah. The original poem goes in another direction. After vs. 21, the speaker defines the “this” as things like: God’s loyal love (chesed), compassion, faithfulness, and the very being of God in and of himself. The speaker calls to mind, as Stern says, God’s attributes and has hope.

Why do the sages redirect this verse to refer to Torah? Do they have a problem with the contemplation of God’s goodness and his attributes?

No and they would affirm that reading also. But Lamentations Rabbah is a work in which the sages worked out Israel’s spiritual survival in the face of God’s absence and the tragedies he allowed to befall Israel (after the first and second Jewish revolts, 66-70 CE and 132-136 CE).

The sages determined that the most practical, meaningful, and enduring practice for Israel would be to study Torah and find in it all the meaning in the universe.

THE POWER OF THE STORY
If the sages had simply made an analogy between Deuteronomy 4:44 and Lamentations 3:21, so that the “this” was shown to mean “Torah,” would it have the same power?

Well, I think it would still be a powerful idea. But the narrative does two things that the simple analogy doesn’t:

(1) It evokes an emotional identification and

(2) It adds aspects to the story that go beyond the simple verse.

As far as emotional identification, this is already a feature of the biblical work known as Lamentations. It is an emotional book. Lamentations 3 contains ideas that some people think of as foreign to faith:

–It accuses God of wounding his people.

–It allows the suggestion that faith in God can be lost . . . legitimately!

–It says bluntly that God does not (always) answer prayers.

So the parable in Lamentations Rabbah adds a further dimension of emotional identification. The reader can imagine the situation of this woman who is consoled in her loneliness and the taunting of her neighbors only by reading and rereading the ketubah. The experience of love scorned, of loneliness, of abandonment is universal.

But the parable does more. It adds further ideas.

How shocking is the suggestion that Israel’s faith is not simply expected or required, but meritorious? How shocking is the idea that God will, rather than simply expecting faith, be surprised by the faithfulness of abandoned Israel?

Some will think of a verse here or there in the scriptural tradition in which faith is simply that which is required. They will reject the idea that faith is sometimes and in some ways in spite of God’s actions and ways rather than because of them.

But scriptures like Lamentations 3 are more than a hint in the direction of the merit of faith. Who can keep believing through centuries of pain and suffering with the silence of God the only sound from heaven?

And the temptations to abandon faith and to follow success instead of peculiar obedience are a dimension of the nimshal. Don’t the nations tempt Jews to give up distinctiveness? Don’t too many of the people of Israel throw away that uniqueness to fit in?

But there is a spiritual exercise that will give hope and keep away the tempters. The sages have chosen well in selecting the continual study of Torah, the continual reading of God’s ketubah. It keeps the love alive across the great distance and through the long years of waiting in embarrassed solitude.

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J-BOM: The Promise, Pt 1

Shalom, lovers of Jewish books (or potential lovers of Jewish books). J-BOM is the Jewish Book of the Month club, a reading of Jewish books together started by a cadre of Messianic Jewish bloggers and filling the minds of scores of people across our movement with great ideas, history, and Jewish faith.

The summer for J-BOM is about fiction. If you only read one of our summer selections, make it the July selection, Chaim Potok’s The Promise. It is the quintessential summer read.

The August selection will The Last of the Just by Andre Schwarz-Bart. It’s not a long book, but it is a more difficult story to follow, though well worth the trouble for its profound depth.

The September selection, to prepare us for High Holidays, will be Yom Kippur: Its Significance, Laws, and Prayers which is available on www.artscroll.com. I will recommend a few sections of the book, which isn’t long in any case, and so you won’t need to read the whole thing (though you certainly may). I had hoped to suggest a shorter work focused strictly on repentance (and Maimonides’ teachings), but it is not widely available (if you’d like to get it, look for Wahschal’s Practical Guide to Teshuvah). But the Artscroll guide to Yom Kippur has selections from Maimonides’ teachings on repentance and is a volume which will add depth to your Jewish library.

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You don’t have to understand a Chaim Potok novel to enjoy it. The story is usually compelling, characters are experiencing life, coming of age right before our eyes. The universal sense that we are all still finding out what life is all about is what draws us in.

The Promise, like other Potok novels, keeps us interested with a good storyline, a summer in Peekskill, NY, where the Malter family rents a summer cottage on the bay. Young Reuven, a seminary student at a strict Orthodox school interacts with his girlfriend, Rachel Gordon, and her sad-faced fourteen year old cousin, Michael. Michael’s dad (Rachel’s uncle) is Abraham Gordon, an infamous liberal Jewish theologian and writer.

