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Dear R. T.,
I welcome the opportunity to respond to your writings for a number of reasons. Firstly, friendship requires that we speak our minds sincerely to one another and I know that we can do that in a manner that is sensitive and respectful to each other and our respective faiths. Secondly, as people of faith, we are seekers of truth and thus where we believe that the truth may be tarnished or misconstrued we have an obligation to say so.
However, I believe the most important reason for developing this dialogue is our very relationship. I don't mean just you and me, but that the relationship between Jews and Christians is something special-or at least should be. As the Jewish theologian Martin Buber put it, "We share a book and that's no small thing." I would even go so far as to say that there is a divine plan and purpose in our very differences, but perhaps it's too early for us to be talking about that. For starters, it is surely enough for us to acknowledge that we both see the Hebrew Bible-that you call the Old Testament-as the revealed Word of God. The very fact that we share such a bond with this text of divine revelation places us in a special relationship with one another and requires not only a level of communication, honesty, and lovethat tragically has been so lacking down the course of history but surely behooves us to work together for the values we share.
At the heart of these values are of course the Ten Commandments, one of which is the prohibition against bearing false testimony. Almost two thousand years of separation between Christians and Jews has tragically led to much pain and suffering. Thank God, most of this is behind us. Nevertheless some of the effects of the past still remain with us and even continue to lead people to unwittingly bear false witness against others. There is, of course, not just one culprit in this sin, but I greatly welcome the opportunity to tell you, your followers and readers, of how I see continued false testimony against my faith and people being maintained among many good Christians today. Let me reiterate that I do not suspect that this is generally intentional (otherwise I wouldn't call them good Christians)-and certainly not in your case, as I know your love for the Jewish people is sincere. The source of this false witness lies precisely in the historic break between the early Christians and the Jewish community from which they came and has been compounded in the course of time. The result is that not only do we know far too little about one another, we often have no idea how each one sees him- or herself even in contemporary terms, let alone historical ones.
So the first thing that I think I need to do is to tell you how I see myself and where I come from. I see myself as part of the people descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (also known as Israel), with whom God made a covenant that was ratified at Mount Sinai with their descendants, the children of Israel. This covenant is an expression of God's everlasting commitment to the children of Israel to be an instrument of His purpose, testifying to His presence in the life and history of humanity. This testimony may take different forms, but ideally it should be through living a way of life as "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exod. 19:6). To this end the children of Israel were given a "road map" at Mount Sinai that we call the Torah. Indeed, as important as it was to find their way to the promised land, it was far more important to follow the course of religioethical living that was revealed to them at Mount Sinai. Ideally they would live this way of life in the promised land. In fact they were told at Sinai that their ability to live securely in the land was precisely contingent upon following this "road map" of life and that if we failed we would be exiled from it. Nevertheless we were reassured that God would always bring us back again (Lev. 26:44-45).
Jewish tradition maintains that all the teachings in the Torah-that is, the five books of Moses also known as the Pentateuch-were revealed at Mount Sinai, not just the Ten Commandments. Most Orthodox Jews like me accept this tradition. Others see the Sinai revelation as having contained an essence from which the other precepts flowed.
However, as anyone who is familiar with the Pentateuch knows, it contains hundreds of commandments. According to Jewish tradition, 613 to be precise. Of course a large proportion of these relate to the temple: its construction, the offerings that took place within it, its maintenance, and matters of ritual purity connected with its function. In addition many of the commandments are conditional-even being dependent upon failure to fulfill others. For example the commandment allowing divorce (Deut. 24:1) is of course conditional on the failure of a marriage. Or more dramatically, the commandment to lighten the load of your enemy's donkey (Exod. 23:5) implies that one has already desecrated another commandment, for if one loved one's neighbor as oneself (Lev. 19:18), one wouldn't have an enemy in the first place-and one could go on and on. In other words, a far smaller number of commandments are practically relevant to the average person's daily life.
Nevertheless for the believing Jew, following these divine directions means living according to God's will and way. These precepts were revealed to us not only for our good, for our life (Deut. 30:15-16), but through following them we come close to God, to know and love Him (Deut. 6:5-6, 10:12-13, 11:22).
