A Physical Object is Merely “I am”

The mitzvos are primarily physical deeds performed with physical objects: animal hides are fashioned into tefillin and wrapped around one’s head and arm; flour and water become the instrument of a mitzvah in the form of the matzah eaten on Passover; a ram’s horn is sounded on Rosh Hashana; a citron and palm fond are taken on Sukkot. For the physical world is ultimately the most appropriate environment for the function of the mitzvah to be realized.

“The mitzvos relate to the very essence of G-d” is a mainstay of chassidic teaching. But the very notion of something relating to another thing’s essence is a philosophical oxymoron. The “essence” of something is the thing itself, as opposed to manner in which it affects and is perceived by that which is outside of it. Hence the philosophical axiom: “The essence of a thing does not express itself or extend itself.” In other words, if you see it, it is not the thing itself that you see, only the manner in which it reflects light and imprints an image on your retina; if you understand it, then it is not the thing itself that you comprehend, only a concept which your mind has pieced together by studying its effect on other things; and so on.

Nevertheless, G-d desired to project His essence into the created reality. This is the function of the mitzvos: through observing His commandments and fulfilling His will, we “bring” the very essence of G-d into our lives. And this is why He chose the physical object as the medium of the mitzvah’s implementation.

Spiritual entities (i.e., ideas, feelings, etc.) intrinsically point to a source, a cause, a greater reality that they express and serve. The spiritual is thus the natural medium for the various expressions of the Divine reality that G-d chose to convey to us – unlike the physical, whose deeper significance is buried deep beneath the surface of its corporeality, the spiritual readily serves as the expression of a higher truth.

But when it comes to the projection of G-d’s essence, the very “virtues” of the spiritual disqualify it: its capacity to convey, to reveal, to manifest, runs contrary to the introversive nature of “essence.” Here, the physical object, the most non-transcendental element of G-d’s creation, is the most ideal vehicle for G-d’s essence capturing mitzvos.

A physical object merely is: “I am,” it proclaims, “and my being is wholly defined by its own existence.” As such, the physical object constitutes the greatest concealment of the Divine truth. Precisely for this reason, it is G-d’s medium of choice for man’s implementation of His will.

In other words, the object of the mitzvah is not a “manifestation” of the Divine. Were it to reflect Him in any way, were it to reveal anything of the “nature” of His reality, it would, by definition, fail to capture His essence. But capture His essence it does, simply because He willed it to. G-d, of course, could have willed anything (including a manifest expression of His reality) to convey His essence, but He chose a medium that is most appropriate according to logical laws he established in creating our reality – a reality in which “essence” and “expression” are antithetical to each other. He therefore chose the material world, with its virtual blackout on any revealed expression of G-dliness, to serve as the “tool” with which we perform the mitzvos and thereby relate to His essence.

-from a commentary on
Ethics of Our Fathers (Chapter 4)
“Essence and Expression”
Iyar 17, 5772 * May 9, 2012
Chabad.org

Yesterday’s “extra meditation,” The Blood of the Prince, took a look at the “deity of Jesus” issue and inspired many passionate responses. Here’s the same issue from a different point of view.

You may have just read this lesson from the Pirkei Avot or Ethics of Our Fathers and wondered what it had to do with anything. In Christianity, the physical and the spiritual are usually seen as two separate and often incompatible entities. Christians are always trying to escape “the flesh” so they can connect to the Spirit. Yet in Judaism, this isn’t necessarily the same picture.

The connection of flesh and spirit is a question that was discussed with some fervor recently on Gene Shlomovich’s Daily Minyan blog post, Crisis? A Jewish husband believes that Jesus is the Messiah but not G-d. Once again, the question of the Deity of Jesus was brought up and once again it was not resolved, except in the minds of people who feel they know for sure that Jesus is “God in the flesh.”

Some of us however, aren’t so sure how it’s all supposed to work, which I guess is why we have faith but not always complete knowledge of who and what God is and isn’t.

But the commentary I quoted from includes a very interesting statement:

A physical object merely is: “I am,” it proclaims, “and my being is wholly defined by its own existence.” As such, the physical object constitutes the greatest concealment of the Divine truth. Precisely for this reason, it is G-d’s medium of choice for man’s implementation of His will.

I started thinking about something the Master said that sounds at once somewhat similar and yet is entirely different.

Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” -John 8:56-58 (ESV)

Of course, the statement “I am” not only recalls the Pirkei Avot commentary, but Exodus 3:14:

God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”

The Master is apparently saying not only that Abraham believed in him, Jesus, by faith (see Hebrews 13:11 as well), but that the great “I am” of Exodus is also the Christ. The quote from the Pirkei Avot commentary says that a physical object’s loudest cry of “I am”  (including physical man) declares that it is defined by its physical nature, and that physical nature is also the ultimate hiding place for the Divinity of the Creator. Which “I am” reference can we apply to Jesus…or can we apply both?

I’ve explored Messianic Divinity before and have leaned toward an alternate “explanation” for the joining of humanity and Divinity in the person of Jesus Christ than the one held by the church. That doesn’t make me a popular fellow by more traditional Christian thinkers (whether in the church or the Hebrew Roots movement) but at least I’m willing to question my assumptions and admit that I don’t know everything (which seems a prudent position given the ultimate “unknowability” of God).

That said, I’m taking somewhat of a different position today and exploring the other side of the coin, albeit through the interface of a commentary on the classic Jewish texts. I’m hardly saying that what was written in the Pirkei Avot directly or indirectly applies to the concept of the Messiah in general or Jesus in specific. The two “I am” references are competely disconnected in practicality. I’m just choosing to use this comparison as a “jumping off point” for exploring both Jesus and God.

That’s a big jump.

But then, I never said that Jesus wasn’t Divine in some manner or fashion, I just failed to jump on the mainstream Christian bandwagon in terms of an explanation. Judaism may not hold that a man can also be God and worthy of the worship and honor due to God alone, but it does (and I’m not even speaking of Jewish mysticism here) acknowledge the ability of the Divine to somehow exist within our universe and even to play by the rules of that universe, though as a matter of choice, not limitation:

Indeed, since the purpose of creation is that the essence of the Divine should be drawn down into the physical reality, the objective is to do so on its (the physical reality’s) terms, not by overriding them. So if the logical laws that govern our reality and dictate that “expression” is incompatible with “essence,” our bringing of G-dliness into the world is to be achieved “blindly,” without any perceptible manifestations of the Divine essence.

On the other hand, however, if G-d’s essence is truly to enter our reality, He must enter it as He is, without hindrance or inhibition. If His reality tolerates no limits or definitions, “revelation” must be no less conducive to His essence than “concealment.”

In other words, for Him to be here implies two (seemingly contradictory) truths: if He is to be truly here, then His presence must be consistent with our reality; yet if it is truly He who is here, He must be here on His terms.

This is why created existence has two distinct components: the Present World and the World to Come the process and its culmination. The process of drawing down the Divine essence into the created reality is carried out under an obscuring veil of corporeality, in keeping with the created rule that “the essence of a thing does not express itself or extend itself.” At the same time, the product and end result of this process are a world in which G d is uninhibitedly present, in which also the expressions of His reality fully convey the quintessence of His being.

In Jewish mystic tradition, the Angels and even the mysterious essence of the wisdom of Torah must be “clothed” in the mundane in order to exist in our world. Though God the Ein Sof, the infinite and unknown Creator does not interact with the world, something we call the Shekinah, which in most Christian Bibles is translated as “God’s glory” did enter our world, incinerating the top of Sinai and entering the Tabernacle in the desert, constructed by the hand of man. That Shekinah, we call “God” too, but it doesn’t seem to bother us that God existed simultaneously as Ein Sof and Shekinah (if something that strange, mystical, and metaphysical can even be expressed in temporal terms).

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. -John 1:1,14 (ESV)

I don’t know how it all works so I have no answers to give you. If you’re comfortable with your answers, then I guess that works for you. Frankly, I’m more “comfortable” or at least better able to tolerate the vast uncertainty of the nature of “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Once we say that we know all there is to know about God, it is humanity defining Divinity rather than the other way around. I don’t think I could live with that.

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12 thoughts on “A Physical Object is Merely “I am””

  1. James, you said,

    Once we say that we know all there is to know about God, it is humanity defining Divinity rather than the other way around

    You suggest that is the position of those who say Yeshua is God. In reality, it’s not our position at all. I said as much in your other post.

    It’s not that we have God figured out, or that we’re uncomfortable exploring the issue of Messiah’s divinity. It’s that the New Testament makes it abundantly clear that Yeshua is worshiped as God. Either that’s idolatry, or Yeshua is God.

    The issue is mucked up only with a deliberate muddying of the waters. It can be as clear as this: should Yeshua be worshiped? Yes? Then Yeshua is God. No? Then Yeshua is not God.

    Your answer was, “I don’t know if Yeshua should be worshiped.” That suggests you reject parts of the New Testament where He was worshiped (e.g. things like Matthew 14, or Revelation 5), or you don’t believe he was actually being worshiped. If the latter, you must make the argument that Yeshua wasn’t being worshiped in the New Testament. So far, you’ve avoided that topic.

  2. I’m not arguing against a Divine Messiah as such, just the idea that Jesus was and is literally God and completely interchangeable with God the Father (or even replacing God the Father, as it seems in some churches).

