Tuesday, 25 October 2016

We Know Dylan Lays Tefillin, but did Jesus?

The short answer is: yes. In case you’re asking “what is laying tefillin?”, I’ll explain super-briefly: Tefillin, or “phylacteries”, are small boxes containing scripture that are worn on the forehead between the eyes and on one arm close to the heart. They are usually worn only during prayer, but some wear them during Torah study. To do so has long been considered a fulfillment of the mitzvah (commandment) in Deuteronomy 11:18, to “bind the commandments on your arm and between your eyes” (though there are now and have always been Jews who interpreted that verse symbolically). 

In Jesus’ time the pharisees wore Tefillin, and other Jewish sects may also have. Jesus criticized them for wearing ostentatious Tefillin (). Did Jesus himself lay tefillin, though? Well, he did wear Tzitzit (ritual fringes with a similar purpose to tefillin but kept on all day), keep kosher, and observe the Jewish holidays and the Sabbath. He encouraged other Jews to follow the laws of Temple sacrifices, revered the Temple, studied Torah, and kept the Sabbath. He also said that he had come to fulfill, not abolish, the Torah and admonished his disciples that those who did not affirm even the minor mitzvot of the Torah would be “least in the Kingdom of God”. So it seems pretty likely he would have laid Tefillin. This is even more likely if one accepts the recent scholarly argument that Jesus was in fact a Pharisee himself, based on the fact that he is identified as a “Judean” in the Gospel of John, and “Judean” does not just refer to those who lived in Judah, but those who held the Judean leaders to be authorities and followed their customs (as the gospels of John, Matthew and Luke clearly depict Jesus doing). Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees is an insider’s rebuke, his frustration that of frustrated love and disappointed hope. 

Gentile Christianity has long depicted Jesus as abolishing or replacing the Torah, relying on a carefully crafted and complex exegesis of the New Testament which, although understandable and not without basis, ignores several clear passages and narrative elements and creates tensions and contradictions in both Christian theology and practice. This rejection stems more from the the alienation and hostility that set in between Judaism and Gentile Christianity in the centuries following the deaths of the apostles (most of whom were observant Jews like Jesus, including Paul) rather than sound readings of the New Testament and Torah.  

To say that Jesus abolished Judaism is like saying that Jimi Hendrix abolished the electric guitar. Jesus showed us what Judaism could do, just as Hendrix, l’havdil,  showed us what the guitar could do. Jesus criticised aspects of the Jewish practice of his time, while affirming or refining others. That makes him a genius of the interpretation and implementation of Judaism in the world, not it’s destroyer.