Rabbi Simeon said: If a man looks upon the Torah as merely a book presenting narratives and everyday matters, alas for him! Such a torah, one treating with everyday concerns, and indeed a more excellent one, we too, even we, could compile. More than that, in the possession of the rulers of the world there are books of even greater merit, and these we could emulate if we wished to compile some such torah. But the Torah, in all of its worlds, holds supernal truths and sublime secrets…
Thus the tales related in the Torah are simply her outer garments, and woe to the man who regards that outer garb as the Torah itself, for such a man will be deprived of portion in the next world.
-Zohar, III.152 as quoted in
The Garments of Torah by Michael Fishbane
Chapter 3: The Garments of Torah – Or, to What May Scripture be Compared?, pg 34
(If you haven’t done so already, please read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.)
I mentioned previously that there is a strong temptation to take the Torah into mystical and spiritual realms since it seems that’s where it comes from. I also previously mentioned that Pastor Randy believes there is a pure and perfect Word of God that exists in the Heavenly Court and that the Bible we possess in our world, while it contains the Word of God, is not, in fact, the Word of God (ProclaimLiberty commented that indeed this isn’t a correct way to look at the Torah, though). As the Zohar states, we may consider our Bible to be merely a garment, an outer covering, but not the essence of its Holy contents.
Fishbane, in Chapter 3, compares and contrasts Torah as mystic vs. mundane, if I can apply such a word to Torah. This is his response to the current trend in Bible studies to address and consider the Biblical texts from a purely literary perspective. This is the sort of viewpoint we find in Richard Elliott Friedman’s book Who Wrote the Bible?.
Friedman carefully sifts through clues available in the text of the Hebrew Bible and those provided by biblical archaeology searching for the writer(s) of, primarily, the Pentateuch. He does so with clarity and engaging style, turning a potentially dry scholarly inquiry into a lively detective story. The reader is guided through the historical circumstances that occasioned the writing of the sources underlying the Five Books of Moses and the combining of these diverse sources into the final literary product. According to Friedman, the most controversial part of his case is the identification of the writer and date of the Priestly source. This book is neither comprehensive nor unduly complex, making it a good introductory text for beginners and nonspecialists. Recommended for all academic libraries. –Craig W. Beard, Harding Univ. Lib., Searcy, Ark.
Copyright 1987 Reed Business Information, Inc. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
-as quoted from Amazon.com
Many modern Bible scholars are in love with the “JPED” theory of Old Testament (Tanakh) authorship, but in this approach, said-scholars all but remove God from the equation and reduce the Bible to a book written for political, religious, and personal motivations, rather than to impart the history and message of God’s interaction with human beings.
However, mysticism is an equally difficult realm in which to thrust the Bible as it far exceeds mere “inspired Word of God” and goes into structures of comprehension that are supposed to transport us into the upper chambers of the Almighty. I personally know some people in the Hebrew Roots movement who immediately become offended and incensed at the mere mention of the “K-word” (Kabbalah) and the quote from the Zohar above is not likely to earn me any points with them.
I’ve admitted before that I’m not mystic. I appreciate and enjoy some of the Jewish mystic writings as metaphors for certain spiritual truths, but I don’t take them as literal experiences. In fact, in an effort to understand something of the Christian mystical perspective, I recently read John A. Sanford’s book Mystical Christianity: A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John, however Sanford’s attempt to analyze this gospel from the perspective of Carl Jung and Jungian psychology seemed anachronistic and distracting rather than spiritually revealing.
I do agree though, that if we look at the Bible just as a book, even a Holy and inspired book, and see only the nuts and bolts narrations, our understanding of the message God is trying to deliver to humanity will be extremely limited. The problem is, digging any deeper than the literal meaning of the text presents the danger of getting lost in either mystical byways or just our own imaginations.
I started writing this series as an effort to explain what “keeping the Torah” means to the Jewish disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) but the “question behind the question” is “What is Torah?” That’s an amazingly difficult question to answer.
