Teaching with the Rabbis

April 28th, 2011
This article is featured in the The Living Word (May/June/July 2011) issue of Circuit Rider

Pastors face the weekly challenge of teaching familiar texts in fresh ways, along with interpreting the Scriptures to people diverse in their theological perspectives. To meet this challenge, I draw inspiration from the ancient rabbis, whose stories and close attention to details in Scripture provide an unending stream of poignant thoughts on well-known passages. We can learn from the rabbis to help our laypeople grow into faithful interpreters.

The legend is told of an unspiritual man who started his study of the Torah quite late—at forty years of age. The man chanced upon a stone in which water had made a dent through the quiet dripping of the years. This question liberated his mind: “If these drippings can, by continuous action, penetrate this solid stone, how much more can the persistent word of God penetrate the pliant, fleshly human heart, if that word but be presented with patient insistency?” Thus one of the most celebrated rabbis, Akiva, began his journey to learn from those who had come before. According to tradition he made his own contributions, culminating in brutal martyrdom at the hand of the Romans.

In my rural congregation, people savor good tales, and the ancient rabbis have earthy stories by the hundreds. Often their traditions contain twists that question our cultural norms. And yet the rabbis were quite commonsensical, for all the centuries that separate us. They asked questions of Scripture that we have been conditioned not to ask. Through their midrash—an exploratory, conversational method of interpretation and study—they freely investigated the divine ways that seem not to make sense, as a child innocently asks “why” to every answer we give. They enjoyed the conversation with God—not the answers only—because it fueled their biblical imagination.

Interpretation and Imagination

The rabbis cherished creativity, which may very well challenge your accustomed hermeneutic. The rabbis’ nonlinear approach is different from the historical criticism that seminarians taught. Their reading resembles free-thought association within the canon. Yet this style fits quite well within my parishioners’ evangelical framework. A congregation will readily follow a sermon weaving connections between verses of Scripture that I once had learned to ignore on purpose.

 Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer is a midrashic work mostly covering Genesis, but in the commentary on creation the story of Jonah is wonderfully retold, as it pertains to the creation of fish on the fifth day. Jonah travels underwater in the belly of the great fish, venturing through dozens of passages from Scripture that deal with water. Midrashim exemplify the rabbis’ aptitude for canonical intertextuality. With serendipity, a single midrash often intersects matters that are comical, trivial, and profound.

By teaching with the rabbis, I have invented my own midrashim to fill in the silent spaces of Scripture. My parishioners are theologically conservative. Yet conservatives have less of a problem than I once did with narratives that flesh out the questions begged by the Bible. For example, most evangelicals assume that David himself penned the majority of the psalms. So it is but a small leap to preach on Psalm 91 by imagining the context of David’s reliance on the Lord in the early days of his strife with Saul. The same verse can inspire mention of Daniel in the lions’ den; or the Israelites’ trust in God when the serpents attacked, that they would look up to the bronze serpent and live—or in a similar vein, to recall that Paul once survived a viper bite without harm (Acts 28:3). This is fair game within the biblical imagination, and it is akin to that propensity the rabbis had for tracing the warp and woof of the canon. The psalms are an excellent place to create your own midrash, because most psalms do not have a narrative that is readily apparent.

This practice was difficult for me to accept at first. My modernist loyalties led me to interpret a passage first through a historical lens (how did it really happen? When and why was it really written?) and only add theological layers after that. Rabbinic interpretation challenges me spiritually and makes Scripture come alive again. Many mainline pastors have struggled to form a theological interpretation of Scripture, so favoring historical criticism that their efforts to preach the text’s modern relevance seems only half-serious.

In the past few decades, however, theological reading of Scripture has again flourished, along with the recovery of the Church Fathers and their genius. The Church Fathers wrestled deeply with Scripture in their own context, asking questions from their own Greco-Roman milieu. Let us add to our growing list of conversation partners the Rabbis of antiquity and the rabbis of our own day. My regular meetings with the rabbi in a nearby town help me grow. We read the Hebrew Bible together for the dual purposes of practicing our grammar and sharing reflections on the Scriptural inheritance we have in common.

