Restored Torah:

Putting the pieces together in the Messiah


How to Read Torah through Jewish Eyes

An Introduction

There are basic differences in the way the Scriptures are read, interpreted and taught in the Jewish Torah-scholar (rabbinic) community, as compared with the Christian Biblical-scholar (seminary) community. 

It is important for believers to recognize that the rabbinic interpretations taken straight from the Tanach (Torah, Prophets, Writings; or "Old Testament") are not necessarily "mental gymnastics" or "abuse of Scripture". On the contrary, they are extracted using the same methods that the Messiah Yeshua and His apostles used in reading and teaching from the Tanach (as we will see in specific examples).  In fact, learning to read the Scriptures as they did tends to unlock previously mystifying verses in the New Testament.

Following are the main assumptions behind the Jewish approach to Scripture study, which often cause problems and misunderstanding among those who are uninformed about the Biblical support for these.

1. Every word and every letter of the Hebrew Scriptures is significant.

In the Jewish understanding of Scripture, there is no such thing as repetition for its own sake.  That is, if a word or phrase is repeated, there is something new being conveyed; it is not simply the same thing said over again for emphasis (which can be eliminated without losing anything). Therefore, Jewish scholars search repeating elements more closely to discover what is different between the two (or more) cases, and what G-d was saying in each occurrence.

This principle is extended even to the individual letters in the Hebrew text, every one of which is meaningful. Although it was taught clearly by Yeshua,[1] and confirmed by Paul,[2] such an approach is viewed with skepticism in the Christian world. Christian Bible translators and evangelical scholars generally make no use of the Hebrew Scriptures as a source of truth at the word-level or letter-level of inspiration,[3] and few expect unique interpretations from repeated words or phrases.  Even if they wished to do so, the level of Hebrew and the kind of logic required are not usually taught in Bible schools or seminaries.[4]

2. The Hebrew Scriptures have an innate ambiguity.

Up until around the 9th century AD (the advent of the Masoretic Text), the Hebrew words in the Scriptures lacked vowels.   More than that, the sentences in the Hebrew Scriptures had no capital letters, commas, apostrophes, question marks, quotation marks, exclamation marks, or semicolons.  Neither were there verse or chapter divisions.  There were not even regular periods, but rather something like a paragraph marker. As a result, there is a great deal of ambiguity built into the natural Hebrew text.[5]  The Hebrew also contained marginal notes on words that are spelled one way for reading aloud (), while the original spelling is kept intact in the text itself for study purposes (); these are preserved in today's mass-produced copies of the Hebrew Bible.

The Masoretic "nikud" or "pointing" (vowels, punctuations, verse/chapter divisions and other additions) do not appear in the scrolls of the Torah or Prophets; the "ba'al koreh" (public reader in the synagogue) learns the pronunciation by rote and applies it as he reads the Hebrew aloud to the congregation.

3. The ambiguity in Hebrew Scripture was intentional, and inspired by G-d.

The rabbinic teaching, supported by Yeshuas declaration,[1] is that this textual condition is not a detriment that needs to be fixed, but a fluidity by which G-d spoke - and still speaks - to many situations and on different levels, through one given passage. This principle is known in Jewish tradition as "The 70 Faces of Torah" (applied to the Prophets as well).  Therefore, the written text itself is inspired, not just one specific idea expressed in the written words. 

4. All possibilities in the unpointed Hebrew text should be explored, and can be taught.

The purpose of the Masoretic "nikud" was not to limit the ambiguity, but to provide uniformity in public reading throughout the Diaspora.  The unpointed Hebrew text is studied by Jewish scholars under the assumption that the Holy Spirit endowed it with various levels of intentional multiple meanings. All reasonable possibilities in meaning are considered legitimate and are required study for the complete understanding of the Scriptures.

5. Contradictory meanings are viewed as further proof of Divine involvement.

There is no attempt to try to determine a single original or correct or "best" meaning of a passage, but rather to study its various possible meanings, also in connection with related passages in other contexts.  This approach is also applied to Scriptural prophecies (which in Jewish understanding can have multiple contexts and multiple fulfillments).

When these possibilities appear to conflict with one another,[6] it does not provoke doubt or confusion, but rather celebration of the truth that G-d's thoughts and ways are deeper than our own, and a renewed effort to comprehend the mystery represented by the paradox He is presenting. 

The serenity of the Jewish response to Scriptural contradictions may seem strange to the Christian believer, whose approach to "scriptural difficulties" is to seek a resolution of the "problem".[7]  Yet the Jewish view is based on the assumption is that such quandaries mark the Scriptures as revelation from G-d.  Indeed, if everything in the Scriptures were comprehensible to the human mind, it would imply that they were merely a work of human literature.

