blessing

Bless the Lord, Oh My Soul

I have a question concerning playing music on Shabbat. My uncle is a wonderful guitar player and singer. He writes many songs and aspires to share his music with the world one day. On a recent Shabbat, we were at a friend’s house where many people were singing. I asked him to play, but he declined, saying it was against Jewish law.

I feel this may be stretching the restrictions. For me, I believe that Shabbat is a time to share joy with family and friends. Music is a wonderful way to do this.

I am not seeking to criticize my uncle. I just want to get a better grasp on the concepts, so that I can discuss this point with him in a more educated manner.

From the “Ask the Rabbi” column at
Aish.com

It’s not the question that I’m so much interested in as the detailed answer conveyed by the Aish Rabbi. It speaks very much to my Shabbos Project and the associated feelings of insecurity I’ve been experiencing as the days pass by. The Rabbi’s answer, although not directly addressing non-Jews observing the Shabbat, does tell a beautiful story toward the end, and at the beginning of his response, he explains why Jews observe Shabbat the way that they do. It’s a helpful reply to those who criticize the Jewish people for “man-made traditions.”

I’m copying the Rabbi’s entire response here so you get the full experience of his words. I’ll italicize the quote to make it more readable rather than putting it between “blockquote” tags. Also, as I write this, the Aish website seems to default to “mobile=yes”, so if you’re not on a smartphone or tablet and click the link I provided, the text on their web page will look a little odd.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

I appreciate the sincerity of your question. Of course there are many beautiful aspects of Shabbat — the candles, the challah, the wine, and the opportunity for family and friends to be together.

Yet these aesthetic elements must not obscure the essence of Shabbat. It is a commemoration of the Creation of the world. Since God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, in our effort to emulate God we likewise work for six days and rest on the seventh.

The Talmud (Shabbat 73a) describes 39 categories of “creative acts” which we refrain from on Shabbat. These are the 39 powers of creation that exist in the world, corresponding to those acts performed by God (so to speak) in creating the world. Just as God refrained from creative activity on the seventh day, we do likewise. And when we refrain from that which is prohibited on Shabbat, we are, in the truest sense, being God-like.

The job of protecting the Shabbat (as well as other mitzvot) was entrusted to the wisest and most dedicated leaders of the Jewish people, the members of the Sanhedrin. These leaders made certain enactments to protect the uniqueness of the Shabbat experience. One enactment is to not play a musical instrument on Shabbat. This is due to a concern that playing an instrument on Shabbat could lead to fixing an instrument in a way that infringes on one of the 39 types of activity.

If these laws are not respected, then the Shabbat experience is ultimately diminished. And since Shabbat is a cornerstone of Jewish life, this measure was taken to ensure that observance of Shabbat is maintained for all. Further, the enactment was approved and accepted by the entire Jewish nation.

Further, the Sages made no distinction between string and wind instruments. Frequently the Sages will enact a decree that way, because otherwise many people would get confused about what is permitted and what is not.

Music that involves only the body — e.g. singing and whistling — are permitted on Shabbat. All instruments are not.

NishmatI would like to share with you a story from pre-War Europe:

In the city of Dinov, Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech would sing the Shabbat morning prayers. As he would sing, he would gaze through the window and see the lush green rolling hills, the flowers splashing color against the deep blue sky. All this would move him to sing with great emotion the “Nishmat” prayer:

“If our mouths were filled with song like the sea is full of water, and our tongues as full of joyous song as the sea has waves, and our lips as full of praise as the breadth of the heavens, our eyes as brilliant as the sun and the moon, and our hands as outspread as eagles of the sky, and our feet swift as hinds — we still could not thank You sufficiently.”

Week after week, the non-Jewish shepherds would hear this song wafting over the country plain. They would stop their work to listen attentively, and many would even walk to the synagogue to hear the rabbi sing.

When the rabbi died, the congregation felt a rupture in their hearts. All week long they mourned, but on Shabbat, which is a time for happiness, they tried to restrain themselves. Yet the cantor, when he reached the “Nishmat” prayer, stopped to swallow a tear.

Suddenly, the entire congregation heard the rabbi’s melody filling the synagogue! Everyone looked out the window to see the non-Jewish shepherds singing the rabbi’s song. (from “Tales of the Chassidic Soul”)

Indeed, music is a great part of Shabbat. That’s why there is a rich heritage of Jewish melodies which add to the Shabbat atmosphere. Many of these songs are printed in the standard Siddur. So while you may miss your uncle’s guitar playing one day a week, remember that he is keeping the Shabbat experience fully alive, as Jews have done, for thousands of years.

I don’t know how to access “Tales of the Chassidic Soul,” but if the story shared by the Aish Rabbi is any indication, it must be a wonderful work and I’d love to get a hold of a copy (Googling and searching Amazon produced nothing).

The effect of Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech singing the Nishmat prayer on the non-Jewish shepherds is, I believe, the exact response many Christians have when hearing the Hebrew prayers, and certainly it speaks to my soul. I remember the first time I visited Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship during their annual Shavuot conference. I arrived early for the event one morning and heard from the rooms in the back, beautiful Hebrew singing. I felt myself drawn to the voices and realized that the men were davening the Shacharit or “morning prayers” in one of the upstairs rooms. I found myself standing beneath the room just listening, not understanding the language, but letting the prayers wash over my spirit. In some ways, it was the highlight of my entire Shavuot celebration that year.

ShabbatThat’s what I’m hoping will happen in some small measure as I attempt to observe a proper Shabbat. As I’ve said elsewhere, I have no command of the Hebrew and I sing like a frog, so I can’t produce anything like the same result as that one morning in Hudson, Wisconsin, but in the absence of any talent on my part, I’m hoping God will fill what is missing inside of me, even as the singing of Rabbi Elimelech filled something inside the shepherds toiling outside the synagogue in Dinov.

The soul of every living being shall bless Your Name, Hashem our God, the spirit of all flesh shall always glorify and exalt Your remembrance, our King.

-from the Nishmat prayer

praying

A Review of the Sinai Ethic: The Ethic of Election

In the third month after the sons of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. When they set out from Rephidim, they came to the wilderness of Sinai and camped in the wilderness; and there Israel camped in front of the mountain. Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.”

-Exodus 19:1-6 (NASB)

The Sinai Ethic was originally presented by Rabbi Russ Resnik, executive director of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC), during the annual First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) Shavu’ot Conference at Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, Wisconsin. Shavu’ot, the anniversary of the giving of the Torah and the pouring out of the Spirit, is a holy and deeply spiritual time that provides a reverent connection with the people of God who heard the words of the LORD spoken from the fire at Mount Sinai. These teachings, given in three sessions during the festival, focus on the moral and ethical mandates that the giving of the Torah established for the Jewish people and all nations.

-from the back cover of the CD for the audio teaching, “The Sinai Ethic”

Session Two: The Ethic of Election

It’s been over three weeks since I reviewed Part One of Rabbi Resnik’s three-part series. I haven’t had much time to sit down and listen to the audio CD graciously provided by FFOZ but admittedly, I’ve been kind of dreading continuing with the series. Part One was difficult for me to get a handle on, and when I did, I found I didn’t always agree with what R. Resnik said.

