There is a common misconception among the many Christians who make a pilgrimage to Israel. It’s easy to understand why this happens, since Israel is the place where the majority of the events in the Bible occurred (and where many will occur in the future). The erroneous thinking goes something like this: “Israel is the land of the Bible; Israel as a nation rose from the dead (miraculously), and Jews from around the diaspora are returning; many Jews believe in the God of the Bible; therefore, they must know the Bible very well.”
This seems like a reasonable set of assumptions, and the first ones are true. But the last two—well, let’s just say “some” Jews believe in the God of the Bible, but most don’t really know the Bible very well at all, at least in the way that Christians think. Let me explain.
There was a story this morning in Ha’aretz, one of a number of news outlets here in Israel, about what exactly religious Jewish Israelis study in “yeshiva,” which is sort of like the Jewish equivalent of the Christian seminary. Except yeshiva students often begin their studies at a much younger age (think young teens). And they are MUCH more serious about their studies than the average Christian seminary student.
The sub-headline of the article reads, “Ultra-orthodox yeshiva study isn’t about parsing the bible or even studying Oral Law, but an attempt to peer into God’s mind.”
Now, the first thing that might come into your mind is, “Huh? They don’t study the Bible?” You read the whole headline, but that was probably what stuck out. “But how can that be,” you’re asking yourself? “Don’t they live in Israel, and speak Hebrew, and know all of the places where the Old Testament happened?” The answer is “Yes” to all of these questions, but for reasons I won’t get into here, “Studying the Bible” as Christians understand the concept, is not really a thing here—unless one is a “Messianic Jew,” i.e. a Jew who believes that Jesus (Yeshua) is the promised Messiah—but that’s a different subject.
Yes, yeshiva students can read the Old Testament—what Jews call the Tanach—in the original Hebrew. And they’ve likely memorized by rote the whole Torah—what Christians call the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). But, if you ask Jewish yeshiva students what they think about Isaiah 53, they will tell you what the Jewish commentaries say about the passage, but they won’t talk directly about the passage. They might say something like this, “Rabbi so-and-so says such-and-such in XYZ-commentary.” It would be highly unusual (near 0% probability) for a yeshiva student to give their own opinion. They are taught only to study others’ opinions, not to come up with their own.
Now, I’m not putting down yeshiva students or the rabbis who put together the Talmud from the Mishnah (the oral Torah) and the Gemara (rabbinical commentary on the Mishnah). These texts have been carefully put together for the past two-thousand years by very smart and learned rabbis, who spent their whole lives trying to figure out how to obey what God said in the Old Testament/Tanach. But studying the Bible, as we understand it, is not really the point of the yeshiva. Instead, it’s about understanding what others say about the Bible. As Meg says, “It’s 2,000 years of playing the ‘telephone game’ with the Bible, with unfortunate results.”
Interestingly, I think that Christians have their own versions of this type of thinking. “Surely not!” you say. Yet, answer this question for me: “How many hours do you spend reading books ABOUT the Bible versus actually reading the Bible?” Do you see what I’m getting at? I’m just as guilty.
We love to read the latest books by the hottest Christian authors, but we labor over reading through the Bible once a year. Basically, we want for others to reverse engineer God’s will for our lives, and then write it out in simple language. “Please, someone just tell me what God wants, and I’ll try to do it.” We want a quick fix to life’s problems, without doing the real work ourselves. These books are many times ironically called, “self-help,” when in reality we—ourselves—rarely are the ones who are helping.
If God’s Word is “living and active” then why do we prefer to read what someone else says about His Word? What they write might be true—and even helpful and insightful—but I doubt that it’s “living and active.” Maybe the reason we do this is because God’s Word is, as the verse continues, “sharper than any two edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Sometimes I think that we read what other people say about the Bible because those books rarely convict us like the Bible does.
Next time you go to church, try this: 1) Listen to the sermon; then 2) Like a good Berean, go home and read the passages (and the surrounding verses) from the lesson. Do you see what I’m talking about? Your minister did a lot of work putting that sermon together. But the Holy Spirit within you might speak to you through those same verses in ways that the lesson might not have.
I’m sure that your pastor will love the fact that you went home and actually studied further what he presented. And in doing so, you might even hear that “still, small voice” of God answer a question or two that you have had.