Judaism and Christianity parted company over how to read these few spare chapters in universal history. For the Church, the Garden of Eden became the soil for the doctrine of original sin. In their waywardness, Adam and Eve, and all their descendants, fell hostage to the domain of the devil. The narrative bespoke the immutably depraved condition of human nature. To know the Torah was not sufficient to do it. In the words of Paul, “In my inmost self I delight in the law of God, but I perceive that there is in my bodily members a different law, fighting against the law that my reason approves and making me a prisoner under the law that is in my members, the law of sin.” (Romans 7:22-23) Not human willpower then but divine grace alone in the person of God’s own Son who had died on the cross could hope to break this vicious cycle of human malice.
I know we’ve already read Torah portion Noah this year, but as I’ve been working through the commentaries in Schorsch’s book each week, I’ve been taking notes of the more compelling articles. For each Torah Portion, there is a small but powerful collection of Schorsch’s writings which he composed over a number of different years. Going over this collection is like opening his mind and listening to Schorsch musing on how he encountered each Parashat across each annual reading cycle over time.
I’m also grateful that this book includes his thoughts on Christianity and comparisons to Judaism, not because I’m trying to “shoot down” Christianity (or necessarily Judaism), but it’s helpful to have an intelligent mind discuss my faith from the “outside.” Like my conversations with my Pastor, it hones my ability to look at my own beliefs, especially when they’re challenged, and discover if I truly know and can explain why I have the faith I possess in Jesus as Messiah.
It’s a steep learning curve sometimes and I can hardly claim to have all of my ducks in a row, so to speak. However, I can say that the ducks are lining up in a somewhat more orderly fashion than they have in past years.
Original sin vs. the Jewish understanding of “the Fall” makes for interesting reading. Judaism in all its different modern streams, is not going to consider the need for a spiritual savior (though Moshiach is considered the redeemer of national Israel in Jewish thought, generally speaking). The Torah is accepted as sufficient, and always has been, to negotiate the Jewish relationship with a perfect God.
That’s hard for me to believe since no man can obey the commandments perfectly, and the Tanakh is a blatant record of that fact. The New Covenant promised in Jeremiah 31 starting in verse 27 promises that the covenant once written on stone tablets and scrolls made of animal skin will, in future times, be written on the heart, thus the “disconnect” between the desire for Holiness in man and the imperfection of living out that Holiness will cease to exist. Man and God will have a far more intimate relationship in those days than we enjoy in the present, or at any point in the past.
But for Christianity, Jesus is the arbiter of that covenant, the gatekeeper, the doorway, and only by a profession of faith in him and the resultant transformed life, can man access the New Covenant of God. After that perfect writing of the Torah on a circumcised and human heart of flesh, can man perform the mitzvot with complete fidelity and with true justice and righteousness. Prior to that event, Christian or Jew, no man obeys God in the manner God desires, or for that manner, even in the manner we ourselves would wish.
In my own approach to a closer walk with God, I find myself slowly moving in a direction, but then, the tether that binds me to the habits of the past snaps me back like a rubber band that has been stretched just a little too far…and it stings.
It is not until we come to the late and marginal Book of Jonah that we first confront in full view the idea of teshuvah, repentance, as efficacious. Nor is it an accident that we read all of it in the synagogue on Yom Kippur afternoon, for Jonah encapsulates the essence of the day: that atonement, resolve, and initiative can get us beyond the impediments of our past and ourselves.
-Schorsch, pg 35
For all of the prophets of Israel we see in the Tanakh (Old Testament) who implored that nation of God to abandon her sin (which she regularly failed to do), only the Gentile city of Nineveh heeded a reluctant prophet and turned away God’s “evil decree.” It wasn’t permanent, of course, and later down history’s road, Nineveh sinned and fell, but consider how many times (if you can) that Israel too listened to the words of the prophets and averted disaster.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’”
–Matthew 23:37-39 (NASB)
The Master’s commentary on the matter is plain and dismaying. And yet, I heard one person tell me that if Israel had turned away from their sins and returned to Torah and God in the days that Jesus walked the earth, the Messianic Age would have come and flourished even in that very instant.
The world is waiting for Israel’s national repentance, without it, Messiah will not come and both Israel and the nations continue to suffer from our own folly.
Schorsch would say that the story of Jonah and Nineveh tells us that human beings can, in and of ourselves, hear the warnings of God, repent in sincerity, and the result is that God’s promise of destruction will be averted. But without Messiah, how were Nineveh’s sins forgiven? They certainly weren’t Israelites. History doesn’t record that they sent representatives to Jerusalem to offer the appropriate sacrifices for guilt and sin (and we know that the sacrifices of Gentiles were accepted in the Temple, even in the days of Jesus).