Potok’s novels are always about the possibility or impossibility of faith amid the realities of modernity. Reuven finds scrawled in Hebrew in the library’s copies of Abraham Gordon’s books a warning, “This is the book of an apostate. Those who fear God are forbidden to read it.” Gordon rejects the supernatural and the idea of revelation, but nonetheless writes theology and asks questions about creation and revelation and faith.

Meanwhile Reuven’s teachers are concentration camp survivors who are Talmudists. Their focus is on the minutiae of the law and the glaring problems of faith in the face of God’s absence does not seem to plague them.

Reuven’s dad is in between, a scholar of Talmud himself who has a foot in both worlds. His work bridges modernity and ancient faith.

And there are plenty of relational issues in the story combining with the ideology. Sad-faced teenager Michael has experienced the baldfaced hatred of the religious for his father’s ideas. Encountering a Jewish huckster from the old world at a fair, it is unclear at first why Michael reacts as he does, but becomes more clear later. Michael can only shake with rage and say, “They hate us!”

Reuven, meanwhile, observes all this as he comes to his place in the world of ideas and religion. From Reuven’s perspective we experience the baffling interplay of ideas and the internal struggle to make sense of life.

It’s all about “the Promise.” And there is more than a hint at what the promise is if you read a little quotation Potok includes in the front matter of the novel by the Rebbe of Kotzk. It is this promise that Reuven is considering whether and how to believe in.

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Other J-BOM Posts to read:

Yahnatan talks about why The Promise is a great read for the summer and asks, “What is this promise the book hints at?”
http://gatherthesparks.blogspot.com/2010/06/j-bom-in-july-chaim-potoks-promise.html

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Pt 1, A Consoling and Disturbing Midrash for People of Faith

Shouldn’t we be more disturbed by the absence of God in this world? I’m not denying God’s providence or that he dwells amongst the people of Israel and the followers of Yeshua in various mystical ways. But I am affirming what we all know to be true: God is unseen, leaves us to our own tragedy, and is disturbingly silent while we suffer down here.

Lamentations 3:21 is about an observer of great tragedy (the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians) who found hope in something he calls “this” (Hebrew zot).

Lamentations Rabbah has a wonderful parable exploring the meaning of “this” in Lamentations 3:21. The idea of the parable is to at once find the hope expressed in Lamentations 3:21 and at the same time to lament the absence of God which requires us to be consigned to distant hope in the first place.

Midrash and Lamentations Rabbah
I am taking a class, part of my ongoing education, at MJTI (mjti.com) in an intensive seminar next week in L.A. It is a class in midrashic literature, specifically on Lamentations Rabbah (Eicha Rabbah) taught by Rabbi Carl Kinbar (who blogs about midrash at midrashetc.com). As part of the preparation for the class we are translating a passage from the Lamentations Rabbah, reading from Alan Mintz’s book Hurban, and reading David Stern’s Parables in Midrash (this is not the Messianic Jewish Bible translator, David Stern, but the professor of Jewish literature David Stern).

Don’t worry too much if you don’t know what midrash is. The best way to understand it is to read it. And reading this post will contribute to your growing knowledge of what midrash is.

Midrash is the playful use of words from the Bible to produce meanings, any meaning the sages wanted to produce. Midrash has its rules and conventions but basically allows the sages to make biblical verses mean almost anything they want them to mean.

In a universe where truth is so complex that seeming opposites can at the same time be true (God is present, God is absent), there is room for playful interpretation (eisegesis).

Midrash is a topic much discussed now because in the philosophies of extreme postmodernism, the subjective is all that is possible. Many deconstructive readers and thinkers like midrash as an example of the playful meanings possible in language.

But what these relativists should realize is that midrash works precisely because there are reasons to believe in the pre-conceived meanings the rabbis bring out from the words of the Bible. In other words, the theology of midrashic literature is not random or subjective. There is a basis, theologically, for the creative meanings the rabbis bring out.

Consider the case of the midrash on Lamentations 3:21, a verse which says: this do I call to mind, therefore I have hope.

