Friday, June 1, 2007

Our Rabbinic Roots

Father Greg Jones has a very interesting reflection about the rabbinical roots of the New Testament at the Speaking to the Soul section of the Episcopal Cafe. Here are some highlights:

Classical rabbinical interpretation of Scripture is generally thought to begin around the time of Jesus, with the great Rabbi Hillel. Rabbi Hillel formulated a set of seven rules for the interpretation of Scripture. His rules applied to biblical interpretation in areas of Jewish legal questions. The rabbis were primarily concerned that Jewish people live righteous lives in accordance with the Scripture. They sought to answer the question, “How should observant Jews obey the commandments of Torah?” In the Gospels we encounter the essence of this pursuit as the Pharisees are frequently seen to be asking Jesus what sorts of behaviors are ‘lawful.’ Bible scholars have quite easily discovered how all seven of Hillel’s rules may be seen at work in the teachings of Jesus and his followers. Of course, and again, this is not surprising since Jesus was called ‘rabbi’ and the apostle Paul was a student of Hillel’s greatest disciple Rabbi Gamaliel.

First, the primary stance of classical rabbinical interpretation of the Bible is that the Word of God in the Bible is “omnisignificant”—there is no detail in the text, no matter how small it might seem, which is meaningless. As one third century rabbi said, Simeon ben Lakhish, in Torah “there are verses which are worthy of being burnt,” yet even they are the perfect and meaning-filled word of Torah. As such, though parts seem obsolete, or empty of currency, this is an illusion – the meaning is simply obscured from the reader’s eyes.

Second, this disposition that the Bible is omnisignificant, the rabbis believed that the Bible always bears meaning for each person who searches it. Rabbi Akiva, who died around 135 CE, taught that the “Law is no empty thing.” His point was that if a verse seemed empty of meaning, it was the reader himself who was empty.

Rabbi Akiva’s teaching was that if a reader searching the Scriptures could not connect with it, the deficiency was with the reader, not the Bible. The job of the seeker after God in reading the Bible, according to the values of classical rabbinical teaching, is to make the biblical word connect to you.

Third, the rabbis believed the Bible was a cryptic document whose true meaning is not easily discerned from a surface reading of the text. One has to go deep into the text with special skills and wisdom. Fourth, while difficult to understand and interpret, at the same time the Bible is a perfect document, without contradiction, inconsistency or superfluity. In other words, the text is as it should be. The assumption which arises from this second point is that those parts of the text which seem erroneous, or contradictory, or inconsistent, or superfluous are blessed opportunities for interpretation. And fifth, the rabbis believed that the Scriptures are of divine origin. While this is not precisely articulated, it is entirely believed.

Given these assumptions about Scripture, that it is literally filled with meaning, for all readers in every time and place, and that it requires a lot of hard work to struggle and engage with the text in order to connect to those meanings, and that the text itself is also to be honored as it is, and not dismissed, changed, or ignored, the work of the rabbis was ongoing and extensive. The rabbinical work of wrestling with the Word of God in the Bible is reminiscent of the biblical story of Jacob, who spent all night wrestling with a messenger from God, before becoming blessed and having God change his name to, “Israel,” or “he who struggles with God.”

In general terms, the hard work of wrestling with Scripture is called midrash. Midrash is helpful for Christians as they seek to engage with the Bible, and not only as a long ago text, but as a means through which a living and active Word of God may connect to them, today.

Read it all.

I think that the critical lesson here is that we should not be afraid to "wrestle with", or indeed fight with, the Bible. That is how Jesus and the early Church dealt with scripture, and we do no favor to the sacred texts if we fail to do them the honor of full engagement.

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