Tag Archives: midrash

Is There a Sukkah for Christians?

Then it will come about that any who are left of all the nations that went against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to celebrate the Feast of Booths. And it will be that whichever of the families of the earth does not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, there will be no rain on them. If the family of Egypt does not go up or enter, then no rain will fall on them; it will be the plague with which the Lord smites the nations who do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Booths. This will be the punishment of Egypt, and the punishment of all the nations who do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Booths.

Zechariah 14:16-19 (NASB)

That having been said, Sukkot is coming up, and you should probably give some consideration to how much you are willing to pursue practical enactments of the anticipated messianic era in which Zachariah envisioned the requirement for gentiles to celebrate Sukkot and the aspects of it that imply redemption for the nations. The above essay seems to indicate that you’ve pulled away too far, and perhaps that you’ve begun to acknowledge it.

-from ProclaimLiberty’s recent comment

I used to think that in Messianic Days, we so-called “Messianic Gentiles” would all have an open invitation to celebrate the Festival of Sukkot in Jerusalem, basking in the glory of our King and having a terrific time “partying”. However, a slightly more careful reading of the Zechariah passage illustrates that it’s actually a punishment for the people of the nations who all attacked Israel during that final war when God and Israel win.

If the nations that went up against Israel don’t send representatives to Jerusalem for Sukkot, they get no rain that year. It’s not a party, it’s a command performance, an admission of guilt, an act of contrition.

Nevertheless, PL’s above-quoted statement is a strong suggestion that it is appropriate for all we non-Jews to return to God on Sukkot, and I responded by crafting my own little missive stating that it’s a good time for me to return as well. But as I’m about to relate, the connection between Gentiles and Sukkot may not be what we’ve been told it is.

Now that Yom Kippur is over, I feel the beginning of Sukkot rapidly approaching. I am aware of how much stuff I’ll need to dig through in our storage room to get to our wee Sukkah kit, how I’ll need to drag is out of the garage and around the side of the house, so I can put it together on our back patio this coming weekend.

I build a sukkah each year primarily for one reason: my wife is Jewish and as the husband in the family, it’s my job to build stuff, in this case, a sukkah.

So aside from Gentiles being associated with Sukkot as a matter of consequence for having the audacity to go to war against God’s holy people and His most treasured nation, can I, as a non-Jew (albeit one married to a Jew) get anything out of Sukkot beyond the awareness that I’m a Gentile citizen of one of the nations that will (in all likelihood) attack Israel?

There are a plethora of online articles about Jewish observance of Sukkot (of course) such as The ABCs of Sukkot, Sukkot: Transforming Trash Into Love, A Sukkah Grows in Brooklyn, and Finding Shelter in a Transient World.

Except possibly for the last article in that list, none of them do me any good at all. They’re all written by and for Jews. Naturally, they have nothing to do with me or with any non-Jew.

That’s why I was surprised to find a Chabad article on the web called How a Gentile Celebrates Sukkot written by Rabbi Moshe Bogomilsky.

The Haftarah for the first day of Sukkot is the prophecy of Zecharya concerning the war of Gog and Magog, which will climax with the final redemption and acknowledgment by the nations that Hashem alone is the King, and that Israel is His people. This realization will be celebrated on Sukkot, for, according to the prophecy, the surviving nations will join the Jewish people every year in celebrating the Sukkot festival. In his prophecy Zecharya declares, “And if the family of Egypt will not ascend and will not come…They will suffer the plague with which Hashem will afflict the nations, because they will not have ascended to celebrate the festival of Sukkot. This will be the punishment of Egypt and the punishment of all the nations that will not ascend to celebrate the festival of Sukkot.”

As interesting as this may sound; it is difficult to imagine that in the future the nations of the world will be obligated to sit in a Sukkah and celebrate together with the Jews, and be punished for it if they don’t!

Sukkah in the rainBoth Rabbi Bogomilsky and Sara Debbie Gutfreund, who authored Finding Shelter in a Transient World, mention that, among other things, Sukkot is a time of unity and connection.

Ms. Gutfreund states:

Bring friends and family into your sukkah. Learn from others and share what you have learned. Build and nurture the connections that you have with others in your life. Feel the embrace of the chain of kindness that redeems so much darkness; be another link in that chain.

And Rabbi Bogomilsky tells us:

The common factor in these two mitzvot is achdut — unity.

That the mitzvah of sukkah represents unity is obvious from the fact that many families may eat together in the same sukkah. In fact, the Gemara (Sukkah 27b) says that, “re’uyim kol Yisrael leisheiv besukkah achat” — “All of Israel are fit to sit in one sukkah” — which means that unlike other mitzvot (e.g. four species) where each one must have his own object, one can build a sukkah and let everyone use it to properly fulfill the mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah. Thus, sukkah is a mitzvah through which Klal Yisrael becomes united.

Putting all this together, we see a hint of a common connection between Jews and non-Jews all sharing the Sukkot celebration together, sharing meals in Sukkot in Jerusalem, and maybe all over the Land of Israel, symbolizing God’s and Israel’s forgiveness of the people of the nations for our sins against them, and a forging of a bond of togetherness under the reign of King Messiah.

But in the paragraphs from which I’ve quoted so far, they are talking exclusively about Sukkot and the Jewish people. What about the Gentiles?

Rabbi Bogomilsky answers that question.

Zecharya’s reference to the sukkah is an allegory. He does not mean that in Messianic times the gentile will be obligated to eat in the sukkah together with the Jew, and be punished if he does not fulfill the mitzvah. He means that the gentile world will be expected to practice the lesson conveyed by the mitzvot of the festival of Sukkot. They must forsake their striving for selfish gain and replace it with a sense of responsibility and sharing of privileges with all of humanity. Hence, Zecharya’s words, “Lo ya’alu lachog et chag haSukkot” — “They have refused to go up to celebrate the festival of Sukkot” — can be explained to mean that they have refused to elevate themselves spiritually and realize the message that Sukkot teaches humanity.

Oh. Well so much for the idea of togetherness, forgiveness, and unity in Messiah. R. Bogomilsky ends his article on an uplifting note, but it rings hollow after his previous block of text:

Let us hope and pray that, speedily in our times, we merit the revelation of Mashiach and the rebuilding of the “sukkah of David” which has fallen — the Beit Hamikdash — (see Amos, 9:10, Sanhedrin 96b), and then all of mankind will enjoy the ultimate of harmony, peace, and tranquility.

According to this source, there will be harmony and peace between Gentile and Jew, enjoyed by all humanity, but as I wrote the better part of two months ago, that peace, for the Jew, will be in their nation, in Israel, and the people of the nations will enjoy that peace in each of their (our) nations.

No vacations for Gentiles to Jerusalem during Sukkot.

I suppose this is more in line with the traditional Christian view of whether or not believers should celebrate Jewish holidays:

4th century theologian John Chrysostom said, “The festivals of the pitiful and miserable Jews are soon to march upon us one after the other and in quick succession: the feast of Trumpets, the feast of Tabernacles, the fasts. There are many in our ranks who say they think as we do. Yet some of these are going to watch the festivals and others will join the Jews in keeping their feasts and observing their fasts. I wish to drive this perverse custom from the Church right now.”

Such a strong expression of this view, especially if associated with Anti-Judaism, is not common in the contemporary church. However, it is an exaggeration to claim that Christians in general tend to adopt and adapt Jewish festivals.

-from “Criticism of Christian Observance of Jewish Holidays”
Wikipedia

sukkot jerusalem
Sukkot in Jerusalem

To be fair, there are Christian rebuttals to that criticism:

The Book of Zechariah chapter 14 verse 16 speaks of Gentile nations remaining after the “Lord is king over all the earth”: “And it shall come to pass, that every one that is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall even go up from year to year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the feast of tabernacles.” In both Jewish and Christian eschatology, this scripture refers to a time when the Messiah will come to physically rule in Jerusalem. This reference gives confirmation that future Gentiles are required by the Lord to keep at least an additional feast to Passover and Pentecost: the Feast of Tabernacles.

Christian scholars such as Chuck Missler, Mark Davidson, Steve Cioccolanti and Perry Stone argue that the first four feasts have been fulfilled by Christ’s first coming, therefore the final three feasts will also be fulfilled around the time of Christ’s second coming. The Biblical holidays find their meaning in Messiah, and either commemorates what He has done or what He will do. They are therefore eternal holidays for believers.