But if we lack wisdom by considering a mitzvah as just a text on paper narrative (the commandment to visit the sick) or as a simple behavioral act (visiting a sick friend in the hospital), do we gain wisdom and insight and the deeper meaning of Torah by considering the study and performance of a mitzvah as a transcendent act that intimately connects us to God?
“Such a man,” says another Zoharic text (II.99a-b). “is…a ‘bridegroom of the Torah’ in the strictest sense…to whom she (divinity as beckoning Bride) discloses all her secrets, concealing nothing.”
-Fishbane, pg 35
Here, I see a poetic image of the Torah in her “garments,” chaste before her bridegroom, and approaching the act of intimacy, she sheds her clothing, revealing herself to her beloved and finally, she holds back no secrets from the spirit of her cherished one. Fishbane, in discussing the bride, presents both the narrative or legal form of the Torah, the bride in her garments, and the expression of divinity, the inward truth of God, the veiled body of the bride in the process of disrobing as the groom not merely studies Torah but occupies himself (“osek”) fully in Torah:
Said Rabbi Joshua the son of Levi: Every day, an echo resounds from Mount Horeb, proclaiming and saying: “Woe is to the creatures who insult the Torah.” For one who does not occupy himself in Torah is considered an outcast, as is stated “A golden nose-ring in the snout of a swine, a beautiful woman bereft of reason.” And it says: “And the tablets are the work of G-d, and the writing is G-d’s writing, engraved on the tablets” ; read not “engraved” (charut) but “liberty” (chairut)—for there is no free individual, except for he who occupies himself with the study of Torah. And whoever occupies himself with the study of Torah is elevated, as is stated, “And from the gift to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to The Heights.”
-Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) 6:2
As Fishbane progresses in his writing, he temporarily sets aside the mysticism of Torah to “put matters in a fuller historical and hermeneutic perspective.” (pg 36) Fishbane characterizes the Torah being viewed in ancient Israel as “the divine voice” spoken directly or indirectly through a number of “filters” (Prophets or more indirect signs and wonders). God’s revelations are expressed in the text as legal and ethical teachings presented across an epic narrative of the history of Israel and her relationship with God.
However, if the text is treated too much like “text,” there is a danger of swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction and stripping the Torah of its divine origins and worse, reducing it to a set of anachronistic tribal laws that do not “travel well” going forward in time.
Of considerable importance in the sanctification of Scripture is that the prestigious literary canon of divine teachings had become a “closed literary corpus” – one culturally reopened only through human textual exegesis.
-Fishbane, pg 37
This leads us to Fishbane’s commentary on the early Pharisees and their comprehension of the “paradoxical and dialectical” nature of the scriptures. According to Fishbane, their resolution to the ambiguities presented in the Bible and in an effort to prevent Torah from becoming a “dead letter,” was to search the text “in every possible way for every possible prolongation of the original divine teachings in new times,” thus making “the old written Torah (into) a ‘living Torah.'”
So we stand between preserving the divinity of scripture as a romanticized mystical text and hermeneutically extending the Torah in order to adapt its divine truths to a constantly changing environment.
I can imagine that neither perspective will be particularly appealing to most readers.
I once criticized John MacArthur because I mistakenly believed he said that, in defining “Biblical sufficiency,” the Bible was literally the only book anyone would ever need to understand any topic.
I’ve since learned that “sola scriptura” doesn’t quite work that way, though I’m still not a big fan of this method of considering the Bible. Fishbane however, explains that Rabbinic commentary takes the idea of “the Bible contains all there is” to a level that would make even MacArthur balk.
…the early Pharisees revealed unexpected possibilities in the original divine communication. It was gradually claimed that “all is in it” (Mishna Abot v.25) – or better, that all could be recovered from it if one but had the appropriate hermeneutic key.
-ibid, pg 38
In considering my commentary on Boaz Michael’s teaching “Moses in Matthew,” I can only believe that under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the apostle Matthew “had the appropriate hermeneutic key” in extracting and applying portions of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings to the life of Messiah in ways that had not originally been presupposed (Hosea 11:1 to Matthew 2:15 for instance). However, unless we assume that the Pharisees and the later Rabbinic Sages also had access to the same influences of the Spirit, can we believe that their “hermeneutic key” is just as “appropriate” as Matthew’s, and that it unlocked the same doors?
