February 9, 2014
Recently, a good friend of mine was (he thought) righteously jamming to AC/DC on karaoke via YouTube. His son, however, snapped him out of his reverie, saying “Dad, I know you think you sound like AC/DC when you sing like that, but you sound like a granny with a sore throat.”
Sometimes, when we are mimicking things we have no business mimicking, we may think we sound cool, but we really just sound shrill and ridiculous.
It works the same way when Gentiles (non-Jewish people) try quoting Scripture out of context. We may think we sound like really bad, “muscular” Christians, but we actually end up sounding like someone shrieking with a sore throat.
The Gospel passage for this week is a favorite for Gentiles looking for “clobber passages” – that is, passages of the Scripture, quoted literally and out of context, to show how right and righteous you are. This week’s reading from the Book of Matthew shows Jesus defending the sanctity of Jewish law (or Halakhah): “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matt 5: 17-18). This passage always comes in handy when insisting on a literal interpretation of the Bible (ironically, usually in English). For people prone to use “clobber passages”, this week’s reading is prime justification to use any passage in the Bible that seems unambiguous as a way of condemning people who are not righteous.
“Unambiguous” meaning, however, is always context-dependent. If I were someone completely ignorant about the game of baseball (its rules, its history, its wonderful culture), a bat looks pretty unambiguously like a club. If I were someone prone to beating people, that is how I would use it. If I were someone who prefers leaving people in peace, I simply would not touch it. Either way, I would completely miss the point of the bat’s intended use.
Likewise, for people who are ignorant of the law, history, language and culture of Judaism, Jewish law (Halakha) looks like a club. Gentiles tend to either wield it like a club or delicately dismiss it as cruel and legalistic. Either course misses the point. The Gospel of Matthew this week is a commentary on Halakha, given by Jesus as a Jewish Rabbi, and transmitted in Greek to the Jewish community of Antioch circa 80CE. Consequently, in order to properly understand the Gospel this week, we need at least a basic grounding in Jewish law and the Hebrew language in which it is written, so that we do not end up using it (or dismissing it) like a club.
For Jews, Torah is not a club – it is a way of structuring life that shows G_d’s mercy and love to the rest of the world. The Psalm for this week (112) shows that righteousness (tzedek – see “A Righteous (Not a Self-Righteous) Man”) is just as much characterized by mercy toward the poor and helpless as it is by obedience to Torah:[Those who fear the Lord] rise in the darkness as a light for the upright; they are gracious, merciful, and righteous. It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice. For the righteous will never be moved; they will be remembered forever. They are not afraid of evil tidings; their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord. Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid; in the end they will look in triumph on their foes. They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever; their horn is exalted in honor (Psalm 112:4-9).
So the relationship of devout Jews to the law is not just one of grim, punitive obedience. It is a vital, joyful, life-affirming relationship that includes generosity and mercy to those around us. Consequently – I would submit – that if we approach the law in a way that is grim and life-denying (like a club), there is something wrong with how we are interpreting the law, not with the law itself.
Not only is the law merciful, it is also very complex and nuanced. For Jews, the complete system of law (Halakhah) not only consists of the 613 mitzvot (or commandments) found in the first five books of the Bible (Torah). It also consists of the centuries of Rabbinic commentary on the law (the Talmud and also the justifications for Rabbinic rulings called the Responsa), the Midrash, or stories illustrating the Torah; and the Kabbalah, or teachings of mystical Judaism. Within this system of law (Halakha), there are complex principles of argumentation, deduction and legal precedence that are used to interpret the Torah as it applies to particular cases. According to Rabbi Gershon Steinberg-Caudill, when a Rabbi goes to comment on the law, he refers to the Jewish method of exegesis called PARDES, which means “Paradise”, but which is also a mnemonic device (PRDS):
The PEH refers to the Hebrew word PESHAT, which means “plain” and refers to reading the text just as it is understood from what it says on the page.
The RESH refers to the REMEZ, which means “allusion” and refers to veiled references in the texts that can be ferreted out through gematriyah [numerology] or by using the three consonant letter root of a single word to mean three seperate words (notarikon).
The DALET refers to DERASH which means “expound” and refers to the use of homiletical interpretation through parables and stories to show the true meaning within a text.
The SAMEKH refers to SOD which means “secret” and suggests the use of mystical interpretation to arrive at a yet higher meaning.
All this is to say that there is no such thing as a literal, unambiguous reading of Jewish law (whether in the Hebrew Bible or in the Gospel of Matthew). As Rabbi Gershon told me, ”Hebrew CANNOT be translated to English literally, absolutely CANNOT. They are not related languages”. The two languages have completely different alphabets, different grammatical and syntactical rules, and Hebrew words are comprised of consonant clusters that – when vowelled in different ways – have different but related meanings. The “letters and strokes of letters” of the law, then, reflect what author Rabbi David Zaslow calls “Sacred Ambiguity”: “The Hebraic thinker lives with scriptural ambiguity (not to be confused with moral relativism) and appreciates the multiple meanings of words. For example, yom, the Hebrew word for day, has multiple meanings: a twenty-four-hour day, the daylight period of a day, an indefinite period of time, a year, a lifetime, or a thousand years” (Zaslow, Rabbi David. 2014. Jesus: First Century Rabbi. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press. pp. 100). In the case of Matthew’s text, we have Jesus (an Aramaic-speaking Jewish Rabbi) commenting on the Hebrew Torah, translated into Greek, then English. There is nothing unambiguous about this whatsoever. Interpreting Jesus’ words (or any Biblical text), then, is about much more than reading a single English-language translation and wielding it like a club.
Acknowledging Jesus’ role as Rabbi does not necessarily mean we have to give up our love for Him as Messiah (I certainly haven’t). He was, however, a Messiah born into a very specific historical and religious context, which would have shaped how He lived out His life as a Rabbi. It is entirely possible to appreciate the complexity and nuance of this context without giving up our faith. Indeed, when we do not take into consideration the Jewish roots of Jesus’ teachings, we run the risk of using our faith like a club.
You may say, “But what about the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura? Can’t I have my own personal, individual reading of the Scripture? Am I going to have to run to a Rabbi every time I quote the Old Testament or Matthew?”
The Scripture is never just the Scripture. It is a series of texts referring to other texts, referring to other texts. I look at the Scripture not as a monolith or a club, but as the entryway to a fascinating archeological dig. Each finding leads to other deeper findings, each room leads to deeper rooms, beckoning us continually onward to greater and greater riches. If it’s a choice between calling a Rabbi or using the Scripture as a club … I would say calling a Rabbi doesn’t hurt (I have certainly benefited from my dialogues with them!). We will be more well-versed and wise for our encounter, and we will be able to quote the law thoughtfully, in context, and without sounding like my friend singing AC/DC.