You can see why I generally don’t turn to Christian sources regarding Gentile participation in Messianic Times.

I can’t speak to the validity of the information offered by the website for an organization called Light to the Nations, but according to a 1999 article hosted there called Sukkot: A Unique Connection to the Gentiles written by Rabbi Chaim Richman (presumably, the article’s author and the Rabbi Richman associated with the Temple Institute are the same person)…

This Friday evening, we begin to observe the Festival of Sukkot. Of all the sacred seasons that G-d commanded Israel to observe, this festival, also known as the Festival of Tabernacles has the strongest implications for the nations of the world. Even today, vast numbers of Gentiles identify with the holiday of Sukkot, and converge on Jerusalem just to be in the holy city at this time of year. It is as if their heartstrings are pulled by some invisible magnet, the source of which they know not. Some force draws them to connect between Sukkot and the location of the Holy Temple.

In the Written Torah and the Oral Tradition

This is well understood, for it is a connection emphasized by both the written Scriptures and the Oral Tradition. The relationship between the nations and the holiday of Sukkot dates back to ancient times, and arcs through our own period as well…to form a bridge into that future, rectified world that we all yearn and long for, Jew and Gentile alike…the day when “the L-rd and His name will be One” (Zechariah 14:9).

The Sacrifice of Seventy Bulls

During Sukkot in the time of the Holy Temple, a unique sacrifice was offered on the altar…with a unique intention.

In chapter 29 of the book of Numbers, the Bible outlines the sacrifices that are to be offered over the span of the holiday. Counting the number of bulls that are offered over the seven-day period, we find that the total number was seventy. And in chapter 10 of the book of Genesis, there are seventy nations mentioned. These are the primordial nations, sometimes referred to as the “seventy languages,” which represent all humanity. The Talmud (BT Sukkah 55:B) teaches that the seventy bulls that were offered in the Holy Temple served as atonement for the seventy nations of the world. Truly, as the rabbis observed, “if the nations of the world had only known how much they needed the Temple, they would have surrounded it with armed fortresses to protect it” (Bamidbar Rabbah 1, 3).

Here we can already sense that inherent within the very nature of the holiday, an inexorable bond-as expressed through its sacrificial requirements-links it to the earth’s peoples. Sukkot was mandated by the Creator Himself to be a holiday for all the world.

Rabbi Chaim Richman
Rabbi Chaim Richman

Rabbi Richman does go on to quote from relevant portions of Zechariah, but he stops short of stating that Gentiles would actually be involved in celebrating Sukkot with Jews in Jerusalem. “Jerusalem will dwell in security,” but it doesn’t seem that Jewish sources expect Gentiles to dwell or even sojourn with the Jewish people in Jerusalem on Sukkot, in spite of the fact that in the modern world, many, many Christians visit the Holy City during the holiday of the Festival of Booths.

All of this begs the question about whether or not it is appropriate for Gentiles, especially exclusively Gentile groups, to build a kosher (or even non-kosher) Sukkah and to celebrate Sukkot in a traditionally Jewish manner.

As I previously mentioned, even given all that I’ve said, at it’s most elementary level, I build a sukkah every year because my wife is Jewish and I’m her husband. Technically, at least according the Jewish sources I’ve cited, I do not now nor will I have in the future, any duty to actually eat, sleep, or otherwise spend any of my time inside the Sukkah for the full duration of the festival or any bit of it.

Additionally, traditional Christian sources would probably agree with that assessment as well, though for different reasons (“Jesus fulfilled,” and so on, and so forth).

What would seem to be incumbent upon the Gentile is to practice peace by “forsaking our striving for selfish gain and replacing it with a sense of responsibility and sharing of privileges with all of humanity.”

But we don’t have to build, eat, and dwell in a sukkah to do that.

However, I have been trying to write about how the believing Gentile, even one “stranded” on a metaphorical deserted island and isolated from Gentile and Jewish community, still has a relationship with God, a relationship that indeed is desired by God.

So let’s have a short look at the sorts of “shelter” Sara Debbie Gutfreund says a Jew can expect to find in a Sukkah.

  1. The shelter of faith
  2. The shelter of gratitude
  3. The shelter of connection
  4. The shelter of authenticity
  5. The shelter of prayer
  6. The shelter of awe

Let’s take the obviously easy points in the list first. I don’t think anyone, Christian or Jew, can say that it is inappropriate for the Gentile turning to God to experience faith, gratitude, and awe, and to respond with prayer.

If you deny the Gentile the ability to have faith in God, you deny God to the Gentile. And experiencing God to any degree should inspire awe in the spiritually aware person, Gentile as well as Jew. Naturally, realizing that God extended His plan for the redemption of Israel even to the nations of the world should be our inspiration for feeling grateful, and to humbly thank and praise Hashem in prayer.

What about connection?

For a Jew, unity and connection is all about being united and connected with other Jews. As we’ve seen above, that’s (apparently) never extended to Gentiles. Ms Gutfreund says that connection is created by bringing “family and friends” into your Sukkah, but presumably, she’s talking about Jewish family and friends (although with more liberal branches of Judaism and certainly if there are intermarried Jewish members of the family, then you might see Gentiles in some Sukkot).

So who do we get connected to? Even if we don’t build our own Sukkot, I suppose we can still unite with like-minded Gentiles at this time of year, celebrating, in our own fashion, our anticipation of the ultimate age of peace and tranquility.

For the Gentile on the metaphorical deserted island, alone with his/her Bible and prayers, there is still the ability to forge a connection with God. We can still invite Him into our house, even if that house is only our heart and being.

Authenticity? Ms. Gutfreund describes this as:

Close the gap between who you are and how you appear to the world around you. Don’t be afraid to change in order to be truly aligned with your authentic values. Use the space of the sukkah to open the space within that wants to be free.

That doesn’t sound specific to Sukkot necessarily. I think we have a standing directive to re-order our lives to be more in line with God, to draw closer to Him, to conform our lives to His desires increasingly across the passage of time.

I can’t tell you, as a non-Jewish disciple of Rav Yeshua (Jesus) whether you should or shouldn’t build a sukkah or to celebrate the Festival of Sukkot one way or another, or to just ignore it completely.

temple of messiahI can’t tell you in absolute terms if or how the people of the nations of the world will be involved in Sukkot in the Messianic Era. I can relate what I understand of the Jewish and Christian traditions on the matter, but I can’t tell you what God has in mind. For all I know (and in spite of Jewish and Christian traditional interpretations), God really will require Gentile representatives from each of the nations that went to war against Israel to go to Jerusalem, pay homage to King Messiah, and celebrate Sukkot by eating and drinking with Jewish people in Sukkot.

And for all I know, God wouldn’t mind Gentile families booking their vacations in Jerusalem during the Sukkot festival just because it would be an incredible way to experience our participation in the reign of peace and justice brought forth by Israel’s King and ours.

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David’s Fallen Tent in the Wilderness

The Torah states:

“And the Almighty spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai” (Numbers 1:1).

Why does the Torah specify “the wilderness” of the Sinai desert? It would have been sufficient to say “in the Sinai desert”; everyone knows that deserts are wildernesses.

The Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah comments on this verse, “Whoever does not make himself open and free like a wilderness will not be able to acquire wisdom and Torah”. This refers to having the trait of humility which allows a person to learn from everyone and to teach everyone.

An arrogant person will only be willing to learn from someone he feels is befitting his honor. A humble person is only concerned with gaining Torah knowledge and will be grateful to learn new ideas even from one who has less overall knowledge than himself.

The Midrash teaches that the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai because Mt. Sinai was the lowest of all the mountains. This symbolizes that if a person wants to receive wisdom he must be humble. If he is full of himself there is little room for anything else.

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
Commentary on Torah Portion Bamidbar
Based on Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s book
Growth Through Torah
Aish.com

Wow, speaking of arrogance and humility. Rabbi Pliskin’s message as presented by Rabbi Packouz came along at the right time.

As I mentioned a few days ago, I’ve been pondering my wife’s accusation of my being arrogant in my approach to attending church and presenting my particular (and from their point of view, unique) perspective on the Bible, the Messiah, Jewish people, and Judaism. How dare I walk into someone else’s house and tell them they should redecorate, what color to paint the walls, and that their taste in art is hideous?

Well, hopefully, I wasn’t that bad, but sometimes it feels like it.

