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Frank Palmisano Rabbinical Thought

The Ambiguity of Rabbinical Thought

Frank S. Palmisano III

[Editor’s note: The author wants to make known that he no longer holds the views and opinions expressed herein in any meaningful, personal context. He feels “the need to distance himself from these views as such, and to communicate that he no longer identifies with them morally, intellectually, or spiritually” having “recently surrendered himself to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.”]


Judaism is rich in interpretation, providing a diversity of ideas and commentary on their most holy scriptures. The Tanakh, designated by Christians as the Old Testament, is a historical catalog of the Judaic people, chronicling their defeats, conquests, spiritual degeneration, and future glory. This essay will concentrate on the variant forms of interpretation that one encounters when examining some of the rabbinical thought. The common fallacy provided in the New Testament depicts the Jews as malignant, self-satisfying hypocrites who assented to a universal prescription of scriptural exegesis. This encapsulation of Jewish practice offers an inaccurate portrayal of the Pharisaical class as a legalistic group that condescended teachers of opposite conviction. It is my interest to repudiate the Anti-Semitic tenor of the New Testament and provide some historical evidence that evaluates this spiritual class of leaders and their evolution into the rabbinical school that immediately followed the Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. My central concentration will focus on the implementation of Midrashim and its place in defining Jewish thought.

Introducing the Players

It is commonly accepted by many Christians that the Jews as depicted in the Bible were a malicious faction of religious leaders, who felt threatened at the emergence of a revolutionary preacher such as Jesus. These leaders, who represented the spiritual hopes of Jerusalem, were indignant towards the itinerant preacher who proclaimed peace on earth and good will to men. The Bible presents Jesus as a preacher who was unsusceptible to the enticements of power (Mt 4: 1-11), without sin (1 Jn 3:5), authoritative (Mt 7:29), resolute in his ministry (Mt 26:39 ), and conferred with a unique divine relationship to God (Jn 17:1-26). This commendable depiction is in stark contrast to the one we see regarding the Pharisees and Sadducees. A fair assessment is in order, and an understanding of the motivations that compelled the gospel writers to assign such a pejorative designation to the order of Pharisees. There were five major groups that constituted the Jewish religious practice.

First there was the Sadducees, a pietistic group of religious elites. These constituted the upper eschalon of society and were the keepers of the Temple. They believed in a strict interpretation of scripture and were immune to refinement. The scriptures were understood as literal, and any adulteration was considered sacrilege. Most important to the Sadducees was the Torah. All sects believed that the Torah (the five books of Moses) were inspired by God and written by Moses. All held these scriptures as a microcosm of Judaic practice of religion.

The Sadducess, however, were in opposition to their more liberal associates, the Pharisees. This group is stigmatized within scripture. Many writers in the early church, such as Clement of Alexandria took this cue as an opportunity to defame them with anti-Semitic acrimony and accuse them as the sole arbitrators of Jesus’ crucifixion. Early Gnosticism contributed to this unworthy depiction with references to the God of the Old testament as a inexorable God of judgment and a new dispensation within the New Testament through the God of Love. But this "wicked" group was actually most responsible for the spiritual welfare of its people. Aside from the Temple at Jerusalem, these leaders were called upon for their pedantic conversation and intense exegetical studies. When historical conflicts arose and answers within scripture tended to be vague or obsolete, the Pharisees took the initiative to extract a meaning from within scripture that accommodated the current crisis or situation. They were not as affluent as the Sadducees, who undertook much of the legislative realm, but these men were the vanguards of Israel, they used the scriptures to compensate for the demands of modern times. The Pharisees must be understood as the originators of the Rabbis of which both employed a similar style of interpretation.

Thirdly, you had the Essenes, an apocalyptic group that rebelled against the involution of Temple worship, and believed in the eminent return of Messiah, ushering in a new "Golden Era." This eschatological group was the precursor of the Christian monastic movement of the 4th century by way of their communal life. A strict code of asceticism was enforced and ceremonial cleansing and communal meals were also elements of this group. Their resentment of the spiritual condition of Israel and anticipation of the Kingdom of God was indicative of the preaching emphasis of Jesus. Both expected and proclaimed a return of this kingdom, although Jesus’ (it can be argued) was referring to a spiritual kingdom.

