Understanding the Infinite Scroll

One year there was a drought and the price for food rose exorbitantly. In Frankfurt, some Jews literally could not put bread on their table. Rav Avraham Avish, the Av Beis Din of Frankfurt, zt”l, literally gave every penny he owned to help the destitute during that year. One student wondered how this could be halachically permitted. “Didn’t we learn that it is forbidden to give over twenty percent of one’s property to charity?” he asked.

Rav Avraham Avish rejected this claim out of hand. “Although you have learned you still do not grasp how to understand a sugya in depth. It is true that in general one who gives over a fifth of his property to tzedakah violates a rabbinic prohibition, but that is irrelevant in a year where there is no food and people are endangered. To save a life, we even desecrate Shabbos which is much more stringent than any rabbinic decree!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Not more than a Fifth”
Arachin 28

For the Christians reading this, and perhaps for some Jews, the meaning of my quote “off the Daf” today may not seem very relevant, but I posted it above for a single, important reason. There’s a sentence that teaches us something we need to constantly keep in the forefront of our thoughts:

Although you have learned you still do not grasp how to understand a sugya in depth.

It means that you can be smart and even well educated, and still not be able to look at something in the way that’s necessary or in sufficient depth to be able to understand it. We see this all the time in the various sciences, especially as we examine the history of scientific discoveries and knowledge. First the Earth is flat and now it’s round. First the Earth is the center of the universe, and all heavenly bodies revolve around us, now Earth revolves around a mediocre star off to one side of our huge galaxy. First you cure a fever by applying leeches to drain bodily fluids, now you give the person antibiotics to cure their infection.

As we investigate our world, we learn, but at each point in our journey of discovery across the long stretch of history, we thought we knew exactly what we were doing and what was going on. We couldn’t have possibly imagined that the world wasn’t flat or that applying blood-sucking parasites to our bodies really wouldn’t cure a fever or other types of ailments.

And although a student of Rav Avraham Avish understood that the general principle is to give only up to one-fifth of your income to charity to avoid bankrupting yourself and failing to support the needs of your own family, he still didn’t understand the underlying foundation behind the principle that would allow the Rav to contribute his very last dime to starving people, and still not violate halacha.

But what’s all that got to do with us?

Has it ever occurred to you that you could be wrong?

It probably has, especially on those occasions when you were sure you were correct in some matter of judgment, or thought you could spell the word “Mediterranean” without looking it up. OK, we’re human and we can make mistakes. It happens to the best of us and most people have learned to admit it.

Almost.

The conversation in my extra meditation from yesterday turned into a mini-debate on the letter to the Hebrews found in the New Testament. Since this letter has always been a bit of a puzzle to me, I’ve found that I’ve been at sort of a loss as to how to respond to the traditional supersessionist interpretation of it. Fortunately, many people have responded to me, both in blog comments and via email, to suggest different references, and even have sent me information to help illuminate my path in this particular direction. One such piece of illumination is as follows:

Unique among all the scholars I consulted, Charles P. Anderson sees Hebrews in a Jewish communal context. It is as if all the other commentators have been wearing sunglasses, and only he is wearing clear lenses. All the others see the recipients of Hebrews as Christian individuals of Jewish background rather than as a group of Jews who see themselves in the context of their community with each other, with the wider Jewish world, and with their people throughout time. His perspective is in my view the right one, his argument convincing and illuminating. Throughout my research on Hebrews I was longing to find someone who saw things this way. Finally, toward the end of my research, I found Anderson’s brief chapter.

Charles P. Anderson is Associate Professor of Religious Studies, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. I am reproducing here a large body of quotations from his article ” Who are the Heirs of the New Age in the Epistle to the Hebrews?” Especially when read against the background of common assumptions concerning the Letter to the Hebrews, his perspective stands out as something fresh, and to me, thrilling. I would hope that all who read his article and these quotations from it would be moved to say, “Why didn’t I see this before?” The answer to that question is “Because of the Christian exegetical tradition.”