As Ben Zoma said:

Who is one that is wise? One who learns from every person.

Pirkei Avot 4:1

I am inexorably drawn toward learning from Jewish sources, and yet when I try to enthusiastically share what I’ve learned with my fellow Christians, I feel like I’m the only guy in the room speaking Martian.

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Rabbi Zelig Pliskin

Interestingly enough, I have learned a lot by going to church. Not so much in the areas of theology or doctrine, although it’s been illuminating to capture the Evangelical perception of theology and doctrine, but in the areas of history, both Church history and the more generic kind, church social dynamics, and…brace yourself…kindness.

No matter how much of a pest I make of myself, people are still smiling at me, reaching out to me, offering to listen to my woes (should I ever share them in person), and to pray for me.

Who is wise? One who learns from every person, including every person at church. Yes, there is much to learn. I have to remember that church isn’t just theology and doctrine, it’s action. It’s the perpetual food drive I donate to every time I go to church, dedicated to feeding the hungry in our local community. It’s the missionary effort around the world, serving people who have never heard of the compassion of Christ, it’s visiting the sick, offering comfort to the grieving, providing care and education for little children.

“What we think, or what we know, or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only consequence is what we do.”

-John Ruskin

Ironically, most Christians are so “works-phobic” that they don’t count their own good deeds (mitzvot) as really meaning anything in the cosmic economy of God, more’s the pity, because it’s what the Church does best.

I don’t have as much to complain about as I think:

“A child, for example, cuts his finger and screams the house down. An adult cuts his finger and gets on with life. Children live in the here and now, so a child has no context for his pain. There is no meaningful future to look forward to, just the immediacy of the pain. An adult realizes that the pain will pass and life will be good again in spite it. He doesn’t suffer. And, by the way, why is it that when you hug and kiss a child the pain seems to go? It’s not the pain that goes, it’s the suffering. You have given the child a meaningful context for the pain – the context of a parent’s love. The child still feels the pain, but with a newfound context for it, he no longer suffers.

“An adult must find his own meaning in his pain. Sometimes it is obvious, as in the case of a woman in labor. Sometimes it is a little harder. But when he or she can look at the pain as a means to grow, a means to develop deeper self-understanding, then the pain remains, but the suffering will be forgotten.

“Everyone goes through pain in life. But not one of us has to suffer if we do not want to.

“Again, the choice is ours.”

-Rabbi Packouz

Rebbe
Rabbi M.M Schneerson, the Rebbe

R. Packouz is referring to tremendous human suffering and agonizing pain, not simply being frustrated when people around me don’t take my point of view seriously. What I am experiencing isn’t as painful as even a child’s cut finger. But I still gave in to the temptation to say, “ouch.”

I’ve started reading Sue Fishkoff’s book The Rebbe’s Army, and in the first chapter, she relates (pg 17):

The Besht’s (the Baal Shem Tov or Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer) message was revolutionary. His followers broke with certain Jewish norms, adopting specific dress and customs and making ritual modifications, all of which horrified the Jewish establishment.

I don’t know if I’ve “horrified” anyone, but I’m certainly shaking up the establishment here and there. Fishkoff also writes of the Besht:

“I have come into this world to show man how to live by three precepts,” he said. “Love of God, love of Israel, and love of the Torah.”

If I can have a similar purpose within my own context, then it wouldn’t be just me wielding my opinion like a sword, but the will of God to teach how to love and how to focus love.

Not that my fellow Christians are ignorant about love. Many, as I’ve said above, love greatly and demonstrate that love abundantly, particularly to the Jewish people. I just want to help illustrate that there is no dissonance between loving the Jewish people, loving Israel, loving the Torah, and loving God. There is no dissonance between loving Jewish people and realizing that means accepting and approving Jewish people loving the Torah, loving Israel, and loving God, including Messianic Jewish people.

Since I frequently read material published online by Aish.com, I often come across quotes of Rabbi Pliskin’s work, such as the one I cited above. I decided it was long past due to actually purchase one of his books, so after I finish Fishkoff’s book, I’ll be consulting (since it’s a Torah commentary) Growth Through Torah.

From what I can tell about R. Pliskin from his writing, he seems to stress compassion and kindness toward others. He seems like the sort of person who desires peace in the world and peace between people, rather than always banging heads over this theological point or that.

Chuck Jones
Chuck Jones

In many ways, we are at war in the world, battling against ignorance, hostility, brutality, and indifference, but if all we do…I do is fight, then I’ve simply redoubled my efforts after forgetting my purpose (a lesson I learned from Chuck Jones when he was describing his philosophy behind creating Wile E. Coyote to a film class I once attended).

I still don’t want to be too quick in deciding what I’m going to do next, so I’m not going to hastily pursue a conclusion.

On the other hand, there is this…

Giving up is a final solution to a temporary problem.

-anonymous holocaust survivor

And this…

While most Hasidim restrict their personal dealings to Jews, and some even to Jews within their own ultra-Orthodox communities, Lubavitchers have never been insular. Their first interest is in kindling the sparks within Jewish souls, but since the early 1980s they have widened their appeal to include non-Jews, whom they urge to remain within their own religions while obeying the seven laws God gave to Noah … This is crucial because only when all God’s divine sparks are released and reunited with the Divine Oneness will God’s purpose be achieved. “Our job is to make a dwelling place for God in the lower world,” says Rabbi Sholtiel Lebovic … “We try to make the world a more and more godly place, until the coming of Moshiach [the Messiah].”

-Fishkoff, pg 22

Although many Orthodox Jews, including Chabadniks, look down their noses at Gentiles and particularly Christians, here we see a perspective that acknowledges all human beings are “sparks” thrown off by the Divine Oneness, and only by all of those sparks being united with their Source can the world be prepared for the coming (return) of the King.

I’m one of those small sparks. But so is each and every individual soul at the church I attend, and each and every individual soul in all of the churches in the world. They’re just waiting for someone to discover them, reveal them, and free them, so they can fly…so they can soar.

I should take a fresh look at the blueprints for that tent again and see if God really wants me to help build it.

Reviewing the Meaning of Midrash: Part 5

We’ve explained why midrash and aggadah are so vital to our Torah diet. We’ve explained that these stories speak to us from a higher plane of reality. And we’ve also demonstrated that even if you don’t get it, you still do get it—meaning that you’ve still got truth even if you’re clueless to the meaning inside.

We’ve also provided some guidelines to determine whether a story is an anecdote or a parable. Now, let’s take a test case. Let’s look at a story of the Talmud and see what’s meant literally, what’s meant to point to something deeper, and how it could be true for everyone on their level.

-Tzvi Freeman and Yehuda Shurpin
Death by Secrets
Part 5 of “Is Midrash For Real?”
Chabad.org

That’s a really nice summary of the past four articles compressed into just a couple of paragraphs. Now’s the test. Run an actual story through the matrix and see if it makes sense. This last commentary by R. Freeman and R. Shurpin is quite a bit shorter than their previous missives. I could probably copy and paste the whole thing here and then comment on it, but I don’t think I’ll do that. You have the link above to see all of the contents.

So what’s the story they want to test?

Rabbah taught, “A man is obligated to get drunk on Purim until he cannot distinguish between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai.’”

Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira held their Purim feast together. They became drunk. Rabbah got up and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira. The next day, Rabbah pleaded for divine mercy, and brought Rabbi Zeira back to life. A year passed, and Rabbah said to Rabbi Zeira, “Come, let us hold the Purim feast together!” Rabbi Zeira replied, “Miracles don’t happen every day.”

I’ve heard this one before. This story circulates every Purim (and as I write this, it is still before Purim). The commentary from Chabad tells us something useful right away.

In this case, I guarantee this is not meant to be taken at face value.

In other words, even if these two esteemed Ravs got drunk on Purim, it wasn’t to the degree that Rabbah murdered and then resurrected Rabbi Zeira. But then what does it mean and more importantly, how does this story ”speak to us from a higher plane of reality?”

Here’s where the title “Death by Secrets” comes in.

What we appear to be dealing with in this case is a real-life anecdote told in figurative terms. Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira were drunk, but not from the wine; and Rabbah slaughtered Rabbi Zeira, but not with a slaughtering knife. Everything was good, very good—to the point that Rabbah was ready to go it again. Just not something that us amateurs should attempt without clinical supervision.

