Tovia Singer. Monsey, NY: Outreach Judaism, 1995. [NOTE: The series now includes 21 tapes, $89.00].
The following article departs from our usual format. In place of a book review, we offer a reflection by Dr. Arthur F. Glasser on the fifteen-tape counter-missionary cassette series, Let’s Get Biblical!” Dr. Glasser is Dean Emeritus and Professor Emeritus of Theology and East Asian Studies as well as Faculty Coordinator of Judaic Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, School of World Mission, Pasadena CA.
By now, many people have heard of Rabbi Tovia Singer, the director of Outreach Judaism, a national organization “dedicated to countering the efforts of Christian groups and cults that specifically target Jews for conversion.” His advertisements appear from time to time in various Jewish magazines, such as Moment, The Jerusalem Report, etc. Some Jewish as well as Gentile Christians have listened to his lectures in person; some have even come away convinced that the rabbi “has something to what he says.”
About a year ago, I was asked whether I was acquainted with the substance of Rabbi Singer’s audio cassette series, designed to “help Jews understand why Judaism does not accept the Christian Messiah.” At the time, I was somewhat aware of the existence of these tapes, but knew nothing of their content. Then last fall, several of our Fuller Seminary students, Gentile as well as Jewish, inquired whether I might meet with them on a one-on-one basis to discuss the substance of the tapes. After some discussion we agreed to listen to the tapes in sequence privately, and then meet weekly to share our reactions.
I have not had the opportunity to meet Rabbi Singer personally. He is in his thirties, an Orthodox Jew, warm, humorous and personable. His lectures come across as those of a popularizer rather than of a tough-minded intellectual. All that he says is replete with overtones of sincerity, intense loyalty to his people, and not a little derision of those who have been taken in by the pious though fraudulent convictions of evangelicals. He is genuinely pained over the losses that the Jewish community is experiencing over the growing numbers of Jewish people who are encountering Yeshua, the living Messiah, through the witness of His Jewish and Gentile followers.
The Rabbi’s presuppositions readily surface, although they are not all clearly articulated. What makes his lectures fascinating is that he accepts the Tanakh as the inspired and utterly trustworthy Word of God. This means that we are listening to the way in which our biblical faith in Yeshua is understood and evaluated by an Orthodox Jew.
In this connection I found his method of handling the Scriptures most problematic. As I sought to follow along with his examination of any particular text, what impressed me was his possession of an assured infallible understanding of each infallible text that allowed for no alternative opinion. His lectures are crowded with too much material, presented in too breathless a fashion, and thus the Rabbi does not pay too much attention to orderliness of presentation. Once a position has been affirmed, with a few asides as to how Christians deliberately play free and loose with what Jews know the biblical text really means, the Rabbi is hurrying on to the next point in his presentation. Somehow, I find myself impressed more by the mood the Rabbi creates than by the insights that he seeks to give to Scripture. We should not underestimate the effect this can have on an audience.
As I listened to his tapes, lecture after lecture, and sought to grasp their import, I was repelled by the sheer negativism of his presentations. All he wanted to do was to prove that Yeshua was not the Messiah. But in a very real sense, even this negativism is secondary to his primary concern. He is genuinely burdened for his people, particularly for the religious training of their children, and doubtless groans when he learns that even one Jewish person has left the community of the faithful to follow Yeshua.
Rabbi Singer does not openly denounce Yeshua. He only attacks what he thinks Yeshua’s followers in their ignorance and bigotry and falsifications have said about Him through their misunderstanding of the Tanakh and even the “Christian” Scriptures. Even so, this left me wondering. After all, there was a basic though silent question always at hand, and I cannot but believe that it had its own way of intruding into the consciousness of his hearers, though it was never addressed. Had I been present at one of the lectures I might have tried to break through the Rabbi’s relentless polemic with the question of questions: “Just who is this Yeshua of Nazareth you so constantly yet only indirectly attack?” But the Rabbi never made himself vulnerable on this crucial issue. He drew back from giving any clearly crafted statement as to who Yeshua is, and this did not strengthen his cause. After all, Yeshua claimed to be the Messiah—and most Jewish people know this. He also made staggering claims about Himself that infuriated the Pharisees again and again. Furthermore He predicted his rejection by His people, His crucifixion and His resurrection. In His day many Jewish people who knew Him “heard Him gladly.” They personally took Him to heart and became His disciples. Hence I cannot but believe that the intelligent Jewish people who make up the Rabbi’s audiences will not grow somewhat suspicious of the Rabbi’s constant barrage of sweeping denials.
