Tag Archives: Bible study

How Listening to Negative Voices Destroys Our Peace

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Rabbi Zelig Pliskin

Imagine hearing this announcement when you start off each day: “Welcome to your own broadcasting show. We’re on the air today and every day. We run from this moment on, for the rest of your life. You can’t shut off the show, but you can choose what to hear. We advise you to choose wisely. Don’t be upset with yourself if the show is not proceeding the way you wish. Instead, thank your mind for working. Be nice and friendly to it. And kindly and respectfully ask your mind to give you a truly great show today. Have a fantastic day, today and every day.”

If the above represents what you would like to hear on your own mental show, then you can choose it. If you would like to run a different show, just choose what you would like to hear.

Your mental broadcast can have any guest you want. What do you want your inner mental guests to say to you? What do you want them to speak about? Choose the subject that you would like your self-talk to be about, for as long as you’d like. You might want to hear a great interview with yourself and your ideals and values. You might want to hear a certain song or many songs that uplift you and help you feel good. You might want to hear a well-known story over again. This could be a story with a lesson that you really need to hear right now. It could be an inspiring story. It could even be an entertaining or a funny story.

If you find yourself broadcasting distressful ideas and thoughts, you can switch to uplifting and joyous ones. You can give yourself messages of hope right now and at any time you choose.

When you listen to recordings of speakers or speeches you like, you can be grateful for the opportunity to add their messages to your own mental library. Once those recordings are stored in your brain, you can access them as often as you like.

Be grateful to the Creator of your mind and your life for giving you your own broadcasting show. The quality of your life depends on the quality of your inner broadcasting show. Keep raising the quality of what you say to yourself, and you will live a happier life, full of self-development and self-empowerment.

-from Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s book: “Conversations With Yourself”, pp.185

Sorry for the long quote, but I think once again that Rabbi Pliskin makes an excellent point.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote lately as it relates to the tremendous amount of negativity we experience, not only from broadcasts on news and social media, but from life experiences as well.

Recently in my small little corner of southwestern Idaho, we had a tragedy were a person from Los Angeles living in a local apartment complex, targeted a child’s birthday party and stabbed nine people, six of them being children. The little girl who had been celebrating her third birthday died a few days after the assault.

It’s things like this that suck any sense of hope out of me.

But I can’t be like that. I mean, if you have faith in God, if you try, however badly, to follow in the footsteps of Rav Yeshua (Jesus Christ), then you can’t just give up.

Believe me, I do have my days, though.

I’m a white, straight, “cisgender” (I still balk at that one for some reason), old, religious, conservative (relative to Idaho, I’m probably a moderate, but relative to hyper-liberal Seattle or San Francisco, I’m likely considered a fascist), married, Dad, Grandpa, male. In other words, for the pundits on twitter and Facebook, I’m public enemy number one, no questions asked.

Really, it’s like I’m not even a person anymore, just a “type.” In fact, it seems caring has stopped being about human beings, and is only conferred if those people belong to certain demographics.

Well, the little murdered girl I mentioned above was an immigrant from the middle east, and relative to the more liberal people who follow my doings on social media, when I posted about my outrage over her death, the only response I got was “crickets.”

I’m reminded of a quote from the original Star Trek series episode “The Immunity Syndrome (1968):

Spock (Leonard Nimoy): I’ve noticed that about your people, Doctor. You find it easier to understand the death of one than the death of a million. You speak about the objective hardness of the Vulcan heart, yet how little room there seems to be in yours.

But let’s turn that around. Are we only to care about the suffering of large groups, but never individuals? Are we only to care about someone because they belong to a disadvantaged group, or can we still care because they’re human. Can’t we care because a single child needlessly lost her life? Why do only children separated from their parents at our southern border matter (and I’m not saying they don’t)?

ruya kadir
A 3-year-old girl died on Monday after suffering a fatal injury during her birthday party outside her family’s Boise apartment complex. (Idaho GOP/Twitter)

I think Picard (Patrick Stewart) once said something about the value of mourning the loss of a single life, but I can’t find the quote after a quick Google search.

Negative messages come in unabated from the news, from social media, and from all around us.

It’s overwhelming, and yes, it engenders a sense of hopelessness.

That’s why I’ve been thinking about the good Rabbi’s quote. I’m not forced to plug the internet into my head. I don’t have to read or listen to or watch negative, hateful, spiteful messages from the world around me. I’m responsible for my own programming and my own self-definition.

So are you.

You may have noticed that people of faith are an easy target for those who feel they hold the moral high ground and are on the “right side of history.” You also don’t have to listen to them. Unless they live with you or are otherwise unavoidable, you can just unplug them.

I don’t recommend doing that permanently. I think it’s important to listen to and understand opposing opinions (unlike those folks who are living in their “save space” or believe that all opposing opinions must immediately be shouted down as “violence” or “hate speech”).

I think we all know that a large part of our self-programming is reading and studying the Bible, and yet, the Bible isn’t as easily and quickly accessed as social media. Given the choice, most of us will choose “the quick and easy path,” to quote Yoda when he discussed the Dark Side of the Force with Luke.

While we can’t ignore the world around us, we can take breaks from it. We can turn off the television, our computers, our smartphones, and otherwise turn off all of the negative, disheartening voices that are ever eager to attempt to overwrite us with their version of justice and morality.

In other words, if you are a negative voice in my life, I can turn you off and restore my peace of mind and spirit.

