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

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 . . .

14 comments:

  1. I've been contemplating asking you a question about the commentaries that you sent me. I realize that its not a question about prophecy per se however your post has inspired me to try to put words to a scholastic difficulty that I'm encountering.

    I've noticed that several "modern" Jewish writers refer to older Jewish commentators as "ancient" or "ancient sages" etc. In my mind an "ancient" Jewish writer would be someone who predated the Christian period. At very least I would think such a person would no younger than a contemporary of the first century Christians.

    As I've been working my way through the Chumash and Talmud I see references to the insights of various Rabbi's. I've looked up some of the ones that appear frequently to get a better perspective on their opinions.

    There aren't very many pre-mishnaic rabbis quoted, and I'm not always sure who the quotes are attributed to due to some rabbis taking on the names of older rabbis who they admired or whose school of teaching they belonged to. Example Jeozer or any of the references to Nasi or Ave Beit Din, which I believe are more appropriately understood as titles and may not actually refer to a specific person.

    In the 200 to 500 period there are a lot more references to guys like Rav Ashi, Shumel, Lakish etc.

    Then there are lots of references to RaMBam, Gershom, Migash etc.

    I've also seen Sforno .

    My dilemma is that none of these writers are truly "ancient" and that only the ones properly identified as pre-mishnaic are even contemporaries (or a little before) the Christian period. I'm learning a good deal about how these men saw Jewish texts and I'm gaining insight into their thought processes. Perhaps I'm even getting authentic perspective into some oral traditions. I value what I'm learning.

    I think that there is a scholarly conflict between the information they've recorded and a desire to avoid details that would give credence to points that would favor a Christian perspective, especially when that POV would tend to support some aspect of gentile theology.

    Yochanan or Zakkai (rarely cited) would be great pre-Christian sources but they aren't nearly as prevalent as Maimonides (c 1100 AD). I recognize that Rambam is probably the greatest polyhistor the Jews have ever produced BUT that doesn't elevate him in time or experience to an "ancient" source.

    The Torah is over 4,000 years old. The "ancient sages" so often quoted are sometimes (Sforno) 200 to 400 years old or Rambam (1000 years). Best case scenario I find is 2,200 years old (not many of them). How do I know that these guys really were in touch with authentic Jewish thought and not just regurgitating post Joshua ben Joseph from Nazareth material?

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  2. Just a follow up thought/example here. I find some Rabbinic teaching more compelling than traditional evangelical perspectives. For example:

    The person of Melchizedek is taught to be a theophany by some Christians. Rashi taught that Melchizedek was Shem, the more Godly son of Noah. Considering that Abraham was 48 when Noah died and 140 when Shem died, it is a strong possibility that Abraham would have recognized Shem as a legitimate and living high priest. I think based on my current understanding of scripture and my thought processes that Rashi is probably right. So I am in agreement with "ancient Jewish sages" on this issue.

    Rashi died in 1105. How am I as a scholar, to know to reasonable certainty that Rashi was correctly presenting an ancient understanding of the Torah and not a negative reaction to the Christian concept of "Jesus being a priest after the order of Melchizedek"?

    I realize that my first comment was quite long. Sorry about that. I hope this example makes it easier to see where I'm coming from.


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  3. "Just a follow up thought/example here."

    In this example, however, Rashi's comment about Shem-Melchizedek did not originate with him, but finds support in ancient Jewish (and Christian) sources. He is merely aligning himself with an understanding that originated somewhere else (Talmud, Midrash, Pirchei de R' Eliezar, etc.).

    I can see, however, how 'modern' commentators referring to sources (c. 1000 - 1500 CE) as ancient might be confusing or anachronistic.

    My main point of contention, at least in the context of the OP, is that the majority of Jewish commentators up until Rashi, aligned themselves with the view that Isaiah 53 is clearly talking about the Messiah and that this view was the prevailing 'ancient' view up until Rashi. The prevailing 'modern' (i.e. post-Rashi) view is that the suffering servant is Israel, period.

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  4. "Rashi died in 1105. How am I as a scholar, to know to reasonable certainty that Rashi was correctly presenting an ancient understanding of the Torah and not a negative reaction to the Christian concept of "Jesus being a priest after the order of Melchizedek"?"