But let me sound a caution. I would be negligent if I were to stop abruptly at this point. Indeed, there is another side to the Rabbi’s lectures and this warrants our closest attention. We need to know how informed Orthodox rabbis handle the Messianic passages in the Tanakh. It is essential that we all gain a clearer understanding of the substance of the instruction our Lord gave to His Jewish disciples when “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27).
The Rabbi’s Presentations
As would be expected, Rabbi Singer begins his lecture series with the staggering claim that more Jewish people have come to faith in Yeshua during the last two decades “than in the last 1900 years.” It goes without saying that this is an exaggeration, for in every generation since the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) there have been Jewish believers in Yeshua. Recent studies of the 19th and 20th centuries have indicated that large numbers of Jewish people came to faith, most notably in Europe, and particularly in the period from 1918 to 1939. Even so, we can appreciate the Rabbi’s concern. He must confront his hearers with the growing erosion of religious commitment among large segments of Jewry. Indeed, only Orthodox Judaism appears to be growing in ideological confidence and numerical growth. For more details see Rabbi Librach’s article in First Things (“The Fragmented Faith of American Jews,” February 1997, pp. 19-21). On this basis Rabbi Singer bluntly rebukes his people for “doing wrong” in their efforts to promote Rabbinic Judaism whereas the followers of Yeshua are “doing right” in their loving efforts to draw spiritually hungry Jewish people into the fellowship of their Lord and Master. Then, without hesitation he begins to develop the sequence of his lectures. We will not examine them in detail but will focus instead on some of their salient points.
1. “How do missionaries paint Jesus into the Jewish Scriptures?”
From the very outset, the religious faith centered in Jesus is represented as completely fraudulent. One is not surprised to come upon Rabbi Singer’s endorsement of the book many Jewish scholars openly reject. It is Hyam Maccoby’s incredible The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity. To whet appetites for what is to follow in his subsequent lectures, the Rabbi ranges widely and swiftly over several passages. First, Hosea 11:1 with its statement that out of Egypt God called His Son (quoted in part in Matthew 2:15). Second, Zechariah 13:6 with its question: “What are these wounds on your back?” This is lifted from a passage about “false prophets” some enthusiastic but uninformed Christians have applied to Jesus, despite its lack of any New Testament endorsement. Third, Psalm 22:16, “They pierced my hands and my feet.” Rabbi Singer asks: “What right do Christians have to translate ‘k’ari’ as ‘pierced’ when everybody knows that it means ‘like a lion’?—and this without explaining what significance “like a lion” brings to the passage. Fourth, Matthew 2:23, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” The Rabbi’s question: “Where do you find that in the prophets?…Christians made this up out of thin air.” Then finally, Isaiah 7:14, the text that Matthew uses to establish the prediction of the Virgin Birth. This is the only passage that the Rabbi discusses in detail, which leads him to conclude: “a complete fabrication!” All in all, this opening lecture confronts us with a man secure in his knowledge and aggressive in his denunciation of the Jewish authors of the New Testament because of their alleged deliberate tampering with the Hebrew Bible, a matter that he keeps shrieking to the skies, “We Jews handle the Bible differently!”
2. Sin and AtonementThe subject of sin was not introduced by any reference to the familiar sequence with which Genesis begins: God speaking of making humankind “in Our image, after Our likeness” (1:26); His issuance of the cultural mandate (1:26,27; 2:8,15), and then putting before Adam and Eve the moral test, whether they would choose freely to live under His control and for His glory (2:9,16,17); the temptation by the Serpent (3:1-5), followed by his gaining control of what they repudiated (the service and control of the world); and finally the fallenness, shame and judgment that resulted from their disobedience (3:6-24).
This sequence which the Rabbi completely ignores causes him to overlook the first great Messianic promise in Tanakh (3:15), to which all subsequent Messianic promises are related. He makes no mention of the gracious solution God shall bring about in His way and in His time to restore His Creation and His people to the full realization of the glorious purpose He had for them in the first place. This is briefly intimated in Torah, unfolded over the years through His Prophets and shall be finally and fully consummated by His Messiah. “The seed of the woman” shall rise up against “the seed of the serpent” and through suffering and open conflict shall deliver all Creation and all the people of God from the serpent’s control. Furthermore, the subsequent depravity of all people, their hopeless and helpless state of alienation from God in His holiness, their need for some form of deliverance from the estrangement brought about by their sin and mortality, the subsequent tragedy of all human history, particularly that of the Jewish people—the Rabbi’s total neglect of all these basic and painful realities has caused him to underplay the seriousness of the human need for mediation and atonement.
In his efforts to minimize the cruciality of blood sacrifice in relation to atonement, Rabbi Singer overlooks its relation to the Passover deliverance from Egypt, all subsequent worship in the Tabernacle and in the Temple, and particularly on the Day of Atonement. Rabbi Singer does not adequately define the meaning of atonement (kippur) in relation to the animal sacrifices which, when accompanied by the faith of the offerer, made a covering for sin, in the sense that sin was covered from God’s sight so that it no longer invited the reaction of His holy wrath. In the Tanakh it is plainly stated that God has no real pleasure in animal sacrifices, except insofar as they were to the truly penitent sinner a symbol of his faith in the pardoning love of God.
Rabbi Singer derides the substitutionary death of Jesus, not realizing that it constituted “a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.” We might well ask him: How does your understanding of atonement vindicate God as the Lawgiver? All moral wrong committed by humans in defiance of the Law is a stain on His honor as Lawgiver. Come, Rabbi, what is it that fully meets all God’s claims against those who have violated His Law? After all, the Law of God and His righteousness must be upheld. Can repentance by itself provide an adequate resolution to this basic problem? Are you, Rabbi, not concerned with the integrity of God and with His determination to uphold His Law?
3. Isaiah 53
The Rabbi devotes three successive lectures to the interrelation between Israel, the Gentile nations and God. He brings them to a climax in his reference to parts of the Fourth Servant Song of Isaiah (52:13-53:12). His build-up is lengthy and deliberate. He feels he has to demolish all thought that the New Testament was correct in identifying the Servant in this particular passage with Yeshua (e.g., Acts 8—the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, vs. 26-40). Rabbi Singer identifies the Servant as the nation of Israel. And he is right in this, as stated earlier. Yet he fails to take note of the details in this Fourth Servant Song that cannot be interpreted to refer to a people. They can only apply to a person: the true Israel of God.
The Rabbi fails to give attention to the fact that Isaiah 53, verses 9 and 11 speak of the Servant’s perfect innocence. How can Israel be thus regarded? Furthermore, the requirement of Leviticus 5:15 states that any asham or sacrifice for sin must be “without blemish.” Does this characterize Israel, the nation? The Servant also suffers vicariously on behalf of the sins of others (Isaiah 53: 4-6). In the Tanakh whenever Israel suffers, it is invariably because of its own sin, not for the sins of others. Moreover, the Servant suffers willingly (vs. 7). Again, when has the Tanakh ever characterized the suffering of Israel in this fashion—freely offering itself for others, particularly the Gentile nations? Finally, the Servant enters into death as the result of His sufferings (vs. 12). The wonder of wonders that has characterized the long history of the Jewish people is that through the grace and power of God, and because of His specific pledge in this regard, Israel has never been completely overcome (Jeremiah 31:35-37). She has not “died” in the sense that she has ceased to exist.
