Letter to a Missionary

Shalom Michoel

Thanks for taking the time for this articulate and detailed response. Each additional bit of clarity brings us closer to the truth that we both seek. Thanks for the tone as well.

You have my best ear for quite a while now. Can I be so presumptuous as to ask you for your best ear?

I hope you will forgive me for arranging this letter according to topics and not as a point by point response.

1) Social Context

In response to my question “where does scripture address the issue of social context”, you pointed to the verses in Proverbs where it speaks of trusting in God and not in our own understanding, with the verse in Psalms where David beseeches God to open his eyes to the wonders of the Torah – I would add to these the verse in Proverbs 2:6 where it clearly states that it is God who gives wisdom, from His mouth knowledge and understanding. These last two verses (from Psalm 119 and Proverbs 2) are printed in the front flap of many gemoras as an introduction to Torah study. The prayer we say every morning before the Shema beseeches God in the most open terms to grant us the light of His holy torah. There is no question that any understanding anyone obtains of God’s word is a direct gift from God and should be recognized as such and should never be taken for granted. I think we could both agree on this issue.

The way I see it, is that studying God’s word includes three components 1) beseeching God for guidance, and constantly turning to Him in prayer that we do not stumble and that He should open our eyes to His truth and save us from any errors. 2) reading the word itself with all of the capabilities that God blessed us with (I would include in this aspect – listening to the teachers who were designated by God to teach His laws) 3) the social context from within which the word is being read. Every person reads the word from within his own social context – and thus we have different social contexts reading the same Bible and hearing different messages.

The way I read scripture, I see that God makes a big deal about the third component of studying His word. God forged a certain social context through the miracles of the exodus, the revelation at Sinai, and the miraculous 40 year journey through the desert. He designated the living social context of this nation to keep the memory of these events alive and real, through physical observances. It is the power of this living testimony that God uses to authenticate scripture to the later generations. It is through this social context that He preserved the words of Moses, it is through this living social context that He gave us the words of the prophets that followed Moses. It is to this social context that God addresses His word, and it is from this social context that God expects His word to be read.

I don’t see how a Christian reads scripture and sees that God addresses the third component of reading His word.

You tell me that you cannot give credence to the testimony of the living people who I understand are the only true bearers of God’s message. You give three basic reasons for your position a) this group have added on many things to scripture b) they contradict scripture at many points c) they reject that which you cannot question either scripturally or experientially.

Aside from the experience you mention in reason c), your reasons are basically that your understanding of scripture tells you to reject their testimony. (I am sure that when you speak of experience, you are speaking of experience that is fused with your understanding of scripture – still, the power of your argumentation lies in its perceived scriptural basis – you are aware that my understanding of scripture also has confirming experiences.)

You recognize that from my perspective, there are no contradictions to scripture. On the contrary, it is the position of Christianity which I see as standing in blatant violation of scripture.

I have in the past presented several lines of argumentation which counter your points. In this letter I will try to articulate a line of argumentation which I did not flesh out in previous communications.

Exodus 31:12-17. God designates the practical observance of the Sabbath as an eternal sign, for all generations, that it is God who sanctifies the children of Yisroel. The social context of which I am a part is the only one that is observing the Sabbath continuously since the time these words were spoken. I will try to describe to you how things seem from the standpoint of my social context. We understand that a sign for all generations, is something that will be readable in all generations (at least within the social context of the Jewish people loyal to God). We see in these verses that God looks with favor at our contemporary observance of Shabbos. We see in these verses that the sanctity we experience through our observance of Shabbos, is not a product of our imagination, it is not a power generated by the collective spiritual strength of a given group of people, nor is it something granted by a strange spirit. It is the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob who is sanctifying us. We see in these verse a promise from God to preserve the true spirit of Shabbos through the practical observance of the physical descendants of our patriarch Yisroel. We see in our observance, the miraculous fulfilment of this promise.

How do you read these verses?

You ask me how I read Jeremiah 5 or other verses in scripture which seem to indicate that the leaders of the Jewish people lost touch with the word of God. My response is as follows. I (try to) read any given part of scripture in the context of the entirety of scripture (something which I know you try to do as well), and in the context of the mind-set of the people through whom God gave us scripture. I realize that you have little respect for the social context within which I read scripture, so I will stick to scripture itself to explain the meaning of these verses. Scripture indicates that the Jewish people were observing the Shabbos, and worshiping God in the beginning of the second temple era. The leaders were still able to teach the people how to observe the law of Moses. This tells me that after all the years of idolatry that went on during the first temple era, the people still had a workable definition of the law. This tells me that all the criticisms of corruption uttered by the prophets, did not mean that the people no longer retained a workable definition of the law. They may have been personally corrupt (as most people read Jesus’ criticism in Matt. 23 – that he criticized their personal lives while recognizing their role in maintaining the definition of the law), or their corruption may have even affected their transmission of the law, but not to the degree that the nation no longer had a workable definition of the law.