However many of them are communicated in shorthand. For example, we are told to "remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy" (Exod. 20:8). What does "holy" actually mean? How do we go about achieving that goal? According to Jewish tradition, when the Almighty revealed His written Word to Moses for the children of Israel, the meaning was explained. The explanations and clarifications of the Written Torah are known in Jewish tradition as the Oral Torah. And indeed the ongoing process of clarifying their application in changing times and conditions is part of its eternal vitality. Religious Jews have traditionally understood that the practice and study of the Written and Oral Torah are the way of life that God requires of them; that this is the source of the joy and beauty in their lives and is the secret of their survival.
Now, R. T., I am about to enter the historic context that is the focus of your faith: the Second Temple period two thousand years ago in the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Already by then much had happened to the children of Israel. The ten tribes of Israel in the northern part of the land had been conquered by the Assyrians and were lost to the southern tribes who were known by the name of the dominant tribe Judah (from which of course come the names Judea and Jew). Then Judea was conquered by the Babylonians, Solomon's temple was destroyed, but the Jews survived the cataclysm. The Persians let us return, the temple was rebuilt, but then we were subsequently subjugated by the Greeks and then the Romans. The result of all these comings and goings and various cultural influences was that by the time Rome ruled in the Middle East, the Jewish people was more diverse than ever.
Our main historic source for that period of time is Josephus, who describes four primary groups of Jews who were active at the time: Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and Zealots.
The Essenes and the Zealots represented different reactions to the effects of oppressive Roman rule. The first of these chose to withdraw from general society, which was seen as corrupt and degenerate, and to prepare themselves for the end of the society that God would destroy and replace with one in their image. The Zealots believed that what God wanted was for them to take up arms to defeat the pagan Romans notwithstanding the latter's physical might. However, the two mainstream groups among the Jewish people were the Sadducees and the Pharisees.
The purpose of all the historical retrospective that I have given is to explain to you now how generations of Jews over almost two millennia have viewed these two groups.
As Josephus records, the politically dominant group that was the usual address for the Roman authorities and often served as their surrogate was the Sadducees. They were made up of dominant priestly families who controlled the temple and wealthy segments of society, who felt themselves to be part and parcel of Roman culture as well.
Now there are scholars who view the Pharisees as having been a separatist group, but our traditional view has been that these were the teachers of Jewish tradition, our rabbis and their followers. We have seen them as the heirs of the prophets of Israel and as those who maintained the devotion not only to the Written but also to the Oral Torah. Indeed the historic evidence makes it clear that one of the main distinctions between the Pharisees and Sadducees was the attitude toward the Oral Tradition. The Sadducees saw this as unnecessary expansion of the Written Torah, which they took much more literally.
But there were many other distinctions, not least of all the overwhelming focus of the Sadducees on the temple service as the key to God's favor. While the temple was of course an important institution for the Pharisees, they taught-in keeping with the prophets of Israel-that what is most important is one's personal relationship with God and one's relationship with one's neighbor, wherever one may be. As a result, after the rebellion against Rome by the Zealots, the Roman destruction of the temple and Jerusalem, and the Roman exile of large segments of the Jewish population, the Sadducees, just as the Essenes and the Zealots, all disappeared. The only group amongst those to which Josephus refers that could survive political failure, the destruction of the temple, and exile was the group that nurtured the knowledge and practice of the Written and Oral Tradition as the divine purpose of Jewish existence wherever we lived.
The bottom line is that Jewish tradition for most of the last two thousand years viewed the Pharisees as the rabbis of our heritage, heirs of the prophets and biblical tradition, the teachers of authentic Judaism as enshrined in the Talmud- the religion of the Jews as it has been practiced and known until modern times.
Therefore, in the perception of most religious Jews today, to denigrate the Pharisees is in fact to denigrate Judaism.
We now approach the big question regarding Jesus' recorded comments regarding the Pharisees.
The question is even larger because of the overwhelming parallels between Jesus' teaching and that of the Pharisees- the rabbis of the Mishnaic period (the Mishnah is the first written version of the Oral Tradition) contemporaneous with Jesus. They emphasized the paramount principles of love of God and neighbor; the importance of the individual's personal relationship with God; the values of modesty, charity, and repentance; the significance of the afterlife; that as holy as the Sabbath is, when it comes to the preservation of human life it must be transgressed. One could go on and on drawing the parallels between the teachings of the Pharisees and Jesus.
