TAAM: Torah Answers for Anti-Missionaries
This page deals with Torah Answers in the category:
Myths that Muddy the Waters: About Orthodox Judaism
(Last Update: 10-jan-12 )
Jewish tradition is rich and extends back thousands of years. But along with the Torah jewels preserved over the ages, there have been "false gems" palmed off on the Jewish people as genuine. This injustice was done by individuals who may have been sincerely convinced that they were offering Torah truth, but who failed to apply the prime test of measuring their teachings "by every word that proceeds from the mouth of G-D" (Deut.8:3).
The rabbis have never claimed to be speaking by the mouth of G-d; this clearly refers to Moses and the Prophets.
The reason G-d sent prophets in the first place was because of the persistent tendency of our leaders to corrupt the Torah.
"For I [Moshe] know your rebellion and your stiff neck. Even while I am yet alive with you today, you have been rebels against the L-RD; and how much more after my death?.... For I know that after my death, you will surely become corrupt and you will stray from the Way that I have commanded you, and evil will befall you in the last days." (Deut.31:27,29)
"Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts like Meriva [Num.20:13]... they are a people who err in their heart, and they did not know My Way." (Ps.95:7-8)
"This people approaches Me with their mouth and honors Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me; and their fear of Me is by a taught commandment of men." (Isa.29:13)
"Those who grasp the Torah did not know Me." (Jer.2:8)
"Because you have forgotten the Torah of your God, I also will forget your children." (Hos.4:6)
"They made their hearts like flint from hearing the Torah and the words that the L-RD of Hosts sent by His Spirit by the hand of the first prophets, and so there is great wrath from the L-RD of Hosts." (Zech.7:12)
"But you have strayed from the Way and have caused many to stumble in Torah." (Mal.3:8)
We were to utterly reject those who were in rebellion against these prophets. Instead we have built a religious system that neglects the prophets almost completely. In order to return to true Jewish faith, we need to take a long, hard look at any tenet of orthodox Judaism which fails to be grounded in the Torah and Prophets. The only alternative is darkness. "To the Torah and the Testimony! If not, they will speak like this word which has no light." (Isa.8:20, from the Hebrew)
Along with that, we need to face some of the widely accepted claims made by the rabbinic community that are contradictory or simply not true.
1. The Hebrew Scriptures have been preserved error-free since they were first given to the Jewish people.
2. Rabbinic Judaism is part of an unbroken chain of sages reaching back to Sinai.
3. The Oral Law was handed down from Moses along with the Written Law.
4. The Babylonian Talmud is the most authoritative source of rabbinic teaching.
5. Rambam is the undisputed spokesman for Rabbinic Judaism.
6. Praying at the grave of a Tsaddik is a holy act that finds favor with G-d.
7. Judaism has always taught that we don't need a mediator between ourselves and G-d.
8. The study of Torah will bring us spiritual cleansing and knowledge of G-d.
9. Judaism does not deal with Satan, hell or demons; these are Christian concepts.
1. The Hebrew Scriptures have been preserved error-free since they were first given to the Jewish people.
Jewish tradition has placed even more emphasis than Christian tradition on the inerrancy of the original Hebrew Bible, the Tanach (Torah, Prophets and Writings). Some Jewish scholars have sought to prove that the Tanach, or at least the Torah, was supernaturally arranged letter-by-letter, applying various mathematical formulas to the Masoretic text (a form of gematria, or assigning numerical values to each Hebrew letter to discover "hidden meanings" in their sums) to show that there are numerical patterns in the word order which could not occur by chance. A few examples of surprising results are given, with the claim that this occurs so frequently in the text that skeptics can be convinced by the sheer statistical impossibility of it having been humanly authored. However, extensive computer analysis has not yielded convincing results from a statistical standpoint, in comparing the numerical patterns of Scripture with those of non-biblical Hebrew texts. (The inspired texts should be stronger than secular texts from the same language, but they are not.)
But the Hebrew from which everyone is working (the Masoretic text) is not the "original Hebrew Scriptures". It is only one variant chosen from a range of Tanach versions that were circulating during the time of the Masoretic scholars. Not only that, but the Masoretes removed a significant amount of ambiguity from the Tanach Hebrew by adding "nikud" (vowels in the words, sentence punctuation, paragraph breaks) as well as the "ta'amim" (for melody and inflection).
Prior to this (before the 7th to 11th centuries CE), every book in Tanach was one continuous run-on sentence made up of consonants. The Jewish scholars were free to read and explain this fluid text in any (and every) possible way that the ambiguity allowed. There were also variants of Torah and Prophets in circulation. The Dead Sea Scrolls include fragments of different Torah versions that existed in Second Temple times, some of which conflicted with the Masoretic text. (See Wikipedia for a brief overview of the history.)
As a result, there are four layers of rabbinic filtering in the "Hebrew Scriptures" used by the Jewish community. Three filters were created by the Masoretes, who decided which Hebrew Tanach manuscripts to preserve and which to consign to oblivion; then decided how to divide the Hebrew into phrases, sentences and changes of subject; and then decided how to read ambiguous words by inserting vowels. Today's Torah and Haftarah (prophetic) scrolls have preserved the original run-on format without vowels, but the text itself is still the version chosen by the Masoretes.
The fourth layer was created by the rabbinic scholars using the Masoretic text, who decided how to explain the meanings of ancient Hebrew idioms or unusual words and passed these decision on to their disciples. The custom in yeshiva is to observe the Masoretic "nikud" for public reading but to remove it for study purposes. So yeshiva students typically disregard two filters when contemplating the Hebrew Scriptures. But that freedom is neutralized by amplifying the fourth filter: their obligation to accept only the explanations of the Hebrew that are allowed by their teachers.