The Sadducees were intimately connected with the ceremonial formalities of the Temple. They believed the Temple to be an integral component of their religion, and being such were found impotent after its destruction in 70 CE under the Roman general, Titus. They are often criticized for their disbelief about the resurrection of the body and rejection of angels in Matthew’s gospel. However, this criticism seems erroneously attached to them as the sole perpetrators. The belief that bodily resurrection was accepted in any manner seems invalid. The statement where Mary expresses her belief in a final resurrection of mankind is inconsistent with the consensus of indoctrination within Jewish life. Not only was the aspect of bodily resurrection scarcely addressed in Tanakh, there were conflicting views regarding the afterlife, and evidence seems to indicate that the doctrine of the soul and bodily resurrection was not prevalent until the 2nd century and a result of Hellenic influence in the Greek world. In one’s understanding of Judaism, the participant is not restricted to the Torah and Tanakh alone, rather to be a Jew is a tacit agreement to engage oneself in the commentaries and various Jewish practices that encompass this culture. Most Jews understand this, however, most Christians do not. The Bible alone is not the sole arbitrator of Jewish life. Such commentary in the New Testament seems to be suspiciously interpolated as Jewish thought.

Midrash (Midrashic literature)

Such obscure and terse language in the Tanakh demanded that rabbinic sages transcribed a book, offering commentary that would provide lucidity to these tensions within scripture. One effort in particular was the Midrash (pl. Midrashim), a collection of commentary on the Tanakh with special emphasis on Torah (400 BCE – 1200 CE). Barry W. Holtz comments on this difficulty: Hence in the laconic style of the Bible, we find one significant cause of the necessity for Midrash. Midrash comes to fill in the gaps, to tell us the details that the Bible teasingly leaves out: what did Isaac think as his father took him to be sacrificed? The Bible doesn’t tell us, but Midrash fills it in with rich and varied descriptions. Why did Cain kill Abel? Once again the Bible is silent, but Midrash is filled with explanation. How tall was Adam as he walked in the Garden? Look to the midrashic materials, not to the Bible for such details. The human mind desires answers, motivations, and explanations. Where the Bible is mysterious and silent, Midrash comes to unravel the mystery. Moreover, there are sections of the Bible that are simply confusing or unclear. Midrash attempts to elucidate confusion and to harmonize contradictions.

Although such a statement would infer a search for uniformity or unanimity among the rabbinic sages. Midrash itself becomes the very thing that it attempts to eradicate. The commentary which attempts to provide homogeneity, in essence, becomes multifarious, each opposing the other. Rather its primary concern is an attempt to resolve certain issues within the Bible providing alternative suggestions through commentary. The result is an attempt to harmonize confusion in the scriptures but nonetheless, confusion or difference of opinion becomes prevalent in the variegated exegesis offered by the rabbis. Such is true of Midrash Rabbah, the most authoritative of the Midrashim. It is comprised of alternative interpretations and arguments concerning Mashrut (dietary laws), policy, ceremonial procedures, etc. An interesting story by Rabbi Tarfon compliments this variation of opinion. This story pertains to a discrepancy concerning the appropriate time to recite Shema, a ceremonial prayer. This rabbi had traveled in the night, which was a violation of Hillel’s opinion since Shema was to be recited at this time. He comments in Mishnah Berakhot, I was once travelling and I lay down to recite according to the opinion of the House of Shammai, and I endangered myself on account of robbers." They said to him, "You deserved to lose your life, since you violated the opinion of the House of Hillel.

The reaction of these robbers however tends to be anomalous. Although variant forms of opinion were predominant in Midrashim, derogation was not expressed towards an alternative opinion. Contrariety was accepted as plausible. "New" interpretations were supplemented to accommodate current situations. Where an older interpretation tended to be irrelevant in light of a changing world, the rabbis employed arguments that attempted to satisfy these requirements. Even the connotation, "new" was considered inaccurate. There is a fundamental rule within Judaic exegesis that claims that there is no new interpretation. The scriptures in fact have always provided for the interpretation that the exegete extrapolates from the text. Multiplicity in interpretation is permissible and apparent tensions are illusory. The exegete is liberated from a formal prescription for his evaluation. Evaluations are nullified in light of a situation and pertinent as the condition allows for.

