Israel, Torah, and the Knowledge of God: Engaging the Jewish Conversation

Israel, Torah, and the Knowledge of God: Engaging the Jewish Conversation1

by Carl Kinbar

In his paper “Finding our Way Through nicaea,”2 Mark Kinzer sharpens his previous thoughts about the connection between community and the interpretation of scripture.3 Because Messianic Jews are involved in two communities, that connection affects us in unique ways. Kinzer writes,

I am proposing a theological and hermeneutical approach in which we as Messianic Jews take our place as part of the Jewish community with its tradition of interpretation, and as a partner to the Christian community with its tradition of interpretation, and from that place listen and respond to the bible’s witness to the God of Israel and the Messiah of Israel. From this place of communal connection, we learn to hear what Jews and Christians have heard before. However, because we are connected to both communities and traditions, we also hear new things which these communities’ mutual and unnatural isolation prevent them from hearing. We can describe this as a hermeneutic of dialectical ecclesial continuity.

Kinzer’s paper speaks to aspects of “what Christians have heard before,” addressing the deity of Yeshua in conversation with nicaea. This paper engages “what Jews have heard before,” addressing issues arising from a Messianic Jewish encounter with midrash. It is divided into three parts. “What is Midrash?” provides a basic orientation to this unfamiliar genre of rabbinic writing. The second part, “God, Israel, and Torah,” reads selections from a midrash concerning the love relationship between God and Israel in the dual contexts of Torah and covenant. The third part, “The Word as Mediator,” explores additional midrash selections that demonstrate the role of a mediator in that relationship.

Part One: What is Midrash?

After the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE, there arose a movement of sages for whom Torah study was a vital form of worship. Though apparently all of them had families and worked to support them, their true vocation was study and the production of oral and writing texts.4 They were not unique in this respect: scripture study and the production of texts was an established practice among second Temple Jewish groups. However, Midrash was the Palestinian sages’ primary mode of scripture interpretation, philosophic discussion, spiritual formation, and public Torah teaching. They established patterns of study, interpretation, social networking, and community-building that helped them first to survive over the centuries, then flourish, and finally to penetrate virtually the entire Jewish community in Late Antique Palestine.5 Although some midrash and related materials are found in the babylonian Talmud, babylonian sages never developed a comprehensive midrash tradition. They did not produce any midrash collections.

The word “midrash” arises from the Hebrew root darash [??????], which means “examine; question; interpret.” Midrash is an interpretive response to Scripture as read in the sages’ social context. As such, it includes the process of determining what is said and what seems to be “missing” in a particular scripture, the questions that arise from these observations, and the development of what could be termed a theological response that would be relevant to the social context, whether the sages’ discipleship circles or the wider Jewish community. Often, our written midrash reflects the sages’ oral teaching and preaching. A midrash, then, is the oral or textual embodiment of the interpretive response, generally expressed in the form of a narration, story, or word-picture. Midrash collections are edited volumes of such interpretive responses.

Midrash can be insightful, vivid and memorable, often beautiful, sometimes offensive, sometimes confusing, sometimes routine, but typically challenging if we are open to being challenged. When midrash is read and understood on its own terms, it often enlarges the frame in which a scripture is seen. As an example, let us look at a fairly well-known midrash on Genesis 12:1–4.

Genesis 12:1–46

Now ???? said to Abram,
“Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you;
And I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you shall be a blessing;
And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who curses you I will curse
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
Abram went forth as ???? had spoken to him.

This text presents significant problems for interpretation. Abram hears a voice (audible or not, we do not know) telling him to leave his country and family and head out to an unnamed place. Did Abram understand that the one God was speaking to him, or did he imagine it to be the voice of some very powerful god among the gods was speaking to him? What was his reaction to the voice—terror, faith, reflection? Did he go on the basis of faithful obedience, compelled by terror, or motivated by the promised reward?

When the sages looked at scriptures like this—terse and open to multiple inter- pretations—they were willing to study, deliberate and argue, if need be for generations, until they settled on a number of midrashim (plural of midrash) composed in response to the questions raised by the text. These were gathered in midrash collections and passed on to the following generations. One of the sages who contributed a midrash on this passage was a certain Rabbi Isaac, who lived in the Galilee region in the mid-to-late third century C.E.

God spoke to Abram: Go you from your land . . . R. Isaac opened his dis- course with a parable: “This may be compared to someone who was trav- elling from place to place, and he saw a burning mansion. He said: ‘Is it possible that no one is responsible for this mansion?’ The owner of the mansion looked down at him [from an upper floor] and said: ‘I am the owner of the mansion.’”

Thus our father Abraham would say: “Is it possible that no one is responsible for the world?” The Holy One, blessed be he, looked down at him [from above] and said: “I am the owner of the world.” So shall the King desire your beauty, for he is your Lord (Ps. 45:11). So shall the King desire your beauty. To beautify you in the world. And to bow down to him (Ibid.). Hence, “And the LORD spoke to Abram.” (Genesis Rabbah 39.1)

While Abram is wondering whether there is “someone” responsible for the whole world, God responds, “I am the owner of the world,” implying that he is responsible for it. so there is, in part, a revelation of a God who hears and responds and who at least claims to be owner of the world. He is not like the gods and idols of Abram’s home culture, who squabble over bits and pieces of territory, over day or night, gods who were willing to co-exist with other gods. This God is sole owner of the world in the same way a man is sole owner of the burning mansion.

Psalm 45:11 is then introduced to express God’s intention to “beautify” Abram, to reward him because he rose above the theology of his day and inquired about the existence of the One who is responsible for the whole world. This intention is fleshed out in Genesis 12:2–3. God tells Abram to “Go . . .” and Abram bows down, as it were, by obeying.

In this parable, both masters are stuck, as it were, on an upper floor. Although the world is not described as “burning,” it is difficult not to picture the Holy One calling from an upper story of a burning mansion. If this is the intent of the midrash—and midrash is usually very intentional about leaving space for the imagina- tion rather than connecting all the dots—then Abram is being asked to “Go . . .” in order to deal with a world on fire. because Abram sought God, he was considered fit for this mission.

Midrash draws attention to what we would call the theological implications of the text. It responds to questions that arise from the gaps and brevity of a scripture by framing that text in a narrative that arises from a rabbinic worldview that encom- passes all of life, especially the relationship between God and humanity. Midrash represents a very concrete way of thinking, where ideas are embedded in actions and relations rather than described abstractly, and is the fundamental idiom of the non-halakic Jewish thought of its time.7

R. Isaac’s midrash is not the result of an anarchic mode of interpretation. It reflects a deeply-held rabbinic view of the relationship between God and humanity. Created in the image and likeness of God, human beings and their choices are significant in God’s eyes. Unlike other gods, the Holy One does not treat human beings as mere pawns in a scheme. R. Isaac believes that one explanation of the scripture is that Abram was already a “seeker.” He was not transformed by God’s sudden intervention (something that smacks of coercion not only in rabbinic theology but in many varieties of moral philosophy). God spoke to Abram because Abram inquired after God.

Like most midrash, R. Isaac’s midrash does not stand alone (nor, as a single midrash, is it considered “authoritative”), but is embedded with other interpreta- tions of the same scriptures in a collection of midrashim on Genesis named Genesis Rabbah, probably edited in the early fifth century C.E. These midrashim do not claim to reveal the secret and previously unrecorded history behind Genesis. Rather, they address issues that arise in the exploration of the text.