Human beings who feel like they are the final source for all morality, righteousness, mercy, and justice are terrifying, because believing that, they’re capable of any act, no matter how unjust and cruel, in their name of their own ego, or worse, the ego and highly flexible morals and values of the human race.

I know we religious people are accused of doing the same thing in the name of God, but as an Aish HaTorah Rabbi reminds us, religion is sometimes misused by selfish, greedy people, just as attacks on our faith are also a misuse and misapplication of the true nature of scripture and God.

If we continue to strive to become better disciples of our Rav, whatever part of us that may be guilty of what we are sometimes accused of must fall away. We can remake ourselves through our faith and allow the Spirit to remake us so that we more resemble our Rav in thoughts and deeds.

True, we will still be accused of all manner of crimes simply because of who we are or because someone once did something bad and claimed God told him or her to do it, but that’s not us. It’s not who we are.

We cannot communicate the sense of peace we achieve through our faith and the merit of our Rav if we allow outside influences to throw us into chaos. We can only communicate peace by being peaceful, and here’s the rub:

When people are in emotional pain, they tend to speak and act in ways that sound angry and aggressive. And if you, too, are in emotional pain, you are likely to speak to the other person in ways that he will perceive as angry and aggressive. Each person adds to the emotional pain of the other, and the distress of everyone involved keeps increasing.

When you are calm, it’s easier to see the emotional pain of others. That is when you can build up your attribute of compassion. The goal is to have so much compassion that even when you personally are experiencing emotional pain, you are able to be sensitive to the emotional pain of the person with whom you are interacting.

Coming from a place of compassion you will be able to address the thoughts and feelings of the other person in a way that alleviates his distress. Then he is more likely to speak and act more sensibly and reasonably towards you.

-from Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s book: Harmony with Others, p.130

When people are angry at us for whatever reason, and we feel pain because if their behavior, we must understand they are in pain, too. Being in pain doesn’t justify unkind, cruel, and unjust responses, and we don’t have to let ourselves be mischaracterized, but it might be a good idea to get past the other person’s anger and discover their pain. Then we’ll have a much better platform on which to build communication.

peaceTake care of yourself. Associate with like-minded believers so that you can support each other. Try (and this is difficult) not to reflexively react when someone in person or (more likely) in social media insults you, either individually or because you belong to some “type” they don’t like, don’t understand, or have been conditioned to despise.

We’re here to help make the world a better place, but if we let the world tear us down, we will have failed.

It starts with being grounded in the Word and in our Rav. His peace can be ours. It just takes a lot of practice.

Try unplugging sometime. I think it will help. It does me.

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“Ask a Scholar” at Bible Odyssey

The Society of Biblical Literature has mounted a new/recent web-resource for the “general public” entitled “Bible Odyssey” here. People are invited to lodge questions, and to each a relevant expert is asked by the SBL to make a response. I’ve had my own first go at doing this here, in response to a question about the origins of treating Jesus as divine.

-Dr. Larry Hurtado
“Bible Odyssey: Recent Web Site”
Larry Hurtado’s Blog

That’s a good, short description of a very interesting new resource on Biblical scholarship which has recently become available to non-scholars.

However, Bible Odyssey is more than just a place to ask a scholar a question.

You can learn how scholars view the different notable people in the Bible such as Abraham, Daniel, John the Baptist, and Jesus. The same treatment is given to specific places in the Bible like Antioch, Corinth, Jerusalem, and Rome. Have a question about a particular passage in the Bible? You can learn more about the Binding of Isaac, Jesus and the Money Changers, the New Covenant, and more.

But as Dr. Hurtado pointed out, one of the most exciting opportunities this web site offers is the ability to ask a Biblical scholar a question and receive a detailed response. Just click Ask a Scholar to get started, but keep this important proviso in mind:

Please keep in mind that this site is focused on the historical, social, literary, and cultural contexts of the Bible, rather than on theology, spirituality or personal religious beliefs. Selected questions that fall within the purview of Bible Odyssey will be forwarded to scholars.

If you just love getting into theological or doctrinal debates, that’s not going to happen here. Chances are, not all of your personal theological or spiritual beliefs are going to be supported by each and every response. I don’t know that each person listed as a contributor will be answering reader questions, but they’ve all provided content to the web site. In fact, one of my favorites (besides Dr. Hurtado) is on the list, Magnus Zetterholm.

Here’s an example of how “Ask a Scholar” works.

Someone asked a question about Jesus Worship:

When did the worship of Jesus, as God, rather than Messiah, Lord, and Savior, begin? And by whom?

This is right up Dr. Hurtado’s alley, so to speak, since he’s written extensively about the early worship of Jesus as God.

I found one portion of Hurtado’s response particularly interesting (I’ll put the relevant section in bold text below):

But I presume that you actually mean “when and where did Jesus first come to be reverenced as somehow really sharing in God’s status, or glory, and so the rightful recipient of worship along with God?” This has been a contested question for at least a century or more. Pretty much everyone is agreed that Jesus didn’t receive worship during his ministry. The key questions contested are how soon and where after Jesus’ crucifixion did it begin.

Maybe I’m reading this wrong, but it sounds as if Dr. Hurtado is drawing a distinction between God and Jesus, and that Jesus is alongside God as opposed to the embodiment of God as God’s Son.

Admittedly, the Divine nature of Jesus has always been rather mysterious to me, and I know that most Christians take it as a matter of course and don’t ask questions. Also, Hurtado isn’t answering the question about how Jesus could be God, just when did people begin giving him the same worship and devotion as God.

