Let him who is convinced that his views are true and right express them . . . at every opportunity . . . without considering how much support or how much opposition he will encounter. Only falsehood is in need of many supporters in order to win the day; falsehood must have the authority of numbers to make up for what it lacks in justification. Truth, by contrast, will always prevail, even if it takes time. Noble, courageous and pure, expressed with all the fiery zeal and conviction and with all clarity of sure awareness, stated again and again at every opportunity, truth will ultimately gain respect and admiration even of those who do not accept it. The only truth that can be lost beyond recall is that truth whose adherents no longer have the courage to speak up candidly on its behalf. Truth has never gone down in defeat as the result of opposition, it has done so only when its friends are too weak to defend it. - R' S.R. Hirsch

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Assembling Reminders

R' Lord Jonathan Sacks

You are driving ever so slightly above the speed limit. You see a police car in your rear view mirror. You slow down. You know perfectly well that it is wrong to exceed the speed limit whether anyone is watching or not, but being human, the likelihood of being found out and penalized makes a difference.

Recently a series of experiments has been conducted by psychologists to test the impact of the sense of being observed on pro-social behavior. Chenbo Zhong, Vanessa Bohns and Francesca Gino constructed a test to see whether a feeling of anonymity made a difference. They randomly assigned to a group of students either sunglasses or clear eyeglasses, telling them that they were testing reactions to a new product line. They were also, in an apparently unrelated task, given six dollars and chance of sharing any of it with a stranger.

Those wearing clear glasses gave on average $2.71 while those wearing dark sunglasses gave an average of $1.81. The mere fact of wearing sunglasses, and thus feeling unrecognized and unrecognizable, reduced generosity. In another experiment, they found that students given the opportunity to cheat in a test were more likely to do so in a dimly lit room than in a brightly lit one. The more we think we may be observed, the more generous and moral we become.

Kevin Haley and Dan Fessler tested students on the so-called Dictator Game, in which you are given, say, ten dollars, together with the opportunity of sharing any or none of it with an anonymous stranger. Beforehand, and without realising it was part of the experiment, some of the students were briefly shown a pair of eyes as a computer screen saver, while others saw a different image. Those exposed to the eyes gave 55 per cent more to the stranger than the others.

In another study researchers placed a coffee maker in a university hallway. Passers-by could take coffee and leave money in the box. On some weeks a poster with watchful eyes was hanging on the wall nearby, on others a picture of flowers. On the weeks where the eyes were showing, people left on average 2.76 times as much money as at other times.

Ara Norenzayan, author of the book Big Gods from which these studies are taken, concludes that “Watched people are nice people.” That is part of what makes religion a force for honest and altruistic behavior: the belief that G-d sees what we do.   Voltaire once said that whatever his personal views on the matter he wanted his butler and other servants to believe in G-d because then he would be cheated less.

Less obvious is the experimental finding that what makes the difference to the way we behave is not simply what we believe, but rather the fact of being reminded of it. In one test, conducted by Brandon Randolph-Seng and Michael Nielsen, participants were exposed to words flashed for less than 100 milliseconds, that is, long enough to be detected by the brain but not long enough for conscious awareness. They were then given a test in which they had the opportunity to cheat.

Those who had been shown words relating to G-d were significantly less likely to do so than people who had been shown neutral words. The same result was yielded by another test in which, beforehand, some of the participants were asked to recall the Ten Commandments while others were asked to remember the last ten books they had read. Merely being reminded of the Ten Commandments reduced the tendency to cheat.

Another researcher, Deepak Malhotra, surveyed the willingness of Christians to give to online charitable appeals. The response was 300 per cent greater if the appeal was made on a Sunday than on any other day of the week. Clearly the participants did not change their minds about religious belief or the importance of charitable giving between weekdays and Sundays. It was simply that on Sundays they were more likely to have thought about G-d on that day.