These changes have distanced the Jewish people from "the original Tanach" in ways that cannot be rectified. Jewish sources tend to downplay or hide this distance, claiming that, for example, "The Masoretes made all spelling changes or changes to the text in the margins, because they refused to alter the original text" (from the Virtual Jewish Library); or, "When G-d taught Moses the Torah, He also taught him the proper pronunciation and punctuation of its words: vowels, grammar, and sentence set-up" (from Chabad's website).
The truth is that the Masoretes left numerous errors and gaps in what we call "the original Hebrew Bible", both in the variant that they chose, and in deliberate rewriting of some verses. Following are a few examples:
1) Genesis 35:22 and Numbers 25:19 are incomplete verses; they are each marked by a piskah, the Hebrew letter peh (or in some versions, by omitting punctuation at the end of the phrase). The Septuagint contains a complete verse for the first, while the second is complete in the Samaritan Bible. There are 25 other unfinished passages in the Masoretic text.
2) Numerous words in the written Masoretic text are changed in the margin for public reading, either with different vowel pointing or with a different word altogether. The text is called the ketiv and the corrected pronunciation is the keri. Besides this, Jewish tradition records instances of early scribes changing words or sentences in the original Masoretic texts in order to avoid what they saw as disrespect to G-d, including Genesis 18:22 (where originally G-d had stood before Abraham), I Kings 12:16 (which had read, "to your gods, O Israel") and several names in II Samuel which had incorporated the name of Baal.
3) Contradictions exist within the Torah, which were left with no attempt to correct them. The number of Levites in Numbers 3:22, 28, 34 is "22,300" rather than "22,000" as in verse 39. Deuteronomy 31:24 says that Moses "wrote down the Law until it was complete", but we have no written laws for even basic procedures, such as how to conduct a marriage or which transgressions are to be punished by flogging. Deuteronomy 5:6-21 is supposed to be a repetition of the Ten Commandments given in Exodus 20:2-17; yet G-d changes the reason for observing the Sabbath (Deut. 5:15; Exod. 20:11).
4) There is confusion over the name(s) of Moses' father-in-law. Judges 4:11 calls him "Hovav", Exodus 2:18 calls him "Reu'el", and Exodus 3:1 and 18:1,2,5,6 call him "Yitro". Numbers 10:29 calls him "Hovav son of Reu'el Moses' father-in-law," which can mean that Hovav is either Moses' father-in-law or his brother-in-law.
5) Some 15 different books referred to or quoted in the Hebrew Bible as though they were Scripture no longer exist; for example, the "Book of the Wars of the Lord" (Num. 21:14).
6) There is a contradiction concerning how many years the Israelites were in Egypt: 400 years (as in Gen. ), or 430 years (as in Exod.). Rabbinic teaching goes to great lengths to explain the discrepency, with a curious conclusion attributed to Rashi that neither of these passages is right. (for example, see the OU website article on Parasha Bo)
The Hebrew Scriptures were indeed inspired directly by G-d, and the New Testament is as firm on that point as the rabbinic community (Luke 24:25-27, 44; Rom. 15:4; II Tim. 3:16; II Pet. 1:20-21; Rev. 22:18-20). Even more significantly, Yeshua endorsed the rabbinic teaching that every stroke of a letter of the Law of Moses is as enduring as creation (Matt.5:18; Luke 16:17).
Rabbinic teaching allows for the power of G-d to communicate Truth despite the ambiguity of Hebrew that lacks vowels, punctuation and paragraph breaks - and even through the above-mentioned textual problems. Rabbinic tradition in fact expects it, and celebrates the supernatural ability of any given Scripture passage to say more than one thing ("the 70 faces of Torah"). So there should be no problem extending that faith to expect Him to speak through variant Tanach manuscripts in the same way.
And indeed we see this faith among the Jewish people before the completion and distribution of the first Masoretic text (roughly 9th century CE). Until that time, a number of competing Tanach versions were in circulation, which were favored by different rabbinic schools and which colored their teaching. Far from causing distress, these differences were the grist for lively debates among the scribes and teachers of Torah.
All of this gives context to anti-missionary criticism of the New Testament. The acceptance of variant manuscripts of Torah and Prophets in second Temple times sheds light on the NT quotes which are labelled "misquotes", simply because they differ slightly from the Masoretic text. For more about that objection, go here.
2. Rabbinic Judaism is part of an unbroken chain of sages reaching back to Sinai.
This teaching is based on the opening statement in Pirkei Avot - known in English as Ethics of the Fathers (written originally as a Mishnah tractate in the 3rd c. CE):
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. (Pirkei 1:1)
The last group is identified in rabbinic tradition as "a panel of 120 prophets and sages--including Ezra, Nehemiah, Mordecai, Daniel, Simeon the Righteous and the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi--which constituted the ultimate religious authority at the onset of the Second Temple Era (4th century BCE)." (from the Chabad website) Yet this description is called into question by the testimony of those very prophets named here.
The Elders of Joshua's generation were not succeeded by faithful leaders, and G-d was abandoned in favor of other gods:
ויעבדו העם את-ה' כל ימי יהושע וכל ימי הזקנים אשר האריכו ימים אחרי יהושוע אשר ראו את כל-מעשה ה' הגדול אשר עשה לישראל ... וגם כל-הדור ההוא נאספו אל-אבותיו ויקם דור אחר אחריהם אשר לא-ידעו את-ה' וגם את-המעשה אשר עשה לישראל ויעשו בני-ישראל את-הרע בעיני ה' ויעבדו את-הבעלים ויעזבו את-ה' ויעבדו לבעל ולעשתרות
The people served the L-RD throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the L-RD had done for Israel.... After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the L-RD nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the L-RD and served the Baals. They forsook the L-RD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They provoked the L-RD to anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. - Judges 2:7-13
The book of Judges tells us that this sad condition occurred in nearly every generation between Joshua and Samuel. And II Kings 22 records a break of major proportions in the "chain of transmission" in Jerusalem; King Josiah (who lived roughly 300 years after King Solomon) heard some of the Torah for the first time only in the 18th year of his reign, when a copy was found in the neglected Temple. The discovery triggered a nationwide renewal of the lapsed Covenant (chapter 23).