Leon ZernitzkyWhat? OK, I was fine with ”a real-life anecdote told in figurative terms,” but what does it mean that Rabbi Zeira was “slaughtered but not with a knife” and “everything was very good and Rabbah was ready to go again?” Go at what?

”When wine enters,” the Talmud tells us, “secrets come out.” Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, in his classic Shnei Luchot ha-Brit, describes how great sages and holy men would consume much wine and celebrate—and the channels of their mind would open so that the deepest secrets of the Torah would flow out of their mouths.

Interrupting the narrative for a moment. Sounds like something Carlos Castaneda was trying to do; apprehend Yaqui Indian sorcery through the use of mind-altering drugs. But to continue…

He cites stories of the Talmud to this effect. Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, in his commentary to the Torah, Ohr ha-Chaim, describes how it was these secrets that emerged through the drinking of wine that carried Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron, to death as their souls departed from their bodies in ecstatic divine love.

Now, Rabbah was able to imbibe these secrets and remain alive, as his name implies: rab means “great.” But Rabbi Zeira could not contain such intense light: ze’ir means “small.” So Rabbah’s sharing of mystical secrets created such a great thirst for divine union in Rabbi Zeira’s soul that it departed, and his body was left dead.  The next day is no longer Purim—no longer a day for escaping all bounds and limitations, but a day for fulfilling your purpose down here on earth inside a physical body—so Rabbah dutifully resurrects his colleague.

The next year, Rabbah had no regrets, and was ready to perform the same clinical procedure on Rabbi Zeira once again—take him for a ride up to heaven and back again the next morning. Or perhaps he figured Rabbi Zeira had enough time to also attain a higher level, and would be able to hang in there.

So we aren’t to believe that Rabbah literally murdered Rabbi Zeira but we are expected to believe that under the influence of alcohol, Rabbah’s “secrets” were spilled out, and he took Rabbi Zeira on an unexpected ride to heaven and then back to earth the next day.

Uh-huh.

Rabbi Zeira decided he didn’t want a second trip to heaven the following year, not because it would drive him to the point of insanity and even kill him, but because of his great humility.

Uh-huh.

But then Freeman and Shurpin give a more down-to-earth answer:

Whatever the case, the lesson remains the same: Don’t get carried away with your wine, no matter its substance. Keep your feet on the ground. If you know you’re the type to be easily carried away when drinking, avoid it altogether.

Purim in JerusalemSo it all depends on what kind of person you become when you get drunk. That’s the moral of the story and it seems to be the most useful lesson being taught, especially when imbibing at a celebration where others are present.

To be honest, I’m a little disappointed. That’s quite a build up to a conclusion that seems so pedestrian. I mentioned in last week’s review that based on Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi, it’s not the more believable story that’s “real” but the most interesting tale.

Here we have three selections:

  1. The literal meaning: Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira got drunk on Purim to the degree that Rabbah murdered Rabbi Zeira and, when he sobered up the next day, begged for divine mercy and resurrected Rabbi Zeira. The next year, Rabbi Zeira turned down Rabbah’s invitation to celebrate again because he couldn’t count on a second miracle should he die again.
  2. The higher or mystic meaning: Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira got drunk on Purim, and Rabbah’s mystic secrets poured forth to the degree that he escorted Rabbi Zeira on an “unscheduled” trip to the heavenly realms (which rendered such ecstatic joy it killed him) and returned him to earth the next day (bringing him back to life). The following year, Rabbi Zeira turned down Rabbah’s invitation to a second trip because of his great humility.
  3. The underlying truth: Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira probably did get drunk together on one Purim but because of his host’s behavior or perhaps his own (some people are less pleasant or controlled when drunk), Rabbi Zeira declined a subsequent invitation, being concerned about a repeat of previous events.

The moral of all three stories is, if you know you get too excited or carried away while drunk, avoid social situations that require alcohol consumption.

As far as which story you want to apply to the moral, I guess it depends on which one you find the most interesting or, if “interesting” isn’t what you want from your morality tales, which one seems the most plausible.

What Did I Learn?

I learned what I already knew, to take mystic and midrashic tales with a grain of salt. Don’t get me wrong. I love a good metaphor and a fantastic saga. I believe they can contain great truths about the reality of our lives. I just don’t think that contained within these stories are a higher mystic reality and must be objectively real. I don’t believe Rabbi killed Rabbi Zeirg with a knife because they were exceedingly drunk and then resurrected him the next day. Nor do I believe that under the influence of wine, the two of them took a trip to heaven in massive, mind-blowing joy and then returns the next day, anymore than I believe that any of Carlos Castenada’s adventures under the influence of hallucinogens were anymore than what a person experiences in a chemically induced, mind-altering state.

Hasidic New WaveI’m sorry, I just don’t. I believe that, however these tales came about, they result in lessons of ethical and moral behavior that are designed to illuminate the communities in which the revered Talmudic sages resided. I wish I could say they were more than that. I really do like reading them and I do learn from each one. I guess I make a pretty lousy Jewish mystic. However, if you’re interested in reading more examples of Chasidic Tales, go to the Chabad webpage Stories from the Midrash.

Reviewing the Meaning of Midrash: Part 4

Heaven forbid we should tell a child an untruth! It is a Jewish custom, and a Jewish custom is also Torah—the Torah of truth. Everything the child is told is true: Those who throw the candies are doing it on behalf of the archangel Michael, the angel who seeks out the merits of the Jewish people. The sweetness of the candies is the sweetness of Torah as it descends and clothes itself in a physical object.

An adult won’t accept this, because he sees that he, and not an angel, is the one throwing the candies. When a child is older, we can explain to him that this is only a garb for something much higher. But when he is a three-year-old child just beginning his education, we tell him these things clothed in a story, and he has no problems with any of it. Nevertheless, when he grasps the outer clothing, the child grasps the archangel Michael, and the sweetness of Torah, and all the truth that is within that clothing!

-Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson
from talks of Shabbat Parshat Pinchas 5734 and 8th day of Chanukah 5739
(translated, combined and abridged)

If you’ve been following this series, by now you should know that when you come across a fabulous story from the Midrash, you need to peel back the covers to discover what it’s trying to tell you. The stories are all true stories—just not necessarily the way things were able to unfold in our physically limited realm. This reality is not the ultimate expression of truth.

-Tzvi Freeman and Yehuda Shurpin
Limitless Truth for the Limited Mind
Part 4 of “Is Midrash For Real?”
Chabad.org

In the first quote above, the Rebbe is describing the traditional custom of celebrating a small child’s first day attending cheder (A Jewish schoolroom) by throwing candies at him from behind and then telling him it was the archangel Michael who had thrown them.

I suppose from an outsider’s point of view, it seems as innocent as the stories we tell our children about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, which of course they believe at the time, but realize are mere fictions as they grow older.

But the Rebbe declares, “Heaven forbid we should tell a child an untruth!” Anyone who has pretended with their child that there really is a Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy doesn’t think they’re lying. They think they’re upholding a family and cultural tradition, just as the Rebbe states that attributing thrown candy to the archangel Michael is a Jewish custom.

OK, so far, so good. But then he says, “It is a Jewish custom, and a Jewish custom is also Torah—the Torah of truth. Everything the child is told is true…” Most parents outside of Orthodox Judaism aren’t going to extend their customs and say they operate as truths on some other level, and yet the Rebbe calls this custom (and many other Jewish customs) “Torah…the Torah of truth.”

This is a continuation of last week’s article and review and so far, I am no more illuminated now than I was then. Although I know there is a difference between the truth and a fact, I can’t see saying that Michael threw the candies represents an actual intent operating in the angelic realm that Michael expects this sort of action to occur. Does the tradition compel a change in angelic reality or do the Sages imagine that every tradition generated by the great Rabbis must originate from on high?

It is considered inappropriate to relate the midrashim to those who are unable to tell the difference between literal facts and an underlying or supernal truth, but here we have an example of doing so with a three-year old child who absolutely takes his elders’ word about candies and the archangel Michael as both truth and fact.

Historically, that just hasn’t been the case. Many, if not most of these midrashim are collections from sermons of popular rabbis of past generations. To whom were they sermonizing? To whoever came and listened: men, women and children—most of them simple folk.

So historically, most of the Rabbis most of the time compounded this problem by speaking the midrashim in sermons to simple folk who also, like small children, may not have been able to differentiate between the literalness of an event and an underlying truth, even on the level of metaphor. Why isn’t this a problem?