Dr. Hurtado finishes his response with (and again, I’ll bold what I think is the most interesting part of the text):

The Aramaic liturgical expression, “Maranatha” (= “O/our, Lord, come!” cited in 1Cor 16:22), is one of several pieces of direct evidence that Jewish, Aramaic-speaking believers invoked the risen/exalted Jesus as “Lord” in their corporate worship gatherings. The basis for this remarkable development was apparently the convictions that God had exalted Jesus as “Lord,” that Jesus now shared God’s glory, name and throne, and that God now required Jesus to be reverenced accordingly (e.g., Phil 2:9-11).

This makes it seem as if God took some sort of action that resulted in Jesus gaining exaltation as “Lord” and enabled Jesus to then share in God’s glory, name, and throne, thus requiring that his followers now revere Jesus in that light (as opposed to Jesus having eternally been God from “the beginning”).

Of course, I could be wrong in how I’m interpreting Dr. Hurtado’s response, but you’ve got to admit that this is a bit different from what you’ll hear coming from the pulpit on any given Sunday, at least it is in my experience.

And that’s the exciting part about being able to ask a Biblical scholar a question. It’s pretty rare for any current Biblical research to filter down into any particular Pastor’s sermon and thus into the church pews. From my own background, what we typically hear in sermons and Sunday school is a traditional interpretation of the Bible that’s been handed down for years, decades, or generations, filtered through specific denominational biases, and untouched by any recent or current Biblical scholarly findings.

For the person who wants to become a more serious student of the Bible but who isn’t a scholar nor likely to take a degree in Biblical studies, this is a terrific resource that is easily accessed.

A few technical problems.

The link to the page containing previous answers to “Ask a Scholar” questions is, as of this writing, broken (Addendum: the link has since been fixed). It leads to an error page. But on the error page, when you click the link to return to the Home Page, you go nowhere because there’s no .org extension after “bibleodyssey/”.

I reported the first problem, so hopefully someone will look into it. My guess is that the designer of the site still needs to do some more testing before it becomes fully operational.

All that said, I’m glad to pass along this information and hope that folks find it useful and illuminating.

Should Non-Jews Study the Torah?

“Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”

Acts 15:19-21 (NASB)

So, should non-Jews who are “Judaicly aware” and seek to honor the centrality of Israel and the primacy of the Jewish people in Messiah study the Torah?

For most of you, the answer probably seems like a no-brainer. After all, the Torah, at least in one sense, is the first five books of the Bible, and Christians study the Bible every day.

On the other hand, should we study the Bible using Jewish, including Messianic Jewish, published materials?

Again, that might seem like a ridiculous question to most of you. After all, there are Messianic Jewish publishing groups that produce a vast amount of Torah study materials aimed right at the non-Jew. At least some of these works are designed to reach traditional Christians in their churches and illuminate them regarding the aforementioned centrality of Israel, and how King Messiah will come first to redeem Israel (and not “the Church”) and through Israel and the Jewish people, the people of the nations of the world.

But then we enter the “blurry” area of the status of a non-Jew within Jewish religious and community space through the use of Jewish produced (though some of it is written by non-Jews working for Jewish publishers) educational materials.

Let me get something out of the way first. I frequently read and quote from articles at Aish.com and Chabad.org and both of these websites provide information that is exclusively written by and for Jews.

Nevertheless, I find the insights provided by both these organizations to be helpful from time to time, but again, I am not unmindful of the fact that they are not intended to be consumed by a non-Jewish audience, namely me.

So let us return to the above-quoted passage from Acts 15 with which I began this missive. It’s part of the larger “Jerusalem letter,” the legal edict issued by the Council of Leaders and Elders of the Jewish Messianic sect once known as “the Way”. It was meant to be a formal and binding decision of the status of Gentiles within Jewish communal and covenantal space, outlining, albeit briefly and with little detail, a Gentile’s responsibilities within that context.

Over two-and-a-half years ago, I covered the content and my understanding of this legal decision in my multi-part series Return to Jerusalem (you can start at part 1 and click through to part 6 for the details).

Rolling the Torah ScrollOf specific interest for this “meditation” is the rather mysterious meaning of verse 21, which I touched upon in Part 5 of the “Jerusalem” series:

“For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”

Acts 15:21

Although generally the Hebrew Roots movement interprets this single verse to mean that Gentiles should study the Torah and obey all of the mitzvot in the manner of the Jews, it’s not that easy to derive a definite and concrete interpretation from a single sentence.

Let’s consider not the Gentile God-fearers of that day who already were spending much time hearing Torah read and taught in their local synagogues, but the person who is a pagan Greek and who has just heard the good news of redemption though the Jewish Messiah. Many would have absolutely no background or appropriate context to even begin to fathom the teachings of Rav Yeshua or the Jewish apostles and disciples. They’d be clueless.

After all, it was in Lystra, where the population was largely ignorant of Jewish teachings, that Paul was considered to be Hermes and Barnabas Zeus because they did miracles. To counter this, Paul quickly gave the crowd a crash-course in ethical monotheism (see Acts 14:8-18), hoping to get them to see the light, so to speak.

To even begin to understand anything about what Paul was preaching, it was first necessary to have some sort of background in Judaism and the Torah. In fact, we see this example in the proselytes and Gentile God-fearers who heard Paul’s teachings on Messiah in the synagogue at Pisidan Antioch (see Acts 13:13-43).

