Another excerpt from my dissertation on the need for “embodied wisdom” in our age of impersonal, disembodied learning models. Here I unpack a key concept of rabbinic teaching and Jesus’ unique twist on it.
If the heart of Pharisaic-Rabbinic discipleship was ‘passing on’ to their pupils their interpretation of oral and written Law, what did Jesus hope to pass along to his? And what were the disciples to do with it in turn? In his discussion of the characteristics of talmidim (Hebrew equivalent of mathetes), Michael Wilkins introduces the concept of shimmush, which is “the secondary qualification of the Talmudim, and means “attending upon and coming under the personal influence of the teacher and learning form his deportment. But shimmush itself was a study of Torah,” Wilkins continues, “because the rabbi’s life was to be an embodiment of Torah.”
This Jewish notion, shimmush, that the rabbi was not only a commentator, teacher or interpreter of Torah, but called to be a living embodiment of the true Torah is the golden thread that connects Jesus’ unique teaching ministry and authority to the broader rabbinic tradition before and after him. Jesus and the apostles would then take this concept to new and greater heights of wisdom and practice.
Rabbis were first and foremost ‘tradents’ passing something on to their pupils. While Davies notes that “the milieu within which Jesus appeared was conditioned for the faithful reception and transmission of tradition,” Jesus instead chose to pass on his very ‘Way’ of life, and called his disciples to model their lives after his embodied cruciform ethic.
By definition, the ‘embodiment’ of some teaching requires a teacher’s ‘body’, or unique person, to be an essential part of the teaching and learning process. The naked Word must be clothed with human flesh. In the fullest sense, the Written Torah became the Torah-incarnate in Rabbi Jesus. This is a key difference between Jesus and the Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism. For the latter, Wilkins notes, “the emphasis was upon the acquisition of oral Torah so that written Torah might be fully understood.” For Jesus, the emphasis is upon the acquisition of Him and his embodied Kingdom-shaped Torah so that the true heart of written Torah might be fully grasped and obeyed and, dare we say, “inscribed on our hearts” (Jer 31:33).
Yet, the tradent cannot “pass on” a teaching/Torah/wisdom to students unwilling to “receive.” In John’s Prologue we marvel that the written Torah-Word has become embodied (incarnate) in the person of Jesus (1:14), while we also lament that “his own people did not receive him” (1:11). “But to all who did receive him…he gave the right to become children of God” (1:12). Note the shift away from common rabbinic focus on passing on and receiving the rabbi’s teaching; now it is Jesus himself as the embodiment of Torah (the enfleshed Word) who is either received or rejected. Just as young Jewish boys who openly received Torah instruction became “children of the commandment” (Bar Mitzvah) around age 13, so the one who receives Jesus as embodied Torah are given the honor of becoming “children of God’ (John 1:12).
Jesus then raises the stakes, warning those who reject his embodied Torah that they are actually rejecting the entire chain of tradition going all the way back to Moses: “These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life….But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me” (John 5:39-40, 45-46).
This concept of embodied Torah dovetails nicely with the embodied Wisdom tradition that Jesus and then Paul and the early church embraced and taught. Scot McKnight connects these dots:
Jewish wisdom begins with substance, namely, the fear of YHWH. That fear of YHWH was expressed paradigmatically if not quintessentially in Torah-observance so that wisdom gets firmly connected to Torah in the Jewish tradition. But the earliest followers of Jesus reframed wisdom from Torah to Christ and Spirit. Hence, for them wisdom is Christ, Christ is Wisdom, the crucified and resurrected Jesus is the Wisdom of God. This is the kind of wisdom that provides insight into a specific situation in Paul’s pastoral work just as Torah opened the world to the 1st Century rabbi and the halakhic wisdom of Talmud and Tosefta opened the gates to new life for the later Hasidic masters. Wisdom then is not a free for all discernment but a substance-based discernment…The substance of Paul’s sense of wisdom, I now repeat yet again, is Christ and Christ reconstitutes the essence of wisdom.
Likewise, I’m suggesting the substance of Rabbi Jesus’ Torah is Christ himself and his cruciform Kingdom ethic. What McKnight calls a “substance-based” wisdom I am calling a “person-based”, or embodied, Torah. Perhaps its best to combine them and call it embodied Torah-Wisdom.
What does this mean for pastors and teachers today who want to follow in Jesus’ footsteps? What are we passing on to our students and congregants? Stay tuned.
Categories: Doctoral Studies