Tag Archives: interpretation

The Signpost Up Ahead

waiting-for-a-signMay it be Your will … that You lead us toward peace … and enable us to reach our desired destination for life, gladness, and peace.

-Prayer of the Traveler

Before we take a long trip in a car, we first consult a map to determine the best route. If we know people who have already made that particular trip, we ask them whether there are certain spots to avoid, where the best stopovers are, etc. Only a fool would start out without any plan, and stop at each hamlet to figure out the best way to get to the next hamlet.

It is strange that we do not apply this same logic in our journey through life. Once we reach the age of reason, we should think of a goal in life, and then plan how to get there. Since many people have already made the trip, they can tell us in advance which path is the smoothest, what the obstacles are, and where we can find help if we get into trouble.

Few things are as distressful as finding oneself lost on the road with no signposts and no one to ask directions. Still, many people live their lives as though they are lost in the thicket. Yet, they are not even aware that they are lost. They travel from hamlet to hamlet and often find that after seventy years of travel, they have essentially reached nowhere.

The Prayer of the Traveler applies to our daily lives as well as to a trip.

Today I shall…

…see what kind of goals I have set for myself and how I plan to reach these goals.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Iyar 21”
Aish.com

I can see the point Rabbi Twerski is making with this, but he missed a few things. When the first European explorers were sailing their tiny ships to the west and south across the unknown vastness of the ocean, they had no maps at all to guide them, and even those who went after them probably had maps that were woefully inadequate to the task of surely guiding their voyages. Exploring ships would be gone for years at a time and some of them never came back, making it difficult for those who wanted to follow to repeat their journeys with any sort of accuracy. Sailing uncharted waters doesn’t allow for consulting a map first to determine the best route. It’s a voyage into the unknown. Here be dragons.

I know life isn’t exactly like that but there are similarities. While we can consult our parents and other people whom we feel would be good “guides” for our journey in life, no two people live exactly the same life, so there are going to be “blank spots.” My son David served in the United States Marine Corps and I’ve never been a member of the Armed Forces. Before he entered the Corps and during his service, I had no way to guide him through many of his experiences. Even now that he has been honorably discharged for several years, there are things I can’t relate to because I didn’t live the life he did. Only others who have also served could understand what David went through.

That doesn’t mean my understanding and “sage” advice to him is useless…but there are limits.

Which brings me to the Bible.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that the Bible is the perfect guide for a person’s life, and that it anticipates every detail for good or bad that we could possibly encounter.

Well, that’s not entirely true (Note: I wrote this before reading a chapter from John F. MacArthur’s (editor) book Think Biblically called “Embracing the Authority and Sufficiency of Scripture,” a photocopy of which was given to me by Pastor Randy…more on that in a later blog post). In the Aish.com Ask the Rabbi pages, someone asked the following question:

How do we know that the Torah we have today is the same text given on Mount Sinai? Maybe it’s all just a game of “broken telephone.”

This is part of the Rabbi’s answer:

The Torah was originally dictated from God to Moses, letter for letter. From there, the Midrash (Devarim Rabba 9:4) tells us:

Before his death, Moses wrote 13 Torah Scrolls. Twelve of these were distributed to each of the 12 Tribes. The 13th was placed in the Ark of the Covenant (along with the Tablets). If anyone would come and attempt to rewrite or falsify the Torah, the one in the Ark would “testify” against him.

Similarly, an authentic “proof text” was always kept in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, against which all other scrolls were checked. Following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the Sages would periodically perform global checks to guard against any scribal errors.

reading-a-mapMost Christian and Jewish Torah scholars and academics will likely disagree with this explanation, since it’s based more on Midrash than on historical record or other academic and scientific investigation. The Rabbi also neglects to mention the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and what would have happened to the Ark and the Torah scroll it contained (assuming Midrash is correct and the scrolls ever existed in the first place). When ten of the twelve tribes went into the diaspora, what happened to their Torah scrolls? Do any of those original scrolls exist today? If not, how do we know the level of fidelity of the Torah we have today to those earlier copies (and this is why the Dead Sea Scrolls are such in incredible find because they allow us to check much of our current Bible against much earlier manuscripts)?