Further, rather than just take Paul or any other Jewish teacher at his or her word, a knowledge of the scriptures was not only necessary, but vital. The Bereans (Acts 17:10-15) are the classic model of this principle. Of course, verse 10 does say that Paul and Silas went into “the synagogue of the Jews,” however verse 12 states “…many of them [Jews] believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men,” so it appears these prominent Greek women and men were at the synagogue, either studying the scriptures or listening to the Jewish Bereans do so, and thus benefiting from the study of Torah, including coming to faith because of these scriptural proofs.

But as I said above, Christians study the Bible every day, and yet (in my opinion) they do not always employ the correct hermeneutics that would render an interpretation of scripture largely consistent with what Paul intended to teach (or as close as we can get to it some two-thousand years later).

That’s why, like the Greeks in the Berean synagogue, it is not only helpful but necessary to study Torah with more knowledgable teachers who are familiar with a (again, my opinion) Messianic Jewish view of the Bible.

pathsBut Messianic Judaism isn’t a single entity. There are many different streams, and I’m not even including Hebrew Roots when I say this.

In the past, I’ve referenced quite a number of resources that the “Judaicly aware” Gentile may access including the MessianicGentiles.com website, so all you really have to do is search my blog and or click the link I just provided in order to get started.

But what about a non-Jew who has been studying from that perspective for a number of years and wants to dig a little deeper? After all, when an Orthodox Jew speaks of “studying Torah,” he or she is actually meaning “studying Talmud.” Is it permissible for a Gentile to study Talmud? While it’s not illegal, immoral, or even fattening, is there a benefit for us to study Talmud, especially when the sages wrote against Yeshua being Messiah and in some cases, wrote against Yeshua-believers?

The prohibitions against a Gentile studying Talmud (Torah) are from more traditional Jewish sources and not necessarily from any of the Messianic Jewish groups. Still, I found an interesting discussion on the topic in a closed group on Facebook (I can’t post a link both because you have to be invited to join and I don’t have the permission of the participants to do so).

Unless you are already a qualified scholar and have studied Talmud previously with a qualified scholar, you are going to get a very limited understanding from Talmud. Also, unless the tractates being read are speaking to the non-Jew, it’s again a matter of reading material written by Jews for Jews. In other words, even if you are at the educational level to comprehend what you are reading (which usually also requires fluency in Hebrew), the Talmud, for the most part, has nothing to do with you.

Of course, you could say that about the vast majority of the Bible, since most of it was written by Jews for Jews, but going back to the examples I’ve already presented from Luke’s “Acts of the Apostles,” we see that some form of study of the Jewish scriptures is absolutely necessary in order to understand the teachings of Rav Yeshua and of the Apostle Paul and how they apply to we non-Jewish disciples.

So although in-depth study of Talmud for the Gentile may be somewhat up in the air depending on education, circumstances, and communal context, more general study of all of the Jewish scriptures (and even the Apostolic Scriptures should be considered Jewish scriptures, although they include significant mention of Gentile initiates and disciples) seems not only warranted, but absolutely required.

So we’re back at what to do with a Gentile who finds it necessary to learn in a Messianic Jewish context? How is said-Gentile to be integrated, and more importantly, how does that Gentile not get swept up in Jewish practice and identity, but instead is able to establish and maintain an identity of their own, one that does not result in self-denigration or diminished esteem?

That is a question that has been under discussion for years, probably decades, and as far as I can tell, has no current, practical resolution. The emphasis in Messianic Judaism on Judaism, the centrality of Israel, and the primacy of the Jewish people in God’s redemptive plan is good and correct, but it contains the problem of what to actually do with the majority of the world’s population.

praying aloneWhich is why Gentiles need to find a way to study the Bible through a Messianic lens, so to speak, but also find a way to learn how and why we are important and loved by God, too.

I know this must seem like I’m beating the proverbial dead horse, but to the degree that non-Jews do sometimes feel alienated in Messianic Jewish space, to the degree that some factions of Messianic Judaism find it necessary to be a movement by and for Jews, and to the degree that some Gentiles become so confused between the goals of Judaism and the Messianic Kingdom that they choose to abandon Yeshua and convert to (usually Orthodox) Judaism to resolve their dissonance, I think the issue is significant.

Gentiles need to find a way to study the Bible in a manner honoring to the Jewish people and Israel and at the same time, one that renders a message of the value of non-Jews in God’s redemptive plan as well.

Ultimately, we can’t let a movement define who we are to God. We need to study the Bible and find out what we mean to God from Him…if we can.

On the Occasion of Ha’azinu and Building a Sukkah

As I write this, I put our little sukkah kit together several hours ago. It’s only a 4 x 6 foot sukkah and the frame snaps together, but it still took me a little over an hour. The canvas is the hardest part to handle, especially alone. Then there is improvising the roof supports so I can roll the bamboo (yes, it came with the kit and is certified kosher) mat across the top. Hanging the lights is usually pretty easy, though this year I used some masking tape to hold the connecting electrical cord in place.

I’ve got a couple of plastic chairs in the small structure, but since the holiday doesn’t begin until tomorrow evening, I decided not to have lunch inside (not that there’s any particular commandment for me to do so, at least as far as I can find).

All of my family had to go to work today, so I’m alone right now. Given that my major “honey do” task after the lawn was constructing the sukkah, I decided, that done, I’d read the Bible.

For the past several years, I’ve been using the same Bible reading plan to go through the Bible in a year. It’s one of the few things I took from my former church experience. The plan actually will take you through the Bible cover-to-cover in 222 days, but I like to build in some “wiggle room.”