To explain this from another angle; I see Jeremiah as someone from within the social context of living Judaism uttering God’s criticisms. Just as I read stinging criticisms of traditional Judaism or of the leadership of traditional Judaism, coming from within traditional Judaism (and there is quite a bit of this), differently than I would read it if it were coming from someone who is outside the context of traditional Judaism. When the criticism is coming from within that context, than the unspoken given is that no matter how corrupt we are, God still ensured that His holy law be preserved through our living social context. And God can be trusted to keep His word.

2) Do not add.

On the one hand, it is difficult for me to take this question seriously. The social context at whom this question is directed cherishes every one of God’s commandments, while the social context from whom this question is coming seems to disregard many of God’s commandments. The social context of Christianity seems to be following a most liberal understanding of “do not subtract”, yet they demand the most legalistic understanding to “do not add”. So you can perhaps understand why it is not easy for me to take this question seriously. But I know you Michoel, and I know your sincerity, and this knowledge doesn’t allow me to take this question lightly.

The social context which passed on scripture to me, and whose testimony authenticates scripture for me – taught me the workable definition to the laws of the torah. The definition of this particular law as taught by the social context of Judaism allows for new laws, as long as they are not put on an equal footing with the laws taught by God through Moses. Those who canonized the book of Esther (whose authority we both accept, although I still can’t figure out why you do) seem to have shared my understanding of this particular definition of the law. The book of Esther tells us that a new holiday was accepted by the Jewish people. This fits right in with our understanding of the definition of this law, it does not seem to fit with the legalistic interpretation of the law that you are demanding that I apply.

To word things differently, using the language of the social context of Christianity as I learned it from you. You spoke to me about Christians reading the scriptures and seeing a commandment in every line. The way I understand this is that these people sense the spiritual underpinnings of the material law and sense how these spiritual commandments can apply to their gentile lives. The Jewish people do the same thing, on many different levels. (One note of caution; we never see the material observance as a contradiction to the spiritual sense of the law, on the contrary, the true spiritual sense of the law can only be grasped when accompanied by practical obedience.) One of the levels we do this on is the national level. Looking at the Jewish people loyal to God, all of them who ever lived, as one body, we sense that some of us are more in tune with the spiritual soul of the law than others. We sense this amongst ourselves today, and we sense this even more strongly, when we focus on generations past. We sense that these people were in tune not only with the soul of the law, but also with the soul of the people, of the eternal body of the Jewish people. If they understood that in order to preserve the harmony between the soul of the law and the soul of the people certain enactments are necessary, then we understand that this is God’s will. Just as a Christian would trust his own personal sensitivity to spirituality to guide him in life so do we trust our national sensitivity to spirituality to guide us in life.

3) Atonement

The reason I brought up this subject in the first place was to illustrate why I believe that you misunderstood the Jewish position (there are more examples, I chose this one because I think it is the most obvious). In the course of our dialogue, you rebuked me for burying my head in the stand, and for taking such an obtuse stance towards scholars who hold to different opinions than myself. I recognize that your rebuke stems from a sincere care for my soul, so please recognize that the following response is not a knee-jerk reaction in an attempt to defend myself, but rather is a reciprocation to your sincerity.

In your book you presented a theory, backed by the scholarship of certain scholars, that the consistent position of the Talmud was that while the temple stood there is no other form of atonement without blood. In other words, you are claiming that if one were to read the Talmud in its present form, he would realize that the authors of the Talmud believed that while the temple stood there was no other valid form of atonement.

You are now presenting a different theory. The theory you are presenting in your most recent communication has it that while the temple stood – the rabbis who lived at that time accepted that only blood atoned – after the temple was destroyed they came up with new methods of atonement – and when they wrote the Talmud they made it appear as if these alternate methods were accepted while the temple stood as well.

These are two different theories. I happen to disagree with both of them, but concerning the first one, I can confidently state that those who invented it were either irresponsible or consciously dishonest. The Talmud clearly recognizes that there are other valid forms of atonement while the temple stood, and there are very few statements of the Talmud which could be understood to mean that the authors of the Talmud did not recognize other forms of atonement while the temple stood. Even if one did not know how to reconcile the seeming contradiction in the Talmud, it would still be irresponsible to label this theory “the consistent position of the Talmud”.

