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SIDIC Periodical IX - 1976/2
Targum and Midrash (Pages 21 - 23)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

The Use of Jewish Commentaries for Christian Preaching
William L. Weiler


The following lecture by. Dr. William Weiler of the Office on Christian-Jewish Relations, National Council of Churches, New York, was presented in June 1975 at the bbannual conference of the World Council of Churches Consultation on the Church and the Jewish People in Sigtuna, Sweden. It is reprinted from Lectures on Jewish and Christian Worship, World Council of Churches, Geneva 1975, pages 23 to 29.

All of us gathered here on this significant occasion come from various walks in our Christian life, some of us pastors, others teachers, others church officials, some engaged in the work of the church's mission at home and abroad. We represent many different traditions of Christian belief and practice, and bear the names of various Christian denominations. There is one thing, however, which binds us all together, and that I assume is a strong concern; a concern for the church, a concern for the Jewish people, and the relation between them. If I can assume that it is precisely this concern which brings most of us many miles from our homes to take part in this consultation, then we do have among us a strong unifying factor. This factor relates to the roots of our common tradition as it is found in the Hebrew Scriptures and the teachings of Judaism. As I mention these roots in the Hebrew tradition, I in no way detract from the uniqueness of Christianity and its singular place in the world today. But I am mindful, and hardly need to emphasize this in the present company, that Christianity is the meeting of two great traditions East and West, Judaism and Hellenism, Abraham and Jesus.
United as we are with the Jewish people in a common library of canonical writings, namely the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings, we are united with them as well in the age-old tradition of striving to illuminate, clarify and explain the sacred text. The earliest commentaries on the Scriptures are the interpretative glosses found in the sacred text itself. For Christian believers the New Testament serves in part as an illumination and explication of what we have called the Old Testament. The writings of the early Christian period, the teaching of the twelve apostles and the early apostolic fathers are in large part given to the interpretation of the sacred text. The reformers continue this practice and leave us with a legacy of scripture commentary bearing the names of such men as Martin Luther and John Calvin. Our own century has seen the beginning of a new era in Bible commentary with the appearance of Karl Barth's commentary on the Epistle to the Romans in 1918. The advent of Ephraim Speiser's commentary on Genesis, the first volume of the Anchor Bible brings us up into modern times, contemporary times, in our endeavor to explicate our traditional writings. It is a process which has its roots in the writings of the biblical books themselves and one which I presume will continue as long as those books are revered and studied by the people of God.
It became the practice as early as the first century in Palestine for the entire five books of Moses to be read in the weekly synagogue readings in a cycle of three years. The Babylonian practice was to cover the entire Torah in the Sabbath day lections in one year the practice which prevails in the liturgical readings of the synagogue today. The pious Jew who follows the synagogue cycle reads not just the sacred text, but three separate lections; namely, the Hebrew text for the appointed portion, the Aramaic translation of that passage known as the Targum, and finally the explication of the Torah passage in the words of the beloved interpreter of Scripture, Rashi. In this way the practicing Jew and the traditional expositor of the Hebrew Scriptures reads his sacred text living the age-old tradition of the Aramaic commentary and the traditional expositor of the law. This three-fold systematic approach to the lectionary cycle reinforces his knowledge of the Hebrew text, and steeps him in the traditions of the rabbis. It is within this third dimension, namely in the reading of the commentary by Rashi that the reader is confronted with the vast wealth of midrashic and halakhic lore.
I suggest that there is a useful parallel between the practice of the synagogue in its ongoing study of its sacred text and the practice of the Christian assembly as it learns from its Jewish forebears the basic principles of liturgical piety. We, too, read our New Testament Scriptures in a continuous round of lections, particularly those of us who are part of liturgical tradition. In place of the Sabbath readings of Torah and Prophets we accompany our Eucharistic celebration with the public reading of Old Testament lections, Epistles, and Gospels. In recent times this ancient practice of including an Old Testament pericope has dwindled, but is being restored in the liturgical revision of several of the churches. Note that whereas the synagogue used a descending order of reverence of its reading of the Scriptures, namely Torah, then the haftarah or prophetic readings, the church reversed the order to an ascending one, that is, Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel.