That said, I stopped following my plan months ago, as my “slump” deepened, my faith in religion waned, and I decided to focus on other, less spiritual priorities.

Four days ago (again, as I write this), I downloaded a new plan, printed it, and have started reading again. It felt appropriate given my attempt at “starting over” in returning to God.

Since I’d also abandoned my traditional reading and studying the weekly Torah portion, and still having uninterrupted time on my hands, I decided to brush the dust off my Chumash (metaphorically speaking, of course) and pick up with Torah Portion Ha’azinu, including the haftarah readings and readings from Psalms and the Gospels.

I have to admit, it felt good. It’s a pleasant afternoon, and I decided to do my reading on the back patio with a cup of coffee and glass of water, within just a few feet of the wee sukkah I constructed earlier.

And, in defiance of my desire to not rely so heavily on Jewish sources, I also read the commentary on today’s Torah portion from Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s book Growth Through Torah.

Even though Rabbi Pliskin is writing for a Jewish audience, I must confess most of what he has authored in this book makes so much sense to me on a personal and moral level. I’ll return to that in a bit. I want to present something to you first.

As part of my Bible reading plan so far, I’ve read the first four chapters of Matthew. Being back in the Gospels reminds me that Gentiles do, from time to time, appear in those pages. I think it’s important to consider how Rav Yeshua interacted with them and I’ll explain why in a minute.

And when Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, imploring Him, and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, fearfully tormented.” Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.”

But the centurion said, “Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.” Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled and said to those who were following, “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; it shall be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed that very moment.

Matthew 8:5-13 (NASB)

Jesus went away from there, and withdrew into the district of Tyre and Sidon. And a Canaanite woman from that region came out and began to cry out, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.” But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and implored Him, saying, “Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us.” But He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” And He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she said, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus said to her, “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed at once.

Matthew 15:21-28

MessiahHere we have Rav Yeshua demonstrating two very different attitudes towards non-Jewish people. In the first case, Jesus was actually amazed at the faith in which the Roman Centurion had in Yeshua’s power to heal (and presumably faith in Hashem, the source of all healing). In fact, verses 11 and 12 seem to state that in Messianic Days, many non-Jews, because of their faith, “will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” This is contrasted with a statement about the “sons of the kingdom,” which in this context, I can only presume are Jewish people, “will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” most likely due to lack of faith.

I’m sure these verses have been misused by Christians for centuries to support the old idea that God replaced the Jews with the Gentiles (the Church) in His love and in the covenant promises. While I do not believe this to be true in any sense, there appears to be some support for the idea the Gentile faith in Messianic days, through the merit of Messiah, will at least metaphorically, allow a number of them to “recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”

That’s pretty exciting.

But what about Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman?

A lot of Christian commentators (I can’t cite references, but I do remember this explanation being served up to me more than once) believe that Jesus really wasn’t referring to this person, pleading for her daughter’s life, as a “dog,” and that this was just a test of her humility and faith.

But given the traditional social relationship between Jews and Canaanites in those days, that’s pretty much how he, and most other Jewish people, would have thought of her. Even his disciples implored Rav Yeshua to send the woman away, fully knowing that her daughter was “cruelly demon-possessed.” Not the sort of kindness and compassion we’d expect from students of Jesus Christ.

And it’s almost as if Yeshua provided the healing in spite of his feelings for this woman and her people. Yet it was her great faith that seemed to touch the Rav and transcended their usual social roles.

We know Yeshua himself said that he was “sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 15:24), so the Gentiles weren’t particularly any concern of his, and Yeshua’s interactions with them were an extreme exception rather than the rule.

Yet in John’s highly mystical Gospel, as he is declaring himself the Good Shepherd of Israel, he does make one small admission:

I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd.

John 10:16

We presume that these “other sheep” are the Gentiles who will eventually come to faith in the God of Israel through the merit of Messiah, but that must have been a confusing statement to his Jewish audience, since in verses 19 through 21, they accused him of being demon-possessed.

We really don’t find a good example of Gentile Yeshua-devotion in the Gospels, largely because having come to the “lost sheep of Israel,” the Rav wasn’t seeking out, nor did he direct his disciples to seek out, the Gentiles.

In fact, in spite of Matthew 28:18-20, even Yeshua’s closest companions had no expectation that they should actively search out Gentile devotees and make them into disciples. From their point of view, it’s likely that if they had chosen that direction, they would have obeyed their directive by having interested Gentiles convert to Judaism through the proselyte rite.

Peter's visionIt wasn’t until about fifteen years later by some estimates, that Peter was more or less forced to witness a righteous Gentile and his household be the objects of God’s acceptance of faith by allowing them the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.

Acts 10:44-48

If you read the full context of Acts 10, you’ll see that Peter was pretty reluctant to make the journey to the home of the Roman Centurion Cornelius. Peter’s famous rooftop vision, recorded earlier in the chapter, was Hashem’s effort to convince this apostle that associating with Gentiles, even to the point of entering a Gentile’s home and breaking bread with him, was not going to ritually defile Peter and his Jewish companions (no, it’s not about food…it was never about food).

Just as with Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman, it was a matter of social roles and the perceived “spirituality” of pagan Romans vs. Jewish worshipers of Hashem that kept them apart.

But while Cornelius was a God-fearer and had made many acts of tzedakah (charity) on behalf of the Jewish people, as well as continually praying to Hashem, he was not a disciple of Rav Yeshua until God directed Peter to visit the Centurion’s home and teach him.