Part Two was a pleasant departure from that experience, and I found The Ethic of Election to be straightforward, easy to follow, and to be what I expected it to be. It also provided me with some new perspectives on crucial parts of the Torah record and the story of Israel.

Resnik began his lecture with sort of a joke, kind of like a story about different siblings get together and find out they all thought that Mom loved them the best, as if each one of them were especially “chosen” or “elect” in relation to their Mom (“But I thought Mom loved me best”).

It gets uncomfortable when you think you’re the favorite in the family only to discover that all of your other family members think they’re the favorite, too. But more so, and especially in our egalitarian culture, where in order to avoid any losers having their feelings hurt, we’ve created a society where “everyone’s a winner,” Resnik says it’s a “scandalous idea” that any one person or group could be chosen, because it means other people and groups are not. It’s even worse when God made a choice and that choice of a people was an ethnic group. We don’t like any one ethnic group to be considered more, better, or special than any other group.

I quoted Exodus 19:1-6 above since Resnik read it to his audience, but he also read the following:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

-1 Peter 2:9

Landron Paule_Histoire Sainte_Première Alliance_Droguet Ardant_Limoges 1991This came up in a previous blog post some weeks ago when I naively thought Peter must have been addressing a non-Jewish audience using the “chosen” language of Exodus 19, but it was pointed out to me that the apostle could have been as easily addressing Jewish disciples of the Master.

That said, Resnik acts as if Peter were addressing Gentiles and he (Rabbi Resnik) was using the verse to highlight the dynamic tension between all Israel being chosen by God and a remnant of the people of the nations also being chosen by God, and their being no contradiction between these two choices.

Resnik referenced his previous lecture, particularly the part about conditional and unconditional covenant elements, to highlight that the nature of Israel being chosen is unconditional. Exodus 19:5 makes Israel’s being chosen seem conditional on whether or not they obey the Torah, which is how most Christians read it, but verse 4 tells us that Israel being chosen is totally unconditional. What’s conditional is the role Israel plays and whether or not they will live out that role in a completely realized way, which they can only do if they obey God by observing the conditions of the covenant, the Torah mitzvot.

So God doesn’t “unchoose” Israel when they stumble, they just lose key elements in their role, such as living in the Land of Israel, being free vs. being slaves, and so on.

Resnik compares God as impartial judge to God as father. We all think we want God to be an impartial judge because that eliminates any preference of a particular population over all the people on earth. But while that may sound like a good idea, it also eliminates a father’s love for his children. Yes, all fathers love all of their children, but truth be told, any father will admit when pressed, that he usually relates better to one of his children than to the others.

Do you see where this is going? Relating better to one child does not remove the father’s love from any of the other kids, but because he’s human (this is a metaphor so don’t get too literal on me), he’s naturally going to connect to one kid’s personality more than the others for some reason.

This is God the Father in relation to Israel, His chosen one.

Christianity, and particularly what we call “Hebrew Roots,” regularly struggles with Israel’s chosen and special status because they think it means “God loves the Jewish people best” and to the exclusion of the Gentiles, but that’s not what Resnik is getting at here.

Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine… (emph. mine)

-Exodus 19:5

What a strange statement to stick in that sentence: “for all the earth is Mine.” What does it mean? According to Resnik, it could have one of two possible interpretations:

  1. It could mean “all the earth is mine anyway, so I’ve got every right to choose you (Israel) among all the nations.”
  2. It could also mean “all the earth is mine, and so I’m choosing you (Israel) on behalf of all the nations.”

Resnik prefers the second interpretation. It’s not a matter of Israel being chosen and the rest of the nations are out of luck, Israel is chosen for a unique role of service to the rest of the world and to God. It’s one way to understand the two most important commandments, loving God with all your (Israel’s) resources by loving your neighbor (the rest of the world) as yourself.

You ever wonder why the story of Joseph takes up so much of the book of Genesis? I never did until Resnik brought it up.

Now Jacob lived in the land where his father had sojourned, in the land of Canaan. These are the records of the generations of Jacob.

Joseph, when seventeen years of age, was pasturing the flock with his brothers while he was still a youth, along with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought back a bad report about them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a varicolored tunic. His brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers; and so they hated him and could not speak to him on friendly terms.

-Genesis 37:1-4

joseph-the-slaveThe “varicolored tunic” or “coat of many colors” doesn’t have a direct translation from Hebrew into English, but Resnik thinks of it as a “princely robe,” a sign of status, a sign of Joseph’s “election” by his father Jacob. It wasn’t that Jacob didn’t have a right to have a favorite among his sons. I mention above that this is kind of normal for human fathers (and for God). But his mistake, and Joseph’s, was rubbing the noses of the other brothers in it. While the brothers were supposed to support and endorse the election of Joseph, they never accepted it, so much so that when they got a chance, they tried to kill Joseph.

But first, they stripped off the sign of his election, ripped it to shreds, dipped it in blood, and threw it at their father’s feet as if to say, “This is what we think of your election of Joseph.” That’s not how it literally played out, but the symbolism is enough to give one pause, especially if we expand the metaphor into the history of the Jewish people in exile and how they have been mistreated and even murdered for the sake of our Gentile/Christian resentment of Israel’s election.

They say “the clothes make the man” and Joseph’s life seems to mirror that because his role changes as often as he changes clothes. He’s transformed from a slave into a prisoner when Potipher’s wife grabs his robe after her failed attempt to seduce him, and he is transformed from a prisoner to a prince when Pharaoh, King of Egypt, puts a signet ring on Joseph’s hand, clothes him in garments of fine linen, and puts a gold necklace around his neck (Genesis 41:42).

I never thought of Joseph subsequently testing his brothers as a test of whether or not they’d accept Jacob’s election of Benjamin as the favored son. After Joseph’s (perceived) death, all Jacob had left of Rachel was Benjamin. That’s why Jacob didn’t send Benjamin down to Egypt for food with the other brothers and why, when the brothers tell him what Joseph (as the Egyptian prince) did to them in demanding Benjamin’s presence, he resisted sending Benjamin to Egypt for months.

In the end, when given gifts of clothing and food by Joseph in Egypt, Benjamin always got bigger and better portions, and Judah passed the test on behalf of his brothers by guaranteeing his safety.

There’s an obvious comparison between Joseph and Yeshua (Jesus) in revealing the “mystery of election.” I said before that the clothes make the man, but it’s not just the clothes. Joseph didn’t really come into his own until he was stripped, not once but twice, and when he stopped being arrogant and learned to be a servant, only then were the robes of a King restored to him.

Jesus too was stripped and given the robes of a King and a crown (of thorns) but only to mock him. The Romans played at bowing to him, but it was to humiliate him. As a teenage boy, Joseph dreamed his brothers and father would bow to him and they resented it, but decades later it became the literal truth. We also know the literal truth that someday, every knee will bow to our King (Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10).

Both Joseph and Jesus were chosen by their fathers, rejected by their brothers, handed over to Gentiles, went down into a pit (of literal death in Jesus’ case), were dressed as Kings (as a form of mocking in Jesus’ case). Yet we know that one day Messiah will come back and assume the throne as our King, as ruler, and as servant.

And that’s the secret, that’s the missing ingredient, that’s what it took Joseph many years to learn, and that’s the secret of Israel’s election as well.

