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Interpretation and Tradition
Irv Davis Detail

 B"H  Kislev 10, 5771

Interpretation and Tradition

Assumptions that affect our faith

by John J. Parsons

An effective teacher understands when to ask "closed questions" and when to ask "open-ended questions."  A closed question is one that has a definite answer, such as "How old was Isaac when he died?" or "Where was Rachel buried?" An open-ended question, on the other hand, is one that prompts for additional information, such as "How do you suppose Jacob felt when his father died?" or "Do you think Rachel's death was a punishment for disobeying her father?"  Closed questions are used to identify facts, whereas open-ended questions are used to probe issues more deeply, to explore possibilities, to use imagination, to invite discussion, and so on. 

Traditional Jewish interpretation generally relies on closed questions to focus on the literal reading of the text and open-ended questions to explore various types of implications derived from the text. Thus the plain, historical meaning (called the p'shat: פְּשָׁט) is used as a baseline for other ways of interpretation, which traditionally include the alluded meaning (i.e., remez: רֶמֶז), the moral or homiletical meaning (i.e., d'rash: דְרָשׁ), and the esoteric meaning (i.e., sod: סוֹד). This fourfold system is sometimes called "Pardes" (פָּרְדֵּס), an acronym formed from the names of each of these four categories or levels.  Moreover, each of these four levels has their own rules of reasoning specific to that level. For example, there are general rules of interpretation for the d'rash level that do not apply to the p'shat level.  Nonetheless, as a general principle, the extended meaning of a text will never contradict the plain meaning. In other words, ultimately there will be no valid "deeper meaning" that violates or contradicts the plain sense that is revealed through the careful study of the historical/grammatical context.

The phrase "The Torah has 70 faces" (i.e., shiv'im panim la-Torah: שִׁבְעִים פָּנִים לַתּוֹרָה) is sometimes used to express the idea that there are different "levels" of interpretation of the Torah. "There are seventy faces to the Torah: Turn it around and around, for everything is in it" (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15). When we disagree with someone regarding a particular interpretation of a text, we must remember that they may be reasoning from a different perspective, and therefore it is wise to identify the assumptions that underlie our respective conclusions. When we do so, it is likely we will find we were misunderstanding the intent of the other person. Humility is the key here. Often how we read the text says more about us than it does about the text itself - especially when it comes to asking "open-ended questions" about the text's meaning.

(I should add that not all interpretations are equally valid, of course, and indeed some interpretations must be rejected from the outset. For example, if someone were to deny that the Scriptures state that Yeshua is YHVH who came in the flesh and who lived, died for our sins, and rose again from the dead, then the discussion would shift from one of exegesis to one of apologetics, logic, and philosophy. The question of interpretation, in other words, involves a shared set of basic assumptions (such the existence of God, the authority of God's verbal revelation, the validity of logic, etc.), but if these matters are questioned, we are dealing with something else. Do not be fooled into thinking that cultists, anti-missionaries, or atheists are genuinely involved in "interpreting" the Scriptures. Indeed, often their intent is to deliberately obfuscate the meaning of a text by undermining its authority, usually by reading into it ideas that are alien to its original intent).

The Talmud records various traditions, insights, debates, and arguments regarding Scriptural topics as interpreted by the early Jewish sages (i.e., from the 1st century BC until the 5th century AD). When disagreements arose, they sometimes settled the issue by quoting the maxim: "These and these are the words of the Living God" (אֵלּוּ וְאֵלּוּ דִּבְרֵי אֱלהִים חַיִּים). Of course there are some arguments (regarding interpretation) that come from a person's pride, and there are others that are machloket l'shem shamayim, "a disagreement for the sake of Heaven." The sages regarded any disagreement for the sake of Heaven as valid -- even if the matter would not be settled "until the Messiah comes to explain the matter fully." Therefore in the classic debates between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel, for example, the goal was to discern the will of God, and when a dispute was finally decided, everyone agreed to follow the ascertained course with civility and respect.  Each of us needs wisdom and grace to discern how to disagree with others charitably. The axiom "these and these are the words of the Living God" appeals to a sense of good will we should extend whenever we encounter others who have views that differ from our own.


Let's consider a practical example. Should followers of Yeshua light Sabbath candles or not? Some people object to the ritual because it is regarded as a "Rabbinical invention" based on Jewish oral tradition. In particular, the notion that God commands us "to kindle the Sabbath lights" is regarded as wrong, since nowhere in the written Scriptures do we see this commandment given, and it is wrong to "add to the Scriptures." Therefore, we are under no obligation to follow this practice or to regard it as authoritative.