Even within the scholarly study of the New Testament, experts such as Larry Hurtado often have differences of opinion with other academics in the field. These aren’t bad people, inexperienced people, or unintelligent people…they are educated believers who are experts in their field, and who, based on their studies, continue to disagree with each other, even on important aspects of the Gospels and Epistles.

That, of course, leads to different conclusions, at least to some degree, on the nature of Jesus Christ and what was being taught to the first century CE Jewish and Gentile believers.

It’s not just having a roadmap and it’s not just having an accurately translated roadmap, it’s interpreting the roadmap in one way or another. It’s also important to remember that interpretation starts right at the first step: translating the ancient text into a language we can understand.

I know what you’re thinking. What about the Holy Spirit? Isn’t the Spirit of God supposed to guide us in all truth and to help us correctly understand the Bible? In theory, yes. In practicality, it doesn’t seem to work out that way. Otherwise, all believers would have an identical understanding of the Bible and that would be that.

So what gets in the way? Our humanity. Our need to be “right.” Our trust in our own intelligence over the trust in God’s “intelligence.” So of all the different Christians and all the different Christian interpretations of the Bible, how do we know who is fully “trusting the Spirit” and who isn’t? Are we just supposed to “check our brains at the door” and let the Spirit “beam” understanding into our skulls?

They think self-surrender means to say, “I have no mind. I have no heart. I only believe and follow, for I am nothing.”

This is not self-surrender—this is denial of the truth. For it is saying there is a place where G–dliness cannot be—namely your mind and your heart.

G‑d did not give you a brain that you should abandon it, or a personality that you should ignore it. These are the building materials from which you may forge a sanctuary for Him, to bring the Divine Presence into the physical realm.

Don’t run from the self with which G‑d has entrusted you. Connect your entire being to its Essential Source. Permeate every cell with the light of self-surrender.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Self-Surrender”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

If we are to believe Rabbi Freeman, then God doesn’t expect us to abandon the use of our brains and expect us to just “sense” what the Bible, the world, and everything else means. Understanding and exploring our life is a partnership between the ordinary and the Divine, between man and God.

rabbis-talmud-debateHowever, because the trust and faith of a human being is never perfect, then our understanding is never perfect. We fill in the gaps with our own personalities, our own biases, our own intellect, and that’s what has resulted in about a billion different translations and interpretations of the Bible, and thus the differences we experience in our understanding of God…and the differences we experience in understanding ourselves and other human beings. That’s one reason (to use an extreme example) why some believers are completely delighted that NBA center Jason Collins came out as gay and other believers express concerns.

It would seem that while we’re all using the same roadmap, what it tells us is radically different depending on who we are. Taken to an extreme, we can get caught up in revising our understanding of the Bible to the point where we believe we can “reinvent” or “overrule” what it says for the sake of adapting to the current cultural context.

Where does that leave us as travelers on a journey? Are we “lost on the road with no signposts,” or are we making up the road and the signposts as we go along?

143 days.

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Searching for the Writer of Life

writer-of-lifeThe Jews recognized that God no longer spoke to them in the same way as in the past. The prophets who persisted in seeing heavenly visions and hearing heavenly voices saw and heard in a manner very different from those of earlier times. As a consequence (cause?) of the cessation or permutation of prophecy, the Jews began to seek the word of the Lord not from people but from texts. The sacred traditions of the past were compiled and redacted, and the Torah was created. The words of the great prophets of the past were similarly compiled and redacted. This process, whose ultimate result was the formation of the Bible, raised two important questions. First, which books were to be considered canonical? Second, how were the canonical books to be interpreted, and who was authorized to interpret them?

-Shaye J.D. Cohen
Chapter 5: Sectarian and Normative, pg 126
From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, 2nd Ed

It is one of the oldest puzzles in the world. Investigators have been wrestling with it practically since the Bible was completed. As it happens, it did not start as an investigation into the authorship of the Bible. It simply began with individuals raising questions about problems that they observed in the biblical text itself. It proceeded like a detective story spread across centuries, with investigators uncovering clues to the Bible’s origin one by one.