While Jacob may have chosen Joseph as his elect and dressed him up for the role, the seventeen year old kid had a lot to learn. He thought of the robe as a status symbol and as long as he did, he failed. Only when he learned to be a servant to people and to God did he realize the “princely robe” is really a servant’s apron. Only when his life was transformed was he worthy of election. Our Master taught us the same thing:

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

-Mark 10:45

Joseph of EgyptWhen the chosen Israel is obedient to God and of service to the world, she prospers in her “servant’s apron,” chosen of God on behalf of the nations of the earth. She is special and she wears the robes indicating their status, not as rulers but as especially responsible to God and to the world. When she’s disobedient, she is not “unchosen,” but like Joseph, she experiences “reversals” such as being slaves or prisoners, and Israel’s history is replete with such experiences. When she sees the robes of her election as a status symbol, they become twisted around her, trapping her.

When she understands their true nature, she is free, free to serve God and to realize her role in the world.

What Do I Think?

R. Resnik didn’t take it this far, though I suspect he might in his third and final lecture, but let’s see if I can anticipate him a little. As we saw in Joseph’s example, simply dressing up in a “princely robe” doesn’t make you a prince. If you’re a spoiled brat before putting on the robe, you’ll be a spoiled brat after you put it on, too. If you think you are deserving, special, and it’s your right to have that robe, then you risk having it stripped from you and worse.

And He began speaking a parable to the invited guests when He noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor at the table, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then in disgrace you proceed to occupy the last place. But when you are invited, go and recline at the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

-Luke 14:7-11

I quote these verses with some regularity and with good reason. There are plenty of well-meaning non-Jewish believers who are authentically convinced that they are equally chosen along with all Israel and that they deserve to wear the princely robe along with them. Problem is, they see it as a status symbol, sort of like the BMW of robes, rather than the clothing of servants who are expected to “go the extra mile,” so to speak, in the service of the world and of service to God.

It was God who gave, among the other Torah mitzvot, the commandment of the tzitzit to Israel. One might think of a tallit as Joseph’s “princely robe,” but then again, the Shabbat, which is the actual sign of the Sinai covenant, kosher, the festivals, they all could be considered as those robes of servanthood.

Joseph eventually revealed his true identity to his brothers and his father and they were all brought down to Egypt and given land on which to live. Pharaoh was excited to hear that Joseph had brothers. If one Joseph could save Egypt and the rest of the civilized world from famine, think what a dozen “Josephs” could do.

But they never did. None of Joseph’s brothers were elevated to a position anywhere near what Joseph had achieved. None of them became “princes in Egypt” or anywhere else. Joseph was Jacob’s elect and he served and ruled until his dying day. His brothers were pale shadows by comparison. Yes, Jacob loved all his sons, but he rightly recognized that Joseph was special and chose him accordingly as was his right.

God chose Israel as is His right, not because of any quality Israel possessed, but simply because it was God’s desire to do so. He doesn’t have to have a reason, at least one we understand.

Joseph was chosen on a larger scale to save his family (Israel) and the rest of the world from famine and he did it. Jesus was also chosen by his Father to save Israel and the rest of the world, and in one sense, it was accomplished on the cross. But in a larger sense, the process is still ongoing and won’t be complete until he returns. Israel, national Israel and all the Jewish people, are chosen to prepare the world for the redemption of their nation and through them, the entire world.

tallit-prayerIf we, like Joseph’s brothers, choose to reject that election, and metaphorically speaking, rip up Israel’s robes (or Messiah’s), dip them in blood, and throw the gory mess at the feet of God (and how often has that already happened?), we will also suffer as the brothers did. We’ll still be part of the family, but we will forfeit much of our special role in the service of God. You cannot say you love God if you hate Israel and the Jewish people and covet their princely robe.

You also can’t simply crawl under the robe with Joseph like a small child of yesteryear would crawl under his mother’s skirts.

I don’t know if this is anywhere near where Resnik is going, but it’s what came to mind as I was listening to the lecture.

I didn’t want to go here but it seems to be the inevitable destination of “The Ethic of Election.”

Addendum: I know my review and commentary is likely to inspire some pushback from “the usual suspects” (if you’ll pardon my rather tongue-in-check expression), but I read something written by NT scholar Larry Hurtado, just a brief sentence fragment, that I thought relevant:

“Scholars really can’t be expected to agree all the time, and he and I have disagreed occasionally on this or that… (but) I also have enormous respect for Bagnall’s work overall…”

If Bible scholars can’t be expected to agree all the time about the message of the Bible, at least in the details, how much more so can we expect some disagreement between different groups of believers in relation to observing mitzvoth and the distinctive differences between Jewish and Gentile disciples of the Master?

great cloud

Sermon Review of the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews: A Great Cloud of Witnesses

The Bible says “we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” Are the biblical saints of old watching us live our lives like characters in a bad reality TV show?

Hebrews 11 presents the Bible’s hall of fame of faith: The book of faith and hope. The writer of the book of Hebrews refers to the biblical saints as “a great cloud of witnesses.” What does that term imply? Study Hebrews 12:1-4.

To hear more teachings from Hebrews 11, listen to “The Book of Faith and Hope.”

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Sermon Forty-one: A Great Cloud of Witnesses
Originally presented on February 1, 2014
from the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin…

-Hebrews 12:1-4 (NASB)

In last week’s sermon review, Lancaster blew through Hebrews 11 faster than I imagined, especially given how detail-oriented he’s been in addressing the other chapters so far. Of course, he’s devoted an entirely different sermon series to that one chapter, but I’ll have to listen to those fourteen sermons another time.

This week the focus is on how Chapter 11 affects the current material, namely Hebrews 12:1-4, but let’s stay with Chapter 11 for a little bit longer, particularly verse 2:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old gained approval.

The New American Standard Bible translates the Greek word martus as “approval” and other English translations include “commended,” “their commendation,” “good report,” and “testimony.” The best word we could use in English though is “witness.”

legal witnessLancaster goes through the original meaning of this word which is where we get the English word “martyr.” Today, we all think of a martyr as someone who dies for his or her religion, but back when the Epistle to the Hebrews was being written, it meant a witness in a legal proceeding. You might think of the early believers being taken before a Roman tribunal and directed to renounce their faith, blaspheme the name of Jesus, and to worship a pagan idol. The actual testimony of the believing witness, if they were true to their faith, was to affirm their trust in Messiah and belief in the coming resurrection and Kingdom of God. The consequence for that affirmation was to be executed, hence the eventual change in meaning of the word “martyr” (so, no, some suicide bomber blowing himself up to kill a bunch of innocent people is not a “martyr”).

The readers of the Hebrews letter were in a similar position, but not relative to the Romans. The Sadducees, who were in control of the Temple, were after these Jewish disciples of the Master to renounce their faith in the resurrection and the life in the world to come, since Sadducees believed in none of that (see Acts 23:6-8).

This has applications for us today as disciples. First of all, the “witness” of our faith in terms of Evangelical Christianity is not really a witness at all. A bunch of teens from a church youth group ambushing people at a shopping mall with religious tracts is not a witness. Being a witness is being directly challenged to renounce your faith and yet holding fast to it anyway.