These contradictions aside, the account of Torah transmission in Pirkei Avot stops before the period when the rabbis became the arbiters of Torah (after the destruction of the Second Temple). The chain we are taught today in rabbinic Judaism came into being some 800 years later. It was Rambam (Maimonides) who pieced together "an unbroken chain of 120 generations" from Moses until the completion of the Talmud in 500 CE (Mishneh Torah, introduction). His list moves smoothly from "Pinchas and the Elders" to "Eli the Cohen", despite the testimony of the book of Judges mentioned above; and despite the testimony (I Sam.2:27-34) that Eli was rejected by G-d for unfaithfulness, which persisted even after he was warned by an unnamed prophet.
Also contradicting the Prophet's testimony that G-d chose Samuel in disregard of the natural succession of priests and elders, Rambam writes, "The Elders ordained others, who ordained their successors. Hence there was an uninterrupted succession of ordained judges..." (Mishneh Torah 4:1).
In short, the widely accepted teaching of an unbroken chain of Torah transmission throughout the generations of Israel is inconsistent with the teaching of the Prophets of Israel. Moreover, the testimony of that succession which is accepted today is a relatively late addition (12th c. CE), and its author is a philosopher/physician who was considered by some sages to be heretical in his day.
Far from preserving Torah, this teaching is an obstacle to receiving true Torah from the prophets. These prophets were sent by G-d centuries before the rabbis, to a people already led astray by her Torah teachers (see the introduction to this section). Their words are honored in theory but have been made unintelligible, its wisdom hidden from the people:
כי-נסך עליכם ה' רוח תרדמה ויעצם את-עיניכם את-הנביאים ואת-ראשיכם החזים כסה ותהי לכם חזות הכל כדברי הספר החתום אשר-יתנו אתו אל-יודע הספר לאמר קרא נא-זה ואמר לא אוכל כי חתום הוא ונתן הספר על אשר לא-ידע ספר לאמר קרא נא-זה ואמר לא ידעתי ספר
ויאמר אדני יען כי נגש העם הזה בפיו ובשפתיו כבדוני ולבו רחק ממני ותהי יראתם אתי מצות אנשים מלמדה לכן הנני יוסף להפליא את-העם-הזה הפלא ופלא ואבדה חכמת חכמיו ובינת נבניו תסתתר
For the L-RD has poured over you a spirit of deep sleep. He has shut your eyes, the prophets; and your heads, the seers, He has covered. And the vision of everything will be to you like the words of the sealed book, which they will give to the one who knows the Book, saying, "Please read this," and he will say, "I cannot, for it is sealed." Then the book will be given over to the one who does not know book-learning, saying, "Please read this." And he will say, "I don't know book-learning."
Then my Lord said, "Because this people draws near with its mouth and with its lips they honor Me, and its heart is far from Me, and their reverence [fear] of Me is a commandment of men who learned it; Therefore behold, I will again deal marvelously with this people, the wonder and a marvel; and the wisdom of their wise men will be lost, and the understanding of their discerning men will be hidden." - Isa.29:10-14.
The wisdom of sages who faithfully transmitted the true Torah from Sinai has been hidden and lost for generations, and Israel has starved as a result (Amos 8:11-12).
Today we see the legacy of that broken chain of Torah, which has further degraded from "commandments of men" to competing commandments of rival rabbis, which divide Torah-observant Jews into progressively smaller factions. An example is the annual dispute over whether or not the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee, a major source of Israel's drinking water) is kosher for Passover; major Poskim have declared contrary decisions, adding to the existing divisions arising from "kitniyot" (Ashkenazi Jews are forbidden legumes during Passover, while Sefardi Jews are permitted). To add to the confusion, top rabbinic sages are handing down halachic commands that are virtually impossible to keep, such as the declaration by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a former Chief Rabbi of Israel and the spiritual leader of the hareidi-Sephardic Shas party: “Whoever goes to a secular court must not be counted in a minyan.” The increase of conflicting voices and unrealistic "halacha" has given Torah a bad name among secular Jews, and caused sleepless nights among Jews trying to believe in the "unbroken chain from Sinai".
Paradoxically, this is a cause for rejoicing: our early sages predicted that one of the signs of the coming of Messiah would be the complete breakdown of the Torah chain. And this agrees with the continuation of Isaiah 29, where G-d promises that true Torah will again be heard and received:
ושמעו ביום-ההוא החרשים דברי-ספר ומאפל ומחשך עיני עורים תראינה
וידעו תעי-רוח בינה ורוגנים ילמדו-לקח
On that day the deaf will hear words of a book, and from gloom and darkness the eyes of blind people will see.... And those who err in spirit will know understanding, and complainers will learn instruction. - Isa.29:18, 24
3. The Oral Law (Torah she-ba'al peh) was handed down from Moses along with the Written Law.
There definitely is a body of oral commands that were not written in the books of Moses. We see glimpses of them throughout the Prophets (for example, Jer.17:2, which adds "bringing a load out of your house" to the list of Sabbath prohibitions), and even in the New Testament (1 Cor.14:34, where Paul refers to women keeping silent in the churches, "just as the Law also says").
