Theology in 3D

How Do Orthodox Jews Read Isaiah 53?

Layton Talbert | September 14, 2017
Old Testament, Theology

The short answer is that, as a rule, they don’t. Every year around September, they systematically avoid reading Isaiah 53. But that begs a little explanation.

My good friend Craig Hartman (director of Shalom Ministries) describes an approach he likes to use with Orthodox Jews. He starts with a question: “As an Orthodox Jew you must study the Bible a lot. Can I ask your opinion on a Bible passage?” He then begins to read to them from Isaiah 53. When they try to peer over the edge of the Bible to see what he’s reading, he holds up the binding towards them so they can see that it’s a Christian Bible (Old and New Testament). That satisfies their curiosity, so he continues reading. As he reads more and more of Isaiah 53, they invariably end up saying something like this: “Oh, that’s talking about your Jesus.” That’s when he holds out the open text in front of them so they can see exactly where he was reading—their Isaiah 53. Reactions vary, but pleasant surprise is not one of them.

The point? The picture of Christ on the cross in Isaiah 53 is immediately apparent even to an Orthodox Jew who simply hears it being read. So why don’t they believe?

You cannot see what you will not look at.

There are lots of reasons. But the most theologically rooted explanation is offered by Paul (a Jew) when he writes that “blindness in part has happened to Israel” (Rom 11:25) with the result that “a veil lies over their heart” when they read the Old Testament (2 Cor 3:15). But in addition to that is this basic law of reality: You cannot see what you will not look at.

Jewish synagogues follow a yearly reading schedule through much of the Old Testament. There are appointed readings for each Sabbath as well as special readings (some of them pretty extensive) on holy days. Every Sabbath includes a parshah—a reading from the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy, which they read through entirely every year)—followed by a reading from the Prophets, called the haftarah. The same schedule is followed year after year, and has been for centuries and centuries.

If you look up the yearly synagogue reading schedule on the internet (for example, here), you will discover that Isaiah 53 is never read. Ever. Not in the weekly Sabbath readings. Not on any special holy day. Now you might think, “Well, the Old Testament is pretty long; you can’t read through all of it just in Sabbath synagogue readings and holy days. Surely there are a good many other passages that are omitted as well.” And you’d be right; there are many other passages that are omitted. But this omission is a particularly curious one.

We usually think of Isaiah 53 as a unit; from a structural and literary standpoint, however, the passage actually runs from 52:13 to 53:12. Here’s why that’s significant. Every year around September one of the scheduled Sabbath readings is Isaiah 51:12-52:12. Notice where this reading stops? What do you suppose the following Sabbath haftarah reading is? Isaiah 54:1-10. That still might seem like mere coincidence, except for the fact that within a seven-week period, the Sabbath haftarah readings cover Isaiah 49, 50, 51, 52 (up to 52:12), 54, 55, and 56. It’s hard to escape the impression that Isaiah 53 has been surgically removed from circulation in terms of any regular, public, Jewish exposure to it. You cannot see what you will not look at.

Now, that’s not to say that Jewish interpreters have historically just completely ignored this passage. The standard Jewish interpretation for the last 1000 years is that the “servant” in this passage is the nation of Israel itself, whose history of suffering has atoning value for the sins of all the other nations. (See this site, for example.) It’s an interpretation that bristles with all sorts of problems, but that’s for another post. It’s enough for the present purpose to raise one simple question: If Isaiah 53 describes Israel’s national suffering as God’s servant on behalf of the whole world, and promises a glorious future in which she will be exalted and rewarded by God for all her sufferings, would you expect a passage like that to be so scrupulously avoided? Wouldn’t you expect this, of all passages, to be cherished and included in the Jews’ yearly reading of the OT? You cannot see what you will not look at.

“Blindness in Part”

Earlier I mentioned Paul’s statement in Rom 11:25—that “blindness in part has happened to Israel.” That means there are Jews who believe—like the disciples, or the 3000 on the Day of Pentecost alone, or nearly the entire early church for the first two decades, or Paul, or my friend, Craig Hartman.

Or like Dr. Michael Rydelnik. I met him on the plane going over to Israel in 2011. His mother survived the holocaust. Years later she confessed to her husband and son that she had long been a believer in Christ—even as a young Jewish girl in a Nazi concentration camp. Her husband was furious and divorced her. The court awarded custody of their teenage son, Michael, to her. Embarrassed to be the Jewish son of a Jewish-turned-Christian mother, Michael set out to prove to his mother from the Old Testament prophecies that Jesus couldn’t possibly be Messiah. He was converted by his own study, and has since written some excellent books.

