Oct 252007

The Middle Word
Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Living in the Image of God
Jewish law envisions a future in which all human beings are treated as infinitely valuable, equal, and unique
The following is the first in a two-part series:

There is a fundamental principle of Judaism that accounts for all Jewish ethics, including the obligation to love your neighbor as yourself. The Talmudic sage Ben Azzai suggests that this axiom is the Torah’s statement that “God created the human being in God’s image … man and woman God created them.” The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a) spells out the implications of this concept. Judaism holds that–to paraphrase the American Declaration of Independence–all humans are created in the image of God, and therefore they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights and dignities, among which are infinite value, equality and uniqueness. Let’s explore what these three concepts really mean.

INFINITE VALUE: An image of man has a finite value. A Picasso sold for $30,000,000 plus; a Van Gogh for $82.5 million. But an image created by God is worth incomparably more; it is of infinite value. That is why the Talmud states that “To save one life is equivalent to saving a whole world.”

If a life is infinitely valuable, then it must be treated with great concern and care. No precious work of art would be left outside, exposed to the elements. Thus no image of God should ever be allowed to lie on the street, homeless and freezing during winter. Similarly, it is worth spending hundreds of thousands, and indeed millions of dollars, to medically treat and save the life of an infinitely valuable person–meaning, everyone.

EQUALITY: In the Jewish tradition, God is described in images ranging from a powerful warrior to a comforting mother. But it is understood that no image is literal or fixed, and no image is intrinsically superior to the other. To present an image of God as the preferred (or fixed) image of God is idolatry. All images of God (that is, all humans) are equal. Thus the claim that whites are superior to blacks, or males are preferred to women, or members of one religion are truly the image of God and the others are not, is equivalent to idolatry.

UNIQUENESS: Images of man are meant to be replicable. The normal assumption of all stamps, all coins, all reproduced photographs is that one is identical to the next; that is because they are images created by human beings. However, says the Talmud, an image created by God has this distinction: The Holy One creates all human beings from one mold (Adam and Eve), yet each one is different from the other. Not even identical twins are identical. To see people through stereotypes violates the fundamental dignity of the other person as a unique image of God.

The world that we inhabit degrades these fundamental dignities. Poverty and discrimination, legalized slavery and oppression, cultural stereotyping, and human neglect are rampant–but they are incompatible with the dignities of the image of God. Therefore, the Jewish tradition insists that this status quo be fundamentally restructured. We are commanded to work for tikkun olam, to perfect and transform the world until it fully respects the image of God in every human being. We must overcome poverty and hunger, which contradict the infinite value of the individual. We must overcome oppression, because racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, etc., all deny the equality of the other. We must overcome war, which is essentially fought by destroying infinitely valuable images of God with abandon. That is why Isaiah prophesied that “they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks and they will not learn war anymore.” Isaiah promises that death itself, the ultimate denial of our unique, irreplaceable value, “will be swallowed up in eternity,” that is, overcome.

In short, the Jewish dream of tikkun olam includes the ultimate triumph of life over death and the realization of a world in which the full dignities of every individual are respected, nurtured, and developed. This is the Messianic Age in Jewish tradition. Incorporated into Christianity, into Western culture, and into certain variants of Islam, the Jewish revolutionary promise of world transformation has proven to be extraordinarily liberating and shattering of the status quo.

How shall we live until the final perfection is achieved? The answer of Jewish law and tradition is that we should respect the image of God to the maximum possible degree in all our conduct. Tzedakah, the obligation to help the poor and the hungry, stems from the fact that the needy are equal and infinitely valuable. Lashon hara (evil speech) is prohibited (even if the facts asserted are true) because the talk degrades the image of God in another other person. Sexuality is the search for physical and emotional confirmation of our uniqueness and infinite value–as well as that of the other. Thus, all mitzvot (commandments) can be seen as attempts to nurture the dignity of every human being in the image of God. Judaism is the way of life of Jewry, the community that tries to live by this higher standard–until we achieve tikkun olam, the perfection that will make universal the infinite value, equality, and uniqueness of all human beings.

from belief net.

May 222007

Certain religious people sometimes object to various holidays, customs or beliefs because of their "pagan roots". 


The difficulty with the argument is that there are pagan and polytheistic roots to be found in all cultures, all civilizations and all religions, including the culture which produced the Old Testament. The idea of only one true God is one that was only realized gradually. This is partially obscured by the redacting of the Old Testament, but traces of it remain, particularly in the older poetic fragments.


