Tag Archives: Rabbi

Asking Questions

The RabbiBut of course, it is not advisable for one to pasken for himself by extrapolating from a case discussed in the Mishnah Berurah since he may not discern a simple difference between the cases. He therefore asked (Rav Yosef Shalom Eliyashiv, shlit”a) whether an ill man who must eat on Tisha B’Av must eat less than a k’zayis within the shiur of time.

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“A Small Distinction”
Chullin 35

Without going into great detail, this quote comes from a commentary describing a sick man who is trying to see if he must fast on Tisha B’Av. In studying the relevant halachos on the matter, he was surprised to find that an ill person should eat no more “than a k’zayis in the time it takes to eat half a loaf of bread.” He extrapolated this judgment based on what the Beiur Halachah writes on how people ate on Tisha B’Av to avoid becoming ill during a typhus epidemic.

On the one hand, this man was chronically ill and fasting was dangerous for him. On the other hand, as a devout Jew, he was decidedly uncomfortable with eating on Tisha B’Av and wanted to understand the correct halacha. When he encountered a ruling he did not expect, he could have chosen to let his own interpretation guide him but, as we discover, “it is not advisable for one to pasken for himself by extrapolating from a case discussed in the Mishnah Berurah since he may not discern a simple difference between the cases”.

How does this work in Christianity? A Christian wants to make sure he understands what he should do in a certain situation and reads the appropriate Bible verses. He comes across Scripture that surprises him, at least as far as the plain meaning of the text is concerned, or even two Scriptures that seem to contradict one another. Should he rely on his own understanding, pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance, or immediately consult with his Pastor or Bible teacher?

I think a lot of Christians would pray for guidance from the Spirit, which is quite appropriate, but assuming the person felt he had received such supernatural guidance, his inquiry could stop right there. After all, what could a Pastor or a Bible teacher tell him that the Spirit couldn’t? Effectively, depending on your point of view, the Christian may well end up relying completely on his own personal interpretation of the Scriptures in question. This becomes a problem as you’ll see in a few paragraphs.

Sure, I’m oversimplifying the situation, but I think that’s how it plays out for some believers. When I used to worship in a church, there were plenty of times I’d ask a fellow student in a Bible study, a teacher, or one of the Pastors what something in the Bible meant. When praying, I didn’t always get a feeling or an indication that an answer to one of my questions about the Bible was forthcoming and asking another person, at least as a new Christian with a lifetime of secular thinking behind me, was just easier.

As I’ve grown spiritually and in my studies, I’ve come to know that there are many New Testament scholars out there who continually study, do research, and publish new findings. Bible interpretation is hardly a settled matter in the community of Bible scholars and this is an indication that our understanding of the Bible is far from complete or comprehensive. I wonder if most “average Christians” realize this?

The Phantom BibleI just read a story at CNN called Actually, That’s Not in the Bible which illustrates my point, particularly on, Christian self-reliance on Bible interpretation and how people can make mistakes, sometimes critical mistakes:

Others blame the spread of phantom biblical verses on Martin Luther, the German monk who ignited the Protestant Reformation, the massive “protest” against the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church that led to the formation of Protestant church denominations.

“It is a great Protestant tradition for anyone – milkmaid, cobbler, or innkeeper – to be able to pick up the Bible and read for herself. No need for a highly trained scholar or cleric to walk a lay person through the text,” says Craig Hazen, director of the Christian Apologetics program at Biola University in Southern California.

But often the milkmaid, the cobbler – and the NFL coach – start creating biblical passages without the guidance of biblical experts, he says.

“You can see this manifest today in living room Bible studies across North America where lovely Christian people, with no training whatsoever, drink decaf, eat brownies and ask each other, ‘What does this text mean to you?’’’ Hazen says.

“Not only do they get the interpretation wrong, but very often end up quoting verses that really aren’t there.”

It’s been a long time since I’ve worshiped at a church and I don’t think I ever developed a “traditional Christian mindset” about a lot of this. I’m blogging my “extra meditation” today, more in the way of asking a question. What do you think? Is the example I quoted from the Daf Yomi Digest above bizarre and alien to Christianity, or do we also have a tradition of going to reliable authorities when we have something we need to understand from the Bible? If we don’t have this tradition, as the CNN article seems to suggest, should we?

Gracious feedback is welcome here. Standing by to receive.