    While nearly 2,000 years of Christian interpretation of the New Testament has made the divinity of Jesus “obvious,” taking a look at the issue from outside traditional Christian theology and doctrine doesn’t yield quite the same “done deal,” at least as you describe it. If you read this blog post and today’s morning meditation, you’ll see that they are pretty “Jesus is Divine” friendly.

    That said, I’ve been reviewing an old blog post or two which addressed the same issue. Apparently, it’s been on my mind for awhile.

    According to this concept, God’s unknowable and divine will and wisdom (which are inseparable from His being) descended to be clothed in the corporal substance of commandments of Torah and ink in a book. This is not to say that a Torah scroll is God, but that the Torah scroll is an earthly container for His will and wisdom. It is similar to the concept of the Shechinah, the “Dwelling Presence of God.” Just as the Shechinah took residence and filled the Tabernacle, the Spirit of God fills the words of the Torah. -from the Love and the Messianic Age Commentary

    The Word became a human being and lived with us, and we saw his Sh’khinah, the Sh’khinah of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. -John 1:14 (CJB)

    As I’ve been saying for awhile now, I can see the relationship between Jesus the Son and God the Father being along the lines of the “Ein Sof” infinite God and the Shekinah that descended on the Tabernacle in the desert and later on Solomon’s temple. We don’t seem to have much problem saying that God the Father and the Shekinah are both God and quoting the commentary on Levertoff, even the Torah and God are in some manner or fashion, inseparable. But what is it to worship Jesus and to worship God? Even many New Testament scholars have devoted much time and effort to determine just how early in history Jesus was actually worshiped and not all of them come to the conclusion that his original disciples understood that he was supposed to literally, physically be God, the same guy they prayed to three times a day.

    In some way we don’t understand, Jesus is Divine and I don’t question that. But if he was literally, physically God descended from Heaven (temporarily abandoning his Throne), why did he pray to God, why did he tell his disciples to pray to God alone but in the name of Jesus, and why did Jesus cry out to God (“why did you abandon me”) when he was dying?

    No one has answered those questions. Perhaps no one can answer them except God. As Gene pointed out in the comments of one of my “Searching” blog posts, even the Chabad acknowledges a mystic and Divine nature to the Messiah, though they don’t believe he is to be literally God come down to earth.

    Sorry Judah, but I’m going to keep asking questions and pushing against walls as long as I need to, even if it’s the rest of my life, until I get a better handle on the matter. This isn’t against you or against anyone. I understand there’s a lot about Christianity we take on faith but there’s a lot about theology and doctrine that I’m going to question anyway. The church is not the same as God and even Jews question God (Christians, not so much).

  3. Scholars debate just how early in history Jesus was actually worshiped

    Who cares about them? They’re already enemies of the gospel. The Scriptures record Jesus being worshiped by his disciples, by his followers, by all of creation. James, you do disbelieve this, or what?

    If Messiah’s to be worshiped, He’s God. All the exploring and questioning and wall-pushing won’t allow you to wiggle out of this reality.

  4. Christian scholarship isn’t evil, Judah. I’m talking about scholars and books like these:

    -Hurtado, How on earth did Jesus become a God?
    -Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel
    -Dunn, Christology in the Making
    -Dunn, Did the first Christians worship Jesus?
    -Casey, From Jewish prophet to Gentile God

  5. Hurtado argues for the divinity of Messiah in the earliest Church, does he not?

    But it doesn’t matter what men 2000 years removed say about the disciples. The Scriptures record worship of Jesus. (Do you even argue otherwise, James?) Maybe you’ve explored your way out of that reality, or maybe you’ve rejected that part of the New Testament.

  6. What I’m saying is that those scholars don’t always disagree about when the concept of worshiping Jesus occurred in the church. If people who have studied the ancient texts for decades have questions, why isn’t it OK for me to ask questions?

  7. It’s not the questions that are wrong, it’s your unwillingness to confront the issue directly. You instead explore your way around the issue, avoiding the hard questions, while leading yourself in the direction you desired to go in all along.

    Again I say: the New Testament records worship of Jesus. Your only answer to this so far has been, “That people bowed down to Jesus is no more remarkable than one bowing down to a great King.”

  8. The door swings both ways, Judah. You haven’t explained how the disciples worshiped Jesus when Jesus told them to worship God (the Father) alone.

    Incidentally, I’m not the only one asking these questions as is evidenced by the conversation on Larry Hurtado’s blog. In the comments, even Hurtado says:

    There is no question that in the NT (and in classical Christian doctrine) Jesus is functionally subordinate to God the Father. E.g., Jesus is sent by the Father, not vice versa.