Among the Canaanites and the other inhabitants of the Middle East, a common pantheon of gods was worshiped. The father of the gods, the creator, was “El”, the mighty one – who’s symbol was a bull. The word “El” is used throughout the Old Testament to mean “God”, as well as to indicate lesser powers. The consort of El was Asherah, a mother goddess represented by a stylized tree of seven branches – similar to the seven branched menorah used in the temple . There were seventy children of El and his consort, and these lesser deities were the particular gods of the various lands and tribes of the region. Together they met in the council of the gods – the “bene el” or “Children of El” or the “elohim”. Among the children of El were Baal, and apparently Ya, or Yahweh in a later form.


There is an interesting artifact of this view in Deuteronomy 32. In verse 8, it speaks of the peoples being divided up according to the number of the “children of Israel”. However, a very early version of Deuteronomy found among the Dead Sea Scrolls shows that originally the verse mentioned “The children of El”, not the “children of Israel”. Here is how the passage originally read:


“Remember the days of old.

Consider the years of many generations.

Ask your father, and he will show you;

your elders, and they will tell you.

When the Most High (El-yon) gave to the nations their inheritance,

when he separated the children of men,

he set the bounds of the peoples

according to the number of the children of El.

For Yahwehs portion is his people.

Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 32:7-9)


The picture is that El divided up all the nations and assigned one of his children to each of them. Israel was given to Yahweh as his portion.


The first verse of Genesis, translated literally, reads “In the beginning, the gods (elohim) created the heavens and the earth”. Throughout Genesis one, there are obviously a group of divine beings involved (“Let us make man in our own image”).


Many other scriptures clearly imply that the other gods of the region are not simply human inventions, but are quite real. The God of Israel is praised for being superior to them. Yahweh gradually moves from being simply being one of the children of El to being the greatest of the gods.


“For Yahweh your God, he is God of gods, and Lord of lords, the great God, the mighty, and the awesome, who doesnt respect persons, nor takes reward.”

(Deuteronomy 10:17 WEB)


There is no one like you among the gods, Lord,

nor any deeds like your deeds. (Psalms 86:8 WEB)


For Yahweh is a great God,

a great King above all gods. (Psalms 95:3 WEB)


Eventually, the God of Israel appears to judge all the other gods, strip them of their immortality, and take charge over the whole earth, as the scripture below tells.


“God presides in the great assembly (literally, the council of EL).

He judges among the gods.

How long will you judge unjustly,

and show partiality to the wicked?



Defend the weak, the poor, and the fatherless.

Maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed.

Rescue the weak and needy.

Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.

They dont know, neither do they understand.

They walk back and forth in darkness.

All the foundations of the earth are shaken.

I said, You are gods,

all of you are sons of the Most High (bene El-yon).

Nevertheless you shall die like men,

and fall like one of the rulers.

Arise, God, judge the earth,

for you inherit all of the nations.

(Psalms 82:1-8 WEB)


It might be argued from Jesus quotation of this scripture that the verses refer to human rulers. By Jesus time, this was the traditional interpretation, and so it was suitable to make Jesus’ point for him. But originally, it clearly has a different meaning. What is the point of threatening a human ruler that he will “die like men” – since that is the fate of all human beings. And God did not preside over some court of human rulers. It is the Sons of El that are being discussed here.


The point is, just because Judaism has its most ancient roots in the polytheism of Canaan means nothing today. Through the agency of prophets, scribes and inspired authors, the concept of God grew and developed. In its final form, Judaism is unfailingly monotheistic, as is Christianity and Islam.










Feb 212007

Is Jesus the Jewish “messiah”, and if so, why do more Jews not believe in him?


The first difficulty in deciding if Jesus is the Jewish “messiah” is the ambiguity of the term “messiah” in Judiasm. “Messiah” is a rather general term in the Bible meaning “anointed”. Because kings and priests were anointed with oil to set them apart, the word “messiah” can apply to any king, high priest, or other “anointed” one.  Even the pagan King Cyrus is called the Lord’s “messiah” in Isaiah 45:1.