Midrash approaches scripture in often strange and exotic ways. In order to engage this vital part of the Jewish conversation about scripture, we must avoid extremes of outright rejection (or indifference) and naïve enthusiasm. A more aca- demic approach—treating midrash as an object of knowledge—can be helpful for some, but can also lead away from exploring midrash as a vital expression of Jewish spiritual life. Learning midrash on our own can also be helpful, but holistic learning requires a learning community. The best conditions for engaging midrash in a deep and life-giving way require the formation of Messianic Jewish learning communi- ties. Whether in twos and threes, small groups, or classes, when we learn together we stand in continuity with the learning practices of the Jewish people through the gen- erations. Learning online or by conference call involves similar dynamics of group learning. Participants in Messianic Jewish learning communities will be positioned to engage more effectively in the ongoing Jewish conversation about scripture.

Shir Hashirim Rabbah

In this paper, we will explore a portion of the Jewish conversation about scripture contained in shir Hashirim Rabbah, a midrash collection edited in Tiberias, on the western shore of the sea of Galilee, in the fifth or sixth century C.E. Tiberias was a multi-religious city, where Jews, Christians (both Orthodox and Monophysite), samaritans, and pagans had co-existed tensely even as they shared a measure of common culture. It also served as a center of Rabbinic Judaism. In that city, the rabbis edited numerous collection of midrash. The synagogues of Tiberias were involved in the flowering of liturgical poetry and popular preaching. Tiberias was home to the Masoretes, who finalized the authoritative text of the Tanak.

As the rabbis explored the scriptures and composed midrashim, their audience played a role as well. back in the second and third century C.E., the rabbis and their disciples had formed small study circles. Their primary concerns were interpreting scripture and determining halakah. by the fourth century, the rabbinic movement was expanding. It included not only the rabbis themselves, but also their families and an uncertain number of those outside their circles who were interested in their work. There are indications that the preaching of the rabbis (which was midrashic in nature) had a larger audience still, especially in Tiberias and other areas of Galilee. The spiritual and social needs of this more diverse group differed from the earlier “rabbis-only” group. In addition, as budding community leaders, the rabbis became more concerned with the lives of less halakically-inclined Jews who were not part of their circles. These expanded interests played an important factor in their interpretation of scripture, producing many midrashim of comfort and consolation directed at all Jews, not only those involved with the rabbis.

Shir Hashirim Rabbah is based on the biblical book, the songs of songs. In this midrash collection, the song of songs is seen as an expression of the relationship between God and Israel. At the same time, the rest of the scriptures are seen in the light of the song of songs. The midrashim based on the first two verses of the song of songs are examples of this approach.

In its commentary on verse 1, “The song of songs, which is solomon’s,” shir Hashirim Rabbah tells us that solomon sought and pondered and gained wisdom bit by bit until “he mastered the words of Torah.” This wisdom is recorded in Proverbs, Qohelet, and especially the song of songs, written under the inspiration of the Holy spirit. Prior to solomon, people would get lost, as it were, in the Torah. It was not clear how everything fit together. What is the big picture? What gives coherence to everything else? shir Hashirim Rabbah responds by declaring the song of songs as the master narrative, a parable of the love relationship between God and Israel.8 The elements of Torah, covenant, wisdom, commandments, promise, sacrifice, holiness, and all the narratives of the bible can be grasped in the context of the song of songs and in light of that love relationship. seen in that context, even the darkest episodes in Israel’s history take on a new and positive significance.

The midrash tells us that after solomon arose and wrote his three books “everyone began to comprehend the Torah,” thereby highlighting the public nature of knowledge (“everyone”). solomon received special help from the Holy spirit because he taught in public rather than restricting knowledge to scholarly elite. They began to comprehend: acquiring knowledge is a process. On the basis of the written song of songs, the entire community, and then the generations to come, could unlock and master both the details (diqdukim | ??????????? ) and the secret (sod | ???? ) of the scriptures. This emphasis on the public nature of knowledge is, at least in part, a product of the rabbis’ new and more inclusive posture toward the larger Jewish community.

The dynamism of shir Hashirim Rabbah arises in part from the word pictures it creates by juxtaposing the images of the song of songs with events of scripture and daily life. For example, here is part of shir Hashirim Rabbah’s commentary on the song of songs 2:9, My beloved is like a gazelle:

My beloved is like a gazelle (songs 2:9). Rabbi Isaac said, “The community of Israel said before the Holy one, blessed be he: ‘sovereign of the Universe, you say to us, “My love, my longing”—You say “My love, my longing” to us first.’” Just as a gazelle leaps from mountain to mountain and valley to valley, from tree to tree and fence to fence, so the Holy One, blessed be he, leapt from Egypt to the Red sea and from the Red sea to sinai, and from sinai he leaps to the future [redemption]. (song of songs Rabbah 2:9:1)

Another interpretation: My beloved is like a gazelle . . . Thus the Holy One, blessed be he, leaps from synagogue to synagogue, from beit Midrash to beit Midrash. And why all this? To bless Israel. And because of whose merit? because of the merit of Abraham. (song of songs Rabbah 2:9:2)

R. Isaac describes Israel’s astonishment that God initiates the conversation of love by expressing intense longing for her. The rabbi illustrates that love by painting an idyllic scene in which the normally shy gazelle has emerged from hiding and now leaps joyously from mountain to mountain, valley to valley, etc. “Just as a gazelle leaps . . . so the Holy One . . .” Rabbi Isaac translates the Holy One’s words of longing into a word-picture that expresses God’s joyous love for Israel. Even at the worst moments in the wilderness, God always retained a passionate love for Israel, a love that no amount of disobedience or alienation could snuff out.

R. Isaac (or another interpreter) extends the parable of God’s love and presence into the daily life of his community with the simple device of the leaping gazelle. The rabbis conceive of the synagogue and beit Midrash as the centers of Jewish life. Ideally, every Jew would regularly spend time within those walls and thus be touched by the love of God.

In shir Hashirim Rabbah, God’s love overshadows or even overwhelms the sinfulness of Israel. Instead of dwelling on Israel’s sin, the Holy One will bring Israel to the time of their full redemption. This is expressed by extending the image of the gazelle to the agents of redemption.

Another interpretation: My beloved is like a gazelle . . . Just as a gazelle ap- pears and vanishes, then appears and vanishes again, so the first deliverer [Moses] appeared and vanished and then appeared again. . . He appeared intermittently, and so the future deliverer [Messiah] will appear to them and again disappear. [Here several versions of the disappearance and re- appearance are offered, modeled on the times mentioned in Daniel, but differing from one another]. (song of songs Rabbah 2:9:3)

So, the gazelle is the Holy One (leaping through the events of Jewish history and from synagogue to beit Midrash in the rabbis’ day). The gazelle is also Moses and the Messiah. These midrashim are placed one after the other without any overt attempt to link them. The explanation lies in the imagery. God, Moses, and Messiah are all “like a gazelle” because they are all “the beloved” of Israel. The midrashim on “like a gazelle” present God’s love in visual terms that unite God’s activity—past, present, and future—in a single image, the gazelle, presented in a triptych of images that stand side-by-side: the first, depicting God as a gazelle in the Exodus narratives and the redemption to come; the second, the gazelle leaping from beit Midrash to synagogue; and third, the gazelle as Moses and the Messiah. This is the rabbis’ theol- ogy of God’s love in a nutshell.