Truth doesn’t grow where falseness is planted. We must say that even as they are understood on their most basic level, each of these stories is absolute truth.

But how is that so? Either fine clothes will be growing on trees when Moshiach comes, or they will not. Can we say that for the small child they will do so literally, while for the sophisticated adult they will do so only figuratively?

Good question.

The question is not on midrashic aggadah alone. The Hebrew Bible is filled with anthropomorphism—G‑d’s eyes and hands, His wrath, His disappointment and His love, G‑d as king, G‑d as father—all understood by innocent and simple people exactly as stated.

Oh no you don’t. There’s a world of difference in describing certain attributes of God by metaphor, for after all, God doesn’t really have physical qualities like a human being, and juxtaposing that with some of the fantastic tales we find in midrash. I have to cry “foul” on this example.

Nevertheless, the question remains: How could the Torah—a Torah of truth—mislead the innocent reader of simple faith?

Again, good question.

Indeed, Rabbi Abraham ben David (known as Raavad) criticized Maimonides for making this ruling. He himself agreed that G‑d has no form, physical or otherwise. What he could not bear is the condemnation, as he writes, of “many who were better than him [meaning Maimonides (!)] who believed such things due to their innocent reading of the text.”

The Jewish PaulThis is something of a side topic, but as I read the two paragraphs above, I couldn’t help but think of the struggles we have in Christianity with Biblical interpretation, especially when it collides headlong with some of the alternate interpretations I find in different corners of Messianic Judaism and what has been called the new perspective on Paul.

From my point of view, many in the church have “believed” Christian interpretive traditions “due to their innocent reading of the text,” while from my (and other’s) point of view, that tradition and innocent reading of the text is based on a two-thousand year old mistake that does not reflect the true Gospel message of the Bible.

But this speaks of differences in how to interpret the Biblical text. Midrash is something else and is understood differently, even as it is addressed to the written Torah.

“Better than him,” writes Rabbi Abraham. Even though they believe something about G‑d that he himself agrees is utterly false! What is so wonderful about people who cannot fathom a formless G‑d?

To answer that question, we need to readjust our thinking about several issues: about Torah, about reality, and about human language.

OK, buckle up and get ready for the ride.

R. Menachem Azariah was concerned with a statement of the Talmud, that the Torah sometimes exaggerates.

R. Menachem Azariah writes, “Heaven forbid that the Torah should exaggerate! Everything in the Torah is truth—even the lies the characters of the Torah tell are truth. For in a Torah of truth, there is no room for inaccuracies, never mind exaggeration.

One of the supposed exaggerations in Talmud has to do with the report of the spies who were sent into Canaan to scope out the land (Deuteronomy 1:28) stating that the cities were “fortified up to the heavens” (Talmud, Chullin 90b and Tamid 29a).

Like last week’s example explaining why it is true in midrash that Moses was fifteen feet tall and yet in the written record we have in Torah, there’s no indication that Moses was seen as unusually tall, the description of impossibly high boundaries around the great cities is rationalized as a way of saying how the external ministering angels could not enter the boundaries of the land (Rabbi Menachem Azariah of Fano, Asarah Maamarot, Maamar Chikur Din, part 3, chapter 22).

In other words, Talmud does not exaggerate (Heaven forbid), it simply reveals greater truths about the observations of the spies in Canaan than are revealed in a plain reading the written Torah text (don’t forget the four “departments” or PARDES).

Ramban
Ramban

I feel like I’m running around in the same circle I was while I was writing last week’s review. Nothing new to see here. Really. I’m sorry. I’m just not convinced. I’ll buy that Talmud doesn’t exaggerate, at least for the sake of exaggeration, but it can employ metaphor to describe just how daunting and impenetrable the great cities of Canaan seemed to be to the Israelite spies. That’s not an untruth, it’s a poetic description to communicate an important point to the audience. This is a perfectly legitimate literary device to use, even when describing actual events.

Unfortunately, the Rabbinic commentary completely flips things around.

To R. Menachem Azariah, that itself is the meaning of exaggeration in Torah—not an inflation of the facts, but a statement of a higher truth that cannot be expressed in our physical world. Torah, however, speaks only secondarily about our physical world—and in a world higher than our own, there is certainly some very real manifestation of this truth.

The “higher truth” of which the Torah primarily speaks is also the “higher reality,” and actual, observable, factual events are relegated to playing second fiddle in the mystic Jewish tapestry of God’s interactions with Israel, at least as understood by some of the sages.

I think I like Ramban better than Azariah.

Ramban (Nachmanides) had written that the Torah speaks about earthly matters and alludes to spiritual ones.

The great Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero presented a unique understanding…

This is a radically original way of thinking of metaphor in Torah: all that exists in our reality is nothing more than an analogy derived from the true reality to which it points. As the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, explained this view, G‑d gave us a hand and eyes and ears so that we could understand the true hand and eyes and ears as they are above. And the same with all that we find in our world. The whole world is one big parable, a crystallized analogue of the real thing.

So it is our physical, observable reality that is the parable, and the parables of midrash that represent true and higher reality. Rather than saying God has arms or eyes by way of analogy, describing and indescribable God in terms mere mortals can comprehend, the “arms” and “eyes” of God represent “divine verbs,” so to speak, indications of His activity, while we are given physical equivalent body parts as a way to “understand” something about God.

Freeman and Shurpin are right. This is “a radically original way of thinking of metaphor in Torah.” One that my western, Gentile mind doesn’t want to accept. I feel like Neo (Keanu Reeves) in the film The Matrix (1999) where everything I ever thought was real turned out to be a complex illusion and “reality” exists almost completely outside my experience.

Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne): Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

However in the case of midrash, everyone can be told what “the Matrix” is, the chore is understanding and accepting without seeing it for ourselves, that is, experiencing the “reality” that the midrashic Sages expect us to comprehend beyond the simple meaning of metaphor.

Can a metaphor be a truth, not just in telling of some moral or ethical principle, but can it have a life of its own, so to speak, an independent heavenly meaning that transcends the mere symbolic representation between metaphor describing an event and the event itself? How can metaphor come from “above” and why should we not understand midrash as a product of a Rabbi’s fertile imagination in attempting to communicate a complex topic in simple, easy to digest terms?

Except we have an equation that I cannot resolve. Jewish tradition is Torah and Torah is always truth.

In my past conversations with Pastor Randy at the church I attend, he has asked me repeatedly “what is Torah” and the answer has always seemed elusive. Perhaps, if anything labeled “Torah,” no matter how outrageous, must always be truth, and many, many things beyond the written text are labeled, “Torah,” then I can see the source of his confusion, and admittedly, mine.

All of this will become clearer if we examine this metaphor of the metaphor: clothing. Why do ideas need clothing?

An author wishes to communicate an idea, an ethic or a perspective on life. If he would spell it out in the raw, the point won’t come across. He needs something that will carry his audience from their perspective to his, so that they will see that which is currently imperceptible to them. He can’t pick them up and take them there, and he can’t plop his mind into their brains.

Torah at SinaiI think the Rabbis are clothing the midrash and the definition of metaphor in an unnecessarily complicated way. Something can be “truth” and “not fiction” and still not have to be fact on any plane of existence and still function as a teaching tool and a guide. I know mystics are defining a lot of these concepts and I make a lousy mystic, but in order to assign mysticism a validity, you must subscribe not only to the existence of a supernatural world, which we do as religious Christians and Jews, but that Rabbinic Sages can peel back the covering over the written word in the Bible and uncover an objective, mystical reality underneath, much as one might remove the clothing from one’s beloved to reveal her greater beauty.

It’s all very poetic and even compelling, but I recently read a commentary by an Aish Rabbi saying that Christianity is a religion of (blind) faith, while Judaism is a religion of word, documentation, and truth. I’d like to get the Aish Rabbi and Rabbis Freeman and Shurpin together and listen to them engage in a frank discussion of their viewpoints.

Actually, my metaphor of unclothing a beautiful lover to reveal even greater beauty may not be correct.

But what he can do is find clothing that fits the subject and makes it presentable, that hides whatever is distracting them and brings out the highlights he wants to point out. As good clothing brings out the natural beauty of the subject, so a good parable brings out a depth otherwise ineffable. Paradoxically, both do so through concealment—concealment for the sake of revealing a deeper beauty.

Are we removing clothing, the outer material world, to reveal a greater beauty beneath, or is the metaphor, the midrash, clothing in which we dress the material world in order to show a more majestic appearance?

