Saturday, June 21, 2008

Book Review: the Limits of Orthodox Theology, Chapter Six, Prophecy and the Uniqueness of Moses

"These Principles teach the existence of prophecy, and that Moses was the greatest prophet who ever lived. He prophesied with intellect alone, without the imaginative faculty playing any role. In addition to listing four ways in which Moses' prophecy differed from that of all other prophets, the Seventh Principle also includes the belief that no prophet as great as Moses will ever arise again."

There are debates about the nature of prophecy, but not Orthodox thinker denies prophecy outright. The crux of this chapter revolves around whether there will be or was a prophet greater than Moses.

Those who agree with the Seventh Principle, see this based on Deuteronomy 34:10 which states "there has no arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, who the Lord knew face to face." Shapiro writes that the notion of Moses' unsurpassed greatness of his prophecies is widely assumed in talmudic and midrashic literature.

Of notable exception, Bamidbar rabah 14:34 teaches that Balaam was the equal of Moses as a prophet. At the same time it upholds Deut. 34:10 by focusing in on how Balaam was not "in Israel" but of the nations. The midrash focuses in on three ways Balaam surpassed Moses, including Balaam being able to speak to God whenever he wished.

Shapiro writes, "the issue becomes more complicated in relation to the messiah." He notes that the aforementioned Bible verse speaks of the past and not about a future prophet.

In regards to the Messiah, Nahmanides and Gersonides disagree with the Seventh Principle and R. Hayim ben Attar leaves open the possibility that the Messiah may surpass Moses.

Gersonides focues on the phrase "in Israel" in Deuteronomy and concludes that a prophet will arise to prophesy for both Israel and the nations.

Lastly, Shapiro notes some in the kabbalistic tradition who believe Moses' understanding was inferior to some kabbalists, but that doesn't apply to prophesy per se.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Book Review: The Limits of Orthodox Theology, Chapter Five, Only God is to be Worshipped

"The Fifth Principle teaches that only God is to be worshipped. Stars, spheres, angels, and elements and their compounds have no free will, and as such must not be used as intermediaries to reach God."

The majority of the chapter centers around numerous references to praying to angels and asking them to intercess on our behalf. This type of intercession can even be found in the Talmud (BT Berakhot 60b, BT Sanhedrin 44b). More interesting is the fact that Maimonides himself contradicts the Fifth Principle in the Mishneh Torah (quoting BT Ber. 60b in 'Hilkhot tefilah' 7:5).

But there is one paragraph in this chapter which by itself makes this chapter valuable. One rabbi, Rabbi Nissim Gerondi of the fourteenth century, saw something in Scripture which violates (or seems to violate) the principle that only God is to be worshipped.
[Gerondi] puts forth the strange and original position that there is one particular angel before whom prostration is permitted. R. Nissim makes this claim in the course of explaining how it was that Joshua prostrated himself before an angel (Josh. 5:14), an act which should be forbidden, just as it is forbidden to sacrifice an animal, burn incense, or put a libation to an angel. (Prostration, sacrifice, incense-burning, and libation are the four forms of worship singled out by the Talmud as always being forbidden, even if this is not how the deity in question is usually worshipped.) R. Nissim does not suggest that prostration to an angel performed as an act of honor is permitted, just as it is with humans. This is probably because the Talmud (BT San. 61b) specifically exempts prostration to humans from the prohibition if it is not done as an act of worship. The implication is that prostration is by definition to be regarded as a form of worship with regard to angels. According to R. Nissim, however, there is one angel who is special in this regard, and before whom one can prostrate oneself. This is the angel spoken of in Exodus 23:20-2, concerning whom God says 'My name is in him.' It is because this angel in osme way share an aspect of God's divinity that it is treated differently from the other angels. As R. Nissim put it, 'Prostrating before him is as if one is prostrating before God.'

What Rabbi Nissim was in Scripture was an angel who shared aspects of God's divinity. God Himself says that God's name was within this angel.

As I've discussed previously, that angel can be explained by Christian beliefs. We have evidence of the Trinity.