I previously wrote a multi-part commentary based on the paper “Matthew 23:2-4: Does Jesus Recognize the Authority of the Pharisees and Does He Endorse their Halakhah?” written by Noel Rabbinowitz for the Journal of the Evangelical Society (PDF). In his paper, Rabbinowitz concluded that not only did Jesus recognize the halachah of the Pharisees but he acknowledged that they had the authority to establish valid halachah in Israel!
This may be a bit of a stretch for most of you reading this, but if we allow Matthew 23:2-4 to act as a bridge between the inspired authority of the gospel and other New Testament writers and the subsequent Rabbinic authorities in Judaism, we may somewhat reasonably conclude that halachah established after the New Testament canon was closed was still tacitly approved from Heaven.
This interpretation has tons and tons of problems (Rabbi Carl Kinbar posted a wonderfully insightful comment on this matter), not the least of which are the pronouncements of the Rabbis which are in direct opposition to Jesus and faith in him as Messiah, however dismissing this perspective out of hand denies not only the stated word of Messiah in the Bible, but the opportunity to view post-exile Judaism as possessing leaders who indeed did speak to and hear from God (which is historically what Christianity has done in the development of supersessionism for the past nearly twenty centuries).
Returning to Fishbane and connecting him (temporarily) with Matthew, I believe that Matthew “encoded” certain information in his gospel that could only be decoded or unpackaged by an audience with the “appropriate hermeneutic key,” one that provided the traditional associations and interpretations to older sections of the Holy text. In addressing scripture, the Pharisees and the Jewish sages who followed them attempted to continue to unlock the pages of the scriptures using (inspired?) hermeneutic keys and amazingly, Fishbane acknowledges that Christianity has done the same thing.
Surely you will have caught here more than a faint Jewish echo of the well-known “interpretatio Christiana,” by means of which Virgil and other pagans were accommodated by the Church Fathers into the normative Christian fold insofar as their writings were shown to “anticipate” the real good news — albeit through a glass darkly.
OK, so it doesn’t sound like that much of a compliment, but it does compare the interpretative activities and methods of the Pharisees to the early church fathers conferring, if only by inference, the authority to said-church fathers to develop valid Biblical interpretations. Of course, I have to deliver the same caveat for some of their hermeneutic gymnastics (especially those that discount Israel and denigrate the Jews) as I do certain conclusions, rulings, and pronouncements by the Rabbinic sages that discount the Messiahship of Yeshua.
So where does all this leave us?
…and thus to regard the uniqueness of Scripture as its capacity to teach simultaneously at various cognitive levels; the esoteric tradition of Judaism was concerned to encounter the presence of God, and thus to see the special sanctity and uniqueness of Scripture in its being at once a hieroglyph of the divine Logos and divine Reality itself. God is not merely present in Scripture through a kind of verbal displacement. God and Scripture are, in fact, one mysterious and inseparable Truth.
-ibid, pg 42
What is Torah and how is it applied in the lives of New Testament Jews, both in the first century CE and today? The answer seems to travel in different directions. Torah is a bride and the Jewish people are the bridegrooms, and at the intimate urgings and involvement of the bridegroom, the bride begins to doff her garments and reveal her deeper mysteries and truths. Torah is a multi-layered, encapsulated, encoded set of pronouncements that at once present the details of moral, ethical, and legal standards and that, properly read, reveal the divine meaning lurking behind the words on the page, allowing the performance of each mitzvah not simply to be a “good deed” but an act of loving intimacy and devotion of the Jewish people to God.
Mystic or hermeneutic pathways both leading to the same goal: the desire to draw nearer to the Creator.
In this, I don’t mean to say that only Jews desire intimacy with God or that Christians cannot deeply occupy themselves in Torah and benefit from the experience, but the focus of this series has to do with the purpose of Torah in the lives of the Jewish disciples of Messiah. Thus, my focus must be on Torah as applied specifically to Jewish people.
Part 4 of this series should return to this topic and confront something a little less “mystical.”