Thursday, January 19, 2012

REPRINT: Knowledge in Parsha Va'era

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Our parasha opens with the famous four-fold expression of redemption that God vows to Moses:

I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments; and I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God . . .
(Exodus 6:6–7a)
After these four promises from God comes a fifth:
. . . and I will bring you in unto the land concerning which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
(Exodus 6:8) 
What is it that bridges God’s four-fold redemption of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to God’s bringing the Israelites into the land?  The answer is given in the intervening verse:

and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.
(Exodus 6:7b, emphasis mine)
This emphasis on da‘at, knowledge of God, is characteristic of the first half of Exodus, in which Israel comes to know God through his miraculous deliverance. In particular, this verse highlights that Israel’s future entrance into the land must be preceded by their coming to know that the Lord is God.

What does it mean to know God? According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Hebrew word yada, from which the word da‘at is derived, “means more than the possession of abstract concepts. Knowledge . . . involves both an intellectual and an emotional act . . . it implies not only legal obligation, but also inner attitudes” (Heschel, The Prophets, 57–59). It also means attachment in the fullest sense, as conveyed by the Biblical use of the word yada to describe relations between a husband and wife. Thus, the antithesis of knowledge of God is idolatry, which is likened to adultery.

Tragically, when Moses proclaims the five-fold message of redemption to the Israelites, with its accompanying promise of knowledge, they are unable to hear him due to their “crushed spirits and cruel bondage” (6:9). The Midrash explains that “crushed spirits” is a veiled reference to their difficulty in abandoning idol worship (Exodus Rabba 6.5, citing Ezekiel 20:6–8). So God commands Moses to go to Pharaoh alone (6:10)—not accompanied by the elders of Israel, as originally promised (see Exodus 3:18).

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe taught:
These verses cite five expressions of redemption. The first four relate to the Egyptian exile and the three exiles following thereafter, including the present one. The fifth—“I shall bring you . . .”—relates to an additional level of ascent that will follow the initial redemption by Moshiach.
(Living With Moshiach, p. 51)
If the fifth message of redemption (“I shall bring you into the land . . .”) is a reference to the Messianic redemption, then it follows that entrance into the Messianic Age must be preceded by Israel coming to know God in the fullest sense. Of this Jeremiah writes, “no man shall teach his neighbor . . . for they all will know me” (Jeremiah 31:34).

Sunday, January 8, 2012

What are people saying about "Kosher Jesus"?

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's book Kosher Jesus comes out next month.  Boteach is a highly recognizable author (last week an op-ed in L.A.'s Jewish Journal endorsed Rabbi Shmuley for Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth--a position currently held by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks).  While this makes Kosher Jesus a particularly notable entry in the ever-growing Jewish project to recognize/reclaim Jesus as a first-century Jew, there's a good chance it won't be a "kosher" treatment by Messianic Jewish standards.  I will compile reviews and links here as I come across them.

Rabbi Michael Samuel's "Thoughts on Shmuley Boteach's New Book Kosher Jesus"
Most of the ideas suggested in the “Kosher Jesus” reflect the ideas of the British Jewish scholar Hayam Maccoby’s works. According to Maccoby, Jesus was an observant Jew who followed Jewish law, much like a typical traditional Jew of his era. Jesus erred in thinking that God would supernaturally bring about the end of the Roman Empire; he hoped God would let him inaugurate the Messianic Age that was foretold by the prophets. Jesus failed in achieving these goals, ergo—he could not be the Messiah.

Shmuely is a fine ambassador to the general community, but do not expect him to be something he is not—a New Testament biblical scholar. . . . if you want to read something much more intriguing and exciting, buy yourself a copy of the “The Jewish Annotated New Testament,” which is now available. . . . Another great book is Geza Vermes’ outstanding book, “Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels” (Oxford, 1973).

Ha'aretz - "New book by U.S. rabbi depicts Jesus as Jewish patriot":
"Christian ideas of Jesus as divine messiah emerged as a savvy adaptation following the destruction of the Second Temple," Boteach explained. Once Jews understand that, he writes that they "can take inspiration from Jesus' often beautiful ethical teachings and appreciate Jesus as a devoted Jewish son who became martyred while trying to lift the Roman yoke of oppression from his beloved people."
Interfaith Family Network Blog - Kosher Jesus?
Messianic Jews and some Chabadniks/Lubavitchers aside, the broad distinction remains; Jews and Christians view the role and level of importance of Jesus, as it pertains to their own theology, quite differently.
Huffington Post - Religious Incitement Over My 'Kosher Jesus' Book (Rabbi Shmuley responds to his critics in Chabad):
What missionaries seek to do in converting unsuspecting Jews is portray Judaism as a failed religion that was replaced by Christianity. Their intention is to show Jews that without a divine Jesus they cannot achieve salvation from sin. But contrary to these demeaning and false claims, Christian scripture is itself absolutely clear that Jesus kept the entire Torah and advocated that any Jew who did not do likewise would be cast out from heaven. It is this Jewish Jesus -- the one that "Kosher Jesus" uncovers from the pages of the New Testament itself which was edited so as to deny some much of Jesus' Jewishness and intentionally Romanize him -- that I am asking Jews to reclaim. The book seeks to inspire Jews who have embraced Christianity to come back to their people and keep every letter of Jewish law as Jesus himself both advocated in the New Testament and adhered to himself.
 Gil Student at the Hirhurim blog writes, in "Three Easy Steps to a Kosher Jesus":
Conceiving a Jewishly acceptable Jesus requires three steps:

  1. Rejecting the Gospels and subsequent literature as inaccurate but historically useful. By wiping away the authors’ biases, we can discover the historical truth underlying their writings.
  2. Accepting that there was a historical Jesus, and not merely a useful fiction or amalgamation of people.
  3. Reinterpreting Talmudic stories of Jesus as polemic or references to other people.
All of these steps have rabbinic precedent. 

The radical literary deconstruction Maccoby uses does not sit well with me as a methodology. The deconstruction of texts in order to discover the historical Jesus seems to me overly speculative. However, I am happy to remain agnostic over whether Jesus ever existed and whether he remained a devout Jew or founded a new religion because he is simply irrelevant to my life. Kosher or non-kosher, Jesus is not someone important to me since the religion founded on his life, whether accurately or not, is not mine.
I find it hard to accept that [Rabbi Boteach's] book is somehow heretical if, as he states (link), he follows Maccoby’s approach. If his statements accurately represent his book, then he has conducted an attack on Christianity and, like the Disputants who preceded him, provided defense material for Jewish countermissionaries.
Dr. Michael L. Brown writes about his connection to Kosher Jesus in "The Huffington Post, Three Rabbis, and Me":
Here is where the plot thickens. Partly inspired by our debates, Shmuley wrote a book entitled Kosher Jesus, and it has caused a firestorm of controversy in the traditional Jewish community, as a number of prominent rabbis have expressed their concern that it will encourage Jews to read the New Testament and find out more about Jesus. For traditional Jews, that is not a happy proposition, especially given the 1,500 year history of the sometimes bloody, “Christian” persecution of Jews.

As expected, I am frequently targeted by Shmuley in his book, albeit in a friendly and respectful manner. At his request, I wrote an endorsement for Kosher Jesus while at the same time expressing my profound disagreements with it, finding the book far more offensive for traditional Christians than for traditional Jews. Interestingly, I have already read posts by other rabbis saying that if I’m endorsing the book, it must not be good for Jews!
An excellent review from Dr. Adam Gregerman in the Forward, "It's 'Kosher' To Accept Real Jesus?" (HT RPP):

Despite Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s best efforts in “Kosher Jesus,” some Jewish teachers and their messages are not worth reclaiming. Whether because of their fanciful interpretations of the Bible or their odd religious agendas, they are best ignored. I have in mind not Jesus but Hyam Maccoby, the late, idiosyncratic religion scholar.
A reader reasonably might expect more scholarly competence in light of Boteach’s boast of “twenty years of in-depth study” of Christianity. Boteach ignores, however, the writings of such prominent scholars as John Meier, E.P. Sanders, Paula Fredriksen and others who have rigorously treated all these topics. He prefers websites, fringe scholars and outdated works which is especially odd when important work continues to be done, with new books by Daniel Boyarin and Peter Schafer on Jesus and Judaism soon to appear.

Boteach’s choices are often inexplicable. For example, he cites repeatedly the completely obsolete 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia rather than, say, the revised 2002 New Catholic Encyclopedia. He relies extensively on Michael Brown, a Jewish believer in Jesus with a degree in Hebrew Bible, to explain the New Testament. By contrast, his few brief references to serious scholarship are either superficial (he seems to know Amy-Jill Levine’s work only through a Time magazine article he cites) or incorrect (he misrepresents the main argument of Krister Stendahl’s book on Paul).