Shalom Aryeh Leib
Thanks again for the time and effort you have taken to write your response. It seems that you have a problem with my method of arranging my points according to topics as opposed to a point by point response. In the past you have taken my method as a sign of evasiveness, and I am not sure if you have fully abandoned that thought. Please allow me to explain why I write like I do. I think the purpose of this dialogue is for the two of us to articulate our thoughts to each other. I find that when I arrange my words according to topics, I am able to articulate myself with greater clarity. Thus, for me, a point by point response would defeat the purpose of this dialogue. Despite the fact that I am writing this as a subject by subject essay, it is still in fact a point by point response. I have written down on paper every point of yours that ought to be responded to, and I arranged these points according to topics – these points are the guidelines for my essays. ( I do this with all of your letters, you may be pleased to know that in this past letter of yours I have 88 points listed for response.) Still, if I forget a point, or if you don’t see how my words directly addressed one of your points, please do not hesitate to point this out to me, and I will try to make amends.
I have reiterated time and time again that I do not consider personal experience an accurate guide to truth. It seems that you do. You argue that your experiences are of a different class than are mine, because you have seen so many powers broken before the power of the god you serve. If that was a criteria to go by, I would tell you that I have seen the fangs of Jesus broken before the God of truth. Witnessing (and participating in) such an event, is a powerful spiritual experience. I would tell you though, that this experience is the least of the experiences that I encounter in my relationship with God.
2) Social context
You write that you are baffled by my words about the specific social context to whom Jewish scripture is addressed. I will try to articulate more clearly.
In order to properly understand any communication, it is necessary to determine to whom this communication was addressed. Depending on the social context of the addressee, the meaning of the communication could drastically change. (One might argue that the meaning of a simple communication such as a “no parking” sign, doesn’t change with the social context of the addressee – perhaps – but Jewish scripture is not such a communication.) Common decency, and basic honesty dictates, that I do not assume that I understand a given communication before I determine the identity of the addressee. Imagine if I overheard a father rebuking his son, it would be immoral for me to believe that I understood the rebuke, if I do not have a comprehensive understanding of the relationship between this father and his son – which is the only true context of this rebuke. In fact it would probably be impossible for me to fully understand the rebuke, without speaking to the son to whom the rebuke was addressed.
There are three ways through which one can determine to whom a given communication was addressed. 1) the communication might specify the addressee, such as a letter beginning with the words “dear Mr. So and so”. 2) it can be inferred from the words of the communication to whom the communication is addressed, such as a letter containing the word “you”, and the context of the sentence indicates that it is a specific “you” being addressed. 3) if the sender of the communication entrusted his communication to a specific messenger for delivery, then we can believe the messenger when he tells us to whom this communication is being addressed. Generally, as long as we have one of these identifying methods to go with, we can safely conclude that we know to whom this communication is being addressed.
In the case of Jewish scripture, all three methods of identifying the addressee are obviously present. 1) Deuteronomy 33:4 “Tora tziva lanu Moshe, morasha kehilas Yaakov”. The addressee is the congregation of Yaakov. Psalm 147:19,20, is another reference, where scripture explicitly specifies the addressee. 2) God uses the word “you” in scripture many times, and the context tells us that “you” is the living congregation of Yaakov. Here are some examples. Deuteronomy 4:25 -40 addresses the Jews standing before Moshe with the same “you” as the Jews living in the “acharis hayamim” (note your own commentary on page 124 of “Our Hands…”). We can infer from these verses that the “you” is the nation who looks back to the exodus and the revelation at Sinai as foundational events. Deuteronomy 30:1-10 – again, the “you” is the nation who experienced the blessing and the curse, whose fathers inherited the land and experienced God’s blessing, and who still has a workable definition of the laws that Moses commanded. Isaiah 60:1-22 the “you” is obviously the congregation of Yaakov, who was scattered all over the world, who was abandoned and hated, and who yearns for the restoration of the offerings at the altar in Zion. 3) the messenger to whom God entrusted scripture for delivery, namely the body of living loyal Jews – the congregation of Yaakov, tells us that God is addressing the social context of living descendants of Yaakov, who maintained loyalty to the God who revealed Himself at Sinai. (The truth is that God did more than just trust this messenger for delivery, He actually entrusted this messenger with the role of canonization, but more about that later.)
Any honest reader of the Jewish scriptures ought to realize that this is a book addressed to a specific group of people, a specific social context – namely the living congregation of Yaakov. It should make no difference to them how this book reads outside of this particular social context, because this book is not addressed to anyone else but this specific social context. If anyone finds himself outside of this social context, and has a sincere desire to understand God’s word, basic decency dictates that this person humbly ask the people to whom this book was addressed for their understanding of God’s words.
I have presented the position that the social context of living Judaism can be relied upon to maintain a working definition of the law, (and specifically to preserve the true perception of God). I have pointed out that God entrusted this aspect of His message to this particular social context and to no one else, so we can safely depend on Him to do His share, and ensure the preservation of His message.
You countered by pointing to the condemnation of the scriptural prophets, which would seem to indicate that the Jewish people lost a working definition of the law.
This is not the first time that you presented this argument, and this is not the first time that I replied head on to your argument. In the following paragraphs I will try to summarize the various responses to your argument that I have presented in the past, and perhaps introduce some new ones.
I pointed out firstly, that you are reading scripture outside of the only social context in which it is supposed to be read.