A similar test was carried out among Muslims in Morocco, where it was found that people were more likely to give generously to charity if they lived in a place where they could hear the call to prayer from a local minaret.

Nazorayan’s conclusion is that ‘Religion is more in the situation than in the person,’or to put it another way, what makes the difference to our behavior is less what we believe than the phenomenon of being reminded, even subconsciously, of what we believe.

This phenomenon of being reminded lies at the heart of the mitzvah of tsitsit, fringes, in Numbers chapter 15:
This shall be your tsitsit and you shall see it and remember all the L-rd’s commandments and keep them, not straying after your heart and after your eyes, following your own sinful desires. Thus you will be reminded to keep all My commandments, and be holy to your G-d.
The Talmud tells the story of a man who, in a moment of moral weakness, decided to pay a visit to a certain courtesan. He was in the course of removing his clothes when he saw the tsitsit and immediately froze. The courtesan asked him what was the matter, and he told her about the tsitsit, saying that the four fringes had become accusing witnesses against him for the sin he was about to commit. The woman was so impressed by the power of this simple command that she converted to Judaism.

We sometimes fail to understand the connection between religion and morality. Dostoevsky is said to have said that if G-d did not exist, all would be permitted.  This is not the mainstream Jewish view. According to Rav Nissim Gaon, the moral imperatives accessible to reason have been binding since the dawn of humanity.

We have a moral sense. We know that certain things are wrong. But we also have conflicting desires. We are drawn to do what we know we should not do, and often we yield to temptation. In the moral domain, it is what the Torah means when it speaks of “straying after your heart and after your eyes, following your own sinful desires.”

The moral sense, wrote James Q. Wilson, “is not a strong beacon light radiating outward to illuminate in sharp outline all that it touches.” It is, rather, “a small candle flame, casting vague and multiple shadows, flickering and sputtering in the strong winds of power and passion, greed and ideology.” He add: “But brought close to the heart” it “dispels the darkness and warms the soul.”

Wittgenstein once said that “the work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders.” In the case of Judaism the purpose of the outward signs – tsitsit, mezuzah and tefillin – is precisely that: to assemble reminders, on our clothes, our homes, our arms and head, that certain things are wrong, and that even if no other human being sees us, G-d sees us and will call us to account.

“The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; who shall know it?” said Jeremiah (Jer. 17: 9). One of the blessings and curses of human nature is that we use our power of reason not always and only to act rationally, but also to rationalize and make excuses for the things we do, even when we know we should not have done them. That, perhaps is one of the lessons the Torah wishes us to draw from the story of the spies.

Had they remembered what G-d had done to Egypt, the mightiest empire of the ancient world, they would not have said, “We cannot attack those people; they are stronger than we are”  (Num. 13:31). But they were in the grip of fear. Strong emotion, fear especially, distorts our perception. 

Tsitsit with their thread of blue remind us of heaven and of our obligations to the One Who is enthroned there, and that is what we most need if we are consistently to act in accordance with His desires and Divine directives for us.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Snake that Heals

The frustration of the Israelites in last week's Torah portion motivated them to speak out against G-d. This rebellion, in turn, elicited swift punishment, an attack of venomous snakes. This punishment is unique amongst G-d's acts of retribution.

While previous punishments included fire and sword (Numbers 11:1, 14:45), this time the Israelites are subjugated to snakes! What lies behind this strange punishment? Rabbi Hirsch advances a conception of the punishment of the serpents:

"'Shelach' (to send) in the 'kal' (simple conjugation form) means to send, to put something in motion towards a goal. But 'shale'ach' (as found in our verse - 21:6) in 'pi'el' (intensive conjugation form) predominantly has the meaning of letting something go, to leave it to its natural way, not to hold it back ... Here too, G-d did not send the serpents, but let them go, did not keep them back ... They had always been there in the wilderness, but hitherto they had been kept back by G-d's careful protecting power.