It began with questions about the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These books are known as the Pentateuch (from Greek, meaning “five scrolls”) or the Torah (from Hebrew, meaning “instruction”). They are also known as the Five Books of Moses. Moses is the major figure through most of these books, and early Jewish and Christian tradition held that Moses himself wrote them, though nowhere in the Five Books of Moses themselves does the text say that he was the author. But the tradition that one person, Moses, alone, wrote these books presented problems.

-Richard Elliott Friedman
Introduction: Who Wrote the Bible? pp 15, 16-17
Who Wrote the Bible?

Yes, this is a continuation of yesterday’s morning meditation. I was prompted by the mention of Friedman’s book on Derek Leman’s blog post to check and see if my local public library had a copy available. It did and so I checked it out over my lunch hour (I work about a ten minute walk from the Boise Public Library’s main branch).

Depending on your thoughts and feelings about the origins of the Bible we have today, this could be dangerous stuff. In fact, questioning the traditions we have about the Bible has historically been very dangerous stuff.

At the first stage, investigators still accepted the tradition that Moses wrote the Five Books, but they suggested that a few lines were added here or there. In the eleventh century, Isaac ibn Yashush, a Jewish court physician of a ruler in Muslim Spain, pointed out that a list of Edomite kings that appears in Genesis 36 named kings who lived long after Moses was dead. Ibn Yashush suggested that the list was written by someone who lived after Moses. The response to his conclusion was that he was called “Isaac the blunderer.”

-Friedman, pp 18-19

But that’s not the half of it.

He (Bonfils) still thought that the passages in question were written by “one of the later prophets.” He was only concluding that they were not written by Moses. Still, three and a half centuries later, his work was reprinted with the references to this subject deleted.

Van Maes suggested that a later editor inserted phrases or changed the name of a place to its more current name so that readers would understand it better. Van Maes’ book was placed on the Catholic Index of Prohibited Books.

De la Peyrere’s book was banned and burned. He was arrested and informed that in order to be released he would have to become Catholic and recant his views to the Pope. He did.

Spinoza had been excommunicated from Judaism. Now his work was condemned by Catholics and Protestants as well. His book was placed on the Catholic Index, within six years thirty-seven edits were issued against it, and an attempt was made on his life.

Simon was attacked by other Catholic clergy and expelled from his order. His books were placed on the Index. Forty refutations of his work were written by Protestants. Of the thirteen hundred copies printed of his book, all but six were burned.

-Friedman, pp 18-21

jewish-traditionAt least up to the 17th century, it was worth your life to suggest that Moses didn’t literally write every single word that appears in the first five books of the Bible. Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant tradition vehemently defended this viewpoint and if you were a scholar who studied such matters, it was better to keep any opinions that deviated from tradition strictly to yourself.

But what about now? Are we as a body of believers more tolerant of serious, scholarly study of the Bible?

The answer is probably yes and no. I don’t believe that anyone in the modern era has ever been put in prison or (gulp) executed for having non-traditional beliefs about the Bible, but you rarely hear controvertial views on scripture spoken of in a Sunday morning sermon. For that matter, how much controversy about the Bible makes its way into the Rabbi’s discussion of the Torah portion on Shabbat?

In addition to the written scriptures we have an “Oral Torah,” a tradition explaining what the above scriptures mean and how to interpret them and apply the Laws. Orthodox Jews believe G-d taught the Oral Torah to Moses, and he taught it to others, down to the present day. This tradition was maintained only in oral form until about the 2nd century C.E., when the oral law was compiled and written down in a document called the Mishnah.

-from “Torah: Oral Torah, the Talmud”
Judaism 101

Within these four methods of understanding Torah, there exist countless possible avenues of understanding. For example: There are many different ways to understand the Torah according to Peshat. That’s why there are many Torah commentators who concentrate on Peshat — Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam and many more – and they will very often (it seems, more often than not…) disagree on the literal meaning of a verse. In fact, according to Kabbalastic teachings there are 600,000 ways to understand Peshat, 600,000 ways to understand Remez, 600,000 ways to understand Drush, and 600,000 ways to understand Sod!

Any insight in Torah is acceptable as long as it (makes sense and) does not contradict any of our fundamental beliefs.

