Monday, August 15, 2016

The Futility of Polemics

(Note: although I am no longer actively blogging, I have some old pieces from a few years back and decided to post them for posterity rather than having them continue to gather magnetic dust on the old hard drive.)

Way back when (sigh), I spent considerable time in New York City and would frequently encounter a Jew for Jesus trying to hand me a tract that explained why Jesus was the fulfillment of the Jewish Messiah. I'd usually take it, and after a quick read would add it to my collection of missionary materials. Sometimes I'd ask for extra copies, which would promptly be discarded (make them throw away their hard-earned money, Viva La Revolution!) After a while I decided that I'd respond by handing him (there didn't seem to be any female Js for J "working the streets") a tract of my own. A taste of their own medicine, as it were. Using such missionary refutation books as You Take Jesus, I'll Take God and The Jew and the Christian Missionary, I put together a handy-dandy foldout guide with some of the top "proof-texts" used by missionary groups and the standard Jewish response. It started off:



In the spirit of Caleb responding to the 10 Spies by subterfuge (remember, he initially got the attention of the meraglim sympathizers by pretending to be one of them), I figured that this would be a good way to get the attention of the apostate. Let him think that I'm sympathetic to the cause, then WHAMMO. Hit him with irrefutable proofs that clearly demonstrate his Weltanschauung to be nothing but a sham. Of course, he'd quickly come over from the Dark Side after he saw the errors of his ways, although I'd probably have to steer him to an Aish outreach center. Look out Moishe Rosen!

Hmmm, was I not subtle enough? After only a quick glance at the pamphlet, the potential kiruv victim would refuse to take it or to discuss it any further. It was obvious that these folks weren't equipped to deal with someone that knew their tricks and they certainly didn't have the intellectual wherewithal to look at the arguments objectively. After all, they were emotionally brainwashed by their cult and nothing short of a kidnapping/deprogramming session would change their erroneous beliefs.

Ah, the naiveté of youth.

I now see that Jews for J and OrthoFundies are - if not cut from the same cloth - woven on the same loom. For each group attempts to selectively muster proof texts to legitimate their position. And each insists that theirs is the only possible interpretation.

Let me state unequivocally that I do not believe that the Jewish and Christian interpretations are equivalent based on what seems to be the intentions of "Old Testament" scriptural authors. It seems absurd to me that - for example - the author of the Shema was referring to a trinity (for those unacquainted with this claim, basically it hinges on the three times that God is mentioned in the verse.) This seems apparent when looking at not only the verse itself, but more importantly the absolute monotheistic (or, more frequently, monolatrist) imperative that is clearly stated throughout the Torah, not to mention the historically late development of the trinity as doctrine at the First Council of Nicaea. And even if one attempts to dilute the monotheistic message of early Israelite culture by pointing to Yahwist, Baal and other cults having existed alongside each other, it seems a ludicrous stretch to suggest that the YHVH / Eloheinu / YHVH of Shema is some sort of tripartate creed that corresponds to Father / Son / Holy Spirit.

Nevertheless, fundamentalist Christians have a paradigm in understanding the "Old" Testament in which every opportunity is taken with viewing a passage as presaging the "New" Testament. To a believing Christian, the "pascal lamb's blood on the lintel" story of the first Passover is much more than an account of God saving the Jewish people from the hands of the Egyptians and leading them to freedom. It makes perfect logical sense that it is a message of the coming messiah whose blood (as sacrificial lamb) will redeem his followers. To a believing Jew, of course, that this story has anything to do with Jesus is simply outlandish.