Furthermore I pointed out, that even if you want to disregard the issue of social context, you cannot take one part of scripture and build a theory without taking the entirety of scripture into account.
Before we get to other parts of scripture, please allow me to remind you that I already responded “head on” to your argument from 2Kings 22,23. I pointed out that if one were to accept the Christian reading of these passages, which maintains that indeed, every copy of the written Torah of Moshe went lost, it would only bolster the Jewish position and not refute it. It is clear from this passage (and from the parallel passage in 2Chronicles) that the king was repenting and doing that which is straight in the eyes of God, before they found the scroll. This tells you (according to the Christian reading) that the Jews knew how to do what was straight in the eyes of God without looking into the book. They had an accurate perception of God without consulting the book, and they knew how to go about the temple offerings without the book. This tells you that the people maintained a workable definition of the law. I also pointed out that it is difficult for me (on logical grounds) to accept the Christian reading. The Samaritans several miles to the North had copies of the Torah, and Jeremiah Chulda and Tzefania didn’t have a copy? The Jewish people lost every copy of the five books of Moses but at the same time they were zealously preserving the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Shir Hashirim, Ruth, and Psalms? This doesn’t make sense to me, does it make sense to you?.
I pointed to the eternal sign of Shabbos. You responded by pointing to many of the commandments which are designated as eternal but cannot be fulfilled today. Indeed there are many commandments that are specified as eternal, and actually all of them are explicitly applied to all generations under the general statement in Numbers 15:37-41. We understand that they are all eternal in the sense that they can never be replaced, and they are all incumbent on every Jew at all times. In our present situation, because of our sins, God has taken away the opportunity to observe many of these commandments, but our loyalty to God and our faith in His word demands that we accept to practically fulfill them the instant the opportunity arises. Our trust in God dictates that we yearn for the opportunity to fulfill each and every commandment, and reject any theology which claims that these commandments are not in fact of eternal nature. We study the practical applications of every law so that the law becomes alive for us, and we can then see into the soul of the law, and preserve its spirit until the time comes when God in His love will once again give us the opportunity to obey His word in a practical sense – as He promised He would.
This has nothing to do with Shabbos. Shabbos is not just declared by God to be eternal and for all generations. God points to Shabbos as a sign for all generations. (As far as I am aware, Shabbos and circumcision are the only commandments that are eternal signs.) A sign has to be readable in order to be a sign. If it is a sign for all generations, then it must be readable in all generations. This means that God wants us to recognize that the sanctity we experience on Shabbos, as something coming directly from Him. It also tells us that our observance of Shabbos, is something that God expects us to look at as a sign of His eternal covenant. If our observance is not in line with His will, then this sign no longer exists, and that cannot be. The fact that Shabbos is designated as an eternal sign tells me that God expected us to maintain a workable definition of Shabbos, throughout our generations. Can you look at these verses in Exodus and believe that at one point in our history we had lost a workable definition to God’s Shabbos?
You ask, where is the commemoration of the liberation from Egypt in our observance. One who experienced the sanctity of Shabbos as God meant it to be experienced would have a hard time understanding your question. The exhilarating holy freedom that we experience on Shabbos is a palpable entity. It is the freedom that comes from being a servant to God – which is the only true freedom. You shouldn’t be trying to read the Jewish experience of God’s Shabbos through the stereotypes invented by other social contexts.
You argue that any honest reader of the Torah would be shocked to learn that the laws of Shabbos include instructions concerning the ripping of toilet paper. I couldn’t disagree more. Any honest reader of the Torah would first ask himself what social context was being addressed by God through the Torah, and then he would inquire from those within that specific social context, to see how they understand God’s words. Furthermore, any honest reader of the Torah would realize that the Torah assumed a very precise definition of the laws of Shabbos, to the degree that one could be put to death on the basis of these definitions. If the person was reading from the social context of Protestant Christianity, he should realize that there is something basic lacking in his understanding of Shabbos. An honest reader of the Torah would not expect to keep all of his own preconceived notions about spirituality intact, but would rather humble himself before God and allow God to teach him something about spirituality. An honest reader of the Torah would have realized that contrary to human perceptions about spirituality, God considers seemingly mundane and material actions to be either part of great spiritual experiences, or terribly negative spiritual experiences. An honest reader of scripture, would have realized that it makes a difference to God if we make the menorah with 11 knobs or with 12 knobs. Eating one particular cut of meat is a terrible negative spiritual experience, rendering one liable to the same divine punishment as one is liable to if he commits incest. An honest reader of Torah would realize that God does not consider attention to minutiae a contradiction to spirituality, but rather an integral part of the spiritual experience. (Of-course, anything could be taken out of context, but an honest reader of Torah cannot deny that God considers the material details a basic part of the spiritual experience.)
I pointed to the books of Ezra and Nechemiah (as well as Chaggai Zechariah and Malachi) which tell us that there was a workable definition of the law available at the beginning of the second temple era. This means that all of the criticisms of the prophets uttered during the first temple era, did not negate the basic fact that the Jewish people maintained a workable definition of the law. One of the last prophetic messages we received from God through Malachi was an admonition to remember the laws of the Torah. If there was no longer a workable definition to the law available, then this admonition makes no sense. Do you believe that God is reminding us about the laws – but that we are supposed to understand that we do not have a clue as to how to observe them?
