The Irrelevant Drunkard

PogromOn today’s daf we find the laws of when we follow the majority.

It is difficult to imagine the precarious state of our fellow just a few centuries ago. Even in places where they were relatively safe and prospered, the status quo could change at any time. Virtually all clergy were antisemites, always trying to trip up the Jews who were generally no more than tenuous second-class citizens in their host countries. If a Jewish rabbi could not give a satisfactory reply to a prominent priest’s questions or accusations, the entire community could be exiled from their homes with hardly any notice and no time or even right to sell their possessions, most of which were often confiscated. And if the king himself asked a question which could not be answered, things were at least as bad.

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Majority Rules?”
Chullin 19

It’s difficult for Christians (and everybody else who’s not Jewish) to imagine what living this way must have been like. Probably the closest we get to comprehending a Jewish life of eternal uncertainty in a hostile world is when we watch the film Fiddler on the Roof (1971) or see the stage musical. Even then, we are unlikely to register the true horror of the pogroms, the inquisitions, and the general hatred of the Jews in most parts of the world.

As much as we’d like to believe that all of the Jew-hatred is behind us, there is still a significant presence of these feelings among people, including Christians, today. Even among those (non-Jewish) Christians who are aligned with the “Messianic” movement, while they make a public declaration of love for the Jewish people, love of Judaism, and love of Israel, there is also an underlying current of distrust and frustration, particularly when religious Jews insist upon maintaining a lifestyle and set of traditions that chafe at Christian “goyishe” sensibilities. I once heard a Christian fellow exclaim, “Why can’t the Jews just accept Jesus?”. He was operating out of a sense of historical, social, and theological ignorance that has held the church in thrall for nearly twenty centuries and still exists in many churches and “Messianic” communities to this very day.

To illustrate the point I’m about to make, I will continue to quote from the aforementioned commentary on the daf:

Once, a priest primed his sovereign to ask Rav Yonasan Eybeschuetz, zt”l, what he thought was a genuine stumper. The king was delighted at this trick, since if Rav Yonasan could not answer the question he would fill the coffers of his treasury with Jewish property – an excellent way to improve the economy.

He asked, “The Talmudic rule is that one should follow the majority. Since the non-Jews are the majority of the world’s population, why don’t you join our religion? According to your own law you must follow the custom of the majority!” But Rav Yonasan could not be bested. “We only follow the majority when we are in doubt. When we know the truth, the practice of the majority is irrelevant.”

This could sound pretty harsh to Christian ears. Here we have Rav Yonasan telling a priest and a King that Christianity is irrelevant to a Jew. That’s pretty much a slap in the face, but you have to look at the larger context and what was at stake. If the Rav answered poorly or not at all, his entire community could be evicted from all the lands where the King ruled with not so much as a “by your leave”. The Jews weren’t being “witnessed” to by concerned and well-meaning Christians about the love of Jesus; they were being given an ultimatum that could even be escalated to a death sentence. Rav Yonasan had not only the right to be a little “snippy” toward the priest and the King based on this, but he was also following a path of Godliness and truth that the Jewish people have traveled for untold centuries, going all the way back to Moses at Sinai.

I suppose all this begs the question of how (or if) Christians should witness to Jews and a detailed answer goes beyond the scope of this small article. In short, the answer is “yes” with the caveat that you don’t just go into a synagogue, start “preaching Jesus”, denigrate everything there is about being Jewish, and expect your audience to cry out joyously “Give us an ‘Amen’, brother!” Instead, you’ll be politely asked to leave. If and when God requires that a Gentile Christian share his or her faith with a Jew, that door will become very apparently open. Don’t presume ignorance for “missionary zeal”.

PrayingThe other question this brings up is, when a Jew does accept Jesus, does he or she accept the stereotypical white-Christian Jesus, or are we talking about the Moshiach; the Messiah? Opinions vary, even among believing Jews. Some Jews who have come to faith in Christ lead lives that are little different than any other Christian, including setting aside all of the Torah laws related to the Sabbath, kosher eating, the traditional prayers, and so forth. A very small (but perhaps growing) minority can’t be said to be followers of the Jesus one sees in most traditional paintings of Christ, who bears no resemblance to a first-century Jewish man living in Roman-Judea. Instead, they are disciples of the “Moshiach, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16).