-Rabbi Naftali Silberberg
“How is the Torah Interpreted?”
Chabad.org

My wife tells me that in Judaism, one does not interpret Torah outside of tradition, so at least from an Orthodox point of view (her perspective was likely learned from the local Chabad Rabbi), it would be unacceptable practice to consider interpreting Torah from any viewpoint other than established Jewish halachah.

But what about Christianity?

The Bible is God’s Word. But some of the interpretations derived from it are not. There are many cults and Christian groups that use the Bible, claiming their interpretations are correct. Too often, however, the interpretations not only differ dramatically but are clearly contradictory. This does not mean that the Bible is a confusing document. Rather, the problem lies in those who interpret and the methods they use.

We need, as best as can be had, the guidance of the Holy Spirit in interpreting God’s Word.

Because we are sinners, we are incapable of interpreting God’s word perfectly all of the time. The body, mind, will, and emotions are affected by sin and make 100% interpretive accuracy impossible. This does not mean that accurate understanding of God’s Word is impossible. But it does mean that we need to approach His word with care, humility, and reason. Additionally, we need, as best as can be had, the guidance of the Holy Spirit in interpreting God’s Word. After all, the Bible is inspired by God and is addressed to His people. The Holy Spirit helps us to understand what God’s word means and how to apply it.

On the human level, to lessen the errors that come in our interpretations, we need to look at some basic biblical interpretive methods. I’ll list some of the principles in the form of questions and then apply them one at a time to a passage of Scripture.

-Matt Slick
“How to Interpret the Bible”
Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry

You can click on the link I provided to read Mr. Slick’s ten principles for interpreting the Bible and everything else he has to say. I selected this resource basically because it was at the top of the Google search results for the “how do christians interpret the bible” search string. However, Mr. Slick and the carm.org web site don’t address the role of tradition in interpreting the Bible (except unintentionally by mentioning more than once that in Christian tradition, the Holy Spirit is required and considered always available to interpret the Bible).

How the Bible is translated from its ancient languages to English, for example, is driven by theology and tradition. Consider how Christian and Jewish translators address the text of the “Old Testament” let alone how they interpret its meaning. Sure, for the most part, reading a Christian Old Testament and a Jewish Tanakh will produce a similar experience, but it won’t be identical. Also consider, for example, how the text of Isaiah 56 is interpreted between Christians and Jews. Christianity largely believes that the Messiah, that is, the Christ, is being described, while its traditional in Judaism to say that Israel itself is the “suffering servant.”

Sofer-Sefer-TorahNot only is the origin of the Bible understood by various traditions, but what the text is supposed to mean is also interpreted in that manner, at least for the most part. I don’t doubt that there are certain individuals who are willing to take a wider look and a less dogmatic approach to the Bible, and certainly there are numerous scholars who will broach the subject of the authorship of the Bible, but how many of us, the “rank and file” of the church (or synagogue) are willing to take such a risk?

I say “risk” because if we aren’t able to detach our traditions from our faith, at least temporarily, in the study of the Bible, then we are likely to find ourselves approaching the edge of a very steep precipice and risk falling into the abyss of crisis. For some people, faith hangs in the balance.

But so does enlightenment. Frankly, if your faith can’t stand being shaken up a time or two, it probably isn’t very strong. Also, no one grows spiritually by playing it safe. Sure, it’s comfortable, and nice, and warm, and cozy inside the cocoon of tradition and pre-programmed belief systems, but who we are as disciples of the Master requires a modicum of courage at a minimum. Paul commended the Bereans (Acts 17:11) for examining the scriptures daily in order to verify what Paul was teaching. Can we do any less when addressing the scriptures themselves, including their sometimes mysterious authors?

Some people who do this, exit faith completely, unable to reconcile their relationship with God with the dissonance about the Bible. Some people abandon critical examination of the Bible and retreat into their former comfort zone, manufacturing some explanation about why such an examination is in error if not heretical. But some people actually grow.

I’m finding that Cohen’s and Friedman’s books seem to work well when read in parallel. However, it is important (to me, anyway) to stay grounded in the world of faith and not to stray too far into the area of objectification of the Bible. I still “just plain read” the Bible every day and more recently, I go to church every week. Every other week, I meet with a friend who has been a Christian for forty years. All this acts as an anchor on the shore as I also choose to explore deep (well, deep for me) waters.