-from a paper presented by Stuart Dauermann
commenting on Charles P. Anderson’s article
“Who are the Heirs of the New Age in the Epistle to the Hebrews?”

Carl Kinbar was kind enough to send me a PDF of the appendix to Dauerman’s paper which includes the above-quoted statement. This is the point I’m trying to drive home, both about understanding Hebrews and understanding the broader Biblical context.

It’s not that easy.

We may think it is easy because we’ve got hundreds and hundreds of years of traditional Christian interpretations to fall back on, and we’ve concluded that the correct way of understanding Hebrews is to say (gasp) that the Law of Moses was replaced by the Grace of Christ.

Period.

But like anyone who gets into a particular habit that may once have been helpful, we have to ask ourselves if the “habit” of our traditional way of understanding Hebrews (or any part of the Bible) really the best way we’ve got right now?

That’s a tough one. It’s difficult for me to say there is one and only one correct way for to understand the Biblical text. True, from God’s point of view, there probably is one correct, objective understanding, but we are mere humans and don’t enjoy God’s infinite wisdom and vision. It’s also possible that at least some parts of the Bible were never intended to mean the same things to all populations across all generations. After all, the Jews don’t keep slaves any more, so are the laws in the Torah about slavery still “eternal truths?”

This is what bothers me a little about blog posts that are titled Reading Acts 15:21 Correctly. While Derek Leman no doubt believes how he interprets this passage in the New Testament is the correct interpretation (and I don’t necessarily disagree with him), it’s obvious from reading the different comments in response to his blog post, that not everyone sees the same thing in that single verse of the Bible. If we can disagree about a the meaning of a single sentence in the Bible, how much more do we all disagree on the letters of Paul and the product of our dear letter writer to the Hebrews? How can any one person say, “this is what such-and-thus means in the Bible, forever and ever?”

Adding to this puzzle is the concept in Judaism that the Bible can only be interpreted correctly using accepted tradition. Sure, as the Daf above explains, there are endless ways to “dig deeper” into the text, but you don’t just “shoot from the hip” as far as understanding Biblical or Rabbinic halacha is concerned. I suppose Christians could say the same thing about their (our) standard interpretive traditions, but we have a problem (technically, so does traditional Judaism, but I’ll set that part aside for another time). Our problem is that our entire perspective on interpreting the Bible completely ignores the viewpoint and mindset of the original writers, who were first century Jews, steeped in “the hashkafah of the Tanakh.” Without said-viewpoint based on a first century Jewish worldview, it is likely we may have missed a step or two over the past 2,000 years in terms of New Testament scholarship.

The deal is, we who call ourselves Christians might need to stop and consider for a moment what we believe about the Jews and why. If our perspective on Jews and Judaism includes the necessity to declare Jews, Judaism, and the Torah of Sinai obsolete, and results in us believing that Jews who continue to worship and live within a classical Jewish framework are being rebellious and sinful, we should think about the possibility of a reasonable alternate explanation. The explanation should be one that would make sense to our first century writers and scholars and should not require that God abrogate His promise that the Hebrews would be a “peculiar people” before Him forever.

I say “reasonable” because there are just billions of “pop” theologies out there on the web that “tickle the ears” but have little substance or validity (although they can weave a multi-layered tapestry of mashed up Biblical cross-connections confused enough to “cross a Rabbi’s eyes”). They’re like cotton candy for the brain; tastes really sweet and initially invigorating, but containing zero nutritional value. However, as my little snippet from the paper written by Stuart Dauermann shows, solid Biblical research, although unconventional from a traditional Christian viewpoint, exists and provides a valid and compelling alternate interpretation to understanding the New Testament text, including the Book of Hebrews.

Obviously, I’m in no position to present that alternate interpretation of Hebrews in any detail at the moment, but I just wanted to show that it exists and should be seriously considered by any Christian who has an honest desire to place truth and a correct understanding of the intent of God and the Apostolic writers ahead of our old, comfortable, Gentile-friendly theologies. I’ll be writing on this topic again in the months that follow.

