The Day the Rabbi was Wrong

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Written by David Mishkin


Actually, it was not just one day in time that the rabbi was wrong, and it was not just one rabbi. Most rabbis have taken a wrong turn while on their way to serve God. Yet the influence of the sages and rabbis of old is so great that many Jewish people--whether secular (and unfamiliar with the Hebrew Scriptures) or Orthodox (and Torah observant)--are quick to accept the views of "the rabbis" as though they are a unanimous and authoritative tradition, binding on any point of religion. That was the case with my friend Mark.

Mark grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home, attended a yeshiva in New York City and lived his life in accordance with the opinions and commentaries of our great rabbis. Yet, as a small child, he pondered a very unorthodox question about a very unorthodox topic, a topic which no one in his Hebrew school had ever discussed. The question: "What if we're wrong?" The topic: Jesus.

Mark stored this question in the back of his mind until last summer, when he met one of the Jews for Jesus distributing pamphlets proclaiming Jesus to be the Messiah. Mark spoke with that person for a moment and agreed to be contacted later for further conversation. That was how his name was passed along to me.

When Mark and I first met, he seemed more intent on proving me wrong than on considering whether or not what I believed had any validity. He was firm and confident as we shook hands. After all, he was convinced that I would be put in my place by the time the interchange was over.

I noted his beardless face and asked, "Are you Orthodox?" expecting a negative response.

"Yep," he said proudly.

I leaned over and peered toward the back of his head. "Are you wearing a kippah?" Mark could detect the mild jest in my voice as he opened his desk drawer and pulled out a black skullcap, which identifies observant Jews. He then reached into the lower drawer and displayed his tefillin.(1) "Three times a day," he added. I nodded to show that I was impressed.

I asked Mark who he thought Jesus was. He paused. Most of his knowledge on the subject was limited to modern, semi-historical accounts. He assumed these accounts would be sufficient.

"Mark," I said, "the best way to learn about Jesus is to read the New Testament, not some commentary that was written centuries later." Never having read the New Testament, Mark had more than a little hesitation in dealing with the issue, yet I sensed that his interest was genuine.

Mark and I met in his midtown Manhattan office once a week. We "wrestled" over subjects ranging from modern Judaism to Jesus, from Messianism to the history of Christianity. This went on for weeks. Yet he still had not obtained a New Testament. On one visit I pointed out that many Jews, even some rabbis, in the first century accepted Jesus as the Messiah. "It's just so ridiculous!" Mark interrupted. I went on to tell him that he needed to discover for himself how Jesus fulfilled the messianic expectation.

Several weeks later I telephoned my friend and was startled by his enthusiasm. "You're not going to believe this!" he said. He was as shocked by the events of the morning as he was by the fact that I called at that moment. "When I stopped at the newsstand to get the paper this morning, there was a small copy of the New Testament on one of the stacks. The guy running the stand had seen someone leave it there a minute earlier and told me I could take it if I wanted." Mark had shoved it into his pocket and gone to work. I wonder if he "heard" my grin as I told him that God had provided the very book which he had been refusing to get for himself.

He was flipping through his new possession as I spoke. Suddenly, he interrupted me, mid-sentence, as a verse printed in Hebrew caught his eye. Mark wasn't surprised; he was outraged! He read the verse aloud--first in Hebrew, then translating it to English. It was from the gospel of John, chapter three, verse sixteen: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."

This was too much! Never had he been taught about a Messiah who would die for the sins of the world. He called it blasphemous to suggest that such a notion has any place in traditional Judaism. He had been taught that Messiah's only role was that of a conquering hero who would establish peace on earth.

