David Hodges's Reviews > Return of the Kosher Pig

Return of the Kosher Pig by Tzahi Shapira
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A longer version of this review appears on Amazon.com and the Pious Eye site (reviewer's blog)

In The Return of the Kosher Pig (hereafter, Kosher Pig), Messianic [Jesus-accepting] Rabbi Itzhak Shapira argues for the acceptability of the idea of “a divine Messiah” within Jewish thought since Judaism parted ways with believers in Jesus. (He also draws upon such earlier sources as the Hebrew Bible and the Targumim [Aramaic Jewish paraphrases of the Hebrew Bible].) In spite of being an admittedly minority viewpoint, Judaism that accepts Jesus as Messiah is, he argues, a variety of traditional Judaism even those who currently reject Jesus should find acceptably Jewish (and should, thus, be willing, as faithful Jews, to consider embracing). This is Shapira's contention and the persistent theme of his arguments in Kosher Pig, a book that early reviewer endorsements suggest readers can expect to be, not only “Well researched” and “learned,” but “Well written” and “A great read” (back cover). While I certainly agree the text is “Well researched” and “learned,” my experience as a reader does not incline me to call it “Well written” or “A great read.” The feeling I get is that I'm reading a first draft, an initial attempt to organize copious research notes under headings in a loose structural framework. Awkward locutions and an excess of unneeded adverbs and adjectives make the reading tiresome. For instance, sources never “state” anything; they always “clearly state,” usually in a way that Shapira informs us is “interesting” or “incredible” or “wonderful.” Reference is never made to something untrue being the case “in no way”; rather, it is always “in no way, shape, or form.” How English editors could fail to eliminate most of this is unclear; one might speculate that excitement about the overall point of view (a “divine Messiah” is consonant with traditional Judaism and Jesus is that “divine Messiah”) blurred the critical eye of editors (and early reviewers). As well, a meandering structure seems to have made tiresome repetition of points necessary, and the addition of headings, intermittent summaries, and various tables does not suffice to make Kosher Pig orderly or perspicuous. Were the English writing style more readable, perhaps the presentation would feel less discursive, less in need of significant reorganization. At the very least, it might then be pleasant reading.

The bringing together of sources is not without value, however, and Kosher Pig, however laborious it is to read, does bring together a large collection of source quotations. Shapira translates passages from multiple Hebrew sources that (apparently) have not previously been translated into English. If you're looking for a collection of quotations, citations, and translations you might draw upon in your own work, you might find Kosher Pig worth acquiring. If, on the other hand, you're looking for a book to give to non-Messianic Jewish friends to persuade them to consider Jesus' claims, or if you want a pleasant-to-read introduction to Messianic Judaism and its take on broader Jewish thought, this edition of Kosher Pig probably isn't for you.

Style and structure are not the only things about Kosher Pig I find off-putting. Some content also troubles me. For instance, Shapira, evidently considering this a good thing, writes that he has “no connection or relationship to Christianity other than following the same Messiah” (xii). He rejects the idea that “Messianic Judaism is Christianity” and emphasizes how his “entire background and theological training is Jewish” (xi). Since Jesus-followers were labeled “Christians” when Jewish believers were still the leaders and important members of the movement (Acts 11:26, 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16), and since “Christ” is just a translation of “Messiah,” Shapira's wish to separate believers-in-Jesus into two groups, only one of which he labels “Christian,” is at best confusing. Shapira's terminology has the unfortunate effect of implying that Jews who accept Jesus as Messiah have more in common with Jews who reject Jesus than with gentiles who accept him; it also implies that Shapira considers himself an adherent of Judaism first, a believer in Jesus second. Surely the Jesus who identified faith in himself as more important than ties to family (Luke 14:26) would not approve.