There is another point to consider here. It is the book of Shir Hashirim. Do you not recognize that this is speaking of God’s relationship with His beloved nation? How can you measure us by the rebuke, without taking these words of admiration and praise into consideration?
Another point; if indeed the social context of living Judaism was so corrupt and had lost sight of God’s will, then why did they revere these books which castigate them so severely? This reverence was so deep, that they did not allow other works of literature until almost 600 years after Malachi. What kind of religious leadership was the social context of Judaism looking to for moral guidance when they accepted the canonical status of these books? could it have been that corrupt?
Finally I will remind you of the question I brought up in my booklet. If indeed the social context of living Judaism was so corrupted that they lost their perception of God, they lost a working understanding of the law, and they lost touch with the soul of the law as well – then why accept their scriptures? Why do you accept the decision of the social context of the congregation of Yaakov when they tell you that the books of Chaggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nechemiah and Chronicles were written with divine inspiration? Based on your reading of the testimony of scripture, the social context of the Jewish people was too corrupt to correctly identify their God, so why trust them when they claim to have positively identified His holy spirit?
3) Do Not Add
I read scripture, I hear God talking to me. He is telling me not to eat leaven on Pesach. On my own, I could never have figured out what leaven is or when Pesach should fall out. (On my own, I probably would not be reading this book either.) Yet I realize that God is pretty serious about this. He is commanding me in a direct way to observe this holiday, and He is threatening me with divine punishment for non-compliance. This is scary stuff. How am I to figure out what this means? I think for a minute, and I realize that the same delivery system that God utilized to inform me that this book is indeed His word, is being utilized by God to deliver another message as well. The same people who were appointed by God to authenticate scripture to me, also authenticate another message from God. This message is the workable definition of the law as maintained by the Jewish people who remained loyal to God. They taught me what God meant when He says “leaven” and they explained to me when God meant that I observe Pesach. I read further on in scripture. I find God commanding me not to add on to His word. I wonder what this means. Does this mean that I should not add on to the books of scripture beyond the five books of Moses? Does this mean that I should not try to make inferences from the law in order to determine God’s will in situations not directly addressed by the law? Does this mean that I not obey the local ordinances of the township committee? All of these are possible interpretations, but what does God mean? The same delivery system that God utilized to deliver scripture to me also delivered a particular interpretation of this law. The taught me that what God means with these words, is that I should not accept any other commandment as equal in status to the commandments explicated by Moses. I do not see this as a contradiction to God’s words “Do not add”, I see this explanation as the only interpretation that I could morally accept – since this is the only interpretation that is authenticated by the same authority who authenticates scripture.
Interestingly, I see this particular interpretation validated by scripture. In the book of Esther, we see that the Jewish people accepted an observance beyond those commanded by God through Moses. If they did not accept this interpretation, but they accepted the interpretation that you demand I apply – then they would not have been allowed to add a new holiday.
I noticed that in the five books of Moses it never says a word about the Levites singing and playing music in the temple. Yet throughout scripture I see that the Levites playing music and singing was considered an integral part of the temple service. Either one of two things happened here. Either they added, or they had a definition to existing laws which gave them to understand that music is part of the system. (It is in fact a combination of both.)
You ask, how I can call obedience to the Rabbinic enactments, obedience to God’s will – to the degree that I address God and tell Him “You commanded us”. – The Jewish people have thought about this question seriously, and I will try to articulate their understanding of the matter. We understand that God expects us to act in a certain manner as individuals, and He also expects us to act as a community. We obey God as individuals by listening to the voice of God as it speaks to us through our sensitivity to truth. As a community, we look to the community sensors to God’s truth. Our personal sensitivity to God’s truth helps us identify those individuals who ought to be respected as sensors to God’s truth – and our personal sensitivity helps us understand to what degree these people can be trusted in their capacity as leaders of our community. For example, if the community leaders decide that the community as a whole ought to arrange a public demonstration, in order that the community make a certain statement as a community – then I understand that obedience to God demands that I attend that demonstration. I may understand the reasoning behind their decision, I may not, but I do see clearly that these people are in tune with God’s truth, these are the people that God arranged that they should guide us, and I know that God demands of me that I act as a community – so I obey. I certainly do not put their directives as something equal to God’s commandments through Moses, but I still understand that obedience to God demands obedience to their directives. Of-course if I sense that their decision is contrary to God’s truth, I will not obey. I will ask for clarification, and if it is not forthcoming I will agitate rebellion. Otherwise I will obey.
There are several levels of community. There is my local neighborhood, there is the city as a whole. The Jews of any given country or region can be seen as one community and world-wide Jewry is also in a certain sense one community. It is obviously easier fro me to consider someone a leader of a local community, then it is to consider someone a leader of world-wide Jewry. The local leader knows the people he is leading, he can see their spiritual state first hand, and he can easily be attuned to the spiritual state of his local community. Once we move into larger dimensions, a leader would have to be of greater spiritual capacity to be able to claim that he is in tune with the spiritual state of the generation, and such claims will always be met with skepticism. In fact we would not believe that anyone has the authority to lead all of Israel, unless we were convinced that he has a certain divine spirit resting upon him (or them). The method we would subconsciously use to determine the measure of divine spirit, is by using our own collective sensitivity to God’s truth to “sniff out” this person or this body of individuals.
