“Ass - a long-eared, slow, patient, sure-footed domesticated mammal, Equus asinus, related to the horse, used chiefly as a beast of burden.” (Dictionary.com)
In my book A Prayer to Our Father, which I wrote together with Keith Johnson, a Christian pastor from North Carolina, we explore the Hebrew origins of what is commonly known as the “Lord’s Prayer”. Many of my Jewish brothers and sisters have expressed great concern over the book. Some have even speculated that I have secretly converted to Christianity and am leading others into the Christian faith. Some of my Christian friends have joined in this speculation thinking that perhaps there is a “surprise ending” to the book in which I proclaim my faith in Jesus. On the flip side, some Messianics are spreading the false rumor that I allegedly hold secret meetings during my speaking tours in which I try to convince “believers” to abandon their faith. I hate to disappoint the rumormongers but none of these are true. I have not converted to Christianity nor do I attempt to convince anyone to change their faith. I suppose the reason for these false speculations is that some people have a hard time understanding why a Jew who does not believe in Jesus, would write a book on his teachings unless he has a secret agenda. I thought I explained this rather well in my books but I guess not everyone reads my books. Or perhaps I am not as eloquent as I like to think. So I am writing this to try and set the record straight.
Let me start with my views on Jesus of Nazareth, or as he was known 2000 years ago, “Yeshua”. Over the past few years I have gained a great respect for his teachings, but I have not embraced the Christian faith nor have I become a “Messianic Jew.” I clearly state this in all of my presentations in order to avoid any possible confusion. I am, as I have been for over twenty years, a Karaite Jew, which means I believe the Tanakh (“Old Testament”) to be the perfect word of God. As a Karaite Jew, I await the coming of an anointed King (in Hebrew: “Messiah”) who will be a direct descendant of King David. I have no idea what his name will be and therefore I do not rule out the possibility that his name will be “Yeshua”. Many Jews, and Karaites in particular, may vehemently disagree with me on this last point. All I can say is that when the anointed descendant of David reigns as a flesh and blood king over Israel, as promised in the Scriptures, we will all know his name as an accomplished fact.
So why do I have what one of my sisters (a devout Orthodox Jew) refers to as an “unhealthy interest in Jesus”? It started many years ago, when I came out of Rabbinical Judaism and began researching all of the world’s religions. I was particularly interested in ancient Judaism in all of its forms, and this naturally included the teaching ministry of Yeshua of Nazareth. My interest in this subject is not as unusual as my sister might think. Over the past century, Jewish scholars have increasingly carried out research to uncover the Hebrew background and context of the New Testament. One of the greatest of these scholars was Professor David Flusser, himself an Orthodox Jew, who taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I was trained in the study of ancient Jewish texts at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where I earned my Masters Degree in Biblical Studies, and I view my own research on the teachings of Yeshua as part of this scholarly tradition.
To give this research some context, a number of years ago I was privileged to have worked with the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written by an ancient Jewish movement called the Essenes. While I believe the Dead Sea Scrolls contain great value, at no time did I ever become an Essene. Furthermore, as a textual scholar researching the scrolls it was not my role to convince anyone whether or not to believe in Essene Judaism. My role as a scholar was to attempt to understand what these ancient documents meant in their original linguistic, historical, and cultural context. This is how I see my role in exploring the Hebrew background of the New Testament. It is not my role as a textual scholar to lead anyone into the Christian faith. Nor is it my role to lead anyone out of the Christian faith. These are issues of personal faith and belief that are beyond the scope of my research. My role as a textual scholar is to understand what Yeshua taught in the linguistic, historical, and cultural context in which he preached. For those who believe in Yeshua, I would think this should be of great importance. But it should also be important for non-Christians, as Yeshua was indisputably a pivotal figure in world history who profoundly influenced the development of Western civilization.
In addition to my interest in all forms of ancient Judaism, there is another reason I think it is important for me to share the results of this research, especially with Christians. It relates to an experience I had many years ago in Jerusalem. Living in the Holy City, I meet all kinds of interesting people. One such gentleman was an American tourist who described himself as a “Messianic Gentile”. I had heard of “Messianic Jews” before, but did not know what a Messianic Gentile was. He explained that he believed Yeshua to be the Messiah and wanted to live as Yeshua lived. He told me that as a Jew, Yeshua refrained from eating pork and went to the synagogue on the Sabbath. Although he had no Jewish ancestry that he knew of, he too wanted to live as Yeshua had lived, refraining from pork and going to a synagogue on the Sabbath. At the time I had never met anyone quite like this and was very intrigued. We ended up spending many long hours discussing our respective beliefs and practices. One day, he was telling me about the prayers in his congregation back in America and he proudly announced that in his Messianic synagogue they recited the Amidah. When I heard this I was shocked because I knew something he obviously did not know. The Amidah is the standard prayer of Rabbinical Judaism, and I grew up as an Orthodox Jew praying this prayer three times a day. The Amidah is also known as the “Eighteen Benedictions” but today actually contains 19 benedictions. The 19th benediction, which my friend obviously did not know about, is called the Birkat HaMinim which means “the Blessing of the Heretics”. Despite its name, it is actually a curse of the so-called “heretics”. Historical sources, most notably the Talmud, inform us that this 19th benediction was added to the Amidah around the year 90 CE in order to prevent those Jews who accepted Yeshua as the Messiah from participating in synagogue services. At the time, the Rabbis did not have the authority to prevent Yeshua’s Jewish followers from attending the synagogues but they reasoned these people would stop coming if a public curse was proclaimed upon them during every prayer service. When this “Messianic Gentile” told me his congregation recited the Amidah during their services I thought surely he meant the Amidah without the Birkat HaMinim. So I asked him to show me his Messianic prayer book and I quickly flipped to the section containing the Amidah. To my horror I found that it indeed contained the Birkat HaMinim. It had been translated in a very clever way to obscure its meaning, but there it was in black and white, in both Hebrew and English. I was heartbroken at the thought of an entire group of devout people, who were searching in their own way for Scriptural truth, proclaiming a public curse upon themselves because they did not understand the historical context of their own faith. They wanted to live as Yeshua lived, but ended up reciting a prayer created to curse those who believed in Yeshua. I realized then and there that the Almighty had blessed me with an understanding of ancient languages and ancient Jewish texts and I wanted to share that information with anyone who needed it, even if I disagreed with them on important matters of faith.