There were several lapses in Israel's history when both the written and oral Torah were temporarily lost and then recovered, as we know from the Prophets (see the previous entry). So it's not honest to talk about an "unbroken chain of transmission". But with the advent of the scribes in the Second Temple period, a tradition developed to supercede the written Torah with oral commands.
The Pharisees (second-Temple sages and halachic guides for the people) added a great number of rulings on the finer points of Torah observance, some of which were proper, and some of which contradicted the spirit of Torah (see some examples of the latter in the New Testament, Matthew 23). To their credit, they still recognized the authority of contemporary prophets, angelic visitations, and G-d's intervention in their debates. These survived in the Talmudic comments featuring rabbis consulting with Eliyahu, and reporting declarations from the "Bat Kol" (a Voice from Heaven). But Yeshua prophesied that this respect for higher G-d-ordained authority would deteriorate; they would display hostility toward G-d's prophets (Matt.23:29-36), which would result in G-d's presence leaving their "house" (v.38). This can be understood to mean either the second Temple or the Pharisaic schools (known as the "house of Hillel" and the "house of Shammai").
On both counts, the fulfillment came within a generation, just as Yeshua said (v.36). The Talmud records that the Divine signs of forgiveness in the Temple at Yom Kippur began to fail in the 40 years between Yeshua's death and 70 CE. The Talmud also documents the rabbinic rejection of the Bat Kol in the "Oven of Akhnai" ruling, which involved rabbis who had witnessed the Temple's destruction. The Akhnai ruling has been used to declare the absolute supremacy of all rabbis over any prophet, even to the point of annulling the authority of Eliyahu himself to correct rabbinic decisions (Yevamot 102a, Avoda Zarah 36a).
This in effect tossed aside the last warning of the last acknowledged prophet in Jewish history, Malachi. There we are told that G-d will send Eliyahu to repair major damage in Israel in the last days, "...lest I [G-d] come and strike the land with a cherem." (Mal.4:24, Heb) Ironically, the rabbis themselves prophesied that in those days, their own sages would become corrupt.
The rabbinic declaration of independence from G-d's prophets set a new precedent that was to radically change the face of Judaism, especially during the Middle Ages. While paying lip-service to their predecessors, the rabbinic sages of later generations nullified earlier core teachings (for example, the divine nature of the Messiah). They also added alien teachings and practices, such as reincarnation, praying at graves, using divination and appealing to the dead for heavenly intercession. These departures from accepted Torah teaching caused splits in the Jewish community, but their questionable origins are largely suppressed in modern rabbinic circles (particularly the rejection of Rambam by contemporary rabbis).
4. The Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli) is the most authoritative source of rabbinic teaching.
The Babylonian Talmud (Mishnah and Gemara) had a counterpart written in the Land of Israel, known as the Palestinian or Jerusalem Talmud (though it was actually written in the Galilee). According to general rabbinic teaching, the Talmud Yerushalmi, which was redacted 200 years before the Bavli, should have been regarded as closer to the Source of Torah. Yet it was relegated to a distant second place for Torah study over the centuries, to the point where the rabbinic community did not bother to preserve it; by the 1500s, large portions had been lost, including the entire Kodashim tractate.
In general, the rabbinic community is not disturbed by the loss, and considers the Babylonian Talmud to be "the" Talmud. Whenever "Talmud" is discussed, it is the Babylonian version, and the Jewish community sponsors countless yeshivot for its study.
However, this historical choice is challenged by none other than the Talmud Bavli itself:
"He has placed me in the dark, like those that are long dead" (Ekha 3:6). R. Yirmiyah said, "This refers to the Talmud of Bavel."- Sanhedrin 24a
Rabbi Yirmiyah was born in Babylon and came to the Land of Israel as a young man. He was thus uniquely qualified to make comparisons between the Torah of Bavel and that of Eretz Yisrael. Upon hearing a certain explanation given in Bavel, he responded: "Those foolish Babylonians! It is because they dwell in a land of darkness that they make such dark (incorrect) statements!" (Pesahim 34b).
Rashi's commentary agrees: "When they [the Babylonian sages] do not know the true explanation for something, they come up with incorrect explanations."
The Maharal commented (Hidushei Agadoth) on the extremely convoluted and legalistic argumentation typical of the Babylonian Talmud, where one can almost always argue against any given point of view.
R. Yirmiyah's teacher, R. Zeira, was also originally from Bavel, and it is said that he fasted 100 fasts upon coming to Israel, to be able to forget "the learning of Bavel" (Bava Mezia 85a). Rashi says that this "learning" refers to the Babylonian Talmud.
Note that these criticisms are all found in the Babylonian Talmud. The sages of Babylon saw their wisdom as inferior to the Torah being taught in Israel at the time, and they often included opinions from their Israel-based colleagues (the sages of Israel did not often reciprocate).
"And the gold of that land is good' (Bereshit 2:12). There is no Torah like the Torah of Eretz Yisrael, and no wisdom like the wisdom of Eretz Yisrael." - Bereshit Raba 16:4
With the modern return to the Land of Israel, the Jerusalem Talmud has taken on greater relevance and popularity with rabbinical scholars. There are also rabbinic traditions that in the Messianic Age, the Jerusalem Talmud will finally take priority over the Babylonian version.
5. Rambam is the undisputed spokesman for Rabbinic Judaism.
Although today's rabbinic authorities hail him as a universally revered Torah giant, Maimonides (known as Rambam) was opposed by a number of his rabbinic peers, who considered some of his teachings heretical. This rejection met with an equivalent response from Rambam's disciples (for example, in 1232, R. Shelomo from Montpellier convinced the rabbis of Northern France to ban Rambam's works, which resulted in a counter-ban by Rambam's supporters).