How can an angel be divine and identified apart from God at the same time? In the same way as John 1:1 does regarding Jesus. Y'shua is both God and distinct from God the Father.

Traditional Jewish theology cannot handle these Scripture verses. If you want to keep the Fifth Principle, you need to let go of the Second Principle. And vice-versa.

Given the passages in the Tanakh which deal with this angel, it is surprising only one rabbi (that Shapiro knows of) caught the tension between Jewish theology and those texts.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, June 09, 2008

Book Interview: Christ in the Feast of Pentecost

Rich Robinson, co-author of Christ in the Feast of Pentecost, graciously took some interview questions. He just emailed them back to me. Considering today is Shavuot/Pentecost, let's post it.


1) What is the feast of Pentecost and what should we know about it?
3) How is Christ in the Feast of Pentecost?
4) How does Pentecost relate to the historical event in the early church that most Christians are familiar with? How does knowing about the biblical festival increase our understanding of the 1st century event?

Rich Robinson:Pentecost means "fiftieth" and refers to the holiday that goes by the name Shavuot in Judaism. Shavuot means "weeks" and falls 50 days after Passover or about seven weeks later. What Christians should understand about Pentecost is that when we read the account in Acts chapter 2, we are really reading about a Jewish holiday. By the time of Jesus and the apostles, the day had become the celebration of the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, complete with fire and thunder. Essentially, what we have in Acts 2 is another giving of God's word, with similar sounds and tongues of fire. It was another Mount Sinai experience. There also was a legend among the Jewish people that God had spoken his Law to all the nations of the world, each in their own language, before offering it to Israel, so on the day of Pentecost in Acts, God's word through the apostles is heard by many nations, each in their own language.

2) What are the differences and similarities in how it is celebrated today as compared with Jesus' time or earlier?

Rich Robinson: From the days of Moses to the time of Jesus, Shavuot was an agricultural holiday of first fruits. God gave the land, he blessed the crops, and so you brought the first of the produce to Him. By also before the days of Jesus, there developed the association that God had given the Law on Shavuot. When the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., it ceased being an agricultural holiday and became a historical one entirely, commemorating Mt. Sinai.

Lots of traditions have accumulated over the years, and chief among them are eating dairy foods on Shavuot, decorating the synagogue with greenery, and if you're religious, you'll stay up all night studying the Torah.

5) Is there any future fulfillment of the Feast of Pentecost?

Rich Robinson: The first fulfillments had to do with firstfruits. Just as the first of crops were brought, the New Testament also tells us that Jesus was the firstfruits of those who will rise from the dead. Paul also uses the firstfruits idea to refer to the first people in any area who came to faith in Jesus.

The firstfruits of a crop were essentially a guarantee or promise that the rest of the crop would follow. Jesus' resurrection guarantees our own, and the first to come to faith in an area suggests more will follow. And in Romans, Paul remarks that we have the "firstfruits of the Spirit."

The ultimate fulfillment will be our resurrection when we receive the fulness of what God has for us. Till then, our Christian experience is only a "firstfruits."

6) Is there anything else you we should know about your book?

Rich Robinson: I think it's a book worth having, but as the co-author I am hopelessly biased!

Labels: , ,

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Book Review: The Limits of Orthodox Theology, Chapter Four, Creation Ex Nihilo

"The Fourth Principle affirms God's priority to other being (not his eternity, as has often been assumed), and creation ex nihilo, i.e. creation after absolute non-existence."

This is one of the shorter of the chapters in this book and will probably be the shortest review in this book. In other words, I don't feel I'd be cheating you for giving a quick summary.

No major figure denies God's priority to other beings. But there are examples of Jewish authorities denying creation ex nihilo (creation out of nothing). Most followed a Platonic conception that matter was eternal.

This can be best summed up by the following quote:
[Gersonides] is quite adamant that creation of matter out of nothing is impossible, and this is the basic stumbling-block for creation ex nihilo as far as he is concerned. That even God cannot do this does not limit him in Gersonides' eyes, for, as we have already seen, inability to do the impossible imples no imperfection.