6. Translations are not adequate for in-depth Scripture study.

As a result of the Christian approach mentioned above, the built-in ambiguity of the Hebrew text is generally regarded by Bible translators as a "difficulty to resolve" in the translation process. The average translation will pass on only a single layer of meaning, usually the pshat (or surface message) of the Hebrew text.  A "study Bible" may give one more alternate reading (listed in the margin) for an occasional word that is especially obvious in its ambiguity, or that has a Messianic application in the New Testament. An "amplified study Bible" may try to give a few more alternate readings of selected phrases deemed to be significant by the editors.   But a translation cannot afford to include alternative meanings for entire passages, much less many of the figurative meanings or word-plays found in the Hebrew.

For this reason, the Hebrew Scriptures are studied by Jewish scholars mainly through the Hebrew original (with the freedom to ignore the "nikud"), and with special attention paid to unusual and unexpected words and spellings.  Key Hebrew words that appear in seemingly unrelated passages are also noted and explored.  Many of these "keys" disappear in translations, which assign the same Hebrew word different meanings in different contexts.

7. Oral traditions are necessary for in-depth Scripture study.

This is the area most often abused by the rabbinic community, and there are ample cases of oral traditions and customs becoming so important that they distort or cancel what the Scriptures actually say.  This fleshly tendency to elevate "Torah sheh-ba'al peh" above the written Torah and Prophets dates all the way back to Yeshua's day, and He condemned those who taught Torah from that perspective.[8]

But Yeshua and His disciples distinguished between legitimate and illegitimate oral Law,[11] and they supported the former in their conduct [9] and teaching.[10]  There are New Testament events that actually rely on oral tradition for legitimacy.[9]  In fact, some apostolic comments are unintelligible [12] without a knowledge of the relevant Jewish (extra-biblical or oral) tradition.


LINKED NOTES:

1: This principle [of no repetition] is extended even to the individual letters in the Hebrew text, every one of which is meaningful. Although it was taught clearly by Yeshua....   The rabbinic teaching, supported by Yeshuas declaration, is that this textual condition is not a detriment that needs to be fixed...

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matt. 5:18)

But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail. (Luke 16:17)

And He said to them, O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!.... Now He said to them, These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled. (Luke 24:25, 44)

2:  This principle [of no repetition] is extended even to the individual letters in the Hebrew text, every one of which is meaningful. Although it was taught clearly by Yeshua, and confirmed by Paul...

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness. (2 Tim. 3:16)

3:  Christian Bible translators and evangelical scholars generally make no use of the Hebrew Scriptures as a source of truth at the word-level or letter-level of inspiration...

This is primarily because textual criticism has led us to the understanding that if word-for-word inspiration did exist, it was only for the original autographs or handwritten documents, which no longer exist. Since then (this theory goes), scribal errors have corrupted the text in various ways, resulting in Scriptures that in many cases cannot be relied on even at the level of words and phrases.

Unexpected or unusual letters, phasing, and word use in the Hebrew text are therefore viewed as various kinds of errors that were blindly "sanctified" and copied slavishly by later generations of more fastidious and credulous scribes. Or, the anomalies are attributed to obsolete (and now unintelligible) Hebrew expressions or words.

Those who are familiar with the textual history of the Hebrew Scriptures know that these phenomena were also known in the days of Yeshua and Paul.  By that time, the written Scriptures, complete with the above-mentioned oddities, had already been noted many generations earlier. The historian Josephus (1st cent. CE) mentions authoritative texts kept in the second Temple in Jerusalem for reference and copying, and Bible scholars note that there were multiple "authoritative" variants.  The few deliberate changes made by Jewish scribes to the ancient texts, known as ( "Tikkun Sofrim"), are mentioned in Tannaitic sources, along with the original wordings. 

Christian scholars who rely on the "original autographs" as the only "inspired Scriptures" are not willing to credit the Messiah with enough awareness of the textual situation in His day to seriously follow the implications of what He said, or else they assume that He was using exaggeration for emphasis and did not really mean that we are to learn even from individual letters in the text.  They do the same with what Paul said about the "unoriginal" Scriptures of his day.

4:  ...the level of Hebrew and the kind of logic required are not taught in Bible schools or seminaries.

Recognizing unusual Hebrew word usage, unexpected verb forms, and optional letters requires a level of fluency and Hebrew thinking which is rare outside of the rabbinic or Israeli environments. The interpretations derived from this level of study also go against the logical rules of Biblical interpretation that the average Western seminary student is taught.

5:  ...there is a great deal of ambiguity built into the natural Hebrew text.

Since there are no vowels in the original Tanach, and since basic Hebrew words are mostly three or four letters long, and since prefixes and suffixes are usually only one or two letters, nearly all Hebrew vocabulary is expressed in relatively short strings of letters. As a result, most Hebrew letter combinations of normal word length have at least one meaning, and a great many Hebrew words have not just multiple meanings, but also multiple ways of being read as words.