Ramban (Nachmanides) highly esteemed Rambam's explanations of human matters, such as his Sefer Mada (discourse on science), Hilchot Teshuva (the Jewish view of repentance and humility) and his efforts to reconcile Torah with Muslim and Greek philosophy. But Ramban vigorously opposed his colleague's teachings about G-d, Messiah and Heavenly matters. While Judaism applauds Ramban's wisdom as a peacemaker in the above-mentioned clashes between Rambam's supporters and opponents, almost no one remembers that he recommended continuing the ban on Rambam's "Moreh Nevuchim" (Guide to the Perplexed).
Rambam's controversial teachings included:
1. The view that the Messiah is not authorized to correct the Halacha of the rabbis (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 9:1; Commentary to the Mishnah, Sanhedrin I, 3). This contradicted generations of teaching to the contrary.
2. The 13 Principles of Faith. These stirred up strong opposition when they first appeared, and they were largely ignored by the Jewish community for several hundred years. Specifically called into question was Rambam's rejection of G-d having any physical representation by which He appears to men. Contemporary rabbis saw this as a negation of plain Torah, which contains incidents of G-d being clothed with what appeared to be a human body when He made Himself visible to men. However, due to pressure from Christianity (which had used these passages to justify replacing Israel's G-d with Jesus Christ), many rabbis eventually reconciled themselves to Rambam's radical change of Jewish teaching.
3. A new teaching that G-d commanded the Torah sacrifices as a historical concession to the ancient world. Rambam was convinced that G-d would have preferred to eliminate this practice, but He understood that the people would be unable to abandon it, so He redirected the sacrificial customs to wean the people away from paganism (Moreh Nevuchim 3:32, 46). While the last statement was considered to have merit, Ramban and others were outraged at the dismissal of the elements of atonement and worship built into these laws. (And to this we might add that these sacrifices are termed "חוקת עולם", or "an eternal statute", which transcends any historical circumstance.)
4. The holiness of Hebrew being based on the fact that it has no words for genitals or urine (Moreh Nevuchim 3:8). Ramban rejected this as an overly rationalistic explanation that ignored the innate holiness of the words of Torah as proceeding from the mouth of G-d. Rambam seemed unaware of the fact that the Prophets did indeed contain words for urine and urinating (I Sam.25:22, 2 Kings 18:27, Isa.36:12).
5. The rejection of all angelic visits as having any basis in reality; they can only be dreams or visions (Moreh Nevuchim 2:42). This was strongly contested by Ramban and others, who cited Torah accounts of such encounters having physical effects. Interestingly, Maimonides was reviving a view held in the second Temple era by the Sadducees, the bitter opponents of the Pharisees (their strong disagreement on this issue was preserved not only in rabbinic writings but also in the New Testament - see Acts 23:8). By doing so, this rabbi rejected the rabbinic injunction to be faithful to the Torah passed down from these forerunners of rabbinic authority.
6. The rejection of the long-held Jewish belief that the world to come involves physically resurrected bodies that will live forever. Rambam called this belief "folly" (Ma'amar Tehiyyat Hametim, chap. 2). He taught that there will indeed be a bodily resurrection, but that such bodies would die again, since G-d would not violate the laws of nature. He also denied that the resurrection of the dead related to the Days of the Messiah, the reward of the righteous, or Olam HaBa in general. Many rabbis opposed him, citing generations of earlier sages who had taught differently.
7. The view that one cannot describe G-d in positive terms, but only as negatives. Rambam was devoted to the idea that G-d is absolutely unknowable, and he applied this in extreme ways. For example, one must not say "G-d is eternal", but rather, "G-d is not not-eternal". He also taught that one must not say "G-d is One", but rather, "G-d is not multiple". This is of course impossible to follow for Jews who fulfill the obligation to repeat the Shema twice daily (which explicitly and positively declares "ה' אחד"). And in fact Rambam himself quoted the Shema in the second of his 13 Principles of Faith and referred to G-d's "union" ("אחדות שאין כמוה"). Nevertheless, his exhortation is used to support later rabbinic teaching that "Echad" is not "a seamless union" but rather "a singular one" (making אחד equivalent in meaning to יחיד). Other rabbis preserved the original meaning of "Echad" as a union of diverse elements, and this idea survives today in Hassidic teaching.
These issues were considered so vital that the Jewish community eventually split and embraced two opposing streams of Torah teaching. In addition to Ramban, subsequent sages who rejected Rambam's teaching included R. Avraham ben David and the sages of Lunel, R. Yom Tov Ibn Ashbili (also known as Ritva), Abravanel, Hasdai Crescas (who rejected not only Rambam's take on the Kingdom of Heaven but his 13 Principles of Faith and his entire Aristotelian worldview) and R. Joseph Albo.
6. Praying at the grave of a Tsaddik is a holy act that finds favor with G-d.
This custom is especially strong, with the support of many sages throughout Jewish history. Yet we see Torah clearly speaking against the practice on several levels.
We are taught by Moshe Rebbenu that graves are unclean ("tameh") in the strongest sense - those who touch a grave need the ashes of the red heifer to rectify the uncleanness. Failure to be cleansed would result in being "cut off".
וכל אשר-יגע על-פני השדה בחלל-חרב או במת או-בעצם אדם או בקבר יטמא שבעת ימים
ואיש אשר-יטמא ולא יתחטא ונכרתה הנפש ההוא מתוך הקהל כי את-מקדש ה' טמא מי נדה לא-זרק עליו טמא הוא והיתה להם לחקת עולם
Anyone who in the open field touches one who has been slain with a sword or who has died naturally, or a human bone or a grave, shall be unclean for seven days....
