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Book Binders

“Of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh” Ecclesiastes 12:12
The history of the people of God could be described as a succession of wanderings; not physical journeys – although those too have taken place – but spiritual ones during which the people have turned their back on God and his Word. Mercifully, the time comes when the Father calls our name, or pulls on our reins, so that we turn to look again upon his face.
The Jewish people to whom we witness have certainly wandered far from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Most of them have little interest in either religion or God. Yet the thinking of even the most secular Jew has been shaped by centuries of rabbinic teaching; for although modern Judaism contains many divisions, it has not always been so. Certainly there has always been a wide range of theological opinions within the religion but, with a few notable exceptions, before the influence of the Enlightenment in the 18th Century, Judaism was a religion defined by the rabbis.

It is often said that Judaism teaches the opinions of men rather than the Word of God. Yet how can that be true when the Hebrew Scriptures were written by Jewish people and are still read in the synagogues to this day? If Biblical Judaism was initiated by God, why should modern Rabbinic Judaism displease him?

No sacrifice, no atonement

To answer such questions, we need to go back to the period of history when the two southern tribes that made up Judah were in exile in Babylon, modern-day Iraq. During that time the Jewish people found themselves living far from the temple in Jerusalem. This had serious implications because they were unable to fulfil God’s commandments concerning sacrifice. The leaders knew that without the shedding of blood, there could be no atonement and therefore no forgiveness of sins. It is hard to imagine how they felt when, in 586 BC, news of the destruction of the temple reached the exiles.

In spite of this great disaster the prophets encouraged the banished Jewish community: Ezekiel with his visions of God on the move; Jeremiah with his revelation that the captivity would end after seventy years; and Daniel with his promise of a rebuilt Jerusalem and the coming of Messiah. But seventy years is a long time and, without a temple, the people had to gather somewhere to worship. So it was probably during this period that synagogues began to spring up. These were simply places where Jewish people met for the reading and exposition of Scripture, and for prayer. However, synagogues would eventually prove important not only to the survival of Rabbinic Judaism but also to the spread of the gospel.

After the Jewish people returned from the Babylonian exile, they built the temple that stood when Jesus walked the streets of Jerusalem. However, within a generation of the crucifixion of Jesus, that temple also was destroyed and the religious hierarchy of Israel was then faced with a gigantic problem. They did not know how long the second temple would be in ruins; but they knew that they were facing yet another period during which sacrifices could not be offered, and that was a frightening prospect. It is almost certain that they, and subsequent leaders of the community, did not intend to create a new religion, one that would neglect God’s requirements and turn to human wisdom, but that is exactly what they did. In some ways they had no alternative. Their hope of salvation lay either in a rebuilt temple or a Messiah. But, having watched the temple being destroyed and having decided that Jesus was not the Messiah, the leaders realised that Judaism, as it had existed since the time of Moses, had become unworkable; a new way of approaching God had to be devised. Thus, Rabbinic Judaism was born and what had been a sacrificial religion became a scholastic religion in which study was a mode of worship. But what did the rabbis study?

From Torah to Talmud

Alongside the Scriptures, the ancient rabbis developed a body of sacred literature, of which the most influential book was the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud is considered to be an authoritative record of rabbinic discussions on Jewish law, ethics, customs, legends and stories. It is a fundamental source of legislation, customs, case histories and moral exhortations, and consists of the Mishnah and the Gemara, a commentary on the Mishnah. Although the Mishnah includes commentaries on Scripture, it is not primarily a Bible commentary. Rather it is, as one writer puts it, “the traditional common-law of Judaism, as this was practiced, remembered, or imagined by the Palestinian rabbis of the late first century, second century, and early third century CE” (Professor David Halperin, www.pathsinjudaism.com).

For example, the Mishnah contains detailed descriptions of what is and is not permissible on the Sabbath, regulations that could not possibly have been deduced from the Sabbath commandments found in the Bible. It is more probable that the Mishnah contains a description of how the Sabbath was observed during the time the book was being composed. The ancient rabbis were aware that their rulings went far beyond the Bible: “The laws of the Sabbath ... are like mountains hanging by a hair: a tiny bit of Scripture, a multiplicity of laws” (Mishnah, Hagigah 1:8). Even before the birth of Messiah, extra-biblical “laws” had been introduced into Judaism to form a “hedge” round the Torah’s commandments. The theory was that this hedge would prevent the Jewish people from breaking God’s law. It was, however, a futile effort. Jesus said that the “experts in the law” were loading people down with burdens that were too hard to bear. Elsewhere, when Jesus was rebuked for not following “the traditions of the elders”, he responded by saying: “You have made the word of God of no effect by your tradition”. The Pharisees, and subsequently the rabbis, could not accept this truth because for them the tradition had its source in the “Oral Law”, which they believed was given to Moses, along with the written Law, on Mount Sinai. In their thinking, the Torah listed God’s rules whilst the Oral Law dealt with the practical application of these rules. Though the rabbis claimed to be following God’s commands they were in fact following traditions that, even by their own admission, would have been totally alien to Moses.

The Tyranny of Tradition

Biblical Judaism, the religion revealed through Moses, rested on sacrifice as the means of atonement – ultimately the sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God. In Rabbinic Judaism, however, atonement is attained through prayer, repentance, and tzedakah (the dutiful giving of charity), whilst the Spirit and the Word are replaced with logic and human tradition. Nevertheless, rabbis down through the centuries have recognised the necessity of sacrificial offerings and therefore, in their view, the need for the temple to be rebuilt. Even the anti-missionary organisation Jews for Judaism states that “the optimum means for attaining atonement consists of both animal sacrifices and sincere confessionary repentant prayer … Traditional Judaism looks forward to the restoration of the dual system working simultaneously – animal sacrifice and contrite prayer” (www.jewsforjudaism.org).

Jews are often called “the people of the Book”, but for Rabbinic Judaism the Talmud, not the Hebrew Bible, is the book that influences both belief and thought. It may be difficult for us to understand how the majority of Jewish people so readily turned away from divine revelation to human wisdom and the teachings of men. Yet we see the same thing happening in our day. As Christians, we claim to follow the Word of God, but how many of us in practice follow the writings of our favourite biblical commentator or most cherished Christian author? We are privileged if we have such resources, and some are of great value in refining our understanding of certain texts, but we need to realise that humanity does not need “second-hand” sermons. People need to hear from those who are spending time with God and are able to apply his Word in the modern situation and therefore to declare accurately what the Lord is saying to a fallen world. Yet many churches are structured in such in way that the leaders do not have sufficient time to study the Word that is “living and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword”. The Jewish people have given the nations a unique book. It is God’s book, so we dare not overlook it in our search for wisdom; but it is also their book, chronicling their history and speaking of their future. So let us not be slow in bringing it back home.

Howard Fleming
This article first appeared in the spring 2005 edition of the Herald

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