Maurice. I would like to thank you, Joseph, for sparing the time to explain the Jewish worldview to me. I have read the Old Testament and spent some time reading about the background of the Old Testament books. Again, of course, in my New Testament reading I have come across the Pharisees and Sadducees, together with the High Priest, chief priests and priests of the Jewish Temple. I have also read about the Jewish ruling body, the Sanhedrin.
Joseph. I hope you do not think that this kind of material gives you an understanding of the Jewish worldview today. You mention the Old Testament. For us, these are our Hebrew Scriptures. Reading them in English is not the same as reading them in Hebrew.
We also believe that reading the Bible is not enough. There was a heretical sect, called the Karaites, who only read the Bible, but they never came to anything. After all, there have been 2000 years of rabbinic teaching since the last of the Hebrew Scriptures were written, and the interpretations called the Midrashim give the only authoritative guide to ‘the Law and Prophets’ and the ‘writings’. We take the view that you cannot understand the Hebrew Scriptures unless you have the guidance of a commentator like Rashi (Rabbi Schlomo Yitzachi).
Maurice. Isn’t the Talmud your interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures?
Joseph. No. Talmud means ‘learning’ and is what we call the Oral Law. We believe that God gave a written revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai (the Torah She Bichtav) but also gave the Oral Law (Torah She B’al Peh) which was preserved by the elders of Israel and then by the rabbis.
Maurice. But surely we must agree on the basic principles of the Judeo-Christian tradition, such as the creation, the Ten Commandments and so on. We share a common respect of the teachings of Moses on the creation, for instance.
Joseph. I would not be so sure of that. You make a great deal about sin and Satan, but we do not accept the idea of the fall of man. We believe the Almighty created man as we see him now, part good and part evil. We believe God created man with a Good Inclination (Yetzer HaTov) and an Evil Inclination (Yetzer HaRa). And when God looked at his creation and said that it was ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31) he included the Evil Inclination as being ‘very good’.
Maurice. But that seems to be a denial of the words of Scripture. Don’t you believe in the inspiration of Scripture?
Joseph. Of course we do! In the Talmudic tractate Sanhedrin page 99a, our rabbis say that anyone who denies that the Torah is from heaven has no part in the life to come.
Maurice. But what you were saying earlier about the Evil Inclination being very good seems to confuse the whole idea of good and evil. This must affect your understanding of morality and the nature of the world.
Scripture not enough?
Joseph. This is what I tried to tell you earlier — you cannot understand the Jewish Bible without a Jewish interpreter. You are missing out hundreds of years of rabbinic interpretation, and you make the same mistake as the Karaites in interpreting the bare words of Scripture without the guidance of the rabbis. After all, it was Jewish teachers who gave the world the concept of the one God, a concept revealed to the world by our father Abraham.
Maurice. But Abraham was not a Jew. He was the grandfather of Jacob, from whom the Jewish people came. Abraham was a Gentile from Ur, and his father was a pagan named Terah.
Joseph. Now you are splitting hairs. But you will agree that it was the Jewish prophet Moses who gave the Ten commandments, on which the whole of Western civilisation is founded. All the Western ideas of justice and equality, of marriage and the family, are found there in those commandments.
But once again, the bare words are not enough. For instance, the literal concept of capital punishment for murder was changed by the rabbis into a lower penalty to avoid the taking of life. The bare law by itself is not enough. There must be a fence of interpretation around the law.
Judgement and resurrection
Maurice. Is this why you have a prohibition against eating meat and milk together, even though the law says something quite different: ‘Do not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk’? (Deuteronomy 14:21).
Joseph. Yes, this is one of the many laws we have about Kashrut to regulate the preparation and eating of food. But Judaism is not merely about such rules and regulations. We are concerned about the Final Judgement, which we believe God will bring in at the end of the world. And we also believe in a resurrection of the dead.
Maurice. But if you have this knowledge of the one true God and his rule over all the world, why don’t you tell the rest of the world about it and send missionaries to the heathen, as the Christians do?
Joseph. If you know your history, you will know that Jews have done such proselytising in the past; even your New Testament mentions this. But the rabbinic consensus now is that if the Gentiles keep the Seven Commands of Noah they will be accepted by God.
Maurice. But I do not know the Seven Commands of Noah, and no Jew has ever told me about them.
Joseph. But you have heard about them now! And if you look them up in the Encyclopaedia Judaicain your local library you will find all you need there. You must not expect the Jewish people to do all your work for you!
Maurice. But if there is only one God, and he is going to judge all men at the end of the age, what about all the people who believe in Jesus — are they all wrong?
Joseph. One of our sages, Franz Rosenzweig wrote about Two Covenants. One covenant has been made by God with the Jews, who are God’s people. The other covenant is with the non-Jews, who could come to God through Jesus.
Maurice. But that doesn’t make sense. If Jesus is Messiah and Saviour for the Gentiles, why can’t he be the Messiah and Saviour for the Jews, to whom he came in the first place?
Joseph. You obviously do not understand the Two Covenant theory. The non-Jews have to come through Jesus because they are not part of God’s people. But the Jews don’t have to come to God because they are already with him, as part of his people. As our sages say: ‘All Israel have a part in the life to come’, and the righteous among the Gentiles also have a part in the life to come.
Maurice. So you believe that all Jews will be saved, regardless of what they believe or how they live? That is not what the Jewish Scriptures teach.
Joseph. If you had experienced 4000 years of persecution, enforced exile and continuous uncertainty, perhaps you would have arrived at the same comforting conclusion. As I have said several times, you cannot just take the Scriptures as they stand; they must be interpreted for you.
Maurice. That, I am afraid, is where we must disagree. For if we cannot believe what God says from heaven, how can we rely on human interpreters?