This is a topic for which I have been loathe to write about since it is so complex due to the incredible amount of metaphoric language in the text by how it is written, complexities about when it was written and by whom, the numerous hypothesized philosophical and religious assumptions and assertions found within the text and the mountainous amount of nonsense scripted by Christians, Messianic Jews and even regular Rabbinates for the past thousands of years claiming to clarify the text. If you're at all familiar with the controversy, you may have figured out that I'm talking about the text of Isaiah 53.
The text of interest actually begins at Isaiah 52:13 and continues until the end of chapter 53. I don’t want to include the text here because just about any English translation I provide has their own obvious self-serving interpretations which effect the meanings of words. This is just as true in Christian translations as the one in an Artscroll Tanach. It would be best if you understand the Hebrew directly and translate yourself. Go ahead and read it now or the rest of this post will be not understandable unless you are already familiar with it.
So, after reading it, you probably understand now why Christians would be so interested in the text, right? In the right light, it sounds an awful lot like the basic story of Jesus. Suffice it to say that Christians have been using this very text to convert Jews since the very beginning of Christianity itself. The main issue is about the identity of the "Suffering Servant" at the beginning of this section of text. There are some Jewish responses that completely deny the messianic nature of the text, like Rashi, who interprets the Suffering Servant as referring to the nation of Israel, but that does seem rather forced if you take the chapter literally. There are many other famous rabbis who do accept a messianic interpretation, but never say that the Suffering Servant messiah is Jesus. There are others who say that the Servant is Moses, or David, or Isaiah, or some other historical personality. Then there are also the modern Lubavitch groups who do take a messianic approach and say that the chapter proves the qualifications of none other but the famous Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Now after you have read this small portion of Isaiah, I would also suggest you read through the rest of Second Isaiah (chapters 40 - 55) to get a further and better comprehension of the context of this chapter and the series of deep metaphors by which the author sets his stories. My interpretation, as limited as it may be, depends on this larger comprehension.
Is Isaiah 53 about Jesus? No, of course not. Second Isaiah, which includes Isaiah 53, was written 500 years before Jesus was born. You have to believe in fairy tales to support the belief in prophecy.
If you read straight through Second Isaiah which is from chapters 40-55, you'll see that the "servant" is constantly and repeatedly referring to Jacob/Israel. See 41:8, 44:1, 44:21, 45:4, 48:20, 49:3..I may have missed a few, but that's a whole bunch.
But 42:1-4 seems to indicate the servant as an individual, perhaps a prophet, perhaps the Messiah. And 49:1-6 is very confusing because it appears to be an individual, but the individual says, 49:3 - "He said to me: 'You are my servant, Israel, in whom I take glory.'" So, what the heck is going on? There is some equivocation here between Israel, the nation and this individual who may very well be some sort of personification for the nation.
Then in 50:4-9, it appears to be the prophet speaking of himself as submitting himself to punishment which was not deserved but was God's will. Sound familiar?
So what is 52:13 - 53:12 about? Maybe the servant is Israel, that would be consistent. Maybe it's Isaiah talking about himself that also makes sense. Maybe it is supposed to be a messianic proclamation, possible. Maybe it is some sort of equivocation between the nation and the prophet, also possible. Or maybe it is intentionally ambiguous for some poetic reason. Or perhaps through copying error or intentional changes, the true meaning is completely lost to us.
Reading the whole Second Isaiah in context supports the idea of the servant either being the prophet Isaiah (or Second Isaiah) and it also supports the idea that the servant is the nation of Israel itself - though that seems to make less sense overall. We don't need to postulate Jesus (or Rabbi Schneerson) to explain the chapter. There are better and more sensible explanations which fit and are found within the text.
Ok, great, so I’m writing one of those rare posts which ostensibly supports the rabbis’ contentions, though not any one in particular. Since I don’t have any dogma to protect, I really am just trying to make sense of a complicated and unclear text and what the author was most likely referring to.
Anyway, a question one might ask is why I decided to write about this all now and not any other time? This isn’t a new topic to me and I’ve been debating it with Christians and Messianic Jews for a few years. Well, if you paid any attention in shul this week and took note of where the Haftorah comes from, you would have seen that it begins at Isaiah 51:12 and ends at 52:12. Amazingly the exact verse before the famous Suffering Servant text begins. And what is the Haftorah for next week, Parshat Ki Setzei? Mamash! It starts at Isaiah 54:1! Exactly the verse following the end of the famous Suffering Servant text. It would certainly appear as if this controversial text was intentionally left out of public readings in Jewish synagogues.
Some might say that it must be a coincidence because the order of the Haftorot was set up in the time of Antiochus way before Christianity, so there’s no way for the Jews to decide not to include it because of Christian influence. Maybe, but the evidence for that claim is very weak. Maybe the Jews did begin reading from the Neviim at that time, but we have no reason to think that the order of Haftorot we have today was set then as well. More likely the order was compiled at a later date. See here.
Has Jewish liturgical customs been affected by Christian influences so much so that Jewish communities were fearful of including such an apparently strong argument for Christianity in public readings? It is still the Hebrew Tanach right? Hard to imagine, but that does seem to be what has happened.