In fact, I recall that the German scholars Strack and Billerbeck documented hundreds of parallels in the Mishnah and Talmud to the sayings of Jesus in the book of Matthew alone! Virtually all the sins Jesus is recorded as having chastised the Pharisees for are condemned by the rabbis (whom we see as the Pharisees) themselves. In fact, the similarities are so great that I find it compelling to believe that Jesus himself was part and parcel of that community.
Some scholars would say that the term Pharisee was used in different ways at different times and that at Jesus' time it did apply only to a limited particularist group that later became popular and widespread.
Another interpretation raises the question as to why the Sadducees are hardly referred to in the Gospels, especially as they would have been far more likely to have been the object of Jesus' criticism-controlling the temple, power, access, and resources to the degree they did. The answer, they suggest, lies in the fact that the Gospels were written well after the Sadducees as an identifiable group ceased to function. The very survival of the Pharisees in the form of Rabbinic Judaism led to the use of their name to describe those whom Jesus was criticizing, when in fact he was berating other groups that were no longer around or no longer relevant to the religious social reality when the Gospels were written.
However, I would point out something else which appears to me to be more important in resolving this riddle. When the prophets of Israel chastise the people and say things like "O Israel, why have you forsaken God?" or "O Judah, how long will you continue to sin?" they were not for one minute suggesting that they, the prophets, were not part of Israel or Judah.
Because Christianity-especially after the conversion of Constantine-tragically, increasingly detached itself from its Jewish roots, Christians forgot that Jesus was a Jew talking overwhelmingly to Jews-good Jews and bad Jews (and most of them probably in between, like most of us!).
When Jesus criticized Pharisees, he was doing so as a rabbi addressing other rabbis, saying, "You rabbis are letting the side down! Precisely because you are rabbis, you should know better and your sin is worse."
From my traditional Jewish perspective that views the Pharisees as the teachers of Rabbinic Judaism, Jesus could not be criticizing all Pharisees-especially if he was, as I believe, part of that community. Indeed to claim that he was addressing all Pharisees would not only be incorrect in my opinion, it would also imply that Jesus was judging and stigmatizing a whole community, which would surely be in complete contradiction with the most sublime religious moral values that he preached. So I am convinced that Jesus was criticizing some Pharisees-not all Pharisees.
I consider it important for Christians to recognize this, not only because I believe that it cannot be true that Jesus stigmatized a whole community for the sins of some of them, but also because I want Christians to be aware of how we Jews today see ourselves as the continuation of the Pharisaic tradition, of normative Judaism. That is why I am offended by the pejorative use of the word Pharisee, as I would be if someone used the phrase "to Jew somebody" to mean to swindle someone.
As I have said, the sins and hypocrisy that Jesus exposes in those Pharisees are precisely exposed by other Pharisees in our rabbinic literature. One of the criticisms is of a dry legalism that is divorced from the spirit of God's commandments.
That, however, does not mean we think that we can disregard them or even treat them lightly. On the contrary, we believe that our fulfillment of these observances and their study is precisely the way of life God wants us to pursue: the way of life that gives us joy, beauty, and meaning to our existence. But obviously we have to be in consonance with their spiritual goal and purpose of making us holy.
Leviticus 19 opens with the commandment, "You shall be holy because I the Lord am Holy," and this chapter makes it clear that holiness is not only the discipline that makes us conscious of God's presence but above all is expressed in the love of God and neighbor that leads us to live with care and compassion for our fellow human beings-all created in the image of God. Thus arrogance, self-righteousness, and disdain for others; jealousy, greed, or speaking ill of others, etc., are all considered sinful ways to behave-in fact considered most un-Pharisaic ways to behave.
So all I ask, R. T., is that you might consider referring in your writings and sermons to those Pharisees or some Pharisees whom Jesus criticized and not to tar us all with the brush of individual sinners by association. Because when all Pharisees are presented as sinners, you bear false witness against me.
Excerpted from The Christian and the Pharisee by David Rosen R. T. Kendall Copyright © 2006 by R. T. Kendall and David Rosen. Excerpted by permission.
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