Light from the Sidra

Ki Tetze ('When you go...') 6 September 2014. 11 Elul 5774.

Torah: Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19.Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10

The forbidden chapter

Over the years I’ve been writing these weekly meditations on the Parashot and Haftarot, I’ve always confined my comments to the readings themselves but in view of last week’s Haftarah (51:12–52:12) and this week’s reading from the Prophets (Isaiah 54:1-10) I can’t resist saying something about the passage that falls between them: Isaiah 52:13-53:12.

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is arguably the biggest bone of contention between those who believe Jesus is the Messiah and those who don’t. So much so that the passage is not included in the weekly readings. A friend of mine once asked a rabbi in north London why the passage is never read in the synagogue and the rabbi told him that if Isaiah 53 was included in the weekly readings a lot of Jewish people might become Christians!

I have another friend – this one Jewish – whose experience confirms the rabbi’s fear. Richard was raised as an Orthodox Jew but after his father died Richard turned his back on God and became an atheist. After qualifying as a psychoanalyst, Richard and his wife celebrated by taking a trip to Europe where, through circumstances too complex to go into here, they found themselves in a Christian commune. Richard recalls that the days after he and his wife arrived at the commune the days were full of ‘religious discussion.’ But as a man with no sense of God, seeing himself as the chance accumulation of molecules in an absurd and meaningless world, he was scornful of the faith of the people around him. One day a member of the group asked Richard if he could read to him a Bible passage. Richard agreed and this is his account of what happened in the next five minutes.

Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground. He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief...

I’d heard that expression ‘Man of sorrows’ and ‘acquainted with grief’ before, though I wasn’t sure where. But at that point I suddenly understood what was happening: they were reading to me about Jesus! I thought, ‘Do they know what they are doing, reading this Christian stuff to a Jew?’

Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions...

Images of Renaissance paintings leapt to my mind. I wasn’t an ordinary Jewish guy; I had a doctorate; I was cultured; I’d seen paintings with crosses; I knew that their guy had been pierced. They were trying to read me stories about Jesus and I felt the anger rising in me.

He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all...

Jesus just bore your sins! I couldn’t stand it. That was just a cheap way out of long term psychoanalysis. What they were telling me was ‘the Catholic way.’ From the age of seven, when I had walked into a Catholic church I thought Jesus was a Catholic: Scandinavian, perhaps, very delicate, tall, thin – slightly anorexic – with long silken blond hair and piercing blue eyes. I had got as far as the vestibule of the church, looked at one of the statues and thought that the ground was going to open up and swallow me; that I was unalterably damned for having done that and I ran eight blocks home to get away from what I considered an unpardonable sin.

He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgement, and who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgressions of My people He was stricken. And they made His grave with the wicked –but with the rich at His death...

I remembered pictures of Jesus on the cross and the two thieves, one on either side of him. Three crosses – I knew that stuff; they weren’t going to fool me with their rhetoric.

...because He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth. Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days...

There was the myth about the resurrection. They get it into all their literature, don’t they! They can’t accept the fact that once a person is dead, he’s dead. Grow up! Put away your infantile neuroses and realise that when you’re dead, you’re dead; that’s it.

When he finished reading, he looked at me and said, ‘What do you think?’

I was, of course, keen to give the benefit of my insights. They were obviously quoting to me from their New Testament and I responded without a moment’s hesitation: ‘Anyone who was at the cross could have written that stuff! What does that prove?’

He handed me the Bible and in a millisecond of receiving it, my life was changed. The name that I saw at the top of the page was Isaiah! They had been reading from my Bible, my Hebrew Scriptures and I felt as though someone had taken a sword and cut me to pieces. When the man who read it told me it was written 700 years before Jesus was born, I felt dead. Why couldn’t it be Krishna? Why couldn’t it be Buddha? Why does it have to be him? I knew at that instant that if Jesus wrote history about himself in my Bible – if the Gentile God was the Jewish God and he was truly God – then I had to submit everything to him for the rest of my life.

Richard followed truth rather than tradition. He followed God rather than men and he is now a follower of Jesus and a minister of a congregation in Canada.

For a Jewish person to follow Jesus is to swim against an ancient tide of tradition, emotional pressure and even a history of persecution by those who claimed to be acting in the name of Jesus. 

The obstacles I faced when I came face to face with the truth about Jesus were the fear of being thought a fool and uncool (my fears turned out to be entirely justified) but I honestly don’t know what I would have done if I was Jewish and had been taught all my life that for a Jewish person to believe in Jesus is a heinous act of treachery. I hope I would have had the courage, like my friend Richard, to follow the truth wherever it led. I pray that you too, in the light of Richard’s story, will have the courage to do the same.

You can read Richard’s full story here

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