Oh, our chronically ill man did get an answer to his question:

When these questions reached RavYosef Shalom Eliyashiv, shlit”a, he ruled that a sick person does not have to worry about this. “One who is ill should eat what he needs and no more. But he is not obligated to eat less than a shiur. The Beiur Halacha discusses one who eats to avoid getting ill. Such a person should wait to eat as late as possible and also eat less than a shiur. But one who is sick does not have to follow these restrictions on Tisha B’Av at all.”

Not in Heaven

HeavenThe Torah is not in heaven [i.e. though the Torah is of heavenly origin, it was given to human beings to interpret and apply].

from The Hasidic Tale
by Gedalyah Nigal
pp 148-9

This small snippet from Nigal’s book touches on something I’ve been pondering for quite some time. It’s a concept that’s common in Judaism but almost completely escapes Christianity, including many of the Jewish and non-Jewish believers of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah commonly referred to as “Messianic”. Here’s another example with more detail:

As a result of testimony by R’ Yehoshua b. Zeiruz, Rebbe ruled that fruits and vegetables which grow in Beis Shan were exempt from terumah and ma’aser gifts. Rebbe’s extended family members rose up against his ruling, and they wondered how he could release the obligation for tithing from items grown in Beis Shan, an area which his ancestors had deemed to be obligated in these halachos. Rebbe responded and said that this was an area of halacha which his ancestors had left for Rebbe to rule and to thereby be credited with this decision. Rebbe illustrated that a similar scenario is recorded in Tanach, where we are told that King Chizkiyahu ground up the copper snake made by Moshe Rabeinu to alleviate a devastating plague that threatened the nation. Later, this copper image was abused by the people, as they began to offer incense to it for idolatrous purposes. This is why Chizkiyahu had it destroyed. The Gemara notes that it is wonderous to think that this image which was being used for idolatrous purposes was not destroyed much earlier. Why would Assa and Yehoshafat, both righteous kings, not have destroyed this statue earlier? Rather, it must be that they left it intact in order for Chizkiyahu to take care of the matter.

Daf Yomi Digest
Distinctive Insight
“Leaving room for later generations to make their mark”
Chullin 7

There are a couple of things going on here. One is that the tzadikim (righteous people) and the sages in each age were given authority to make rulings about the Torah commandments and that these rulings were and are binding. The other thing is that rulings on the same Torah laws could be applied differently based on the demands of each generation.

Most Christians believe in “the Word” (i.e. the Bible) as the only authority (and certainly the absolute authority) over the believer’s life and consider the rulings of the Jewish sages to be “merely” the opinions of men and thus, they have no authority over a person’s day to day existence. The following is considered something of a “proof text” of this opinion in the church:

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)

So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

“‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” –Mark 7:1-8

Jesus was most likely referring to Netilat Yadayim or the ritual of hand washing, which is performed by observant Jews even today. This practice is considered to be a method of purifying the person after awakening and before eating and re-dedicating his or her life to the service of God.

It’s unlikely Jesus was speaking against the practice as such in Mark (see the full text of Mark 7 for the details) but rather, he was criticizing the Pharisees for focusing on what might be considered a matter of “lesser” priority and ignoring the more “important” duty (kaloh vs. chamurah or minor vs. major mitzvos) of caring for impoverished and elderly parents (and one of these days, I’d love to research how Jesus probably did practice the halacha of his day).

For the vast majority of Christians, what I’m saying now probably seems like so much nonsense. Christianity tends to put a great deal of value on being “Spirit-led” when trying to understand the Word and the Will of God in their lives and will only rely on local authorities (for the most part) such as a trusted Pastor or teacher to help interpret the Bible. In other words, the Bible is understood on an almost exclusively individual level, though most Christians in the same church or denomination probably share many of the same opinions about what the Bible says. Interpretation for the person though, remains primarily part of the relationship between the individual and the Spirit of God (though this has rather obvious potential pitfalls).

By contrast, Judaism has a vast repository of knowledge commonly referred to as the Talmud, that contains the discussions, arguments, and rulings of a long list of sages stretching back across the centuries to before the time of Jesus. Christianity, with the exception of branches such as Catholicism, has no such tradition. The dictates of the Church fathers and the commentaries of renowned teachers and spiritual leaders, both historical figures and modern men and women, while highly valued, are not considered perpetually binding legal rulings over the lives of the devout of Christ. Rulings, authorities, and judgments in Judaism, particularly among the Orthodox, are much more defined and delineated.