David Stern observes that the basic ploy of the sage in this parable is to define the “this” of Lamentations 3:21 as the study of Torah. This could have been achieved, Stern suggests, by a simple midrashic comparison of Lamentations 3:21 with Deuteronomy 4:44. That is, the sage could have simply said:

(1) What is the “this” in Lamentations 3:21 that gives hope?

(2) Deuteronomy 4:44, “This is the Torah that Moses set before the Israelites.”

Proved. Done. The speaker in Lamentations 3:21 receives hope from reading and studying Torah while waiting for God’s absence to end.

But this is not what Lamentations Rabbah does. Instead, it tells a parable which has a greater ability to make us feel the pathos and understand both the hope and the dread of our situation.

The Lamentations Rabbah parable on 3:21 is one I find very moving and that is why I have chosen it for examination. It is an effective story, one that can help us who want to strengthen faith in the face of God’s absence.

Next time (this week, I promise), I will quote the parable in full and discuss it.

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Faith, Reason, and SBL

There is an interesting op-ed piece in the July/August issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, a magazine that has been very worthwhile to follow in recent years. Some believers in the history and theology of the Bible will find BAR troubling. Others will be able to eat the fruit and spit out the rind, as it were.

The battle between faith, reason, and revelation constantly plays itself out on the pages of BAR in drama after drama in archaeology and biblical studies.

In this issue, Berkeley professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies Ronald Hendel explains why he has left the Society of Biblical Literature (or SBL). SBL used to have joint meetings with AAR (American Association of Religion) and ASOR (American Schools of Oriental Research) until “petty disputes among the leaders of these groups” led to dissolving links.

SBL, meanwhile, needed to increase attendance and funding for meetings now diminished by the absence of AAR and ASOR. So what did they do? According to Hendel, SBL did two things:

(1) Change its mission statement in 2004 to remove the phrase “critical investigation” in preference for the broader language of mission to “foster biblical scholarship.”

(2) To invite evangelical and fundamentalist groups to SBL, so that now such groups as the Society of Pentecostal Studies and the Adventist Society for Religious Studies are part of annual SBL meetings.

Hendel’s Idea of Faith and Reason
Hendel extols the virtues of Blaise Pascal’s separation of faith and reason. Faith is about the heart according to Pascal, and the “heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” Faith is intuition, a leap of the emotions and will to conclusions not demonstrable by wisdom.

The other exemplar of Hendel’s ideal balance of faith and reason is the much more disturbing Baruch Spinoza, who first wrote that Moses could not have written the Torah (Pentateuch), disowned the biblical image of God, and chose instead a pantheistic idea of God and reality.

Faith and reason must be kept separate. The Bible can be critically investigated, found to be historically unreliable in the extreme, and yet faith is possible even in the God discussed in the Bible.

I wrote recently in “Faith and Reason, Part 1,” that some of the confusion about faith and reason comes in not distinguishing between two things:

(1) Reasons or evidence for belief on the one hand and

(2) The actual reasons we believe, on the other.

That is, we don’t actually believe because of some fictitious, neutral, objective investigation of the revelatory documents (the Bible, for instance) which leads us inevitably to belief and also to a certain theology of that belief.

But Hendel is upset that SBL is no longer restricted to a certain type of biblical inquiry. He sees it as a loss of professional status. SBL is now open to what we would have to assume Hendel considers non-professionals, people who have no business being part of the dialogue amongst “professional” Bible scholars.

These scholars who allegedly do not belong include all who mix faith with reason. That is not only evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, but also feminists, eco-theologians, and some postmoderns (one would have to assume also some Orthodox Jews would not be welcomed by Hendel).

Should Faith and Reason Mix?
Hendel has let his membership in SBL lapse. He wishes to avoid conflict. At last year’s SBL, he says, the Adventist group invited some Jewish scholars and then handed them material intended to persuade them to convert to Christianity (or Adventist Christianity).

I have to say that believing that faith and reason to some extent belong together is a separate matter from the ethics of proselytizing at professional conferences. Few of the many people who fail to separate faith and reason like Baruch Spinoza would also have blatant disregard for our fellows and harass them with evangelistic literature, especially at SBL meetings.

But the larger question Hendel raises is whether the only professional or serious biblical research is done by people who maintain a strict separation between faith and reason. Here are a few thoughts:

(1) While I have not read any of Hendel’s scholarship, I must say I am more than just dubious that his research is objective or neutral in any sense greater than that of a fellow in the Society of Pentecostal Studies.