It was only then that Cornelius and all the Gentiles in his household received the Holy Spirit of God in the manner of the Jewish disciples as we witnessed in Acts 2.

After this astonishing revelation, Peter had some explaining to do to the “apostles and the brethren” about why he spent several days in a Roman Centurion’s home.

After relating the supernatural circumstances that resulted in Peter visiting Cornelius, he concluded:

“And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.”

Acts 11:15-18

It seems that the leaders of the Messianic sect of Judaism once known as “the Way” never anticipated this possibility. They never expected Gentiles to receive the Spirit and to have the ability to repent “that leads to life.”

I believe this is some sort of indication of the qualitative difference between Cornelius’ status before Hashem as a God-fearer and later, as a disciple of Rav Yeshua. Only by Yeshua’s faithfulness and in the merit of Messiah may a Gentile become a disciple, one who is more or at least different from the God-fearer Cornelius had been before, and repent in a manner that “leads to life,” the resurrection, and have life in the world to come.

As far as the Bible is concerned, we never hear of Cornelius again and have no clue as to how he led his life after these events.

But I do believe that the various incidents I’ve referred to so far provide some interesting perspectives as to the encounters of non-Jews with Messiah or with faith in Messiah.

In all of these examples, faith seems to be the common element. It’s faith that transcends the ethnic and national barriers that “contain” God within Judaism and allow the rest of the world to turn to Him. This faith even impressed the Rav, and it was proof of this faith that convinced Peter, and through him, the rest of the leaders of the Way, that Gentiles could receive the Spirit, could repent, could merit the promise of life in the world to come, just as the Jews had.

But what does that mean for we non-Jewish disciples today who don’t find an identity or role in the traditional Church and who do not find it convenient or even warranted, to, in some fashion, imitate Jewish praxis?

My teachings should come down to you as rain.

Deuteronomy 32:2

Rabbi Chayim Shmuelevitz used to cite the Vilna Gaon on this verse that rain helps things grow. But what grows? Only what is there from before. If someone has vegetables and fruits that are healthy and delicious, rain will help them develop. But if there are poisonous mushrooms, rain will help them grow too. Similarly, Torah study makes one grow. But it depends on one’s character traits what one will become. A person who has elevated traits will become a greatly elevated person. But if a person has faulty character traits, the more Torah he studies the greater menace he will become.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Commentary on Torah Portion Ha’azenu, p.464
Growth Through Torah

the crowdI suppose this is why we have such a diversity of “characters” in the religious space, particularly among the more learned. But if Bible study only amplifies who you already are, then how do you, Jew or Gentile, truly become a better person? More to the point, what path must the “Judaically aware” Gentile take (on a metaphoric deserted island) beyond Bible study, in changing one’s character and becoming more conformed to the expectations of God?

I’ll continue to explore these questions in future “meditations.”

Interpretation as Tradition

Antignos of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of reward. And the fear of Heaven should be upon you.

-Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 1:3
quoted from Chabad.org

Back to Stern’s statement: replacing “tradition” with “interpretation” we could rewrite it to say: “There could never have been a time when interpretation of some sort was not a necessary adjunct to the written Torah.” Tradition claims legitimacy by appealing to the past for its authority, and is independent of scriptural anchoring; interpretation does not look to the past for legitimacy, but rather seeks an anchoring in the text itself. One dispute among the rabbis is whether certain halakhot were actually derived exegetically or whether they were an independent revelation.

-Rob Vanhoff
from his December 31, 2014 at 4:03 pm comment on his blog post Is there a core “Oral Torah” written in response to Peter Vest’s blog post Question for Rob Vanhoff

I’m dabbling into somewhat dangerous waters by invoking commentary written by Rob Vanhoff of TorahResource.com since typically, my theological orientation and Mr. Vanhoff’s (and his employer Tim Hegg) are not entirely compatible (I say that as an understatement).

But in reading Mr. Vest’s and Mr. Vanhoff’s dialog and then commentary from the book Pirke Avot: A Modern Commentary on Jewish Ethics, I started to ponder the relationship between interpretation and tradition in both Christianity (which includes the Hebrew Roots movement in my opinion) and Judaism (which I believe includes Messianic Judaism).

I should note at this point that I’m not writing this to challenge either Mr. Vest or Mr. Vanhoff (or Mr. Hegg). I’m not attempting to enter into yet another “I’m right and you’re wrong” debate. I just want to point out that, from my point of view, how we interpret the Bible is based on our traditions, both within Christianity and Judaism as I’ve defined them above.

The existence of the oral tradition is alluded to in the Written Law in numerous places.

For example:

The Torah says: (Deut. 12:20) “When G-d expands your borders as He promised you, and your natural desire to eat meat asserts itself, so that you say; ‘I wish to eat meat’, you may eat as much meat as you wish… you need only slaughter your cattle and small animals… in the manner I have commanded you.” Nowhere in the Written Torah is such a manner described. So what is the manner in which we are supposed to slaughter cattle?

Though the laws of slaughtering cattle are not explained in the Written Torah, they are described in detail in the Oral Law.

The Talmud tells the story of a Gentile who went to Hillel the Elder and said to him, “I want to convert, but I want to accept only the Written Torah, and not the Oral Torah. I don’t wish to accept the words of the Rabbis. So teach me only the Written Torah, and not the Oral Torah.”