The question arises, where then is the Christian Targum? We have a Targum to our sacred text, one that brings us very close to the traditions of the first century, namely the Aramaic rendering of the New Testament known as the Peshitta. This Syriac translation of the New Testament which in its present form dates from the third century, no doubt has its roots in the very early traditions of the church, possibly extending near to the time of late apostolic age. Because of this early date and its strong linguistic affinity with the speech of the writers of the New Testament, I feel that more use could be made of the Peshitta as a Targum to the New Testament.
We have the text, we have the Targum in the form of the Peshitta, where then the Midrash or the homiletical commentary to the New Testament? I was once approached by a rabbi colleague of mine in Cincinnati, who posed a very interesting question. We Jews, x he said, enjoy the reading of the Midrash, because it forms for us our playground. Tell me, n he asked me, do you Christians have a similar body of interpretive literature which you can call your playground? x As I mused over this very piercing question I realized that Rabbi was very right in characterizing the midrashic commentaries of the Hebrew Scriptures as a playground, for it has been precisely this rich body of law and lore which has nurtured the Jewish people in its traditions from the earliest times. Furthermore, the Midrash, though it concerns itself with the halakhah or legal interpretation of the Bible, also provides the reader with a rich treasury of traditional story narrative. It does indeed form for the Jew his playground the place where he can allow his imagination to soar in his understanding of his sacred text.
I sought to answer the rabbi's inquiry with the suggestion that some of the exegetical and homiletical writings of the early fathers could in fact serve as a Christian playground. However, my argument was a weak one if not entirely invalid, since the fathers as the later interpreters of the Bible took their work very seriously and were strongly influenced by apologetic needs; they could hardly offer the pious Christian a place to play with the sacred text.
Moreover, it will occur to you that the limit of the New Testament documents and their strongly theological character do not readily lend them to this kind of playful interpretation. I could readily envision an aggadic Midrash on the stories in the Gospels, the sermons in the Acts, or on the vision of the Seer of Patmos, the Revelation.
Hillel the Elder who flourished about a century before the destruction of the second temple is credited with the first system of hermeneutic rules, known to the rabbis as middot. Hillel formulated seven exegetical principles. These middot were not original with Hillel; some of them were known among earlier interpreters of Scripture as well as in the Hellenistic world.
The famous sage of the early second century, Rabbi Akiva, developed the Jewish exegetical system even further by taking the point of view that the language of the Torah differs from human language. Thus Rabbi Akiva became the champion of eisegesis, and sought to find even in the smallest particles of the Hebrew language a meaning to be applied to the sacred text. Akiva's point of view was strongly opposed by a prominent expositor of scripture, Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, who declared: The divine law speaks in the ordinary language of human beings. He asserted that the deductions which Rabbi Akiba had offered were actually quite fanciful, and were not in keeping with the true meaning of the sacred text. He allowed therefore only such deductions as could be justified by the spirit of the passage in consideration. The thirteen rules which Rabbi Ishmael formulated are commonly read in the liturgical cycle of daily prayer.
