Asking Questions

The RabbiBut of course, it is not advisable for one to pasken for himself by extrapolating from a case discussed in the Mishnah Berurah since he may not discern a simple difference between the cases. He therefore asked (Rav Yosef Shalom Eliyashiv, shlit”a) whether an ill man who must eat on Tisha B’Av must eat less than a k’zayis within the shiur of time.

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“A Small Distinction”
Chullin 35

Without going into great detail, this quote comes from a commentary describing a sick man who is trying to see if he must fast on Tisha B’Av. In studying the relevant halachos on the matter, he was surprised to find that an ill person should eat no more “than a k’zayis in the time it takes to eat half a loaf of bread.” He extrapolated this judgment based on what the Beiur Halachah writes on how people ate on Tisha B’Av to avoid becoming ill during a typhus epidemic.

On the one hand, this man was chronically ill and fasting was dangerous for him. On the other hand, as a devout Jew, he was decidedly uncomfortable with eating on Tisha B’Av and wanted to understand the correct halacha. When he encountered a ruling he did not expect, he could have chosen to let his own interpretation guide him but, as we discover, “it is not advisable for one to pasken for himself by extrapolating from a case discussed in the Mishnah Berurah since he may not discern a simple difference between the cases”.

How does this work in Christianity? A Christian wants to make sure he understands what he should do in a certain situation and reads the appropriate Bible verses. He comes across Scripture that surprises him, at least as far as the plain meaning of the text is concerned, or even two Scriptures that seem to contradict one another. Should he rely on his own understanding, pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance, or immediately consult with his Pastor or Bible teacher?

I think a lot of Christians would pray for guidance from the Spirit, which is quite appropriate, but assuming the person felt he had received such supernatural guidance, his inquiry could stop right there. After all, what could a Pastor or a Bible teacher tell him that the Spirit couldn’t? Effectively, depending on your point of view, the Christian may well end up relying completely on his own personal interpretation of the Scriptures in question. This becomes a problem as you’ll see in a few paragraphs.

Sure, I’m oversimplifying the situation, but I think that’s how it plays out for some believers. When I used to worship in a church, there were plenty of times I’d ask a fellow student in a Bible study, a teacher, or one of the Pastors what something in the Bible meant. When praying, I didn’t always get a feeling or an indication that an answer to one of my questions about the Bible was forthcoming and asking another person, at least as a new Christian with a lifetime of secular thinking behind me, was just easier.

As I’ve grown spiritually and in my studies, I’ve come to know that there are many New Testament scholars out there who continually study, do research, and publish new findings. Bible interpretation is hardly a settled matter in the community of Bible scholars and this is an indication that our understanding of the Bible is far from complete or comprehensive. I wonder if most “average Christians” realize this?

The Phantom BibleI just read a story at CNN called Actually, That’s Not in the Bible which illustrates my point, particularly on, Christian self-reliance on Bible interpretation and how people can make mistakes, sometimes critical mistakes:

Others blame the spread of phantom biblical verses on Martin Luther, the German monk who ignited the Protestant Reformation, the massive “protest” against the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church that led to the formation of Protestant church denominations.

“It is a great Protestant tradition for anyone – milkmaid, cobbler, or innkeeper – to be able to pick up the Bible and read for herself. No need for a highly trained scholar or cleric to walk a lay person through the text,” says Craig Hazen, director of the Christian Apologetics program at Biola University in Southern California.

But often the milkmaid, the cobbler – and the NFL coach – start creating biblical passages without the guidance of biblical experts, he says.

“You can see this manifest today in living room Bible studies across North America where lovely Christian people, with no training whatsoever, drink decaf, eat brownies and ask each other, ‘What does this text mean to you?’’’ Hazen says.

“Not only do they get the interpretation wrong, but very often end up quoting verses that really aren’t there.”

It’s been a long time since I’ve worshiped at a church and I don’t think I ever developed a “traditional Christian mindset” about a lot of this. I’m blogging my “extra meditation” today, more in the way of asking a question. What do you think? Is the example I quoted from the Daf Yomi Digest above bizarre and alien to Christianity, or do we also have a tradition of going to reliable authorities when we have something we need to understand from the Bible? If we don’t have this tradition, as the CNN article seems to suggest, should we?

Gracious feedback is welcome here. Standing by to receive.

Oh, our chronically ill man did get an answer to his question:

When these questions reached RavYosef Shalom Eliyashiv, shlit”a, he ruled that a sick person does not have to worry about this. “One who is ill should eat what he needs and no more. But he is not obligated to eat less than a shiur. The Beiur Halacha discusses one who eats to avoid getting ill. Such a person should wait to eat as late as possible and also eat less than a shiur. But one who is sick does not have to follow these restrictions on Tisha B’Av at all.”