But the man who is unclean and does not purify himself from uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly, because he has defiled the sanctuary of the L-RD; the waters for impurity have not been sprinkled on him, he is unclean. So it shall be a perpetual statute for them. - Num.19:16, 20-21
Note that this law is an everlasting one, and the offense is that it defiles the dwelling place of G-d (which v. 13 identifies as Israel). These are strong statements, which normally are not ignored by the rabbinic community.
There is a popular argument that a Tsaddik's grave is not unclean, in contrast to a normal grave; his spiritual dedication in life and the resulting merits enabled him to achieve a state of purity. However, this rabbinic explanation is undermined by another rabbinic command: to perform "netilat yadayim" (ritually wash the hands to remove uncleanness) when leaving any gravesite, including that of a Tsaddik. This custom is observed even in Safed where the Arizal (R. Isaac Luria) and the other great Kabbalists are buried.
While we sometimes come in contact with corpses and graves without being able to avoid it, or in order to honor the deceased at the time of burial, we would assume from the above Torah precept that casual contact with graves should be discouraged. Certainly there are precedents, such as the haredi prohibition against touching a woman who might possibly be "niddah" (unclean due to menstruation). This is a less serious uncleanness, which only requires washing clothes and being unclean until evening (see Lev.15:19), and yet elaborate precautions are taken to distance men from women (including those who couldn't possibly be niddah, like pregnant and elderly women). Observant Jews likewise go to extreme efforts to avoid eating or touching a pig, which is also "tameh" in this less urgent sense.
So why is the extreme uncleanness of contact with a grave ignored, and even encouraged? The Torah prohibition was probably suspended in order to address something seen as more pressing: the need for a mediator's help in obtaining answers from G-d (see the next entry).
7. Judaism has always taught that we don't need a mediator between ourselves and G-d.
Ironically, one of the most popular Jewish objections against trusting in Yeshua's atoning work is this declaration. The argument is that praying to G-d in the name and the merits of Yeshua of Nazareth constitutes idolatry, because it inserts someone between us and G-d.
First, the Torah is clear that Jews DO need a mediator between ourselves and G-d. We've had such mediators since Sinai, when we explicitly asked for one (Exod.20:19, Deut.5:24-27). The framework of the Tent of Meeting, and later the Temple service, ensured that no one would approach G-d directly, other than the high priest. There was restricted access to the holy place that even the kings could not ignore.
Second, Jewish practice shows that mediators are not a problem at all. The tradition of using a prominent rabbi or Tsaddik as a mediator between Jewish supplicants and G-d has been accepted throughout orthodox Judaism. The reasoning closely resembles the Catholic custom of praying to the "saints" for the same favors. The graves of R. Shimon bar Yochai, the "Ari" (R. Yitzhak Luria) and other departed sages are favorite places of prayer, where Jews petition the deceased tsaddik's spirit to use his merit and intercede with G-d regarding a mate, a pregnancy, wisdom, healing or other blessings.
Yet the Torah commands us not to ask favors of the deceased, and the command shows no regard for the kind of life they lived. In fact, G-d lists it among the "detestable things" done by the idolatrous nations:
כי אתה בא אל-הארץ אשר-ה' אלהיך נתן לך לא-תלמד לעשות כתועבת הגוים ההם לא-ימצא בך מעביר בנו-ובתו באש קסם 'קסמים מעונן ומנחש ומכשף וחבר חבר ושאל אוב וידעני ודרש אל-המתים כי-תועבת ה' כל-עשה אלה ובגלל התועבת האלה ה אלהיך מוריש אותם מפניך
When you come to the land which the L-RD your God gives you, you shall not learn to do as the detestable things of those nations. There shall not be found among you one who passes his son or his daughter through the fire, one who uses magic, seeks omens, practices divination, uses witchcraft, who bonds with a 'friend' spirit, or who consults [lit, asks] a departed spirit, or one who casts a spell, or one who inquires of [lit, seeks to] the dead. For everyone who does these things is detestable to the L-RD, and because of these detestable things the L-RD your God is displacing them before you. - Deut.18:9-12
To understand the strength of this Torah violation in the orthodox community, it is instructive to look at the respected Torah group Chabad, which used the 15th anniversary of Rabbi Shneerson's death (25/june/09) to cite this "age-old tradition", and invited Jews to use their deceased leader's intercessory services:
Chabad acknowledges that one should "direct his prayers only to G-d, and not to any other entity..." but sees no contradiction in collecting prayer requests "for the Rebbe".
The Torah prohibition against seeking help from the dead would apply to any location and under any circumstance, and would certainly includes a gravesite, whiich transmits a stronger uncleanness than menstruating women or pigs. Implicit here is the forbidden act of adding to a Torah precept (Deut.4:2), by declaring certain graves "clean" due to the reputation of the one buried there. Instead of Torah support, Chabad simply cites a long human tradition that condones it:
...the resting place of a righteous person is considered hallowed ground, a place where ones supplication [sic] to the Almighty are heard in the merit of the holy soul connected with this place. Gravesites such as Mother Rachel's and King David's, referred to in the Bible and Talmud, have provided solace to millions. During the Rebbe's lifetime, he would frequent the gravesite of his father-in-law, the sixth Rebbe (Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn) two, three, four, sometimes even six times a week, bringing peoples troubles and prayer-requests to the holy resting place.... Jews and non-Jews from all walks of life come from around the world to the Rebbe's gravesite for blessing, spiritual guidance and inspiration.
