Friday, August 7, 2015

What have you got against Jews?

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
I just located your Father Know-it-all site. What’s with you and Jews? You talk about the decrease in the Jewish population of the Roman world, attributing it to conversion to Christianity, without mention of the two great Jewish rebellions which led to the death and expulsion of a large part of the Jewish population. This, of course, was followed by Christians obtaining political power with Constantine which wasn’t so good for Jews either. As I indicated in an earlier e-mail, I sense a pattern of unfavorable comments about Jews.
Beth K. Nesset
Dear Beth,
Well, this is a first. I am usually criticized for being too semito-philic. What’s with me and the Jews? I think the Jews are very important to the culture, so I am always trying to fine tune my understanding of the history of a rather troubled relationship. I don’t know your ethnic and religious background, but would like to tell you a story.
I have a dear friend who is an ultra-orthodox rabbi. He likes me because I am orthodox, even if I’m not Jewish. His daughter was being married on a Sunday, and because I work Sundays, I couldn’t attend the wedding. So the rabbi invited me to Shabbos dinner to meet the in-laws. The groom’s uncle, a true Tsaddik, (righteous man) was there. He heads an anonymous charity for mothers in trouble. I was about to pour him a glass of wine, and I stopped myself because I realized that if it was yayin (wine) he couldn’t drink it if I had poured it. Were it mevushal, (cooked wine, or wine sweetened by a boiling process) it would be no problem if served by a gentile.
I said to the Tsaddik, “I don’t know if I can pour this for you. I have to see if it’s…”
He looked utterly flabbergasted and said, “I don’t know! I’ve never been in this situation before!!!”
He was astonished by the whole thing. He had never had a religious conversation with a gentile and certainly not with a galleck (Catholic Priest) and there we were, talking about the same things, righteousness, the nature of Messiah, the Scriptures and so on. He was amazed, and frankly so was I.
I realized that we were co-religionists. We did not share the same faith, but we did share the same religion. The moral and ethical concepts, the understanding we shared about much of the nature of the Almighty, even customs such as the washing of hands and the blessing of bread and wine, the prayers and psalms and chants, the hope of Messiah. We shared all these to some degree. We were playing in the same ball park, as it were.
What we did not share completely were faith and our understanding the nature of Torah (the Law). I regarded the whole Hebrew Scripture as fully inspired. He regarded Torah as preeminent, and of course he did not regard the New Testament as inspired at all, but was surprised to find that I do not consider the New Testament more inspired than Hebrew Scriptures. Talmud, along with Torah, was his whole life. Talmud is not mine though Old Testament better called Hebrew Scriptures most certainly is. His great trust is in Talmud and Torah. My trust is in Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew whom I believe to be the visible image of the invisible God, the Torah come to life! (c.f. St. Paul’s first letter to the Colossians, chapter one, verse 15)
Nonetheless, it was a transformative conversation for me. I realized that we were both claiming to be Israel. One cannot claim to be Israel without Moses and Mt. Sinai, but one cannot be a Jew without Talmud. I believe that my friends, the Tsaddik and the Rabbi, are doubtless Israel. They don’t believe that I am Israel, because I am not a Jew. In this, I think, they make a fundamental mistake. They claim, as I believe does Talmud, that the word “Jew” and the word Israel are interchangeable. I don’t think this claim can be made on the basis of Hebrew Scriptures. It is interesting that the word “Jew” or “Jews” (Yehud, Yehudim) really doesn’t appear in the Hebrew Scriptures very frequently. I think it is less than 100 times. The word Israel appears more than 2,000 times, 2575 times if the New Testament is included in the count. The word only refers to what we might think of as a Jew beginning with the second temple period, principally in the book of Esther, probably written in 350 BC about events that occurred in 470 BC, that is after the return of the exiles to Jerusalem. I maintain that Rabbinic Phariseeism, which is what we now call Judaism, really took hold of the religion of Israel in Babylon, the cultural center of the remnant of Israel after the devastation of the Holy land in 132 AD.  Remember, it’s the Babylonian Talmud that carries the most weight in Jewish life, not the Jerusalem Talmud. The Pharisee movement created an innovation in the religion of Israel that allowed one to practice a form of the religion of Israel when one could not go to the temple. This was an innovation.
I have a unique spin on the passage of Christian scripture in which Jesus talks about new wine skins and new patches on old garments.
“No one tears a piece of cloth from a new garment and puts it on an old garment; otherwise he will both tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled out, and the skins will be ruined, but new wine must be put into fresh wineskins, and no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled out, and the skins will be ruined. New wine must be put into fresh wineskins. No one, after drinking old wine wishes for new; for he says, 'The old wine is mellow.” (Chrestos in Greek means “mellow” in this context)” Luke 5:38 
