In rabbinic literature, reference is made to non-Israelites (gentiles of various descriptions). These “external others” often appear in rabbinic literature as mirror opposites of Israelites, and so sharpen the rabbis’ definition of Israel. However, insofar as this literature explores and develops a definition of the rabbi as the ideal Jew, reference is made to non-rabbinic Jews (of various descriptions). These “internal others” often appear in rabbinic literature as mirror opposites of the rabbis and so sharpen the rabbis’ definition of their own class.
“The ‘Other’ in Rabbinic Literature” (p. 243)
The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature
Edited by Charlotte E. Fonrobert and Martin S. Jaffee
For the past few mornings, I’ve been “assaulting” the concept of religion as opposed to faith, first with my blog post Longing for the Dawn and then with yesterday’s Red Stew in Context (the latter being a wee commentary on Torah Portion Toldot). Today, I’m returning to the challenge of a Christian attempting to gain insights into a faith in Jesus by studying the Jewish texts. More specifically, I’m drilling once again down into the well of Jewish/Gentile relations from (as accurately as I can depict) the Jewish point of view.
The view isn’t always encouraging.
I was fascinated as I read the Hayes article on the use of the “other” in rabbinic literature. This isn’t an unknown technique and individuals and groups have frequently defined themselves in comparison to some outside “other”. Sometimes these comparisons are benign and meant to illustrate how different cultures and ethnicities approach the same concepts but often the comparison game is used to elevate one group at the expense of the other. Jews, more than most other people groups, are acutely aware of how they have been negatively compared to the world around them, being blamed for virtually every evil that has encountered mankind. It’s small wonder that the Rabbis might use the same method to point the finger in the opposite direction.
But what is it that the Rabbis are saying?
In rabbinic halakhah, the gentile can be imagined as an ethnic other or as a religious other. As an ethnic other, the gentile is merely a non-Israelite or goy (member of a non-Israelite nation) to whom the laws of the Mosaic covenant do not apply. In tannatic law, the gentile is seen in contrast to the Israelite, as one who does not observe the dietary laws, is not obligated by the ritual purity system, does not contribute to the upkeep of the sanctuary, does not pay the half-shekel tax, and so on.
-Hayes, p. 245
Here, we see the Jew and Gentile compared to each other from a Jewish point of view and that comparison is devoid of any value judgments regarding either group. Jews carry certain duties and responsibilities that the Gentiles don’t. It’s quite simple, really. Hayes breaks the comparison down even further:
This depiction of the ethnic other – as outside and ignorant of the covenant – is not as straightforward as it might appear. According to the Pentateuch, some of the terms of Israels’ covenant apply even to non-Israelites who choose to take up residence among the nation of Israel as resident aliens (ger, pl. gerim). The pentateuchal model of peaceful coexistence, cooperation, and even limited integration of an ethnic other is realized in halakhot that exempt but do not forbid gentiles from observing certain laws.
It’s interesting that the comparison here relative to Gentiles being “outside and ignorant of the covenant” is based on ethnicity and not religion. That means the covenant of Moses was given to the Children of Israel which, in the context of the rabbinic texts, is an effect of ethnicity. Christians see their access to God through the covenant of Christ as an effect of religious identity and the Messianic covenant being “ethnicity-blind”. What happens if the rabbis look at Gentiles as religious “others”?
The gentile is also imagined as a religious other (‘oved’ ‘avodah zarah’) who worships a deity or deities other than Israel’s deity. The gentle as religious other falls under greater suspicion and is subject to more severe and at times hostile legislation than the gentile as ethnic other.
-Hayes, p. 246
Hayes is addressing the Gentile as a “generic idol worshiper” here and not specifically talking about Christians, so we could say that Jews believe the Gentile Christian do worship the same God as the Israelites, with only a disagreement as to the identity and status of Jesus Christ. But it’s not that easy.
Early Christianity was a dissident Jewish movement among other Jewish movements. Only in the late first century do Christian writings begin to affirm Christianity over and against Judaism, a trend that increased rapidly in the second century. As rabbinic Judaism took firmer shape and gentile Christianity set itself off from Jews, the group referred to by scholars as Jewish Christians emerged in the middle. The latter were followers of Jesus who, like Jesus and the apostles, kept the law of Moses. In early rabbinic literature, Jews partaking of a Christian heresy fell under the classification of min (plural minim), an umbrella term that included not only Jewish Christians but also a variety of Jewish sectarian groups, such as Sadducees, Boethusians, Zealots, and Samaritans (but not in an early period in Palestine, gentiles).
-Hayes, p. 258
Reading this, I wonder how those “Jewish Christians” of the early 21st century who call themselves “Messianic Jews” are viewed by the larger Jewish rabbinic community. We know historically that Sadducees, while not fitting into the first century Jewish mainstream, were nevertheless considered Jews, however Samaritans, though related, were not. This was even acknowledged in an encounter between a Samaritan and Jesus.
When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) –John 4:7-9
In the closing decades of the first century, “Jewish Christians” were not yet considered to have completely left Judaism, but they were not exactly welcome either. Hayes attributes this to the Gentile Christians and their efforts to separate themselves and their faith from Jewish origins and indeed, to elevate Christianity as the branch, above its Jewish root, giving birth to the ugly spectre of supersessionism.
But, as Hayes goes on to state, “Minim are almost universally depicted as possessing a knowledge of Scripture, but differing from the rabbis in their interpretation of Scripture (some even mocking or criticizing it).” The rabbis chose to include the Minim in with other “Christians and heretics,” all but rejecting them as Jews. As the schism increased, so did the “otherness” of both Jewish and Gentile Christians in relation to mainstream rabbinic Judaism.