Bruno Bettelheim is best known for his classic work of child psychology, “The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.” He criticizes the “narrow-minded rationalists” who object to telling children fantasies, pointing out the value children receive from these stories in dealing with the emotions and turmoil of life. As for the unrealism, he writes that this is “an important device, because it makes obvious that the fairy tales’ concern is not useful information about the external world, but the inner process taking place in an individual.” In short, “The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue . . .”

The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, seems to be going beyond this. When a small child is told that the archangel Michael threw candies at him, that is very real to him. He imagines the angel there in the room, and the candies become very precious candies. And yet it is not a lie.

Most cultures have some sort of tradition of fables or folk tales that serve important purposes in educating their population, both children and adults. Usually the more industrially and technologically advanced a culture, the less room there is for folk tales that have any semblance of seeming “true” (Do kids even learn about “Paul Bunyan” or “Pecos Bill” in grade school anymore?). In the western world right now, many of our folk heroes are characters from 1960s comic books who are being brought to life in films such as The Avengers (2012) and Man of Steel (2013) (with Captain America: The Winter Soldier being released to theaters in less than a month).

But no one is suggesting that Superman or Captain America have a “reality” of their own that not only operates as a metaphor for our real world but that represents the best and truest form of our world. No one really believes that we are only a shadow of that higher existence of heroes, superpowers, and fantastic worlds that we see in film and television.

Midrash, even though we encounter it outside of its original, aged and ancient places of origin, meeting it here in the modern world, nevertheless demands that we accept it on its own terms.

I think the central message I’m getting here is that the very manner in which Freeman and Shurpin (and Orthodox Judaism) describe Midrash and metaphor is by way of metaphor. They rewrite how we understand the words “midrash, “Torah,” “reality,” and “language” in order to support a mystic vision of metaphor that lies in neither this world nor the next, but somewhere in-between.

against the darkIn his introduction to the 1963 episodes of the Twilight Zone television series, Rod Serling said in part, “You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas…” (the text of Serling’s now-classic introduction to this series changed a bit over time). This seems to be not only where we cross over into the Twilight Zone but where we meet the realm of midrash as well.

I don’t mean to sound unkind or disrespectful in my descriptions. I’m only illustrating how I understand what is being presented in this article as I encounter it. I really do feel I’m being asked to enter into a space that sits on a fence between my world and someplace else, evaluating a “fairy tale” as fanciful metaphor and ethical principle wrapped up in the gossamer fabric of Jewish lived experience.

Some are stuck with a very pedestrian view of the Talmud and Midrash as nothing more than a repository of teachings from various teachers—teachers they imagine to be much like themselves, prone to exaggeration for the sake of making a point. Such a view is sorely insufficient at explaining Jewish practice and belief.

Unfortunately, that describes me to a “T”. I’m willing to admit that I may be at fault here and that it is my human, Goyishe limitations that prevent me from seeing midrash as it’s being presented to me, but as inadequate as the Rabbis would believe me to be, I find it difficult to cast off my tethers to the world around me and enter their’s without so much as a safety net or even a soft pillow to cushion my eventual fall.

Next week’s article is called “Death by Secrets” and the title alone is worth the price of admission. It’s the last article in the series. Will Freeman and Shurpin be able to pull off an eleventh hour save and convince me that midrash actually does exist beyond just imagination?

Or should I, like last week, believe that midrash is the Chabad’s answer to Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi and accept that the better story is also the more “real” story?

For additional reading, try this brief and succinct article, Is the Midrash Literal?

Reviewing the Meaning of Midrash: Part 3

We’re used to considering the precise measurements of our world as the final arbiter of all truth. It might help to jump to an event in Mezhibuzh, Ukraine, a century or two after Maharal:

…One of the homeowners of Mezhibuzh was involved in a nasty dispute with another resident of the town. It happened that while in the Baal Shem Tov’s presence, in his shul, he yelled that he was going to rip the other guy apart like a fish.

The Baal Shem Tov told his pupils to hold one another’s hand, and to stand near him with their eyes tightly closed.

He then placed his holy hands on the shoulders of the two disciples next to him. Suddenly the disciples began shouting in great terror: They had seen how that fellow had actually ripped his disputant apart like a fish…

Now, what if I ask you, “Did a resident of Mezhibuzh tear apart his disputant like a fish?”

You might answer, “Well, not really.” Problem is, I have witnesses. Very reliable ones. And they all saw exactly the same thing.

But can the perpetrator be charged in court for bodily harm? Problem is, his disputant is still walking around without a scratch.

So, which world is real?

-Tzvi Freeman and Yehuda Shurpin
“Midrash and Reality:
Part 3 of ‘Is Midrash For Real?'”
Chabad.org

This one made my head hurt. In this article, the authors and their sources tell me that I’m not supposed to take midrash, even those telling fantastic and impossible tales, as if they are mere metaphors. They are also true and while fiction can contain truths, they are also real in a mystical sense.

Rabbi Yehuda Loewe of Prague (known as the “Maharal of Prague”) was adamant: Torah is not fiction. Jews consider the words of their sages that have been recorded in the Talmud and Midrash to be Torah, no less divine than the Five Books of Moses. Once they were accepted by the general community of observant Jews as works to be studied and revered as Torah, they attain a status of G‑d’s own thoughts, arguments He has with Himself and stories He tells Himself. And if the Creator of the universe is telling it, it’s real.

And further:

On the one hand, you have to know that every story told and recorded by the rabbis of the Talmud is true. They are Torah, just as much as a verse from scripture or a halachah kept by all Jews is Torah.

MidrashThis is the part that makes my head hurt. Titus destroys the Temple and God assigns a gnat to eat his brain so that seven years later, upon the death of Titus, it is discovered that the gnat with metal claws reduced the size of the man’s brain to that of a year-old pigeon’s brain.

Moses is ten cubits tall (about fifteen feet) but no where in the Torah, which I mean as the five books of Moses, is this noted nor does anyone, Pharaoh,  Moshe’s wife, his father-in-law, his brother, seem to notice.

And yet these things are not only “Torah” but they are real?

Now, reading the chronicles of Roman historians, you won’t find anything about this gnat. Titus, they tell you, died of a fever. At any rate, metal claws on a big bug is a tad outrageous.

So, one scholarly Italian Jew named Azariah dei Rossi explained, “This is just aggadah.” It didn’t really happen. It’s just that the sages wanted to impress on people that G‑d can always find a way to punish the wicked, so they told this story.

So this really is a metaphorical tale to illustrate a moral point. It contains a truth but it is not objectively real.

So, Maharal tells us that the real Moses truly was fifteen feet tall. Not the one that Pharaoh saw, or that the fleeing shepherds saw. They saw only the physical shell of Moses, as he is invested in a body within our physical world—a world that for several reasons can’t manage a ten-cubit human form. But Moses is a complete person, and ten is the number of completeness. He should have been ten cubits tall—would the physical world be capable of such a thing. Certainly, writes Maharal, whatever could be reflected in the physical world was reflected, and Moses was likely taller than the average human being. But not as tall as he really was.

Am I supposed to believe that in some supernal realm, the person of Moses is really fifteen feet tall, but that he only appeared to be of a normal human height in our world because that was not the “real” Moses, and our physical world could not contain all the Moses was and is?

That’s a lot to swallow. As I keep saying, I can accept the metaphorical nature of the midrashic stories, but I have a tough time making the conceptual leap into the world the Rabbi’s suggest I accept. Maybe, harkening back to last week’s review, I am a “bigger fool.” It’s not that I don’t “get” what Freeman and Shurpin are saying, I just don’t believe in the literal reality of these “deeper meanings” as having a truth and a life of their own in an objective sense.

Maharal takes the same approach to the gnat in Titus’ brain. The sages are not concerned with telling us a story for the medical annals. Their concern is to present to us the real Titus and his true destiny. Did a physical gnat enter his brain? Perhaps not, writes the Maharal. But the story is still true, because the gnat got in there anyways. Every living creature has its essential quality that makes it uniquely what it is—and the essential quality of the gnat made its way in. This essential quality, if it could be seen, would appear in its most intense state with a mouth of bronze and iron claws.

hidden-keeperUnless evidence to the contrary appears, I’m not inclined to believe on any level, essential or otherwise,  that a gnat with bronze or iron claws was involved in the death of Titus. I can believe that God metes out justice upon the wicked, though not always in this life.

