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 . . .
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