There are many Christians in atheist nations like China or in various Muslim countries who are witnesses, who can only save themselves from being put in prison or killed if they renounce their faith and, like the ancient believers before Roman tribunals, they hold fast and faithfully suffer and even die rather than betray Yeshua.

Compared to that, no one in the western nations, including the U.S., has their witness challenged significantly.

Or is that true?

Lancaster says our challenges are much more subtle:

  • Embarrassment
  • Social pressure
  • Moral relativism
  • Materialism
  • Sensuality
  • Self-indulgence

The world around us attempts to get us to renounce our faith by encouraging us to conform to progressive and politically correct standards. In fact, this manipulation is so subtle that you don’t even have to stop calling yourself a “Christian,” you can continue to go to church (at least certain denominations), and yet still conform to every single standard valued by progressive secular society.

michaelsonI couldn’t help but think of Jay Michaelson’s book God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality and the methods he employed to convince his readers that his understanding of the Bible, one that affirms and supports “loving same-sex couples” and “marriage equality” in the church and synagogue, is the correct and desired one.

If you remove the strong emotional components from the Michaelson book and look at it in terms of strategies and tactics, then it’s possible to view a parallel between the content of the book and what Lancaster says about how the Adversary seeks to remove, dilute, or delete our witness as Christians, to convince us to denounce Jesus so we can be just like everyone else.

Lancaster said in his sermon that one witness to our faith is lifelong, male-female, monogamous marriage, and he says the world laughs at this witness. Besides the issues involved in Michaelson’s book, how many couples, even Christian couples, have sexual relationships before marriage or outside of marriage, and have children outside of marriage? This is something of the norm in secular society and it seems the only people who actually want to get married are gays and lesbians, and that only because it’s still illegal in a dwindling number of states in our nation.

The world does work against us in many ways, challenging us, and demanding a witness to our faith. We need to look back to Hebrews 11, which is all about the many, many role models we have to look up to who were also challenged and yet never wavered:

…and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.

And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect.

-Hebrews 11:36-40

If we think we have problems living Holy lives, look at the people, in this case, the prophets of old, who suffered, were tortured, murdered, lived desperate and difficult lives, and all of them who had gained a good witness of their faith, even though they did not receive anything they were promised by God, so that we too could be included in the promises of the future resurrection.

What Did I Learn?

The sufferings of the faithful we read about in Chapter 11 were their witness, their faith testified about them and still does every time we read the Bible. The “great cloud of witnesses” doesn’t mean the saints are sitting around in Heaven spying on our lives as if we’re part of a bad reality TV show. They aren’t witnessing us, their lives are a witness to us.

long-distance-runnerWe are like runners in a race. Those faithful witnesses have already run that race and won. We are still facing the challenges they overcame. They are our heroes and our guides. Their lives are our inspiration.

The central message of the sermon is “Don’t give up. You aren’t alone. Others have crossed the finish line — you can too.”

When my kids were young, we used to watch a variety of different cartoons including one about a group of martial artists who trained in weighted clothing in order to increase their strength.

Verse one of Hebrews chapter 12 says, “let us also lay aside every encumbrance (weight) and the sin which so easily entangles us…” If you’re going to run a race and your life, your eternal life, depends on successfully crossing the finish line, you need to be as light and strong as you can. “Weighted clothing” or the weight of sin will just slow you (and me) down. We need to endure because it’s a long race, not a sprint. And there are many “stumbling blocks” along the way, which is why we need to keep our eye on Jesus, “the author and perfecter of faith.”

No one’s perfect. No one’s faith is perfect, but then again, it doesn’t have to be. We are broken, just like the world around us, but the perfecter of the world is also the perfecter of our faith. If we keep our eyes on him, we don’t need to be perfect, we just need to keep paying attention and not to waver.

That bullet point list I posted above is a list of items designed to distract us and to change our focus. If we start paying attention to all that and let our attention wander, it’s easy to become very discouraged and even to give up. Even if we don’t think we’ve given up, it’s easy to slip into some model of “Christianity” that says we’re doing the right thing by ignoring the standards of God, difficult as they seem to be, and embracing the standards of people and of the culture in which we live. We may still believe we’re part of the “community of faith” and that we are doing good and showing compassion, but in fact, we have exited Yeshua-faith and joined the ranks of a faithless society more concerned about present appearances than future and eternal glory.

burdenA life of faith seems to be very weighty sometimes. I’ve felt it pressing down on me, and often the tonnage seems triggered by religious rather than secular people. But they can really do nothing if faith is strong. If you feel discouragement and are tempted to give up or even just lighten up, don’t blame the world, look to your own heart, your own faith, and your own stamina. Call on God to strengthen you and to see you through to the end of the race.

Shabbat

My Personal Shabbos Project

This past Shabbat, thousands of people experienced the beauty of Shabbat for their first time. I’m sure many were touched, perhaps transformed by the experience. But it will fade unless we transform the inspiration into action.

-Sara Debbie Gutfreund
“After the Shabbat Project”
Aish.com

My husband and I spent the Shabbos Project in Venice. It was great to see a different community. Tali’s enthusiasm was great. Attached is a picture from candle lighting…

-Batsheva Jassinowsky, Johannesburg
from the Shabbos Project’s website

This is just a sample of the many commentaries available about last weekend’s Shabbos Project which I previously blogged about. I took some online criticism from well-meaning but less than compassionate individuals who believe that everything in the covenant conditions God gave to Israel at Sinai now belongs to any non-Jew who is a disciple of Yeshua (Jesus), including the Shabbat.

Of course, as I said before, I think there’s a certain amount of justification for non-Jews observing the Shabbat in some fashion based both on Genesis 2 in honoring God as Creator, and Isaiah 56 which predicts world-wide Shabbat observance in the Messianic Kingdom. Additionally, based on D. Thomas Lancaster’s interpretation of The Holy Epistle to the Hebrews, we disciples of the Master can and perhaps should behave as if the Messianic Era is already upon us, even though our world is still ruled by darkness; we can behave as partisans or freedom fighters, holding onto our own until the return of the King.

Thus there seems to be more than sufficient support for Gentiles in the present world participating in Sabbath observance. My personal caveat is that if you are not observing Shabbat in a Jewish environment by invitation or are not part of a Jewish family, as a Gentiles, please try not to behave in a heavy-handed manner and claim “all your Sabbaths belong to us,” to borrow from a popular meme.

I know a convenient excuse for anti-Semitism used by some folks is that the Bible says we don’t have to be respecters of men but only of God (Acts 4:19, 5:29). But we also know from the Master’s teaching not to usurp the place of honor at the banquet, but rather, we should wait to be invited before we are elevated and esteemed (Luke 14:7-15).

However, I’m not writing this to be (deliberately) provocative today. I have a unique opportunity in early November when I will be “home alone” for two Sabbaths. That means, among other things, that I can make 100% of the decisions about how I spend my time on those occasions, and I’ve decided to conduct a small, personal, “Shabbos Project” of my very own.

shabbatIt may surprise you to know that I’ve never really observed a proper Shabbat sundown to sundown, Friday to Saturday. My (Jewish) family has never been very observant, so about the best they do is lighting the Shabbos candles and even that doesn’t happen every week.