Shapira seems to believe that background in a tradition that rejected Jesus two millennia ago is all one needs to work out a full-orbed Jesus-following faith. Can one really expect to formulate sound biblical doctrine by ignoring the faith-tradition that has alone followed Jesus all the intervening years, has alone had the Holy Spirit's guidance and completed Bible? This seems unlikely, and does not accord with what Scripture predicts. Gentile and Jewish Christians are to be part of the same tree, and Jews who come to true faith after long rejecting it are to be grafted back into the same tree on which the gentile believers have been growing and thriving during all the intervening years (Romans 11). While one can certainly understand Jewish discomfort with past behavior of many gentile Christians, Scripture nowhere suggests that unbelieving (Jesus-rejecting) Jews are a true tree of faith that simply needs to add Messiah and go from there; rather, they are detached branches needing to be reincorporated into a tree of faith that God has continued to cultivate since his people “of the flesh” (Romans 9:8) rejected him in the person of his Son.

Now, I certainly have no objection to Messianic Judaism. The discussion at the Jerusalem council (Acts 15) and other New Testament indicators (e.g., in Acts 16) do seem implicit permission for Jews who accept Jesus to continue uniquely Jewish practices if they wish (thus continuing to practice Judaism while embracing Christianity). (Any effort to make such practices mandatory for all Christ-followers would be out of bounds, of course [Colossians 2, Romans 14].) Nevertheless, it does seem to me that a background in Judaism alone should not be considered sufficient by those who embrace Jesus today. For two millennia, traditional Judaism, the dominant faith of Jews “according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3), has rejected Jesus. In contrast, during this time God's Holy Spirit has been guiding believers in Jesus, most of whom have not been Jewish, in the understanding and application of “all truth” (John 16:13). To ignore this stream of Jesus-accepting thought in favor of exclusive focus on a tradition grounded in rejection of Jesus is misguided. Such misguided behavior is not unknown within gentile Christianity, of course, where early heresies continually reemerge as individuals think themselves uniquely qualified to discern in Scripture what Spirit-guided believers of past generations have “misunderstood.” Ignoring centuries of Scripture- and Spirit-guided self-correction of Christ's followers is unwise. Granting that I am a gentile and do not grasp how strongly someone who grows up in Judaism must desire to hold fast the words of his people's “sages,” I simply cannot see Shapira's approach as adequate.

The inadequacy of an exclusively Jewish background reveals itself in Shapira's unpacking of exactly what it means to identify Messiah Jesus as “divine.” As we know from church history, it took believers in Jesus, even with the Holy Spirit's guidance, a very long time and much debate to harmonize all that Scripture teaches about the one God who is three eternal persons and about what was involved when one of those persons added to his eternal deity the full nature and physical body of a human being. While some might grant that more could yet be discovered, that the harmonizations (doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation) might be even further worked out and clarified, those humble enough to accept that Jesus-followers before them were as likely to be guided to understand Scripture correctly as they are will surely not dare to reject a doctrinal understanding won with such difficulty by past Christian generations. By trying to formulate his understanding of Jesus' incarnation without reference to past Christian thought, Shapira risks inadvertently embracing errors Jesus' followers have already, under the Spirit's guidance, corrected and moved beyond.