The few statements in the Talmud which could be read to support this theory are those from Avos d’rav Nassan 4:5, Brachos 55a, Menachos 97a, Chagiga 27a – which say that while the temple stood we had the offerings but now we have charity etc. You yourself quote similar statements concerning the concept of death of the righteous. But you recognize clearly that the rabbis understood that the death of the righteous atoned when the temple stood as well (or did the death of the Kohein Gadol only atone after the destruction of the temple?) So you could see how the statements like “then we had offerings now we have charity” do not mean that the rabbis believed that God changed His policies, but rather that while the temple stood, offerings were in the forefront, and after the offerings were taken away from us (because of our sins) those methods which were always in the background, are now in the forefront.

Now that you seem to be abandoning the theory “that the consistent position of the Talmud was that while the temple stood there was no atonement without blood” – and you seem to be moving to a theory where the Talmud is unconsciously covering up a change in theology, – it would seem useless to discuss the theory you abandoned any further. But I want to solidify my position, that anyone who equates the Talmud’s statement of “ain kapara ela bedam” with the Christian scripture’s statement of “there is no atonement without blood” has lost his credentials in my eyes. I do not care if he is Jewish or Christian – he is at best irresponsible.

Page 109 you quote Geza Vermes and Boruch Levine who quote the Talmud’s “ein kapara ela bedam” as an equivalent to Hebrews 9:22. The way you present the argument you state “But he has failed to note exactly why the rabbis concluded that atonement was found only in the shedding of a sacrificial animal’s blood and not in the process of laying one’s hand on the sacrifice or in waving it before the Lord. It was because the rabbis knew that “there is no atonement without blood”. In other words since it was an accepted fact that there was no atonement without blood (this stock phrase, “there is no atonement without blood,” found repeatedly in the Talmud is almost proverbial in nature)…” . The way I understand this argument is that these scholars concluded that there was a piece of Torah Shebal Peh which taught the rabbis that there is no atonement without blood.

I do not see how one can responsibly jump to such a conclusion. The Rabbis tell you exactly where they knew it from – it was from Leviticus 17:11 which plainly says that the part of the animal that is designated by God for the providing of atonement is its blood and not its head (where the hands are laid) and not its chest and leg (which are waved before the Lord). The fact is that the rabbis of the Talmud had no problem associating atonement with all types of procedures (including the offering of incense – your comments on page 118 notwithstanding, the wearing of the priestly clothes, the giving of charity, the day of Yom hakippurim even without its offerings (this while the temple stood), repentance, the keeping of Shabbos, the study of Torah etc. etc.). In all of these contexts the Talmud never asks “va’halo ein kapara ela bedam”. It is only within the procedure of an animal sacrifice that the rabbis had a problem with another procedure aside from the sprinkling of the blood providing atonement.

You take umbrage with my words “This representation has no basis in fact”. You then challenge me to provide a written document from before the destruction which supports my theory.

When I said that the representation has no basis in fact, I was referring to the theory you advocate in your book that the Talmud itself in its present form says that while the temple stood there was no atonement without blood. I think that you now agree that my statement was correct.

Concerning your second theory, that the views of the rabbis changed with the destruction of the temple and that the Talmud unwittingly provides evidence to this, I would still say that your theory has no basis in fact. I think there is more evidence to support the theory that Jesus and his Jewish disciples believed that there was atonement without blood, than there is to support the theory that the rabbis of Jesus’ times believed in the Pauline doctrine of Hebrews 9:22. After all, Jesus does say that if you forgive others, God will forgive you. Acts 10:4 has an angel equating prayer and charity, with offerings in the temple – both of these seeming to work while the temple was still standing.

You challenge me to find a Pharisaic document from before the destruction which speaks of atonement without blood. Do you have one statement in any Jewish document (aside from the Christian literature) that makes the claim “there is no atonement without blood”? It is not in scripture, it is not found in the Rabbinic writings (when read in context), neither have I heard that the sectarian writings express such a theology. In fact I have seen quotations from the Dead Sea scrolls which clearly demonstrate that the sectarians believed that there is atonement without blood. I have seen quotations from the Aprocyphal writings which tell us that their authors believed in atonement for sin without blood. It seems that before Hebrews 9:22, no one heard of such a concept (of no atonement without blood).

4) A kingdom of priests

The reason this subject entered our dialogue was because I was trying to demonstrate that without the rabbinical writings you will have no answer for objection 3.14. You went on to argue that on a purely scriptural basis, you would say that the Jews were supposed to bring offerings for the gentiles – this based on the kingdom of priests passage in Exodus. (Even if I were to agree with the interpretation, this is still a far cry from the concept that the gentiles have no atonement without Israel’s offerings – in a sense that the plain meaning of the book of Yonah is utterly negated.) I wrote back to you saying, that if you would only have Jewish scripture to go with (and not the rabbinic writings or the Christian scriptures) you would never have come to this conclusion. The role of the priests towards the rest of Israel as bringing offerings for them, is not paralleled in scripture’s description of Israel’s role towards the nations. The role of the priests as teachers is paralleled. I think this is pretty straightforward.