Israel is a community not only today, but kehilat Yaakov is in a certain sense one community from the day God redeemed us from Egypt until the end of time. If an individual or a body of individuals would lay claim to the mantle of leadership of this timeless community, we would have to assume a great level of divine inspiration before we can begin to accept such a claim. When our leaders decided to accept the book of Esther as divinely inspired and as relevant to all generations, we accept their decision because we believe that they themselves possessed a measure of divine inspiration. The Jews of that generation would not have accepted their decision had it not been clear to them that these leaders had a divine spirit resting upon them to the degree that they can be looked to as leaders of the eternal community of Israel. We are confident that God protects the eternal community of Israel and preserves His holy spirit in their midst, because this is the witness that He chose through whom to pass on His message to the last generation.
The same way we see our leaders of generations past as leaders of eternal Israel with the authority to declare a given book the eternal word of God, so do we see in these leaders the authority to lead the eternal Israel on a practical level and guide them by putting various enactments in place. We understand that by obeying these leaders we are exercising our obligation towards God as an eternal community. So we address God and tell Him – “You commanded us” when we obey these leaders.
We see all of the commandments both those revealed by Moses and those revealed by leaders of later generations as the will of God. In one case it was revealed to man through that awesome level of prophecy, which only Moses attained, and in the other case it was revealed to man through the divine inspiration that God grants to His loyal servants. But these are both the will of God.
God willed it that we should recognize the difference between the prophecy of Moses and the prophecy and divine inspiration experienced by any other human. He therefore declared in His Torah that we not add or subtract from the commandments revealed through Moses. It is because of this that we recognize that all of the scriptural books after Moses are of a different status than the five books of Moses. We recognize that all the leadership decisions that were inspired by God are not of the same status as the commandments directly taught to Moses. There are various mechanisms that the eternal community of Israel utilizes to differentiate between these different levels of expression of God’s will. These mechanisms are very effective, there is a clear-cut difference in the mind of loyal Jews between the word of God expressed through Moses and the inspiration granted by all other methods.
One of the mechanisms used by the Jewish people to establish a difference in people’s mind between Rabbinic law and the law o Moses is the mechanism of legal loopholes. All the legal loopholes that you see are loopholes to get around the enactments of the Rabbis. Pruzbol only works because according to the law of Moses the loan would have to be repaid anyway – the gemara is very clear about this – the gemara actually words the question in an incredulous way (Gittin 36a) can it be that the Torah says that Shmita annuls the debt and Hillel institutes that the debt not be annuled? The gemora goes on to give two alternative explanations to explain why the de’oraysa law would not apply and that before Hillel came along it was only Rabbinic law to observe this aspect of Shmita. All the loopholes you see in contemporary halacha which get around the laws of shmita or shabbos, are getting around rabbinic law. (There is one exception, and that is the concept of selling land to the Arabs to avoid keeping shmita – but this loophole was never accepted by the vast majority of loyal Jews.) We understand that in order to achieve the spiritual aim of the rabbinic enactment, it is enough (in some cases) to do some action that acknowledges the existence of the enactment.
Your statement about rabbinic law reflecting a lack of connection to the spirit of the law has some truth to it. If the people as a whole would have the full measure of the spirit of the divine resting upon them, then Rabbinic law would not be necessary to keep them in line with that spirit, and when appropriate they would spontaneously act to discharge their obligation as a community. In fact, in the temple, where the spirit of the divine was openly felt, rabbinic law is lifted. This is true in certain given situations where the leadership recognized that in these situations or in these areas the people still maintained a strong connection to the spirit of the law (such as in the situation of processing the meat of the Pesach offering – in their individual homes, or in relation to dealing with items consecrated fro the service in the temple), the rabbinic law is not applicable. But outside of those situations or areas, the limited understanding that we have of the spirit of God’s law, dictates that as a community we obey certain guidelines, that as a whole we can stay in touch with the holy.
You argue that the wording “Torah sheba’al peh” itself denotes that rabbinic law is on an equal footing with the law of Moses. The truth is that the precise usage of the term “torah sheba’al peh” is as a reference to those definitions of the law taught by Moses himself, or implicit in the law that Moses taught. When we speak of the two levels of law we say “the law of Moses and Israel” meaning those laws that were taught by God through Moses and those laws which were inspired by God through the spirit which rests on the eternal community of Israel.
You ask how we can consider the study of Talmud a fulfillment of God’s command to Joshua to study the five-books of Moses. We understand that God in the five books was addressing the eternal community of loyal Israel. The way each individual Jew hears God’s words is important to us. This is how God wanted that child of His to hear His holy words. By studying the words of God’s children as they articulate their own understanding of God’s word, we are studying God’s word. For example, the gemara we studied last night – where Rabbi Elazar teaches that if one recites Tehila leDavid three times a day he is guaranteed to be a son of the world to come. Rabbi Elazar studied God’s word, and study of God’s word means that one allow the spirit and the will of God expressed in the words to penetrate into the very depths of one’s being until he becomes one with that spirit. Rabbi Elazar is telling us that based on the totality of his grasp of God’s will, he sees profound spiritual implications in the recitation of Tehila leDavid. We do not have the total grasp that Rabbi Elazar had, so we do not see what he did. But we recognize that his words are an expression of his own integration of God’s word with his soul – and as such we recognize his words as an important expression of God’s will. A scriptural parallel can be found in Leviticus 10:19 where Aaron applied his own grasp of the spirit of the law, and his understanding becomes Torah. How do you read that passage?