We continued to discuss the idea of "Messiah" over the next several weeks. Mark's loyalty to what he understood as "traditional Judaism" would not allow him to consider Jesus' claims. He often relied defensively on the phrase, "But the rabbis say..." to add weight to his arguments. How could he think that Jesus might be the Jewish Messiah when he had learned the opposite all his life? I pointed out that the beliefs of the Sages who wrote the Talmud and other commentaries are often radically different from the opinions of modern Jewish laypeople--or even of modern rabbis. "Mark..." I asked softly, "isn't it possible that modern Judaism has chosen to emphasize those interpretations which would point us away from Jesus?"

I urged him to look at the description of the Messiah, both in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the commentaries by the ancient rabbis. The word picture that the ancients painted of the Messiah is not so different from the picture of Jesus revealed in the pages of the New Testament. I suspected that Mark would not see the similarity as long as he was unfamiliar with the gospel accounts of Jesus. I continued our conversation with a new boldness: "Mark, do you know what the New Testament says about Jesus? Believe me, when you investigate it for yourself you'll see that the two pictures are surprisingly close."

Frankly, I don't know if Mark ever did have the courage to look inside that New Testament he found at the newsstand. But we did study some of the rabbinic commentaries and legends together.

As we focused in on the subject of Mark's oft-repeated refrain, "But the rabbis say...," we made some interesting discoveries. Since the Macabbean period (c. 200 B.C.E.) the rabbis have been prolific, producing an ever-growing body of commentaries. They try to meet the needs of the changing Jewish community and preserve tradition at the same time. For example, the oppression of our people by the Assyrians, the Romans and the later European powers led many of the rabbis to desire and expect a military Messiah, the messianic concept that persists to this day.

Legends and fables play a big part in tradition, too. Sometimes a folk story becomes as popular with the rabbis and the Jewish community as the commentaries themselves.

"So, then why is this 'truth' universally held--and why has it continued from generation to generation, if it's not the truth?" Mark asked excitedly. The answer, I explained, could be expressed in one word which is often considered the hallmark of Jewish life. Tevye the Milkman, in Fiddler on the Roof, explained anything he couldn't understand with that one word: Tradition!

The Messiah of tradition, and the one my Hebrew school teachers presented, has been the military hero--the best guy ever to ride a white horse. Not the Lone Ranger, but the Big Vindicator. This has been the popular tradition of our people. The notion of a suffering Messiah is foreign to most modern Jews.

But he is clearly described in Scripture, in the fifty-third chapter of the book of Isaiah. The passage speaks of the servant of the Lord who undergoes humiliation, pain and even death for the sake of others. Some modern rabbis believe this description of the nation of Israel. Many ancient sages disagree, however, and they are ignored!

In fact, one of these ancients told a legend that pictured God creating the Messiah and then asking him if he wanted to take upon himself the suffering for the sins of Israel. The Messiah replied,

"With gladness in my soul and with joy in my heart I accept it, so that not a single one of Israel should perish; and not only those who will be alive should be saved in my days, but even the dead who have died from the days of Adam the first man until now." (2)

Without the reference few would recognize such a quote as a Jewish legend. Mark never heard it at his yeshiva. I never heard it at my Hebrew school. Yet it is a Midrash from a collection of rabbinic writings beginning as late as the year 845 C.E.

In fact, Mark was surprised to hear that the Talmud itself speaks of Isaiah 53 as a messianic prophecy. "That's probably the opinion of one isolated commentator!" he protested. After all, he reasoned, wouldn't his teachers in the yeshiva have discussed the idea of a suffering Messiah if many of the ancient sages believed it? The answer, in this case, is no.

Another Talmudic passage that presents the suffering Messiah states:

The rabbis say: "The Leprous of the House of study is his name, as it is said, Verily he has born our diseases and our pains--he carried them, and we thought him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted." (Sanhedrin 98b)

This excerpt from the Mishnah is quoting directly from Isaiah 53. It also states specifically "The rabbis (plural) say." The identification of the suffering, leprous one as the Messiah was not merely the opinion of one writer. It was the commonly accepted interpretation of this passage by the Tannaim (c. 200-400 C.E.).