    Well, perhaps in this case, simply because he is citing a received tradition that is ancient in its origins. However, that doesn't necessarily mean he isn't reacting negatively to the 'Christian' concept derived from Hebrews. The reference in Nedarim 32b may indeed be just such a reaction.

    There is no doubt, however, that Rashi is reacting negatively to the 'Christian' interpretation of Isaiah 53 (an interpretation which just happens to align with prevailing Jewish interpretations up until Rashi).

    Of course, this is the main point of the post - Rashi protests too much and other credible and authoritative rabbis take issue with Rashi's interpretation which "forsakes the knowledge of our teachers".

    We should hold each other to account and deal with the truths and plain meanings of our texts, even if others that we oppose philosophically (i.e. the Christians) come to the same conclusions. This is particularly difficult, however, when those conclusions force us to reconsider a position to which we have become vehemently and emotionally attached.

    I don't think I have adequately resolved your question of referring to medieval sources as ancient and I agree with you that when most people think of 'ancient' they think in terms of BC or a period that is contemporary with the second-Temple period.

    For, me there is a prevailing Jewish understanding (pre-Rashi) that aligns with an 'ancient' understanding and approach to the Torah, and though perhaps it is a misnomer to call Crispin's or Sforno's understanding 'ancient', it may perhaps be considered so by association.

    My perspective is that the Talmud, Mishnah, Midrash, Targums, and other oral traditions that were extant from at least the time of Ezra, are ancient authoritative sources that form the basis and influence Jewish thought right down to the present day, not to mention the basic Jewish understanding that an oral tradition existed since Moses, was passed down to Joshua, then to the 70 elders, to Ezra, to the Tannaim, etc.

    Therein lies their value: How did the Jewish people think during the secondTemple period? With what traditions were they familiar? How did Y'shua and Paul use those traditions and traditional understandings to convince the people that Yeshua was the Messiah?

    Why did Rashi (and others) all of a sudden depart from traditional understandings of Messianic texts? Is their departure justified in light of those received traditions and the plain meaning of the texts?

    I am not even so concerned with the validity of some of the fantastic stories or legends that I run across in the Jewish literature since, like you, the material provides tremendous insight into how they thought about the Scriptures and understood the doctrines contained therein.

    Understanding that thought process, allows me to reach the non-Messianic Jew on their own terms and in terms with which they are familiar and comfortable, hopefully demonstrating to them that the divide between us is perhaps not as wide as they may have imagined.

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  5. I'm on my kindle right now and I'm not going to have the time to address everything you've said but we are seeing the same thing. I'm seeing it from the point of view of someone new to the study. You have the benefit of years of study and still recognize the incongruity. In a way that is encouraging. I'm not the only one who sees the academic question.

    I'll try to write more after I get off work tonight.

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  6. My perspective is that the Talmud, Mishnah, Midrash, Targums, and other oral traditions that were extant from at least the time of Ezra, are ancient authoritative sources that form the basis and influence Jewish thought right down to the present day, not to mention the basic Jewish understanding that an oral tradition existed since Moses, was passed down to Joshua, then to the 70 elders, to Ezra, to the Tannaim, etc.

    I agree with your point on this. I would love to have access to that BC perspective because I deem it more authentic in terms of its "Jewishness". Rashi's open prejudice is understandable in light of his experiences in Worms.

    I expect there to be a natural disconnect between Jews and Christians simplify because of the dividing issue of who the Messiah is. I also accept that given the treatment of Jews by the RCC in the past that they as a people would be reluctant to be open or engaging with Christians of any denomination. However, my goal is to understand what the original oral tradition was and how it was applied.

    If the answer to that question is effectively "anything except even the slightest hint that Jesus was the Messiah", then these "sages" are of no use to anyone, even Jews. I say that because they are denying their own tradition by altering it to fit a modern narrative instead of preserving what they were entrusted with.

    I suspect that concussion is part of your overall point to these posts.

    So other than individually digging through the names of Rabbis listed in the foot notes and trying to ascertain which ones are BC, how do I focus my attention on the more ancient sources?