You argue that Yeshua revealed the detrimental nature of many of the traditions that had arisen by his day. I don’t see how you can say this. Yeshua and his disciples faithfully obeyed most of the traditions. The fact that he worshiped in the temple and that he observed the holidays together with the rest of the Jewish people in and of itself tells us that he recognized the authority of the religious leadership of his time – at least as it relates to practical observance. The sectarians who did not accept the religious authority of the prevalent social structure of the Jewish people had to separate themselves from the temple, because the service there was conducted according to the Pharisee understanding of the law of Moses and under the practical guidance of the living leaders who were recognized by the social structure of eternal Israel as authentic leaders. The sectarians could not accept the national calendar because it was based on the decisions of live people whose authority they could not accept. Yeshua and his disciples had no problem with this. When criticized for his violations of the Shabbos, Yeshua never defends himself by saying that the people’s understanding of the definition of prohibited work on Shabbos is in error. The accounts given by the Christian scriptures indicate that he did not dispute that his activities could be considered violations, he only defends himself on the grounds that for the purpose of healing or saving human life, these laws could be abrogated. The description the Christian scriptures give of Yeshua’s observance of the seder has him obeying rabbinic law to the tee – wine before and after the bread with giving thanks on all (the wine before the wine after and the bread in between) followed by the hymns from the psalms. Long after Yeshua was gone, his disciples found it important to pray with the rest of the Jewish people at the times that the leaders of the Jewish people had designated for prayer. Even when Yeshua launches into a tirade against the personal lives of the Pharisee leaders of his day, he does not negate their authority as arbitrators of the law of Moses. The book of Acts tells us that the followers of Yeshua did not see the fact that one was a Pharisee in his interpretation of the law as a contradiction to being a follower of Yeshua.
The two statements attributed to Yeshua which would indicate that he did not believe in the authority of the Jewish religious leadership was when he derides the hand-washing, and the vow taken to the temple at the expense of honoring one’s parents. These seem to be the exceptions not the rule. In any case the Talmud records that in Yeshua’s time the hand-washing enactment had not been fully accepted, it was still open to dispute, and concerning the issue of the vow, the sentiment expressed by Yeshua would be one that the Pharisees in general would agree with.
In general I see in Christianity a confirmation to the concept of Rabbinical enactments. I believe as you do that Paul would never have condoned the atrocities done by his corporeal (if not spiritual) followers in the name of his faith. If he would have possessed half the spiritual foresight that the Rabbis of his time had, he would have put some enactments in place which would keep his corporeal followers in line at least to some minimal degree.
This part of our discussion began as an effort on my part to prove that you misunderstood the traditional Jewish position. The fact that you present the verses in Ezra as a “refutation” to the Jewish position further illustrates this point. Which traditional Jew would not give his right eye to be able to bring blood offerings in the temple? How can these verses be considered a refutation to the position of the Talmud on atonement, when it is obvious from the Talmud that the rabbis yearned with their whole hearts to be able to serve God in the temple according to His holy command?
In any case this discussion became a general discussion about the issue of atonement. I would like to make a point. I understand the argument you make from scripture concerning blood atonement in the following manner (please correct me if I have erred). Scripture makes a big deal about blood offerings and their efficacy in the atonement of sin(I agree). Scripture does not speak of any another method as efficacious for the atonement of sin (I disagree). Therefore we can conclude that if anyone comes up with a different method for the atonement of sin – he is negating, repudiating, and denying the word of God as it relates to atonement. You are so confident in this stance, that you would readily label Micha and Ezekiel as false prophets if you would understand them to be endorsing another method of atonement (which they are).
You recognize that there is no explicit statement in scripture which can be read as saying that there is no other valid method for atonement. Still, you feel that the emphasis scripture places on blood atonement and the non-mention of any other methods of atonement combine to give you this theology “there is no atonement without blood”.
Please consider the following. As much as scripture emphasizes blood atonement (and I am not denying this), it emphasizes in a much stronger way, and with many more words the choice of Israel as God’s nation. Furthermore, there are many passages in scripture which tell us that God will never choose another people. Yet you have no problem accepting a theology which claims that there was another election. You do not see this as negating, repudiating and denying the election of Israel. How so?
In our discussion about atonement we have been focusing on the blood offerings as if that is the only area in which we differ. The truth is that we differ about repentance as well. We both accept that repentance is an essential part of the atonement process, but we have different opinions about the definition of repentance, and it seem that we differ over the question of the centrality of repentance in the atonement process.
Repentance means turning back to God and accepting His sovereignty. Repentance means accepting upon oneself full obedience to God’s command. The fact that some commandments are physically impossible to fulfill, does not detract from the quality of repentance in the slightest. As long as it is not disobedience that is causing the non-observance, the repentance is complete.
Disobedience includes accepting a theology which advances the concept that the commandments are no longer relevant. You are correct in your assertion that I do not understand the idea that Jesus “accomplished” all of the commandments in the sense that his followers are no longer obligated to observe them. I have read the Jewish scriptures, and I see that God commands that we observe all the commandments – practically – for all generations. Loyalty to God and trust in His word demand that I reject any theology which justifies non-observance. In any case, why do you rely on Jesus to “accomplish” the observance of Shabbos, but you do not rely on him to “accomplish” “do not steal”?
