"A RABBI WALKS INTO A CHURCH ... I was recently invited to speak to an adult education class at a mainstream Presbyterian church. The topic of the lecture was how the rabbis read the Bible. I began by asking the group, 'What is the first commandment in the Bible?' After a short pause, I received two responses: 'love the Lord your God' and 'love your neighbor as yourself.' Both fine answers, but neither was what I was looking for. The group apparently interpreted me as asking either: what is the first of the Ten Commandments (Decalogue), or, what is the first, i.e., primary, commandment? The question I intended to ask [was 'what is the first commandment one encounters in the Biblical test?]
After a short discussion, I told the group that the Talmudic rabbis maintain that the first 'commandment for generations' (applicable beyond Adam and Eve) was to '[b]e fruitful and multiply.' The group nodded in approval, and I sensed we were on the same page. Next, I asked a simple, almost inevitable, question from a Talmudic perspective, but one deeply foreign to my audience.
C.S.: "How many?"
Group: "How many what?"
C.S.: "How many children?"
Group: "What do you mean, how many children?"
At this point I realized that we reached a bit of a brick wall, so I backed up.
C.S.: "Do you believe the Bible is the word of God that expresses His Will?"
C.S. "Do you believe you have to follow it?"
C.S. "Well, then how do you know when you have done it? How do you know when you have been sufficiently fruitful?"
Again, blank stares from the audience. It was clear that the last question produced some discomfort. I proceeded to explain that when the rabbis read the Bible, they look to put it into practice, to operationalize it. Thus, most of their questions, and the rabbinic discourse as a whole, look to define the nature and scope of various provisions in the Bible and Talmud....When the rabbis read the verse 'be fruitful and multiply,' they immediately attempt to define the properties and scope of this commandment...Here the issue boils down to how many children are required to fulfill the Biblical command.
... I explained that the rabbis assume that producing two children would satisfy the Biblical duty of fruitfulness...[But in] the Talmud's way of thinking, this is only the beginning. The tradition continues to wonder: If one remarries, must he or she have children again? Is the obligation binding upon the man, the woman or the marriage? What about children from an adulterous or illicit relationship? If the children are incapable of reproducing, do they county? ....
Not surprisingly, at this point I was beginning to lose the group. I got the bug-eyed, 'you've got to be kidding,' expression from nearly everyone, as if to say, 'If this is what the Talmud is about, then the criticism of the Pharisees is dead on.'
I then paused, saying, 'Let's leave the rabbinic answers to these questions for now, but let me hear how in your tradition, you reason toward the answers. Surely you want to fulfill the word of God, so how do you know when you have done it?'
The most obvious and telling response was the ensuing silence. The uneasy quiet indicated that the group had never thought to break down this question into the level of detail found in the Talmud. The command was not conceptualized as binding or operational in quite the direct way the rabbis assumed. While all agreed that the Biblical directives are binding, in the churchgoers' minds the Biblical commandments took on a less concrete form. The assembled group did not interpret the verses as having the same degree of presentness and immediacy as assumed by the rabbis," from "Jesus' Legal Theory--A Rabbinic Reading" by Chaim Saiman, Journal of Law and Religion Vol. 23, No. 1, 2007/2008.
However, both the Talmudist and the Christian read certain "New Testament" passages the same way. For example, the story of the disciples plucking grain on Shabbat. Citing to such incidents, Saiman concludes:
"Jesus and his followers sought to decrease the overall importance and density of the Torah's legal regime..."
How are we to reconcile these statements with the fact that, as we have seen, both Jesus and his disciples transgressed the teaching of the Pharisees (cf. Matt. 9:11, 14; 12:2)? How can Jesus say, 'Practice and observe whatever they tell you' (23:3), when in the following sentence he indicates that the teachings of the Pharisees (especially in contrast of his, cf. 11:29-30) constituted heavy burdens and seems to rebuke the Pharisees for not making their demands lighter (23:4). Furthermore, in the criticism of the Pharisees that follows, it must be noted that Jesus criticizes not only their conduct but also their teaching (e.g., 23:16, 18). Indeed, earlier in the Gospel he has warned the disciples about 'the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees,' which is explicitly identified as their teachings (16:11-12). How are these apparently contradictory utterances to be reconciled?
The answer can only be that the Pharisees are to be honored simply because they concern themselves with the interpretation of the Law (they 'sit in Moses' seat'). They are to be obeyed, but only to the extent that what they teach is not inconsistent with the true meaning of righteousness, which the disciples learned from Jesus, or--put positively--to the extent that their teaching is in accord with the true intention of the Mosaic Law. In principle, the Pharisees are correct; in actuality, they are often wrong (cf. Luke 11:52: 'You have taken away the key of knowledge'). The issue is again the real meaning of the Law and the nature of true righteousness....There is, then, first and foremost a strong continuity between the Law and the teaching of Jesus: Jesus brings the Law to its definitive interpretation. His fulfillment of the Law by bringing it to its intended meaning depends directly on his messianic office and mission," pgs. 126-127 of The Jewish Reclamation of Jesus by Hagner