The third month was chosen for the revelation because everything that is closely connected with the Torah and with Israel is triple in number. The Torah consists of three parts: The Pentateuch, The Prophets, and the Writings. The oral law consists of Midrash, Halakhah, and Haggadah… (Pesikta de Rav Kahana, ed. Buber pp. 186-187)
-quoted by Max Arzt in
Part 2: “The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur),” p.285
Justice and Mercy: Commentary on the Liturgy of the New Year and the Day of Atonement
My friend Tom and I have been toying with the idea of studying Torah together for quite some time, but the recent events that have seen me leave (once again) church have added emphasis to the proposal. This past Sunday, Tom and I were talking over coffee and started to define some of the parameters for our study.
First of all, I’m not sure a study focused on Torah is the best way to go. Sure, the timing is right. We are very close to the end of the current Torah cycle, and the new cycle begins with Torah Portion Beresheet on October 18th, less than three weeks away.
But Tom said that he wants to have a study that specifically focuses on Messiah and what he means in our lives. I don’t know if I want to study the sidra for each Shabbat with the idea that I must find the Messiah within its pages. What if I don’t?
The second goal of our Torah study is that we might be able to see the Messiah clearly in its pages. Remember Luke 24. This chapter establishes for us one of the key hermeneutic principles of approaching Torah. Here Yeshua tells us specifically to look in the Torah in order to see Him. “And beginning with Moshe and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27).
When we first started looking for Yeshua in every Torah Portion, we were concerned that we would not be able to find Yeshua anywhere. However, much to our surprise, after beginning the work we found it difficult to stop! We have discovered that the person and work of Messiah are evident in even the most technical sections of the Torah. And the more we see Him, the more we can worship Him.
“How to Study the Torah”
While I don’t always agree with everything presented at this website, I’ve found Berkowitz’s insights valuable in the past and, when I saw this link show up in my Facebook feed, I decided to have a go at it. Seems Berkowitz has no problem seeing the Messiah in the Torah, but maybe another approach would work better for Tom and me.
I started reading the Berkowitz article with an idea to base our Bible study upon its principles. I said I found Berkowitz valuable, but that doesn’t mean I always agree with him. In taking the text at face value (and not allegorizing), he says:
This also applies to what appear to be legal sections. If God said to put a fence around the top of our houses, for example, He does not mean to build fences to protect the Torah! Literally, what is being referred to is a protective enclosure being placed around the top of a house to prevent people from falling off. (In that part of the world, most dwellings had flat roofs, which facilitated people congregating on them.) We have no permission at this point to go beyond the literal face value of the text.
Well, yes and no. Yes, I can agree that it’s a bit of a stretch to create a midrash stating that the Torah commandment to build a fence around the edge of your flat roof also means building fences around the commandments, manufacturing additional barriers to keep the observant from getting too close to the “edge” of sin. I do however, think that we can take the particular commandment and infer a general principle from it (this isn’t my original idea, I got it from one of D. Thomas Lancaster’s Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermons). I believe the specific commandment about building a fence around your roof can be expanded to the general principle of removing all physical hazards on your property that could potentially cause injury to family and guests. These would be acts of kindness and express concern over the well being of the people around you. I don’t think there’s too much of a stretch involved here, but it does require we think beyond the immediate situation described.
Also associated with this principle is the necessity of determining the intended meaning of the passage. Since Moshe was the writer of the Torah, we must try to put ourselves in his shoes as he wrote it, even as we attempt to discern the Lord’s intent in giving each teaching. Moreover, we also need to put ourselves into the shoes of the people who first received the Scriptures and seek to know how they understood the text.
I agree with this wholeheartedly and I think many Bible students and scholars don’t take this far enough. Remember, almost without exception, all of the writers of the Bible are Jewish people and the Bible’s contents (with the exception of some of Paul’s letters and a few other portions) were intended to be read exclusively by Jews.
We have to at least attempt to understand what the writer was intending his readers to get out of the document, including any allusions, less than obvious references, traditions, and interpretive praxis that could be employed to derive meaning. The answers to all that are likely not easily gleaned from the plain meaning of the text and require some knowledge of the Judaism of the time period in which the document was authored.
A really good example of this is a lecture that Boaz Michael delivered some years ago called “Moses in Matthew”. I don’t think a recording of that teaching is available commercially, but I managed to get a copy of it and reviewed its contents in a blog post called “The Jewish Gospel”, Part 1 and Part 2. Rabbi Joshua Brumbach also reviewed it on his blog about three years ago.
I don’t want to attempt to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, so for the details, you can click on the links I’ve provided. In brief though, Boaz aptly illustrated that without understanding the highly specific mindset of Jews living in occupied Palestine in the late Second Temple period, we sometimes misunderstand (sometimes to a great degree) what Jesus (Yeshua) was teaching, leading us to a far less than perfect comprehension of the message of Messiah to his people Israel and, across history, to us.
Berkowitz continues in his article making statements I believe are in support of what I just said above:
For example, it makes a difference to our understanding of the Torah if we know that each of the ten plagues was brought against one of the gods of Egypt. It changes our perception of the book of Deuteronomy if we are aware that its format virtually follows that of other middle to late Bronze Age suzerainty treaties and covenants. Moreover, are we aware that our knowledge of ancient Mesopotamian clay tablets can help us understand the structure of Genesis, as well as why Rachel stole the family idols from Laban? Finally, what is meant by the designations “Way of the Philistines” and “King’s Highway?”