As an illustration, consider the English letters bl. If we imagine this to be an English word with no written vowels, it could be read bale, bile, blue, boil, bawl, bole, bowl, "bell", and even able and ably.

6:  When these possibilities appear to conflict with one another, it does not provoke doubt or confusion...

Perhaps the best-known example of this Jewish response is the seeming contradiction between the prophecies about a suffering Messiah (who would die for the nation) and a reigning Messiah (who would live forever).  Rather than choose one "correct" or "best" interpretation, as Christian scholars tend to do with Scriptural contradictions, the rabbinic teaching embraced both and offered scenarios that might cover all the prophecies (such as two Messiahs). 

Another example is the historical rabbinic acceptance of Isaiah 53 as referring to the suffering Messiah and to the suffering nation of Israel, without seeing the need for one view to cancel the other. Multiple fulfillment of a prophecy is an accepted Jewish teaching. The teaching of the sages about this particular prophecy, however, became suppressed over the last few centuries, and the standard (publicly discussed) Jewish interpretation today maintains that Isaiah 53 refers only to Israel.

7: The serenity of the Jewish response to Scriptural contradictions may seem strange to the Christian believer, whose approach to "scriptural difficulties" is to seek a resolution of the "problem".

This Jewish principle is known as   ("gam zeh v'gam zeh hu davar HaShem", "both This and This are the Word of G-d").  It not only tolerates apparent contradictions but celebrates them as "two sides of the coin" or "different parts of the elephant".  It is based on a dialectic kind of logic that clashes with the rules of syllogism (for example, "A and B are not compatible; it's clearly A, so it cannot be B") which form the basis of Western logic, and of Christian Scripture study.  As a result, Christians are taught to choose only one side in a Scriptural "contradiction", and to ignore prophecies after their first fulfillment.

8:  This fleshly tendency to elevate "Torah sheh-ba'al peh" above the written Torah and Prophets dates all the way back to Yeshua's day, and He condemned those who taught Torah from that perspective.

"And He answered and said to them, 'And why do you also transgress the commandment of G-d for the sake of your tradition?... You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, "This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men."'" (Matt.15:3, 7-9)

9:  Yeshua and His disciples distinguished between legitimate and illegitimate oral Law, and they supported the former in their conduct and teaching....    There are New Testament events that rely on oral tradition for legitimacy.

"...and they [the apostles in Jerusalem] said to him [Paul], 'You see, brother, how many ten-thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs... Therefore do this that we tell you... and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law." (Acts 21:20-24) 

The act the Jerusalem elders suggested to Paul (see v.24) was a practice found only in Oral Torah ("the customs"). The written Torah concerning Nazarites who were concluding their vows (Num.6:13-ff) said nothing about allowing a third party to "be purified along with them" or to "pay their expenses"; yet this was chosen as a public demonstration that Paul "kept the Law".

"...he [Paul] called together those who were the leading men of the Jews [in Rome], and when they had come together, he began saying to them, 'Brethren, though I had done nothing against our people, or the customs of our forefathers, yet I was delivered prisoner from Jerusalem...'" (Acts 28:17)

Paul is referring here to the above-mentioned demonstration of his faithfulness to the Law, which he had been in the process of carrying out when he was interrupted.  The riot was ironically provoked by the same false accusations he was trying to debunk (see Acts 21:28).

10:  Yeshua and His disciples distinguished between legitimate and illegitimate oral Law, and they supported the former in their conduct and teaching.

"And they put forward false witnesses who said, 'This man [Stephen] incessantly speaks against this holy place, and the Law, for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Yeshua, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us.'" (Acts 6:13-14)

Notice that the New Testament declares such a report to be from "false witnesses". Compare this testimony about Stephen with those who preach the gospel today, who really do teach that Yeshua "altered the customs which Moses handed down" to Israel.

11:  Yeshua and His disciples distinguished between legitimate and illegitimate oral Law...

"Then Yeshua spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying, 'The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds, for they say, and do not do.'" (Matt.23:1-3)

Yeshua acknowledges the legitimacy of "the chair of Moses", which is shorthand for the authority to formulate oral Law ("customs" and "traditions") as requested by the people, based on Deut.17:8-11.  He then goes on (v.3-ff) to point out illegitimate cases of customs and traditions handed down by them.  To the extent that any rabbis remained faithful to the customs of the Pharisees, He gave us a guideline here to determine the limits of their halachic authority.

12:  In fact, some apostolic comments are unintelligible without a knowledge of the relevant Jewish (extra-biblical or oral) tradition.

An example is Paul's command to the Corinthian church: "Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says." (I Cor.14:34)  Where does "the Law say" this?


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