Not only does he risk doing so but, if I do not misunderstand him, he in fact does so. In his final chapter, Shapira writes: “I suggest that we view Yeshua of Natzeret [Jesus of Nazareth] in a slightly different light than 'God, the Son,' as he is known within the Trinity in Christian circles” (266). Identifying Jesus as “God, the Son,” is a careful expression of a hard-won doctrinal understanding of a range of scriptures and all that they imply, yet Shapira sets it aside as unimportant. Apparently, Shapira wishes to get away from the “God, the Son” locution because it does not fit with his understanding of Judaism. He writes: “Although this book has presented extensive evidence in favor of a Divine Messiah, it is impossible to label over 2,000 years of Jewish thought on this topic as wrong” (266). Therefore, Shapira believes (apparently), unpacking of the implications of the “Divine” in “Divine Messiah” must comport with that last 2,000 years of Jewish thought, at least with that portion of it that (while still rejecting Jesus) has believed that the Messiah will be divine. Shapira's way of making Jesus' incarnation comport with Jewish thought is to present Messiah Jesus as a manifestation of God “through the process of tzimtzum,” meaning God's self-limitation, a “reduced” presentation of God, or of “a part” of God (266-7; Messiah is identified as “part of” God often, such as on page 94). Since in Jesus “dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9), identifying him as “a reduction” or “reduced manifestation” of God seems inadequate. In taking on humanity (not just human form but genuine and full humanity, adding this to his eternal deity), Jesus indeed set aside (“emptied” himself of) independent and visible exercise of most of his divine attributes (Philippians 2:5-9; mentioned by Shapira 269-70), but in his person there was nothing “reduced.” Jesus' manifestation of his own divine nature might have been largely veiled, so that its degree of visibility could be called “reduced,” but referring to Jesus himself as a “reduced manifestation” of God, or as “part of” God, is inaccurate and dangerous. Overall, the impression one gets from Shapira's discussion is that he embraces a form of modalism , where the one God presents himself in a variety of modes (God is “compound” in manifestation) but where, ultimately, he is a single (non-compound) person, a hidden entity who never interacts with his creation or creatures except through his (partial, reduced) representations. Shapira, in fact, at one point chooses the term “mode” to describe the Jewish understanding he wishes to promote, offering the following translation from the Zohar (a source he quotes frequently): “Hear, O Israel, YHVH Elohenu YHVH is one....How can the three Names be one? Only through the perception of Faith....the mystery of the threefold Divine manifestations designated by YHVH Elohenu YHVH – three modes which yet form one unity” (64). He comments: “Christians often use these types of arguments to prove the Trinity; however, Judaism speaks of ten sefirot, or manifestations, of God. Either way, the concepts are quite similar, as Judaism supports the idea of the compound unity of the Mighty One of Israel” (Ibid.). Three or ten “modes” of divine “manifestation” are, of course, not at all similar to a divine Trinity where three persons are the one living and true God. If I have not misread him, Shapira believes that God is “compound” (possesses “parts,” three or ten) in his manifestation, but one (not compound) in his hidden, eternal, transcendent nature. While this belief may seem acceptable to some groups claiming the “Christian” label, it goes contrary to Christian orthodoxy, embracing basic errors that the mainstream of Spirit-guided believers-in-Jesus considered and rejected long ago. I pray this view is not prevalent among Messianic Jews or, if it is, that it will not remain so.

Also troubling is how Shapira rejects the doctrine of Scripture's sufficiency (2 Timothy 3:16-17). One “good work” for which Scripture alone, in Shapira's understanding, does not “throughly furnish” a man is “search for the Messiah.” He writes: “some would try to argue that all we need is to hold firm and true to the words of the Bible in our search for the Messiah....This argument falls apart quickly” (44). Though we must indeed “depend upon the Hebrew Bible or the Tanach as the primary source,” it is also true that “to interpret difficult verses, we can employ authorized Jewish resources that are recognized across the entire Jewish world using the Pardes methodology” (44). Why “authorized Jewish resources” by thinkers who rejected Jesus should be considered helpful in determining that Jesus is in fact the Messiah might be unclear, but Shapira's effort to show support for a “divine Messiah” in Jewish thought of the last two millennia, among thinkers who have not embraced Jesus as their Messiah, is an interesting one. That belief in a “divine Messiah” seems more prevalent in the earliest sources, in those preceding and closely following Jesus' time, does seem to support the contention that those first believers in Jesus as “divine Messiah” remained within the range of belief acceptable within the Judaism of their day. That expectation of a “divine Messiah,” such as Jesus claimed to be, has remained present in Jewish thinking ever since, even as rejection of the idea has become dominant, might indeed prove a useful fact for believers-in-Jesus reaching out to adherents of traditional Judaism. My own tendency, gentile Christian that I am, has been to identify “traditional Judaism” as having become a false religion when it rejected Jesus, and as having become increasingly false as it has developed and elaborated upon that rejection. That is still my tendency, though Shapira's collection of citations from non-Christ-following Jewish sources does suggest that traditional Judaism has not become so completely false as I might have believed.