The burning question is, why is this custom of appealing for help to designated dead people so persistent in the Torah community, when it is so clearly forbidden in Torah? We have a clue as we continue to read Deut. 18:
כי הגוים האלה אשר אתה יורש אותם אל-מעננים ואל-קסמים ישמעו ואתה לא כן נתן לך ה' אלהיך נביא מקרבך מאחיך כמני יקים לך ה' אלהיך אליו תשמעון
For those nations which you will dispossess listen to seekers of omens and to magicians; but as for you, the L-RD your God has not given you such. [Rather,] a prophet from among you, from your brothers, like me [Moshe], will the L-RD your God raise up for you - to him shall you listen. - v.14-15
It was clear that G-d meant for Israel to seek out His prophet for wisdom, blessings and intercessory help. This was followed by the righteous leaders of Israel (Hezekiah - 2 Kings 19, Josiah - 2 Kings 22). At the end of Moshe's life, that was expanded to also include the high priest (Num.27:21), and this was a means that David often used to inquire of G-d. All other means are "detestable" to Him ("to'avah").
The destruction of the Temple ended the availability of a priest with the oracles by which to inquire of G-d. When the rabbis took the initiative to declare the Bat Kol and prophecy ended as well (in the disasterous "Oven of Akhnai" ruling), they closed off the only other avenue by which a Torah Jew can inquire of G-d. It's no wonder that the Jewish people, who were left with nothing, began resorting to the pagan methods of "inquiring" from dead people thought to be close to G-d.
As a result, post-Temple Judaism sanctioned, and even urged, earnest Jews to appeal to the departed Tsaddikim for help in obtaining something from G-d, as recorded in the Shulchan Aruch:
Supplications are made to exhort the tzaddikim there [at the grave] to intercede for us on the day of judgement. However, we do not direct our prayers toward the dead who rest there; rather, we implore G-d to have mercy on us for their sake. - Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 128:13
Since a cemetery is the place where the righteous rest, prayers are more readily acceptable there. Circle the grave and give charity before saying the supplications. - Shulchan Aruch I, 581:4 with Mishna Brurah 27
The Jewish defense of this practice as "recommended" is found in Kabbalistic and halachic circles alike. For the former, see the explanation posted by a Kabbalistic teaching center in Israel, which cites the rabbinic passages, along with teachings of prominent rabbis; the writer warns against "praying to the dead" but denies the Torah verdict of uncleanness for graves. For the latter, see a mainstream orthodox site, which discusses the Talmud's recommendation (Ta'anit 16a) of "asking the dead to pray for mercy on our behalf"; the writer claims there is a difference between "consulting with" them (forbidden) and asking them for intercessory help (recommended).
In short, the departed sages are approached in the same way that followers of Yeshua are urged to approach Him for intercession (Heb.4:15-16).
But there are some differences that impact our Torah observance. Yeshua's followers have the benefit of recorded testimony that G-d raised Him bodily from the dead and seated Him next to the Heavenly Throne, the place which the sages taught is reserved for Messiah. As a result, there is no need for those seeking Yeshua's mediation before G-d to have contact with a grave, since He is not buried. Nor is there a danger of transgressing the Torah prohibition against consulting with a dead person, since He is very much alive.
8. The study of Torah will bring us spiritual cleansing and knowledge of G-d.
We can realize that we need to begin a process of "teshuva" - spiritual return and renewal, and as a first step, we need to stop polluting our minds and our souls. But how can we cleanse ourselves from those impurities which are already rooted within us? The pronouncement of our hearts as incurably wicked is not a Christian concept but a Jewish one (Gen.6:5, Jer.17:9, Ps.14:2-3).
The standard Jewish answer is represented in "Tanna D'vei Eliyahu", a midrashic work referred to in the Talmud, which claims to be teachings from Elijah the Prophet which were revealed to Rabbi Anan (a scholar in 3rd c. Babylon). This midrashic work states that the study of Torah can cleanse us from our impurities:
Come and see how great is the power of Torah, for it purifies the transgressors of Israel when they do teshuvah, even from idolatry, as it states, 'I will sprinkle pure water upon you, that you may become cleansed; I will cleanse you from all your contamination and from all your idols' (Ezekiel 36:25). And 'water' refers to Torah.... In addition, 'purity' refers to the words of Torah, as it states, 'The words of the Compassionate One are pure words' (Psalm 12:7). - Tanna D'vei Eliyahu 18:78
However, this prophecy from Ezekiel 36 as quoted above is incomplete. Stopping G-d in the middle of His declaration was the only way someone could come to the conclusion that sprinkling alone is enough. Here we see that it's only the beginning - the preparation for receiving a new heart and His Spirit within us. Here is the entire promise from G-d:
Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. - Ezek.36:25-27
The "water" used for this "sprinkling" is indeed Torah, but Ezekiel implies that only G-d can apply Torah in a way that will cleanse us. If we could "sprinkle" ourselves just by studying Torah, He would never have to say that He will do the sprinkling. He would simply command us to sprinkle ourselves.
And why is our relationship to Torah mentioned only at the end of this process? Contrary to seeing "how great is the power of Torah", we see its LACK of power here. The message of Ezekiel is that the sprinkling with Torah will cleanse us from filthiness and idols, but it will not change our hearts or spirits. Even when performed by G-d Himself, our exposure to Torah is not strong enough to "remove the heart of stone"; it requires an additional act of G-d. Several additional acts, in fact: an exchange of spirit, and then receiving His own Spirit.
The ultimate truth here is that until we share G-d's very Nature via His own Spirit, we will NOT "walk in" His statutes or "be careful to observe" His ordinances.
A connection is made in the above midrash between Ezekiel 36 and Isa. 55:1, "Ho! Every one who thirsts, come to the waters" (comparing cleansing from impurity with quenching thirst). But Ezekiel is only talking about a sprinkling. A sprinkle of water will not quench thirst - it will only drive a thirsty person crazy!