People assuming that Jesus’ innovations are the new wine, struggle with this final statement that “…old wine is mellow, better, good et alia.” Why would Jesus say that His innovations are not as good as the customs of the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist? 
I maintain that He is saying the opposite. He is saying that Rabbinic Phariseeism is the innovation. As I mentioned, Rabbinic Phariseeism is a way to practice the religion of Israel without a temple. Jesus was saying that as Messiah he would fulfill the messianic expectation by rebuilding the temple at the same time transforming it into a temple made of living stones.  “You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus the Messiah.” (1Peter 2:4)  
He would fulfill the Messianic expectation of the rebuilding and purifying the temple that had been profaned by the Syrian Greeks, the Hasmoneans who extended its space for military purposes and then by Herod the Great, who used it to aggrandize himself. He would, however, do so in a way unexpected. He would create a living temple, the church.  He thus claimed to be the fulfillment of the tradition of Israel. It was the Pharisees who were the innovation.  
My dear friend Rabbi Lefkowitz, an ultra-orthodox Rabbi, would howl at this interpretation, as would most Christians, but it was he who started my thinking about this, I’m sure to his chagrin. He once said, “You Christians have got it wrong. You are more Jewish than we are. You have temples and sacrifices. We believe that the temple and the sacrifices of the law were concessions to the Jews, lest they backslide into the practices of the Canaanites. The sacrificial order is not central to Judaism. It’s the moral and ethical content of the Torah that matters.”  To which I want to respond that the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures fairly drip with sacrificial blood?  
A second insight that pushed me in this direction came from Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, with whom Rabbi Lefkowitz thoroughly disagrees on this point. Shanks holds that two forms of Judaism survived the destruction of the temple, Christianity and Rabbinic Phariseeism. The Sadducees, the Zealots, the Essenes and the followers of John lost their reason for being with the destruction of the temple. Rabbinic Phariseeism, or what we now call Judaism, is a religion of the synagogue. It survives because the temple is optional, though desirable. 
Christianity is still the religion of the temple, though a spiritualized temple. Catholicism and eastern Orthodoxy still offer sacrifice. Protestantism is thus a deviant form of Christianity, a form of Phariseeism which holds that there is no more sacrifice and no need for further sacrifice. We, in the traditional forms of Christianity, maintain, as I believe Jesus did, that we are fulfilling, not changing Torah. The only way I would disagree with Hershel Shanks is instead of using the word Judaism to stand for the totality of Israel, I would say that two forms of the religion of Israel survived the destruction of the temple, Christianity and Judaism.
The best estimates for the Jewish population of the ancient Mediterranean world are about one or two million. The estimate of the Jews living in the Diaspora, (scattered communities) in the Roman world is perhaps 4 or 5 million more. 
Dr. Rodney Stark in his book The Rise of Christianity, points out that in a few centuries the Jewish population of the Roman Empire was greatly reduced to perhaps fewer than one million. Certainly many were killed in war or died in plague, but it is doubtful, that the majority of first century “Israel” would have perished. More likely they found in Christianity a kind of “reform” Judaism which allowed them to practice the religion of Israel, praying to the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob and reading the books of Moses, and the prophets, without the restrictions that made life so difficult in a diaspora, (a scattering) through the Greco Roman world, where circumcision was mocked as an obscenity and kosher meat was hard to find. 
The end of all this, is that there are two major representatives of the religion of Israel, two groups of people who reverence the books of Moses and the rest of the Tanakh, that is Hebrew scriptures, three if you count the 800 Samaritans who are still alive. The two are Christianity and Judaism, or more properly, Rabbinic Phariseeism. To say that Christianity comes from Jewish roots is very problematic. It means that Christianity must necessarily supersede Judaism; or that somehow Christianity is inferior to its parent religion, Judaism, a sort of “Judaism light.” 
I believe it is more accurate to say that both Judaism, though it precedes Christianity by about 3 or 4 centuries, and Christianity are variations of the religion of Israel. We Christians thus must concede that Jews have an authentic claim to be Israel. What I would hope for is the recognition of Jews that we too practice a form of the religion of Israel, which we believe to be its fulfillment. Thus we may find a new mutual respect and a way to collaborate despite the horrors of the past, a collaboration that is respectful and mutually beneficial, while admitting real and serious differences. 
We claim to be Israel by just a bit of genetic inheritance and a lot of adoption. We are members of the same religion, but followers of different faiths. Jesus and Moses are not enemies. Their followers should imitate them.
Rev. Know-it-all
PS you will be pleased to know that my family did not get along with Henry Ford. They refused to loan him money when he wanted to get his business going. We thought he was a bad investment and beside he gave us the shpilkes.

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