When we were all doing “Hebrew Roots” many years ago, even then, none of us were as observant as we liked to believe. We drove to the Hebrew Roots congregation, and while we often used crock pots for our food, a certain amount of turning on electrical devices occurred. Naturally, we turned lights on and off, we opened and closed refrigerator doors (causing the light to go on and off), we wrote, and no doubt we participated in some or most of the other thirty-nine melachah or types of work forbidden on the Shabbat.

It’s sort of like our “keeping kosher” was. We avoided specific types of food but that was that. The so-called “Biblical commandments” without the “man-made” interpretations of said-commandments.

But I wonder what it would be like, for me, the goy, to actually attempt to approach observing Shabbat for real. I have two weekends to try it out. I won’t be part of a “project” and in fact, I’ll be the opposite. Where the Shabbos Project attempted to bring together as many Jews as possible from all over the world, I’ll be flying solo, just me and the Shabbat.

I’m not a baker, so Challah will have to be purchased, and I think there’s a couple of local stores that sell it. Wine is not problem obviously since I can buy that anywhere. We’ve got plenty of Shabbat candles and the candlesticks on hand, and I have copies of The Sabbath Table and First Steps in Messianic Jewish Prayer to study in preparation.

This means no driving, no cooking, no watching TV, no using the computer (thus, no Internet), no opening the fridge (which will be interesting since I’ll probably need to keep some of the food I plan on eating cold), timing whatever cooking I do for Friday night such that it’s all done in time and there’s no clean up (or I can tolerate a mess until Saturday night).

It also means planning out my Friday night and Saturday. There are no services within walking distance of my house and in any event, I don’t think it would be appropriate to inflict myself on one of the two synagogues in town. That means I can stay at home and still pray the Sabbath prayers, read the Torah portion (which I do anyway), read Torah commentaries (which I do anyway) and so on.

I don’t read Hebrew and I sing like a cement mixer, so the prayers will be in English and I won’t be singing Shabbos songs after Erev Shabbat dinner.

Then there’s Havdalah to consider. I don’t have one of “those” candles lying around but I guess I can perform the rest of the rituals (assuming I can remember them, it’s been years).

I’m probably missing a lot. I could “Google” something like “how to observe Shabbos” and come up with the basics. In reading A Daily Dose of Torah, some sections mention the melachah, but the commentary seems so involved that I don’t think I could memorize all of the specifics. I think you have to live a lifetime of that level of observance to really “get it down” and as far as I know, there may be times when even a highly observant Jew misses a step or two.

Shabbat candlesOf course, as a goy, I don’t have to observe Shabbat to the level of an Orthodox Jew, so there’s no real pressure to do so. On the other hand, I would like to approach this and accomplish something I’ve never done before, not because I think it would make me a “big deal” and not because I’m somehow claiming my “rights” or “heritage,” but for the reasons I mentioned before, because I want to spend at least one Shabbat honoring God as Creator and summoning, at least in some tiny fashion, a taste of the Messianic future.

If you’ve got any ideas, now’s the time. I’ll have two shots at this. The first can be a trial run to help me work out all the kinks, so I can have a better Shabbat a week later. As you read this, I have about ten days until my first go at it. Suggestions?

Addendum: Relative to the differences in obligation to the mitzvot of Jews and non-Jews in Messiah (and this seems relevant given the topic is Shabbat observance), I found this excellent commentary at Aish.com:

Imagine two people who are very different from each other. This needn’t be a source of conflict. Rather, if each one focuses on how to help the other, then the differences between them will actually make their personalities complementary.

Not only will they like each other despite their differences, but rather, because of them. They will even become closer, because their differences provide more opportunities to be of service to each other.

Contrast this to those who focus on what he can take from the other. They will quarrel frequently and eventually end up hating one another.

(see Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler – Michtav MaiEliyahu, vol.3, pp.33-4; Rabbi Pliskin’s “Consulting the Wise”)

meditation labyrinth

Slow Approach to Mussar

Someone asked me to write about my experiences with mussar so I guess this is it.

Humility is about seeking a level playing field between all people. In displaying this trait, one does not seek to degrade or puff up oneself or others. Mashiach Yeshua says, “The greatest among you shall be to you as a servant. Everyone who lifts himself up will be brought low, but everyone who lowers himself will be lifted up.” (Matthew 23 : 11-12, DHE). Humility out of balance can appear two ways. One extreme displays haughtiness, while the other extreme displays groveling and self-deprecation. The obvious middle is where humility shines.

Humility: Middah for the week of October 19th
Riverton Mussar

I received this a week ago Sunday and got the Meditation for the Week in my email inbox the following Tuesday. I read through the material but I treated them like any other email…I read them and moved on to the next item.

I guess I didn’t want too get to invested in the Mussar program until I had a chance to talk it over with my friend Tom and to be sure it’s a commitment we both wanted to make. He had to cancel our usual Sunday afternoon coffee meeting due to family obligations, so I won’t be able to talk with him about this for another two weeks.

There are times when I get excited about studying mussar, especially with someone, and then times when I encounter my own resistance. Mussar is about changing habits and change is hard, even when it’s beneficial.

A person who tends to feel unhappy and discouraged should be cautious about working on humility. Such a person needs to focus on his virtues and strengths. Focusing on his faults and shortcomings is likely to destroy the small amount of joy he does have.

(Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe – “Alai Shur,” vol. 1, p.65; Rabbi Pliskin’s “Gateway to Happiness,” p.117)
Quoted at Aish.com

When we have conceit, we fill a room with our enormous presence when we enter. There is no room for anyone else, there is no space for anyone to flourish.

When we are self-deprecating and degrade ourselves, we lack proper humility as well. We are a wallflower and cannot be found in a room. Our potential almost ceases to exist as we view our gifts and abilities as useless.

In order to gain a proper perspective of who we are, we need to be honest with ourselves. We have to express through our behaviors and actions that we are not more than we are, and we are not less than we truly are.

-Rabbetzin Malkah
“Humility as Honesty”
Humility: Meditation for the Week
Riverton Mussar

That’s just it, though. Depending on the circumstance, I can waffle one way or the other. The trick is finding that middle ground and staying there.

Here’s another trick, a bigger one. It’s one I discovered, though never mastered, years ago when I was reading Alan Morinis’s book Everyday Holiness. It’s going to take a lot longer than a week to master any of the middot in question, especially when studying “part-time”. That’s another trick, too: making the time to study and meditate.

mussarSo there are three “tricks” involved: mastering any given middah, doing so in a week, finding the time during that week to study and meditate, hoping that the week will “do it.”

Of course, I haven’t availed myself of the other resources Riverton Mussar has to offer, so I don’t know if my assessment is correct. Maybe you keep working on one middah while taking another on board, and then another, and another and…

Which brings me to the middar for this week: patience.

Patience is a means not only to inner peace but outer peace. It is the ability to endure situations of all kinds and to remain level-headed. Patience out of balance can appear two ways. One extreme displays frustration, rage, and aggravation, while the other extreme displays apathy and indifference. Patience displayed in balance helps relationships and situations through rough spots and promotes healthy growth.

I seem to lean more on the frustration and aggravation end of the scale than the apathy part, although I can see how that would work out, too.