Early Palestinian sources, in particular, urge rabbis and their families to avoid all contact with minim and Christians. The most vehement set of proscriptions against minim is found in T.Hullin 2:20-21. Many of these prohibitions stand in explicit contrast to similar laws concerning gentiles and are remarkable for their severity.
In other words, rabbinic proscriptions against contact with Jewish and Gentile Christians were even more stringent than those against contact with more “generic” idolators. And it wasn’t going to get any better as history progressed beyond the initial Rabbinic era of the 2nd to 4th centuries CE.
Compare all this to my previous blog post about how people self-identify with a specific religious context. In Judaism, there is largely a sense of being “born to it”. Though Jews can reject their religious heritage, it can be argued that the Torah will always be a part of the Jew, even when the Jew rejects religion for a purely ethnic lifestyle. For the religious Jew, the connection to God through Moses is an absolute and thus, so is the “rightness” of their faith and status. In comparison to that, the worshipers of oto ha’ish are at best misguided and at worse, the most repulsive of idolators, who claim to honor a first century Jewish itinerant teacher as both the Son of God and as God. Apparently, worshiping Apollo of Zeus would be an infinitely preferable choice for a Gentile as a religious orientation. The Christian wouldn’t be appropriating significant sections of the Jewish religious structure and scriptures for their (our) own purposes and contradicting and facing down the Jews at every turn.
My brief analysis of the Hayes essay is that, assuming we can project its conclusions into the present, both Gentile Christians and Messianic Jews of today have a very long road to walk in terms of establishing and maintaining a positive and normative relationship with traditional Judaism. Previously, I appeared to separate Messianic Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism, and largely the separation exists, but there are Messianics who were born and raised in Jewish homes and educated in Torah and Talmud in the traditional Jewish fashion who nonetheless, have come to faith in “oto ha’ish” and who do not see the dissonance between the Messianic and the Rabbinic. For these Jews, it will be the hardest to see and think and feel and be Jewish while at the same time experiencing the centuries-old separation between themselves and their Jewish brothers who continue to consider the Messianic Jews are minim.
For Gentiles like me, it affirms that my course of religious study, from a Jewish point of view, is problematic at best. There’s no prohibition against it per se (and certainly any book available for sale at Amazon.com is at my Gentile fingertips), but it is still rabbinically “uncomfortable” for more conservative Jews when they consider a Christian goy attempting to comprehend the mysteries of Talmud. Of course, there would be the comfort that I probably won’t really “get it” since, as I’ve stated before, I lack the required context and education to truly understand the rabbinic intent, but on the other hand, I could be accused (and perhaps rightly so) of misappropriating what is Jewish to feed what most Jews consider, my faith in a religion that historically has been very anti-Jewish.
Even (Messianic Jew) Mark Kinzer in his book Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism strongly urged Christians who “dabble” (my word, not Kinzer’s) in the Messianic world to return to their (our) churches and to leave Messianic Judaism to Jews, so any Gentile Christian who may consider the Messianic movement to be a “meeting place” for integrating a faith in Jesus with the Torah of Moses (for the Gentile) is likely engaging in wishful thinking. That wishful thinking could even evolve into an odd form of supersessionism by the Gentile who, while not replacing Judaism with Christianity, quite innocently replaces Jewish covenant distinctiveness with the Jewish/Gentile Messianic “blend”. Hence Kinzer’s message of the church and the (Messianic) synagogue operating side-by-side in their individual silos rather than overlapping or being combined in a giant, religious mixing bowl.
One way to keep all of our traditions “safe” is to, as Kinzer suggests (echoing larger Judaism), all keep to our individual silos, being self-contained communities, and not allowing a mixing of identities. The traditional Jews and Christians already have gotten quite good at this, so they don’t contribute to the “problem”. Messianics, both Jews and Gentiles, by their very existence, tend to blur the lines, both within their silos and between silos. We each identify ourselves in relation to the “other” but Messianic Jews are attempting to cease being the “other” in relation to larger Judaism. I, for my part, understand that I will always be “other” in terms of the Jewish identity and rabbinic learning, and only want to read, learn, and understand what small parts I may take upon myself for the sake of my Master. Though in my heart and my experience, I also am “other” in relation to the church, it would be false for me to not claim Christianity as my identity since, it is only the church built by Christ that allows a Gentile access to God at all as a member of a covenant relationship.
If this “meditation” seems slightly disjointed and incomplete, that’s because it is. The “minim” are rising again after centuries of dormancy and attempting to show their more traditionally Jewish brothers that the life of a Messianic Jew follows an authentic Jewish tradition. Some Gentiles are coming along for the ride with precious few, like me, not claiming Messianic lineage in the Jewish tradition but trying to rediscover if there are crumbs from the Master’s table that we may eat. The man sitting at the far end of the banquet table, furthest from the bridegroom continues to wait. I am not worthy to have the Master come to my house. I am waiting for him to speak to me as his humble disciple, and because if he says a thing, it is so.
Christians are very comfortable with the Christian Jesus, but our master is the Jewish Messiah. Most Christians haven’t met him yet, but as in days of old, the “minim”, the Jewish disciples of the Master, are going to introduce us to him to us. We have been invited to the wedding feast and must hurry to put on our wedding clothes, buy oil for our lamps, and then wait for the doors of the banquet hall to open. There are many barriers between us and our Master. Those barriers are human beings. Those barriers are us.