Rabbinic Judaism
The Search for Meaning


What is the Meaning of Creation?
The craving for unity and coherence is the predominant feature of a mature mind. All science, all philosophy, all art are a search after it. But unity is a task; not a condition. The world lies in strife, in discord, in divergence. Unity is beyond, not within, reality. ... The world is not one with God, and this is why his power does not surge unhampered throughout all stages of being. Creature is detached from the Creator, and the universe is in a state of spiritual disorder. Yet God has not withdrawn entirely from this world. The spirit of this unity hovers over the face of all plurality; and the major trend of all our thinking and striving is its mighty intimation. The goal of all efforts is to bring about the restitution of the unity of God and world. (Abraham Joshua Heschel in Living Religions, 280; cf. 270)
What is the Meaning of Sin?
15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” ... 3 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me — she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” ...

22 And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” 23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side[m] of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. (NIV: Genesis 2:15-3:24)

  • What is the significance of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit? Are Jewish and Christian interpretations of this story the same?
What is the Meaning of Morality?
With the establishment of the First Temple (c. 10th/9th century BCE), the priesthood formalized the practice of atoning for sin through sacrificial offerings, the most important of which took place on Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement). This approach was challenged, however, by the prophet Isaiah (8th-7th centuries BCE), who insisted that God was not interested in the Jews’ sacrificial offerings, but in their moral conduct:
“What need have I of all your sacrifices?” says the Lord. “I am sated with burnt offerings of rams, And suet of fatlings, And blood of bulls; And I have no delight in lambs and he-goats. That you come to appear before Me — Who asked that of you? Trample My courts no more; Bringing oblations is futile, Incense is offensive to Me. ... And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you; Though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are stained with crime Wash yourselves clean; Put your evil doings away from My sight. Cease to do evil; Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; Defend the cause of the widow.
       Come, let us reach an understanding, says the Lord. Be your sins like crimson, They can turn snow-white; Be they red as dyed wool, They can become like fleece. If, then, you agree and give heed, You will eat the good things of the earth; But if you refuse and disobey, You will be devoured [by] the sword. For it was the Lord who spoke. (An Anthology of Living Religions, 196 [Isaiah 1:11-20])
  • How did this new understanding of sin — and the means by which it may be cleansed — help to redefine the Jewish belief that they are God’s “chosen” people?
What is the Meaning of
the Torah
& the Mishnah?
After the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, the Jews shifted their focus from sacrificial offerings to the study and practice of the Torah (Pentateuch) and the Mishnah (Oral Teachings) — though it should be noted that Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) has remained the holiest day of the year, although the obligatory fasting and prayers are no longer accompanied by animal sacrifices. The primary focus on Torah and Mishnah led to the development of two new collections of writings: Midrash (interpretations of the Torah) and Talmud (Commentaries on the Mishnah). The following story from the Babylonian Talmud (1st century CE) illustrates the significance of this new emphasis on the search for meaning within the Torah and the Mishnah:
On that day Rabbi Eliezer brought forward all of the arguments in the world [in favor of his position on a certain matter of ritual cleanliness], but they [his colleagues] did not accept them from him.
He said to them: “If the law agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it.” The carob-tree leaped a hundred cubits from its place in the garden. The sages replied: “No proof can be brought from a carob-tree.” He said to them: “If the law agrees with me, let this stream of water prove it.” The stream of water began to flow backwards. The sages replied: “No proof can be brought from a stream of water.” Again he said to them: “If the law agrees with me, let the walls of this schoolhouse prove it.” The walls began to shake and incline to fall. Rabbi Joshua leaped up and rebuked the walls saying: “When disciples of sages engage in legal dispute what is your relevance?” In honor of Rabbi Joshua the walls did not tumble. In honor or Rabbi Eliezer they did not right themselves, and are still inclined even to this day. Again Rabbi Eliezer said to the sages: “If the law agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven.” A divine voice came forth and said: “Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, for in all matters the law agrees with him!” But Rabbi Joshua rose to his feet again and exclaimed: “It is not in heaven.” (cf. Deut. 30:12; Rabbi Jeremiah explained, “The Law was given at Sinai and we no longer give heed to heavenly voices, for in that Law it is stated: ‘One follows the majority.’” God’s truth, divine law, is not determined by miracles or heavenly voices, but by the collegium of rabbis, men learned in the law, committed to the law and expert in its application to the life of the pious community.”]
Some time later, Rabbi Nathan met the prophet Elijah and asked him: “What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do when rebuked by Rabbi Joshua?” Elijah replied: “He laughed with joy saying ‘My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.’” (World Religions and Global Ethics, 166 [Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 59a-b])
  • Why does God laugh with joy, saying: “My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me”? What does this tell us about the Jewish Search for Meaning”?
What is the Meaning of “Messiah”?
The roots of the messianic dimension of Judaism lie in the Book of Isaiah, where God says that He will turn His hand against the sinful nation of Israel in order to “thoroughly purge away your dross and remove all your impurities” (Isaiah 1:25), but will ultimately restore your leaders as in days of old” (Isaiah 1:26) so that Israel can serve as a light unto the nations”:
2 This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
2 In the last days
the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
    as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
    and all nations will stream to it.
3 Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
    so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
    the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 He will judge between the nations
    and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war anymore.
5 Come, descendants of Jacob,
    let us walk in the light of the Lord
(NIV: Isaiah 2:1-5)
The first half of this prophecy was fulfilled when the northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians in 721 BCE and the southern Kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The loss of the north resulted in the disappearance of ten of the original twelve tribes of Israel, while the loss of the south led to the exile of the Judean elite to Babylon. When Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, Jews referred to him as a messiah, which literally means one who is annointed by God. However, the region remained under foreign sovereignty, with the Persians being replaced by Alexander the Great and then the Seleucids. It was in this context that the Jews began to yearn for the second half of the Isaian prophecy — for the “last days” when Israel will serve as a “light unto the nations.  In the second century BCE, the Book of Daniel responded to this yearning with a new prophecy:

7 In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream, and visions passed through his mind as he was lying in bed. He wrote down the substance of his dream.

2 Daniel said “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea. 3 Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea. ...

11 ... “I kept looking until the [fourth] beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire. 12 (The other beasts had been stripped of their authority, but were allowed to live for a period of time.)

13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him [note: the Complete Jewish Bible translates this line as “To him was given rulership, glory and a kingdom, so that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him”]. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. ...

23 The fourth beast is a fourth kingdom that will appear on earth. It will be different from all the other kingdoms and will devour the whole earth, trampling it down and crushing it. 24 The ten horns are ten kings who will come from this kingdom. After them another king will arise, different from the earlier ones; he will subdue three kings. 25 He will speak against the Most High and oppress his holy people and try to change the set times and the laws. The holy people will be delivered into his hands for a time, times and a half time.

26 “‘But the court will sit, and his power will be taken away and completely destroyed forever. 27 Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him[note: the Complete Jewish Bible has “Their kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will serve and obey them”]. (NIV: Daniel 7:1-27)

  • How might this passage be interpreted from a Jewish perspective ... and how might this differ from a Christian interpretation?
By the first century CE, expectations had developed that through this Messiah, God would gather the chosen people and not only free them from oppression but also reinstate Jewish political sovereignty in the land of Israel. The messianic end of the age, or end of the world, would be heralded by a period of great oppression and wickedness. Many felt that this time was surely at hand. There were some Jews who felt that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. (Living Religions, 263-4)
  • What did the Jews expect of a messiah ... and why did most Jews ultimately decide that Jesus was not the messiah?