Two Rabbis Walk Into a ....

Posted by Tom.Blackwood on August 26, 2013

Sid was my Rabbi. I still mourn his passing. He had the office next to mine when I kept a tiny writing office (former broom closet) in Lakewood years ago.

He would stop by every day and we would chat about all kinds of stuff, from properly cooking fish, to football to faith. He was involved in a Talmud study group and he came through the door one day in 1995 and conveyed to me the classic Hillel and Shammai story.

In the first century (my Christian first century, not Sid's Jewish first century) there were two great Torah scholars who founded important schools of thought, Hillel and Shammai. Hillel was the liberal interpreter of the Law and Shammai was the "strict constructionist."

In this famous story a gentile comes and makes a silly request. He asks to be taught the whole Torah in the time he could stand on one leg.

Shammai gets angry and whacks the man with a measuring rod. (Shammai was an engineer). Hillel replies, "That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Now, go study."

This doesn't mean that the "commentary" part is trivial. It is important and requires years of study. The "commentary" is the context, which is crucial to any attempt to understand the evolution and meanings of the Bible. 

The New Testament version of this is Jesus' encapsulation of the "whole Torah": "Love God with all your heart, your soul and your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself." He says, "all the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments."

I remember a brief conversation years ago with former pastor John Miller in which I expressed surprise at the rise of non-denominational "Bible Churches." He looked at me and said, "We worship Jesus Christ. We don't worship the Bible." 

That stuck with me. 

Looking at the bookshelf in my office, I see five different Bibles, from King James' to NRSV and a couple of silly "relevant to youth" translations from the 60's.

Every year, some scrap of parchment appears that changes the translation of some particular passage, causing ripples in the commentary section. How can something be literal when it constantly changes? I welcome further clarifications.

The only part of the Bible which should never be re-translated is the King James version of the second chapter of Luke. The Christmas story should always be presented in beautiful language of the KJV. "Bands of cloth?" Please. But, Lo, I digress. 

When I taught senior high youth a long time ago, one Easter morning I had the kids read the Easter story from the different gospels. They are different on details of who went where, who told whom, etc. How can an infallible literal narration disagree on what happened on the defining day? 

Who were portrayed as the biggest villains in the New Testament? The pharisees. The nitpickers and proof-texters who continually tried to bust Jesus on scripture and the law. 

Too often scripture is used as a weapon. No matter the topic, the challenge is to take ten paces, turn and start firing verses at each other. 

Scripture as a whole is too magnificent to be reduced to the odd verse used to prove you right and me wrong. 

We can peacefully debate the commentary as we continue to study and translations continue to change. But, the core message will not change.

All the law and the prophets hang on love of God and love of each other.

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