That non-Christ-following Jewish thought contains Jesus-compatible truths useful for outreach does not justify rejection of Scripture's sufficiency, however. Neither does a desire for effective outreach justify adopting dubious hermeneutics. This is an additional difficulty I have with Kosher Pig. In his just-quoted repudiation of Scripture's sufficiency, Shapira notes his intention to use “the Pardes methodology” to guide his hermeneutics. This method, reminiscent of gentile Christianity's medieval experiments, asserts that Scripture has four layers of meaning accessible by interpreters. The first, most basic (27-8), is “the literal textual meaning” or p'shat. This is essentially the historical-grammatical meaning we heirs of the Reformation see as the meaning, a meaning beyond which no additional meaning should be sought. The second level (30) comprises “hints,” remez, alleged to provide additional true insights. This level can be used to associate passages based on such things as common letters, even when the passages (in their p'shat) address unrelated topics. The third level (Ibid.), drash, “mostly refers to allegorical interpretation” (of evidently literal passages), and figures importantly in midrashim (Jewish “sermon notes of 2,000 years”). The fourth and final level (31), sod (“a secret”), proposes valid interpretations can be found “hidden” in the text, such as in the numerical values of the words or phrases of different passages (values assigned through “Gematria, a numbering system for the Hebrew language”).

While drash, if not disconnected from the p'shat, might capture valid applications of Scripture by correctly exercising analogical reasoning (as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 9:9-10), both remez and sod, used extensively in Kosher Pig, strike me as uncontrollably eisegetical. At one point, for instance, Shapira notes how selection of a set of letters from a certain text spells out the name “Yeshua,” as though this “hint” strengthens his case (68). In another place, in an effort to buttress his argument (if I understand him) that Jesus does not so much replace/surpass Moses (whom one widely accepted Jewish confession requires must be seen as the greatest prophet) as fulfill or complete Moses, Shapira adduces the following evidence: the phrases “The Messiah” and “Moses is alive” have matching numerical values (363). I'll leave it to creative readers to see what range of weird beliefs they can support with appeal to such coincidences. Do such “arguments” merit any better response than the marginal “Ugh!”s and “Groan!”s I've added to my copy of Kosher Pig? I agree with Shapira that Jesus is the Messiah, yet find these remez and sod exercises ridiculous. Should anyone expect readers who disagree with Shapira to find them persuasive?

I don't know how widely such imaginative hermeneutical exercises are accepted among Jewish believers, but we gentile heirs to the Reformation realized some time ago that, if Scripture is to function as authoritative, its interpretation must not depend on human inventiveness; it must be clear (if often difficult) and subject to objective interpretation. If the true meaning of Scripture resides in such subjective exercises as “the Pardes methodology” permits, Scripture ceases to be an authority to be obeyed, becoming instead merely a source of creative inspiration. Even where one does not replace the plain sense with the “hidden” but, like Shapira, only adds the “hidden” to the plain, Scripture loses authority, since one places creative human invention (the “hidden” sense) on a level with authoritative divine utterance (the plain sense). I know these proposals of a “hidden” sense can be appealing; often they “feel right” to us. However, we Bible-believers, Jews and gentiles alike, must discipline ourselves to avoid such interpretive malpractice, keeping always in mind that the feeling of rightness often attending it indicates nothing more than that the proposed “hidden” sense happens to agree with our preexisting opinions. “Hidden” senses that we happen to agree with seem plausible to us solely because we agree with them, not because they are at all valid hermeneutically.

So, then, while granting the learnedness of it (Shapira's mastery of Jewish source materials seems exhaustive), and though aware that much research and effort went into it (how many hours must Shapira have spent just translating his Hebrew sources for us?), there is much that I find troubling in Kosher Pig. Whether these things will trouble others, and whether Shapira and his publisher will issue a less-troubling edition in the future, time will tell.
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