Or like Zvi. Put into a Warsaw orphanage at age 10 by his own parents who believed it was his only chance for survival (and hoped his blonde hair and blue eyes would disguise the fact that he was Jewish). Escaped the concentration camps, but he never saw his parents again. Left to fend for himself when the orphanage closed 3 years later. Survived the Nazi occupation living hand-to-mouth. Immigrated to Israel after the war. Fought in the 1948 battle for Israel’s independence. Met an old woman sitting on a park bench who gave him a Hebrew New Testament. Became a believer and spent the rest of his life pointing other Jews to their Messiah. Emigrated from Israel to heaven just a few months ago, but left behind a son who pastors a church in Jerusalem. His life story is well worth reading.

Sometimes it is simply a matter of being exposed to a portion of the Tanakh they have never seen before.

The Lifted Veil

So it’s only “blindness in part.” But that’s not Paul’s whole statement: “blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom 11:25). That means the blindness is not only partial, it is also only temporary. Because then (next verse) “all Israel shall be saved” (Rom 11:26).

On that day the veil that is over their heart when passages like Isaiah 53 are read will be torn from top to bottom, “they will look on Him whom they pierced,” and “they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for his firstborn” (Zechariah 12:10). “And in that day a fountain shall be opened … for sin and for uncleanness” (Zechariah 13:1). And everything God, in grace, has ever promised to that nation and about that nation He will do—for the praise of the glory of His grace and because the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.

Photo Credit: Isaac Talbert

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on rootedthinking.com.


7 responses to “How Do Orthodox Jews Read Isaiah 53?”

  1. Ken Casillas says:

    Fascinating stuff, and also sad regarding the blindness of the heart of God’s chosen people. It would be interesting to know whether the Rabbis give an explanation as to why Isaiah 53 is skipped in the synagogue readings. How would they defend their practice?

    • That’s a good question, Ken. I don’t know, but I will poke around a bit and see if I can find an answer. The surgical precision of the excision is intriguing, though–the four chapters before and the three chapters after, but not 53. LT

    • Ken, a preliminary search via “Ask the Rabbi” provided this reply: “the readings for the 7 week period leading up to Rosh Hashanah all have a similar content, namely the concept of comforting the exiles and the dispersed of Israel.” That seems fair enough as far as it goes. When you look more closely at the readings calendar, it’s apparent that it’s not designed to cover as much of the Tanakh as possible; some of the Isaiah readings are duplicated (e.g., sections of Isa 54 are read 2-3 different times). What’s also curious, however, is that the Isaiah readings do cover all the Servant Songs … except the fourth (Isa 53). In any case, regardless of the reason for the omission, the effect is an ignorance–and yet an instinctive understanding–of Isa 53 that is apparent when they are confronted with it. That, by the way, is why the 929 Project in Israel warrants our prayers. LT

      • Ken Casillas says:

        Thanks for the follow-up, very helpful. I can feel a journal article idea coming on–evaluating from a Christian perspective the rationale for synagogue reading choices. Or maybe something like that already exists.

  2. Greg Stiekes says:

    Thank you for bringing to our attention the fact that the synagogue reading skips Isaiah 53. I did not know that. I assumed that the passage was read but that the interpretation was Israel as the suffering servant.
    But I have a theological question for you. You have pointed us to 2 Corinthians 3 and Romans 11–the veil and the partial hardening–for a partial explanation of why the Jews do not read Isaiah 53 the same way that Christians do. And yet, in the experiment with the reading of Isaiah 53 the unsuspecting Jew hears Isaiah 53 read and says that the passage speaks of the Christian Jesus. So what exactly would you say the nature of that hardening or that veiling is? Secondly, Paul is not speaking of Jews in particular when he says in 2 Cor 4:4 that the “god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving.” Is there any difference, then, between this general blindness of unbelievers in general and the veiling or hardening of the Jewish heart? If so, how do we nuance the reference to the Jewish hardening so that it is qualitatively different than a general hardening?

    • The nature and reality of the hardness/veiling is, I think, apparent in the fact that even when they see it (unwittingly condemned out of their own mouth, as it were), they still refuse it. (Though hopefully, of course, the seed has at least been planted.)
      The question about any qualitative difference between the blindness of Israel in 2 Cor 3 and the more generic blindness referred to in 2 Cor 4 is a good one. I think I’d begin here: 2 Cor 4 specifies that Satan is the agent of blindness (“the god of this age”) in conjunction with our native depravity; but Rom 11:7-8 specifies God himself as the agent of Israel’s blindness–a judicial blindness that is both partial and temporary in keeping with passages like Isa 6 and 29. Interestingly, the blindness described in Isa 29–the passage Paul cites in Rom 11:8–is both self-chosen (29:9) and divinely inflicted/reinforced (29:10). LT

  3. Frank Trapani says:

    I think the orthodox jews wont read the whole book of Isaiah because he mentions the coming of the messiah son of god jesus christ.

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