In his book (Chapter 5), Cohen writes:

Judaism is a relativistic construct of human beings, and no variety of Judaism is any more correct or authentic than any other. This is the perspective of the historian.

Judaism is a body of absolute truths revealed by God and/or sanctioned by tradition, and those interpretations of Judaism that are more nearly approximate these absolute truths are truer and more authentic than those that do not. This is the perspective of the believer.

Following those definitions, of himself, Cohen writes:

In this book, I write as a historian.

I can see how the above definitions can be applied to how we view Christianity as well as Judaism, so it is possible to look at the Bible and its origins from either the historian’s or the believer’s point of view. I’m a believer but it is my opinion that my life as a believer can be enhanced by also looking at the Bible as a historian (with the aid or real historians and scholars such as Cohen and Friedman). It’s an adventure and as such, it presents a set of challenges and dangers.

If that doesn’t scare you off, I invite you to participate in the adventure along with me as I continue to read and comment upon Cohen and Friedman and their revelations about the Bible, tradition, history, and faith. May we all learn together and may we all draw closer to the One who is the Author of our lives and the Lover of our souls.

Looking Through a Dark Window

The Alter Rebbe explained in the previous chapter that the light of the Shechinah, an illumination utterly transcending the realm of the world, must have a “garment” which enables it to radiate there. The “garment” of the Shechinah is Torah.

…As explained earlier, for this reason the Torah is able to act as a “garment” that does not become nullified in the light of the Shechinah which garbs itself in it — since its source is higher than the Shechinah. However, in order for Torah to act as a concealing “garment” it must descend lower than the level of the Shechinah, thereby enabling the light of the Shechinah to be received by created beings.

However, as Torah descended into the Ten Commandments engraved on the Tablets, it did not do so in a manner that would make it similar to other physical things. Rather, as will soon be explained, it remained on a level which is higher than the previously mentioned upper Worlds.

Today’s Tanya Lesson (Listen online)
Likutei Amarim, beginning of Chapter 53
By Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), founder of Chabad Chassidism
Elucidated by Rabbi Yosef Wineberg
Translated from Yiddish by Rabbi Levy Wineberg and Rabbi Sholom B. Wineberg
Edited by Uri Kaploun
Chabad.org

OK, so you’re not into Kabbalah or other mystic experiences and the Tanya as a source of information is completely lost to you. Hang in there, you can still learn something from today’s “meditation.” What is Rabbi Zalman saying? Here’s another point of view.

Torah is the interface between the Infinite and creation. On the outside, it speaks the language of humankind. On the inside, its depth is without end.

Grasp either end and you have nothing. Grasp both and you have G-d Himself.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Interface”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

I hope my quote from Rabbi Freeman’s interpretation of the Rebbe helped you because it did a lot for me. It’s saying what I’ve said before and what I’ve believed for quite some time. It’s saying that everything we use to try to connect to God is an interface and not a direct connection. Let me explain.

If you’re reading this, you’re using some sort of a computer. It could be a PC, laptop, tablet, smartphone, whatever. Most people relate to their computer they way they relate to their car. They don’t really know how it works, they just turn it on and expect it to work. But when you turn your computer on and use it, your aren’t really directly interacting with the computer hardware or software. You are using a graphical user interface (GUI) to execute commands that are passed on to the computer via the operating system. It’s more complicated than that, and you are actually working through several layers of abstraction every time you read an email, surf the web, create a document, or whatever other activities you perform to get things done on your device.

In the end, you get your work completed, but you haven’t really “touched” the raw “guts” of the computer. You’ve used an interface to work with the computer it make what you want to do happen on your terms. Using an interface means you don’t have to learn how to speak the computer’s “language.”

On various Christian blogs I sometimes see statements such as “let’s go directly to the Word rather than relying on human understanding” and “let the Holy Spirit interpret Scripture and not the knowledge of men.”

Huh?

How are you going to do that? Folks who say such things act as if they have direct and unfiltered access to the original, raw meaning and context of the Bible, as if they were standing right there while Matthew, John, Paul, and scores of others were putting pen to paper, listening to these men explain (in plain, 21st century English no less) what they were thinking and what they really meant as they created their books and letters.