4 thoughts on “Asking Questions”

  1. James,

    How does this work in Christianity? A Christian wants to make sure he understands what he should do in a certain situation and reads the appropriate Bible verses. He comes across Scripture that surprises him, at least as far as the plain meaning of the text is concerned, or even two Scriptures that seem to contradict one another. Should he rely on his own understanding, pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance, or immediately consult with his Pastor or Bible teacher?

    Because you asked? When I was a new Christian, I went to my older Christian friends and my Pastor for advise. I believed ever word they said, even when there was a little check in my spirit and sometimes, it just didn’t sound right to me. I was always good at believing what I was told. lol
    My opinion is most Christians believe what their favorite Pastor preaches. My Mom had a old saying “people believe what they want to believe”
    The bottom line in most casses that is true.
    Now if I don’t understand something, I look it up in the hebrew or greek and research it on the internet. The best place to start is prayer, the Lord will allways answer us, if we just wait on him.
    It is always so admaizing when God teaches us something from the Bible, but it is still good to have good teachers to ask, just be careful who you ask and make sure it lines up with scripture. There are always deeper levels of meaning when we research the bible.
    That is my take on it.

    Blessing,
    Michelle
    H

  2. It seems reasonable to study the Bible, pray for enlightenment, and to learn from knowledgeable people who you trust. In Judaism, the Torah Scholars and Rebbes are well-known and generally the community relies on them as specific sources. Their judgments, at least in theory, aren’t arbitrary and are based on halachah and long-accepted standards. As you pointed out, getting advice on the Bible isn’t quite as structured.

    In my example about Torah Scholars and Rebbes above, the response of people who go to them for a ruling is similar to how you described yourself as a new Christian…once they render and answer, that’s the answer. Yes, there are conflicting Talmudic opinions that don’t result in a clear decision and usually in those cases, there’s more than one option as far as how to act in the circumstance being discussed, but usually there is a majority opinion and that’s what’s followed in the community. It’s simply accepted.

    We don’t have that in Christianity. We’re not structured that way. I think the CNN article I referenced makes it quite clear that Protestant tradition supports the individual reading the Bible and making their own determination “in the power of the Spirit”. In Acts 17:10-12, we see Paul teaching in Berea and what is the response of the Berean Jews and God-fearers? They check Paul’s teaching against the Scriptures. To do that, they’d have to have the ability to do what you do now: be able to access various study resources and verify the information.

    We seem to have two choices: remain personally ignorant of the Bible (and again, the CNN article seems to show that some Christians have firmly made this choice) and rely wholeheartedly on Bible teachers and Pastors (not a Berean attitude) or to acquire some education on the Bible, find and learn from teachers we can verify are both knowledgeable and trustworthy, and build our own knowledge base on the foundations of our faith.

    I prefer the latter. It’s terrifying to think about all of those people who are in the former group.

  3. Certainly praying for guidance and then seeking guidance go hand in hand…however, I don’t find much comfort in the idea of simply going to a pastor and asking for the answer and then walking away waving that answer high in the air.
    I am more apt to ask and then add the opinion/knowledge given to the list of previously gathered information. It’s a process of constant evaluation (for nearly everything).
    I don’t believe there should be a point where we decide that the answers we have currently are “ok” and we can relax. I’m not talking about trying to “study away” a belief or beliefs, but rather that we should REALLY be pursuing truth continually.
    It should be noted that the study and pursuit of truth is not a comfortable pasttime. It is difficult and challenging. Things we hold dear come into question and assumptions that we’ve always had have shadows cast on them. However, truth can hold up to even the most intense scrutiny.
    I guess the question is: Do we want to know the truth or do we just want to be right?

  4. I don’t believe there should be a point where we decide that the answers we have currently are “ok” and we can relax. I’m not talking about trying to “study away” a belief or beliefs, but rather that we should REALLY be pursuing truth continually.
    It should be noted that the study and pursuit of truth is not a comfortable pasttime. It is difficult and challenging. Things we hold dear come into question and assumptions that we’ve always had have shadows cast on them. However, truth can hold up to even the most intense scrutiny.

    I know what you mean. I spent an entire year doing some hard studying and asking myself some hard and uncomfortable questions before changing my course. Yes, I agree that this should be a continual process and it is quite a balancing act, maintaining and growing a faith and constantly challenging your assumptions. I think FFOZ’s Galatians book is a perfect example of taking a major slice of something we think we know about the Bible and turning it upside down to gain an expanded perspective. Uncomfortable? For a lot of people, yes. Worth it? Absolutely.

    Keep in mind that this is a lot of work and human nature tends to abhor work. Most people “coast”.

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