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Talmud Torah...

Discipleship and Dialog

Beginning right in the middle of things....

by John J. Parsons

Recently I was asked why I didn't present the gospel message in a "simple and straightforward" manner, such as the modern method of sharing the "Four Spiritual Laws" (created in 1965 by Bill Bright, with over 2.5 billion booklets printed) or by using some other canned formula for presenting the truths of Christianity. 


By way of response to this, let me first quote from Adin Steinsaltz regarding the study of the Talmud:

    The Talmud is not a schematic textbook, but essentially a slice of life. As such, it commences for no person at the beginning.  When a person begins to study Talmud, he always finds himself right in the middle of things, no matter where he starts. Only through study and combination of facts can he arrive at the ability to understand what he has already studied; his comprehension grows constantly deeper as he peruses the material over and over again. (The Essential Talmud, p. 274)

The Talmud, then, is part of an ongoing dialog about the Scriptures. A typical page of a modern edition (called a daf) is jam-packed with quotations from the Torah, margin notes, cross-references, debates about the meaning of terms and ideas, ongoing dialogs, various ethical stories, intense legal reasonings, and of course commentary upon commentary (upon commentary upon commentary).

The principle that we always find ourselves "right in the middle of things, no matter where we start" shouldn't discourage us. The same can be said of the Scriptures themselves, after all, since our point of entry today is different than it would have been, say, had we lived in ancient Israel under the reign of Solomon.  The important point is to understand the context of the words we read and to take heed of the discussions of others who have gone before us. This is just as true for the modern Christian as it is for the Jew who regularly studies Talmud. We miss out on so much if we forget our history, our roots...

The modern way of learning Talmud involves impassioned discussion and dialog.  Truth is never attained in isolation (like Socrates staring off in abstracted frozenness), but in chavruta (pairs), or in the midst of a greater chavurah (circle of friends).  And this conversation goes on and on, throughout the generations, helping us see our connection with others who have likewise struggled to live out their faith and make it their own. The sound of their voices together form a greater song - of yearning, of questioning, of shared hope. Our talk, our heartfelt discussions, the sharing of our burdens, is likewise made part of this greater song.

Unfortunately many people find this notion unsettling. They would prefer, as Soren Kierkegaard once said, to "arrive at conclusions in life much the way schoolboys do... by copying the answer book without having worked the problem out themselves." But this approach will never do for those who seek the truth. We must work the problem out for ourselves. We must press forward.  As Kierkegaard says elsewhere:

    It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards. And if one thinks over that proposition it becomes more and more evident that life can never really be understood in time simply because at no particular moment can I find the necessary resting place from which to understand it backwards.

We are on a journey, chaverim... There is no way we can transcend the world in order to make of it an object suitable for observation, and yet paradoxically certain theologians (Christian and otherwise) have attempted to transcend the Person of the Living God in order to make Him the "subject" of their study using (Greek-based, i.e., pagan) methods. Evidence of this may be seen in musty bookshops that sell the theological works of the "church doctors" or in various seminaries that teach theology classes. Evidence may also be seen in creedal formulas, doctrinal statements, denominational divisions, ethnocentric exclusiveness, jihad-thinking, and so on. 

The professional "scribes and Pharisees" of our day seem to overlook the reality and Presence of the resurrected Teacher who said, "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is everyone who is born of the Spirit [ruach]" (John 3:8). The study and refinement of doctrine is an afterthought, a pause, a reflection, an attempt to exercise control. Such theologizing often attempts to justify elitist notions of a "professional clergy," or "doctrinal purity," or an "personal holiness" -- even as it feeds on controversy, stirs up fear, and regularly attends to the affairs and doctrines of mere men.  Why else are there countless sermons centered on a "problem" of one kind or another?

The Spirit of Truth (רוּחַ הָאֱמֶת) is our sure guide, and it is the love of the truth that brings us to salvation (2 Thess. 2:10-12). Each of us is called to go into all the world to make talmidim (תַּלְמִידִים) -- disciples -- a word that shares the same root found in the word Talmud (תַּלְמוּד). Yeshua is our Teacher who writes his message upon the hearts of those who will believe....   "But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us" (2 Cor. 4:7).

The gospel message is called "simple" (απλοτης), from the same word used by Yeshua to describe the "good eye" (ayin tovah) in Matthew 6:22 (see this article for more information). It does not mean, then, simplistic, but rather sincere, single-hearted, and free from pretense.  Sharing our faith with others doesn't mean we should present "Four Spiritual Laws" to them as much as it means that we should be revealing to them our passionate devotion to the LORD. "Go into all the world and preach the gospel -- and sometimes use words."

United we stand, divided we fall, chaverim... It's never about some "star" teacher or pastor or healer.  All learning of real, infinite, and eternally significant value comes from the Teacher Himself and is meant to be shared within the redeemed community. Everyone has a part in the greater conversation about the life of faith.  Part of the work I do at Hebrew4Christians is merely to provoke discussion in order to help you engage the LORD (and others) with honesty... Beware of any teacher who does not regard him/herself as a vanishing point whose sole purpose is to help you see the glory of Yeshua more clearly. As the prophet said, "I must decrease, but he must increase" (John 3:30). Yeshua alone is the Source and Goal of all reality and truth:  "All things were created by him and for him; all things are held together for his purposes" (Col. 1:16-17).

You can't give away what you don't have.... Simplistic presentations of the Gospel message can be of limited value as starting points for discussion, but without taking the time to engage the total person by introducing him or her to the ongoing dialog about the life of a disciple, you run the risk of making a caricature of the life of faith.

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