The Destruction of the Temple

The center of worship was the Temple that resided within the city of Jerusalem. Jesus’ death had passed with little notice, the Roman oppressors were more tyrannical than ever, and the climate was escalating with an ambivalent intensity. Titus was accredited with the Temple’s destruction, which was an attempt by the Roman officials to curtail the revolutionary tension being exhibited against Roman occupation. This event was a crucial point within Jewish religious life. This event exemplifies the attempts of the rabbinic community to amend the disastrous loss, a loss which debilitated the Sadducee contingent. Without a Temple, the Sadducees were impotent, incapable of providing their service to the suppressed Jewish people. The Temple, a direct intercessory between God and man had been demolished. Many believed that such an event marked God’s departure from his nation. God had abandoned his people in light of severe oppression. No longer could offerings be made for the expiation of sin, no longer could prayer be offered, for the Temple signified the place where God operated, outside of this religious sphere, prayers were inefficacious. Would Israel be lost in their sins forever? This certainly was not a question that taken lightly. Jews, just as Christians, have a peculiar way of implicating themselves when God’s presence or interaction was perceived as obsolete. They immediately introvert their queries. Why has God forsaken us? What have I done to precipitate his departure? Fortunately, the rabbis had an intriguing way of assuaging the fears and concerns of their people. A famous midrashic passages suggests: The Temple and its sacrifices do not alone expiate sins, rather we have an equivalent way of making atonement and that is through the deeds of human kindness.

A digression is essential at this point, although I have not yet elaborated on the incongruous nature of Judaic exegesis. The implication of this passage is quite irreligious in fact. A secular man can comply with this moral dictate just as well as a subscriber to Judaism can. However, another story illustrates this tension and provides an answer, a panacea to a people in utter despair. In the tradition of aggadah, a narrative convention employed in Jewish commentary, R. Abba b. Kahana offers this parable encountered in Leviticus Rabbah:

This may be likened unto a king who married a lady and wrote her a large ketubah (marriage contract): "so many state-apartments I am preparing for you, so many jewels I am preparing for you, and so much silver and gold I give you. The king left her and went to a distant land for many years. Her neighbors used to vex her saying, "Your husband has deserted you. Come and be married to another man." She wept and sighed, but whenever she went into her room and read her ketubah she would be consoled. After many years the king returned and said to her, "I am astonished that you waited for me all these years." She replied, "My lord king, if it had not been for the generous ketubah you wrote me than surely my neighbors would have won me over."

So the nations of the world taunt Israel and say, "Your God has no need of you; He has deserted you and removed His Presence from you. Come to us and we shall appoint commanders and leaders of every sort for you." Israel enters the synagogues and houses of study and reads in the Torah, "I will look with favor upon you…and I will not spurn you" (Lev. 26:9-11), and they are consoled.

In the future the Holy One blessed be He will say to Israel, "I am astonished that you waited for me all these years." And they will reply, "If it had not been for the Torah which you gave us…the nations of the world would have lead us astray."…Therefore it stated, "This do I recall and therefore I have hope." (Lam. 3:21)

In this manner Midrash attempts to admonish Israel to concentrate and maintain their focus and faith upon the promises contained within scripture. The liberty that the rabbis possessed in their interpretations was not perceived as an adulteration of scripture. In fact, they were reiterating, extracting promises and applying them in hopes of facilitating a convalescent people. The ethereal quality of the Torah precluded an exclusive applicability to one generation. God was eternal, so must his words be an eternal fixture, malleable towards all generations of Jews. Interesting in this parable is the striking resemblance to the Odyssey where Penelope mourns the loss of her husband Odysseus and yet never loses hope in spite of incessant proposals by the suitors who detested her husband. Another implicit consequence is that the suitors detested the woman in the same manner that the nations of the world detested God, coercing Israel to engage in spiritual infidelity. The Hellenistic influence is obvious and lends difficulty to an inspired prescription or spiritual autonomy privileging the Jews as a unique brand of people.

Another instance of different rabbinical interpretation is displayed in the story of Cain and Abel. In Genesis Rabbah, XXII, 9, Rabbi Shimon offers an elaboration on the Genesis 4:10 "The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the land":

Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai said, "This is a difficult thing to say and it is impossible to say clearly. Once two athletes were wrestling before the king. If the king wants, they can be separated; but he did not want them separated. One overcame the other and killed him. The loser cried out as he died, ‘Who will get justice for me from the king?’ Thus: ‘The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the land.’"

But why would God permit such an unconscionable altercation to ensue? Where was the God in whom Ezekiel proclaimed, "takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked?" Rabbi Shimon expresses some apprehension about God’s actions. His only resolution is to analogize this action rather than explain the incongruous act as recorded in scripture. I can assume that the actions which distinguished Jesus from the typical leniency of Jewish exegeses was his uncompromised assertion of truth, unfortunately too many Christians have gravitated towards his certainty disposition and would do better to recognize the limitations of their fallible sentience.

