27. Rabbinic Literature as a Background to Scripture (Editorial)

Clifford Denton

Prior to the launch of Tishrei, I had been stirred to respond to the growing deception of the age and to certain aspects of the mission challenge to the church. In my view, there was a need for scholarly apologetics to develop among Christian leaders and for such scholarship to have consequences for the protection of the church community and its richer walk of faith. Coinciding with reflections on how this might be accomplished was my new and regular commitment to reading the international edition of the Jerusalem Post.

I had seen the prophetic significance of the re-establishment of the State of Israel and considered that this weekly newspaper would keep me in touch with Israel of today. In the Jerusalem Post is a weekly reflection on the portion of the Torah which is read in the synagogues on the Sabbath. This is written by a Jewish Rabbi, Shlomo Rishkin. An article appeared which drew a challenging message out of the small silent aleph which ends the first word of Leviticus, “vayikra” (“And He called”) in all Hebrew editions of the Bible. This led to my writing an article entitled ‘The Significance of the Small Silent Aleph”. I was impressed by Riskin’s scholarship in presenting a meditation on the Torah that I have never heard in a pulpit, yet seeming to have a validity and inspiration that could be beneficial to Christians, even though this Rabbi has not (yet) accepted Yeshua as Lord.

This paper got into the hands of Dov Chaikin and was the means of developing fellowship with him and his wife Tehilah. Through Dov and Tehilah, avenues of opportunity to explore issues of the faith among believing Jews were opened up. The key began to turn; scholarship relating to the background of the Christian Faith should be considered from the perspective of our Jewish/Hebraic roots. Tishrei developed and so has my own personal study in this area. I still read Riskin. Not all he says is as stimulating, but I am able to sift out the relevant from the not so relevant and rarely fail to benefit from the studies of this modern day Jewish Rabbi. As I sit typing this editorial I have another example of Riskin’s writings in front of me (from the Jerusalem Post of January 1st 1994). In the course of his discussion on the theme of Exodus 4:14, he writes, “The Almighty dare not give the priesthood to someone who does not understand the primary importance of individual action in the arena of human events. Ritual is useless unless it inspires human beings to come closer to God, to act in the manner in which God wants them to act, to finish creating a world in which God’s presence will be obvious and the divine goal will become manifest. God guides and inspires; man must act and accomplish. Only he who understands this can be a guardian of religious ritual. A leader in Israel is not merely God’s vehicle; he is His partner.” If we meditate on the theme of John 15 we find echoes and deeper meanings on this line of thought, and we can also put this thinking alongside our consideration of how human responsibility and Divine Sovereignty are to be at work in the lives of individual believers. Certainly we should read what Riskin says in the light of the fact that He does not (yet?) believe in Yeshua and we must be cautious, but we should also read in the light of the fact that Israel is being gathered together in preparation for a spiritual revival (Romans 11). We can recall Nathanael, an Israelite without guile (John 1:47) or Nicodemus who was seeking understanding and with whom Yeshua was gentle in his teaching (John 3). So what of the Rabbis today and what of the scholarship of the Rabbis over the centuries? Where are the Nicodemuses, the Nathanaels, or the potential Pauls, for that matter, among the Riskins and the Maimonodeses?

When the church distanced itself from its Jewish roots it also, on the whole, neglected Rabbinical thought over the centuries. Yet the Rabbis have held fast to Torah until this day and the Jewish nation is preserved with readiness for a day of salvation. If an understanding of the Jewish background to the Christian Faith is to be rediscovered then surely there is much within rabbinic works. What do most Christians know of this? There are keys to the understanding the time of the Lord which are not contained in Scripture but assumed. There are references in Scripture to beliefs and expectations at the time of the Lord. There are deep meditations on the Old Testament which are far deeper than the superficial meditations of many Christians in our day. Historic and linguistic backgrounds are essential to the deeper studies of the Scriptures. There is a lifestyle to which the Scriptures point believers. Rabbinic literature can act as primary and secondary sources for many of these studies.

