So let me briefly engage some of the assumptions that those who hold to different Big Stories bring to the table. This isn’t an attempt to put words in anyone’s mouth, and I’m painting with a broad brush. But perhaps you can recognize your own presuppositions in the following.
If you’re traditionally Orthodox, then one of your working assumptions is that Scripture has to be filtered through rabbinic interpretation. You might even think a challenge to “see what the Bible says by itself” is a childish, immature way of approaching Scripture. After all, in traditional Jewish education, Torah by itself, Chumash, is for beginners; older students learn Mishnah and after that, Talmud, Tosafot, the commentators and so on. For you, “seeing what the Bible says by itself” may not come as a challenge, but as an unwelcome invitation to bypass divinely established rabbinic authority and accumulated wisdom. We may therefore end up as two people talking past one another.
My challenge to your presuppositions is that I would encourage you to think more about the idea of authority. Take Daniel 7:13–14, for example. In that passage, we read:
I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion [authority] and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
Who do you believe the “one like a son of man” to be? Does his authority exceed the authority of the rabbis? Daniel 7:13 receives a messianic interpretation in the Talmud in b. Sanhedrin 98a. From the standpoint of believers in Jesus, he is this Messiah and the one described in Daniel 7. He called himself the Son of Man in reference to this passage, and “the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” He even said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
What kind of person, we can ask, would this be said of, and would say such things? Perhaps it is worth exploring more about someone for whom this kind of authority is claimed and who claimed it about himself.
If you’re into kabbalah, especially in the version presented here, then your working presupposition may be that reality is more mystical than rational (after all, kabbalah is Jewish mysticism). You may believe that the kabbalistic Big Story makes sense because the universe has been shown by science to be stranger than we ever thought (quantum mechanics, for example). Perhaps the same is true about God. Maybe he does exist in ten emanations, maybe there was a cosmic breaking of vessels, maybe there are sparks down here on earth that we need to raise.
We can agree that reality is both rational and super-rational, even sometimes mystical. I would challenge you that this Big Story actually bypasses our own responsibility for sin and evil, and puts too much stock in our ability to set things right. After all, there is a radical nature to evil as seen for example in Psalm 53:3 [Hebrew, verse 4]: “They have all fallen away; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one,” or in Jeremiah 13:23: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.” Sin and evil are not rooted in creation apart from ourselves but are located within a corrupt human nature.
Even more, are we really capable of bringing about redemption through obeying God? Again I would challenge you to ponder why in the New Testament, the apostle called Paul offers a different view:
For while we were still weak [other translations, powerless, helpless], at the right time Christ [Messiah] died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ [Messiah] died for us. (Romans 5:6–8)
Is it possible that we do not have the power to keep the mitzvot, certainly not to the extent that doing so will bring about tikkun olam? In fact, rather than our raising the sparks, the New Testament speaks of a different raising: the raising of Yeshua from the dead to bring us life when we could not bring it for ourselves. And if you find the strangeness of Lurianic kabbalah to be one of its attractions, it is certainly strange to find that a first-century Jewish teacher was resurrected from the dead, far in advance of the final resurrection of the dead that Judaism expects.
If you are a liberal-minded secular Jew, your working assumption may be that humanity will eventually reach perfection. Though not many are so optimistic as in times past for political or economic utopias, today’s techno-utopians still hope for a technological paradise. Even in the postmodern world, utopia is not dead. In Jewish circles, this future utopia remains strongly rooted in prophetic ethics and Jewish core values.
While I would agree with your emphasis on ethics, I would strongly challenge your working presupposition of progress or that our destination is the “convergence.” A look side by side at biblical and modern history shows that mankind is not getting incrementally better; nor is the technological utopia envisioned by many today necessarily a moral one. Why did biblical writers pen verses such as the following? What in their experience counted against the idea of steady progress?
You have done evil above all who were before you and have gone and made for yourself other gods and metal images, provoking me to anger, and have cast me behind your back (I Kings 14:9).
Even taking into account hyperbole in this passage, a reading of the history of Israel in the Hebrew Bible shows clearly that is it not one of continual moral gains. Exactly the opposite is depicted: our biblical history ended in exile as evil and sin “accumulated,” in the terminology of the biblical writers. In modern times, first World War I and then the Holocaust undermined nineteenth-century belief in inevitable progress. Well-known is H. G. Well’s change in attitude, reflected in written statements, from unbridled optimism to profound despair—and this over a period of only some nine years! It is comforting to think that technology or social action can perfect the world. But, you know, reality bites.