Inner-Biblical Interpretation

Midrash achieves some of its characteristic effects by providing background or narrative elements not present in the specific scriptures being interpreted. It does this primarily by juxtaposing biblical verses or passages with other verses or passages. In Genesis Rabbah 39.1, for example, Rabbi Isaac juxtaposes Genesis 12:1–4 with Psalm 45:11. In between, he places a story that arises from the rabbinic idea that God does not normally coerce human actions but looks for human beings to make informed and unconstrained choices.

Some readers are uncomfortable with the imagination of midrash. In light of the biblical accounts of the Exodus, for example, how can they accept the shir Hashirim Rabbah’s depiction of God’s extravagant and joyous love for Israel?

An entrance into the world of midrash can be found in scripture itself. Every recounting of the Exodus narratives in later scriptures reworks the material in one way or another (even if only by abbreviating it) to make it suitable for its new context. This phenomenon of inner-biblical interpretation9 is observed, for example, in the words of prophets and psalmists concerning the Exodus narratives of God delivering Israel from Egypt, the Torah given at Mt. sinai, and the time in the wilderness before Israel was brought into the Promised Land. There are also a number of overt references to these Exodus narratives in the new Testament.

The majority of these scriptural accounts of the Exodus are characterized by an emphasis on Israel’s disobedience and God’s anger; the (admittedly few) high points are usually omitted in these accounts. However, a number of accounts are heavily reworked in a manner similar to midrash, often with vivid imagery and added material not found in the Exodus narratives themselves. Like midrash, they place the Exodus narratives in a different context than the majority of the accounts. That context can be anywhere along the spectrum of negative to positive.

Perhaps the darkest picture is painted in Ezekiel 20:8–9, 13–14.

They rebelled against me and would not listen to me [in Egypt]; they did not cast away the detestable things of their eyes, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt. so I said I would pour out my wrath on them and spend my anger against them in Egypt. but for the sake of my name [I brought them] out of Egypt . . . the people of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness. They did not follow my decrees but rejected my laws . . . and utterly desecrated my sabbaths. so I said I would pour out my wrath on them and destroy them in the wilderness. but for the sake of my name I did [not destroy them].

In this passage, God does not want to bring Israel out of Egypt in the first place. Everything is done for the name of God. There is no mention here of God’s love or even empathy for Israel.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are a number of biblical accounts that present a more positive view of the relationship between God and Israel during those years. The following account is from Psalm 80:8–10. The psalmist asks God to intervene and restore Israel as in the past:

You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches.

Here, God’s nurture and protection are emphasized. The vine flourishes under God’s care. There is no mention of any defects in this vine.

In the brit Hadasha (the Apostolic Writings), accounts of the Exodus are mostly negative, but not nearly as sharp as Ezekiel’s. The focus is always brought toward the Messiah in one way or another. For example, in Acts 13:17–18, Paul is preaching Yeshua at Pisidian Antioch. In passing, he mentions the Exodus.

. . . with mighty power he led them out of [Egypt]; he endured their conduct for about forty years in the wilderness . . .

Another example found in Hebrews 3:17 is part of an exhortation not to abandon faith in Messiah:

And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness?

Both scriptures represent the common account of the Exodus: Israel sinned; God was angry and punished them.

1 Corinthians 10:1–6 contains imagery more striking than any other inner-biblical interpretation of the Exodus narratives. It is a continuation of Paul’s exhorta- tion to the Corinthians, in chapter 9, not to abuse their freedom in the Messiah.

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiri- tual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Messiah. nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.

Despite God’s provision in the wilderness, the people displeased God and incurred a severe discipline. Again, this account—Israel sins; God punishes—is the prevailing pattern in the scriptures.

There are several added elements here that go beyond vividness of language: the baptism into Moses, the spiritual food and drink, and Messiah accompanying Israel as a “spiritual rock.” The image of Messiah as a spiritual rock following Israel during the wilderness wanderings occurs only here in the new Testament, and there is no mention of it anything like it in the Tanak.10 Perhaps Paul is speaking allegorically. but, whether the rock was seen or unseen, Messiah was there in some way. It puts the Messiah of Israel right in the middle of Israel’s wilderness wanderings. Although the story of sin and displeasure remains unchanged, the presence of this spiritual rock places the Exodus narratives in a clearly Messianic context. Yeshua was present and involved with Israel during at least their entire time in the wilderness.

One of the most radical perspectives on the Exodus narratives is found in Jeremiah 2:2–3. In the prophetic poetry of this chapter, God speaks of Israel in the wilderness, and then newly planted in the land, as a devoted bride who followed God in difficult circumstances. The language used here to describe the relationship between God and Israel is very similar to the intimate language that is common in shir Hashirim Rabbah.

“I remember the devotion of your youth,
how as a bride you loved me
and followed me through the wilderness,
through a land not sown.
Israel was holy to ????,
the first fruits of his harvest;
all who devoured her were held guilty,
and disaster overtook them,”
declares ????.

In this chapter, the prophet confronts the Israel of his own day concerning her un- faithfulness to God. Her former devotion to God in the wilderness is offered as a standard against which her later corruption is judged (v. 21):

I had planted you like a choice vine
of sound and reliable stock.
How then did you turn against me
into a corrupt, wild vine?

These passages demonstrate that the events of scripture may be seen and con- textualized in divergent ways, even within scripture. My purpose in highlighting the similarity between midrash and some inner-biblical interpretation is not to lend the scriptures’ authority to midrash. My purpose is to show that midrash is not a purely rabbinic innovation. scripture and midrash may foreground perspectives that are only whispered or even unspoken in the scripture being interpreted.

Thus, while shir Hashirim Rabbah mentions times of alienation between God and Israel, it foregrounds the love relationship that is the bedrock of God’s covenant with the Jewish people. When Rabbi Judah interpreted a verse negatively, Rabbi Meir responded, “we do not expound the song of songs in a bad sense, but only in a good sense, because the song of songs was composed only for the praise of Israel” (shir Hashirim Rabbah 2.4.1). There are prophets who spoke of Israel “in a bad sense,” and their words are inscribed in the book. but there is obviously a place for both. I can almost hear the Preacher of Ecclesiastes say, “There is a time to condemn and a time to praise.”

Shir Hashirim Rabbah does not pretend to be a full and objective account of the relationship between God and Israel. Its view of the love relationship between God and Israel is similar to several of the biblical accounts of the Exodus narratives. Even at the worst moments, the Holy One retains a passionate love for Israel, a love that no amount of disobedience or alienation can suppress.

Part Two: God, Israel, and Torah

The Kisses of His Mouth

The song itself begins at songs 1:2a, May he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth. The midrash asks, “Where was this recited?”

Hanina bar Pappa said, “It was recited at the sea” . . . R. Yudah, son of R. simon said, “It was recited at sinai” . . . Rabban Gamaliel says, “The ministering angels recited it” . . . R. Yohanan said, “It was recited at sinai” . . . R. Meir says, “It was recited at the Tent of Meeting” . . . The rabbis say, “[It was recited] in the Temple.” (song of songs Rabbah 1:2:1)

May he kiss me could be used as a lens to view events at any of those places. shir Hashirim Rabbah will interpret it in relation to Mt. sinai because it wants to include midrashim dealing with the giving of Torah, the encounter with God in Torah study, and mediation in the giving of Torah. In the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, an earlier midrash collection, May he kiss me is used to interpret events at the sea.

