Kosher Pig: Tasty in Places, but Undercooked

kosher pig cover (compliments publisher)

Shapira, Itzhak. The Return of the Kosher Pig: The Divine Messiah In Jewish Thought. Clarksville, MD: Lederer Books, 2013. xii+318 Pages. ISBN 978-1-936716-45-6.

The author of The Return of the Kosher Pig (hereafter, Kosher Pig), Itzhak Shapira, is a Messianic [Jesus-accepting] Rabbi “born and raised in a traditional Sephardic Jewish home in Israel” who says that “he found the Messiah [Jesus] within the Hebrew writings,” meaning not just the Hebrew Bible but the writings of Jewish thinkers since Jesus’ day (back cover). Some of us who are Christ’s (Galatians 3:29) might assume that the project of Jewish thought for the last two millennia, grounded as it is upon the rejection of Jesus’ claim to be Messiah (Christ), must be repudiated by anyone who would become Christ’s with us. This is not Shapira’s belief, however. Instead, he 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, of course, 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 all his arguments in Kosher Pig.

Early reviewer endorsements suggest readers can expect Kosher Pig to be, not only “Well researched” and “learned,” but “Well written,” “A great read,” and “Engaging” (back cover). While I certainly agree the text is “Well researched” and “learned,” my experience as an English reader does not incline me to call the book “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.” Almost always, Shapira decides he must inform readers that Scripture passages quoted are “wonderful” or “beautiful.” 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 loose and meandering structure seems to have made tiresome ongoing repetition of points necessary, and the addition of headings, intermittent summaries, and various tables of related materials (quotation from sources with their Messianic implications noted) 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 rather than laborious reading.

The bringing together of sources is not without value, however, and Kosher Pig, however laborious its present style and structure make it 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 first edition of Kosher Pig probably isn’t the book 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 positive thing that should appeal to readers, 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 Messiah/Christ (Christ-ian faith) 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 Messianic (Christ-ian) faith after one accepts Jesus. 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 written Word? This seems unlikely, and does not seem in accord with what Scripture predicts. As Paul (Rabbi Saul) informs us, 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 when the returning Jewish branches were detached from the tree (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.

I realize Shapira, like many Christians meaning to be winsome, wants to treat those of Abraham’s physical seed who are not his spiritual seed (Galatians 3:29; Romans 9:6) as though they really still are his spiritual seed. Scripture, alas, does not support this practice, portraying lack of true faith (whether in a Jew or a gentile), not as sincere error needing mild and friendly correction, but as willful rebellion that seeks always to evade and obscure the truth one is loath to accept. It seems to me this reality should be taken into account when assessing Jewish thought since Jesus’ time.

Now, I certainly have no objection to Messianic Judaism. The discussion at the Jerusalem council (Acts 15) and other New Testament indicators (accommodation of Jewish believers through circumcision of Timothy in Acts 16, for example) do seem implicit permission for Jews who accept Jesus to continue uniquely Jewish practices (dietary constraints, feasts, ceremonies) if they wish to do so (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 in our day. Some two millennia ago, as already noted, the religious leadership and most laity in Israel, Jews “according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3), rejected Jesus. From this foundational rejection arose the project of “traditional [or, ‘normative,’] Judaism,” the faith tradition of observant Jews ever since. In contrast, during all the time this Jesus-rejecting project has been underway, 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’ claims (Shapira’s preference), strikes me as misguided. Such misguided behavior (many would call it “arrogance”) 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 (as they see it) badly misunderstood. Ignoring centuries of Scripture- and Spirit-guided self-correction of Christ’s followers is unwise, whether one’s reason for doing so is a preference for exclusively Jewish source materials (Shapira) or a desire to “start over from scratch” in one’s reflection upon God’s inspired words and so to “restore” an “ideal” primitive church (Christian “restorationism” or “primitivism”). The latter case at least has the advantage of choosing infallibly inspired Scripture as its sole focus; the former adds focus upon the thinking of persons who, for all their erudition and familiarity with the Old Testament, rejected Jesus. 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 seems to reveal 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 presence and 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 (and perhaps some excessively paradoxical formulations modified), 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, or at least nonessential. 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 has accepted the idea that the Messiah will be divine. Now, the idea that 2,000 years of thinking by persons who have rejected Jesus’ claims must be allowed to influence our understanding of the incarnation does not strike me as cogent. Should the Jesus-follower really feel obligated to find true the thinking of persons who have rejected Jesus? Speaking, admittedly, as a gentile, I have to say I don’t think so.

Shapira’s way of making Jesus’ incarnation comport with his understanding of Jewish thought is to present Messiah Jesus as a presentation or manifestation of God “through the process of tzimtzum,” meaning God’s self-limitation, a “reduced” manifestation of God, or of “a part” of God (266-7; Messiah is identified as “part of” God often in Kosher Pig, such as on page 94). I’m very uncomfortable with this. Since in Jesus “dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9), I do not think identifying him as “a reduction” or “reduced manifestation” of God is adequate. 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 potentially dangerous. Overall, the picture one gets from Shapira’s discussion is of a God who is one person (hidden, invisible) who has multiple partial “manifestations” that are “parts of” or that “represent” him. Shapira’s belief in God’s “compound unity” seems to be 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) divine person, a hidden entity who never interacts with his creation or creatures except through his (incomplete, 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 from which 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 (Oneness Pentecostals, say), 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 (or shows no awareness of) 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.” Shapira 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—no other resources or materials are needed in order to understand God’s revelation and his relationship to 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 the case 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’ claims should be considered helpful in determining that Jesus is in fact the Messiah might seem unclear to a gentile Christian like myself, 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, to be sure. That belief in a “divine Messiah” seems more prevalent in the earliest sources, in those preceding and closely following Jesus’ time (Old Testament prophecy, Targumim, first and second century rabbinic thought), does seem to support the contention that those first believers in Jesus as “divine Messiah,” the Apostles and earliest disciples, remained within the range of belief acceptable within the normative Judaism of their day. That expectation of a “divine Messiah,” such as Jesus claimed to be (and such as his followers accept that he was and is), 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 trying to start conversations with adherents of traditional (non-Messianic) 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 to traditional Jews 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 the doctrine of Scripture’s sufficiency, Shapira notes his intention to use “the Pardes methodology” to guide his hermeneutics. This method, reminiscent of Christianity’s own medieval experiments, asserts that Scripture has four layers of meaning accessible by interpreters. The first of these (27-8), and the most basic, is “the literal textual meaning” or p’shat. This is essentially the historical-grammatical meaning heirs of the Reformation like myself see as the meaning of the text, a meaning beyond which no additional meaning should be sought (invented, imagined, imposed). The second level (30) comprises “hints” (or “pointers” or “clues”), remez, alleged to provide additional true insights. This level can be used to associate passages based on such things as common letters in words they contain, even when the passages appear (in their p’shat) to 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 and 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 texts 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/usurp/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 “hints” guessed from letter patterns, assignment to letters of numerical values and association of unrelated words and phrases that happen to have matching values, reading of plain historical passages as though they were parables or allegories, or like “codes” discernible by individuals gifted with special insight (whether one calls them “sages” or “gnostics” or something else), 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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