There is, of course, the danger of treating everything Rabbinical as if it were totally reliable. There are dangers of cult-like, gnostic. mystical or wayward philosophical responses. There are also several periods of Rabbinic traditions, each requiring different treatment. While Hillel and Shamai give us clues to the background of our Lord’s teaching, and the Mishnah gives relevant information on the ‘traditions of the Jews’, some of the later Rabbis of, say, the Middle Ages became philosophical and as influenced by Greek thought as many in the Christian church. Thus when we come to the Talmud (which has recently been described to me as ‘a sea’ by a leading Messianic Jew) or the works of Maimonodes, we may not have foundational sources for study of the Bible. When we consider the Jewish mystics, their kabbalah, and the Zohar, in my opinion, we should about turn, because these are diversions from reliable and edifying rabbinic teaching, even dangerous.

When all is said and done, however, particularly relating to cautions and the need for discernment, we find in the world of rabbinic literature some of the essential sources for enhancing our understanding of the background, and some aspects of the text, of the Bible. This issue cannot be avoided.

I foresee the need to develop Study Centres and courses incorporating aspects of the roots of our faith, in these days. Such initiatives should take account of rabbinic sources and commentaries on these sources. They should be a part of the growing libraries around the world. Undoubtedly there is a need for beginners in this area to be helped by the experts, but this is one of the main means of rediscovering our true heritage as Christians. Fortunately there are a growing number of Messianic Jewish teachers in our day and our studies will deepen more and more as they contribute within the overall research and teaching programme of the church (although it also has to be said that many Messianic Jews have a Gentilised approach to their faith and many are also walking this road of discovery themselves).

As the plan of salvation reaches a climax, Jewish and Gentile believers are going to be drawn together as the “One new man” of Ephesians 2:15. Our studies of the Old and New Testaments will be shared at a deeper level, including our mining of the riches of early rabbinic writings. We should not be fearful of this day coming, but look towards it with expectancy. We are approaching the day when the truth of what Jesus said (Matthew 13:52) will be evident, “Every scribe instructed in the kingdom of Heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old.”

Of course, our chief Rabbi is the Lord Himself. He entered this world and became our teacher within the world of the rabbis of Israel and Judah. He is the only perfect rabbi and it is His teaching that we seek to understand through all the sources on hand, yet He was indeed a rabbi.

We trust that this issue of Tishrei will begin to open up this whole area for our readers, who should then go on to develop their own studies. We have included some articles from Messianic researchers and writers, including the Jerusalem School, Hope of Israel Ministries and others of the growing number of individual teachers who refer to the rabbinic sources. This is to encourage our readers to follow up by obtaining some of the current and growing output of teaching from these sources. Our Contemporary Issue has been deliberately chosen to go with this theme, holding in tension the value of studying rabbinic sources with the necessity of every person, including scholarly Jews being born again through faith in Yeshua Hamashiach.

While we are conscious of the importance of the study of rabbinic sources and of the Lord’s Divine hand on the Jewish people as He prepares to open many eyes in regard to their salvation, we are conscious that there are right limits to our study of rabbinics, and also there are some crucial issues to be dealt with among the people of Israel today. In our focus on contemporary issues, Chris Barder has written briefly to highlight the question of who is a Jew. We have also reprinted a discussion paper by Tony Pearce previously issued separately, reminding us that we must not lose sight of the fact the work of evangelism is to proceed among Jewish people. Finally, we asked a messianic Jewish evangelist to consider whether salavation was to be found within the context of Rabbinic Judaism. It is important to hold this theme in balance with our concentration on the great facility which rabbinics offers the church.

The issues addressed in this edition of the journal are sensitive ones, but essential for our consideration in these days of prophetic fulfilment.

(Reprinted from Tishrei, Vol 2 No 2, Rabbinic Judaism as a Background to Scripture, Winter 1993/1994)



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