Even for those parts of Christian theology that are considered binding (belief in the Trinity, belief in the resurrection of Christ, belief that people who are “saved” go to Heaven when they die, and so on), it’s hard for the collective church to imagine that “legal rulings” could continue to be issued across the passage of time and into the modern era. What new interpretation of the Bible would be necessary today that didn’t already exist in the time of Jesus and the Apostles (and I know I might be unfair in saying this since “progressive revelation” is part of the Christian belief structure)?

Consider the following:

Do not light a fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day. –Exodus 35:3

Based on this commandment in the Torah, observant Jews, to one degree or another, do not light a flame on the Shabbat. Back in the days of the Exodus, this was understood in a particular way. No candle lighting, no lighting a fire in a home or at a camp, and so on.

Netilat YadayimBut no one ever thought of things like the invention of the automobile, the electric light bulb, and the microwave oven. How does the commandment to not light a flame apply to these technologies? Can an electric spark be considered “igniting” something? Once the question comes up, who gets to answer the question and decide how it is applied and to whom? After all, if you’re a devout Jew who doesn’t want to violate the Shabbat, you’ll need to know if you can start your car, warm up a cup of coffee in the microwave, or pop on a reading lamp when it gets dark on the Shabbat (and as it turns out, the ruling is that an observant Jew can do none of these things without violating the commandment).

In religious Judaism, your life is orchestrated in a beautiful but somewhat complicated dance as you progress through the days and months and years. The Torah is both instruction book and part of the mystic presence of God in your life, but who can understand the Torah and all that it instructs? The average Jew may not have the time, the mental discipline, or the necessary intellectual capacity to study the Torah and the sages in depth and thus understand his or her responsibilities to God in all matters of living. Yet there is halacha and tradition upon which a Jew can count to guide his or her steps in this dance with God and with life. These traditions, rulings, and judgments have provided continuity and consistency in Jewish communities all over the world for thousands of years. Perhaps the Torah and the Talmud have been the instrument by which God has preserved the Children of Israel, when many other people groups from the days of Moses and before have simply ceased to exist.

The Torah may be from heaven but it is not in heaven. God gave it to the Children of Israel from the hands of angels to Moses, not because God wants to control the actions of each individual Jew, but because God loves his Chosen People and wants to take care of them. And while the Mosaic covenant and thus much of the Torah is not applied to the “grafted in” Christian, the Torah was always intended to “go forth from Zion” (Isaiah 2:1-4) and to be a guide and a protector, not only of the Jewish people, but for all the people of the Earth, if they will only turn to and walk with God in faith and trust.

Why am I saying all this? Why should you care?

Perhaps, as a Christian, you don’t care and you don’t think it matters and you believe that the Torah and the Talmud is best left to the Jews. If you happen to be Jewish, you may not care about the potential applications of Torah and Talmud to Christianity. For my part, as a Christian married to a Jew, I can see great value in studying not only the Bible, but the judgments, rulings, and insights of the sages, from Hillel and Shammai to Rambam and Rashi. Unless we understand how Jewish Rabbis and learned scholars read and understand the Torah and God, how can be begin to comprehend the Jewish sage and apostle Paul and what he wrote and taught? Indeed, how can we begin to comprehend the mind, the teachings, and the actions of the Jewish Messiah, the Christ…Jesus, as he was on Earth and as he is in heaven?

Without this understanding, while we may think we understand the sacred writings of the New Testament as they are “in plain English”, we eventually must face the reality that when we Christians read the Gospels, the Epistles, and the Apocalyptic writings, we are reading a deep mystery with very few clues, and peering into a wine-dark glass, seeing only dim shapes of what God is trying to illuminate on the other side. The Talmudic scholars can be our guides into ways of seeing God and His Word that would otherwise be missing hues in our color palettes. What might we perceive if we only chose to open our eyes and look?

A true master of life never leaves this world
—he transcends it, but he is still within it.

He is still there to assist those who are bonded with him with blessing and advice, just as before, and even more so.

Even those who did not know him in his corporeal lifetime can still create with him an essential bond.

The only difference is in us:
Now we must work harder to connect.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman