Light from the Sidra

Re'eh ('Behold') 15th August 2015. 30th Av 5775

Torah: Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17. Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)


Torah plus nothing

Deuteronomy 13 sounds a severe warning to Israel not to listen to false prophets who would attempt to seduce them away from HASHEM to follow other gods. The chapter begins: ‘The entire word that I command you, that you shall observe to do; you shall not add to it and you shall not subtract from it.’ A marginal note in the Stone Edition of the Tanach says: ‘One may not “improve” the Torah by adding new commandments; what human intelligence considers an honour to God may be an abomination in his eyes.’

It seems to me, however, that many Jewish anti-missionaries, in their zeal to keep Israel true to HASHEM, unwittingly transgress this command. Take, for example, commercial real estate broker Asher Norman who, in 2007 published 26 Reasons Why Jews Don’t Believe in Jesus, a book that elicited rave reviews from Jewish readers. At the very start of the book Mr. Norman solemnly warns his Jewish readers that ‘Christianity is idolatry for a Jew’ and, ‘The penalty for idolatry is ‘kores’ which, he says, means ‘separation from God forever in the World to Come’. On page 16, Asher Norman elaborates on the meaning of ‘kores’: ‘According to the Torah,’ he says, ‘idolatry is the most serious sin a Jew can commit. The Torah’s penalty for idolatry is “kores,” which means “cut off”… Kores can also refer to God’s punishments in this world of premature death (before the age of fifty or sixty) or childlessness.’ Asher Norman repeats the same warning four times in the book, including twice on the cover, and concludes with Moses Maimonides’ list of ‘Fourteen Ways a Jew May Lose Their Share in the World to Come.’

I say this because on page xxx of his book, Mr Norman accuses Christians who attempt to ‘convert’ Jewish people of employing ‘emotionally charged, fear-based argument[s]’ to accomplish their nefarious goal. Why is it ‘scare tactics’ when a Christian warns a Jew about hell but it is not ‘scare tactics’ when Mr. Norman threatens Jewish people not only with hell but also with the distinct possibility of ending up there before the age of 50 and childless to boot?

There is, of course, nothing wrong and everything right about instilling fear into people who are about to do something life-threatening. We warn our children of the consequences of playing with fire, of not looking both ways before they cross the road and not brushing their teeth (or, at least, we ought to!).

Was Moses using ‘scare tactics’ when he warned Israel in Deuteronomy 13 that the punishment for a community member or a family member who attempted to entice others to follow false gods would be death? Was it ‘scare tactics’ to warn that an entire Israelite community which worshipped a god other than HASHEM would be wiped out?

So what about Asher Norman’s claim that Christianity is idolatry for Jews but fine for non-Jews? Mr Norman believes in the seven Noachide laws which, the rabbis say, are binding on all nations but the first of those laws forbids idolatry, which places Asher Norman on the horns of a dilemma. Mr. Norman recognises the virtues of Christianity and pleads that he doesn’t want to offend Christians, so he is forced to theorise that when Gentile Christians worship Jesus – even though, according to his reckoning, Jesus was a false messiah and a false god – Christians are not engaging in idolatry! His theory lacks logical consistency. If Jesus is a false god, it follows that it is an act of idolatry for anyone – Jew or Gentile – to worship him and serve him.

Moses never suggested that the worship of Baal, Moloch, Tammuz or Ishtar, though anathema to the Jews, was fine for the Canaanite nations. The idolatrous systems of the peoples of Canaan were a primary reason why Israel was instructed to wipe them out. But by Mr Norman’s reasoning, idolatry is just fine and dandy for Gentiles! Thus, Asher Norman is guilty of the sin prohibited in Deuteronomy 13:1!

The same principle applies to the venerated twelfth century Rabbi Moses Maimonides. HASHEM forbade the adding to or taking away from the words he spoke to Moses but the influential Maimonides felt that in order to bolster the rabbinic doctrine that God is an absolute, indivisible unity it was permissible to improve on the wording of the Shema.
In Hebrew, Deuteronomy 4:6 reads: Shema Yisroel, Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad. The Jewish scholar Everett Fox, in The Five Books of Moses, translates the verse: ‘Hearken, O Israel: YHWH our God, YHWH (is) One,’ explaining that ‘the precise meaning’ of the phrase ‘is not clear. It most likely stipulates that the Israelites are to worship YHWH alone; a secondary meaning might be reflected by the translation “YHWH is but one” — that is, God has no partner or consort as in the mythology of neighbouring cultures.’

The Hebrew word echad, as Moses Maimonides realised, does not indicate absolute singularity. It is the word used in Genesis 2 to describe man and woman becoming ‘one flesh’; it is used in Ezekiel 37 for two sticks that are joined together to become ‘one’. Maimonides was aware, therefore, that the classic Christian doctrine that God is three-in-one did not, as such, contravene Deuteronomy 4:6. The Shema is foundational not only to Judaism but also to Christianity but, like many Jewish people, Maimonides seemed to think the Christian doctrine of the ‘Trinity’ amounted to a belief in three gods. In order to safeguard the rabbinic concept of God as an absolute indivisible unity Maimonides, therefore, changed echad to yachid. But a god who is yachid is not the same as the God who is echad.

The terrible irony is that in order to fence the rabbinic concept of God, Maimonides became guilty of the very sin condemned in Deuteronomy 13:1. In effect, Maimonides became a prophet who said to Israel, ‘Let us walk after another god.’ Apart from Messianic Jews and some cabbalists, Israel was thus led astray by one of the nation’s greatest minds.

God nevertheless still loves Israel and remains gracious to them. He is not willing that Israel should perish and so he continues to call the Jewish people to repentance. And Israel’s repentance, when it comes, will involve recognising that Jesus not a Gentile deity but is none other than the Almighty himself, who revealed himself to Moses and the Patriarchs of Israel.

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