    You act like I’m some sort of freak of nature for trying to explore this issue and being honest with my opinions. Should I lie and pretend to believe everything else in the church believes, including you, when I can’t just jump on the bandwagon and accept the “party line?”

    I understand that you disagree with me but you don’t seem to want to allow me to explore this matter on my own terms. Interestingly enough, this reminds me of a brief but wonderful conversation between Spock and McCoy on the original Star Trek series episode, The Immunity Syndrome. Spock is about to enter a shuttlecraft on a “suicide-mission” to discover how to destroy an enormous single-celled organism that has trapped the Enterprise and is slowly killing everyone on board. McCoy wanted to go on the mission, but Kirk decided Spock was better qualified. Naturally, McCoy is annoyed.

    McCoy is seeing Spock off at the shuttlebay (imagine you’re McCoy and I’m Spock…and I’m reproducing this scene from memory):

    Spock: Can’t you grant me my own kind of dignity?
    McCoy: How can I grant you what I don’t understand?
    Spock: Then employ one of your own superstitions…wish me luck.

    The heart of this scene is McCoy not responding but just starting at Spock. After a few seconds, Spock turns and enters the shuttlebay, walking toward the open shuttlecraft door. The audience experiences the several seconds it takes for Spock to walk to the shuttle from McCoy’s point of view, and only once Spock is inside the shuttle and the shuttlecraft doors close does McCoy whisper, “Good luck, Spock.”

    Even if you disagree with me and think I’m dead wrong, you could do what Derek did in the comments of another of my blog posts on this topic. You could allow me the space to explore what I need to and not insist that I adopt your point of view and classic Christian doctrine. You could do what Spock asked McCoy to do; to grant me my own kind of dignity. Metaphorically speaking, you could “wish me luck.”

    I’m not saying that you have to cease commenting, just realize that repeating the same statement over and over again isn’t likely to compel me to abruptly stop asking questions and accepting standard doctrine of the Trinity. Yes, Jesus is divine…but I still want the freedom to ask, what does it mean?

  9. James, I keep asking the question because you continue to avoid the issue.

    You act like I’m some sort of freak of nature

    Not at all. I ask you to confront the issue. You don’t worship Jesus, so I want you to question that belief against the reality that the New Testament records worship of Jesus. If you refuse to reconcile that with your beliefs, and even refuse to address the issue at all, choosing instead to divert the conversation, we’re left with the impression that your “exploring” is not a fact-finding mission, but is a means of validating and justifying what you want to believe.

    You’re so set on asking questions, why do you avoid the question about Messiah-worship in the New Testament?

  10. You’re so set on asking questions, why do you avoid the question about Messiah-worship in the New Testament?

    Because it’s not a “done deal,” Judah. I’m not sure if you actually read all of the information I provided, but some of the most noteworthy New Testament scholars in the world are asking when Jesus started to be worshiped as God, including Hurtado, who is a proponent of early worship of Jesus in the first century and who himself is Christian.

    What I’m trying to say is that we aren’t all that sure exactly when, how, or with what intent, the early Jewish disciples exalted Jesus, bowed to him, and whether all that constituted direct worship of Jesus as God, or if God (the One and only) was being worshiped through the agency of Jesus the Messiah (please read the Hurtado blog, his review of Dunn, and especially the comments in said-blog if you think I’ve lost my mind in making such a suggestion).

    You say I’m dodging the question, but you seem to mean that I’m dodging the conclusion; your conclusion. If it were that clear from the Bible, then scholars like Hurtado and Dunn would have nothing to talk about, let alone to review and debate.

    Judah, how am I hurting you? How am I offending you just because we have a difference of opinion? If I said the world was flat and you said it was round, even though you know I’m dead wrong, how would my error offend you? You seem to be taking this way too personally. If it’s because you are worried about my eternal soul, I am grateful because it means you care about what happens to me as a human being.

    Perhaps it would help if you looked at me (from your point of view, of course) as a four or five year old who has just had the training wheels removed from his bike. I’m determined to learn to ride like a “big kid” but in order to do that, I’ll have to fall down a lot first. Or to quote that wonderful philosopher Alfred:

    “Why do we fall down, Master Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

    I don’t think your conclusions are as “set-in-cement” obvious as you believe they are Judah. I could be absolutely wrong in questioning your conclusions (and no, I’m obviously not avoiding the question of “Messianic worship” since I think about it and write about it all the time). But if I’m ever going to learn to “ride the bicycle,” I’m going to have to take robotic adherence in traditional church doctrine, my training wheels, off the bike and see if the thing still stays up on two wheels without the assistance.

    I believe I’ve been as reasonable, rationale, polite, and courteous as I can be. I’ve employed my very best thought processes and my cleverest metaphors to try to convince you that I should have the right to explore my own faith in my own way. Why is that a problem?

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