The introduction to the meditation on humility states:

As a means of keeping a more balanced perspective of self, practice this simple meditation in action if find your humility starting to falter…

I have problems with trying to meditate, probably because of the same difficulties I experience when considering worship in the manner of Pentecostals and/or charismatics. It seems just a little too “warm and fuzzy” for me. I guess I’m just the guy who likes to “do” stuff, like put my hands on a keyboard and start typing.

The meditation says in part:

While this verse is typically used to bring us before Hashem in humility and induce proper kavanah (focus) for prayer, it can also help us to guard ourselves in front of others—for they too are made in the image of Hashem.

Proper kavanah or focus for me is writing. True, one does not write a prayer to Hashem (Well, that’s not true, people write prayers all the time and insert them into the Kotel), but I guess there’s no reason not to. It’s not like prayer gives God new information He didn’t have before. Prayer is supposed to change the person praying, not God, by, among other things, facilitating our connection to our Creator.

I’m writing to you (whoever’s going to read this), not God, at least not directly, but in a strange way, I’m also writing to myself and for myself. Things seem more “real” when I can see them than when they’re just stuck in my head.

I guess that’s why it’s hard for me to meditate. Stuff is just stuck in my head. It doesn’t go anywhere or do anything. Writing is doing something (though I’m sure a lot of people would disagree), but I don’t know how to do mussar by writing.

Well, that’s not true exactly either. There’s a six-month mussar journal I’m supposed to buy. I’ve put it off because I wanted to get in synch with my partner first, but it looks like one can “write” mussar as well as meditate on the middot.

Rebbetzin Malkah wrote something called “Patience as a Spoke on a Wheel.” Some of it goes:

Take a bike as an example. If one wheel has a flat or is broken, one cannot ride it. But what about a wheel that is wobbly, or has several broken spokes? Can one ride it? Surely it might be possible, but it can also be considered dangerous if one were to ride it.

If we were presented with the bike with the broken wheel, most of us would not even argue over riding it. There would be nowhere to go on something so out of commission. But what about a bike with a compromised wheel? Some people wouldn’t hesitate to hop on this bike and take a chance, or ride it until the wheel completely breaks down. Others, however, would find this bike to be too risky and unpleasant at best to even ride.

Except unlike having a choice between riding a broken bike or choosing another mode of transportation, I only have one “me” and broken or not, I have to be “me” to get anywhere or do anything. I can’t wait for “me” to be fixed and restored to (or created in) perfect working order. Repairs have to be made on the fly while the “unit” is operating in the field.

I checked on the Riverton Mussar site and found 434 middot listed. That’s a lot of character traits to work on.

I can see why working with a partner is considered desirable. It’s like the person who decides to get in shape and buys an exercise machine or a gym membership. He starts out enthusiastic but then experiences how hard the work is and how results don’t seem to happen right away or change is imperceptible. Most people quit after a few weeks and let their membership lapse or let their workout equipment start gathering dust.

weightliftingI used to be pretty hit and miss about going to the gym, but then one of my sons encouraged me and said we could work out together. He organized a workout program for us and because he was going with me, I didn’t want to disappoint him by bailing.

I saw some initial progress but then got stalled. I saw he was getting results, but he was not just working out but also changing his diet, something I dreaded. Finally, I had to admit that his system was working and mine wasn’t. I changed my diet and started doing some online research on more diverse weightlifting routines.

Finally, I broke through the plateau and started seeing positive changes in the mirror and on the bathroom scale. My son doesn’t go with me to the gym much anymore having found a different workout program, but by now, going to the gym is a habit. I go five to six times a week and in fact, I can’t imagine not going.

But I needed a partner and encouragement to get started and stay on the program long enough for me to become “addicted”.

I guess mussar must be like that, too. It’s hard work, results may not come right away or as expected, you get out of it what you put into it, and having a partner helps. Also, you have to change more than just one thing in your life to make anything change at all.

rainbow-man

God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality: My Review of Part One

Why our fundamental values support, rather than oppose, equality for sexual minorities.

-Jay Michaelson
Introductory text for Part One of his book
God vs. Gay?: The Religious Case for Equality

I would suggest that you read the book “God vs. Gay by Jay Michaelson.” He’s a Jew and does a great job of exegeting the Hebrew scriptures.

-from a post on Facebook

Michaelson’s book is divided into two parts. Part One derives some basic principles from the Bible, such as love, fairness, compassion, and justice, to create a framework by which one can integrate people in “loving same-sex relationships” into the overarching intent if not the actual narrative of the Bible. Part Two is more about the “nuts and bolts” of the Biblical passages that speak of homosexuality, particularly those that appear to prohibit or condemn homosexual practices.

Today, I’m reviewing Part One.

First of all, I commend Mr. Michaelson as a writer. He’s clear, concise, easy to access, and even entertaining. If I were reading his book with an uncritical eye and had no particular viewpoint on the issues involved, I could see myself becoming convinced by him within about the first thirty pages or so of his book. I definitely can see those people who already possess attitudes like his or who tend to be sympathetic to the matters he raises being convinced pretty much right away. After all, who could possibly be against caring for vulnerable and injured human beings and standing up for the underdog?

On the other hand, to paint the proper portrait of the Bible establishing principles that support and even demand that same-sex partners in loving relationships belong in the Church and be accepted by Christianity (and also by Judaism), requires that he read and interpret Biblical passages from the broadest possible perspective.

Loneliness. “It is not good for the human being to be alone,” God says in Genesis 2:18. In context, this is a shocking pronouncement. Six times God has remarked how good everything is: light, heaven and earth, stars, plants, animals — all of these things are “good.” The entirety of creation is “very good.” Yet suddenly something is not good. Suddenly, God realizes there is something within the world as we find it that is insufficient, something all of us experience in our own lives and strive to transcend: the existential condition of being alone.

-Michaelson, p.5
Chapter 1: “It is not good for a person to be alone”

Michaelson’s treatment of scriptural quotes follows a pattern throughout the chapters in Part One of his book in that they are read from an overly broad viewpoint and often given an unusual or unique interpretation. After all, can God really be surprised? Did He not plan to form a counterpart for Adam from the very beginning? All of the created animals were created male and female. Were not human beings planned to be male and female as well? It seems rather odd that God should create Havah (Eve) as an afterthought and more odd still that, from Michaelson’s point of view, Eve, except for the part having to do with procreation, could easily have been replaced with a male. It’s a terrific stretch to say, as Michaelson seems to, that Genesis presupposes homosexual humanity.

What some folks don’t understand about the closet is that it’s not just a set of walls around sexual behavior. It’s a net of lies that affects absolutely everything in one’s life: how you dress, who you befriend, how you walk, how you talk. And how you love. How can anyone build authentic relationships under such conditions? And if you’re religious, how can you be honest with yourself and your God if you maintain so many lies, so many walls running right through the center of your soul?

-ibid, p.7

Jay Michaelson
Jay Michaelson

This is the other argument Part One presents. It’s not based on the Bible particularly but rather on the presentation of pain, isolation, and loneliness and the desire for companionship and community, including religious community.

On top of that, Michaelson declares “Sexual diversity is real” (p.10), and accesses some scientific evidence to establish that it is natural and normal for various creatures in the animal kingdom and for human beings to display said-diversity, inferring that since sexual diversity is (supposedly) in-born, it must be an intended creation of God’s and thus part of God’s plan for human beings.

