I have to confess, when I first heard the title of this book, my assumption was that it was going to be yet another Christian attack on the laws of kashrut. I couldn’t have been more wrong, and I’m extremely grateful to a good friend who gifted me with a copy of this book.
The author, Rabbi Itzhak Shapira, is an Israeli Jew, raised in a traditional Sephardi family, and therefore far more qualified to comment on both the Hebrew Bible and traditional rabbinic texts than I–he actually provides translations of quite a few texts that have never, as far as I can tell, been rendered into English before. In R. Shapira’s words, his life changed when he accidentally wandered into a Messianic synagogue for Kol Nidre (the traditional service on Yom Kippur eve) and had a Hebrew New Testament pressed into his hands as he fled. That encounter and actually reading the New Testament for himself led him to discover and embrace Yeshua as the long-awaited Messiah in Israel.
The full title of this book is The Return of the Kosher Pig: The Divine Messiah in Jewish Thought. The title is based on an old rabbinic riddle: Why is the pig (Heb. chazir) called the “returner” (from chazar, “he returned”)?
During the course of the writing of this book, I received a daring flyer from Chabad on the subject of Acharit Hayamim, or the end times. In it, the writer mentioned that the reason God called the pig a hazir (חזיר) in Hebrew is because the pig will return to Israel. Upon reading this for the first time, I scratched my head and decided to dig further to understand this important concept of the pig that is to return to Israel. I discovered two important facts about the Messianic expectations of the pig:
1. On the simple level: During the days of the Messiah, the pig will be kosher again.
2. On the midrashic level: During the days of the Messiah, the pig (Christianity according to the Midrash or the Messiah according to the Sod) will return to Israel. (p. 12)
That is to say, that which has long been considered unclean and even a symbol of idolatry and persecution will be at last received as clean and holy by the Jewish people.
R. Shapira rightly notes that the greatest impediment to the Jewish people as a whole accepting Yeshua, or indeed in accepting Christianity and Messianic Judaism as anything other than idolatry, is Yeshua’s claim to Deity. Return of the Kosher Pig is dedicated to showing that not only is a Divine Messiah within the bounds of Biblical faith, but that many Jewish authorities through history have expected the Messiah to be a Divine figure–indeed, that many understand a plurality in the Godhead itself!
This is far and away my favorite book that I have read in years, and I would have reviewed it sooner if I had not been foolish enough to loan it to a friend and had to wait for it to come back. It has a depth that I have found few books to match, and is must-reading for anyone trying to understand Jewish (which is to say, Biblical) hermeneutics. It is, I have to warn you, a very challenging book, and one that will leave many Christians with no understanding of or interest in Rabbinic Judaism frustrated and those who think that all Kabbalah is occultic ranting about its “heresies.” But for those of us who accept that a Jewish book (the Bible) is best understood through Jewish eyes, it’s an amazing work.
To give just a hint of the kinds of treasures R. Shapira has uncovered for us, let me quickly lay out my two favorite examples. First, have you ever wondered why the Messiah is called a “stone” in passages like Psa. 118:22 or Isa. 8:14? Shapira gives us the answer: The Hebrew word for stone is even (אבן), in which we find the words av (אב) for “father,” and ben (בן), for “son.” Thus, the even, the stone, is where the Father and the Son (אב-בן) become one (cf. John 10:30) (pp. 90f).
Second, have you ever wondered why Yeshua equated himself with the serpent in John 3:14? It turns out that the word for “serpent” (nachash) and “Messiah” (Mashiach) both have the same numerical value in Hebrew: 358.
Those are just two examples among dozens which R. Shapira lays out for his readers–and really, they’re among the least important, even if they have a bit of a “wow, neat” factor going for them. The real heart of the book is, as I said before, presenting the Divine Messiah in Jewish terms. At this point, my dream seminar would be a discussion between R. Shapira and Dr. Heiser on understanding the Trinity in Jewish terms, as both come from radically different starting points (Dr. Heiser is suspicious of the rabbis interpretive methods, and focuses primarily on pre-rabbinic material), but come to similar conclusions.
I found this particularly interesting, since I was reading this book as I was going through the process of having a falling out with my former rabbi. Part of our argument was over how to present Yeshua: While we both agreed that he was Hashem’s Word, Wisdom, and Sh’khinah (Dwelling Presence) in human form, he was convinced that we had to downplay that Divine element in order to present Yeshua to the Jewish community, and distance ourselves entirely from Trinitarian language. Rabbi Shapira demonstrates why this need not be so, even working from a strictly rabbinic perspective.
Again, a very brief example that does not do R. Shapira’s arguments justice, but which gives the flavor of them. He points out that the common translation of Ecclesiaties 12:1–“Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth . . . ” (NASB)–is actually a translator’s gloss, and inaccuracy rendered to make the passage “make sense” in the translation. The word for “Creator” is boreikha (בוראיך). The yod (י) actually makes the word a plural; if it were a singular, it would be rendered borakha (בוראך or בראך). Thus, a single yod (and “not one yod or penstroke shall pass away,” Mat. 5:18) takes a straightforward statement and turns it into a mystery: “Remember your Creators in the days of your youth . . .”
From this, Shapira points out (pp. 65ff), many rabbis have recognized a plurality in Hashem’s manifestations, even taking Elohim (“God”) to be derived from El-hem, “They are God” (citing Rabbi Meir Ben Gabbai’s Sefer Avodat HaKodesh and the Zohar).
Some of R. Shapira’s arguments may seem strange to Christian eyes–or for that matter, to the eyes of Messianic Jews who are not as accustomed to reading rabbinic midrashim (interpretations). Indeed, there are arguments that will seem quite forced to most peoples’ eyes–but the important thing to remember is that these are not Shapira’s arguments. They are the arguments and speculations of the non-Messianic rabbis down through the centuries as they explored the Scriptures seeking to understand what the Messiah would be like so that they would recognize him when they met him!
As I said before, this will be a difficult book for most, but that actually makes it all the more worthwhile to read. In a day when we’re used to having every bit of knowledge spoon-fed to us, it’s a pleasure to read a book that is actually challenging, and which even contains a few nuggets for those who have taken the effort to learn a bit of Hebrew. Of course, there will be those who are simply frustrated by the work; to them, I recommend that they put The Return of the Kosher Pig back on their shelves after reading it, do some more study, and come back to it in a few years. You will find that it is the sort of book that rewards well the second, third, etc. reading.