Now this type of reasoning is valid on a pshat level (i.e., it is a "closed question" as to whether the written Scriptures explicitly command us to light Sabbath candles), though it certainly begs some questions about whether there is genuine place for custom and tradition in our lives. Is written revelation the only valid authority, and if so, how do we account for the way our own personal history affects the way we read and understand it's message (Acts 18:24-27)? After all, it is clear that Moses himself established judges to help decide practical matters in people's lives, and yet these decisions are not found in the written Scriptures (Exod. 18:19-22, Deut. 16:18, 17:8-11). The same could be said regarding the "pattern" of the Tabernacle (i.e., the description about how to build it), and how we are to understand the justification for the Holy Temple that King David later envisioned. Indeed, God's instructions given to Adam, Abel, Seth, Noah, Shem, Malki-Tzedek, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses were all given before there was any written record that was accepted as Scripture. How did the patriarchs know what was clean and unclean? How did they know to offer animal sacrifices or erect an altar to the LORD?  It is naive to believe that we do not read the Scriptures through the lenses of our own cultural biases and traditions (for more on this, see the article, "The Role of Tradition"). 

Followers of Yeshua do not accept the "meritocracy" of traditional (i.e., post-Temple) Judaism and therefore reject the concept of keeping mitzvot as the means to securing God's favor. The New Testament is clear that we are not justified by religious rituals of any kind. We do not gain "merit" before the LORD if we light Sabbath candles any more than we lose merit if we do not. The message of the good news is that we are justified solely by trusting in the love of God as revealed in the finished work of Yeshua our Savior. Of course this idea is scandalous to the human ego that restlessly seeks to find something of value within itself to offer to God -- that is, some act of service or some "sacrifice of the flesh" that it might yield -- but the cross of Yeshua puts an end to all such "all-too-human" aspirations. The cross is the place where the ego goes to die - and the ego will always resist its own death.  Because of the finished work of Yeshua, we no longer live in bondage to fear generated by a religious system. "What the Messiah has freed us for is freedom! Therefore, stand firm, and don't let yourselves be tied up again to a yoke of slavery" (Gal. 5:1).

That said, it is evident that the impulse to "sanctify" time and honor the LORD is part of our walk of faith, and therefore the question remains as to how we are to do this in light of our liberty in the Messiah.  For example, it is clear that Shabbat is intended to commemorate God as our Creator (Exod. 20:11; 31:17), but the very first creative act of God was to create the divine light and to separate it from darkness (Gen. 1:3-4; 2:3). Can the custom of lighting Sabbath candles help us to recall the original creative power of God? Likewise it is clear that the Sabbath was given to help us remember God as our loving Redeemer: "You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day" (Deut. 5:15). Can the custom of lighting Sabbath candles recall that the true light of the world is Yeshua - our Redeemer?  Moreover, the Sabbath candles are to be kindled by "the hand of the woman" (usually the eldest woman of the house). Can this custom remind us of the Promised Seed of the woman that was to come? Can it remind us that when the fullness of time had come (ἦλθεν τὸ πλήρωμα τοῦ χρόνου), God sent forth His son, born of a woman, born under the law? (Gal. 4:4).

The idea that time should be set apart or "sanctified" is a message that runs throughout the Scriptures.  All of the holidays of the Jewish year - including the observance of the "new moon" and the Sabbath - were intended to teach us to "separate" the holy from the profane. "And God saw that the light was good. And God separated (וַיַּבְדֵּל) the light from the darkness (Gen. 1:4). After all, the LORD appointed the sun, moon, and the stars to be signs for appointed times (i.e., moedim): And God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for appointed times (מוֹעֲדִים), and for days and years (Gen. 1:14). The idea of the holy (kadosh) implies differentiation from what is common, habitual, or "profane." This further implies that divine time has real meaning, and if we deny this, we are left with devising our own "traditions" and rituals that will be severed from the divinely intended order...

We see just this sort of substitution in the case of various church denominations that pride themselves of being free of various forms of religious rituals (or, in the case of "traditional" church denominations such as the Roman Catholic Church, by inventing their own rituals and traditions). Even "Bible-only" churches are often unaware that they are bound by their own customs and rituals. The very "architecture" of the "church building," for example, lends itself to support these forms of rituals and traditions. The sanctuary is usually designed to function as a large meeting room with an elevated platform or podium so that the "pastor" (or other religious official) will be prominently seen and heard. The "laity" are seated facing the elevated platform in such a way as to minimize "lateral" connections with others.  The prescribed "service" begins at a set time and follows a carefully scripted order.  A formal greeting is customary, usually followed by a series of announcements, and then there is a designated time period devoted to music or hymns. The climax of the service is the sermon - delivered in monologue - that is directed to the congregation that is sitting quietly (i.e., passively) in the "pews."  When the service is over, there is usually a benediction of sorts, and people begin to file out of the central meeting area... Often the laity will briefly "fellowship" with one another before they exit the building to resume their secular vocations...