Our Common Heritage

Since our faith draws from Jewish sources, you will find commonalities between the rabbinic material and the New Testament. The midrashic Genesis Rabbah teaches that God established the name of the Messiah before the creation of the world, along with the Temple and Israel. Compare this to 1 Peter 1:20 and Rev. 13:8. In the Babylonian Talmud we find the admonition not to give Satan an opening (similar to Eph. 4:27)[1] and a Mishnaic axiom: “by the measure that a person measures, so is he measured” (see Matt. 7:2). In Song of Songs Rabbah, there is a parable of a king who loses a pearl and a coin (Matt. 13:45-46, Luke 15:8-10).

These comparisons do not position the New Testament as superior to the ancient Rabbis, or vice versa, but learning about rabbinic literature helps locate Jesus and Paul within their rabbinic context. Some of the more obscure beliefs in the New Testament may receive partial explanation according to the ancient beliefs of rabbis that we no longer share. For instance, we no longer believe that the stars are angelic, though people wondered about Peter’s “angel” in Acts 12:15.

I should give one caveat. While I claim continuity with the ancient Rabbis, I must respect that continuity does not run both ways. The ancient Rabbis, along with contemporary rabbis, have not claimed continuity with Christianity. Still, if we acquaint ourselves with our contemporary rabbis and the world of Judaica and then share what we learn with our congregations, we may find that respect for our own teaching authority has increased as we shed light on the reality of the Bible’s Jewish context and history.

For example, we can provide a healthy alternative to the end-times theology so prevalent among many laypeople today, influenced by the Left Behind series and other Darbyist successors. There are assumptions about how Jewish people figure into eschatology, and that we should give some theological account of Judaism. Without pastoral guidance, laypeople may adopt a supercessionist understanding or elaborate eschatological schemes for Jews and the nation-state of Israel. Sadly, many pop theologies never engage Jews or Judaism from a Jew’s own perspective. In turn, dialogue with faithful Jews can carry weight with your parishioners. You can guide laypeople toward a healthier understanding of those cherished “end-times” passages. I have seen the rabbinic method revolutionize how laypeople interpret Scripture. Parishioners can grow in the attention they pay to the contexts of Scripture, and this interpretive skill becomes increasingly important as they grapple with difficult passages.

Ancient Tools for Modern Ministry

Rabbinic interpretation may at first seem inaccessible, since the accepted canon of rabbinic material is nonlinear, often titled with Hebrew names that do not describe the full contents of the work. I suggest picking up an English translation of excerpts from the Talmud or an introduction to the Talmud or rabbinic literature. Good translations will address the most important language issues in footnotes.

The rabbinic method does not give simplistic answers but seeks to form honest questions. For the Rabbis, truth is mediated, discussed, wrestled with, discovered, and earned after hard work; it is not declared simplistically. Wrestling with the Bible’s ambiguities does not negate the absolute truth of the Bible, and it need not diminish our devotion in searching the Scriptures. A pastor who first leads a congregation into rabbinic interpretation risks being misunderstood as “liberal,” but this need not be the end result. Easy answers are not always the best answers.

The quasi-scientific solutions that fundamentalists have proposed to biblical problems seem hardly relevant to my generation. I feel that millennials appreciate an intellectual honesty and vulnerability that engages Scripture with humility, instead of planting the epistemological victory flag at every chance. A more imaginative and nonlinear approach to Bible study can be very appealing to young adults today, drawing them into exploration of Scripture and faith that they may have avoided in the past.

Many have heard the moving words from the film Schindler’s List: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” This saying was engraved on a ring given to Schindler, but the quotation itself is buried within a dense portion of the Mishnah. Rediscovering this life-giving word caused me to think of another Teacher who spoke of finding one lost sheep, and leaving the ninety-nine for my sake.

Hidden gems like this will make teaching with the Rabbis a rewarding new enterprise for Bible students—and even pastors—who think they have heard it all before. They will reopen your imagination and feed your soul. So the next time you are racking your mind for an illustration to wedge into a sermon, look to the rabbinic corpus, or try writing your own midrash. You will be amazed at the joy that comes back to studying Scriptures you have preached for years.


[1] Belief in Satan is not commonly a feature in Judaism today.

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