The editor of this midrash collection begins with midrashim that explore Israel’s direct, unmediated experience with God.

R. Joshua b. Levi and the rabbis—R. Joshua says, “Israel heard two words from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be he, I am [Hashem your God] and You shall not have [any other gods besides me] (Exod. 20.1–2), as it is written, May he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—not all the kisses, [only two].”

but the rabbis say, “Israel heard all the [ten] words from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be he.” (song of songs Rabbah 1:2:2)

On the surface, this is a simple disagreement over how many of the Ten Words proceeded directly from the mouth of God. Rabbi Joshua b. Levi, a sage of the first half of the third century C.E., claims that only two of the Ten Words were spoken directly; the rabbis counter with “all ten.” There are several rationales for these two positions, relating to the effect of God’s speech on the Israelites and levels of intimacy and responsibility. The rabbis partially disagree with Rabbi Joshua’s interpretation of the kisses of his mouth: the kisses are spoken Words [dibburim | ?????????? ] that come directly from God’s mouth, but they disagree about the number of those kisses. The issue of “two or ten” will not be resolved here as the midrash focuses on the result of the kiss of the Holy One.

Learning and Loss

R. Yehuda says, “When Israel heard I am the Lord your God (Exod. 20.1), the study of Torah was fixed in their heart and they would study and not forget. [Then] they approached Moses and said, ‘Moses our rabbi, make [yourself] an ambassador, an emissary [lit. agent] between us [and the Holy One, blessed be he], as it is said, Speak with us and we will listen (Exod. 20.16). . . And now, why should we die? (Deut. 5.22) What benefit would there be in our perishing?” (song of songs Rabbah 1:2:4)

In the context of Shir Hashirim Rabbah and its times, Torah study was less formal and more midrash-oriented than the Torah study that developed in babylonia and is still with us today. Each rabbi would gather a small group of young men and teach them the scriptures as well as halakic and midrashic traditions. study sessions included a practice similar to what we call today “close reading,”11 involving discussion and interpretation of the oral or written text. In these discipleship groups, Torah study did not include the kind of intense halakic analysis and dispute that was developed by the rabbis of Babylonia.12

This midrash claims that the ability to study Torah—and to remember what has been learned—was “fixed in their heart.” There were no rabbis to lead such groups immediately after sinai. Therefore, study would have been less formal, though presumably containing key elements of later study—repeating the words of the Holy One, closely examining and discussing them, and transmitting their insights to others. In the next session, they would recall what was learned and build on it. In the view of Shir Hashirim Rabbah, Torah always involves this kind of study—teaching, receiving Torah-related traditions, close reading, and transmitting.

Notice that “when Israel heard” the first Word—that is, at the same time—“the study of Torah was fixed in their heart.” This indicates a clear connection between God’s words and the process of studying (read “interpreting”) those words, a connection that is characteristic of both scriptural and rabbinic thought. God did not simply download the data of Torah but also gave the ability to grapple with the words of Torah, to unfold them, one study session after another, where the words are repeated and mulled over and mentally stored for the next session.13

Because these words were given to Israel as a nation or community, the community as a whole was involved in the interpretative process. As Gerald bruns writes, “The interpretive community is nothing less than Israel herself . . .”14 In this midrash, there is no institutional control of the learning process.

So, the Holy One kisses Israel with Torah and immediately and, it seems, spontaneously, Israel began to study Torah. Even more, “they would study and not forget” what they had learned. Everyone who has done serious, ongoing Torah study knows that weakness of memory presents a considerable challenge in moving forward. All sorts of details and even major insights begin to fade. sometimes, learning involves taking two steps forward and one step back. Constant review is an essential part of the learning process. but in this midrash, the kiss of the Holy One prevents the loss of memory. Israel would not learn by taking two steps forward and one back; they would move steadily forward grappling with Torah together and integrating it into the life of the community.

The rabbinic concept of Torah includes not only the original words or the words of scripture, but also the interpretive tradition that follows. At sinai, Torah initially refers only to the words that had just been spoken by the Holy One. As Israel begins to study, interpretive traditions immediately begin to expand the body of Torah. Torah expands over time. Today, the rabbinic study of Torah includes the interpretive traditions that have been passed on for millennia.

Unfortunately, that is not the end of the story. The same words that jump-started Torah study also frightened the people. The words of the Holy One were terrifyingly powerful. Fearing for their lives, the people asked Moses to be an intermediary between them and the Holy One. stephen Fraade observes that this request expresses the “the unresolved dialectic of intimacy and intermediacy in Israel’s revelatory rela- tionship to God. Israel desires, and is privileged with, the ‘mouth to mouth’ intimacy of God’s revelatory kiss, yet also, in fear of the potency of such unmediated divine contact, prefers to receive revelation via an intermediary agent.”15

There are varieties of mediation. The angel or the word who served as mediators in the midrashim that preceded this one,16 were sent by God and acted in conformity with God’s will. In these instances, the Holy One set the terms of mediation. but here, Israel asked for a different kind of mediator—not a mediator to bridge the gap between God and Israel, but a go-between to buffer them from the frightening immediacy of God’s speech. Moses would shuttle back and forth delivering messages from God to the people and vice-versa. The results of this request were tragic.

They returned to [their] studying but would forget [what they had learned]. They said, “Just as Moses, made of flesh and blood, will pass away, so also his learning will pass away.” Immediately, they turned and came to Moses. They said to him, “Moses our rabbi, if only he17 [the Holy One] would be revealed to us a second time. If only he would kiss us with the kisses of his mouth. If only he would fix the study of Torah in our heart as he did [before].” (song of songs Rabbah 1:2:4)

As they continued to study, they realized that something was very wrong: they were forgetting what they learned from the previous session. based on the continuing Torah study that followed,18 it seems that their minds were not simply wiped clean but there was a significant or even profound weakening of memory, making the learning process more cumbersome because of the constant review and relearning that was now required.

but Israel lost confidence that even the nation as a whole could any longer retain and transmit Torah accurately. They realized what was at stake—the clear memory of Torah learning now resided in one person, Moses, and if he dies, Torah dies.19

This midrash makes an important connection between Torah study and the knowledge of God: both arose from the kiss of God as the Holy One said, “I am Hashem your God” to Israel directly, without mediation. Israel’s request gives prece- dence to a renewed revelation of the Holy One, followed by an appeal to fix the study of Torah in their heart again. The level of Israel’s distress is only faintly expressed by the translation “If only” (L’vai | ?????? ). L’vai conveys a sense of urgent pleading with an overtone of woe. Repeated here three times, it borders on despair. In their condition of eroded memory of the Holy One and of Torah study, they bitterly begged Moses for a second chance. The solution to this erosion seemed obvious: if only the Holy One would “kiss” Israel again, things would be made right. They asked both for another revelation of the Holy One and that he would fix the study of Torah in their hearts as before.