You respond by asking me if I do not believe that the priests were intercessors for the rest of Israel. They certainly were intercessors for the people in the sense of praying for the people (Joel 2:17) paralleled by Jeremiah 29:7 in describing Israel’s role towards the nations amongst whom they were dispersed. The Kohanim were intercessors in the sense that they were a “lightening rod to attract God’s wrath upon themselves” (what a vivid expression!) As stated in Numbers 18:1 and as paralleled in Isaiah 53 in describing Israel’s role towards the nations. But as for the priests being intercessors in the sense of the bringing of offerings, I cannot find a parallel in scripture where this is described as Israel’s role towards the nations. So if one were to go on a strictly scriptural basis, he would sooner conclude that Israel is to pray and suffer for the nations before he would conclude that Israel must bring offerings for the nations.

You point out that as teachers for the nations, Paul Peter John and Matthew taught infinitively more than did the rabbinic sages.

When I read this point of yours, I was reminded of Elijah’s rebuke to Achav “haratzachta ve’gam yarashta?!”. Before Christianity came on the scene, there were many gentiles who respected the Jewish people. This number was growing until the teachers of Christianity came along and taught the gentiles a hatred for Judaism. Contrary to your perception of Christian history, I see that the early years of Christian history (before Constantine) were filled with hatred towards the Jewish people. I see this from books such as Franklin Littel’s “The Crucifixion of the Jews” who documents from primary sources how a hatred of Jews and Judaism was endemic to most forms of Christianity prevalent in the years before Constantine. Had these Christian teachers not taught the gentiles to despise Judaism, then the moral beauty of God’s teachings would have shone through our petty corruptions, and the gentiles would have learned.

Furthermore, the way that the gentile world understood the message of these Christian teachers (Paul Peter John and Matthew), was in a negative hateful and evil sense. Countless gentiles, amongst them countless men who were considered scholars of religion, throughout history understood that loyalty to the message of the Christian teachers meant a hatred of Jews. I can appreciate your argument that the original teachers of Christianity never meant their words to be taken that way, and that an honest reading of their words would lead one to recognize that they never meant it that way. (in the case of Paul I would perhaps agree with you, with Matthew and John – probably not). But you must realize, that the fact of the matter is that the social context from within which these gentiles read the message of Christianity didn’t allow them to see it any other way. The question is, if these were the teachers of the gentiles, doesn’t a good teacher recognize that the mind-set of his students will play a role in the understanding of his message at least equal to the words he uses? If these men were indeed divinely inspired, couldn’t they see the evil that their words will produce when accepted by the very social contexts to whom they were directing their words? All in all, I recognize that the teachings of Christianity brought blessing to many gentiles, but they brought the curse of sin to many more gentiles than they ever brought blessing to.

Even with all of the slander of Jews and Judaism coming from the mouth of the Christian teachers, still the Jewish people filled their role as priests of God. The Jewish counter-culture was an island of sanity and morality in a sea of idolatry and cruelty. There is no doubt in my mind (or in the mind of many scholars of history) that the steadfast loyalty of the Jewish people to God and His Torah, had a tempering effect on civilization. I believe that throughout history, the stance of the Jew had a positive effect on mankind, but in the past several centuries, this has become only more pronounced. At first the Jewish mind-set affected civilization on a secular level. The Jewish love for knowledge triggered advancement in the sciences, and the Jewish understanding of economics was an important catalyst in establishing the economies of the Western powers. The Jewish sense of justice played no small part in encouraging the concepts of democracy and freedom (I happened to once see the copy of the Mishna that Thomas Jefferson used – filled with his margin notes). I see this as a parallel to Joseph, who positively affected his gentile host-land in a material way. But I see the Jewish people affecting the gentile world in a religious way as well, this is especially true since the holocaust. The fact that the Jewish people came through the holocaust, severely crippled to be sure, but with their spiritual energy intact and even revitalized – caused many Christians to rethink their understanding of scripture. Many Christians have come to question the teaching of replacement theology (which began long before Constantine was born), based on the events of the holocaust. They have come to recognize to one degree or another that God’s blessing is still with the Jewish people. I see this as a parallel to the wrestle that Jacob had with the angel – who was trying to kill him. When the angel saw that he could not succeed, he was forced to bless Jacob and recognize that he is Yisroel.

In any case the full fulfillment of the Jewish people being the priests of Hashem will happen when the nations of the world become our farmers and vineyard tenders as promised by God through Isaiah 61:6.

Looking forward to hearing from you

Your Pharisee friend


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Thank You

Yisroel C. Blumenthal

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1 Response to Letter to a Missionary

  1. Dina says:

    Important concepts.

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