Now G-d withdraws this restraining power, and the serpents of the wilderness follow their natural traits to which the people succumbed. Thus, Moses describes the wilderness through which they had wandered unscathed through G-d's miraculous protective power as 'the great and terrible wilderness of poisonous snakes, scorpions and drought' (Deuteronomy 8:15). So that poisonous snakes are as much a natural appendage of the wilderness as thirst."

The serpents are not an unusual punishment at all. Quite the contrary, we would only expect to find serpents in the wilderness! What is outstanding is that the Israelites did not suffer from the serpents till this point. G-d's supervision protected them throughout the perilous journey in the desert. However, when the people proved ungrateful, and denigrated the manna that G-d provided, the L-rd withdrew His protection of the people.

They were left to contend with nature's hazards on their own. As Rabbi Hirsch points out, G-d did not send the serpents. Rather, He did not prevent their onslaught. The Israelites were left to contend with them on their own.

Many of the Israelites fall prey to the serpents. It is then that the people realize that it is they who are to blame. Overcome by guilt they approach Moses:

"The people came to Moses and said, 'We sinned by speaking against the L-rd and against you. Intercede with the L-rd to take away the serpents from us!' And Moses interceded for the people. Then the L-rd said to Moses, 'Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard. And if anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall recover. Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on a standard; and when anyone was bitten by a serpent, he would look at the copper serpent and recover." (Numbers 21:7-9)

A peculiar punishment is followed by an even more peculiar remedy. The people have acknowledged the fact that they have spoken against the L-rd. In order to prevent further carnage G-d commands Moses to make a "seraph," a figure of a serpent. Whoever was bitten by the snakes would look at the copper serpent, constructed by Moses, and would be saved.

We will conclude with the explanation advanced by Rabbi Hirsch:

"The serpents' bite had the sole purpose of letting the people see the dangers which dog a person's steps when he goes through the wilderness, and that it was only the miraculous power of G-d which had hitherto kept them far from them so far indeed that they did not even have an idea of their existence. One, who had been bitten, had only to fix the image of a serpent firmly in his mind so that he realizes that even when G-d's gracious power will again keep the serpents at a distance, he will remember that the danger is still in existence, dangers that daily and hourly the special care of G-d lets us escape quite unconsciously.

So that every breath we take in our life is made into a fresh gift from G-d's might and goodness. ... Hence the punishment of these "ingrates," as our sages call them, by G-d removing the protection and the evil which hitherto had made the poisonous tooth of the serpent hidden and innocuous in the wilderness; hence the remedy, that one who had been bitten impresses on his mind to remember permanently the picture of the serpent."

We previously cited Rabbi Hirsch's position that the serpents were a natural consequence of journeying in the wilderness. G-d did not so much send the serpents as he did withdraw his protection. Rabbi Hirsch continues this line of interpretation in explaining the cure of the copper snake. It was not only a physical cure for a biological ailment; it was a process of repentance, of spiritual rehabilitation. The sin of the Israelites was their deriding of the manna, their ingratitude towards G-d's graciousness. According to Rabbi Hirsch, the copper snake reminded the people of the perils surrounding them.

Hence, after looking at the copper snake, they understood that G-d was constantly protecting them. In order to appreciate G-d's benevolence, one must first be aware of the frailty of one's existence. The Israelites became so accustomed to the manna that they no longer appreciated it. They were no longer cognizant of their miraculous wilderness existence. Repentance for their sin involved a re-awakening of their appreciation of G-d's beneficence.