It is critical to keep in mind that one cannot simple refute a Christian interpretation by claiming - for example - that Rashi, Rambam, Ramban, etc., provide us with the absolute and most accurate interpretation of scripture. First, because the Rishonim (who represent the golden-age of exegesis) often disagree vehemently with each other (Ramban is particularly vocal about what he views as incorrect interpretations by other parshanim, especially Ibn Ezra). It is patently obvious that there is no single tradition as to what many passages mean. Often they elucidate passages based on their own grammatical analysis, or fit their interpretation into a highly individual, unified approach to scriptural doctrine. Second, it is sometimes the case that what was written was done so as a disputational response to negate Christian claims. See, for example, Rashi on the "Let us make man" passage of Genesis 1:26, which is a clearly a response to the interpretation of the "minim" (read "Christians".) This is a technique that has antecedents dating back to Chazal, for we see many Talmudic passages that discuss polemics or arguments against rival sects such as the Sadducees and Boethusians (one notable example is the interpretation of "macharat haShabbat", the morrow of the Sabbath, relating to when the counting of the Omer begins.)

Equally critical, the earliest "mainstream" rabbinic commentaries (mishnayot/braitot/early midrashim/etc) that elucidate scripture were composed more than a millenium after the traditional dating of the Torah and more than 700 years after typical scholarly dates. Nor are these early writings comprehensive in scope vis a vis Biblical exegesis. So we must often look at the very earliest interpretations and non-canonical writings, even prior to those found in the Talmud: the Dead Sea Scrolls, apocryphal texts, pseudoepigraphia, etc. And this often presents quite a different picture than the gospel according to ArtScroll.

A few quick examples. (Please note that many books have been written on the interpretations of these passages and I am not trying to over-simplify the claims and counter-claims.)

Example 1. Isaiah 53 - The suffering servant
Christian interpretation: refers to Jesus
Standard Jewish response: Not a messianic prophecy; refers to the Jewish people
The dirty little secret: Some commentators, such as Jonathan Ben Uziel's midrashic commentary, do believe that it is a messianic prophecy.

Example 2. Genesis 49:10 - Until Shiloh comes
Christian interpretation: refers to Jesus
Standard Jewish response:  Not a messianic prophecy; the right of leadership remains with the tribe of Judah. (Jews for Judaism even makes the silly claim that "Jacob’s prophecy is still being fulfilled" because since the Babylonian invasion, "many of the Jewish leaders were from the tribe of Judah.")
The dirty little secret:  Oops, they forgot their Rashi who explicitly states that the passage refers to "King Messiah, to whom the kingdom belongs"; and Rashi even states that this is how Onkelos renders it: "until the Messiah comes, to whom the kingdom belongs".

Example 3.  Psalm 22:16 - They pierced my hands and feet.
Christian interpretation: refers to Jesus.  Jewish translation doesn't make sense.
Standard Jewish response: Not a messianic prophecy; mis-translation of "like a lion" for "pierced", thus should be "like a lion at my hands and feet".
The dirty little secret: "Pierced" is how the Septuagint has it. Furthermore, a scroll from the same era as the Dead Sea Scrolls - 5/6HevPsalms reads, "They have pierced my hands and my feet", thus lending support to the later Greek translation. The difference is just a tiny line that distinguishes a "vav" and a "yud". This scroll is 1000 years older than our earliest Masoretic text (of course, the Standard Jewish Response is that the Masoretic text represents the true text of the Torah.)
Anti-missionary groups have, of course, counters for all of the "dirty little secrets" as do missionaries have rebuttals to those counter claims. For example, emphasizing the idea that Ben Uziel's targum is midrash, not theology. But the point here is simply that accepted Jewish sources are often glossed over or ignored completely when they don't jive with the kiruv message.

Similarly, there are numerous other "inconvenient" ideas found in Judaism that are ignored when confronting missionaries, including the notion that the death of the righteous can serve as atonement for the nation; that the messiah Ben Joseph will die before completing his mission only to be fulfilled with the coming of messiah Ben David; or that large numbers of fervently Orthodox Jews today believe that their dead rebbi is the messiah and will one day come back to complete his mission.

Ultimately, the Christian methodology of interpreting Old Testament verses according to their own world view of religion and history cannot be glibly dismissed as the pure nonsense that anti-missionary groups claim it to be unless one is willing to admit that certain Jewish viewpoints are likewise ludicrous.

No comments: