Home  Principles & Statements  Positions of the ACJ  Articles  DonationsAbout Us  Contact Us  Links                                         

The Truth Will Make You Free: An Encounter with Torah and Gospel

Howard A. Berman
Spring 2006

(This is a sermon delivered by Rabbi Howard A. Berman at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Boston, MA on March 19, 2006)  
Dear Friends,  
When I accepted the position of Rabbi-in-Residence here at Emmanuel Church, as part of the special relationship between this parish and my congregation, Boston Jewish Spirit, with the charge to enrich the spiritual life of this church by offering a Jewish perspective in its preaching and teaching, I knew that there was a particular challenge implicit in this groundbreaking experiment.  
In the course of my monthly preaching, it was inevitable that I would — at some point — be called upon to speak on passages from the New Testament that pose particular difficulties for me as a Jew.  
Up until today, I have gotten off easy ... just happening to preach on Sundays when the designated lectionary readings were either broadly inclusive in their message — or otherwise complimentary to a Jewish viewpoint — reflecting the historic setting of Jesus’ life and teaching as a faithful Jew. However, I have realized that it was only a matter of time before I would be required to present my response to some of the more problematic texts that embody the contrasts — and indeed the tragic conflicts — that have divided our two traditions through the centuries ... in short, I knew that sooner or later, I’d have to confront the Gospel of John ...  
Parting of the Ways  
All of the complex historic forces that led to the parting of the ways between the followers of the Rabbi of Nazareth and their fellow Jews, 2000 years ago, are reflected in these particular writings. The other three Synoptic Gospels were, for the most part, written by and for a Jewish audience — drawing upon the tradition of Jewish ideals and aspirations in their effort to proclaim that Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of longed for Jewish messianic hopes in the face of Roman oppression in the First Century. However, by the later part of that tumultuous era, the upheaval of political and spiritual resistance led to the Judean revolt against Caesar — and the resulting destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. With the defeat and dispersion of the Jewish population, the originally Jewish followers of Jesus were succeeded by an emerging Gentile church, that sought to make its teachings more intelligible to the Greco-Roman world. Paul’s letters, for example, reflect both his own deep struggles and ambivalence as a marginal, assimilated Jew, grounded in Hellenistic culture, as well as his pragmatic realization that with the end of the Jewish Commonwealth, the future of the Nazarene movement lay in spreading Jesus’ message to the non-Jewish world.  
The author of the Gospel of John went even further — not only transforming the Jewish Jesus into the Cosmic Christ, but doing so by portraying him as a Divine figure completely separate from his own people and culture. Unlike the other gospels, John no longer speaks to Jews from a Biblical frame of reference — but rather addresses the Greek philosophical and cultural milieu of Hellenism. Like all Biblical texts, both Hebrew and Christian, which reflect a variety of both religious and political agendas, John’s Gospel sought to placate the Roman conquerors by denigrating Judaism and demonizing Jesus’ own people by portraying them as his opponents. Ultimately, John sought to shift the blame for Jesus’ death as a traitor and threat to Imperial power, by minimizing the role of the Roman authorities, and implicating the entire Jewish community instead.  
As most contemporary, mainstream Christian scholars and theologians admit, 2000 years of the Church’s persecution of Jews, and triumphalist hostility to Judaism, have their primary roots in the Gospel of John — and its relentless attacks on Jesus’ own people and faith ... a hostility based not on historical facts, but in his own interpretation of the complex religious and political controversies of the First Century.  
Now it is somewhat ironic — and perhaps Providentially intentional — that the lectionary links one of John’s more negative portrayals of Judaism — the story of the driving of the money changers from the Temple — with, of all texts, Exodus, Chapter 20 — the Ten Commandments ... the very essence of Judaism and Christianity’s major legacy from its Jewish inheritance. I believe that reflecting openly and candidly on the meaning and the historical context of both of these passages, can help clarify many of the misunderstandings that have led to so much tragic conflict through the ages.  