Despite the fact that these four characteristics can not possibly be applied to Israel and her sufferings through the centuries, Rabbi Singer calls us to regard this Fourth Servant Song as the unbelievable lamentation of the Gentile leaders of the nations in the Last Days. Through an amazing collection of verses drawn from various parts of Tanakh, Rabbi Singer seeks to describe how this lamentation breaks out and becomes a worldwide phenomenon. In the last days when God finally and fully vindicates Israel, the leaders of the nations begin to understand what had been the true role of Israel throughout world history. The Rabbi endeavors to show that in the coming Messianic Age, these Gentile rulers will express their amazement over what they least expected to discover. Long beguiled by the “Christian” Replacement Theory (“supersessionism”) from the second century onward, they had been encouraged to engage in all manner of anti-Semitic acts of abuse, discrimination, outright hostility, and finally genocide—the Holocaust—because they were taught that God was finished with the Jews. Although they were taught that there was no further meaning to Jewish existence following their rejection of their Messiah, these Gentile rulers could not understand why this stubborn people continued to survive, and even managed to return to their ancient land and reestablish their own political independence. But now all Gentile eyes have been opened to the unbelievable horror of their unjust treatment of the Jewish people. They now confess to seeing the Jewish people as God sees them—”a light to the nations”—and begin to regard them as the gracious benefactors of the human race that they have always sought to be. These Gentile rulers now see that it is their obligation to repent and follow the God of Israel with humility and devotion, and under the leadership of the Jewish people (Zechariah 8:20-23).
Frankly, I found the Rabbi’s lecture on Isaiah 53 fascinating. It caused me to realize that there will indeed be a genuine reversal of perspective on the part of the nations when they finally see a renewed and glorious Israel established and exalted by the Messiah at the center of the Gentile world. But does the Fourth Servant Song predicts this? Hardly!
4. The Trinity, Isaiah 9:5-6, and Zechariah 12:10
As would be expected, Rabbi Singer is wholesale in his denunciation of any Subject-Object interrelation within the Godhead. About all that he can say regarding this Infinite Mystery is the numeral “one.” He has not pondered the New Testament portrayal of Yeshua as possessing a perfect divine nature (with all its attributes) and being so united with a perfect human nature that one divine-human Personality has emerged, His divinity controlling the normal development of His humanity. As a result, the Rabbi rushes from text to text in the Gospels, leveling charges of all sorts, largely under the rubrics of confusion, contradiction and blasphemy.
When he turns to Isaiah 9:5-6 the Rabbi’s focus is on Hezekiah and God’s destruction of the Assyrian menace during his reign (Isaiah 36-37). He sees no significance in the cluster of Messianic titles that he assumes Hezekiah deserved (“What’s in a Name anyway?”). Then he conveniently stops the discussion and neither makes reference to the full implications of the Messianic reign depicted in vs. 7 nor reflects sadly on Hezekiah’s subsequent folly (Isaiah 39).
Again, when Rabbi Singer turns to Zechariah 12-14, he affirms its Messianic significance. This time he refers to the larger context: the final assault of the nations on Jerusalem, countered by the intervention of the Lord, and His glorious deliverance of the Jewish people (12:1-9). Yet he hardly deals with the significance of their “looking on Him whom they have pierced” (12:10), followed by a period of lamentation that is unprecedented in the whole of Scripture (vs. 11-14), and climaxing in their being cleansed “from sin and uncleanness” (13:1). These details are smothered in an aside almost solely taken with his effort to demonstrate the Christian misunderstanding of the Hebrew word for “pierced” in vs. 10. “It couldn’t possibly have reference to Jesus.”