There are a number of prophecies in the Old Testament that seem to point to one particular messiah of unique importance. The problem is that Jewish interpreters differ on just what these prophecies mean. Reformed Jews tend to interpret the “messiah” prophecies as pointing to the nation of Israel as a whole. Kabbalist Jews often interpret the messiah as an immortal spiritual force. Even among those who interpret the prophecies as indicating a unique human individual, there is disagreement about the characteristics of that individual, or even how MANY “unique” messiahs there are supposed to be. These disagreements were even more significant in Jesus’ day – when Judaism was possibly even more diverse than it is today.


In particular, there were some teachers who talked about the Messiah “ben David” (son of David) and others who talked about the Messiah “ben Joseph” (son of Joseph). Some apparently believed in the priority of one or the other of these messiahs, some believed both would come, with different roles to play.


In very general terms, the Messiah ben David was seen as a military conqueror, who would restore the Kingdom of Israel and the temple. The Messiah ben Joseph was seen as bringing spiritual renewal through personal sacrifice (much as Joseph of Egypt saved his family through his own personal ordeal). Of those who believed in both messiahs, the Messiah ben Joseph was seen as a precursor to the Messiah ben David.


If we take into account what I wrote on earlier about the different sources of the Old Testament (http://perennis.pathstoknowledge.com/documentary_hypothesis) these two different messiahs fit rather neatly into the agendas of the primary sources of the Old Testament – the “J” (and “P”) sources and the “E” (and “D”) sources. The “J” and “P” sources champion David and the Southern Kingdom – whereas the E and D sources are more critical of David and champion the Northern Kingdom – home of the traditional descendents of Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh)


In the context of Jews arguing about whether the primary messiah is the son of David or of Joseph, Jesus’ dialogue in the temple assumes a whole new meaning:

“Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, What do you think of the Christ [messiah]? Whose son is he?They said to him, Of David.  He said to them, How then does David in the Spirit call him Lord, saying,  The Lord said to my Lord, sit on my right hand, until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet?  If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” (Matthew 22:41-45 WEB)  Jesus is apparently coming down on the “ben Joseph” side of the argument. It’s also interesting that “Joseph” is traditionally the name of Jesus foster father as well.  There is no doubt that many of those who followed Jesus did so because they HOPED we was the Messiah ben David. He is often addressed by the hopeful crowd as “son of David”, and he doesn’t seem to discourage this – but there are a number of indications that Jesus did not see himself in the role of Messiah ben David. When identifying his mission, he several times refers to Isaiah 61 – a relatively gentle and compassionate picture of messiahship – more in keeping with the Messiah ben Joseph.  As Jesus reads in the synagogue:  The Spirit of the Lord is on me,because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted,to proclaim release to the captives,recovering of sight to the blind,to deliver those who are crushed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19 WEB) Other indications of how Jesus saw his role: For the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost. (Luke 19:10 WEB) For the Son of Man didn’t come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. (Luke 9:56 WEB) I argued earlier (http://perennis.pathstoknowledge.com/bibliolatry) that Jesus seems to share some of Jeremiah and Isaiah’s criticism of the priestly code. It may well be that Jesus is not in agreement with the idea of the Messiah ben David.  However, it’s clear that some of the New Testament authors intend to keep that option open. Matthew and Luke both try to establish Davidic descent for Jesus, and Matthew in particular tries to mention every possible prophetic fulfillment for Jesus.  We need to candidly admit that some of these apparent “fulfillments” of prophecy are problematic. Some of them rest upon questionable translations and many of them are clearly taken out of context with regard to their primary fulfillment. Personally, I like to credit the New Testament authors with enough intelligence to realize (at least some of the time) that this is occurring.  When Matthew, for example, tells us that Jesus’ sojourn in Egypt fulfilled Hosea: “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.” (Hosea 11:1 WEB) …He must certainly realize that this verse of Hosea does not appear to be a messianic prophecy of any sort. What the author of Matthew seems to be saying is that Jesus recapitulates or represents various scriptural patterns or archtypes in scripture. Jesus can be understood, in other words, in terms of scriptural themes well known to readers of the Old Testament.  As a tangent, it’s interesting that the prophet quoted here, Hosea, is a prophet of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, not Judah – and the theme of the sojourn in Egypt is most associated with Joseph, and the suffering messiah.  This having of seeing the events of one’s own time in prophecy isn’t unique to Christian apologists.  For example the promise in Deuteronomy (18:15-18) that a second Moses would arise. Many Jews today regard this as a prophecy of a still-future messiah. But many scholars believe that the Deuteronomists who collected or created the “second Moses” prophecy actually saw them as being fulfilled by their great hero, King Josiah.  Compare the wording Deuteronomy 34:10 with 2 Kings 23:25 – and remember that scholars believe both Deuteronomy and 2 Kings 23 were written by the same individual or group.  There has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom Yahweh knew face to face (Deuteronomy 34:10 WEB) Like him [Josiah] was there no king before him, who turned to Yahweh with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him. (2 Kings 23:25 WEB) Nevertheless, the idea of a “second Moses” is an idea and pattern that persisted long after Josiah, and has been applied by Christians to Jesus and by Jews to a future Messiah.  Is Jesus, then, the Messiah?  He certainly has a spiritual anointing from God, and embodies many of the patterns and archetypes of messiaship found in the Old Testament, particularly when referring to the Messiah ben Joseph. The fulfillment, however, is often in a more spiritual sense. The messianic prophecies are, in effect, symbols of what Christians see in Jesus to be spiritual realities. Christians should have no problem in seeing Jesus as “anointed” – with it’s original meaning of “set apart for God’s purpose”.  In this sense, he is the Messiah (or “Christ” as it would be rendered in Greek). Jesus does NOT meet all of the specific requirements that have been derived from the Old Testament by Jewish tradition over the centuries. This is particularly true in that there are several versions of these requirements depending on the body of Jewish tradition being discussed.  As this short essay began as a response to a particular article on the web