Some modern Jewish writers disagree with those ancient sages and claim that Isaiah 53 is not a messianic passage. In his book, The Jew and the Christian Missionary, A Jewish response to Christian Missionaries, Gerald Sigal writes:

Let it be stated from the outset that although we believe that Isaiah 53 speaks of the nation of Israel, our main concern here is not with the exegetical problem of whom Isaiah is referring to--whether it is one of the prophets, the people of Israel as a whole, or the Messiah--but with the investigation of the Christian missionary claim. Ignoring the fact that Israel is often spoken of as the servant of the Lord, Christian missionaries often argue that this chapter does not refer to the people of Israel. (3)

Sigal allows for other interpretations of Isaiah 53, whether a prophet, or even the Messiah. Yet he adamantly dismisses any possibility that it could be Jesus, without any scholarly or consistent logic.

The same tone is expressed in another "anti-missionary" book entitled Jews and Jewish Christianity. The authors claim that there is "absolutely nothing" to indicate that the passage points to the Messiah. However, in a footnote regarding rabbinic understanding of this chapter, they state:

"The fact that some Talmudic rabbis took the chapter messianically (though not in the Christian sense) is of interest to historians, but it does not mean that Jews are in any way obligated to adopt such an interpretation. By the Middle Ages, virtually every Jewish authority rejected it, not only because of opposition to Christianity, but because there is no basis for it in the text." (4)

This quote raises a number of questions. If there is no biblical basis for believing that Isaiah 53 refers to the Messiah, why did the Talmudic writers accept it as such? And why should we hold these writers in high esteem if we are not going to believe what they wrote? And, if it's right not to believe it all, who determines which writings are authoritative? Finally, why do the authors use the phrase "not in the Christian sense" in reference to "messianically," since the Jewish commentaries describe the same type of substitute atonement fulfilled by Jesus in the New Testament? Indeed, what if the rabbis are wrong?!

In rabbinic thought, it was the clear concept of a suffering and wounded Messiah which led to the idea of a second Messiah. The "two Messiah theory" dates back to the book of Daniel, chapter nine. The Messiah is described as dying, or being "cut off." Dr. Patai writes:

When the death of the Messiah became an established tenet in Talmudic times, this was felt to be irreconcilable with the belief in the Messiah or redeemer who would usher in the blissful millennium of the Messianic age. The dilemma was solved by splitting the person of the Messiah in two: ...Messiah ben Joseph...and...Messiah ben David. (5)

This tradition says that the Messiah (son of Joseph) is destined to suffer and die, whereas the Messiah (son of David) was chosen to reign. Some rabbis said that the Messiah (son of Joseph) was to die in the final war between Israel and Gog and Magog. His death would then pave the way for the reign of the other Messiah (son of David). One Midrash compares the two Messiahs as follows:

"In the future to come, the anointed of War will arise from Joseph. And the Messiah who will arise from Judah [Messiah ben David] will be stronger than he." (6)

Yet another rabbinic legend reverses the roles of the two Messiahs. The Messiah son of David is spoken of as dying. The son of Joseph is depicted as the reigning monarch. This legend takes place in a part of paradise called the "Fifth House." Elijah takes the head of Messiah ben David, places it on his lap and says:

"Endure the suffering and the sentence of your Master who makes you suffer because of the sin of Israel." (7)

The story concludes with a quotation from Isaiah 53:5, "...he was wounded for our transgressions."

This passage is significant because it equates the Messiah ben David (King Messiah) with the very one who was to suffer. Anti-Christian writers such as Sigal rarely comment upon rabbinic passages like this.

The dual Messiah theory helped the rabbis explain the apparent contradiction of the Messiah coming lowly on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9) and the Messiah arriving gloriously on the clouds of heaven (Dan. 7:13). It is clearly expressed in rabbinic literature but clearly ignored by many rabbis. Many teachers of modern Judaism neglect the commentaries from the Talmud that do not promote the tradition of rejecting Jesus. When my friend Mark and others state "the rabbis say...," they are in essence saying, "some of the rabbis, and certain tradition dictates...."