Closely connected with this rule is the principle of studying the Torah in Hebrew, its original language. There are sometimes words, thoughts, or concepts in the Hebrew of the Torah that are almost impossible to express in a translation. For example, it is helpful to know that the Hebrew word sometimes translated into English as “sacrifice” is the word korban (קָרְבָּן), which has the same root as the word meaning “to draw close.” Hence, a sacrifice is that which helps us draw close to God. In addition, there are virtually no English equivalents for the Hebrew words tahor (טָהוֹר) and tamei (טָמֵא) (often rendered pure and impure, or clean and unclean, respectively).
Again, and specifically speaking to the teachings of Jesus, Paul, and the Apostles, we would also have to know how other Jewish teachers of that time period wrote, what common allusions and references they shared, the midrashic associations the readers were supposed to make, and so on. Reading Jewish texts of any time period requires knowledge of not only the religious and cultural Judaism of that point in history, but what it was to live as a Jew listening to or reading the teachings of the Rabbis.
This isn’t information always available to us.
But if we don’t always have the past at our fingertips, we do that the present:
Jewish practice and interpretation of the Torah began centuries ago—in many cases even before the time of Yeshua. Although we do not believe in the authority of the oral law, it nevertheless contains much that is useful for us today (such as an incredibly insightful periodic interpretation of the Torah). It is helpful for us, therefore, to read some of the best of the modern Jewish commentators (at least those of both the Rishonim and Akharonim), because in them we may find accurate interpretations of the most difficult passages of the Torah. Moreover, it can also be helpful to examine some of the rabbinic applications of the Torah, as some of these halachic teachings might shed some light for us on a given passage.
Christians don’t always take me seriously when I say that in order to understand the Bible, including (especially) the teachings of Jesus, you have to understand something about Judaism. However, this is true. Christianity has its interpretive traditions which, from their earliest inception, were designed to minimize if not outright delete any “Jewishness” from the Jewish texts. And yet, as I’ve seen time and again, ignoring a Jewish interpretation of the Bible, including the Apostolic Scriptures, has led to tremendous errors in the development of Christian theology and its resultant doctrine. This isn’t to say that Christianity has completely missed the boat. The Church grasps the principles of loving God and doing good to other human beings very well. They just don’t know what to do with Jewish people as having a unique covenant relationship with God, and especially have not a clue how to understand the Judaism of Jews in Messiah.
Unfortunately, Berkowitz had to employ this rather reductive list of the three rules of interpretation, which I’ve previously encountered:
- First ask, “What does the passage say?”
- Next ask, “What does it mean?”
- Finally, ask, “What does it mean to me?”
Not to say that this list is bad, but if you didn’t understand that it must be expanded to include what I’ve described previously about comprehending the entire historical, cultural, linguistic, midrashic, and every other area of context in which a particular text of the Bible was written and read, then you’ve going to miss a lot.
And in describing interpretation, Berkowitz doesn’t mention that interpretation begins at translation. He admits that most people don’t have a sufficient command of the Biblical languages to read them, and thus tend to rely on translations, but he doesn’t say that some translations do heinous violence to the text. The English Standard Version, for example, changes Greek verb tenses in some of Paul’s letters and in the Epistle to the Hebrews to make the scriptures read as if the Old (Sinai) Covenant has already completely passed away and that it has totally been replaced by the New Covenant. However, the verb tenses in the actual Greek indicate that the old is in the process of still passing away, and there is no indication in the originals that the New is even here yet.
Berkowitz does say that there are a number of good study aids available and I would add to that list a variety of different translations and a lexicon to help with some of the problems modern translators have introduced.
Berkowitz states that the number one requirement in Bible study is to “rely on the Spirit of God to be our teacher.” I can agree, but I’ve argued with a few people here on my blog that the Spirit doesn’t have to exist in isolation from other resources and that we don’t have to “check our brains at the door,” so to speak.
In addressing the use of commentaries, Berkowitz says:
Some people simply will not use commentaries or study aids when studying the Bible. They say they want God to teach them, not man. The problem with this statement is that God has specifically blessed certain people in the body of Messiah with the gift of teaching. We are not disputing the fact that people can discover wonderful things in the Torah by themselves. But God’s usual method is to gift certain people who can, in turn, teach others the truths of His Word. Hence, we all need to rely on the God-gifted Torah teachers whom the Holy One places in our path.
Furthermore, we must also realize that most commentaries were originally sermons or verbal teachings before they appeared in print. If we are willing to ask another person his or her opinion about a given passage in the Bible, we should be willing to consult a commentary. There is no difference, other than the fact that one is a verbal opinion about the Torah and the other is written.
We are not islands unto ourselves. We are members of the body of Messiah, each equipped with certain areas of understanding which, when combined, help bring to all of us a more complete understanding of the Bible. Thus, we should not throw away all the books and say “we will just study the Bible.” God never meant for His people to function like that. In the resources section of this Web site we provide a continually growing list of Bible study aids, such as commentaries, that we recommend. There will undoubtedly be others, especially in other languages. But this is a good beginning for those who are new at Torah study.
I’ve come the long way around to ask a simple question. Tom and I (and whoever decides to join us) need a structure and format for our studies. We could just shoot from the hip or talk off the tops of our heads, but that’s rather self-limiting.
We need a study that is focused on the Messiah. We’d like to not have the study devolve into a “what’s right” and “what’s wrong” about theology and doctrine, which, for example, so many of these religious blogs tend to do. We would like the study to be specifically Messianic rather than traditionally Christian. If at all possible, we’d like the study not to be too expensive. Unfortunately, a lot of good teaching material out there also costs a proverbial arm and leg.
I’m open to suggestion (without the obligation of having to take everyone’s suggestions). Any ideas?
In advance, thank you for your help and insight.
Oh, and by the “coming year,” I mean within the next few weeks to a month or so, not the beginning of 2015. Thanks.