This discussion of the Zechariah portion ends with the Rabbi calling attention to a host of New Testament passages that flatly appear to him to deny the dogma of the Trinity (he omits Matthew 28:19 that speaks of “the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”). In conclusion he relegates the Trinity to the later domination of “the Roman/Greek mind” on the Church. What he overlooks is that the knowledge of the Trinity is not derived from any non-Jewish philosophic resemblances or principles, but from Scripture alone. The early Church obtained this doctrine by pure induction after collecting and collating what Yeshua Himself and Scripture say concerning the Godhead and the three sources of human salvation (John 14 and 16). Followers of Yeshua who have come to this perspective state that they are “willing to go down in flames for” the unity of the Godhead, the full Deity of the Son (who was “begotten”) and of the Spirit (who “proceeds” from the Father and the Son), and that the Son and the Spirit are both subordinate to the Father.
5. The Law of Moses and the New Covenant
Rabbi Singer begins this lecture by mounting a frontal attack on Paul for his incredible phrase, “the curse of the law” (Galatians 3:13) and for his portrayal of a God who would deliberately give sinful people a Law that they could not possibly obey. Rather than discussing this phrase (Galatians 3:13) in connection with the companion verse Paul uses from the Tanach (Deuteronomy 27:26), the Rabbi calls upon his people to listen to “God’s opinion” on this whole matter, especially to the witness of Moses the Lawgiver given to the Israelites just prior to his death. “The commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off…it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (Deuteronomy 30: 11, 14).…
The Rabbi then takes Paul to task for “quoting” this passage, but leaving off the final clause: “so that you can do it.” What he fails to note is that Paul is discussing faith-righteousness, not law-righteousness (see Romans 10:1-13, the very passage in which he allegedly committed this crime). Actually, he is saying that Deuteronomy should not be interpreted legalistically, which is just what Rabbi Singer is doing. The constant emphasis of Deuteronomy is on covenant relationship and the faith that leads one to walk humbly with God (7:7ff.; 9:6ff; 10:12ff.; 14:2ff.; 15:15ff.; 29:9ff.; etc.). One can live one’s life “by faith.” In this connection it is not impossible to please God: “You can do it!”
Two key statements by God will help us grasp this important distinction. They concern His appraisal of Abraham and Moses recorded in the Torah. First, we read that “Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My Laws” (Genesis 26:5)—all this before Sinai, before the Torah was actually revealed. Second, “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them'” (Numbers 20:12). In Genesis constant attention is given to portray Abraham as one who lived by faith (15:6). There is no mention of his having the Law or keeping the Law prior to the inclusion of this statement in connection with God’s renewal of the Abrahamic covenant with Isaac (26:1-5), although we recognize that Abraham personally submitted to circumcision and circumcised Isaac “as God had commanded him” (17:9 and 21:4). It follows that God uses the life of Abraham recorded in Genesis to show that any Jewish person can fulfill the righteous requirements of the Law through a life of faith arising out of his/her covenant relationship with God. The personal exhortation that would arise from this is: “Be like Abraham. Live a life of faith, and it can be said that you are keeping the Law” (John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992], p. 71).
It is significant that the concept of faith—taking God at His Word and acting upon it—occurs before Sinai in the Tanakh (Genesis 15:6; Exodus 4:31, 19:9), but that after the giving of the Law, the record of the Israelite experience contains no reference to faith. It was no longer marked by faith. Even Moses and Aaron failed in this respect: “Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them” (Numbers 20:12). Needless to say, these two texts have precipitated more than a little ingenious rabbinical speculation down through the centuries to nullify their direct meaning. Hence, Paul pointedly underscored this Jewish tragedy: “Being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God [‘by faith,’ Genesis 15:6], and seeking to establish their own [‘on the basis of works,’ Romans 11:6], they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (Romans 10:3). Throughout the whole of Scripture there is only one way to please God and to enter into the experience of His salvation, and that is “by faith” (Hebrews 11:6; Ephesians 2:8-10).