So, in this principle, we do see the rather uninteresting qualification from the Second Principle (God not being able to do the impossible/meaningless) come into play for those who denied

All disagreements with this principle seem to be due to philosophical considerations.

Labels: ,

Book Review: The Limits of Orthodox Theology, Chapter Three, The Incorporality of God

"The Third Principle teaches God's incorporeality - that God is without image and form. According to Maimonides, this Principle includes the assertion that God cannot be described as being in movement or at rest, for this would mean that he has form and physical dimensions. Although, as we shall see, the Bible and Talmud speak of a corporeal God, Maimonides' philosophical outlook forced him to insist on divine incorporeality."

To me at least, this chapter came as one of the bigger surprises. Dr. Shapiro compiles numerous citations showing mainstream Jewish belief in a corporeal God.

Those who held this view had ample Biblical support for their view. Besides anthropomorphisms, being created "in the image of God" seems to be on As a believer in Jesus, it is nice we can quote Jesus as saying "God is Spirit" (John 4:24) or Paul who described God as invisible.

Evidence for the corporeal belief comes from some outside sources, including Justin Martyr. But there is also evidence for incorporeal belief from rabbinic times. Hecateus of Abdera (4th century BCE), Strabo (1st century), Livy (1st century), and Tacitus report on Jewish beliefs about God's incorporeality.

Shaprio also discusses varying opinions from Jewish authorities (ones who did believe in incorporeality) whether those who deviated from this principle should be considered heretics. If the Torah lends credence to this belief, why should it be held against people if they believe falsely based on the Torah? This is another example of Maimonides giving precedence to philosophy over Scripture, although as believers in Jesus we believe Maimonides is correct on this point.

However, there is a way that Christian beliefs help clear up the tension in the Biblical data. John states that no one has seen God but that Jesus makes him known (John 1:18) and Paul declares that Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15). This can helps us realize how God can remain unseen while manifesting Himself in ways some have seen.

Isaiah was criticized by Albo as Shapiro relates:
I have already quoted Isaiah 6:5, where we read that Isaiah saw God and feared that it would be his undoing. Instead of trying to explain Isaiah's vision -- 'I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and lifted up' -- in a philosophical manner, Albo claims that Isaiah, through his power of imagination.' Albo explains, 'The meaning is, I am affected by the power of imagination and my prophetic inspiration is not through a luminous glass like that of Moses, who heard a voice speaking to him without seeing any image before his eyes.' According to the Talmud, this utterance of Isaiah, which contradicted Moses' statement: 'For men shall not see Me and live' (Exod 33:20), was one of the reasons Manasseh slew him.

While we may not be exactly sure what Isaiah saw (the prophet may indeed be using figurative language), the New Testament helps us figure out the problem the Talmud wrestled with. A Trinitarian understanding shows us that God the Son reveals God the Father, who Paul describes as invisible and living in unapproachable light.

One of the more troubling aspects of Maimonides beliefs was that he believed all anthropmorphic descriptions of God must be understood figuratively. While we would agree that there is plenty of Biblical language which uses anthropomorphisms, not all texts can be explained away in this manner.

"...a corporeal God is a contradiction in terms, as it is impossible for a corporeal God to have the defining characteristics set down in the First and Second Principles. As note above, Maimonides also states that God, omnipotent though he is, is unable to assume corporeal form. In fact, Maimonides goes even further and states that one who believes in God corporeality is worse than some types of idolator."

One of the texts in this section I was very surprised not to see mentioned was Genesis 18. In this text, God appears to Abraham in human form. The text even refers to a location where the meeting occurs. Abraham even gives God food.

Again, the Christian conception helps explain the tensions in the biblical texts Maimonides cannot explain. There is a part of this principle which precludes the Christian conception of the incarnation, where God is still spirit but takes on human form.

We must always test our understandings and beliefs against Scripture. We must check our beliefs against all of Scripture, all of the biblical data.

Labels: , , ,