A third-century Palestinian amora, Rabbi Hanina bar Yitzhak, posited that three common experiences are merely unripened fruit (novelet) of phenomena unknown to us: sleep (foreshadowed death), dreaming (prophecy), and Shabbat (the world to come). Hence to dream is but a faint reflection of the intensity of a direct communication from God. The Talmud speaks of the ratio of these relationships as being one-sixtieth. Together, these views of Rabbi Yonatan, Rava, Rav Hanina, and the Talmud add up to a consistent effort to limit the potency of dreams as recorded throughout the Tanakh, without fully denying the possibility of fleeting contact with the Divine.
The shift away from revelatory dreams mirrors what Rabbis had done with prophecy itself. They declared it to have ended with the destruction of the Second Temple, to be found henceforth only among “fools and children.” In a culture reconstituted around the centrality of a sacred book rather than a sacred space, the scholar outranked the prophet. Exegesis replaced prophecy as the key to determining God’s will.
This is another brief interruption in my Challies Chronicles series which seeks to take the live blogging of Pastor Tim Challies on John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference, and use it as a platform for analysis and critique.
As I was reading Schorsch’s commentary on last week’s Torah reading, the above-quoted text jumped out at me. The essence of what Schorsch writes, that the Rabbis shifted away from certain “gifts of the Spirit” and toward a more “Bible-based” platform for understanding the revelation of God, seemed like it should be something MacArthur would agree with. Of course, the framework of Judaism would probably result in MacArthur immediately rejecting this information, since it comes from an “alien” (i.e. “Jewish”) source.
But since I stand outside of MacArthur’s own framework, I am at liberty to see the parallels. Evangelical Christianity didn’t invent this shift in perspective nor is it the sole owner of the material. It is true that Ismar Schorsch is only one author and represents the Conservative branch of Judaism, nevertheless, he is mining a rich field of Rabbinic knowledge and wisdom.
But I like what he writes next:
But neither the rupture nor disparagement were total. How could they be? The reality of God’s presence permeated every aspect of the Rabbi’s discourse, piety, and daily lives. In their religious quest, they crafted a Judaism that enabled one to live in two worlds — the material and the spiritual, the transitory and the eternal, the here-and-now and the here-after — simultaneously and harmoniously.
-Schorsch pp 157-8
While Tom Pennington in my recent Strange Fire commentary acknowledges that the Holy Spirit is alive and well in the current world, restricting its activity only in the areas of such direct spiritual gifts as prophecy, miraculous healings, and “tongues,” I wonder if he’s saying something similar? I’m sure he didn’t mean to sound like the Rabbinic sages, and after all, much of what the Rabbis taught were in the form of midrash or commentary, not directly pulled from scripture. On the other hand, while the Strange Fire speakers present their arguments as based only on scripture, the reality of what they produced at the conference was all inferred information, so both “camps” can be accused of standing on less than absolutely solid ground.
In other words, the Strange Fire speakers have a theory that just happens to fit words in the Bible.
At the heart of their arguments, “Cessationists” exist in a world of polarity. Either you believe this or you believe that. Either the Holy Spirit always enables prophecy in human beings or it never does.
While I myself am a skeptic of many of the strange claims regarding holy vomiting (though I don’t think the practice is mainstream Pentecostalism) and other highly dramatic experiences where the Spirit of God seems to perform on command (tonight and tonight only, on this very stage…), I’m not willing to say that God is quite so rigid as to be subject to such terms as “always” or “never,” at least not as defined by mortal human beings.
I suppose that’s one reason why I’m attracted to Jewish thought. It allows God a little “wiggle room” should He decide to supernaturally act in our world in a way our doctrine doesn’t always anticipate.
Schorsch wrote, “But neither the rupture nor disparagement were total. How could they be?” How could they be, indeed. God is an ethereal substance that, once we are open to Him, we soak up like a sponge. If the Holy Spirit really in-dwells within all believers, then we are each a nexus point for a simultaneous connection of physical and spiritual reality. This doesn’t make us spiritual super-people, capable of “leaping tall buildings in a single bound,” but it does expose us to realities that a mere secular individual would be blind to.
But you have to be willing to see beyond the visible light of the universe into a spectrum that exists only in the realm of God. That’s a place we enter when we pray, a sort of doorway that leads from one room of existence to another. We can’t really enter into that other room in this life, but once we gain awareness of it, we can no longer afford to ignore it, either.
We stand in two worlds if we’re willing to see it. My beef with MacArthur’s perspective is that he seeks to define that other world in concrete and quantifiable terms when, from my perspective, the vastness of God extends far, far beyond what can be crammed into our understanding of the Bible.
If I can paraphrase the bard (Hamlet to Horatio), “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I suppose MacArthur and party could say the same of me relative to demonology, but my orientation tends to naturally seek the positive aspects of the “spiritual plane,” which in this case, is the Spirit of God.
While I always will remain a devotee of Jesus of Nazareth, I think Judaism, or certain areas of Jewish thought, does a better job of allowing God to be God, than certain areas of Christianity.
Schorach said that the Rabbis crafted a Judaism post-second Temple, that could exist in two worlds. That makes it sound like the Judaism of the Rabbis is “man-made,” a common criticism of Judaism by the Church. But did the Christian Reformation start and Fundamentalism continue to craft a different kind of Christianity than what existed at the end of the first century of the common era?
Maybe both Christianity and Judaism are products constructed as much by their “revered sages” as molded by the hand of God.