Typically, midrashim are concerned not only with Israel’s past but also with the immediate circumstances of the rabbis, who authored or collected the midrashim, and the community of which they were a part. The rabbis of shir Hashirmim Rabbah envision the Holy One as a gazelle leaping with love from synagogue to synagogue and beit Midrash to beit Midrash. This reads to me as an honest expression of their sense of God’s love for them, and all Israel, as they engage in Torah study and prayer. Yet these same rabbis are also willing to face some of the most profound issues of loss in a very open way. If I am correct, this passage expresses the rabbis’ aware- ness of the inadequacies of their own Torah study, inadequacies whose source they imagined lay in their forebears’ retreat from the potency of unmediated contact with the Holy One. They were fully aware of the Christian claim that Israel’s relationship with God was irreparably broken. Given the communication between Jewish and Christian clerics and communities, these rabbis must have possessed great inner strength to “air their dirty laundry” in public (for would it not confirm the Christian accusation?).

Moses responded to Israel’s request for the Holy One to be revealed to them again:

[Moses] said to them, “This [will] not [be granted] now but in the future,” as it is said, I will put my Torah within them and on their heart I will write it (Jer. 31.33). (song of songs Rabbah 1:2:4)

Moses’ response must have been devastating. Israel would have to continue on a lower level of Torah study and revelation of God. still, there was hope for the future. The Holy One would not kiss them now, but at some indeterminate time in the future. The midrash glosses Moses’ statement by quoting Jeremiah 31:33. This is the typical rabbinic way of citing an entire passage, in this case Jeremiah 31:31–34. That passage will provide the rabbis’ interpretation of Moses’ words, “in the future.”

Jeremiah 31:31–34

Jeremiah 31:31–34 concerns the establishing of a new covenant (brit hadashah | ????????? ??????? ) between God and Israel.20

but this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days—declares ????: I will place my Torah within them and write it on their heart. Then I will be their God and they will be my people. And a man will not anymore teach his neighbor or his brother saying, “know21 ????,” for all of them will know me, from the least to the greatest—declares ????. For I will forgive their iniquities and no longer remember their sins.

The Torah in Jeremiah 31 is the same Torah found elsewhere in the Tanak and in the midrash. Jeremiah is not proclaiming a new covenant that will void, supersede, or spiritualize the Torah. Rather, it will deepen the Torah’s presence within Israel and provide an inner ability to understand and obey it. The external Torah will have an internal counterpart in a way that resembles “fixing the study of Torah in their heart,” yet exceeds it in certain respects.

While Torah study (as opposed to Torah itself) is not specifically mentioned in this passage, it is the general assumption of scripture that the Torah always requires interpretation. In the section on “Inner-biblical Interpretation,” we saw that scripture itself engages in the interpretive process. In Hebrews 8, these verses of Jeremiah 31 will be taken out of their immediate context in Jeremiah and interpreted in the context of Messiah’s mediatorial role. Therefore, the word “Torah” in both these contexts should not be understood as a static body of knowledge given all at once, but as a dynamic textual body that cries out for interpretation.

Meanwhile, in shir Hashirim Rabbah, Torah study continues despite the weakening of memory, awaiting the promised kiss of Jeremiah 31. It is recorded later in the passage that Rabbi shimon, the son of Rabbi nachman, says that the words of Torah benefit “the one who labors in them with all [the effort] they require [???? ?? ??? ????? ??] (shir Hashirim Rabbah 1.2.5). The word for “labor” [???] occurs here for the first time in shir Hashirim Rabbah. It is assumed that Torah study will involve that same labor until the nation as a whole experiences the kiss of God in the new covenant. Until then, that labor is not in vain. Its fruit is the living Jewish interpretive tradition that is the heritage of all Jews today.

Hebrews Chapter 8

The Jeremiah passage is cited in full in Hebrews 8. It occurs in the midst of an ex- tended discussion of the superiority of the new covenant and its mediator, Yeshua. This discussion is too rich to summarize here, but the focus is on Yeshua as the perfect and eternal high priest, an intercessor and a son who is able to save com- pletely (Chapter 7). He is the “mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6). Those promises are enumerated first of all in Hebrews 8:7–12,22 which is an almost word-for-word quote of Jeremiah 31:31–34.23 Chapters 9 and 10 develop the themes of high priesthood, sacrifice and mediation.

The Jeremiah passage takes on new meaning when it is viewed in its Hebrews’ framework. The promises in Jeremiah’s new covenant are clearly mediated to Israel only through Yeshua. Only through Yeshua, and along with Jews who already cleave to him, will the Jewish people receive the kiss of God mentioned in shir Hashirim Rabbah.

The place of individual Jews who have already entered this covenant needs to be clarified. The new covenant transforms individuals, families, and other sub- communities, but ultimately it is designed to impact and shape the entire Jewish people in relationship with God. This ongoing covenantal unity of Israel means that the lives of all Jews are inextricably intertwined.24 Messianic Jews already live in the new covenant through Yeshua’s mediation, but can experience its fullness only as part of the Jewish people.

Messianic Jewish experience of the new covenant is also modulated by the measure of their embrace of Torah in ways that are not discontinuous with the Jewish past. Lest I be misunderstood, I am not referring to any specific mode of Torah observance but involvement in a fully-orbed Messianic Jewish Torah culture in which commanded behavior (halakah) thrives synergistically with Jewish modes of interpretation (especially midrash), prayer, ethics, spiritual life, and more.

Finally, a Messianic Jewish embrace of both Jewish covenantal unity and Torah implies the need for a serious involvement in Jewish learning. Torah study is not only a means of personal growth and encouragement, but also a form of service to God. After observing that, “The interpretive community is nothing less than Israel herself,” bruns continues, “and all who belong to Israel belong to the ongoing dialogue in which the Torah is understood.”25 It is not only a personal commitment, but, like the broader Jewish tradition it participates in, it must be embedded in a historical, communal process. Only with this understanding can Messianic Jews labor in the words of Torah “with all [the effort] they require.”

Part Three: The Word as mediator

In his book Border Lines: The Partition of Judeo-Christianity, Daniel boyarin demonstrates that early Jews and Christians shared a common Jewish binetarian theology of the Logos26 , in which a divine Logos serves as mediator between God and humanity. As early Jewish and Christian authorities made concerted efforts to draw border lines between the two groups, Christianity internalized this theology while Judaism rejected it. boyarin writes:

The final definitive move for the Rabbis was to transfer all Logos and sophia talk to the Torah alone . . . For the Rabbis, Torah supersedes Logos, just as for John, Logos supersedes Torah. Or, to put it into more fully Johannine terms, if for John the Logos Incarnate in Jesus replaces the Logos revealed in the book, for the Rabbis the Logos Incarnate in the book displaces the Logos that subsists anywhere else but in the book. 27

The idea of a hypostatic Logos, a mediating Word that is a substantial, independent expression of God, was thus suppressed in Judaism.