         there are a few specific remarks I should make in response to that article directly. The point of the article is that Jesus does not meet the requirements of a Jewish Messiah – a conclusion with which I’ve partially agreed above. A few points in the article, however, need comment.


Regarding Jesus as a prophet, the site says:


Ø      Prophecy can only exist in Israel when the land is inhabited by a majority of world Jewry, a situation which has not existed since 300 BCE.


While this may be a Jewish tradition, it is, biblically, completely ad-hoc. No such rule is apparent from scripture.


Ø      The Messiah must be descended on his father's side from King David (see Genesis 49:10, Isaiah 11:1, Jeremiah 23:5, 33:17; Ezekiel 34:23-24). According to the Christian claim that Jesus was the product of a virgin birth, he had no father — and thus could not have possibly fulfilled the messianic requirement of being descended on his father's side from King David.


Actually, none of the scriptures cited actually SAYS this. They only mention Davidic descent.

 > The Messiah will lead the Jewish people to full Torah observance. The Torah states that all mitzvot remain binding forever, and anyone coming to change the Torah is immediately identified as a false prophet. (Deut. 13:1-4)

Actually, that’s not what Deut 13:1-4 says. It says a false prophet is identified by the fact that he… well, makes false prophecies. In point of fact, the authors and editors of Deuteronomy – Jeremiah very likely being one of them, believed that many of the priestly laws were not God-given at all.

 “For I spake not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices: “(Jeremiah 7:22 KJV)

>Throughout the New Testament, Jesus contradicts the Torah and states that its commandments are no longer applicable. For example, John 9:14 records that Jesus made a paste in violation of Shabbat, which caused the Pharisees to say (verse 16), "He does not observe Shabbat!"

Only rarely does Jesus contradict the Torah – or more specifically attribute a commandment of the Torah as being of human origin. What he does do on a regular basis is apply a very spiritual, humanistic interpretation to the Torah. Jesus does not believe that making paste to heal a blind man on the Shabbat violates the spirit of Shabbat. It certainly doesn’t violate scripture – only the traditional accretions piled on top of scripture. Jesus would have a few words to say regarding anyone who feels that leaving someone blind honors God.

> Of the thousands of religions in human history, only Judaism bases its belief on national revelation — i.e. God speaking to the entire nation. If God is going to start a religion, it makes sense He'll tell everyone, not just one person.

This national revelation has not prevented the existence of various “branches” of Judaism with different beliefs and practices, including different beliefs about the Messiah.

(from the footnotes)

Ø      Saying that God assumes human form makes God small, diminishing both His unity and His divinity. As the Torah says: "God is not a mortal" (Numbers 23:19).