Of course, there is another picture we must be sure to include which brings the meaning of this entire episode to it's ultimate fulfillment in the promised Messiah of Israel:

 "No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.   "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, "that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  (John 3:13-15 )

A paradox indeed:

For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of G-d in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

Friday, June 26, 2015

Untenableness of the Modern Interpretation

Isaiah 53:1-12

Of course, like much false teaching, the modern interpretation contains a seed of truth which lends an air of plausibility to the error.  The germ of truth: that the term "Servant of the L-rd" is applied to Israel many times over in the second half of the book of Isaiah.  We read:

But you, Israel, art my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend. (Isaiah 41:8)

You are my witnesses, says the L-RD, and My servant whom I have chosen: that you may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me.  (Isaiah 43:10)

 Yet now hear, O Jacob my servant; and Israel, whom I have chosen . . . (Isaiah 44:1)

Sadly, Israel has not been the most faithful servant over the years, having failed to apprehend that for which Israel was apprehended of G-d:

Hear, you deaf; and look, you blind, that you may see.  Who is blind, but My servant? Or deaf, as My messenger that I sent? Who is blind as he that is perfect, and blind as the L-RD'S servant?  Seeing many things, but you observe not; opening the ears, but he hears not. (Isaiah 42:18-20 )

It is true that the designation of 'Servant' by G-d's chesed (grace) remains impressed upon the nation, but the more the nation as a whole refuses to rise to its high calling, the more plainly the term 'Servant of the L-rd' detaches itself from the nation and acquires such independence that the nation itself becomes the object of the Servant's redeeming work. 

In Isaiah 49, it is clear that we see this One Individual Who is set a part from the nation and high above it, while invested with the name and the mission to which the entire nation of Israel was called in the first place:

"Listen, O coastlands, to Me, And take heed, you peoples from afar! The L-RD has called Me from the womb; from the matrix of My mother He has made mention of My name.  And He has made My mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of His hand He has hidden Me, And made Me a polished shaft; in His quiver He has hidden Me."  

"And He said to me, 'You are My servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.'  Then I said, 'I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and in vain; yet surely my just reward is with the L-RD, and my work with my G-d.' "  "And now the L-RD says, Who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant, to bring Jacob back to Him, so that Israel is gathered to Him (For I shall be glorious in the eyes of the L-RD, And My G-d shall be My strength),  

Indeed He says, 'It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, that You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.' " (49:1-6)

The One Who is here introduced as proclaiming His own call for His office, and Whom the L-rd addresses, is the One Who is sent as the Redeemer of Israel, namely, "to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel" to their land and to their G-d. His mission extends not only to Israel, whom He is to raise up and restore, but is to be the light also of the Gentiles, and G-d's salvation unto the very ends of the earth.

As in chapters 42 and 49, so also in Isaiah 53, He is clearly and most definitely distinguished from the nation:

He was taken from prison and from judgment, and who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgressions of My people He was stricken.  (Isaiah 53:8)
The speaker is either the L-rd or the prophet, but in either case ami (my people) can only apply to Israel, and if the Servant is stricken on behalf of Israel, the Servant can't be Israel.  It is also important to bear in mind four additional points:

1.) The subject of the prophecy is an absolutely innocent sufferer who clearly suffers for the guilt of others who has Himself "done no violence, nor can deceit be found in His mouth," but is "stricken," "smitten," and "afflicted of G-d" for others.

2.) He is a voluntary sufferer - one Who willingly "pours out His own soul unto death"

3.) He is an unresisting sufferer - one "Who is led as lamb to the slaughter and as a sheep before the shearers is dumb, He opens not His mouth; and

4.) His sufferings end in death.

None of these four points can be found in or applied to the Jewish nation.  Modern rabbis, attempt to put verses 1-9 into the mouth of the Gentile nations, and make them say that "he (i.e. Israel) suffered the sickness and sufferings which we Gentiles deserved."  However, we need only consider the picture of Israel as portrayed in the book of Isaiah itself to understand that it cannot be of the nation of Israel that the prophet speaks in Isaiah 53. 

Israel is far from innocent and has been spoken of elsewhere in Isaiah as "a sinful nation , a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers," whose iniquities have separated them from their G-d, and whose sins have caused Him to hide His face from them (cf. Isaiah 1:2-9; 59:2-15).