I believe that boyarin overstates the extent to which mediation of the word disappeared from Judaism. He has not taken into account evidence from the vast body of midrashim produced in Palestine in the centuries following the supposed suppression. specifically, boyarin’s thesis involves tracing the second Temple and early rabbinic uses of the Greek word Logos [?????] and the Aramaic memra [ ??????? ]—both meaning, “a spoken word”—in Jewish and Christian texts. strangely, boyarin does not take into account the uses of the Hebrew word dibbur [ ???????? ], also meaning “a spoken word.” since Logos, memra, and dibbur share highly overlapping semantic domains. I suggest that boyarin’s work suffers because he does not consider dibbur and the midrash collections in which it appears. These midrashim deal with the issue of mediation between God and Israel in ways that call boyarin’s analysis into question.28

That same material calls into question the claim of today’s Jewish community that mediation has never been part of Judaism. The leaders of nascent Judaism and Christianity were so successful in creating borders that today’s Judaism and Christianity have near-total memory loss of the time before borders. On the Christian side, we are told there is no place for Torah (which is labeled as “legalism”) in the new covenant. On the Jewish side, we are told that there is no place for a mediator— or for those who believe in one—within Judaism. These are not simply Christian and Jewish intellectual assessments but examples of border-guarding mechanisms, which have been passed down through the generations that are described at length in Border Lines.

In shir Hashirim Rabbah, texts concerning mediation focus on (Matan Torah | ?????? ?????? ) the giving of Torah at Mt. sinai. since Torah plays such a central role in Judaism, the possibility that Torah was given through a mediating Word that is a substantial, distinguishable expression of God is a crucial issue.

An Angel as Mediator

Another interpretation of May he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth

R. Yohanan said, “An angel would bring out the Word (dibbur | ??????? ) from before the Holy One, blessed be He—each and every word [of the Ten Commandments]. And he went in turn to each and every Israelite. And the angel says to him, ‘Do you receive upon yourself this Word . . . such and such commandments as are in it?’ . . . And the Israelite would say to him, ‘Yes,’ and [the angel] would respond and say to him, ‘Do you receive the divinity [elohuto | ?????????? ] of the Holy One, blessed be He?’ And [the Israelite] would say to him, ‘Yes and yes.’ Immediately [the angel] would kiss him on his mouth, as it is written, You have been shown that you might know (Deut. 4.25) by [an angelic] emissary.” (song of songs Rabbah 1:2:2).

I will focus on a few key elements of this midrash, keeping in mind that mi- drash is theologically driven and visual elements are often keys to that theology. Three images in this midrash are (1) the angel brings out the Word from before the Holy One; (2) the angel speaks directly to each and every Israelite; (3) the angel kisses each Israelite.

In this midrash, the angel serves as a mediator between the Holy One and Israel. The Word, which consists of “each and every word,” is entirely passive and without personality. Though there are hundreds of examples in rabbinic texts of the Word speaking, here the Word is completely silent.

Second, even though the Torah is given to the people as a community, the opportunity to receive Torah is given to every Israelite.

Third, the angel’s kiss is a sign of approval that each Israelite acknowledges the divinity of the Holy One. These are the kisses of May he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.

In John 1, the Word appears in the beginning with God and as God, is the agent of creation, and becomes flesh, dwelling among his fellow Jews. The rabbis, who interacted with Christian clerics, would have been aware of such basic Christian teaching. R. Yohanan’s midrash portrays the Word in a way that minimizes any similarities to that Word. The midrash is clearly designed to minimize the role of the Word, reducing it to an inert message that has to be carried around and delivered by an angel. In addition, the angel’s requirement that each Israelite affirm the divinity of the Holy One forces a clear distinction between the Holy One on the one hand and both the angel and the Word on the other.

However, the opinion of a single rabbi is not conclusive. A group of rabbis is about to disagree.

The Word and Israel

but the rabbis say, “The Word itself would go in turn to each and every Israelite and say to him, ‘Do you receive me (m’qableni | ???????????? ) upon yourself? such and such commandments as there are in me?. . .’ And [the Israelite] would say, ‘Yes and yes.’ Immediately the Word would kiss him on his mouth . . . and teach him Torah, as it is written, Lest you forget the words which your eyes have seen (Deut. 4.9). Words which your eyes have seen [refers to] how the Word would speak with you.” (song of songs Rabbah 1:2:2)

R. Yohanan’s midrash describes how the commandments were brought to Israel by an angel. The rabbis’ midrash works within the same narrative framework, even sharing dialogue as if from the same original script. However, the message is radically altered, primarily because in the rabbis’ midrash the Word (which is always dibbur | ???????? ) in shir Hashirim Rabbah) plays the lead role in place of the angel. (1) The Word speaks directly to each and every Israelite; (2) the Word asks each Israelite to “receive me”—me, the Word, the one who brings you Torah; (3) the Word kisses each Israelite after they agree to receive him; these are the kisses of May he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth; (4) the divinity of the Holy One is not mentioned; (5) the Word follows up by teaching Torah to each Israelite; (6) the Word is visible, according to the scripture citation and explanation at the end of the midrash (“Words which your eyes have seen [refers to] how the Word would speak with you.”). In this midrash, the Word is clearly personal, relating to human beings on several levels— speaking, requesting, kissing, and teaching.

Marc Hirshman points out that this midrash and the preceding one “differ on the measure of hypostasis, or substance, ascribed to ‘the utterance.’ The rabbis believed that the utterance could reveal itself to the people of Israel, while R. Yohanan believed that an angel brought the word of God to the people and explained it.”29

While Hirshman cautiously credits the Word with a measure of hypostasis, Michael Fishbane is bolder in his assertion that “There can be no doubt that they [the accounts of R. Yohanan and the rabbis] are the product of an emergent theology of the divine logos . . .”30 R. Yohanan’s midrash is in tension with the rabbis’ midrash, but it also provides a springboard for the rabbis’ view of the Word as mediator. by characterizing these midrashim as “the product of an emergent theology of the divine Logos,” Fishbane relates them to subsequent developments, especially in Jewish mysticism, where mediation is a key feature.

One of the distinctive features of this midrash is the relationship of the Word to the Torah. The Word is not equivalent to the words of Torah, as it is in R. Yohanan’s midrash. The Word brings, explains, and offers Torah to each Israelite and then, after kissing those who receive him, he teaches them Torah. Although this Word does not become flesh, he is far more substantial a mediator than is R. Yohanan’s Word. The Word has not been subsumed under Torah. Clearly, this midrash undermines boyarin’s statement that “For the Rabbis, Torah supersedes Logos . . . the Logos incarnate in the book displaces the Logos that subsists anywhere else but in the book.”31

The Word and God

The characteristics of the Word are developed in two additional midrashim. The first addresses the nature of the Word’s connection with the Holy One.

R. Berakhiah said, “R. Helbo taught me [on Tannaite authority,] that the Word was inscribed on its own, and when it was inscribed, the sound went out from one end of the world to another. The voice of Hashem carves a blaze of fire (Ps. 29.7). I said to R. Helbo, . . . ‘[Then] what is the meaning of tablets of stone written with the finger of God (Exod. 31:18)?’ He said to me, ‘Like a disciple who writes and his master guides his hand.’” (song of songs Rabbah 1:2:2).

This midrash addresses the inscription of the Ten Words on the stone tablets. R. Helbo claims that the Word, which is “the voice of Hashem,” acted on its own, inscribing itself [!] on the stone tablets. R. berakhiah counters that R. Helbo’s notion violates the plain sense of Exodus 31:1, which states that the tablets were “written with the finger of God.” R. Helbo responds with a word-picture: the master (teacher) places his hand on the disciple’s hand to guide him. The word “disciple” here signifies a young man discipled to a sage (his master). It is likely that the rav is teaching him how to properly write a Torah scroll. The disciple yields to the mind and will of his master. According to R. Helbo’s response, the Word inscribed the Torah on its own—with its own hand—under the guiding hand of God. In this way, it can be said that God and the Word worked entirely in concert; they both inscribed the Ten Words on the tablets. This midrash affirms both the volitional individuality of the Word and the conformity of the Word to the will of God.32

The Word Speaks With God

Our final midrash is taken from another portion of shir Hashirim Rabbah.