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  7. "So other than individually digging through the names of Rabbis listed in the foot notes and trying to ascertain which ones are BC, how do I focus my attention on the more ancient sources?"

    I suggest that continue to familiarize yourself with Mishneh, Talmud, and Midrash. Your familiarity with these foundational texts will also make the Sages throughout history more accessible and you you will find yourself drawn to certain commentators who are more faithful to the text of Torah and do not necessarily have an 'anti-Christian' axe to grind, although the carpenter from Galilee and his claims will continue to present a challenge to Jew and non-Jew alike.

    There is a tractate of the Talmud that I highly recommend and which is a great place for anyone to begin: Pirchei Avot, 'Ethics of the Fathers'.

    It is by far the most practical and accessible of all the tractates. In fact, it is a tradition to study this tractate throughout the summer Sabbath afternoons after synagogue. You will find Rav Sha'ul's (Paul's) teacher Gamaliel represented in the tractate and it provides tremendous insight into the 2nd Temple period that I think you will appreciate.

    But be careful that you do not throw out the Jewish commentators who are not ancient or who express anti-Christian biases now and then. You and I understand that there is a blindness in part in Israel (one which our own traditions predicted!) and there is much we can glean and learn. We are in a unique position to put the entire picture together. There is certainly blindness on both sides of the aisle.

    One of my favorite medieval commentators is Nachmanides (who often takes issue with Rashi and Ibn Ezra more times than not). He is very, very careful to stay close to the Biblical text and his insights are often well-supported and incisive.

    Anyway, it sound to me like you are moving along. Keep it up. It's a lot of work, but the rewards are unmatched.

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  8. I learned something tonight. I've been seeing Ramban. I always assumed it was a different spelling of Rambam. Now I know they are different people.

    Pirchei Avot, 'Ethics of the Fathers'.

    It was one of the first ones I bought.

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  9. But be careful that you do not throw out the Jewish commentators who are not ancient or who express anti-Christian biases now and then.

    My concern isn't so much related to throwing them out. My personal faith or acceptance of their opinions isn't based on how closely they conform to my idea of what they should be saying. Actual I have no preconceived idea of what they "should" have to say. My concern is how authentically they represent the original oral tradition.

    Imagine if you could have a conversation with the 70 or Ezra about what he was teaching to his disciples. That's the kind of information I crave.

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  10. "I've been seeing Ramban. I always assumed it was a different spelling of Rambam. Now I know they are different people."

    Yeah, I meant to say that when I mentioned Nachmanides - but you got it any way. You've probably figured out the "code names" as well:

    Ramban = (Ra)bbi (M)oshe (b)en (N)achman

    Rambam = (Ra)bbi (M)oshe (b)en (M)aimon

    Radak = (Ra)bbi (D)avid (K)imchi

    Ralbag = (Ra) (L)evi (b)en (G)ershon

    etc.

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  11. The Talmud is one long horrible footnote. I guess that since it was written on scrolls originally, listing the name of the Rabbi who taught the point being referenced was the best way. They had to have some way of shortening up the references, otherwise it would have been utterly ridicules as the full names and titles of the person being quoted would be longer than the quote itself.

    In my defense on Rambam vs Ramban the first is generally held to be one of, if not the greatest Jewish scholar of all time, and many Hebrewisms and words use different English alphabet combinations to represent the same word.

    Is there a reason for using "Rav" instead of "Ra" as an abbreviation? Is this a recognition of status or simply the style that was in use when the passage was recorded?

    Also what do I do with Nasi or Av Beit Din? Are these simply a reference to which ever person was currently serving as "chief" or "prince" of the Sanhedrin at the time, and therefore lost to use or is there a way of determining the identity of the source?

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  12. "In my defense on Rambam vs Ramban the first is generally held to be one of, if not the greatest Jewish scholar of all time . . ."

    As great as the Rambam was, he was definitely influenced by Hellenism and Aristotelian philosophy, and the case can be made that his approach laid some of the groundwork for what would become so-called Reform Judaism which was ascendant in Germany beginning in the 1840s, interestingly enough. Just something to bear in mind.