However, this requires a tremendously skewed view of the Biblical text along with infusing popular opinion and modern progressive values on sexuality, both as it was considered in the ancient world and today, in order to come to this conclusion.

But he may have shot himself in the foot by stating the following (p.11):

…as I have remarked already, our current sexual categories are of relatively recent coinage.

It seems rather strange that all of recorded human history just “missed” this “coinage” and that “loving same-sex relationships” haven’t, in some sense, been the norm across all cultures across all time, but the terms and concepts associated with the modern LGBTQ community are only decades old (if that, in some cases). While, as Michaelson says, we have visual and textual evidence of homosexual practices in our history, their function, purpose, and meaning is hidden from us, or if not hidden, at odds with the current conceptualization of same-sex relationships being completely comparable to opposite-sex relationships.

But if Genesis is any guide, and if our conscience is any guide, then we must see that having people in love with one another, building homes and perhaps families together, is religiously preferable to its absence.

-ibid, p.12

Except I cannot derive this from anything in Genesis unless I read the chapter in the broadest and most allegorical sense. Certainly no literal or semi-literal reading of the text renders such a meaning, and no accepted exegetical praxis can automatically come to the conclusion Michaelson presents in his above-quoted words.

I could condense the next two chapters into the following statements and quotes.

What about Leviticus, Romans, and Corinthians? Love demands that we read them narrowly, just as we read narrowly the commandments to stone rebellious children to death, or to sell people into slavery. They are already marginal texts — homosexuality never appears in the teachings of Jesus, or the Ten Commandments, and love does not erase them. But it does limit them.

-ibid, p.27
Chapter 3: “Love your neighbor as yourself”

oppressionThere are exegetical and logical errors in the quote above but it communicates Michaelson’s understanding of how to read the Bible and find acceptance of LGBTQ people in the community of faith. Here’s one more:

One New Testament scholar has written that “any interpretation of scripture that hurts people, oppresses people, or destroys people cannot be the right interpretation, no matter how traditional, historical, or exegetically respectable.” This is a crucial point. If we approach “the question of homosexuality” as a legal, academic, or hermeneutical enterprise, we will get nowhere religiously. All the arguments work, and the anti-gay ones are just as clever as the pro-gay. No — to be responsible members of a faith tradition, we must first open our hearts, allow them to be broken by the heartrending stories of gays who have suffered from exclusion, plague, and self-loathing, and uplifted by inspiring stories of integration, love, and celebration.

-ibid, pp.28-29

I suppose I should add:

“All you need is love.”

-Lennon-McCartney (1967)

Sorry if that last bit sounded cynical, but Michaelson isn’t saying anything different from what I’ve read before. You’d think he’d want to bring out the “big guns” in the very beginning of his book to “hook” his doubting audience and cause them (us, me) to believe that the Bible has been so grossly misinterpreted due to cultural prejudice against gays that the “truth” has been hidden until now.

Unfortunately, he throws exegesis right out the window or at least replaces the complex matrix of interpretive methods we apply to the Bible with “all you need is love.”

If God doesn’t want people to suffer and we, as believers, don’t want to be unjust and cause needless suffering, then we must allow ourselves “to be broken by the heartrending stories of gays who have suffered from exclusion, plague, and self-loathing, and uplifted by inspiring stories of integration, love, and celebration.”

I’m sorry. I don’t want to be mean, cruel, and unfair, but the only thing Michaelson has established for me so far is that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the Bible and how gay people experience their own identity and sexuality.

Chapter 3 ends with:

No religious tradition tells us to close our eyes, harden our hearts, and steel ourselves against the demands of love. Though it may occasionally offer us shelter in an uncertain world, rigidity of spirit is not the way to salvation. On the contrary, our diverse religious traditions demand that we be compassionate, loving, and caring toward others, even others whom we may not understand. The Golden Rule demands reciprocity and compassion, and basic equality. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; give them the same privileges, civilly and religiously, that you would want for yourself. These are core religious principles, found over and over again in the Bible and in thousands of years of religious teaching. Compassion demands that we inquire into the lives of gay people, and discover if the “other” is like us or not. Look for the truth, and you will find it, indeed, it will find you.

-ibid, p.29

BibleAs I said, Michaelson is a very talented, clever, and convincing writer. He also takes some general principles one can glean from the Bible and applies them to an arena that no Biblical scholar, saint, or tzaddik would have done at any point in the past. Where in the classic Christian commentaries or the judgments of the Talmudic sages is God’s intent expressed in the same manner as Michaelson’s? I can feel him attempting to tug at my heartstrings, but when I look back into the Bible or even into the secular historical record, I don’t find “sexual orientation,” “gender identity,” or “loving same-sex monogamous relationships” written anywhere on any of their pages.

Then, starting in Chapter 4: “By the word of God were the heavens made,” Michaelson throws something new into the mix.

Homosexuality is normal. The sentence is simple, honest, and supported by science — and yet, to many religious people it may seem surprising, even blasphemous, at first. Yet sexual diversity is part of the fabric of nature, and if we believe that fabric to have been woven by God, then it is part of the mind of God as well. Same-sex behaviors are found in over one hundred species, from apes to elephants, guppies to macaques. Put in stark religious terms, sexual diversity is part of God’s plan.

-ibid, p.30

If it weren’t so tragically wrong that paragraph would be almost laughable. According to this “logic,” if something, anything exists in the world, it must be part of God’s plan and part of the “mind of God.” Really? What else exists in our broken and damaged world? War, rape, child abuse, robbery, prostitution, birth defects, divorce, death. Did God intend all of that when He created the universe?

No.

Our world became broken the first time a human being disobeyed a commandment from God, and it’s been broken ever since. In Christianity, it’s called “Original Sin”. Judaism has no such concept, but it does have Tikkun Olam, or “Repairing the World.” The idea is that the world is imperfect and requires that people participate in its perfection. It is accompanied by the idea that only the Messiah will be able to complete the task of fully perfecting the world, even though each and every one of us has a part in the “repair job”.

Either way you slice it, the world we live in isn’t the world God intended. It’s the world we created by human disobedience and human ego. You cannot say that God intended everything that is “natural” because death and suffering are natural, and are also the result of people, not God. Yes, God permits it, but only because we’ve earned it. We’ve got free will. We can screw up a free lunch. Thus Michaelson’s argument of “if it’s natural, it’s part of God’s plan” is dead wrong.

Dennis Prager in his article Judaism’s Sexual Revolution: Why Judaism (and then Christianity) Rejected Homosexuality paints human nature with very different brush strokes:

It is probably impossible for us, who live thousands of years after Judaism began this process, to perceive the extent to which undisciplined sex can dominate man’s life and the life of society. Throughout the ancient world, and up to the recent past in many parts of the world, sexuality infused virtually all of society.