But Hillel knew that the man wanted to do the right thing. He simply didn’t understand the purpose of the Oral Torah. So he began to teach him the Aleph Bais (Hebrew alphabet). The first day, Hillel the Elder taught him the first two letters, aleph, and bais (aleph and bet, for those who speak the Sefardic dialect).

The next day, Hillel the Elder taught him the same two letters in reverse. He showed him the letter aleph, and called it “bais.” The man objected, “but yesterday you taught it the other way!”

“Well, then, you need me, a Rabbi, to teach you the Aleph Bais? So you have to trust my knowledge of the tradition of the letters. What I tell you is the Oral Tradition. You can’t read the alphabet if no one tells you what it means. And you think you don’t need the Rabbis’ knowledge of Jewish Tradition in order to understand the words of the Torah? Those are much more difficult! Without an Oral Tradition you will never be able to learn the Torah.”

So it is clear that an Oral Tradition is needed, and that one exists.

-from “The Indispensable Oral Law”
BeingJewish.com

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] would always say these three things: Be cautious in judgement. Establish many pupils. And make a safety fence around the Torah.

-Pirkei Avot 1:1

oral lawWas there an Oral Law given to Moses by Hashem in parallel to the Written Law (Torah), and was that Oral Law passed down, generation by generation, in an absolutely unchanged manner, from Moses to Joshua, from Joshua to the Elders, from the Elders to the Prophets, and then from the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly, eventually being codified and making its way to modern Judaism?

It seems like a long shot, given that even the written Torah had “gone missing” for quite some time.

When they were bringing out the money which had been brought into the house of the Lord, Hilkiah the priest found the book of the law of the Lord given by Moses. Hilkiah responded and said to Shaphan the scribe, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.” And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan. Then Shaphan brought the book to the king and reported further word to the king, saying, “Everything that was entrusted to your servants they are doing. They have also emptied out the money which was found in the house of the Lord, and have delivered it into the hands of the supervisors and the workmen.” Moreover, Shaphan the scribe told the king saying, “Hilkiah the priest gave me a book.” And Shaphan read from it in the presence of the king.

When the king heard the words of the law, he tore his clothes. Then the king commanded Hilkiah, Ahikam the son of Shaphan, Abdon the son of Micah, Shaphan the scribe, and Asaiah the king’s servant, saying, “Go, inquire of the Lord for me and for those who are left in Israel and in Judah, concerning the words of the book which has been found; for great is the wrath of the Lord which is poured out on us because our fathers have not observed the word of the Lord, to do according to all that is written in this book.”

2 Chronicles 34:14-21 (NASB)

The preservation of an unchanging Oral Torah across hundreds if not thousands of years would require that God sustain the Oral Law as He has the Written Law. I suppose it would make more sense to say that Oral Law as it’s conceived of in modern Judaism is the grand compilation of traditions that have accumulated over the centuries, but were not all given originally to Moses (if any of them were).

Question:

Can you explain why laws never seem to revert back to their original form? For example, some holidays are two days outside of Israel because of the difficulty with keeping time hundreds of years ago, which has since been resolved.

Answer:

Simply put, customs have the import of law since the Torah itself recognizes them as law. That makes sense, because the basis of Torah is not the book, but the people. How do we know the Torah is true? Because the people witnessed it, accepted it and passed down the tradition. So without tradition, we have no Torah.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Why Aren’t Customs Reversible?”
Chabad.org

Of course the belief that the Oral Law as it exists in Judaism today originated as a complete body of knowledge with Moses at Sinai is also a tradition and as such is considered factual, at least in Orthodox Judaism.

Now I admire the refined skill-set of a good kosher shochet, but what Dr. Stern sees as “evidence” for “oral Torah” from Deuteronomy 12:21 (כאשר צויתיך) is for me simply a pointer to what Moshe states elsewhere concerning slaughter: pour out all the blood, cover it with earth, don’t consume it, etc… I’m definitely a minimalist in this regard. Let’s keep in mind that the art of midrash (be it halakhaic or aggadic) consists first of positing a textual ‘gap’ and second of filling it!

-Vanhoff

On the other hand…

Hashem said to Moses, saying: “Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them that they shall make themselves tzitzis on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations. And they shall place upon the tzitzis of each corner a thread of turquoise wool. It shall constitute tzitzis for you, that you may see it and remember all the commandments of Hashem and perform them; and not explore after your heart and after your eyes after which you stray.

Numbers 15:37-39 (Stone Edition Chumash)

tzitzitSo how do Jewish men know how to tie tzitzit (keeping in mind there’s more than one tradition on how to do so)? Who taught the Jewish people the specific method of obtaining the blue dye to color the “thread of turquoise”? There is nothing in the (written) Torah describing how this is done, so how did Moses teach the Children of Israel how to observe this mitzvah? Is it possible that Moses had conversations with Hashem that were not recorded in writing? Was literally every second of every transaction between Moses and God put down in writing?

Probably not, otherwise the Bible in written form would be too large to carry.

But that’s supposition on my part. Still, I must admit that there are more than a few commandments in Torah where there is no written instruction for how to observe them.

Does that mean the Oral Law as it’s understood today is exactly as it was or may have been given to Moses at Sinai or later during the forty years in the desert?

From a human point of view, this seems doubtful, but if an Oral Law also comes from God, then nothing is impossible.