This may also explain why, when they were faithful, when they did obey God, when they did perform the mitzvot, however imperfectly, and offered the required sacrifices, that is required by God, in the Temple in atonement for that imperfection, God chose to respond to sacrifices and the blood of goats and bulls, by sparing Israel, forgiving the apple of His eye, cherishing His often wayward bride.
On the basis of this small book, the Rabbis softened their understanding of the divine-human relationship with a large dose of compassion. God stood ready to forgive and humans had the capacity to grow. Thus Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus in the early second century proclaimed:
“Repent one day before your death.” When his students asked him how one might know that day, he replied: “Then repent today for you might die tomorrow.” (Avot DeRabbi Natan, ed. Schechter, page 62)
In other words, each and every day, and not just Yom Kippur, was suitable for repairing one’s ties to God.
-Schorsch, pp 35-36
Such is true of the Christian as well, and more so, since we do not have a traditional day in our religious calendar set aside specifically for repentance and “repairing one’s ties to God.” If anything, we are rather casual about the whole affair, for we are taught that once we were saved at some altar call or camp meeting, our place in Heaven is assured. We can never again fall from God’s hand.
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
–John 10:27-30 (NASB)
That’s quite a promise, but I still say we should not rest on our laurels so comfortably, for the Master also said this:
“Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name. At that time many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another. Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many. Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.
–Matthew 24:9-13 (NASB)
To “fall away” means we must have some place to fall from, in this case, from our faith in God (and I didn’t fail to notice that those “falling away” did so during the great tribulation). This does not seem to be the illusion of faith or describing those people who are not among the elect (for the Calvinists among you), but those who were in the Father’s hand at one point, who will fall away because lawlessness increased, their love grew cold, and they listened to false prophets.
We must always be alert and cautious. Like Nineveh, when we see the warning signs and hear the voice of God calling to us to beware lest we perish, we should respond immediately and “don sackcloth and ashes,” so to speak, declare a time of fasting and mourning, even if it is only with our own individual soul, and turn back to God, rather than risk falling from His hand down to the depths of despair.
In short, the rabbinic concept of teshuvah rested on deeds rather than on faith, on the discipline of Torah rather than on divine grace. Its implicit optimism about the correctability of human nature tempered the near fatalism that darkened the original meaning of Genesis.
-Schorsch, pg 36
I couldn’t disagree more.
First of all, Nineveh was redeemed for a specific time, but we have no indication whatsoever that it never returned to sin (and knowing the nature of human beings, I believe it must have returned to that dark place) and was forever redeemed as a city before God. Repentance, teshuvah, is not a single act that once accomplished, is accomplished forever. We have Christ’s warning that we can fall away. True, no one can snatch us out of the Father’s hands, but that doesn’t mean we can’t “bail out” on our own accord. We cannot be dragged unwillingly from the presence of God, but we can wantonly walk out of our own free will, thumbing our nose at the Divine in a suicidal gesture right before our final exit.
Schorsch says that human beings have pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and effectively refrain from sin, but again, the Tanakh is the witness against him (and against us all). Also, if the Covenant of Moses was sufficient forever in an unratified form, why does God promise a New Covenant, with the Torah not written externally, but inscribed internally across the fabric of our hearts (and please keep in mind that the content of the previous covenant remains unchanged, only the “material” upon which it is written does)?
I don’t know if I completely buy the classic Christian interpretation of the events in Eden, but I do believe that no amount of human effort, all by itself, will ever pay the debt we owe to God for our willful rebellion. From Adam in the beginning and down across each generation, we have failed God, and laughed at God, and denied God again and again. Even the best among us falls short, as Paul said (referencing Psalms 14 and 53), there is no one righteous, not even one of us…ever (Romans 3:10-12), apart from the Master himself.
With much respect to Schorsch and his commentaries, which I enjoy very much, we cannot possibly walk the walk without both faith of the heart, and the grace of a most merciful God. Without both faith and grace, our repentance would be a faint and temporary glimmer in the dark, and we would all meet the ultimate fate of historical Nineveh well passed Jonah’s intervention, and the fate of all the “great cities” that have risen and crumbled to dust across the vast corridors of time.
Divine grace is certainly necessary, and no human being can even come close to “meeting God halfway,” so to speak. But we are still required to change directions, to face away from our sin and to turn toward God. Once that’s accomplished, often with God’s insistent “prodding,” then and only then do we have life, and the will to live it in obedience.