The rabbis of old had no difficulty in accepting the concept of two distinct individuals fulfilling the role of Messiah. For them, this did not violate Scripture. But the simpler and more credible explanation reconciles the two different pictures of the Messiah and conforms to both scriptural truth and the rabbinic idea of a dying Messiah preceding a reigning king Messiah. The explanation is that Jesus of Nazareth came as the suffering servant and will come again as the conquering Davidic king.

As we continued to talk, Mark raised one of the traditional objections: "If Jesus was the Messiah, why isn't there peace on earth?" I told him that the story of Jesus did not end on a cross two thousand years ago. Jesus often spoke of his return. In one instance, he quoted from the book of Daniel to describe that time:

"...for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory." (Luke 21:26b-27)

The same passage of Scripture is quoted in rabbinic literature as referring to Messiah ben David:

"And now let us speak in praise of King Messiah who will come in the future with the clouds of heaven and two Seraphim to his right and to his left, as it is written, Behold, with the clouds of heaven came one like unto a son of man." (8)

"The returning Jesus," I explained, "is Messiah ben David, the Prince of Peace."

Mark had spent little time learning about the Messiah in his yeshiva years. It was enough for him and the other students to simply know that one day the Messiah would come. Like many Jews, he was taught what or who the Messiah would not be. These teachings focused only on the traditions specifically designed to exclude Jesus.

After continued study, Mark's reasons for disbelief began shifting. Once, while reflecting on the possibility that Jesus might be the promised Messiah, Mark said slowly, "...maybe he was the Messiah, ...or a messiah who just wasn't successful." I knew that was a rare admission for an Orthodox Jew, grappling with the real question, needing a less offensive defense.

"Mark," I said, "God does not fail. Rather than rejecting Jesus because he does not fit your expectation of the Messiah, you should accept what our Scriptures say about God's anointed one. Even the rabbis saw Messiah as one who would suffer!" Perhaps the question Mark had pondered as a young yeshiva student was echoing loudly: "What if we're wrong?" And perhaps he was now considering the cost of following Y'shua.

Mark had come a long way, but not far enough. He had dropped the argument that the rabbis portray a different picture of Messiah than the one seen in the New Testament. He no longer tried to base his disbelief on Scripture or rabbinic literature. The real reason for Mark's unbelief is probably best expressed by a rabbinic tale found in the Talmud.

According to the legend, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi met Elijah and asked him when the Messiah would come. Elijah told him to go over to the Messiah and ask him personally. Messiah was sitting among the poor lepers. "When wilt thou come Master?" Messiah answered, "Today." The questioner told Elijah, "He spoke falsely to me, stating that he would come today, but has not." Elijah responded, "This is what he said to thee, Today if ye will hear his voice." (Sanhedrin 98a)

The Messiah has come. Will you hear his voice or will you listen to those rabbis who got lost along the way?

End Notes

  1. Phylacteries
  2. Pesiqta Rabbati, pp. 161a-b, cited from The Messiah Texts, by Raphael Patai (New York: Avon Books,1979), p. 112.
  3. Gerald Sigal, The Jew and the Christian Missionary, A Jewish Response to Christian Missionaries (New York: KTAV Publishing, 1981), pp. 36,37.
  4. David Berger, Michael Wyschograd, Jews and Jewish Christianity (New York: KTAV Publishing, 1978), p.49.
  5. Raphael Patai, noted anthropologist, author and former professor of Hebrew at Hebrew University, The Messiah Texts (New York: Avon Books, 1979), p.166.
  6. The Messiah Texts, p.165.
  7. The Messiah Texts, p.115.
  8. Pirqe Mashiah (Chapters of the Messiah), dating from the 7th to 10th centuries, cited from The Messiah Texts, p.83.

©1990, 1996-1997 Jews for Jesus


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