Now please do not misunderstand me on this point: I am not trying to criticize mainstream Christian church practice as much as I am trying to call your attention to the assumptions that are behind much of our thinking about spiritual life. The Christian church has tended to follow Greek/Roman thinking in both its theology and in its acceptance of the solar calendar.  Its social structure is patterned more after the Roman Senate than that of the early synagogue (and even less is it patterned after the itinerant ministry of Yeshua and his disciples).  Hence worship is focused on "Sun-Day" rather than on the Sabbath, and the liturgy generally revolves around the calendar devised by the Roman Catholic church dating from the 4th century. We see evidence of this in the two climactic holidays of the Christian year: "Christmas" and "Easter," both of which clearly derive more from the pagan customs of Constantine than from the Jewish roots of the Christian faith... Alas, as I have written about elsewhere, much of Christian theology is grounded in replacement theology that expresses itself as an institutionally sanctioned anti-Jewish bias...

I have written dozens of articles on this site that jealously argue for the liberty we have in our beloved Messiah. We are not saved by practicing religious rituals, much less by lighting candles before the Sabbath. Still, without evidence of the Spirit of Truth in our lives, we are likely deluding ourselves... While I affirm that the grace and love of God is imparted entirely by faith, I nevertheless reject the idea that the Torah and the Jewish Scriptures were given in vain... I do not believe that God "wasted His breath" revealing the Torah to the Jewish people, and that means (among other things) that the seasons and appointed times - including Shabbat - provide tremendous opportunity and revelation for the followers of Yeshua. Indeed, Yeshua Himself stated plainly that the Torah, the Writings, and the Prophets all point to Him (Luke 24:24-27,44; John 1:45; 5:39,46). Sanctifying the Sabbath is a form of worshipping our Lord and Messiah.  He is our true Sabbath rest, after all, and the custom of honoring this time by lighting candles is a valid way to set it apart from the other times in our lives. 

Rituals are inescapably a part of life. We celebrate birthdays, set our daily schedules, and organize our lives around a patterned series of events.  Since they are inherently a part of human nature, the question then is not whether we will engage in rituals, but rather which ones we will observe.  If we disregard the ritual of sanctifying the Sabbath, for example, we will invariably replace it with something else that eventually will become a custom in our lives.   Tradition -- of some kind or another -- is simply an inescapable and omnipresent fact of our existence.

Should you celebrate the Sabbath day using various customs such as candle lighting, blessing your children, reciting kiddush and enjoying a Sabbath dinner with friends while discussion how the weekly Torah portion reveals our beloved Messiah? You are not required to do so, but I am afraid that you will be missing out on a great source of strength and joy if you do not... "Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind" (Rom. 14:5).

When a person begins to study the Scriptures, he always finds himself "right in the middle of things, no matter where he starts." Spiritual truth is not the answer to a "closed question" as much as it is an ongoing series of open-ended questions.  Unfortunately many people find this notion unsettling. They would prefer, as Kierkegaard once said, to "arrive at conclusions in life much the way schoolboys do... by copying the answer book without having worked the problem out themselves." But this approach will never do for those who seek to live the truth. We must work out the problem for ourselves.  Truth is discovered through the process of wrestling with the meaning of Scripture, by seeing new insights and finding new connections, more than it is the result of memorizing a church creed or parroting the thought of others. Ultimately, each of us is personally responsible for what we believe and why... At the Judgment Seat of Messiah, the LORD will not be interested in whether we assented to "right ideas" or joined the right religious club. No, His examination will center on whether we personally wrestled for the truth and lived it out in our lives...

Yeshua is our Teacher who said, "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is everyone who is born of the Spirit [ruach]" (John 3:8). The Spirit of Truth (רוּחַ הָאֱמֶת) is our sure guide, and it is the love of the truth that brings us to salvation (2 Thess. 2:10-12). All learning of real, infinite, and eternally significant value comes from the Teacher Himself and is meant to be shared within the redeemed community. Every true disciple (i.e., student) of the Messiah has a part in the greater conversation about the life of faith. The LORD has promised to give us wisdom, if we sincerely ask Him (James 1:5-7).


I think the ultimate point of the idea of "tradition" is to remind us that we are all linked together by faith. Our faith in the LORD God of Israel connects us to all the great heroes of the faith - and most especially to Yeshua Himself. Salvation is something "corporate," by which I mean it is something shared. We are part of the redeemed community or family of God. That's part of the reason Yeshua taught us to pray in the plural: "Our Father, who art in Heaven, Sanctified is Your Name..."

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