But the view of midrash I’m asked to accept isn’t one in which the Rabbis parse out words of wisdom in mythical or fanciful form to illustrate a “truth” alluded to by the plain text of a story, either in the Bible our outside of it.

Maharal sums up his approach in one simple line: “The sages do not speak of the physical at all; they speak of a world stripped of physicality.” Every midrashic teaching is a peek behind the veil, dressing deep truths in language that is meant to reveal an inner world. If that language seems foolish to us, it is only because we have not yet cracked the code. We are grabbing the clothes, the words, as though they themselves were their own meaning.

This is an attractive way to think about the universe, with hidden corners, metaphysical alleyways, mystical portals through which the sages are able to peer and then relate what they’ve seen to the rest of us. I wish I could believe it. I know in some manner the sages were granted the ability to issue rulings equal to what we have in the inspired Bible. I know that in Judaism, canon is never quite closed and there is always another revelation concealed in the Bible’s “code.”

But I’m not going for it. I’m not jumping headlong into believing that the sages, wise and learned though they may be, actually see into a non-physical reality beyond our mortal plane and what they relate in their teachings and writings represents a divine truth equal to the Word of God.

It is true that Ezekiel, the apostle John, and even Paul, the letter writer, each had their own mystic experiences, either physically or through visions, where they literally saw and heard things that do not exist in our own universe, but to attribute this same ability, or some shadowy version of it, to each and every sage to has told a midrashic tale ultimately recorded in Talmud is too far for me to go.

Now a systematic approach to midrash had been laid out clearly by Maimonides and Maharal. But that raises a new question, perhaps a more difficult one: If the point of midrash is not the story itself, but that which it contains, not the foreground but the background, and if anyone who understands these stories literally is a fool—then how is it that we tell these stories to children and simple folk, who certainly take them at face value? Are we to hide all of these tales from them? Have we been doing things wrong all these centuries?

I still believe it’s important for Christians to have at least a slightly passing knowledge of midrash considering that this interpretative method may well have been in use during the Apostolic era. This understanding may help us pierce the veil traditional Christian exegesis has cast over the Bible for the past nearly two-thousand years, blinding ourselves to the way the New Testament scriptures were written and intended to be read.

But that’s still a far cry from the “reality” of Midrash as opposed to the metaphorical truths midrashic tales can contain. I guess I wouldn’t make a very good mystic or even a very good Jewish person.

I did take way something quite positive from this week’s article however:

Adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan): So which story do you prefer?
Writer (Rafe Spall): The one with the tiger. That’s the better story.
Adult Pi Patel: Thank you. And so it goes with God.
Writer: [smiles] It’s an amazing story.

-from the film Life of Pi (2012)

dimuI’ve never seen the film but I have read the book (which I highly recommend, by the way), and this bit of dialog is the key to understanding the author’s message. The book and the film speak of a fantastic tale of survival at sea of both a boy named Pi and an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker who share a small lifeboat together.

Toward the end of the story, after many adventures, Pi and Richard Parker, the only survivors of a shipwreck seven months before, land on the shores of Mexico. The tiger disappears into the jungle forever, and Pi is rescued and eventually tells his story. Although the story of Pi and the tiger commands most of the book, he does tell a much more believable if horrible story of murder, starvation, cannibalism, and near-insanity that could also account for Pi’s survival.

But Pi asks the writer who is chronicling his early life, “So which story do you prefer?” It’s as if the sages are asking the same question about midrash. We accept “truth” if not “fact” from the more interesting story. That’s what midrash means, at least to me.

Or maybe midrash is God telling “the better story.” And so it goes.

Book Review: Mishnah and the Words of Jesus

Midrash is the art of keeping an ancient text alive. The Rabbis were masters of drawing water from stone, of transforming the most mundane passages of Torah into luminous nuggets of spirituality.

-Ismar Schorsch
“Accountability,” pg 330, March 8, 2003
Commentary on Torah Portion Pekudei
from his book Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

Probably anyone who has ever focused on the teachings of Jesus is aware that he was a product of the religious milieu that emerged in the 1st century of the present era.

-Roy B. Blizzard
“Chapter 3: A Good Eye”
Mishnah and the Words of Jesus (Kindle Edition)

I sometimes complain that certain teachers and scholars in the realm of Messianic Judaism periodically “flirt” with taking some of the various texts compiled in the Talmud and anachronistically applying them, some composed many centuries after the Apostolic Era, to the letters of Paul and the teachings of Jesus. If we were to assume that the author of, for example, the Zohar (which is not part of the Talmud) spoke in the same voice as Jesus and the apostles and applied no other methods of examining how this could be reasonably and rationally accomplished, then we would be making a terrible mistake. I don’t say this is done routinely, but in reading or listening to lessons such as D. Thomas Lancaster’s sermon series Holy Epistle to the Hebrews (which he has been conducting for well over a year and the series shows no signs of abating), we must be cautious to make sure that when we apply midrashic methods of studying the New Testament epistles, we are not projecting the later voices of the Rabbis backward in time, making the writer of Hebrews speak lessons that he (or she) would not have known or intended.

On the other hand, there is a way we can justify viewing Hebrews, or Paul’s epistles, or the Gospels, through a “midrashic lens,” or perhaps better said, a “mishnahic lens,” so to speak, and I think that’s the point of Dr. Blizzard’s book Mishnah and the Words of Jesus. Instead of starting in the future and working his way into the past, Blizzard begins with the scholars and sages contemporary to Jesus or appearing just before and after him historically, and then works his way forward. Blizzard suggests, and I agree with him, that the teachings of Jesus were understood as completely consistent with the way the various Rabbinic branches of the normative Judaisms of his day were teaching.

Continuing in Chapter 3, Dr. Blizzard writes:

In the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew 5 and following, Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” Where did Jesus get that idea? Who are the meek? What does it mean to be meek? If we did not know that Jesus was a rabbi, speaking Hebrew, using rabbinic methods in his teaching, hinting back at something that has already been said or written, and that his listeners basically have all of this material memorized, we would not understand. (emph. mine)

And as I’ve said before I think most of us in the Church don’t understand. Instead of reading the teachings of the Master with an eye on these first century Jewish “rabbinic methods of teaching,” Christianity in all of its various flavors, imposes its own interpretive traditions on the text, forcing anachronistically, meanings onto and into the words of Jesus, Peter, Paul and the other New Testament teachers, that were formulated (at best) decades after the end of the Apostolic Era, but more than likely many, many centuries after, and these traditional interpretations are wholly detached from anything that would have occurred in the thoughts of Jesus and the apostles.

In Chapter 2: “Teaching, Tithing and Silence,” Blizzard states:

Perhaps we would all do well to heed Gamaliel’s injunction to provide ourselves with a teacher in he matter of tithing to relieve ourselves not just of doubt, but of the erroneous teaching that has been prevalent in the Church for over a thousand years. (emph. mine)

Hillel and ShammaiIn this instance, Dr. Blizzard is referencing associations between the teachings of Jesus as related to the Mishnah, specifically the sages Shammai, Hillel, and Gamaliel, as related to passages in Torah that speak of generosity and compassion toward the poor, which modern Judaism refers to as tzedakah or charity, but with the underlying meaning of justice and righteousness. However, I think Blizzard’s words can be applied to a much wider scope and indeed, to many of the common teachings of the Church about the meaning of the Bible, particularly in terms of the continuance of Torah in the lives of the Jewish people, the continuance of the Jewish people in God’s love and plans for the present and future, and the continuance of Judaism as a valid lifestyle by the Jewish people of devotion to and worship of the God of Israel.

If, on the other hand, the Church could see the strong parallels between the teachings of Jesus, his contemporaries, and those Rabbis who closely followed him in history, such as Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who was present at the fall of Jerusalem and is considered single-handedly responsible for formulating “the direction that Judaism would take” after the destruction of Herod’s Temple and the great exile of the Jewish people into the diaspora, then perhaps we could initiate a desperately needed corrective action in the Christian Church and in Christian hearts.

Blizzard emphasizes this in the following quote from Chapter 4: “The Will of the Father.”

How important it is that we study rabbinical literature, the sayings of the rabbis. The way in which they teach, the word pictures they paint, the images upon which they draw, because it gives us an understanding of the words of Jesus, the ideas, the concepts upon which he is drawing. In many instances, without a knowledge of this background, because of the images, the idioms, the metaphors, etc., so widely used by the sages and rabbis, we are unable to understand the depth, the meaning, of the words of Jesus.