You wanted a statement from the Talmud which would indicate that the authors of the Talmud believed that while the temple stood animal sacrifices were secondary to another method of atonement. Zevachim 6b has Rava explaining that the atonement achieved by an Olah is peripheral to the repentance. This is not an isolated statement, it is a theme that runs through all of authentic Jewish thought, starting from scripture continuing on through the writings of God’s witnesses that lived in every generation. You accuse me of consistently minimizing the temple offerings. You should direct your accusation at my teacher – the God of Israel. God Himself consistently depreciates the value of the temple offerings in favor of repentance and obedience. . In an effort to overemphasize the value of the blood offerings and to minimize the central, irreplaceable, foundational, essential and basic role of repentance as God’s method for dealing with sin, you rebuke me for “failing to note” the “proverbial nature” of a Rabbinic statement, and the fact that the Rabbis use the word – “va’halo”. May I humbly bring to your attention that you have failed to note the fact that God consistently deprecates the temple offerings in a way that no other observance is belittled. God tells us (through Micha) that substitution is not necessary for atonement – it is not central and it is not essential. God tells us through Jeremiah that He never commanded us about offerings, and through Samuel He tells us that obedience is better than offerings. The direct message of scripture is that it is repentance that is central, essential, basic and irreplaceable as God’s method of dealing with sin. So central, that any other method is only significant when they are subordinate to repentance. Talking of blood offerings in relation to repentance as a method for achieving atonement from sin, is like talking about cosmetic surgery in relation to lifesaving medical procedures for achieving healing after a near fatal accident, or like talking about candies in relation to real food to a person who is dying of starvation. God is unequivocally clear that repentance is the most basic and foundational method for the nation to achieve atonement (Deuteronomy 30:1-10), and that the same holds true for the individual (Ezekiel 33:14-16).
In all of scripture you will never find that God is described as seeing the people’s substitutionary blood offerings and relenting from the punishment that their sins would have brought upon them. Oftentimes Moses and the prophets described how God forgives because of prayer and repentance (repentance obviously includes getting rid of the sin and of the sinners). The Rabbis recognized that fasting has the power to avert a divine decree after it was set down (a power they never attribute to animal offerings).Whenever there was a drought in the land of Israel (both while the temple was standing or not – see Joel 2:15), they recognized that it is a sign of God’s anger because of their sins, and they would declare a fast day. They would point out to the people that God’s direct message in the book of Jonah was that it is repentance that counts and not fasting – it says (Jonah 3:10) that God saw their actions that they repented of their bad ways – it does not say that God saw their sack-cloth and fasting. In other words fasting is useless if it is not an expression of, or a catalyst for sincere repentance. Imagine if the Rabbis would have said that the fundamental, essential and basic reason that God forgave the people of Ninveh was because of their charity – the prophet just didn’t bother mentioning the point because he considered it obvious. You would correctly label this a contempt for God’s direct message. Your argument is no different. You are saying that the main, basic, fundamental, and essential reason that God relented towards the people of Ninveh was because of the blood offerings that the apostate Israel was or wasn’t bringing at that time. The prophet didn’t think it was necessary to mention it, because everyone knew the Talmudic stock-phrase “ein kapara ela be’dam”, so he only mentioned the secondary, peripheral, minor, and insignificant aspect of atonement which is repentance?!
I will end this essay with a quotation from your book. – “And, if you want to stay free from thoughts of condemnation, you must learn to take God at His word. If He says, “I forgive and I forget”, then accept it at face value.” (Go And Sin No More page 144).
5) A Kingdom of Kohanim
I must thank you for bringing this subject into focus for me. It seems that we both see in this quotation from Exodus 19:6, support to our conflicting positions. You see the chief role of the priests as the affecting of atonement. You also happen to believe that there is no atonement without the offering of blood sacrifices. Therefore you see in this passage a support to the philosophy that the gentiles do not have atonement only through the blood offerings of the people of Israel.
I see the chief role of the priests as being directly responsible for the service of God that is necessary for His divine presence to dwell in our midst. This certainly includes the processing of blood offerings for atonement, but in no way is it limited to this. The priests were assigned many responsibilities that related to the open manifestation of God’s presence here on earth. I believe that the gentiles can achieve expiation for their sins without the people of Israel (as the book of Jonah openly teaches), but they cannot merit an open manifestation of God’s presence without the people of Israel.
I think that the overwhelming weight of scripture supports my understanding of this passage. If indeed this passage (Exodus 19:6) is talking exclusively about blood offerings and is highlighting their fundamental importance, then what is God saying in Jeremiah 7:23? If the chief role of the priests is to provide atonement, then why does scripture always describe the role of the priest as “le’shareis” and not as “le’chaper”? If the chief role of the priests is to provide atonement, and since Jesus came on the scene, the blood offerings of Israel no longer atone, so why is the nation spoken of as being Kohanei Hashem by Isaiah (61:6) in the messianic era? The role that the nation of Israel played in the offering of blood offerings – namely bringing the animals to the temple and paying for and supporting the temple service, is a function that is clearly permitted to the gentiles. If the entire point of Israel’s designation as a kingdom of priests is limited to the blood offerings, then in what way is Israel as a nation different than the gentiles?
