Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the universe…who commanded us to study the words of Torah. May the words of Torah…be sweet in our mouths and in the mouths of all Your people so that we, our children, and all the children of the House of Israel may come to love You and to study Your Torah…Blessed are You, Lord, who teaches Torah to the House of Israel.
Note the tense of the verb: God “teaches,” not “has taught,” Torah to Israel. God, then, is a teacher not only at Sinai, in antiquity, but today as well, and not only today but also in the world to come. The souls of the righteous who have perished are described as having gone to “the yeshiva on high,” where God will be their teacher and will elucidate all the puzzles of the Torah that were never clarified while they lived on earth.
-Rabbi Neil Gilman
“Chapter 4: God is Nice (Sometimes),” pp 62-3
The Jewish Approach to God: A Brief Introduction for Christians
I’ve mentioned before that I think of God as a teacher, at least sometimes, a bringer of enlightenment and truth. There are also some in religious Judaism who believe that when Messiah comes (or comes back), he will teach Torah perfectly. I suppose this means he’ll teach the Gentiles as well as the Jews how Torah is to be correctly applied to our lives and all of the messy confusion we experience now will finally go away…as long as we choose to accept his teaching and incorporate them into our daily practice.
It seems amazing that we might not, but as I read the Bible, even after the second advent, there will be plenty of people who won’t recognize him as King, even as he sits on the Throne of David in Holy Jerusalem.
But then again, even when we acknowledge God, sometimes we can still be opposed to Him; we can still be angry with Him. But that may not be as strange as it seems:
Yet even then, their anger at God’s behavior was always expressed from within their long-standing relationship with God. They never allowed their sense of being mistreated by God to drive them out of the religious community and its belief structure.
-Rabbi Neil Gillman
“Chapter 5: God is Not Nice (Sometimes),” pg 65
I know the idea of being angry at God usually elicits a certain amount of “pushback” from some readers, but I maintain that it’s a common human response to God…we just don’t talk about it. But what is God’s response to us when we are angry at Him?
Job’s “comforters” arrive and evoke the classical Torah interpretation of suffering: Job must have sinned. But Job retorts that he has not sinned, or that he has not sinned nearly enough to justify this punishment. At the end of the book, God addresses Job in the speeches “out of the whirlwind.” These are a paean to God’s power and to the complexity of God’s creation. Their message is “Job, don’t try to understand Me. Don’t try to fit Me into your neat moral categories. I am God; you are a human being.” Surprisingly, Job acknowledges the difference:
I know You can do everything,
That nothing You propose is impossible for You…
I had heard You with my ears,
But now I see You with my eyes;
Therefore, I recant and relent,
Being but dust and ashes.
-Job 42:2, 5-6
This implies that Job has now achieved a clearer understanding of God’s ways and a measure of closure.
-Gillman, pg 69
This seems not unlike the article Jay Litvin wrote about his own need to attain closure or at least regain closeness with God, in Mr. Litvin’s case, by “forgiving” God for Litvin’s terminal illness. But Job’s and Litvin’s approaches are quite different. Whereas Job acknowledges God’s statement that he cannot understand the ways of God and thus should abandon any attempt to put God in a theological or doctrinal box, Litvin sets all this aside and treats God, not as understandable, but nevertheless, forgivable.
I suppose you could argue that having the temerity to “forgive” God might require that we would then need to be forgiven by God, that too is the act of a loving Father rather than a harsh and punitive Judge:
He will not always strive with us,
Nor will He keep His anger forever.
He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him.
As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
Just as a father has compassion on his children,
So the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him.
For He Himself knows our frame;
He is mindful that we are but dust.
-Psalm 103:9-14 (NASB)
Then comes the theological underpinnings for the power of repentance: “For He knows how we are formed; He is mindful that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). God grants us the power of repentance because God knows how we were created: from the dust (Genesis 2:7).
-Gillman, “Chapter 6: God Can Change,” pg 91
In Rabbi Gilman describing the Jewish relationship to God for Christians, he says that God gives human beings the ability to repent because God knows how weak and frail we are (dust and ashes). Out of that knowledge, God desires to forgive us, which, of course, requires that we first repent.
Jonah chapter 3 tells the simple but powerful tale of Jonah prophesying to the great city of Nineveh that unless they repent of their sins, they will be destroyed by God. Amazingly, this Gentile and corrupt city, from the King to the lowest commoner, repent, and because of this, God relents and forgives.