Moral Foundation  
The Ten Commandments are revered by both Judaism and Christianity, as the moral foundation of our civilization. And yet this text also unwittingly helped to perpetuate one of the most enduring and divisive Christian misconceptions regarding the Jewish tradition — the idea that Judaism is a cold, legalistic system ... a ritualistic religion of harsh commandment and law, as contrasted to the Christian claim of a gospel of mercy and love. The central issue here is the way that the word “Law” came to be the standard Christian translation of the Hebrew word Torah — particularly in John’s Gospel and in the writings of Paul. Torah, in reality, is a complex and multi-dimensional concept. It refers, on the most literal level, to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, an ancient collection of mythic narrative and communal chronicles of the earliest history of humanity and the Jewish people. However, it was also composed and conceived over many centuries, as the comprehensive framework for a Covenanted Community — that was, initially, both a religious system and a sovereign nation. These texts certainly included “laws” — ritual, ethical and civil legislation that were intended to govern every aspect of life in ancient Israel. However, the concept of Torah was never understood to be merely a legal code.  
Torah literally means “teaching” ... it is not so much a text as it is rather an evolving tradition — a dynamic, organic process of received revelation and inspiration ... transmitted from generation to generation as an ever expanding body of knowledge and truth. Torah is understood to embody the way in which we search for and discover God’s will ... and become conscious of the Divine Presence in our human experiences and history. And while Torah has always employed ritual and ceremony as symbolic expressions of eternal and universal spiritual and ethical values, it was the underlying principle that was — and is — paramount. This is nowhere more clearly reflected than in the Ten Commandments.  
Revolutionary Leap Forward  
In the ancient world in which this concise summary of the Torah’s essential teaching was first formulated, these words were a radical and revolutionary leap forward in the history of humanity’s spiritual quest. For the first time, faith and ethics were integrated into an inseparable whole. The Revelation at Mt. Sinai proclaimed for all time, Judaism’s fundamental idea that what the God of Israel demands of us is righteous and ethical living — compassion for the weak and needy — integrity in our dealings with others — and the pursuit of justice in society. Centuries later, the Hebrew Prophet Micah would offer an even more concise summation of Torah, when he taught “what does God require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with Him.” It is so significant that of these ten mandates, singled out as the very essence of the entire Torah, only two are theological principles — proscribing idolatry and proclaiming God’s reality and unity as the sole liberating Force for human freedom. Only one of the commandments concerns ritual — the observance of the Sabbath — and yet even it focuses on the underlying ethical dimension of a day of rest and spiritual renewal for all living things. All the rest of the Ten Commandments proclaim the imperative of ethical, just and caring relationships between human beings.  
Now with this as a broad context for understanding Judaism and Torah as Jesus himself would have known and affirmed it, let us go on to reflect on today’s Gospel narrative — the famous story of Jesus’ driving of the money changers from the Temple.  
Religious Institutions Co-Opted by Rome  
As we have already observed, John’s account of this episode reflects his characteristic implication of Jesus’ opposition to his fellow Jews and their worship in the great Sanctuary in Jerusalem. Writing almost a century after the events, and attempting to assert Jesus’ separation from Jews and Judaism, what John does not tell us is the broader context of this story. To fully understand this and so many other Gospel narratives, it is critical to know what was happening in Israel in that period. By Jesus’ time, a century after the oppressive occupation of Judea by Imperial Rome, the major religious institutions and leaders of the Jewish people had been totally infiltrated and co-opted by the Roman conquerors. Caesar’s puppet king, Herod, sat on the throne — and the authentic priestly leadership of the Jerusalem Temple had been replaced with bureaucratic functionaries willing to acquiesce to Roman authority and policy. The Temple cult was already largely discredited among most Jews who viewed the compliant priests as traitors, loyal to Caesar rather than God. Herod’s costly renovation of the Temple, which transformed the ancient Sanctuary into a sumptuous Roman style shrine, was popularly perceived as a desecration. The Jewish community, at that time as well as today, certainly revered the Temple as a holy place of Divine Presence, and cherished the memory of its past glory. However, the corruption of its liturgy and governance under Roman control, had long alienated the common people from the vast and elaborate Temple establishment. Its chief priests at that time are hardly remembered in Jewish history ... Caiaphas for example, is known today only through his notoriety in the New Testament ... Jewish tradition has preserved virtually no record of this Roman appointee.  