Oh, in case you were curious how our “Story Off the Daf” ends up, here’s the rest. It’s also an interesting “test” in terms of determining the identity of the Messiah.

In Yemen nine centuries ago, life was especially hard due to harsh decrees. In the middle of these challenges to the community one man secretly claimed to be Moshiach, soon to bring the longawaited redemption. Although many Jews were convinced, others were unsure and put the matter to the Rambam, zt”l. The Rambam sent students to test this man and discern if he could possibly be Moshiach. When they returned they began to tell the Rambam everything that they had observed. “This man disburses every cent he has on charity.”

The moment the Rambam heard this he immediately interjected that this man cannot be Moshiach. “It is clear that a person who violates our sages’ command not to give more than a fifth to charity is not our redeemer. Although it is permitted to give more to redeem one’s sins, Moshiach should not have any sins to redeem!”

I’ll wrap this up by quoting from Rabbi Tzvi Freeman’s interpretation of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, which illustrates an additional challenge we encounter in understanding the Word of God.

This Torah we were given is not of the world, nor is it something extraneous to it. Rather, it is the hidden essence, the primal thought from which all the cosmos and each thing within it extends. It is not about the world, it is the world—the world as its Creator sees it and knows it to be.

The sages of the Talmud told us that the Torah is the blueprint G-d used to design His creation. There is not a thing that cannot be found there. Even more, they told us, G-d and His Torah are one, for His thoughts are not outside of Him as our thoughts are.

But He took that infinite wisdom and condensed it a thousandfold, a billionfold, and more, into finite, earthly terms that we could grasp—yet without losing a drop of its purity, its intimate bond with Him. Then He put it into our hands to learn, to explore and to extend.

So now, when our mind grasps a thought of Torah, thoroughly, with utter clarity, we grasp that inner wisdom. And at the time we are completely absorbed in the process of thought, comprehension and application, our self and being is absorbed in that infinite wisdom which is the essence of all things. We have grasped it, and it grasps us. In truth, we become that essence.

studying-talmudThis is a very mystical understanding of the “life” of the Torah and how in Chasidic Judaism, it transcends the physical scroll and exists as both the blueprint of the Universe and the means of its creation. Since we in Christianity understand that “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14) and that through the living Word, “things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made,” (John 1:3) we also have a mystical understanding of the Bible, the Messiah, and creation, so perhaps the simple text on paper we see when we read our Bible and try to interpret it is not so simple after all. More than that, perhaps we cannot allow ourselves to limit that Word or that Messiah to what our Christian tradition says it all means, even if it makes us uncomfortable and stretches our understanding.

To drink “new wine,” we must prepare “new wine skins.”

Good Shabbos.

7 thoughts on “Understanding the Infinite Scroll”

  1. “The deal is, we who call ourselves Christians might need to stop and consider for a moment what we believe about the Jews and why”

    I think it is fear driving any adherence to a particular translation in a particular language as both literal and exclusive (and certainly ignoring context) – the concept of “inerrancy” so prevalent in extreme fundamentalism (in protestant fundamentalism that is often the “King James” translation).

    And I agree that we Christians who are not Jewish should admit our ignorance, either choosing to learn or keeping our dubious assumptions to ourselves.

    As always, great, thought provoking blog entry James!

    Blessings, Joe

  2. Thanks, Joe.

    The other side of the coin is how generally Judaism tends to discount any interpretation of sections of the Tanakh (Old Testament) that could point of Jesus as Messiah, as well as not considering a Jewish interpretation of the New Testament scriptures that also supports his “Messiahship”. It helps sometimes if we can all try to get outside our usual points of view and explore valid, alternative perspectives. The vista seen from another angle might reveal an incredible beauty we would have missed if we decided not to take a chance and move a few feet one way or another.

    I hope you and Heidi have a restful and blessed weekend.

