Thursday, February 19, 2009

Rabbis interpreting the Gospels

The idea makes me uncomfortable. It is not our religion, and there is a danger of familiarity as we interpret another religion's scriptures. But there were two posts on this subject recently on different blogs, and rather than simply putting it into a blog roundup, I thought it might be nice to deal with them at greater depth.

The first is at Avakesh, where he notes that Rav Yaakov Emden wrote an unpublished commentary on the New Testament. And Rav Yaakov Emden had a teretz for a "stirah" in the Gospels. To quote:
"Many have asked that Paul appears to contradict himself here. In the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 16), it is mentioned that Paul circumcised his disciple Timothy. And they found this very puzzling, for this act seems to contradict the later text which seems to indicate that he considered circumcision a temporary commandment until the Messiahs arrival; but this took place after the time of the Nazarene!"
He answers that they were not really antinomian. After all, they have statements against fornication, one person of sleeping with his father's wife. And Jesus elsewhere says he is not coming to destroy one letter of the Torah. Rather, for gentiles the 7 Noachide commandments, and for Jews the Torah and Mitzvot. And since in Acts 16 it states that Timothy's mother was a believer and his father was Greek, and since Judaism follows the mother, he was Jewish and required berit milah.

The thing is that there are many "setirot" in Gospels, as they were different accounts of people who lived long after the purported events. And different people may have had different aims in the direction of early Christianity.

In terms of the particular resolution, I don't know that I buy it. It is possible, but not necessarily the only explanation. (See this Wikipedia article on Antinomianism.) Opposing fornication, a moral law, is different from e.g. requiring tefillin which are black and perfectly square. They are different kinds of commandments. If so, why circumcision for Timothy? My impression of the plain meaning of the text is that it was for pragmatic purposes. Just as Jews for Jesus pretends to be Jewish in order to convert Jews, Paul circumcised Timothy so that people would consider him one of them and then be receptive to his teachings. Thus, the text is:
1He came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was a Jewess and a believer, but whose father was a Greek. 2The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. 3Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. 4As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. 5So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.
The text itself tells us exactly why. The Jews in the area would already consider Timmy suspect, since he was not really Jewish. He had that Greek father, and his mother slept with a non-Jewish person to have him, so his family was not so religious, it would seem. If an outsider comes to lecture you, you might reject him. Especially as he does not even have a bris -- he is gentile, like his father! So give Timothy a bris and make the Jews in that area consider him fully Jewish, and they will be receptive. That would be my reading of the text, at least.

The other example of a rabbi interpreting gospels is more recent, and is discussed at Mystical Paths. The exchange with a priest at the Kosel:
I started with my usual explanation that only G-d is everywhere, so we must not worship a limited being. He agreed.

“But your messiah is limited,” I said.

“No. He is everywhere,” he said.

I quoted from his bible. “When they went to the grave where he (yashke) was buried he was not there.”

“That’s right,” he said. “He was glorified.”

“Then he was not there.”

“That’s right. He was not there,” he said.

“Then he isn’t everywhere.”

“No. He is everywhere,” he insisted.

“Wait a minute. You just said that he was not in the grave, that he was taken up. If so, if he really was not in that grave like you say, then he is not everywhere. So don’t worship him.”

“He is everywhere,” he said, as he backed up and walked away.

I confess that in general, in other discussions he has posted, I don't find Rabbi Locks' arguments convincing. And here as well, in terms of the meaning of the words in the gospels, I think that the priest's position has more merit. Not, chas veshalom, that I would think there is merit to Christianity. But in terms of interpreting this Christian text, the priest is closer to the mark. Rabbi Locks is attempting to make a derasha on the words, but besides not being the meaning of the words, who says you can should derashot on New Testament?! And why would you think your derasha would be accepted by a priest, who does not accept the middot sheHaTorah nidreshet bahen?!

Here are some of their texts:
Matthew 28:
Responding to the women, the angel said, "Stop being frightened! I know you're looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here. He has been raised, just as he said. Come and see the place where he was lying.

1On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. 5In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 7'The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.' " 8Then they remembered his words.
The idea in the text is that the physical body was not in the grave, because it had ascended. The intent might be to resurrection, or to apotheosis, or simply to ascending to heaven. I can make a compelling argument for any of these opinions. It does not mean that therefore there is some location which the spirit is not present. Rabbi Locks was trying to make a diyuk, that because the angel said that he (meaning the physical body) was not in some location, Yushke is not everywhere -- and the priest was having none of it. He was understanding it as being "glorified," such that he was not only there, and bound by some physicality. Perhaps something akin to Eliyahu ascending in the fiery chariot, such that when they looked for him (physically), they could not find him.

I don't really see the point in debating with Christian clergy, not to mention the potential problematic halachic aspects of it. But I think I would end with a more successful discussion between an old Jew and a priest:
An old Jewish man gets on the subway in New York and sees a priest.

He notices the white collar, and decides to ask what it's about.

"Why do you wear your collar backwards?" The old Jewish man asks.

The Priest, being polite, responds

"Well, Sir, because I'm a father."

"I am a father too, but I wear my collar normal."

"Yes," the Priest begins, "but I am father of many"

The old Jewish man shakes his head. "I have 8 children, and so many grandchildren I don't know most their names, and still my collar isn't backwards"

The priest, aggitated, slams his fist in his palm "Sir! I am the father of hundreds!"

The elderly Jewish man, beweildered, stands to get off the subway, and leans over to the priest "Mister, maybe you should start wearing your pants backwards."


Wolf2191 said...

Drew Kaplan said...

Also, about a month ago Professor Shapiro wrote about a couple of commentaries to the NT here, about Rabbi Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik's Kol Koreh and Rabbi Samuel Weintraub's Milhemet Shmuel.


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