In the 42nd chapter Israel's suffering condition among the nations is described in graphic detail and the prophet is careful to declare that Israel's sufferings are not the result of chance, but are due to the direct judgment of G-d on account of the nation's sins and disobedience:

Who among you will give ear to this? Who will listen and hear for the time to come?  Who gave Jacob for plunder, and Israel to the robbers? Was it not the L-RD, He against whom we have sinned? For they would not walk in His ways, nor were they obedient to His law.  Therefore He has poured on him the fury of His anger and the strength of battle; it has set him on fire all around, yet he did not know; and it burned him, yet he did not take it to heart.  (Isaiah 42:23-25) 

No one in the nation of Israel, no matter how righteous, can stand and render a vicarious satisfaction for others on the ground of their own righteousness.  In fact, it is the godly remnant in Israel who is described in the second part of Isaiah as of "a contrite and humble spirit," who are themselves waiting for the salvation of G-d, which will be effected on account of G-d's chesed (grace).

Is it not they, these righteous ones, who themselves confess:

But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousness is like filthy rags; we all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.  And there is no one who calls on Your name, who stirs himself up to take hold of You; for You have hidden Your face from us, and have consumed us because of our iniquities.  

But now, O L-RD, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You our potter; and all we are the work of Your hand.  Do not be furious, O L-RD, nor remember iniquity forever; indeed, please look -- we all are Your people! (Isaiah 64:6-9 )

Israel is not an innocent sufferer nor did Israel suffer voluntarily.  Israel was dragged into captivity by force and throughout history did not voluntarily suffer oppressions and wrongs, but were forced to submit to them by the Gentile nations among whom they had been scattered and whom G-d used as His scourge to punish Israel for her misdeeds and many sins in departing from the Fountain of Living Waters. 

Nor was Israel an unresisting sufferer.  As long as our people have ever had the means and the power, we have often resisted bitterly and bloodily.  Did we bear all of the oppression heaped upon us throughout the centuries like lambs?  Did we suffer evil without resisting it?  History answers with a resounding "No!"  Is not the history of the first seven centuries replete with insurrections, fierce and violent, against the nations?

- The Jews of Cyrene rebelled and slew 220,000 Libyans (115 CE)

- Bar Kochva appears in the guise of the Messiah at the head of an army to shake off the Roman  yoke (132 CE)

- The Jews of Alexandria revolt (415 CE)

- The Jews of Persia revolt under the conduct of R' Mid, or Miz, at their head and declare war against  the King of Persia (522 CE)

- The Jews in Caesarea rebel (535 CE)

- The Jews in Arabia took up arms against Mohomet (624 CE)

- The Jews join the army of Chosroes, when he made himself master of Jerusalem, and put thousands  to death (613 CE)    

Neither have the sufferings of the Jewish nation ended in death.  Israel still lives.  Even today.  The chapter cannot be honestly applied to a collective body personified, but  must refer to an individual person. 

The Scriptures never leave anything to be guessed.  In verse 3 the subject is called ish (a man); in verses 10 and 12 a soul is ascribed to Him; grave and death are used so as to imply a subject in the singular.  If we were looking at an allegory, distinct hints as to the interpretation would abound.  On the other hand, it is quite different in those passages where the prophet designates Israel by the name 'Servant of the L-rd' where all uncertainty is removed by the addition and association of the names 'Jacob' and 'Israel'.  Moreover, the prophet uses the plural by the side of the singular to intimate the Servant of the L-rd is a collective (cf. Isaiah 41:8; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 48:20-21; 43:10-14).

Rabbi Abraham Farissol, earl 16th century author of Iggereth Orechoth Olam, who himself proceeds to misintepret the prophecy of Israel, says:

In this chapter, there seem to be considerable resemblances and allusions to the work of the Christian Messiah and to the events which are asserted to have happened to him - so that no other prophecy can be found , the gist and subject of which can be so immediately applied to him.

As a point of fact, this prophecy of the sufferings of the Messiah and the glory which should follow has been used of G-d more than any other Scripture in opening the eyes of Jewish people to recognize in Y'shua Israel's Redeemer and King.

Is it perhaps for this reason that this chapter, which was formerly read twice a year as part of the liturgy in the synagogue (once at Passover and once around Rosh HaShana), is now omitted?  In fact, sadly, what we find is that in these selections for the Haftarot (readings from the prophets which accompany the weekly Torah readings) we find a portion for one Sabbath ends with the 12th verse of the 52nd chapter, and the one for the following Sabbath begins with the 54th chapter, whereas the entire prophecy of the 53rd is passed over. 

It would seem to be a case of protesting too much and testifies that the nation in its blindness still despises, rejects, and considers the Jewish carpenter from the Galil "smitten of G-d and afflicted."  And yet, this attitude also works to demonstrate that Y'shua is the Messiah and that it is most clearly Him to Whom this prophecy refers. 

As mentioned in an earlier post, the question is not so much, "What is the picture?", but "Whose image or likeness does the picture bear?"

(To be continued . . .)


Sunday, June 14, 2015

Modern Jewish Interpretation

Isaiah 53:1-12

The first of the authoritative Jewish commentators to apply this chapter to the Jewish nation of Israel was Rashi.  Since Rashi, his view has become the "generally received" interpretation among the Jewish people.  In conjunction with this interpretation, the idea of a suffering Messiah and vicariously suffering Redeemer became more and more distasteful to Rabbinic Judaism generally. 

What our people longed for in subsequent centuries right up to the present day was an outward deliverance from their oppressors and misery.  One of the results of Rashi's interpretation is that the Synagogue occupied itself exclusively with Scriptures that proclaim a Messiah in glory, some of which they also misinterpreted.

Furthermore, by rejecting the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy in Y'shua of Natzeret, Jewish commentators were confronted with great difficulties in their attempts to expound it.  The idea of a Messiah enduring the deepest humiliation and suffering, even pouring out His soul unto death, appeared irreconcilable with the prophecies that portrayed the Messiah as coming in power and in glory.

And so Rashi's response to the the Christian polemic embodied in "their" interpretation of Isaiah 53, inaugurates a great divide where the Christian reader feels humbled as he reads this portion of  Scripture, because he sees in it a description of his Savior, and the cost of redemption; whereas almost every Jew is likely to feel exalted, because he sees a description of the value of Israel to the nations of the world, and of his own sufferings as a means of peace to the non-Jewish world.   

It is important to mention that Rashi, at an earlier period in his life - when he wrote his commentary on the Talmud - actually followed the older tradition that applied Isaiah 53 to the Messiah, but authored his commentary on the Bible (in which the 'new' interpretation is introduced) after the second Crusade, where a number of Jews were massacred in Spire, Worms, Mainz, Cologne, which might have occasioned the 'new' interpretation.   

To illustrate what this modern Jewish interpretation involves and how consistently it is carried through, let's consider an exposition by Manasseh ben Israel (1604-1657).  It begins with a question:

If this chapter is to be interpreted of the people of Israel, how came Isaiah to say that it bore the sin of many, whereas everyone, according to the testimony of Ezekiel, 18:20, pays only for his own guilt?

He continues . . .

The subject of this question demands long argument, and for our verses to be perfectly understood it will be necessary to explain the whole of the chapter, which we shall do with all possible brevity, without starting any objections which may be made against other expositions, as our intention is solely to show what our opinion is.  Accordingly for greater clearness I shall set down the literal text with a paraphrase of my own, and then illustrate it by notes.

Isaiah prophecies: (1) The extreme prosperity of Israel at the time of the Messiah. (2) The wonder of all the nations at seeing the rise from a such a low state to grandeur.  (3) How they will perceive their mistake, acknowledging themselves to be the sinners and Israel to be innocent.  (4) What they will think of their various sects.  (5) The patience of the people in suffering the troubles of the captivity; and the reward they will receive for their suffering.  