  3. G’day James,
    This is the first meditation I’ve read in some time.
    It comes as I am again called, by my work in Cognitive Cosmology, to enter into the reality of the Mind of Human-kind that many call G-d.
    The words below resonate most strongly, as being symbolic portals to this Mind.
    I trust my comments reflect the depths, which for me, you have plumbed.

    1.We may think it is easy because we’ve got hundreds and hundreds of years of traditional Christian interpretations to fall back on, and we’ve concluded that the correct way of understanding ….
    COMMENT: Without entry to this Mind there is NO “correct way of understanding…” any symbolic ‘scripture’. Of which letters and numerals are basically the physical brain’s machinery for constructing animal-kind meaning. With words and equations becoming the formulaic expressions of our lack of spiritual understanding.
    ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
    2. This Torah we were given is not of the world, nor is it something extraneous to it. Rather, it is the hidden essence, the primal thought from which all the cosmos and each thing within it extends. It is not about the world, it is the world—the world as its Creator sees it and knows it to be.
    COMMENT: Thus the Torah is beyond its words.
    3. The sages of the Talmud told us that the Torah is the blueprint G-d used to design His creation. There is not a thing that cannot be found there. Even more, they told us, G-d and His Torah are one, for His thoughts are not outside of Him as our thoughts are.
    COMMENT: Once again, as the literal “blueprint G-d used to design His creation”, it is beyond its words.
    4. But He took that infinite wisdom and condensed it a thousandfold, a billionfold, and more, into finite, earthly terms that we could grasp—yet without losing a drop of its purity, its intimate bond with Him. Then He put it into our hands to learn, to explore and to extend.
    COMMENT: This is to ‘the Mind of a Cognitive Cosmologist’ such as myself, the reality of the Mind of Human-kind that many call G-d.
    5. So now, when our mind grasps a thought of Torah, thoroughly, with utter clarity, we grasp that inner wisdom. And at the time we are completely absorbed in the process of thought, comprehension and application, our self and being is absorbed in that infinite wisdom which is the essence of all things. We have grasped it, and it grasps us. In truth, we become that essence.
    COMMENT: This is, like Keats said: “that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” The rest is not history; but as they should say: is Life eternal or Amen.
    ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
    7. This is a very mystical understanding of the “life” of the Torah and how in Chasidic Judaism, it transcends the physical scroll and exists as both the blueprint of the Universe and the means of its creation.
    COMMENT: Lacking this insight, Einstein formulaically, expressed this truth in reverse:” Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.”
    8. Since we in Christianity understand that “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14) and that through the living Word, “things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made,” (John 1:3) we also have a mystical understanding of the Bible, the Messiah, and creation, so perhaps the simple text on paper we see when we read our Bible and try to interpret it is not so simple after all.
    COMMENT: But in reality, do “we also have a mystical understanding of the Bible, the Messiah, and creation”? My work as a Cognitive Cosmologist aims to provide a more universal access to such understanding. To me the key to achieve this is to ‘reform the reformation’ and make the primary interpretation of scripture universal and not personal.
    9. More than that, perhaps we cannot allow ourselves to limit that Word or that Messiah to what our Christian tradition says it all means, even if it makes us uncomfortable and stretches our understanding.
    COMMENT: As a Cognitive Cosmologist, I am continually called to enter into the reality of the Mind of Human-kind that many call G-d and which I term Reciprocal Of One [ROO]. Such a portal only opens as stated above: “when our mind grasps a thought of Torah, thoroughly, with utter clarity’. So that: “In truth, we become that essence.”
    10. To drink “new wine,” we must prepare “new wine skins.”
    COMMENT: For such ‘new wine’ “essence”; we must prepare ‘new wine skins’ of “our mind.” Hence I embrace the universal theology of Cognitive Cosmology.

  4. Hello James,
    I thank you for understanding that my above comment [and the other 3 I made], were even more a dialogue with myself and the Mind of Human-kind.

    My intrusion was meant to affirm your work and I trust you continue to proclaim such a noble intention.

    My Rabbi Jesus, whom I find to be truly authentic, supports your endeavours and will support you as only he can to bring his truth back to reality.

    Amen.

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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.