However, Rabbi Singer draws this lecture to a close in the following fashion: “You can have salvation by keeping Torah. You don’t need Jesus! He died in vain. Affirm your relationship with God and then keep Torah.” The Rabbi does not refer to the failure of Israel and Judah under the Sinaitic Covenant in the context of Jeremiah’s promise of a New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34). He just says that the New Covenant is yet to be made. But he bears down on the fact that “when that happens Messiah will enforce Torah obedience” (see Ezekiel 11:19, 20). His concluding challenge is quite blunt, and I quote: “When Jews opt out of keeping Torah, they cease to be Jews! But we Torah-keeping Jews will continue, and we’ll continue without you Christians!”
6. Confused Texts and Testimonies
Two items remain in this lecture that are of consequence. The first concerns the genealogies of Yeshua in Matthew and Luke. Both seek to show that He is a genuine “son of David” and “son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1; Luke 3:31, 34). Only Luke traces His lineage to conclude with “Son of God” (3:38) since he wants it to terminate in God Himself. Both deal primarily with Joseph, “the husband of Mary” through whom Yeshua gains legal kingship of the tribe of Judah. Far from being simply a recitation of historical data for its own sake, Matthew sought to devise a theological statement to introduce Yeshua as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and David. He deals with three periods of unequal duration (750, 400 and 600 years), and surprises us by including names that remind us of irregular and scandalous events in Israel’s history. He even omits kings who were under a curse that lasted for 4 generations (2 Chronicles 22-25). Rabbi Singer is impatient with all this theologizing and merely looks for what he judges to be numerical precision. We would encourage him to study pertinent passages in scholarly commentaries that hold to a high level of biblical inspiration and integrity, such as volumes 33a and 35a in the Word Biblical Commentary series.
When Rabbi Singer tackles the biblical record of the resurrection of Yeshua and the theological implications drawn from it, his approach is one of dogmatic agnosticism. He is fully aware that the resurrection not only provides the factual basis for all the great doctrines of the Christian faith, but also radically and dramatically separates it from all other religious systems. But I wonder if he realizes that at least twelve events are considered to be knowable history by virtually all scholars, even by some who resist its implications. These events include: 1) Jesus died due to the rigors of crucifixion; 2) He was buried; 3) His death caused the disciples to despair and lose hope; 4) His tomb was discovered to be empty a few days later; 5) At this time, the disciples had real experiences that they believed were literal appearances of the risen Yeshua; 6) Because of these experiences the disciples were transformed from doubters afraid to identify themselves with Yeshua to bold proclaimers of His death and resurrection, willing to die for their faith; 7) This message was central in the early preaching of Jewish followers of Yeshua; 8) It was especially proclaimed in Jerusalem, where Yeshua had died shortly before; 9) As a result of this message, the Jewish Messianic/Gentile Christian Movement was born and grew; 10) Sunday, the first day of the week, became the primary day of worship; 11) James, the brother of Jesus and a skeptic, was converted to the faith when he saw the resurrected Yeshua; and 12) A few years later, Paul, the persecutor of Christians, was also converted by an experience that he similarly believed to be an appearance of the risen Yeshua (Gary Habermas in Did Jesus Rise From The Dead ). It is significant that even Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide has written a book that concedes this wonderful event: The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective (1983).
Needless to say, Rabbi Singer disagrees. But can he convincingly reduce the whole matter to a pious fraud by merely seeking to show that there are alleged contradictions in the New Testament record? It is not as though these pose insuperable problems. After all, the New Testament was largely written by devout Jewish people with good Jewish memories. During the period when the various books of the New Testament were being written, there were those who could recall with accuracy the words and events associated with Yeshua (1 Corinthians 15:6). In addition, the whole New Testament literature came to be received as trustworthy considerably before the end of the first century, almost within 50 or 60 years. We need to keep in mind that we are dealing with just about the same number of years between the Holocaust (1939-1945) and today. I have observed Jewish archivists in Los Angeles interviewing survivors of Auschwitz. People today widely trust the accuracy of the insights they are gaining from these interviews. Could it be that what stands in the way of believing in the resurrection of Yeshua is not the question of the reliability of the Gospel writers, but rather simply dogmatic agnosticism?