There’s a certain irony, at least to me, in Rabbi Gillman final commentary in this chapter:
The poem then concluded with a theological justification for God’s compassion:
You are slow to anger and ready to forgive. You do not desire the death of the wicked but that we return from our evil ways and live. Even until our dying day, You wait for us, perhaps we will repent, and You will immediately receive us. Our origin is dust and we return to the dust. We earn our bread at the peril of our life. We are like a fragile potsherd, as the grass that withers, as the flower that fades, as a fleeting shadow, as a passing cloud, as the wind that blows, as the fleeting dust, and as a dream that vanishes. But You are ever our living God and sovereign.
The echo of Psalm 103:14…is unmistakable here. God must forgive because God above all knows what it means to be a human being and to live a human life (not because of Jesus, according to Jewish thought, but because God is the creator of all).
-ibid, pg 96
The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.
-2 Peter 3:9 (NASB)
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
-Hebrews 4:14-16 (NASB)
It’s not that God couldn’t feel compassion and empathy for human beings without experiencing a human life. What creator is unable to understand his creation? And yet, Jesus as both divine and human is uniquely positioned to understand human frailty and to act as intercessor between a fallen mankind and an ultimately Holy, Ein Sof God. Peter also echos Psalm 103 and “foreshadows” the Yom Kippur service in his words.
I sometimes wonder why we have a Christianity that is completely separate from Judaism. If modern religious Judaism is correct and the Gentiles are to come to God through Israel but without the Jesus of the Bible, then why isn’t modern Israel, the Jewish people, a light to the world, opening that door for the rest of humanity? I know the only “Jewish” requirement for Gentiles is our obedience to the Seven Noahide Laws, but without Jewish mentors and a Jewish understanding of this framework, non-Jewish humanity is without comprehension, let alone community (as far as I know, there are no exclusively Gentile Noahide “synagogues” or “churches”). Does modern Judaism truly believe that God left each generation of Gentiles without a means of redemption? It would seem so, since Judaism, for the most part, does not encourage “Noahidism” among the Gentiles.
Christianity was born of Judaism but we have been separated. Jewish people say the separation occurred when Paul developed an anti-Law religion for the Gentiles, effectively making Paul a Jewish traitor and perverter of Jewish teachings into a new Gentile religion. Christians say that Paul understood that the Law had been replaced by the grace of Christ and Torah entered into a period of obsolescence, making Paul the Jewish vanguard out of Judaism and into Christianity. Even my Pastor, who believes there will be a Third Temple and that there will be sacrifices again, tells me that the Torah was always intended to be temporary, and Paul was the instrument of closure for that part of Jewish existence.
I don’t accept either viewpoint. I can’t. One of the comments made on a recent blog post said in part:
In the case of the biblical literature, re-interpretation is a necessary part of such developments because many adherents to a given system are not native to the languages of the source literatures.
It may have become necessary for the form and structure of religious thought and practice to also have been reinterpreted because of the innate differences between Jewish and Gentile disciples of Messiah. Not only are the covenant structures different (or at least overlapping), but based on the much longer and unique Jewish history with God at the point of the apostolic period, how discipleship was transmitted by the Jewish apostles and received by the various Gentile populations in the then-civilized world, may have well required a sort of cultural “morphing,” even when Gentile Christianity and Jewish “Messianism” were still on speaking terms in the late Second Temple and early post-Temple time frame.
God is God of all and God desires to forgive all so that none should perish, but it seems apparent, given the wide variety of Jewish and Gentile approaches to God we’ve seen over the past two-thousand years, that God’s people have yet to come to any sort of consensus as to how that approach should look. Maybe this too is part of God’s gracious forgiveness, not locking human beings into a too tightly structured “approach pattern.”
I know that Jesus said that we only enter through the narrow gate (Matthew 7:13-14), but some Christians believe that gate is as narrow as a single denomination. Some Christians believe you are only “saved” is you are baptized in running water vs. a wading pool. As for observant Jews, how many believe other Jews who do not observe Shabbos will not merit a place in the world to come? How many Jews believe that only their branch of Judaism or only their Rebbe has the true teachings of Torah?
But if God is our teacher and perhaps ultimately, our only teacher, where can we go to learn from Him without having to endure endless layers of human filters? Ourselves and delving into the Bible by the power of the Holy Spirit you say? Many claim to possess the true Spirit and thus out of that (or their own imagination), possess the true teachings of Christ, but I still maintain that there is a lot more chaff than wheat in human understanding of God. I can only hope and pray that God is a lot more merciful and forgiving than some people of faith say He is, so that our honest but fumbling attempts to know Him aren’t in vain.