As a Jew, it is not all that strange for me to interact with people that I disagree with on matters of faith. This is part of the pluralism inherent in Jewish culture in general. There is an old saying that “if you ask two Jews you get three opinions.” This witticism is based on a fundamental principle in Rabbinical Judaism that there are seventy true meanings to every single word in Scripture. The result of this doctrine is that multiple opinions can be tolerated, even when they are diametrically opposed. This approach has imbued Jews with a relatively pluralistic attitude towards matters of belief, especially when these beliefs do not result in any practical expression of ritual observance. This is in sharp contrast to the Christian tradition of breaking fellowship, and indeed in earlier centuries of burning people at the stake, over the subtlest of doctrinal nuances.
As a Karaite, I do not agree with the Rabbinical principle that there are seventy true meanings to everything in Scripture. I believe there is only one true interpretation. However, with the Temple in ruins and the People of Israel in a state of Exile we do not necessarily know what that one true interpretation is. This necessitates a pragmatic pluralism, which in some ways is even more tolerant than Rabbinical Judaism. Karaite Jews believe we must do our best to discover the truth but also humble ourselves before God and admit that we can never know for sure “until a priest with Urim and Thummim should appear” (Ezra 2:63). This humility means not judging our brothers for disagreeing on matters of faith, and even on matters of ritual observance, as long as they do their best to discover the Scriptural truth. I am not saying every Jew, nor even every Karaite, always lives up to these ideals, but they are nevertheless values deeply rooted in Jewish culture.
Considering that there are, according to the World Christian Encyclopedia, over 33,000 denominations, I would have thought Christians to be even more tolerant to differences of faith and practice than Jews. To be sure, this may be true for many Christians. However, I did not realize how alien this pluralistic approach was to some Christians, until I was on a speaking tour in the USA. After one of my presentations, a man walked up to me and thanked me for the information I had shared. He told me that he had been told by his congregation leader not come to my presentation. The congregation leader had warned him that as someone who does not believe in Jesus, I was not “anointed” to speak the truth. The man objected to his congregation leader: “If God could use Balaam’s ass to speak the truth then surely he could use Nehemia”.
I suppose most Jews would be deeply offended at being compared to a female donkey, but I was more disturbed by the arrogance of this man’s congregation leader. I was raised with the tradition of the Rabbis who taught: “Who is a wise man? He who learns from every man.” (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1). Karaite Jews wholeheartedly embrace this principle, often quoting the words of the 12th century Rabbinical sage Maimonides (Rambam): “Accept the truth from whoever speaks it.” When Maimonides said this he was referring to the mathematical and astronomical knowledge he learned from ancient Greeks sources. He did not dismiss or ignore this knowledge even though it came from pagans, because the knowledge was true in its own right. It is important to note that this was not simply “secular” knowledge to Maimonides; it had practical application to the observance of certain biblical commandments.
The original disciples of Yeshua and their heirs understood that truth had value regardless of its source. Evidence of this can be found in the Book of Acts, which quotes the words Gamaliel, a leading Pharisee of the 1st century. Although Gamaliel was not a believer in Yeshua, the Book of Acts considered what he said to be valuable and true in its own right. The notion that a Christian today would categorically deem what Jews have to say as worthless and untrustworthy because of our different beliefs is the zenith of arrogance. I am reminded of the words of Paul of Tarsus (admittedly a Jew) who warned the Gentiles:
“But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you.” Romans 11:17-18
I suspect Paul was talking about something that was already happening in his own time: Gentiles were embracing the faith in Yeshua and boasting that they were better than the Jews who did not share their new belief, even though these Jews were the “root” of their faith.
As if this arrogance were not bad enough, shortly after being compared to Balaam’s ass, the specter of anti-Semitism reared its ugly head. I had been invited to speak at a Christian conference when the organizer received a dire warning from a local Christian pastor. The pastor proclaimed that as a “non-believing Jew” I was operating under the control of the “spirit of Antichrist”. When I heard this, I thought the pastor meant it metaphorically, but it turns out he meant there was a literal demonic spirit that was influencing my every move. He explained that it was nothing against me personally but all “non- believing Jews” are under the spirit of Antichrist. Boasting against the root is one thing, but this amounts to cursing the root.
Some of my fellow Jews reading this are probably thinking: “So why bother, Nehemia? Let the goyim languish in their ignorance.” My answer is that there are countless Christians out there who want to understand their faith in its original historical, cultural, and linguistic context. Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew who spoke Hebrew and lived as a Jew, among Jews. It just so happens that God has blessed me with a knowledge of ancient Judaism and ancient Hebrew and I feel compelled to share this information with those who need it, even if I disagree with them on important matters of faith. The Torah teaches us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves which means to treat others as we ourselves want to be treated. I know that if I lacked vital knowledge, I would want someone who had this knowledge to share it with me. I must, therefore, share the knowledge I have with those who need it. I am not saying I know everything, or that I have all the answers. But if God could use a donkey to speak to Balaam, perhaps he is using me for some purpose that is beyond my comprehension. I pray that like Balaam’s ass, this is a burden I can continue to bear.