Human sexuality, especially male sexuality, is polymorphous, or utterly wild (far more so than animal sexuality). Men have had sex with women and with men; with little girls and young boys; with a single partner and in large groups; with total strangers and immediate family members; and with a variety of domesticated animals. They have achieved orgasm with inanimate objects such as leather, shoes, and other pieces of clothing, through urinating and defecating on each other (interested readers can see a photograph of the former at select art museums exhibiting the works of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe); by dressing in women’s garments; by watching other human beings being tortured; by fondling children of either sex; by listening to a woman’s disembodied voice (e.g., “phone sex”); and, of course, by looking at pictures of bodies or parts of bodies. There is little, animate or inanimate, that has not excited some men to orgasm. Of course, not all of these practices have been condoned by societies — parent-child incest and seducing another’s man’s wife have rarely been countenanced — but many have, and all illustrate what the unchanneled, or in Freudian terms, the “un-sublimated,” sex drive can lead to.

Dennis Prager
Dennis Prager

Prager attributes Judaism and God’s insistence on monogamous male-female romantic/erotic relationships with the creation and sustainment of Western civilization. We don’t often think of heterosexual monogamous marriage as “revolutionary” but compared to what all of the pagan cultures before and after the establishment of Judaism and Christianity were practicing, it certainly was.

From Prager’s perspective, what is natural is actually contrary to rather than in compliance with the plan of God for humanity.

More from Chapter 4 of Michaelson, p.33:

Still other scientists have observed that, in animal species close to our own, sexuality performs many functions other than reproduction. Bonobo apes, for example, engage in sexual behavior to build all kinds of relationships, to establish power, and, apparently, for fun.

That’s supposed to counter the Christian/conservative argument that sex is exclusively or primarily for reproduction. Of course, most of us won’t argue that sex is also “fun,” but did God intend for us to imitate Bonobo apes? Sex to establish power is often called rape. In the Roman culture of time of the apostles, male Roman citizens would participate in same-sex sex, but only as the “penetrator” in order to establish power and control. Only non-citizens and slaves were to be the “receivers” of the “contact” with the Roman males.

Yes, sex can be used to establish all sorts of relationships as science and history testify, but this can hardly be mixed into God’s intent for human intimacy. Michaelson scrambles science and religion in a way that looks like a hot pan full of “failed omelet.”

Michaelson’s reliance on science includes results of various studies but what he fails to mention is that given the current political and social bias toward support of normalizing the LGBTQ community in western culture, no one is going to fund any scientific research that could even potentially come up with a result other than the desired one (that is, desired by social progressives). No scientific funding will ever be provided to discover why a small percentage (about 3 to 5 percent, although Michaelson says the figure could go as high as 10 percent) of the general human population is gay, including the possibility that this is not a “normal” and expected variance in human sexuality.

On page 40, Michaelson compares the diversity of human (and animal) sexuality to the differences in the colors of flowers. Just as God created flowers of different colors, He created people with different sexualities, which seems to be an extremely loose and dubious comparison.

In Chapter 5: “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” a Biblical statement prohibiting lying under oath in a legal proceeding, Michaelson grossly generalizes the scripture to being “in the closet,” a state in which all gay people must lie about every aspect of his/her life. Basically, being in the closet violates the word of God and “coming out” upholds being a “true witness”.

In the Jewish tradition, there’s a concept called “chillul hashem” — the profanation of God’s name. Anytime a religious person does something odious and it becomes public, it’s a chillul hashem: rabbis committing adultery, religious Jews convicted of bribery, and so on. Having spent a decade of my adult life in the closet, and a decade out of it, and having spent many years witnessing the effects of religiously justified hatred of gay people, I feel certain in my heart that the anti-gay distortion of religion is a great chillul hashem.

-ibid, p.43

It’s an interesting piece of logic. If lying or deceit is a desecration of God’s Name and truth sanctifies God’s Name, and if coming out of the closet is telling the truth, then “coming out” sanctifies God’s Name. Moreover, religious traditions that have historically contributed to the “bludgeoning, burning, and torturing of gay people, literally and figuratively for centuries” is a desecration of God’s Name.

Michaelson paints the reader into a corner, or he tries to, such that if the reader, for any reason whatsoever, is not completely supportive of the LGBTQ community being normalized within the local church and synagogue, then they are automatically committing “chillul hashem,” whether that is actually true from God’s point of view or not.

justiceDon’t get me wrong, I’m hardly supporting the “demonization” of gay people and certainly not contributing to verbal and physical harassment and injury of people based on sexual orientation, but I don’t think that the only other possible alternative is unconditional acceptance of all gay people everywhere into the ekklesia of Messiah without so much as a “by your leave.”

In most states, gay people can be fired from their jobs or denied housing because of their sexual orientation.

-ibid, p.48
Chapter 6: “Justice — justice you shall pursue”

True as far as it goes, but what does that have to do with religion and God? Well, as a principle, and especially in denominations and religious movements that emphasize social justice, it’s a call for Christians and Jews to support LGBTQ equal rights by advocating changes in the political arena, locally, statewide, and nationally.

Michaelson builds one concept upon the other so that, if the reader is convinced by his arguments up to this point, then as a kind and good person and a person of faith, they must take the next step and vote with their conscience, which means voting in support of all pro-gay initiatives.

After all, aren’t we to “love the stranger and not oppress him” (see Lev. 19:34)? Except the “stranger” or “ger” being referenced in that passage of scripture is the non-Israelite who, along with the widow and orphan, did not have an affiliation to a tribe and thus had few if any rights in Israelite society. It is a specific legal status that no longer exists as Israel is no longer tribal, and thus cannot be applied as Michaelson is doing.

He does make a good point on page 50 that, if we shun gays based on the Bible, why don’t we also shun people who are divorced for any reason other than marital infidelity (see Matt. 5:32)? It is true that Christians tend to treat “homosexual sin” differently than any other kind of sin. It would be better to be a convicted murder, have done your time, come out of prison and go to church than to be openly gay.

But having reached the end of Part One of Michaelson’s book, I hope you can see my problem with it. This author’s arguments are hardly iron clad and in fact, most of them are ephemeral and gossamer. Does this mean I hate gay people and want them to suffer? No, of course not. However, compassion does not presuppose unconditional acceptance of gays into the covenant community nor ignoring the fact that, even if Michaelson can possibly prove beyond a reasonable doubt and to a moral certainty that the Bible (and thus God) never, ever condemns homosexual erotic activity, he may never be able to establish that the Bible directly supports marriage equality, at least beyond “establishing” some exceptionally broad principles from various scriptures taken very far out of their original contexts.

I’ll write my review of Part Two once I’ve finished reading Michaelson’s book.

Addendum: I know from reading Michaelson’s book that like most (or all) other gays and most of their “allies,” he strongly opposes what has been called “reparative therapy” also called “conversion therapy,” which is designed to assist a homosexual individual change his/her sexual orientation to heterosexuality. This therapy is considered by the LGBTQ community to be at best useless and at worst torturous, shaming, and potentially lethal (driving some gay people undergoing the therapy to attempt suicide). I can’t argue against their perspectives and the apparent negative effects this treatment has had on numerous gay people, but then again, if sexual orientation can never be changed, what do I do with people like this one?

Also, in anticipation of Michaelson’s arguments in Part Two of his book, I’m saving a link to my previous blog post Leviticus, Homosexuality, and Abominations here.

"When you awake in the morning, learn something to inspire you and mediate upon it, then plunge forward full of light with which to illuminate the darkness." -Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

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