His mouth is most sweet. R. Azariah and R. Aha, in the name of R. Yohanan, said, “At the moment Israel heard, on sinai, I [am Hashem your God],” their spirit flew away, as it is written, If we hear the voice any more [we shall die], [Deut. 5:25] as is said, My soul departed when he spoke [songs 5:6].”

The Word returned before the Holy One, blessed be He, and said, “Master of the World, you are living and eternal and your Torah is living and eternal. but you [have] sent me to [among] the dead—all of them are dead.” And at that time the Holy One, blessed be He, responded and made the Word more palatable33 to them, as it is written, The voice of Hashem is powerful; the voice of Hashem is majestic [Ps. 29:4]. (song of songs Rabbah 5:16:3).

Here the Holy One speaks the first of the Ten Words, “I am Hashem your God,” [who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery].” The powerful, majestic voice terrified Israel, and “their spirit flew away.”

The wording of this midrash—Israel hears the Voice of Hashem, followed by the Word returning to the Holy One—again seems to identify the Word as the Voice. Apparently, the Word spoke to Israel, their spirit flew away, and they appeared life- less. The Word returned to the Holy One with a report, expressing anguish at the deadness of the people. This emotion adds to the Word’s persona. The Holy One responds by making the Word more palatable to Israel, presumably by limiting its power and majesty.

For the first time in these midrashim, we see (1) the Word speaking to, and not only on behalf of, God, and (2) God speaking to the Word. This heightens the distinguishable identity of the Word to a level we have not seen before. As Israel Efros observed, in this midrash the mediating Word (dibbur) “is a separate being.”34 This is evidently a hypostatic Word and not merely a voice.

The midrashim of the rabbis, R. berakhiah, and R. Azariah and R. Aha all weave the hypostatic Word as a mediator into the bible’s narration of events surrounding the giving of Torah on Mt. sinai. The inclusion of only one of these midrashim in shir Hashirim Rabbah would not necessarily represent the consensus view of the tradition (or even of shir Hashirim Rabbah). Together, the three express a coherent perspective that is undoubtedly the dominant thinking of shir Hashirim Rabbah on the subject. The fourth—R. Yohanan’s midrash—is rejected by the rabbis but functions as a springboard for them to express their understanding of the Word as mediator. Taken together, this sequence of midrashim testifies that the editor(s) of shir Hashirim Rabbah found that understanding to be acceptable and worthy to transmit. This provides a level of legitimacy that individual midrashim do not possess.

Combining these midrashim taken from shir Hashirim Rabbah with the evidence gleaned from other midrash collections that were edited in the fourth through ninth centuries C.E.,35 it is clear that Daniel boyarin overstates his thesis that Rabbinic Judaism successfully suppressed the notion of a mediating, hypostatic Word. The same material undermines the claim of today’s Jewish community that mediation has never been part of Judaism.36

Adherence to Yeshua as mediator is a large factor in the rejection and stigmatization of Messianic Jews in the broader community. One of the devastating effects of such stigmatization is the birth of toxic shame within those who are stigmatized. In the case of Messianic Jews, that shame, coupled with fear of rejection, can stifle not only our faith but also our humanity if we voluntarily avoid identifying ourselves as Yeshua-believers in the larger community. There is “a time to be silent and a time to speak.” no good will come if we speak when it is “a time to be silent.” but if we are silent when it is “a time to speak,” our shame will only deepen. One way to resist that shame is to know on a very deep level that belief in a mediator is not “un-Jewish.”

Marginalization can also affect our relationship with God. The stigma and shame attach specifically to our bonds with Yeshua, with the potential to destabilize our relationship with God and our experience, for example, in prayer. A Jew does not pray only as an individual, or only as part of a minyan, but as part of a people.37 While it is healthy to acknowledge the wounds we experience and bring feelings of shame to God in prayer, even there, in the presence of God, we cannot allow ourselves to be separated from the community. In other words, when we come to God even for healing of wounds experienced in the community, we do not come only as individuals, but as a part of that very community that stigmatizes us.

Postscript—A Tikkun

In “Finding our Way Through nicaea,” Mark Kinzer writes that “To read and hear dialectically is to gather up the fragments, to perform a tikkun—a repair of what has been broken. We expect each tradition to offer correction and healing to the other.”38 In the interests of receiving something from the Jewish conversation and, hopefully, offering something back, I would like to offer another version, my own, of one of the midrashim discussed in this paper.

My beloved is like a gazelle. Rabbi Isaac said, “The community of Israel said before the Holy one, blessed be He: ‘sovereign of the Universe, you say to us, “My love, my longing”—you say “My love, my longing” to us first.” Just as a gazelle leaps from mountain to mountain and valley to valley, from tree to tree and fence to fence, so the Holy One, blessed be he, leapt from Egypt to the Red sea, from the Red sea to sinai, from sinai to nazareth, and from nazareth he leaps to the future [redemption].39

This writes Messianic Jews into the midrash in a way that is not stylistically intrusive, however problematic the content might be for non-Messianic Jews.