Focusing on God’s transcendence and totally ignoring his immanence, on the other hand, can make God distant and unapproachable. Jewish mysticism doesn’t seem to have a problem with the immanence of God. To quote J. Abelson from “Jewish Mysticism”

“ALL finite creatures are, in divergent senses and varying degrees, part and parcel of the Deity. Creatio ex nihilo is unthinkable, seeing that God, in the Neoplatonic view, is the Perfect One, 'an undivided One,' to whom no qualities or characteristics can be ascribed, and to whom, therefore, no such idea as that of intention or purpose, or change or movement, can be applied. All existences are emanations from the Deity. The Deity reveals Himself in all existences because He is immanent in them. But though dwelling in them, He is greater than they. He is apart from them. He transcends them.”

There are also several criticisms of Jesus descent based on the problems of Joseph being only his adopted father, and of Mary and Joseph’s Davidic line as being tainted.

While I regard the genealogies of Matthew and Luke as primarily symbolic, it seems to me that the criticism is misplaced. If we allow that God being the father of Jesus (rather than Joseph) is absolutely literal, then we are dealing with a totally unique situation, and it seems difficult to argue that any conventional laws of adoption or descent apply. How can being the Son of God “disqualify” someone for any honor whatsoever? If the critic is going to concede that Jesus is literally the Son of God, then proper messianic descent is the least of the critic’s issues.

If the critic assumes this is figurative, but still wants to calculate ancestry, then there is no reason not to consider Joseph’s genealogy.

As to the Jeconiah curse, an excellent job of refuting it is done by the Jews for Jesus


In brief, there are good arguments that the curse was reversed due to Jeconiah’s repentance, and the site in fact quotes a number of rabbinical opinions that it is specifically through Jeconiah’s line that the Messiah WILL come!

Sep 012006


In discussing Islam on another website, the argument was made that because Islam does not regard Jesus as God, and because the Bible clearly DOES teach that Jesus is God, Islam rejects the Bible. A variation of the same sort of argument is often used against various groups claiming to be Christians. Since they don't believe orthodox teaching, and since the Bible “clearly teaches” orthodoxy, then these groups are not Christians.



While I have no intention of defending everything that Islam or every heterodox Christian group believes in, the argument above is presumptuous and unhistorical.



Even using the books of the Bible that we have come to regard as canonical (our current New Testament for example) there was a tremendous battle over such questions as the divinity of Jesus. For a number of years, Arianism (which taught that Jesus was a divine, but CREATED being – inferior to the Father) was the dominant viewpoint in Christianity – and they had plenty of verses in our current New Testament to back them up. Jehovah's Witnesses believe much the same thing today.



But what we also need to realize is that our current New Testament was specifically selected by the proto-orthodox Christians. The Gospels we have (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were not the only Gospels circulating in the early Church. The epistles and apocrypha we have in our current Bible are not the only ones that could have been selected. The ones that were selected were chosen PRIMARILY because they taught the orthodox viewpoint.



There were many groups of Christians in the early Church. The range of their beliefs was even more diverse that our modern versions of Christianity. Each group had it's own collection of writings – of Gospels and epistles and apocryphas – that supported its own point of view.



One of the earliest groups in Jerusalem were the Ebionites. Their beliefs were in many ways similar to Islam. They believed Jesus was a great prophet – but only a human being. He had come to revitalize Judaism and set it on the right path.



Then there were the Marcionites, to whom Jesus was not human at ALL. He was entirely God, and his humanity was simply a facade. To the Marcionites, Judiasm was a false religion created by a false god from whom Jesus had come to set us free.



All of these groups, as well as the proto-orthodox, who staked out a middle ground on the nature of Jesus, had scriptures to support their theology. But once the proto-orthodox position became the dominant one in Rome, Rome used its political influence to not only exclude other points of view – but to create a list of scriptures that ALSO excluded other points of view. Scriptures that didn't fit the proto-orthodox theology were destroyed or hidden. In spite of this, there were enough remnants of divergent points of view left in the canonical scriptures to keep the orthodox arguing about the nature of Jesus for centuries



An excellent book on this by one of my favorite scripture scholars (Bart Ehrman) is:

Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew



The point of the proceeding is that it is circular to claim that the Bible obviously proves orthodoxy when the Bible was specifically selected and edited to prove orthodoxy. Even with the aggressive selecting and editing (and even forging) there is enough variety in the Bible to have kept Christians arguing for centuries. The nature of Jesus is not “obvious” from the Bible, and Islam, for all it's peculiarities is not “obviously” trying to be anti-biblical (much less anti-Jesus) by questioning orthodox dogma.

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