Wednesday 23 December 2009

The Poor, the Mean and the Lowly

You have to be careful when quoting from the Talmud. Its 63 tractates have long provided a happy hunting ground for anti-Semites who want to prove that it advocates the mixing of Gentile blood with Passover matzah, paedophilia and a whole host of unsavoury practices. Before making any pronouncement about what ‘the Talmud says’, it is wise to remind yourself that the Talmud is a record of rabbinic discussions on legal matters and that there is much contradictory material in its pages. Also, the sentences are often so convoluted that they have to be read and reread in order to understand the meaning.

Nevertheless, even though the Mishnah and Gemara that comprise the Talmud are considered to be as much the Word of God as the 39 books of the Hebrew Scriptures, there are elements in that cause concern and fall far below the high morality and ethics of the Jewish Bible.

For example, even though some of the Bible’ greatest men – for example, Abel, Jacob, Moses, King David and the prophet Amos – were shepherds, there are passages in the Talmud that show the rabbis took a dim view of the profession. It seems that some rabbis regarded shepherds as so disreputable they could not keep the Torah.

Bava Metzia 5b says one should not entrust animals to a shepherd, if there is a strong possibility the shepherd will allow them to graze on other people's property, thus breaking the commandment ‘Thou shalt not steal’.

In Bava Kama 118b, purchasing milk, wool, or kids from shepherds was prohibited since they might have stolen these items from the cattle under their care.
Yet it was to shepherds, those whom later rabbis regarded as untrustworthy, to whom the birth of Messiah was first announced.

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of Adonai stood before them, and the glory of Adonai shone around them, and they were greatly afraid.

Then the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Messiah Adonai. And this will be the sign to you: you will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.’

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!’
So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which Adonai has made known to us.’

And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.

(Gospel According to Luke 2:8-16)

If ‘Luke’ was making up this story, as some believe, at the end of the first century, long after the event he claimed to be recording, why didn’t he have the angel of the Lord appearing to rabbis or to scribes or to the priests? After all, who could check the facts. That would give the persecuted Christian movement a bit of a boost. Luke tells his reader in the opening sentences that he had checked out the facts with eyewitnesses (one of them no doubt the mother of Jesus).

He records that the angels appeared not to the great and the good but to the poor and mean and lowly. And so has it ever been. The King of the universe revealing himself to sinners and the dregs of society.

A few years later, another Jewish baby was born in different surroundings who would grow up to be, as far as Torah was concerned, blameless. But he would later write: ‘This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Messiah Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I (not shepherds) am the chief.’

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