Demonax to Elisha in
Milton Steinberg’s book
As a Driven Leaf
In my previous blog post Two Worlds, I compared my journey of faith to that of Elisha’s. Elisha is a Jewish man living in the first fifty years after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. He is a man who had been trained as a Rabbi and who had served as a member of the great Sanhedrin. Yet, in a profound crisis of faith, he has abandoned his Jewish heritage and the Torah of Moses and fled to the Syrian city of Antioch to try to find the truth of his existence in the realms of Greek literature, science, and philosophy.
I, for my part, am a person who came to faith in Jesus sometime after my 40th birthday and after a few years not being satisfied by the answers of the church, proceeded into a “blending” of Christian and Jewish practices in a small, local congregation. However, in recent years, from the vantage point of a Christian man, I’ve been watching my Jewish wife on her journey of discovery to embrace her Judaism. I now find myself challenged by both the Christian and Jewish worlds to explore the value of my own faith through a Jewish lens.
But Elisha has the worst position of the two of us. He is trying to seek an objective method of proving the existence of God (or proving God doesn’t exist) and then determining, regardless of the result, how men are supposed to live based on scientific and indisputable evidence.
But look at how Demonax, the Greek moralist and cynic philosopher, differs with Elisha in even describing the task and the goal. Elisha is trying to understand the “meaning of life” by scrutinizing existence as an astronomer looks at a planet through a telescope. By contrast, Demonax sees the meaning of life not as an attempt to understand existence, but to live it out. The mechanic vs. the poet. While both perspectives are valid, here they are placed at odds with each other.
But should they be?
Think about why a person comes to faith, any sort of faith, in any religious structure. There are two approaches. The first is that a person concludes in their current system that life is random and without meaning. Why is the earth here? What is the purpose of existence? Is the universe the result of a blind, unreasoning accident or is there a conscious creativity at work? How am I supposed to understand the world around me?
The second approach is that a person concludes in their current system that their life is random and without meaning. The questions are similar but pregnant with a profound difference. Why am I here? What is the purpose of my existence? Am I just the result of a random joining of two reproductive cells or is my life special and meaningful? Then, the most important question is, if my life is special, meaningful, and unique, what am I supposed to do? “How am I supposed to live?”
The two questions generally lead to the same answer, for in discovering the meaning of the universe, you discover the meaning of yourself and how you are to live out the life you were given. Both Elisha and Demonax are traveling to the same city but they’re taking two radically different routes.
Now consider the Chasidic understanding of the Torah. You may look at a Torah scroll or a Bible and see words on paper, but that’s only the surface appearance and this only hints at its true purpose and meaning. In the following series of short quotes, Rabbi Tzvi Freeman brings to light some of the wisdom of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson to help us understand what we are really seeing:
They translate it as “The Bible,” or “The Law,” but that’s not what the word means. Torah means “instructions.”
Whatever piece of Torah you learn, you must find the instructions it is giving you. -from Instructions
Torah is the blueprint by which the world was designed. Everything that exists can be found in the Torah.
Even more: In any one concept of Torah you can find the entire world. -from Blueprint
At Mount Sinai, tradition tells, there was no echo.
Torah penetrates and is absorbed by all things, because it is their essence. There is no place where it does not apply, no darkness it does not illuminate, nothing it cannot bring alive. Nothing will bounce it back and say, “Torah is too holy to belong here.” -from Penetrating Wisdom
We find that the Torah is not only the blueprint for existence, but a set of instructions for our existence. Beyond that, we discover that every object and being within the created universe is a container, of sorts, for the “material” used for its creation: the Torah. I don’t mean to say that all of humanity should attempt to live a “Torah lifestyle” identical to the Jewish people, but it seems more than reasonable that we should study the Torah to learn the essential truths by which God intends for us to live. After all, God’s instructions to do so are here:
Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The Torah will go out from Zion,
the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. –Isaiah 2:3
Rabbi Freeman’s teachings are not far from what this early 20th century Chasidic scholar had to say:
Why has God created the world and mankind, and for what purpose? Why has the soul descended into the body? (The preexistence of the soul was assumed in Chasidism.) Is there a more ideal world than the divine world in which the soul previously existed? Is there a greater joy than when man rejoices in God?
-Paul Philip Levertoff
as published in “The Love of God”
Messiah Journal issue 107
Elisha considers philosophy and thus the search for meaning and ultimately for God, to be a science. Demonax believes the same journey is the art of learning how to live in a noble, and even in a holy manner. Yet Elisha’s personal doubts have blinded him to what he should have known, having been a student of the Torah from childhood. He should have seen that the Torah contains all the questions and all the answers. Greek science and philosophy, like our modern, western thought, seeks to compartmentalize and to segregate our objective environment, our physical bodies, and our souls, but the Torah is the maker and container of all these and indeed, we are a container for the Torah, as is the entire universe and everything in it.
Like a splinter in our minds, the questions drive us madly to seek the answers of why we’re here and why the world exists, and yet the answers are right in front of us and they have been right in front of me all along:
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” –Mark 12:28-33 (quoting Deut. 6:4-5 and Lev. 19:18)
Christ’s answer tells us both the meaning of the universe and the meaning of our lives, what Creation is, who we are, and what we are supposed to be doing.
The great sage Hillel once summed up the Torah as that which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the commentary; go and study” (Shab. 31a). While the “two greatest commandments” don’t give us every detail of the journey on which we must travel, it does provide a clear direction. Here I am, standing at a crossroads looking for a direction, just as Elisha was. May I make a better decision than he did. I pray we all do.
Well I looked into dream of the millions
That one day the search will be through
Now here I stand at the edge of my embattled illusions
Looking into you
“Looking into You” (1971)
Chag Sameach Shavuot.