Sunday, July 13, 2008


Pinchas Blogging Round I

(perchance this will not be like History of the World, Part I but there will actually be a "round II" based on my planned sermon regarding Pinchas, Elijah and transfers of power in Torah and Pirkei Avos -- I'm not promising anything ... but I guess it's fair that I have some extra blogging concering my Bar Mitzvah parsha!)

Earlier this year in what I pretty much deemed to be "round 0" of Pinchas blogging, I talked, amongst other things, as to "you shall know them by their fruits". In general, I would say one thing that puzzles us Jews about Christianity is the level of detail given by Christian scriptures about legal issues. Christianity, not being "legalistic" has a tendancy, from a Jewish point of view to stop at a very odd level of detail.

To give an example, I'll use Jesus' comments about "you shall know them by their fruits" where he makes the analogy and then goes on to make a categorical statement about trees and fruits. Imagine a Jewish source on this subject, though. Torah does pretty much say "you shall know them by their fruits" but doesn't really elaborate even as much as the Sermon on the Mount does. Such a statement in Mishna would similarly be cryptic and not even fully state the analogy. Our Prophets and Wisdom literature would fully state the analogy but not elaborate even as much as Jesus does.

Could you imagine the Midrashim that could be written about orchards and fruits that would not only enrich the p'shat (literal meaning) of "you shall know them by their fruits" and explicate the ramez (allegorical meaning) but also tell the d'rash (extended reading) and illuminate the sod (secret meaning -- together these hermeneutical methods spell out PaRDeS -- a cognate to paradise and alluded to previously on this blog ... PaRDeS of course also is the Persian translation of "Gan" -- as in "Gan Eden" and is used as a synechdoche for sod in particular)?

I similarly imagined this morning what Gemara would do with a Mishna including the passage "you shall know them by their fruit":

This means that just as a good tree bears good fruit and a bad tree bears bad fruit, so it is with prophecy and teaching: a true wise man is noted by the good fruits of his decisions whilst a boor is known by the boorishness of his deeds and words. R. Ishmael, however, asked "does not a good tree occassionally bear rotten fruit?" and the Sages accepted his point. R. Akiba said "does not a bad tree occassionally bear good fruit?". The sages responded, that would be a sign or wonder. R. Assi added, the Holy One, praised be He, regularly works such miracles.

R. Akiba stated "many trees are poisonous but for their fruits, which are delectible". R. Eliezar ben Hyrcanus wondered if one ought to eat the fruit of a poison tree. R. Meir taught in a Baraisa "trees which are entirely poisonous but for their fruits have been created by the Creator just for the purpose of their fruits: the poison is the back of the tree but the fruits of the tree are its face".

Abaye asked, "does not the grower of apples plant apple trees?" Why did the Sages not teach "you shall know what fruit you will get by knowing the trees"? Rava responded, for all the reasons thus given. R. Papa added "we give the good field a benefit of the doubt as to the quality of its barley and do not destroy the field for one bad ear". Reish Lakish said "we should be cautious about, but not prejudiced against, the fruit from an orchard built on bad soil." R. Yochanan, applying the teachings of Hillel, added "this is the importance of having a good name".

[And so on with more aggaddah, etc.].

Does Christianity have anything like this? Certainly they have their Bible stories much like Midrash Rabba, but how much d'rash (drawing out) do those stories do? And, while the Sermon on the Mount explicates the notion, as old as Torah, of "you shall know them by their fruits", it stops at an awkward place, making a key insight of pragmatic Hebraic morality take a very un-Hebraic aretaic turn. Does Christianity have any sources that either stop at the degree of detail given in Hebraic "Biblical" literature or, not stopping, actually bothering to explain the matter in full instead of stopping at an awkward place thus going so far in categorically arguing for a position they ultimately argue against the world-view of that position?

Is the issue, though, one of the chain of transmission (c.f. "blessed are the cheesemakers" in Life of Brian) -- perhaps Jesus, a Jew, did go into more detail, but all we have is what the gospel writers, whose interests were not pragmatic but rather rhetorical, deemed fit to actually record of a tradition which is now lost? In any case, what does get written down and what does not is indicative of the world view at hand, is it not?

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