There are extensive notes in Manasseh ben Israel's exposition and I will only re-produce a few to give a sense of the 'modern' Jewish interpretation:

"And He shall bear their iniquities."  

For, being a most religious and holy people, he will take charge of the spiritual administration of the observance of the Law as Moses says to Aaron, 'Thou and thy sons with thee shall bear the iniquity of the sanctuary.' Numbers 18:1

"Because He poured out his soul unto death." 

The prophet here attributes four merits to [Israel], for which they justly deserve the reward of that happiness . . . (1) Because [Israel] delivered himself up to death, allowing himself to be killed for the sanctification of the L-rd's name and the observance of His most holy Law.  (2) Because [Israel] was reckoned among the wicked, patiently enduring to be called a heretic.  (3) For having borne the sin of many, the wickedness and tyranny of others falling on his shoulders.  (4) Lastly, having observed the precept of Jeremiah, 'Seek the welfare of the city whither I have caused you to be carried captive' (29:7);  . . . [that] in all their prayers they pray for the health of the prince, and the peace of the kingdom or the province wherein they reside . . . even for the welfare from whom they are receiving insult and wrong, which is highly meritorious, and a convincing proof of the constancy and patience with which they receive from  the L-rd's hand the yoke of captivity and the suffering of its misfortunes.

Although this passage was universally considered to be the distinct and most glorious of all Messianic prophecies and no one, until Rashi, ventured to call into question its Messianic interpretation, the 'modern' interpretation is the prevailing one, even today.  In the next post, we will address the untenableness of the so-called 'modern' interpretation.

To be continued . . .

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Ancient Jewish Interpretations

Isaiah 53:1-12

A close study of the Talmud and midrashim reveals much confusion and contradiction in the various interpretations of Isaiah 53.

Jonathan ben Uzziel (1st century CE) begins his Targum: "Behold, My Servant Messiah shall prosper; He shall be high and increase, and be exceeding strong."  However, in order to reconcile the interpretation of this Scripture of the Messiah with the idea of a Deliverer Who must suffer and die for the sins of the nation, he applies all references of exaltation and glory to the Messiah, while assigning all references to the suffering and tribulations to Israel.  His paraphrase of Isaiah 52:14 reads: "As the House of Israel looked to Him during many days, because their countenance was darkened among the peoples, and their complexion beyond the sons of men."

In Sanhedrin 98b, we read the following: "The Messiah - what is His name?  The Rabbis say the 'leprous one'; those of the house of Rabbi say, 'the sick one,' as it is said, 'Surely He has borne our sicknesses.'"

Abrabanel, who admitted the prophecy was Messianic, nonetheless in a long polemic against the Nazarenes, interpreted it of the Jewish nation.  He begins: "The first question is to ascertain to whom this Scripture refers: for the learned among the Nazarenes expound it of the man who was crucified in Jerusalem at the end of the Second Temple, and who according to them was the Son of G-d and took flesh in the virgin's womb, as is stated in their writings. Jonathan ben Uzziel interprets it of the future Messiah, and this is also the opinion of our learned men in the majority of their Midrashim."

Rabbi Moshe el Sheikh (the Alshech, 16th century CE) testifies that "our Rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the King Messiah."  In fact, until Rashi (Rabbi Solomon Yizchaki, 1040-1105.) applied it to the Jewish nation, the Messianic interpretation of this chapter was almost universally adopted by Jews and Rashi's view was rejected as unsatisfactory by many respected and influential authorities.

One of those authorities, Rabbi Moshe Kohen  Iben Crispin of Cordova, (14th century) argues that the interpretation adopted by Rashi "distorts the passage from its natural meaning" (i.e. the p'shat) and that in truth "it was given of G-d as a description of the Messiah, whereby, when anyone should claim to be the Messiah, to judge by the resemblance or non-resemblance to it whether he were the Messiah or no."

