The Story of Rabbe Yehiel Tzvi Lichtenstein-Herschensohn
James Scott Trimm
Rabbe Yehiel Tzvi Lichtenstein-Herschensohn must not be confused with Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein (another 19th Century Rabbi to accept Yeshua as Messiah in a Torah Observant Jewish context).
Rebbe Yehiel Tzvi Lichtenstein-Herschensohn was a 19th Century a Hasidic Jewish Rabbi who came to the conclusion that Yeshua was the Jewish Messiah of Judaism. His attempt to restore a Torah Observant community of believers in Yeshua as Messiah failed, hoever he wrote many books elucidating the so-called New Testament from a Jewish perspective. His small group of students refered to him as “Rebbe”.
In 1831, Lichtenstein was born into a hasidic Jewish family living in Iasi, Romania, the capital city of Moldavia. In his later yeshiva years, when he was nineteen years old, Lichtenstein began to secretly study a New Testament which he had come across.
In studying this book He was amazed that these writings had many similarities with the Talmuds, Midrashim, Zohars and other Rabbinic and Hasidic literature with which he was studying in the yeshiva. Lichtenstein concluded that the so-called “New Testament” was the missing piece of the puzzle. He saw it as a thoroughly Jewish book, and understood Yeshua to be the Jewish Messiah of Judaism. As Lichtenstein studied the so-called “New Testament”, he determined that Christianity had deeply misunderstood its teachings. It was clear to him that Yeshua and his original followers had all been a Torah observant sect of Judaism.
After five years of study, Lichtenstein and his chavurah of fellow Orthodox Jews, went down to a river and immersed themselves into the Messiah Yeshua. Lichtenstein dreamed of a restoration of a community this original sect of Judaism that were Yeshua’s original followers.
Lichtenstein spent his early years as an traveling rabbi among the shtetls of Bessarabia. He was known among the hasidim as a miracle-worker. However, knowing the Talmud’s advice concerning relying upon miracles:
“One should never put himself in a dangerous situation and say,
‘A miracle will save me.’ Perhaps the miracle will not come.
And even if a miracle occurs, one’s merits are reduced.”
Lichtenstein had a wife and family to support and felt he should not rely on miracles, so he settled down in the mundane career of a merchant. Unfortunately his wife died within a few years of their marriage. Though he had decided to make his living as a merchant, his passion was for the Torah.
Lichtenstein desired to demonstrate the intrinsic Jewish nature of Yeshua and his teachings. He wrote a commentary on the books of the prophets that brought together the mystical concepts of hasidic Judaism with the teachings of the so-called “New Testament”.
The result was the Limudei haNeviim (The Teachings of the Prophets) (Never yet translated into English). He self published it in 1868, however its Hasidic Jewish approach made it unappealing to the Jewish Christian mission societies. Christian Jewish missionaries did not share Lichtenstein’s love for actual Judaism. They had no interest for a Jew who accepted Yeshua as the Jewish Messiah of Judaism and who continued to practice Hasidic Judaism.
Nevertheless, in the early 1870s, Lichtenstein did engage in short lived attempts to work with Jewish missionary organizations, but all of these were short lived failures, as Lichstein was like a round peg being pushed into a square hole.
At about that time, The Karite Isaac Troki’s antimissionary work Hizzuk Emunah (Faith Strengthened) was circulating widely. Oddly enough this Karaite book had become the textbook that rabbis were studying in oreder to refute the claim that Yeshua was the Messiah.
Lichtenstein was surprised by how weak Troki’s arguments really were and so he wrote a response to them titled Chizzuk Emunah Emet (True Faith Strengthened) and published it in 1879. (Unfortunately, no copies are known to have survived.)
Lichtenstein went on to write several other books including Sheva Hochmot (The Seven Wisdoms), a collection of sayings from the Talmud; Toledot Yeshua (The Generations of Yeshua), a biography of Yeshua countering the Toldot Yeshu (an ancient Rabbinic hostile parody on the Life of Yeshua); and Megale Sod (The Secret Scroll), a commentary explaining difficult passages.
In the 1880s, Lichtenstein took a faculty position with the Institutum Judaicum in Leipzig, Germany where he taught courses on New Testament, Talmud, Rashi and the prophets. He also taught a class using Troki’s Faith Strengthened as the textbook, responding to objections to the Messiahship of Yeshua.
Lichtenstein’s talmidim (students) referred to him as “the Rebbe” a term used for the leader of a Hasidic school. While teaching at the institute, he wrote a Hebrew commentary on the New Testament intended as a companion to Franz Delitzsch’s Hebrew translation of the New Testament in which he expouns on many passages from the so-called “New Testament” in light of the Rabbinic literature (this has also never yet been translated into English). He died Feb. 12 1912.
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