  1. Presented at the 2010 Hashivenu Forum in Los Angeles.
  2. Mark s. Kinzer, “Finding our Way Through nicaea: The Deity of Yeshua, bilateral Ecclesiology, and Redemptive Encounter with the Living God.” 2010 Hashivenu Forum (Los Angeles), pp. 7–8.
  3. See, for example, “scripture as Inspired, Canonical Tradition,” delivered at the 2001 Hashivenu Forum (Pasadena, CA).
  4. Almost certainly, these texts were transmitted orally for several generations, perhaps with private notes as memory aids, before being written down in the fourth century C.E. and later.
  5. The terms “Palestinian” and “Palestinian rabbis” are standard academic terms used by Jewish and non-Jewish scholars. This developed because the region where the sages lived had been named “Palaestina.” The use of these terms does not imply any position on the current situation in the Middle East.
  6. The translations of the Tanak and midrash are mine, made in consultation with the Jewish Publication society Tanakh, Maurice simon, Midrash Rabbah Song of Songs. London: soncino Press, 1939, Michael Fishbane, “Anthological Midrash and Cultural Paidea: The Case of Songs Rabba 1.2” in Peter Ochs and nancy Levene, Eds. Textual Reasonings: Jewish Philosophy and Text Study at the End of the Twentieth Century. Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2002, pp. 32–51, and Jacob neusner, A Theological Commentary to the Midrash: Volume 3, Song of Songs Rabbah. Lanham, MD: University Press of American, 2002. Translations of the Apostolic Writings (new Testament) are adapted from the NASB and NIV.
  7. Jewish philosophy (philosophy carried out by Jews or concerning Judaism) has been practiced at least since Philo of Alexandria (20 b.C.E. to 50 C.E.). Unlike midrash and halakah, it is not characterized by a consistent idiom but exists at the intersection of Jewish thought and non-Jewish philosophy.
  8. See Daniel boyarin, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash. bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1990, pp. 105–116.
  9. The most thorough work on inner-biblical interpretation is Michael Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  10. It has been suggested that “the spiritual rock” reflects a Jewish tradition of a moving well that is found in a few early midrashim. see Peter E. Enns, “The ‘Moveable Well’ in 1 Cor 10:4: An Extrabiblical Tradition in an Apostolic Texts.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 6 (1996), pp. 23–28. However, there is no consensus that 1 Cor. 10 relies on that tradition. There is also no common interpretation of verse 4. see Carlos R. bovell, “scriptural Authority and believing Criticism: The seriousness of the Evangelical Predicament.” Journal of Philosophy & Scripture, Volume 3 Issue 1, Fall 2005, p. 22.
  11. Close reading is a careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of text, emphasizing the particular over the general, paying close attention to individual words, syntax, and the order in which sentences and ideas unfold as they are read.
  12. For a discussion of major differences between Palestinian and babylonian Judaism of this period, see boyarin, Border Lines, pp. 151–201.
  13. “[T]hey would study” translates a Rabbinic Hebrew construction indicating regular or habitual action. From that point on, they would [regularly] study.
  14. Gerald L. bruns, Hermeneutics Ancient and Modern. new Haven: Yale University Press, 1992, p. 17.
  15. Stephen Fraade, “The Kisses of His Mouth: Intimacy and Intermediacy in as Performative Aspects of a Midrash Commentary” in Peter Ochs and nancy Levene, Eds. Textual Reasonings: Jewish Philosophy and Text Study at the End of the Twentieth Century. Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2002, p. 53.
  16. See Part Three: The Word As Mediator.
  17. The verb form is masculine and so could not refer to the Torah.
  18. See below in the section on Jeremiah 31:31–34.
  19. The “chain of transmission” by which Torah is said to have been transmitted is strangely not in view. Versions of the chain can be found in Mishnah Avot 1:1 and bavli Eruvin 54b.
  20. Verse 31 reads “the house of Israel and the house of Judah,” but uses the summary term “house of Israel” in verse 34.
  21. JPs translates yedu [?????] as “obey” instead of “know” in both occurrences in this verse. This serves to contrast obedience in the new covenant with disobedience in the Mosaic covenant. It also relates obedience in verse 34 to the Torah in verse 33. However, Koehler-baumgartner does not list “obey” among its primary translations of ??? in the qal. Instead, they concern some way of knowing, literal or figurative. Furthermore, the translation “obey” obscures the very point the midrash (and, I believe, the scripture) wants to make by associating Torah with the knowledge of God. Ludwig Koehler, Walter baumgartner, Johann Jakob stamm, and M. E. J. Richardson, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. E.J. brill, 2001, pp. 390–91.
  22. I am not able to address here the complex issues involved in the relationship of the two covenants. briefly, I believe that the fading of the old covenant mentioned in verse 13 concerns the sacrificial system and related matters.
  23. It is cited from the septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew bible into Greek, a common lan- guage of the eastern Mediterranean basin from the time of Alexander the Great (356–323 b.C.E). The noticeable difference between the Jeremiah and Hebrews passages is found at Hebrews 8:10, which reads “I will put my laws [instead of “law,” singular] in their minds [instead of “within them”] and write them on their hearts.” It is not within the scope of this paper to explore the use of the septuagint in the early Church and its implications for this passage.
  24. Likewise, the lives of all Yeshua-believers, Jew and Gentile, are inextricably intertwined. However, since the other nations of the world are not covenantally defined, Gentile Yeshua believers are not tied to the nations in the same way that Jewish Yeshua-believers are tied to the Jewish people. Messiah serves the Jewish people on the basis of the promises given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, while he serves the Gentiles on the basis of mercy. As Paul writes in Romans 15:8–9, For I say that Messiah has become a servant to the circumcision on behalf of the truth of God to confirm the promises given to the fathers, and for the Gentiles to glorify God for His mercy; as it is written, “Therefore I will give praise to you among the nations, and I will sing to your name” (Ps 18:49).
  25. Gerald L. bruns, Hermeneutics Ancient and Modern. new Haven: Yale University Press, 1992, p. 17.
  26. Daniel boyarin, Border Lines: The Partition of Judeo-Christianity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004, pp. 89–127.
  27. Boyarin, Border Lines, p. 129.
  28. In my view, the inclusion of these texts would likely have modified boyarin’s claims that Logos theology was completely suppressed in the formation of rabbinic Judaism. Vered Hillel suggests that these midrashic representations of mediation may have arisen not from remnants of the earlier Logos theology but as a response to Christian claims about Yeshua. she notes that the word ???????? may have been invented by the Amoraic rabbis for this purpose. (Private conversation on February 2, 2010 in Agora Hills, CA). If Hillel is correct—and I am inclined to think she is—these midrashim are relevant to boyarin’s discussion in Border Lines as an example of ongoing interaction and influence between the Jewish and Christian communities.
  29. Marc Hirschman, A Rivalry of Genius: Jewish and Christian Biblical Interpretation. stony brook, nY: state University of new York Press, 1996, p. 91.
  30. Although Fishbane does not elaborate on this point, it seems to be in line with the analysis suggested by Vered Hillel (see p. 25 n26). Michael Fishbane, “Anthological Midrash and Cultural Paideia: The Case of songs Rabba 1.2” in Peter Ochs and nancy Levene, Eds. Textual Reasonings: Jewish Philosophy and Text Study at the End of the Twentieth Century. Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2002, p. 35.
  31. Boyarin, Border Lines, p. 129.
  32. Like the familiar parables in the new Testament, this midrash is limited in focus. It does not pretend to fully describe either the Word or the Word’s relationship with the Holy One.
  33. In biblical and Rabbinic Hebrew the root ??? (mataq) word does not necessarily signify a sweetening (as in Modern Hebrew) but “making palatable”; see Exod 15:25, where the waters of Marah were “sweetened.”
  34. Efros, p. 69.
  35. There are more than a hundred textual witnesses to a hypostatic Word in the Amoraic Midrashim.
  36. Other modes of mediation merit further exploration by Messianic Jews devoted to engaging the Jewish conversation. Examples are the shekhinah as the mediating Presence of God in rabbinic literature and varieties of mediation involved in kabbalistic Judaism, where numerous hypostases (sefirot or emanations) are said to mediate between the Divine and human beings, E.g.,“For Keter [Crown] is the mediator between the [infinite] Emanator and the [finite] emanated beings, and the lowest level of the Ein sof is comprised in it.” In other words, the Keter shares in the “lowest level” of the Divine. see http://www.sichosinenglish.org/cgi-bin/lessons.cgi?dater=26092009&d1=133. Another phenomenon that deserves research is the mediatorial role of the tzadik in some Chassidic groups, especially the significance of the tzadik’s tomb. A rather mild example of the latter can be found in the official instructions for prayer at King David’s tomb on Mt. Zion: “Prayers to God at a tzadik’s grave are beneficial [because of] the tzadik’s neshama. The tzadik has more power in Heaven than we laymen do and therefore, he can elevate our prayers to levels that we can’t reach on our own.” http://www .kingdavidprayers.com/FAQ
  37. See my paper, “Communal Aspects of the besorah.” 2004 Hashivenu Forum (Pasadena, CA).
  38. “Finding our Way Through nicaea,” p. 8.
  39. I recommend a serious apprenticeship in midrash before attempting such a tikkun publicly.
 
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