We know we don’t have that kind of insight available to us. We realize that the Bible was written over a period of thousands of years by dozens of writers using variations of languages most of us don’t understand. We realize that the Bible was written within a foreign and ancient national, cultural, and ethnic context that is completely alien to us. And yet we behave as if all of that doesn’t matter.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking something like this:

…these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. –1 Corinthians 2:11-13 (ESV)

You’re thinking that the Holy Spirit, which you possess if you have accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior over your life, will automatically interpret what the Bible is saying to you as you are reading it.

Well, maybe you’re not thinking exactly those thoughts, but that’s as close as I can come to understanding what we Christians expect to happen when we read the Bible and attempt to comprehend its content. We seem to believe that whatever we come up with by way of an interpretation must be from the Holy Spirit just by virtue of the fact that we’re Christians.

But what if the Holy Spirit doesn’t act like an automatic pilot and just routinely guide us to the correct conclusions every time we pick up a Bible and read a few verses? What if other stuff gets in the way?

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. –1 John 4:1-3 (ESV)

Seems simple enough until you try to do it. If you come up with a particular interpretation of the Bible and you believe you arrived at your understanding through the Spirit, do you just call out, “Hey Spirit! Do you confess that Jesus has come in the flesh is from God?” The Spirit would have to say “yes” or “no” before you could determine the validity of your Bible interpretation. Does that happen to you very often?

How about this?

The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. –Acts 17:10-11 (ESV)

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. –1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 (ESV)

Paul advocates for asking lots of questions. Don’t take anything at face value. Test even the spirits. Lots of false prophets are selling their wares out there, especially on the Internet.

But it also says to “not quench the Spirit” which I suppose means not to toss the baby out with the bathwater. Don’t be so skeptical that you close the door to spiritual learning and interpretation. Just don’t believe everything your hear or feel, either.

The Bible doesn’t put it into so many words, but I believe that one of the big factors inhibiting our understanding of the Word of God is our own emotional and intellectual wants, needs, and desires. Once we’ve made up our mind about something the Bible says, we believe that is that. The Spirit has spoken. This is how it is. But is what we believe about our interpretation the way it is as defined by God’s Spirit, or just the way we want things to be because it “feels right” to us?

I don’t have an absolute answer for you, but this is one of the great challenges and mysteries about understanding God and our purpose in life using supernatural means. We have to constantly pay attention to what we believe and why we believe it and not take anything for granted.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. –1 Corinthians 13:12 (ESV)

Even at his best, Paul says that we can only see “in a mirror dimly” but only later “face to face” the things of God. Once we become too sure about our own theology and our own doctrine and stop asking the tough questions we can’t always find answers to, we start having a problem. We start worshiping our own self-assured “image of God” as we’ve created Him in our hearts and minds, and not the unknowable, unfathomable, insurmountable, infinite, unique One God. We have to “grab” both ends of the Bible, so to speak; the spiritual end and the material end. We have to rely on the Spirit and we have to use our understanding and education. Even then, we aren’t absolutely sure of what we’re doing.

“It is the dull man who is always sure, and the sure man who is always dull.”

-H.L. Mencken, American journalist and essayist

The Bible, sermons, lessons, even prayer, are only interfaces; the “garments” God must put on to allow us to even dimly view His existence, as through a mirror darkly. Keep searching the darkness. Look for the light.

Notice! By the time you read this, I’ll have left home and be traveling to the First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) 2012 Shavuot Conference in Hudson, WI. Part of what that means is I’ll have limited access to the Internet. I’ll still be posting “meditations” every morning except for Shabbat and Shavuot (Sunday) but I won’t be able to respond to comments and emails, at least not very effectively. I also probably won’t be able to post links to my meditations on Facebook, Google+ and twitter like I usually do. Please feel free to comment but realize I may be slow in getting back to you, which includes approving first-time comments. God be willing, I’ll be back home very late on Monday night. Thanks for your patience.

Understanding the Infinite Scroll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Almost.

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not that easy.

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

Period.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Shabbos.