(2) Hendel too, like the hypothetical fellow in the Society of Pentecostal Studies, is part of a small group of idealogues with a group consensus on certain points.

(3) I have read some of Spinoza (notoriously difficult and I claim no special insight into Spinoza) and his claim to follow pure reason is pure fiction. It is more accurate to say that Spinoza rejected and replaced the faith of Judaism in his day with faith in certain other philosophical notions (pantheism). Spinoza was an individual and an independent thinker compared to his fellow Jews at the time, but he was no more neutral, objective, or right about the nature of the universe than anyone else (or we should all become pantheists).

The truth is we are all in the same boat. We are all partially blind to truth, the meaning of it all. Our limited perspectives make us all equally able and at the same time unable to determine truth.

Some choose to follow partial evidence down a certain path and to put faith in this path. Others are holding out for greater certainty (which they will never achieve).

If we are all lost in the forest and some of us choose to follow what appear to us to be signs and sounds of the way home and others prefer to keep walking aimlessly until the signs and sounds are more clear, who can criticize those of us who follow partial evidence?

That is, the idea that God has appeared in history, that the Bible gives the best history of God’s intervention in this world, is an idea able to be defended but not proved.

And if some of us mix faith with reason, believing we are whole persons and unable to dissect ourselves as Hendel imagines we can, who can say we are wrong? We would say Hendel only imagines he is able to make the separation and only imagines that critical investigation is purely possible.

Meanwhile, isn’t the discussion richer, not poorer, if people beyond the limits of skeptical scholars come to the table and discuss? I admit that certain viewpoints don’t interest me (including Pentecostal and Adventist viewpoints). But neither would I want to limit myself to the same subset Hendel prefers (scholars who doubt the Bible entirely and choose some sort of faith based on a leap of intuition).

The heart (faith) does have reasons reason knows not of. But we can be critical realists, evaluating the story of our existence and choosing to believe the story is real while always questioning our perception of the story. That is the path I prefer.

Posted in Archaeology, Bible, Faith, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Philosophy | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

The Importance of a Project: Yeshua in Context

I’ve immersed myself for the past few years, more intensively this past year, in a study of the historical background of Yeshua’s life and of the literature that is our witness of his life, the gospels.

So anyone will not think I am simply saying that the-work-I-am-doing is simply important because it has personal interest and importance for me or because of the natural tendency we all have to think that what we have worked on is of utmost importance, I offer some objective reasons for the importance of recovering a contextual, Jewish, and spiritual understanding of the life of Yeshua:

–The very term “good news” (gospel, besorah, evangelion) refers to the life of Yeshua, the stories about him and their value as instruments of salvation for people. When the apostles spoke of the good news, they meant the story of Yeshua (not some “plan of salvation,” as in popular evangelical Christian piety).

–The short time of Yeshua’s life on earth is unique in history, as the only time when the Glory of God was here in its fullest sense.

–There is a very real sense of loss, in the churches and in the view of modern cultures about Jesus (Yeshua) — a loss of knowledge about the meaning of his life. Sadly, popular religion has focused only on his death and, to some extent, his resurrection.

–Jesus (Yeshua) is a stranger to most of the people who say they believe in him. I know this sounds strong, but for many people, their image of Jesus is nothing more than a sacrifice for their sins and a returning Lord whose teaching and motivations they do not understand.

–Most people are unable to make a direct connection between stories of Yeshua and their own story, now and in the future.

–While the de-Judaized Jesus has spread love, light, and salvation to the world, the cost of the loss of his context has been large: a Jesus irrelevant to his own Jewish people, a Christianity alienated from its own roots in relation to the Jewish people, and a deficient faith which divorces the spiritual from the physical (in true Gnostic fashion).

–Jesus’ (Yeshua’s) followers are directly connected to the living presence of Yeshua (the Paraclete or Comforter/Advocate of John 14-16) and our union with him is strengthened by a deeper knowledge of his life, aims, and message. He should not be a stranger to us when he is our connection to the Father (God in his direct being, the source of the emanation of the Son and Spirit, the one greater than Yeshua, the source from which Yeshua radiates as the Word/Wisdom/Light).

Awakening to Knowledge of Yeshua
Researching and writing Yeshua in Context has been a journey of renewal and life for me. The Gnostics emphasized knowledge as the only key to having eternal life. It might seem sub-Christian or anti-Jewish to emphasize the salvific value of knowledge.

