A response to a question about a Missionary in Israel, preaching to Jews about the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah.

A friend who is a local Pastor sometimes asks me questions about Hebrew or biblical texts. I am honored to discuss these issues with him; and even more honored when I hear, from time to time, that my responses have informed his sermons or teaching.

He wrote me today about a video “blowing up on Facebook.”

[slightly edited—SW] “I’ve been getting a ton of questions about and am hoping you can help. The video is in Hebrew and it’s basically a Hebrew speaking man using Isaiah 53 in an attempt to convert Jewish Israelis to Christianity. The claim is that Isaiah 53 is “forbidden” in Judaism or even removed from Tanakh.

“… I don’t recall ever hearing the chapter is forbidden or removed. Is there any validity to that claim?

“This link should take you to the video in question. https://www.facebook.com/MedabrimEnglish/

Here is my reply [also lightly edited].

Indeed, the passage is not part of the “annual lectionary”—passages read in synagogues. What the missionary is talking about is inclusion in the Haftarot. He is correct: Isaiah 52:13 through the end of Isaiah 53 (often called the “Suffering Servant” passage) is not included in the list of Haftarot. Although the missionary presents this as a “hidden” passage or something the Rabbis don’t want Jews to see, this is far from the truth: It has not been removed from the Bible, or prohibited from reading. Every Hebrew Bible, every Book of Isaiah, has this passage.

As is well known, all of Torah, (Genesis through Deuteronomy) is read from the Torah Scroll in most synagogues in an annual reading cycle. In addition, a selection from the Prophetic books of about a chapter or two in length is read each Sabbath and Festival. (The Prophetic books are defined as Joshua through Malachi, organized according to the Jewish tradition). The readings from the Prophets selected for the annual reading cycle are a small percentage of the total material in these books..

If you are interested, here is a fairly comprehensive List of selections read in synagogues today. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haftarah#List_of_Haftarot.

There is a list in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah that I also checked. This is at the end of his Prayerbook, at the end of Sefer Ha-Ahava. This passage is not included there either. (Most of the haftarot are the same as today’s practice, but he has a distinct list for the seven weeks following Tish’a Be’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple; he also gives the seven readings used today, discussed below).

There *are* Talmudic discussions about passages from the Prophets that are or are not read in public. This is not one of them.  Moreover, some of the passages that the Talmud suggests should not be read in public are in fact read in the Synagogue.

There are lectionaries associated with the practice of reading Torah in three years, in which there were three times the number of prophetic selections. Searching for this is beyond the scope of my answer today. Michael Fishbane is the scholar whose name comes to mind first regarding the actual history of the Jewish lectionary.

I won’t take the time to look at the other references cited by the missionary. In any case the response to his claim is clear: the passage is not read in the synagogue in the annual cycle of readings, but otherwise is not omitted from any Hebrew Bibles or included in any lists of prohibited readings.

It’s easy to see how a missionary could argue that the “Suffering Servant” passage should have been in the annual reading cycle. Haftarot called “the seven of consolation” are recited on the seven Sabbaths between Tish’a Be’Av and Rosh HaShanah–all from Isaiah 40 and following chapters. The passages before and after the “Suffering Servant” passage (i.e. passages ending Isa. 52:12 and beginning 54:1) are the readings for Shofetim, and the following week, Ki Tetze. Perhaps this all is especially meaningful if people suppose that the Messiah was born on the day the Temple was destroyed, which is remembered on Tish’a BeAv. But there are other passages from Isaiah 40 onward that are also not part of the haftara cycle.

Presumably the reference to Sanhedrin 98 mentioned by the missionary is to p. 98b and a possible name of the Messiah, see for example, http://www.come-and-hear.com/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_98.html.  The Isaiah passage is referenced at note 31. In this passage “the Rabbis say” the name of the Messiah can be learned from Isaiah 53:4.

There are Targums and Midrashim that understand the Isaiah text as referring to the Messiah this way as well. However, it should be noted that there are numerous suggestions about the name of the Messiah in Sanhedrin 98b, just about all of which are fanciful (and hopeful) readings of Biblical texts. Note also that the Talmudic text postdates the emergence of Christianity and it is certainly possible that discourse about this passage reflects interaction with Christians about its meaning.

But most Jewish tradition does not look at the Suffering Servant as primarily a messianic figure; it is probably more common to see the figure as a poetic reference to Israel herself, suffering in Exile, yet loyal to God, and this is consistent with much of the context of this portion of the Book of Isaiah. Moreover, it is easy to see why a passage that refers to the suffering of Israel is not included in the readings that are part of the seven haftarot of consolation–perhaps the best argument that the Rabbis did not understand it to refer to messianic redemption but to Israel’s suffering.

A short, concise discussion of this passage with both traditional an academic perspectives is in the Jewish Study Bible. The classic Hebrew commentaries printed in most Rabbinic Bibles do not emphasize the messianic reading of this passage. To be sure, any commentary written or printed after the emergence of Christianity (including rabbinic bibles or the Jewish Study Bible of course) might easily be claimed by this missionary to have reflected a consciously anti-Christian agenda. But in fact, the argument should be the reverse: any reading of this text as solely Messianic in intention, rather than capable of diverse interpretations, clearly reflects a conscious Christian polemic.

In short, the missionary of this video is using a rather typical missionary trope, in which the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52-53 is seen as a prefiguring of Jesus; and as you are well aware, the idea of finding Hebrew Bible passages that can be interpreted as prefiguring Jesus may or may not go back to Jesus’ actual ministry, but it certainly goes back to the time New Testament gospels were written down a few decades later.

You have probably come to rely on me for responses that are way longer and more comprehensive than called for yet have value and interest. I hope I did not disappoint.

Seth Ward

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