At the same time it is right to do good things. It is right to work for social justice and for a green planet. But this is a different matter than expecting steady progress or a convergence culminating in utopia. Given the non-stop nature of the moral problems in this world, I would challenge you to reconsider your working assumption that we can attain paradise by our own efforts.
Maybe you’re not so optimistic as in traditional liberal thinking. While you believe in justice and acts of tikkun olam, you really don’t know why the world is the way it is, or where humanity or the Jewish people are headed. A Big Story that informs all of life is elusive, even imaginary. Meanwhile, rather than trying to figure out the universe, we need to just get on with life.
Here I would say that without a Big Story, there’s really no reason to be moral, to do tikkun olam, to be Jewish — no reason other than either sheer inertia, or the underlying feeling that there must be a meaning to life, even if we can’t discover it. The words of Jesus offer a challenge: “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:6). Not everyone, of course, believes there is an ultimate truth to discover (just being “true to yourself”). Who can know what’s true? Competing truth claims create more problems than they solve. Consider this conversation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator (as his position was called) of ancient Judea.
“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
“What is truth?” Pilate asked. (John 18:37-38)
You can almost hear the cynical sneer in Pilate’s words. You may not be a cynic, but you may be somewhat sympathetic to Pilate’s question. Yet many who have put to themselves the question, “Who is Jesus?” have come away convinced that he is in fact the truth, the one who provides the overarching meaning to life for Jews and non-Jews equally. A proverb in the Hebrew Bible says: “Buy the truth and do not sell it; get wisdom, discipline and understanding.” (Prov. 23:23)
If you can even figuratively buy or sell truth, it must be something of value. It’s worth seeking out and I’d encourage you to explore whether there is a true Big Story that is centered on Jesus.
Finally, if you’re a Zionist, particularly a secular one, we can both agree on the importance of supporting Israel. And we can affirm that Israel today is no longer the young, idealistic nation of its first decades. Underlying this Big Story is the presupposition that our history has largely been one of oppression—a view challenged by Jewish historian Salo Baron—and that ensuring Jewish survival (from both external and internal threats, e.g., a nuclear Iran and intermarriage) remains one of the core motivations of Jewish thought and action.
My challenge here is to consider how Jewish survival will be guaranteed. While we both agree on the central importance of Israel as a national homeland, I would challenge you to consider if there is a “divine actor” behind the scenes. At the very beginning of our history, the Bible has God telling Abram, “Go . . . to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3).
If this is true, then the Jewish people are not an accident of history but a divinely constituted nation. Then there is this passage from the prophet Jeremiah:
Thus says the Lord, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—the Lord of hosts is his name: ‘If this fixed order departs from before me,’ declares the Lord, ‘then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever.’ Thus says the Lord: ‘If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth below can be explored, then I will cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done,’ declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 31:35–37)
Interestingly, the passage about God giving a new covenant to Israel immediately precedes this passage. As Jewish followers of Jesus, we believe that Jesus as the Messiah ushered in exactly this new covenant. How then, we can ask, can entering Jeremiah’s new covenant through faith in Jesus mean the destruction of the Jewish people? In Jeremiah, the new covenant appears to dovetail with Jewish preservation.
Of course, you may want to affirm and even defend your working assumptions, as I do mine. But we should always be prepared to have our presuppositions challenged by the realities we encounter in the world. I believe that the Big Story of Jesus the Messiah best matches those realities—both for Jews and for others.
- Matthew 7:27–28.
- Matthew 28:18.
- Compare the dystopias of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984—or any number of dystopic films and novels. More recently, see e.g., the novel and film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.
- Similarly on “evil above all who were before you,” see 1 Kings 16:30, 2 Kings 21:9, 2 Kings 21:11, 2 Chronicles 33:9.
- Often quoted: “Can we doubt that presently our race will more than realize our boldest imaginations, that it will achieve unity and peace, and that our children will live in a world made more splendid and lovely than any palace or garden that we know, going on from strength to strength in an ever-widening circle of achievement? What man has done, the little triumphs of his present state . . . form but the prelude to the things that man has yet to do” (A Short History of the World, 1937). And: “The cold-blooded massacres of the defenseless, the return of deliberate and organized torture, mental torment, and fear to a world from which such things had seemed well nigh banished—has come near to breaking my spirit altogether . . . ‘Homo sapiens,’ as he has been pleased to call himself, is played out” (A Mind at the End of Its Tether, 1946).
- What Jewish historian Salo Baron referred to as the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history.” Baron took exception to portraying Jewish history solely in terms of persecution.