Rabbi Crispin continues and says of those who applied this prophecy to Israel that "the doors of the literal interpretation of this Parashah were shut in their face, and that they wearied themselves to find the entrance, having forsaken the knowledge of our teachers, and inclined after the stubbornness of their own hearts and their own opinions." 

Rabbi Eliyya de Vidas, 1575 CE, says, "The meaning of 'He was wounded for our transgressions . . . bruised for our iniquities,' is that since the Messiah bears our iniquities, which produces the effect of His being bruised, it follows that whoso will not admit that the Messiah thus suffers for our iniquities must endure and suffer for them himself."

Let us consider two more examples of the ancient Messianic interpretation which are found in the Jewish liturgy, liturgy which is sealed with the authority and usage of the whole Synagogue. The first is from the Liturgy for the Day of Atonement and reads as follows:

We are shrunk up in our misery even until now!  Our Rock has not come nigh to us; Messiah our righteousness (or, 'our Righteous Messiah) has departed from us; horror has seized upon us, and we have none to justify us.  He has borne the yoke of our iniquities and our transgressions, and is wounded because of our transgression.  He bears our sins on His shoulder, that He may find pardon for our iniquities.  We shall be healed by His wound at the time the Eternal will create Him (Messiah) as a new creature.  O bring Him up from the circle of the earth, raise Him up from Seir to assemble us the second time on Mount Lebanon, by the hand of Yinnon."

This prayer comprises part of the Musaph service for the Day of Atonement.  The author was Eliezar ben Kalir, who lived in the 9th century CE.  Yinnon was one of the names given by the Rabbis to the Messiah and is derived from Psalm 72:17, which the Talmud renders, "Before the sun was, His Name" - a rendering and explanation which implies a belief in the pre-existence of the Messiah.  

The second example is also from the liturgy for the festival services and is found among the prayers recited during the Feast of Passover.  It reads:

Flee, my beloved, until the end of the vision shall speak; hasten, and the shadows shall take their flight hence: high and exalted and lofty shall be the despised One; He shall be prudent in judgment, and shall sprinkle many!  Lay bare Thine arm! Cry out, and say: 'The voice of my beloved; behold He comes!

The question is not so much, "What is the picture?", but "Whose image or likeness does the picture bear?" 

To be continued . . .

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Prophetic Gem

Isaiah 53:1-12  

Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the L-RD been revealed? For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, And as a root out of dry ground. He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.

Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by G-d, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the L-RD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment, and who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgressions of My people He was stricken.

And they made His grave with the wicked -- but with the rich at His death, because He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth. Yet it pleased the L-RD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, and the pleasure of the L-RD shall prosper in His hand.

He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, For He shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great, and He shall divide the spoil with the strong, because He poured out His soul unto death, and He was numbered with the transgressors, and He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. 

Now, I understand that the Scriptures were not broken up into chapter and verse until much later, but  I don't doubt that G-d may very well have had a hand in how those chapters and verses were assigned.  Nonetheless, I find the structure outlined below to be interesting and suggestive:    

The "second half" of the book of Isaiah, which the rabbis called the wonderful book of consolations, comprises twenty-seven chapters arranged in three equal divisions of nine chapters each, all ending with a similar refrain: "There is no peace, says my G-d, to the wicked." 

The book is further subdivided into three sections or smaller 'books' of nine chapters each: (40-48; 49-57; 58-66).  The middle 'book' of the second half of Isaiah is chapters 49-57.  The middle section of the middle book is chapters 52, 53, and 54 and chapter 53 is the middle chapter of the middle section of the middle book.  The central verse of this central paragraph reads: He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement with a view to our peace was upon Him and with His stripes we are healed."  

This verse expresses quite clearly the central thought in this prophecy (that of substitution and vicarious atonement) and is, quite arguably, the main thrust of the message of comfort with which the prophet began in Isaiah 40 (the chapter which inaugurated the Book of Comfort) and resolves the problem of how our iniquity is finally pardoned, once and for all.

To be continued . . .