The place to begin in our pursuit of traditional Jewish commentators is with the most revered of the many traditional expositors of Holy Scripture. Rabbi Solomon bar Isaac, the French commentator on the Bible, was born in Troyes, France in the year 1040, and died there sixty-five years later. An acrostic formed with the initial letters of his name gives him the common nickname Rashi. We are indebted to this French Jew for a voluminous treasury of exegesis on the entire Bible. Rashi's commentary to the five books of Moses when it appeared in 1475 was in fact the first dated Hebrew book ever printed. This remarkable Jewish sage wrote not only an exposition of the Bible, but a commentary on the entire Talmud both Mishnah and Gemara, the latter with the exception of several books. Rabbi Isaac, a simple but learned man, who knew only the Jewish traditions and the French language, provides us with the most comprehensive collection of old French in the glosses he supplies in his commentaries. The value of Rashi's scripture elucidations lies in their pristine clarity and conciseness. Though his knowledge of grammar was sometimes inadequate, he possessed a remarkable facility for the elucidation of obscure or disputed points in the sacred text. Although the French commentator often took pains to indicate what the legal interpretation of the text might be, he provides us with a rich collection of story and narrative related to the tradition.
Rashi strongly influenced the French monk Nicholas of Lyra, the fourteenth century expositor of Holy Scripture. Martin Luther, who drew heavily upon Nicholas's biblical interpretations, consequently owes much to the Jewish scholar of Troyes.
Why is it, you might ask, that in the mid-twentieth century I am encouraging Christian students of Scripture to search the writings of a naive Jewish interpreter who wrote nine hundred years earlier. Certainly a considerable amount of knowledge has been our legacy in the centuries following the noble efforts of the scholar of Troyes. More dependable manuscripts, new techniques of scholarly exegesis, and illuminating archeological finds have all added to our store of scholarly tools. None of these, however, displaced the insightful, concise elucidation that Rashi provides in his commentary to Scripture. Rashi and his medieval contemporaries possessed a vast comprehension of the whole of Scripture. In the days before concordances and computerized word studies, scholars like him relied on a lifetime of saturation in the biblical revelation. Moreover, Rashi and his colleagues were imbued with the rich halakhic and midrashic traditions of the Jews, and could bring to bear the vast wealth of tradition on the interpretation of the sacred text. Finally, the medieval commentators possessed naive but inquiring minds whose questions on the sacred text are of ten direct and piercing, and frequently much more valuable than the answers they supply.
Those of you who regularly study the Old Testament with traditional Hebrew commentators will know the value of this pursuit. Those who do not may fear that this is an extremely difficult excursion into an unknown and esoteric world. I would like to encourage all of you to try this refreshing approach to the understanding of sacred Scripture. It will provide for you a renewed understanding of the Bible as it is read and interpreted by your Jewish neighbor. It will provide, moreover, a rich treasury of homiletical illustration, and I submit, will open your eyes to a new understanding of scriptural understanding. Best of all, it will introduce you to a joyful approach to the reading of Scripture, that may well become your own playground. . . .
Allow me to present what I feel is a very simple and practical approach to the use of Jewish commentaries for Christian preaching. Many helps are available for the understanding of Jewish interpreters of Scripture, particularly for the understanding of Rashi and his commentary. One need not delay, therefore, in beginning this delightful excursion into the world of Jewish biblical exegesis.
Begin with a small and meaningful passage of Scripture. The first step is to know the Hebrew text of the passage intimately, an achievement that can only be obtained by reading it over many times. If you are dealing with a Torah passage, I recommend reading that verse in an unpointed text found in a tikkun or unpointed Torah text. Only after you are thoroughly familiar with the Hebrew text can you proceed to the traditional exegetes. You will note that the commentator begins with the caption, a few words from the biblical text to identify the passage he is clarifying. His explication may extend beyond the few words quoted, since the caption offers merely a catch word to identify
the place in the text. In very concise fashion the interpreter will bring his explication to those words. It may be a brief clarification of the meaning of a given Hebrew word. It may relate the reader to a parallel in the Bible or sometimes to a passage of rabbinic literature. It is sometimes the practice of Rashi to render the Hebrew word in a translation of old French. At times the commentator will offer an explanation of the grammar of the passage. Those of you who regularly refer to Gesenius-Kautsch might be a trifle disappointed in your commentator's grammatical explanation. Very frequently you will be delighted to discover that your commentator refers you to a midrashic explanation of the passage at hand.


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