The way I understand this passage (Exodus 19:6) is that just as the Kohanim were designated by God to be involved in the service related to the manifestation of His presence in a more direct and explicit way than the rest of the nation of Israel. So were the Jewish people as a whole designated by God to be involved in His service as it relates to the manifestation of His presence in a more direct and explicit way than the rest of the nations. This was clearly true when the temple was standing and it will be obvious again when the temple will be restored, but it is also true now. Ezekiel 11:16 (note Matthew Henry’s commentary) tells us that even in exile we are in God’s sanctuary. The covenantal sign of Shabbos, tells us that God’s sanctity is still with us. The glimmer of God’s sanctity that dwells in this fallen world, dwells amongst the Kingdom of Priests – those who love God and are loyal to His word.
6) The Social Context of the Christian Scriptures
I have presented the argument that the Christian scriptures were read by many throughout history as an encouragement to hate Jews. You brought up several points in response.
You stated that Anti-Semitism was prevalent long before the Christian scriptures came on the scene. I agree with you, I do not dispute this point. My argument is that there were many sincere gentiles who respected the Jewish people, and it was these gentiles whom the Christian scriptures taught to denigrate the chosen nation. You asked for my sources who attest to this historical phenomena (of gentiles respecting the Jewish people). There are actually quite a few (Nanos quotes Josephus to this effect), Littell assumes it to be a well known fact, and the Christian commentators also mention it – look at the Jameison Faussett Brown comment on Acts 10:2.
You pointed to the fact that Jewish scripture and Talmud also engendered Anti-Semitism, I agree, but I pointed out that the social context at whom these books were directed never read them that way. You responded to this point by making the claim that the social context at whom the Christian scriptures are directed is the social context of true believers, and you present the theory that one of the necessary prerequisites of a true believer is that he love the Jewish people. I thoroughly enjoyed this argument of yours, because it demonstrates that you have finally come to some understanding of my argument about the social context of Jewish scripture. You seem to be accepting the principal that if a book is directed at a particular social context, then that is the only correct way to read it. But you still have a way to go.
There are two types of books, there are simple human books and there are divinely inspired books. Human communications are directed at a limited social context, and when that social context disappears, the true understanding of the book is lost forever. God, however, can direct His words towards an eternal social context – as He does in the Jewish scriptures. What comes first? Is it the acceptance of the concept of an eternal community or is it the acceptance that a given book is the word of God? Let’s see how it works out. Let us assume that a given book is the word of God, let us then read in the book that God is addressing a specific social context, we would then ask ourselves – why do we assume that to be true? Why did we assume in the first place that the book is the word of God? Are we to deceive ourselves into believing that it is not due to the coloring of the social context from within which we look, that we came to this belief? But if we start from the social context, things turn out different. Allow me to illustrate by means of a parable.
There is a beautiful painting – it is awesome in its beauty, it is enormous – and it is massively complex. There are several people standing before the painting, each with a different pair of colored glasses. Each of these people is reading a message in the painting, they understand that the author of the painting is communicating with them through the painting. They do not agree with each other about the message. Each claims that it is his understanding of the message which is correct. Picture all of these people heatedly arguing with each other over the merits of their interpretation of the message. Only one of these people is different. He is not arguing for the merits of his particular interpretation – as convincing as they are. Rather he argues that it was his pair of glasses that was chosen by the painter for the reading of the message. None of the other people present a credible claim (if at all) that their glasses are the correct glasses. Whose argument are you going to listen to?
Now read Deuteronomy 4:30-39. Is God not arguing for a specific set of glasses? Is there a comparable argument for a different pair of glasses?
In any case, your argument for an eternal community of true believing Christians is not very credible. According to your definition of a true believer, there were no true believers for many centuries. I realize that you retroject your beliefs and your spirituality back across the blood-stained pages of history and that you create mythical secret believers in countries and eras where the Catholic church held absolute authority, I am sure you realize that I cannot give much credibility to this conjecture since there is no historical evidence to support it. Show me one Christian document from the fourth century down to the fourteenth century that advocates love of the Jewish people as an integral part of Christianity.
Furthermore, why should I accept your claim that you are the true believer? Do you realize that all of these Jew hating Christians would have violently objected to your assertion that they are not true believers. (Your point that the Reform Jewish scholars who claim to be the true heirs to the Pharisees has no bearing on this argument. They do not claim to be the only true social context at whom the Talmud and Midrashim were aimed. They reject the concept of an eternal social context, instead in their arrogance they try to reconstruct the limited social context at whom the words of the original Pharisees were aimed. In any case, these are just a few elitists as opposed to the masses of Jew-hating Christians who inhabited this planet together with all of their scholars and saints for many centuries – and in many countries.) On what authority do you base your claim for possessing the “true belief”? One last question on this note. How many of those that you label “true believers” would agree with your assessment that Martin Luther was not a “true believer”?
7) The Early Years of Christianity
I presented the argument that the Christian scriptures taught the gentiles a contempt for that which they ought to have respected – namely the Jew’s relationship with his God, and that this teaching was a major impediment in the way of Israel performing her role as teacher to the nations. Your response was multifaceted, but some of the points you brought up are the facts that in the early years of Christianity it was the Jews who persecuted the Christians – they drove them out of the synagogues and were not above using deadly violence against them. I will not disagree with you – I will instead bring some facts to your attention.