For this latter group of Jews, there is no inconsistency between living a lifestyle completely consistent with religious Judaism, including Talmud study and adherence to accepted halachah and the logical and ultimately expected discipleship of the “Rebbe of Nazaret”, the “Jewish Jesus of Nazareth”. Although Rav Yonasan Eybeschuetz wasn’t necessarily referencing the Moshiach as opposed to Jesus in the responses we’ve read thus far, the Messiah is always anticipated. Why do a few Jews see him in the person of Jesus while most currently do not? I’ve heard it taught more than once that Jesus, the brother of all Jewish people, is currently concealed, just as Joseph in Egypt, though he spoke to and interacted with his brothers, was temporarily concealed behind an Egyptian “mask” (see Genesis chapters 41-45 for the details).

I’ve also recently read that “prominent sages such as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and the Chazon Ish have ruled that we live in a time of God’s concealment” (quoted from the Lev Echad blog), and although those noteworthy Rabbis are not likely referring to the concealment of Jesus as the Messiah, perhaps we Christians can take such a meaning when considering the Jewish people from our perspective.

The conclusion of our “Story Off the Daf” contains an even more difficult lesson for Christians to learn:

Rav Elchonon Wasserman, Hy”d, offered a different explanation, however. “A sober person would never follow the opinion of even a hundred drunks since they are not thinking straight. The Jewish sages are likened to a sober minority since they purify themselves from ulterior motives and personal agenda. How can we expect people who have not purified themselves from impure agenda to find the truth?”

Thus Christianity goes from being “irrelevant” to in the possession of “drunks” and “people who have not purified themselves from impure agenda”. That does not, in fact, describe the majority of Christians who truly are disciples of the Master and live out his holy teachings, but in the era being described in today’s story, it was most certainly true of the corrupt church authorities who spared no effort to harass, malign, and abuse the Jews just because they could.

However, we don’t have to repeat the mistakes we see laced throughout Christian history. We don’t have to demand that Jews stop being Jews just because we don’t understand them. We don’t even have to demand that Jews who have come to faith in the Moshiach, who we call “the Christ”, stop being Jews just because we’ve been taught that “the law is dead” and that “Pharisees are all hypocrites”. We can however adopt the lesson I found at the Lev Echad blog, from which I previously quoted:

One of the unique aspects of Judaism is learning about all the different roads people take that lead them to God and a life of goodness. While this is certainly a fascinating phenomenon, it can also be a great impediment to how we treat one another. Therefore, our goal in life should not be to turn all our fellow Jews into ideological and/or religious replicas of ourselves. Rather, it should be to guide – not force – others into a life of serving God and His children in a way that best matches their individual personality.

Extending this lesson beyond Judaism, we can realize that it’s not our job to judge. There is only one righteous Judge, and He is God. As there are many different churches and many different congregations of God, so there may be many different ways to offer worship and glory to the King of Kings, and the Lord of Lords. Can you, as a Christian, say that only your church is the true and righteous church and that no other churches, even within your own denomination, worship God in a way that is accepted by Him? Without seeing the world as God sees it, can you dare pronounce judgment on your fellow human being and companion along the path of faith?

If you can be so daring, then perhaps the words of Rav Elchonon are true for you. More’s the pity.

“If your heart is bitter, sugar in your mouth will not help.” -Jewish Proverb

“It was Judaism that brought the concept of a God-given universal moral law into the world…the Jew carries the burden of God in history [and] for this has never been forgiven.” -Reverend Edward H. Flannery

“A Jew never gives up. We’re here to bring Mashiach, we will settle for nothing less.” -Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh

Good Shabbos.

5 thoughts on “The Irrelevant Drunkard”

  1. James, as usual, you’ve provided an excellent post and much food for thought. Your “extra” meditations are quickly becoming my favorites. 🙂 I posted a link to this on KOEOY, as it was so much more important than anything I had to offer. Thanks so much for the time and patience you put into presenting this powerful discourse. Shabbat shalom to you!

  2. James,
    Really enjoy your posts. I share your stuff on FB, in hopes that it will shed some light on the Christians who may read.

  3. @Luke: Thanks for linking to this article from your blog. 🙂

    @Michelle: I appreciate you sharing my blogs and “liking” them so much. I hope you’ll feel free to comment more often.

    @talmid: I’ve never heard of the book before. I might give it a read one day, but my reading list is vast. From reading the reviews on Amazon (both positive and negative), I have a pretty good idea of what Littell is communicating. Thanks for the suggestion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.