It’s not only ironic but profoundly sad that most churches reject the very lessons and teachings that would enable the clergy and laity to understand Jesus Christ the most. By rejecting the teachings of the Mishnah which sit at the very heart of the various ancient and modern streams of Judaism, Christianity rejects the very heart of the meaning of the teachings of her Savior.

Chapter 4 of Blizzard’s brief but powerful book is a tour de force of comparisons between the specific teachings of Jesus and quotes from the different rabbis recording in the Mishnah. There are too many of them for me to record here, but fortunately, Blizzard’s book is quite affordable (especially the Kindle version, which can be downloaded in seconds), so I heartily recommend you purchase a copy and read it for yourself.

Not only is the Mishnah very Pharisaic, it is also very Pauline which, of course, is to be expected in view of the fact that Paul refers to himself as “a Pharisee of Pharisees.”

Blizzard shifts his focus at this point, from comparing the teachings of Jesus to the Mishnaic rabbis to making comparisons between the Mishnah and the Pharisaic Apostle Paul. Blizzard further states:

I want to emphasize that the ideas reflected here in the Chapters of the Fathers can be found in the teachings of all the New Testament writers, which, again, is just what we should expect. Why? Because they are all Jews. They all came from the same background, the same religious and spiritual heritage.

The Rebbe and the ChildBlizzard introduced the first chapter of this book, “Tzedakah and Righteousness,” by saying he intended to compare the teachings of Jesus to “the words of the rabbis prior to, and contemporary with, and following Jesus, recorded for us in the Mishnah, Order Nezikin, Tractate Avot…” and then he said something that especially attracted my attention:

In the teachings of Jesus, there is one underlying and overriding theme, a theme on which Jesus constantly dwells, a theme that serves as the foundation upon which biblical faith is built. If one looks at the Bible as a whole, if one includes additionally all Jewish literature that is extant, the Oral Law, the Written Law, the commentaries, and search for one, single, overriding theme that is the foundational theme of biblical faith, one would have to conclude that that foundational theme is summed up in the Hebrew word tzedakah… (emph. mine)

Blizzard follows the thread of tzedakah, which as I said, in Judaism is associated with charity, righteousness, and justice, through the teachings of Jesus, the rabbis of the Mishnah, and across the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings to paint an overarching landscape of God’s message to human beings.

This is a concept I harp on with some regularity; that we must engage the Bible as a single document that is inexorably interconnected, rather than “cherry pick” various verses and passages of scripture willy-nilly as they seem to map to our preconceived theologies and doctrines, and then string them together to create the illusion that the entire theme of the Bible is represented by those few bits and pieces we’ve jumbled into our religious collage. I think by now, most Christians realize that you can prove just about anything if you connect the dots between carefully selected words and phrases in the Bible. But that doesn’t mean the Bible as a cohesive unit really says what you are making it say.

I know. I could be accused of the same thing. After all, I have a point to prove just like everyone else. But although I think there’s a lot of truth in Blizzard’s belief that the Bible’s central theme is tzedakah, I have been trying to make the argument in my various blog posts, that the central theme is actually about God’s desire and His plan to unite all of humanity under a single King, and for God to dwell among His people without requiring that His Jewish people stop being Jewish or stop practicing Judaism in order to bring honor and glory to the Jewish Messiah and the God of Israel.

What is the central theme of the Bible according to the various streams of normative Christianity? Here’s a rather harsh sounding rebuke from Dr. Blizzard in Chapter One:

Jesus has become an idol, if you will, our focus of attention, our focus of worship, and it seems that very few think of God anymore. Seldom do we hear anyone speak of the glory of God, his grandeur and mercy, the holiness of God, and the other many attributes and characteristics of God.

I should mention at this point, that a good friend of mine, once a Jewish believer, has rejected Jesus as the Messiah, in part, because of what Dr. Blizzard said in the above-quoted paragraph. My friend spares no effort in explaining on his blog what he sees are the errors in Christianity.

Now before my Christian readers get really mad at Blizzard, he went on to say…

Please understand that I am not trying to lessen the importance of Jesus. What I am trying to do is emphasize that, in all the teachings of Jesus recorded for us in the gospels, his focus is not upon himself, what he is, what he is doing, or what he is to become. Additionally, Jesus has very little to say about God and, in particular, the Worship of God.

My point is that, in the teachings of Jesus, there is not all that much emphasis upward.

Blizzard then maps the teachings of Jesus and the sayings of the rabbis in the Mishnah, back to what he sees as the central emphasis of Jesus and of Judaism which is the care and concern for other human beings as the primary means of living our faith and worshiping God.

tzedakah-to-lifeIn addition to the focus on Jesus as Savior, the Church tends to focus on the concept of preaching the gospel, which translates into God’s personal plan of salvation for the elect. And that’s where it stops for a lot of churches. Fortunately, Blizzard’s rebuke of Christianity doesn’t include each and every church. Many churches, such as the one I currently attend, focus heavily on studying the Bible as a means of knowing how to serve God and other human beings, primarily through acts of charity and support of missionary efforts to some of the more desperately needy people groups on our planet.

In fact, one of the things some churches do really well are acts of tzedakah as well as something called Gemilut hasadim, which can be translated as acts of loving-kindness. Christians get the idea of grace from this Hebrew term. The difference is that tzedakah or acts of charity can be performed only on the poor, while gemilut hasadiam, which involves giving money or a personal service, can be done for anyone.

However, Blizzard’s distinctly “Jewish” presentation of these concepts alongside the teachings of Jesus and the Mishnah, provide an exceptionally fresh look at an essential something that often goes stale in many churches or in many individual Christian hearts. By linking something that the church actually does with how vital those actions are in ancient and modern Judaism, Blizzard successfully creates a link between what else is vital in Judaism, especially the Judaism of the time period around the Apostolic Era, and what the Church isn’t doing and isn’t teaching because these are things the Church has ultimately dismissed as having been “nailed to the cross” with Jesus.

Roy Blizzard’s book Mishnah and the Words of Jesus is a perfect example of why I find it absolutely necessary to access my faith in Christ by way of studying Judaism and, in my case, particularly Messianic Judaism. I’m certainly not Jewish, but it is quite possible and even desirable to be a Christian and to study Messianic Judaism in order to understand and then practice what I learn from the Bible.

Roy Blizzard
Dr. Roy B. Blizzard

There were quite a number of other gems in Blizzard’s book, but I should limit my review, not only for the sake of length, but to permit readers such as you to allow “Mishnah and the Words of Jesus” to unfold itself in your own experience.

However, I do want to say something else in wrapping up this blog post. It may sound like I’m distinctly “anti-Church” and interestingly enough, “anti-Christian,” even though I identify myself as a Christian, a disciple of Christ or Messiah. This isn’t actually true. While I point to the warts and moles I see on the Church and which, for the most part, the Church choses to ignore, I also see the beauty that has been maintained among those whose highest goal is to wholeheartedly serve Jesus Christ by serving humankind.

I’ve written God Was In Church Today and In Defense of the Church recently as much to remind myself as to remind everyone else that the Church is good. But in the words of Boaz Michael of First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ), “the Church needs to change.” Hopefully, scholars such as Dr. Roy Blizzard, Messianic Jews such as Boaz Michael, and even ordinary, everyday people like you and me, can contribute to that change for the sake of Israel and in the service of God.

One final thing. At the top of this blog post, I quoted Ismar Schorsch briefly commenting on Midrash. It is true that Midrash and Mishnah are not the same thing but they do have something in common. They both represent a way of thinking about God and a way of communicating about God as we study the Bible. You can study the Bible apart from any acceptance and understanding of the rabbinic sages and still learn a lot, but I believe you will not only miss a great deal of important detail in your study, but you’ll perpetuate a system of misunderstanding the Bible’s panoramic message, especially about God, Israel, the Jewish people, Judaism, and the role we non-Jews play as the crowning jewels of the nations. For the sake of Israel, and for the sake of the return of the Messianic King, we owe it to ourselves, to the Church, to Israel, and to God to learn all we can learn by setting aside our “institutionalized Christian learning,” and stepping outside the box, so to speak. If you’re not sure how to begin, Dr. Roy Blizzard’s Mishnah and the Words of Jesus is a good place to start.