But the error of Gnosticism is not in praising the wonder of knowledge of the divine mystery. The error of Gnosticism is in isolating knowledge from relationship, the spiritual from the physical.

Yeshua said, “This is eternal life, that the know you” — the Father, the source, the One Who Spoke and It Came into Being, the Eternal (John 17:3). He spoke of the value of knowing the secrets of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 13:11).

Judaism has emphasized study and knowledge, not for the sake of pedantic scholarship, but as a way of being in close relationship to God.

Many streams of Christianity have emphasized knowledge and study as personal connection to the relationship we have with the Son and through him the Father.

I am saddened that popular Protestant piety has often skipped over the gospels. There are many possible reasons for the tendency to dwell on bottom line salvation, self-help style teaching, and topics deemed “practical.” Some of the best Christian traditions read the gospels as part of the service and have regular sermons and teaching from them. Protestantism has sadly chosen, instead, to preach the epistles of Paul over and over again (and even the preaching of other parts of the Bible constantly involves referral back to Paul).

I like to think that if Paul were to visit a modern church, he would say, “Why aren’t you teaching the gospel more instead of reading and rereading my letters?”

Paul is “not ashamed” of the gospel, the story of Yeshua (Rom 1:16) as it is “the power of God for salvation, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

NOTE: By gospel, he does not mean “plan of salvation,” a concept practically assumed in Protestant circles. He means the story of Yeshua, his life, death, resurrection, and return.

Upcoming Tools for Study
By the end of August, Yeshua in Context will be available.

In September, Vine of David will be publishing The Delitzsch Gospels, in Hebrew and a new translation into English. Why am I emphasizing this new translation? Is it that somehow getting an English translation from a Hebrew translation of a Greek original is better? No, the gospels were written in Greek. The value of this new translation from Vine of David is: (a) the English will help people see the gospels in a Jewish context, (b) Delitzsch’s Hebrew translation is in itself a magnificent Jewish commentary on the meaning of the gospels, and (c) the Vine of David volume will have several schedules for public reading of the gospels to choose from.

In September, two more things will come out. The Yeshua in Context Sourcebook, a collection of lists for further study as well as group discussion questions to make the book useful for classes and small groups will be published. Also, Yeshua in Context will be available for ebook readers, Kindle, and iPad by September.

In November, Yeshua in Context will be an audiobook produced by First Fruits of Zion (I am publishing the book and ebook through my own Mount Olive Press, and FFOZ is publishing the audiobook).

Coming down the road, Vine of David will be publishing the commentary of a great predecessor of Messianic Judaism, the Lichtenstein commentary on the gospels.

In 2011, I will publish More Yeshua in Context, focusing in depth on the birth, passion, and resurrection narratives. 2012 will see Still More Yeshua in Context, perhaps looking at more stories and parables in depth.

I already produce a daily email called The Daily D’var with commentary on Torah and the gospels for daily reading (you can get on the list if you email me and request it). The Daily D’var is available now at www.tikvatdavid.com under the heading “Daily Readings.” In 2011, I will publish this in book and ebook form.

Meanwhile, you can and should begin making the reading of the gospels, along with Torah, a daily or weekly habit. As the Torah is the foundation of the Bible, so the gospels are the foundation of the New Testament.

The Table of Contents for Yeshua in Context
Ch 1 The Real Yeshua, Mark 1:1-20
Ch 2 The Unexpected Yeshua, Luke 4:14-30
Ch 3 The Heralding Yeshua, Mark 1:16-45
Ch 4 Yeshua as Exorcist, Mark 1:23-28; Luke 11:19-20; 13:32
Ch 5 Yeshua as Healer, Mark 5:21-43; Luke 7:22; 10:18
Ch 6 The Messianic Secret, Mark 8:22-35
Ch 7 The Temple Cleansing, John 2:13-22
Ch 8 The Handwashing Dispute, Mark 7:1-23
Ch 9 The Prodigal Story, Luke 15:11-32
Ch 10 Beatitudes of Hope, Matthew 5:1-12
Ch 11 Seeds and Fruit, Mark 4:1-20
Ch 12 The Wicked Tenants, Mark 12:1-12
Ch 13 Born from Above, John 3:1-21
Ch 14 Messiah

Posted in Bible, Christian, Derek's Writings, FFOZ, Judaism, Lichtenstein, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Yeshua | Tagged , | 1 Comment