In an indirect response that repudiates Shimon’s early commentary, we have Midrash Tanhuma on Genesis IX. It reads:

You God watch over all of creation and you’re blaming me! This is like a thief who steals things at night and gets away with it. In the morning the watchman grabs him and says "Why did you steal those things?" He replied: "I’m a thief; I haven’t been remiss in doing my trade, but you’re a guard; why did you fail in your duties?" Then Cain said: "I killed him, true, but You created me with the evil urge in me. You watch over everything and You let me kill him. You killed him! You didn’t accept my sacrifice and I was jealous." God answered: "What have you done?" The "voice of your brother’s blood calls out…"

Examining the Evidence

One would be inclined to argue that since the rabbis allowed for a variety of interpretations that this somehow precludes an investigation into the validity. Conversely, Christianity should be critical evaluated due to the climate it fosters, an exegetical nightmare with each denomination asserting its authority over the other. Though Christianity and its faith claims have been assailed due to their inability to compensate for inaccuracies within scripture, especially among the inerrantists, Judaism has more pernicious implications. The patriarch of the Christian faith finds itself, inevitably open to contradiction and in suggesting that ad hoc arguments are plausible for scriptural analysis, skeptics find that such an untenable argument is more detrimental than the certainty expressed in Christians. Holtz comments,

All the rabbis would subscribe to a doctrine of the eternal interpretability of Torah and we might say that if there is any one dogma of rabbinical Judaism it is that everything is contained therein.

When scripture allows for interpretation and nothing is new, we have an irreconcilable difference, the ability to manipulate a passage to serve our interests. Remember the example of Temple worship? The privilege within the rabbinical school to manipulate a scripture debilitates any universal application that the Word of God insists. Although rabbis recognize the universal appeal of scripture to the Jews, they must contend with the consequence of concurrent exegetical solutions, each with its own agendas, each with a diametrically opposite result. If each interpretation is of God, then we must assume that God functions through contradiction, ascribing to himself an obscurity emblazoned upon the minds of His followers. The exegetical solutions, although alleviating the situation, exacerbate it with alternative views. How can God operate within a contrariety of claims when his nature supports an immutability? If the Hebrew scriptures suggest that he "changes not," where do the rabbis receive such an authority to manipulate the scriptures?

Holtz answers this dilemma with subterfuge. He writes:

There is no simple answer to this question, particularly because it is asked with hindsight, from the perspective of the people who are not within the system but are looking back on top of it, as it were. One cannot really say whether the rabbis were aware that they were changing Torah through Midrash.

That which promotes concordia discord is in essence nothing more than a logical fallacy. We can empathize with the Essenes, who, in this effect, isolated themselves from the perversion that they felt had supplanted the truth of their religion. If an interpretation is merely a means to accommodate a situation of alleviate fears and despair, the message loses its authority. The people become conditioned and presuppose an answer that will exonerate them in some manner, a panacea for every circumstance, assuring them of their permanent relationship with God despite the current evidence. In this sense, Judaism is worse than Christianity; there is no attempt to dispel other interpretations. Although we recognize the inconsistency within the variety of Christian formulas, we observe no attempt to eradicate spurious opinions offered by "holy men." The belief that scripture has always contained a particular interpretation is as ludicrous as saying that a person will always become what we suppose he says he will become. The mother that says, "See my son, I always knew that you would be that, or do that," is disregarding any practicality. In fact, we have observed that intentions are not always fulfilled, generally frustrated. Supposing that a person always had the capacity is different then that talent being capitalized upon. It is reminiscent of the myriads of young adults who aspire to be lawyers and doctors, and realize through a gradual process that such dreams are incompatible with the realities that dictate their existence. Whether it is money, grades, or change of heart that displaces the child’s dreams, the maternal prognosticators are suspect in their confident approbation, regarding their child’s aptitude as an accurate account of their earlier predictions. Such is the same with the rabbinical evaluation of scripture. "See, it was always there," does not suffice, especially when what the rabbi proclaims to have encountered is later undermined with an opposing argument of equal or greater assurance. We can easily recognize that the insidious confusion expressed in the Christian contingent has its origins in a less vocal agent, the surrogate parent of Judaism is the culprit. If the Torah holds any truth in its proclamations, we can assuredly believe that Christianity’s proliferation and inexorable enunciation of its doctrines are resultant from the confusion embraced in its surrogate, Judaism. For it is taught in Torah that the sins of the father will inevitably be a vicarious condemnation of the children. The children will suffer for the sins of the parent, and it is evident that Christianity has suffered from the confusing articulation of rabbinical commentary and ideas.

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