In this period in fact, immediately preceding the Temple’s destruction by Rome in retaliation for the final Jewish revolt against Caesar in the year 70, the central Jerusalem Sanctuary had already been supplanted in the minds and hearts of the people by a new alternative form of communal worship — which would eventually supersede it — the small, local gatherings for prayer and Torah study that came to be known by the Greek word, “synagogue”. The remote priestly bureaucracy had already been discredited and challenged by the recently emerged group of charismatic young teachers popularly known as “rabbis”. Unlike the Temple priesthood, whose authority was inherited and consisted of exclusive sacramental prerogatives, the rabbis linked themselves to the tradition of the Biblical prophets — their authority and influence was based on their personal virtues, their knowledge of Torah, and their ability to teach its spiritual and ethical ideals to the common people.  
Jesus Was Appalled by Rome’s Exploitation  
As one of this new generation of popular leaders, Yehoshua ben Yosef, Jesus the son of Joseph of Nazareth, shared the disdain for the corruption of the Temple under Roman rule. Like many Jews, he was appalled by the way Rome had come to exploit the Temple as a funnel for taxes and tribute to the Imperial coffers, through the system exchanging foreign currency contributions at exorbitant rates, substituting financial contributions for sacrificial gifts, and the selling of offerings within the sacred precincts. This is the context for the narrative of today’s Gospel account. Jesus, like many rabbis, was actually a radical dissident, as this text’s depiction of activist protest dramatically demonstrates. Like many other rabbis, Jesus was considered a threat — both by the Roman authorities and by their collaborators in the Temple establishment. There is no doubt that this incident, his physical attack on the money changers — those who brokered the tribute system in the Temple courtyards — marked Jesus for arrest and eventual execution by Rome. The important thing to remember however, is that the Gospel accounts of this and other episodes were written down a generation after the events.  
By the time Matthew, Mark, Luke and John’s texts were composed and edited, Rome had already crushed the Jewish resistance — destroyed the Temple — and executed hundreds of Jewish rebels by the Imperial method of crucifixion. And the Jewish followers of the Rabbi of Nazareth were already being transformed into a separate community and a new religion by those who followed his original disciples. Their retellings of these events were already being conceived to placate the sensibilities of the Roman conquerors. John, in particular, accomplished this by presenting Jesus as completely separate from his own faith and people. “The Jews,” so contemptuously sneered at in John’s words, became the “other” — and so as not to offend the Roman authorities, the execution of Jesus is presented as a unique event — rather than the common occurrence it actually was — and responsibility is shifted from the Imperial governor, Pontius Pilate, to the provocative depiction of a bloodthirsty Jewish mob screaming “Crucify him! Crucify him!”  
Canonized Text  
This is, tragically, the version of these complex events that became the official, canonized text of the Christian Church. As the Christian community grew and gained in power in the Roman Empire, this inevitably meant violent tensions and resentments between the Mother and Daughter faiths. In the end, when Christianity became the official doctrine of the Empire under Constantine in the Fourth Century, the stage was set for centuries of contempt, oppression, marginalization and persecution of Jesus’ own faith and people at the hands of his followers ...  
Dear friends ... I share this perspective and interpretation not to offend or challenge your faith. If I might have initially been reluctant to speak to you so candidly, I am encouraged and empowered to forge ahead by the characteristic spirit of intellectual inquiry and spiritual openness and diversity that marks Emmanuel Church. I also hope that you know that I share these insights as an alternative way of understanding these complex issues ... and as the most important contribution I believe that I can offer you in my teaching role here ... emboldened by the relationship of mutual respect, trust and love that we have built together ...  
The Truth Can Make Us Free  
In one of the few passages from John that I can wholeheartedly affirm, I believe that indeed, “the truth can make us free” ... liberated from the old misunderstandings and prejudices that have divided God’s people in the past ...  
As together, we enter this shared sacred season of anticipation and preparation for both Easter and Passover — a period whose texts and narratives bring so many of these issues into sharp focus — I pray that a deeper understanding will indeed lead each of us to healing and reconciliation ... sharing Passover’s message of the liberation of mind and heart — and Easter’s promise of new life and hope ...  

< return to article list
© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.