But using this same imagery of thirst, Isaiah talks about G-d giving us more than a sprinkle, and with a much stronger thing than Torah:
For I will POUR out water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out My SPIRIT on your offspring, and My blessing on your descendants. - Isa. 44:3
It is the same gift promised in Ezekiel - His Spirit. And again He is the One who takes action, after saying "Do not fear..." (v.2).
"Tanna D'vei Eliyahu" also compares Torah to a "mikveh" - a body of natural, purifying waters (18:77). The Chofetz Chaim (a leading sage of the late 19th and early 20th centuries) explains that just as one has to immerse oneself in the mikveh in order be purified, so too, when one studies Torah, one must also immerse oneself in this study in order to be purified (Chofetz Chaim - A Lesson a Day, Day 166).
The teaching goes on to link a messianic prophecy to the "purifying knowledge of Torah...'For the earth will be filled with knowledge of G-d as water covering the sea bed' (Isaiah 11:9)."
The equation of "knowledge of Torah" with "knowledge of G-d" is a human idea not supported in the context. Isaiah 11 never even mentions Torah as a vehicle for knowing G-d. On the contrary, this blessed state of affairs is brought about by the direct activity of Messiah, "the root of Yeshai" (Isa.11:1, 10), who is Himself filled with "The SPIRIT of knowledge and the fear of the L-RD." (v.2) Once again, it is not "Torah" but "Spirit" that fills the earth with the knowledge of G-d.
From centuries of Jewish experience, we know that "knowledge of Torah" doesn't automatically bring "knowledge of G-d". Our human understanding of Torah is only enough to recognize Him, and to turn from our idols. However, it is reasonable to conclude the opposite: that "knowledge of G-d" will indeed bring about "knowledge of Torah". It is His Spirit who actually teaches us Torah. And there is a reason why we as a people keep missing this truth:
We have set up an idol which we seek in place of His Spirit. Torah is FROM G-d and ABOUT G-d, but Torah is NOT G-d.
Tanach tells us to know G-d. The Torah and Prophets point to G-d as the source of our life. Yet Jewish wisdom tells us:
Just as water is life for all human beings, so too, Torah is life for all human beings. - Tanna D'vei Eliyahu 18:74
G-d alone is "Life for all human beings"! He is "the Mikveh of Israel" and "the source of Living Water" (Jer.17:13 - Heb.) for the Jews and for the world. The minute we try to make Torah our source of Life instead of Him, we have set up an idol.
We call Torah "a tree of life", borrowing from Prov.3:18 ("She [wisdom] is a tree of life to those who take hold of her, And happy are all who hold her fast."). But what does that mean? Other things are also called "a tree of life": deeds of the righteous (Prov.11:30), fulfilled desire (Prov.13:12), a soothing tongue (Prov.15:4). It simply means that they are good for sustaining and nurturing Life. Dead people cannot benefit from a tree full of good fruit, no matter how nourishing it is. These things have no power to give Life, either physical or spiritual. Only G-d gives Life.
This is an error that goes all the way back to Yeshua's day:
You [the scribes] search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life. - Jn. 5:39
This would be an idolatrous statement, if Yeshua had come on His own authority. But He continually glorified G-d as the One who gave Him the power and the command to say such things (Jn.5:19, 5:43, 8:28, 8:54, 12:28, 17:1). And as we saw in Isaiah 11, G-d informs us that Messiah does have the power to give knowledge of G-d through the Spirit of G-d that is placed in Him. G-d is the One who creates Life in us, through the Messiah.
So in the end, our people are spiritual water experts who are dying of thirst and cannot admit it.
The only known Source of G-d's Lifegiving Water is one that the experts among us long ago declared a poisoned well. It's a decision that we dare not reverse. Not because the Source was tested and proven to be polluted, but because we would have to admit that our colleagues of old, for all their research on Water, could not recognize good Water when they saw it (and what would that mean for all of our expertise that was built on theirs...?).
So we would rather die than drink. And to our dying day, we will insist that we're not thirsty, and anyone who points to our symptoms of dehydration will be denounced as insulting our long history of being the world authorities on water.
Thirsty, and ready to admit it? You can access the Source and test it for yourself. Anyone can recognize G-d when he "tastes" Him (Psalm 34:8 - v.9 in Heb). It is not a skill reserved for a special elite group of tsaddikim or hachamim, but for those humble enough to go to G-d's "leper Messiah" in order to receive Life.
'If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his belly will flow rivers of living water.' But this He spoke concerning the SPIRIT, whom those believing in Him would receive. - Jn. 7:37-38
What about the original question of cleansing? Once we have the Spirit of G-d within us, our own spirits become aware of an inner purity that His new Life has brought us. The tremendous fulfillment and peace is the result of a thirst finally quenched.... and the understanding that this inner purity is not the result of our own spiritual achievements - it emanates from Him continually, just as a Mikveh constantly cleanses those who enter it with "living water" from an outside source .
And because G-d does not change, we can rest in His work and have His Life in us forever. This is the spiritual Shabbat for which we pray every Shabbat:
הרחמן, הוא ינחילנו יום שכלו שבת ומנוחה לחיי העולמים
"The Merciful One, He will cause us to inherit a day that is completely Shabbat, and rest for everlasting life." - Birkat HaMazon for Shabbat
For many generations, this was the public position of orthodox Judaism. But it denies its own history, as well as current events. Go here for some of the statements by earlier sages on Satan and on hell (Gehenna). Regarding demons and demon possession, here is a recent example of a rabbinic exorcism attempt ("Rabbi Batzri: 'Get Out Dibuk!'", Yeshiva World News, 7/jan/10).
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