There was a fair amount of hostility between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Paul’s and Luke’s writings attest to this. It is entirely possible that some of the trouble that the gentile (or Paulist – even if Jewish) Christians faced came from those of the Pharisee party who believed. Furthermore, there was a great amount of hostility from the Paulist church towards the Jewish believers – greater even than the hostility showed by these early Christians towards Jews in general. If the Jewish believers were indeed thrown out of the synagogues (why they wanted to join in the first place is beyond me), why then did their gentile brethren not show them the full measure of Christian love? Why did these Jewish believers disappear off the face of the earth? Was it because of Jewish persecution?
You argue that if the Rabbis would have accepted Jesus they would have been teachers to the gentiles. History disagrees. History testifies that they would have lost God’s protection and they would have been eradicated by the gentiles who worshiped Jesus.
8) Christian Love and a Wicked Rejection
You claim that a sign of a true believer in Yeshua is a deep love for the Jewish people. I would say that a far more pervasive sign of the true believer in Yeshua is a contempt for the Jewish people. One more parable.
A certain married woman found herself in a terrible situation. Some evil men had abducted her, and were applying tremendous pressure upon her that she commit adultery with their leader. This woman was a noble woman and she resisted the pressure. In the face of incredible torture and in the face of threats to her very life she remained loyal to her husband. A newspaper reporter heard this story and this is what he reported to his audience. – The reason the woman resisted all that pressure was because her abductors did a bad job in describing their leader to her. The photograph of their leader that they showed her was a poor replica, and his hairdo wasn’t good in that portrait anyway.
What would you say about this newspaper reporter? Would it occur to you in your wildest dream to say that this reporter has any respect for this woman?
Now read objection 1.8 and your response.
When I read about Christian martyrs, would it occur to me to ignore the fact that they have an intense spiritual relationship with Jesus which does not allow them to deny him? As immoral as I think their love for Jesus is, basic human decency demands that I acknowledge its existence.
Why is it so difficult for Christians to acknowledge that the Jewish people have a deep and fulfilling relationship with our God, to the degree that it is unthinkable to direct our love anywhere else? You can at least acknowledge this to be true about our martyrs.
In general I find that you denigrate our relationship with God. You criticize us for creating loopholes to negate the spirit of the law. Do you know how many interest free loans are being extended every day? Do you know how many loyal farmers abandon their lands for a full year every seven years?
Why is it so difficult for you to recognize that the seyag which has us reciting shema before midnight was an effective social mechanism which successfully generated spirituality in many different generations and in many different countries – in an open and obvious way?
You seem to think that we read Jeremiah as an abstract criticism of other people. Nothing could be further from te truth. When we read Jeremiah, we do not try to put ourselves in the shoes of the prophet. Instead we recognize that we are the people who Jeremiah is speaking to. We recognize that every one of his stinging criticisms is relevant today as it was in his times, if not to a greater degree. And we treasure every one of his words.
You seem to think it is possible to be a Torah scholar and recite the prayers which beseech God for knowledge, by rote. It is certainly true that these prayers can be, and are often are recited by rote. But this is not the portion of the Torah scholar. No-one ever achieved greatness in Torah without first, and continuously throughout experiencing a deep relationship with the Giver of the Torah. Our people would never accept one’s claims to Torah scholarship without first seeing obvious evidence of this person’s true and ongoing relationship with God. We see Torah scholarship and relationship with God to be inseparable – and we see this openly.
You are quick to judge our observance of Shabbos, as one which does not commemorate the liberation from Egypt. Did you ever look at Shabbos with our glasses?
You have no problem labeling our rejection of Christianity a “wicked act”. Tell me please, what is so wicked about it? Which moral principle is being violated in this rejection?
I will end this letter with an articulation of my perception of the acceptance of Christianity.
One of the things that scripture is very clear about, is that idolatry is the greatest abomination in God’s eyes. Why? There are many correct answers to this question and the truth is an amalgamation of all of these answers – I will try to present some of them here.
By pointing to a limited being, a being that shares some of our own properties, and calling that “god”, we have blunted the sharpest line in creation, the line that exists between Creator and created. By attributing deity to a limited being, we are in essence denying our own total dependance upon God. We are erasing from our minds the most essential quality that we share with all other created beings – the basic fact that we are created and not Creators. This fact is the basis of all morality.
The true relationship between the created and the Creator is not something that the created has the power to create – it is something that we only have the power to recognize. We do not choose God as our Creator and we do not choose God as the one who sustains us constantly – we can only choose to ignore this truth or to recognize it – but we cannot create this truth. The idolater creates his relationship with his idol – it is the work of his own imagination – he is the author, the god, and the creator of the relationship. The contrast between these two relationships is the same contrast that exists between a parent child relationship, as opposed to the relationship an adulteress women has with her seducer. There is no question that the second relationship seems more glamorous – but it can never be true. (Ask these two people to describe their respective relationships – the child with his parent, and the immoral woman with her lover – and compare to a loyal Jew’s description of his relationship with God, and a Christian’s relationship with his god.)
The only true religious worship can be directed at the One who already possesses our souls. We have no right to give our souls to whomever we choose – they belong to God. In every other religious worship, the worshiper is giving his soul to someone that does not own his soul. In fact he is worshiping greed – the greed of the deity who desires that which does not belong to him.
Yes, it is true that by committing oneself in worship to someone outside of oneself, there will be an original rush of selflessness, which can easily be confused with true saintliness. This can last for a few generations. But if that someone is not the one who already possesses your soul, it will only lead to crusades, inquisition and holocaust.
Your Pharisee friend
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Yisroel C. Blumenthal