    There is a saying in Judaism concerning the Rambam (I think it was also his epitaph): "From Moses to Moses there was none like Moses." Here is an antecdote you might enjoy:

    It is hardly surprising that when Shmuel ibn Tibbon, the Hebrew translator of The Guide to the Perplexed (which had been written in Arabic), wrote Maimonides that he wished to visit him to discuss some difficult points in the translation, Maimonides discouraged him from coming:

    I dwell at Fostat, and the sultan resides at Cairo [about a mile­and­a­half away].... My duties to the sultan are very heavy. I am obliged to visit him every day, early in the morning, and when he or any of his children or any of the inmates of his harem are indisposed, I dare not quit Cairo, but must stay during the greater part of the day in the palace. It also frequently happens that one of the two royal officers fall sick, and I must attend to their healing. Hence, as a rule, I leave for Cairo very early in the day, and even if nothing unusual happens, I do not return to Fostat until the afternoon. Then I am almost dying with hunger. . . I find the antechamber filled with people, both Jews and gentiles, nobles and common people, judges and bailiffs, friends and foes-a mixed multitude who await the time of my return.

    I dismount from my animal, wash my hands, go forth to my patients and entreat them to bear with me while I partake of some slight refreshment, the only meal I take in the twenty­four hours. Then I go forth to attend to my patients, and write prescriptions and directions for their various ailments. Patients go in and out until nightfall, and sometimes even, I solemnly assure you, until two hours or more in the night. I converse with and prescribe for them while lying down from sheer fatigue; and when night falls I am so exhausted that I can scarcely speak.

    In consequence of this, no Israelite can have any private interview with me, except on the Sabbath. On that day the whole congregation, or at least the majority of the members, come to me after the morning service, when I instruct them as to their proceedings during the whole week; we study together a little until noon, when they depart. Some of them return, and read with me after the afternoon service until evening prayers. In this manner I spend that day.

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  13. "Is there a reason for using "Rav" instead of "Ra" as an abbreviation?"

    In the Talmud, as you have probably already discovered, the title Rav generally precedes the names of Babylonian Amoraim, whereas the title Rabbi generally precedes the names of ordained scholars in Israel (whether Tannaim or Amoraim).

    In the Talmud, Rav or Rab (used alone) is a common name for Abba Arika, the first Amora, who established the great yeshiva at Sura, which, using the Mishnah as text, led to the compilation of the Talmud.

    I am not familiar with "Ra". Is that what you meant?

    "Also what do I do with Nasi or Av Beit Din? Are these simply a reference to which ever person was currently serving as "chief" or "prince" of the Sanhedrin at the time . . ."

    You are correct. During the Second Commonwealth (c. 530 BCE - 70 CE), the nasi was the highest-ranking member and president of the Sanhedrin or Assembly, including when it sat as a criminal court.

    The position was created in c. 191 BCE when the Sanhedrin lost confidence in the ability of the High Priest to serve as its head.

    Sources:

    Goldwurm, Hersh and Holder, Meir, History of the Jewish People, I "The Second Temple Era" (Mesorah Publications: 1982) ISBN 0-89906-454-X.

    Steinsaltz, Adin, The Essential Talmud: Thirtieth-anniversary Edition, trans. Chaya Galai (Basic Books: 2006) ISBN 0-465-08273-4, 16 - 18.

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  14. I am not familiar with "Ra". Is that what you meant?

    No I've seen Ra or Ra'. I assumed it to be another abbreviation. I just didn't know if it had some sort of connotation beyond shortening the title and name.

    I didn't know the difference between the Babylonian and Jerusalem rabbis. It makes sense that they would include both in a modern text but have a method of distinguishing them.

    "From Moses to Moses there was none like Moses."

    I had heard that line before, but I had no idea what it meant or to whom it referred. I have not studied Rambam beyond seeing commentary attributed to him and reading about him Wikipedia. I did know that he was the first person to hypostasize 10 dimensions of the material universe based on his reading of the Torah. Had Einstein worked out mathematically what Rambam had discovered It would have advanced theoretical physics a great deal more than he did. I believe that Einstein died frustrated because he was unable to solve the dimensional question.

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