The Bible is the most authoritative element of Judaism. But it is not the only one. Just as it had been preceded by tradition, so was it soon followed by tradition, the “Oral Law,” which strives to penetrate into the essence of the Bible’s written word. The Oral Law strives to apply the teachings of the Bible to all the events of existence; to provide religious and moral standards for all of life’s activities; and to realize the Bible’s teachings in the whole Jewish community. This tradition, which was ultimately established in the Talmud, had at first to fight for recognition; subsequently, it too became a conservative factor in Jewish religious life.

-Leo Baeck, “The Essence of Judaism,”
New York: Schocken Books, 1948
quoted in “The Bible and the Talmud,” p.17
Pirke Avot: A Modern Commentary on Jewish Ethics

In Judaism, tradition is what tells a Jew what the Bible means. In Christianity, as Mr. Vanhoff states, a systematic method of interpretation does the same job.

So am I saying that Jews have tradition and Christians have interpretation? Well, not exactly. I’m saying that Jews are open in stating that tradition guides their Biblical interpretation and Christians believe that they have no tradition of interpretation…

..except that’s not true.

Almost a year ago, I wrote a blog post called Does the Church Interpret the Bible Based on Traditions. I’ll save you the trouble of reading the whole thing and give you the answer here: Yes!

In fact, I believe that every branch of Christianity, including all versions of Hebrew Roots, interpret the Bible based on some overt or covert set of traditions that transcend any “scientific” method of Biblical hermeneutics. I know I’m going to receive a significant amount of push back for making that statement. I know that many scholarly arguments can be leveled against me, showing me that Protestant Christianity and Hebrew Roots (they have more in common than you might imagine) use totally objective means by which to determine the true and factual meaning of the Biblical text.

Except if that were true, then I don’t think we’d see such dissonance between the pro-Jewish people and pro-Israel words of the Bible including the Apostolic Scriptures and the nature and function of the New Covenant, and how modern Protestant Christianity refactors the Bible to minimize or delete the role of Jews and national Israel in God’s redemptive plan for the world.

Much has been made of Martin Luther and the men of the Reformation and how they undid the abuses of the Bible by the Catholic Church, but the Reformation didn’t “reform” as much as you might think. Many traditions of the Church (Sunday worship rather than a Saturday Shabbat, the continued “gentilization” of Jesus Christ, the supersession of “the Church” in place of Israel) were maintained and survived to this very day in virtually all expressions of Christianity.

So it’s quite possible if we view Hebrew Roots as a minor “reformation” of Evangelical Christianity to believe they didn’t reform as much as you might think, including holding onto some (but not all) of the traditions of the Church, such as how to interpret certain sections of the Bible.

Interpretation of the Bible begins at translation, or so it’s said. I tend to believe that the first step in interpreting the Bible is how we already understand it based on who taught us our traditions. This is true whether you are a Baptist, an Orthodox Jew or operate in any other branch of Christianity or Judaism.

I’m always amazed at how people who have read a dictionary entry or two on “Mishnah” or “Talmud” become so quickly convinced that when they pick up the Soncino Bavli in English, they are reading the culture, worldview, and halachah of the 1st Century! Truth be told, most Messianics who are enamored with “rabbinic Judaism” have spent precious little time actually reading the rabbinic sources, even in translation. They’re willing to watch a YouTube video or two from a Cabad rabbi and think that they’ve just been educated in the finer details of rabbinic halachah and aggadah, and what is more, that their new knowledge informs “what Yeshua really thought and did.”

– from Tim Hegg’s comment on Rob Vanhoff’s aforementioned blog post

I just want to be clear that I don’t consider myself some sort of “expert” in Talmud or anything else. What I do want to emphasize is that we cannot separate our understanding of the Bible from our “religious orientation.” Sure, we can change religious orientations and thus our understanding of the Bible, but with some difficulty. I changed from a more “standard” Christian hermeneutic, to a Hebrew Roots perspective, and then finally to a viewpoint formed from various teachers within a Messianic Jewish context.

Does that make me right and everyone who disagrees with me wrong? Not at all. I have far more questions about the Bible and God than I have answers. I just want to point out that no one has raw, naked, unfiltered access to the Word of God such that they and only they know “the truth” about exactly what it says in every single detail. No Bible scholar worth his or her salt would make such a claim. That’s why Biblical research is ongoing and that’s why we study the Bible (hopefully) every day.

Coffee and BibleThis is like the African-American woman Tim Hegg describes in his comment on Vanhoff’s blog post, the one who believed that the Apostle Paul’s Bible was the King James translation. Her understanding (I have to assume based on limited information that this woman really did believe such a thing) is based on some sort of tradition she was taught and like many, most, or all religious people, tradition first became truth in her mind, and then absolute fact.

Even when we’re aware that we are guided by our traditions, that awareness isn’t going to be enough to keep us from continuing to be driven by said-traditions for the most part. Yoda may have said “You must unlearn what you have learned” (as shown in this brief YouTube video), but that’s easier said than done. Maybe Luke Skywalker could do that under the Jedi Master’s guidance, but in real life, once we learn something, we are very likely to stick with it, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Again, this isn’t a matter of one side being right and the other side being wrong. It’s a matter of all sides being guided and molded by tradition, even when we think we’re not. What we think is who we are.

Can You Help Us Find a Bible Study for the Coming Year?

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.

-Ariel Berkowitz
“How to Study the Torah”
MessianicPublications

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.

D. Thomas Lancaster
D. Thomas Lancaster

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.

Berkowitz says:

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.

Ariel Berkowitz
Ariel Berkowitz

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.

Jewish Man PrayingChristians 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.

TanakhI’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.