Thursday, June 11, 2009

Meet the Rabbis: Rabbinic Thought and the Teachings of Jesus

By Brad H. Young, 265 pages, $16.95, Hendrickson.

Brad Young offers Christians a rich understanding of their faith and of Jesus himself by showing the depth of Jesus' Jewishness. While many Christians are willing to admit to Jesus' identity, Christians very early on distanced themselves from Judaism.

By discussing rabbinic writings that were done well after the end of Jesus' earthly ministry, Young shows the inappropriateness of this abrupt break. Christianity and Judaism in the ensuing centuries continued to share much even without realizing it, and Jesus' thinking continued to find strong parallels in the rich and diverse rabbinic literature.

Perhaps this is so because, as Young points out, after the Roman brutalities of 70 AD and 135 AD that tried to wipe out the Jewish nation, the only surviving strands of ancient Judaism were Christianity and rabbinic Judaism.

Jesus' profound, faithful Jewishness is reflected in his relationship with the pharisees, who were the forefathers of the rabbis. He often argued with them, but these exchanges show an inner-Jewish struggle, where Jesus did not dismiss them off-hand. His sometimes strong clashes with them demonstrated just how seriously he took them.

Many of his teachings, such as on prayer, were quite Jewish. Jesus was a typical Jewish leader in that he struggled to make the Torah “understandable, relevant, and doable.” Like them, he interpreted the Written Torah with the Oral Torah.

The Sermon on the Mount exemplifies this approach, as in his teachings on divorce and adultery. Young notes that the debate over divorce and adultery was fierce in Jesus' day, and it is as a Jewish teacher participating in this debate that we must understand this part of the Sermon on the Mount. Young points out helpfully that the debate was caused by ambiguity in the Hebrew original of Deuteronomy 24:1.

Because of his very Jewishness, it is not surprising that Jesus makes no claim to have abolished the Torah. (Young notes that the Torah is more that the law; it is revelation from God.). Young complains that Christian preachers have “headed in directions far afield from Jesus' original aim. The explanation usually goes something like this: Jesus came to fulfill or satisfy the demands of the Law, and by doing so rendered it obsolete for those who profess faith in Christ. In other words, by fulfilling the Law, Jesus canceled it.”

The author makes the valid point that this reasoning comes from the frequent Christian practice of seeing Jewishness in a negative light and as opposed to Christianity. According to this line, law is for the Jews and grace is for Christians. In fact, grace comes from the God of Israel, and is therefore an inherent part of Jewishness. Young thus concludes that “There is grace in Law and Law in grace.”

Rather than rendering the law obsolete, in other words, Jesus came to “strengthen it through proper interpretation and application.”

Meet the Rabbis spends a great amount of time acquainting Christians with rabbinic writings. The author places some of Jesus' teachings from the gospels alongside rabbinic thinking. The rabbis' teachings on good works, right interpretation of Torah, passionate emotions, sexuality, and the golden rule closely parallel Jesus' words.

Jewish prayers and ethics are important to this heritage, as is the great medieval philosopher, physician, and theologian Maimonides, some of whose theology parallel Christian doctrine.

Meet the Rabbis fills a knowledge gap that Christians have about their closeness to Judaism, and offers a unique perspective. Written for Christians, Young nevertheless takes the primary perspective of the Jewish tradition, defining and discussing its central texts and thinkers, and reading Christianity from this. This approach, more than the information itself, is enlightening for the Christian.

No comments:

Post a Comment