No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’
because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” –Jeremiah 31:34
If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” –John 14:7
Just as wisdom is not something you can touch with your hands,
so G-dliness is not something you can grasp with your mind.
The mind cannot experience G-d.
G-d is not an idea.
G-d is real.
G-d is better found in inspired deeds than in inspiring thoughts.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
How do we “know” God? A Christian might answer that we know the Father through the revelation of His Son, and Jesus said this about himself. Yet, there’s a danger in “anthropomorphizing” the infinite, ever-present, all-powerful, ultimately creative God of the Cosmos, and reducing Him to an old man with long white hair, a bushy beard, and a comfortable lap. It’s like taking God and turning Him into your kindly grandfather who used to give you little treats when you were a child and let you stay up past your bedtime.
This isn’t to say I dispute the words of the Master, I only understand them as illustrating both what we can know about God from Jesus when he walked among men, and what we can’t know. We can’t know the infinite, but we can know how our lives intersect with the Holy through the teachings and example of the Master. Our duty then, is to spend the rest of our lives living out that understanding with “inspired deeds”, as Rabbi Freeman says, as our understanding grows and as it sometimes twists, bends, and warps.
Excuse me, what did I just say?
Isn’t God eternal? Isn’t God’s truth unchangeable? Well, “yes” and “no”.
OK, in an absolute sense, yes, God is God and God is unchangeable. Nothing we can do can alter the nature, character, and qualities of the Creator of the Universe (not that we can perceive the vast, vast majority of those qualities). But while God may be unchanging, human beings change all the time. What we understand changes all the time. If not, if we couldn’t go beyond the Sun circling the Earth and the Moon being made of green cheese, then modern Astronomy would be a lost cause.
I know, it’s not a surprise to understand that as children grow and as people age, they learn new information to replace old data, but it’s also true (at least potentially) of humanity over time. Believe it or not, at one point in history, things like microwave ovens, DVDs, iPads, and the Internet didn’t exist. Even bound books haven’t been available forever (never mind eBooks on Kindle). Gutenberg didn’t invent the printing press until around 1440 and the vacuum tube, which was used in early 20th century technologies such as radios, the first generation commercial computers, and televisions, first saw the light of day in 1904.
Why am I telling you all this? Because what we understand about a concept or a technology may be one thing at a certain point in time but later on, we may amend or change what we believe to accommodate new information, discoveries, and inventions.
This is also true of the Bible and thus what we know about God.
I’m currently reading the book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians by D. Thomas Lancaster. This isn’t another typical Christian commentary on what most believers consider Paul’s “anti-Torah”, “anti-Judaism” rant. Rather, it’s a fresh perspective on how to understand Paul as a Jewish man, declared the “Apostle to the Gentiles” by Jesus in a vision, and who through that incredible and unprecedented role, had to make some hard decisions about how to bring non-Jewish God-fearers and former pagans into the community of faith. One principle decision was the controversial choice of not demanding Gentile believers convert to Judaism in order to become disciples of the Jewish Messiah.
Much of what Lancaster states in his book (and I haven’t finished reading it yet) won’t be universally accepted by the church and perhaps just a decade or two ago, such a book might not have been published. However, it’s important to understand there’s a difference between God’s eternal, unchangeable knowledge and how human beings acquire new data and adjust our understanding based on that information.
About a month ago, I reviewed a scholarly article called Isaiah’s Exalted Servant in the Great Isaiah Scroll written by Steven P. Lancaster (D. T. Lancaster’s brother) and James M. Monson. Based on new information acquired through a study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, how we understand the prophet Isaiah’s description of the Messiah has been significantly changed (and please feel free to read that review by clicking on the link I just provided…it’s fascinating stuff). The information Lancaster and Monson provide in their conclusions almost literally re-writes the “suffering servant” Messiah to “the appointed one”. Who could have known about this, even five years ago?
I’m not trying to undo the ties of Christian faith and the scriptures upon which that faith is based, but I would like to suggest that those ties can be untangled. We labor, without realizing it, under the yoke of centuries-old assumptions, bad translations, and misinformation founded on prejudice. Some of that misinformation, as recently presented by Derek Leman on his blog, is how the church declares rather boldly, that a Jewish person who has come to faith in the Jewish Messiah, must surrender their entire Jewish identity. Galatians, and other sections of the New Testament, seem to give this impression, but we can also be courageous enough to go back to our time-honored texts and read them with a fresh eye, consider them in the original Greek language and “refactor” them in the Jewish/Hebraic mindset of the people who wrote them. We can challenge what we think we know and see if our knowledge stands up to the test.
I’ll leave you with a tangible example of how knowledge changing over time affects not only our day-to-day life, but how we comprehend God, our duties to Him, and our obligations to each other:
The Chazon Ish, zt”l, explains, “Rashi records when he is unsure, to teach that admission of uncertainty is also Torah. One should always be clear of what he knows and what he does not know.”
Rav Yosef Yitzchak Lerner, shlita, contacted Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, regarding a correction the latter had added to the “Lev Avraham.” In this work, Professor Avraham Avraham, shlita, brought the opinion of Rav Avraham ben HaRambam, zt”l, and Rav Sherirah Gaon, zt”l, as conclusive. Both luminaries hold that Chazal’s teachings regarding medicine are not Torah; they merely reflect medicine as understood in their time. If contemporary science disagrees the halacha follows the medical experts. Rav Shlomo Zalman maintained that since other authorities disagree, this opinion should be prefixed with “some say.”
Daf Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
Some of the rulings of the honored sages were based on the best medical knowledge available to them in their day, but as we see, modern medicine has rendered many of their judgments out-of-date. Being open to new information about the Bible and how to read it, can help us understand that some traditional Christian interpretations of the Bible need to be updated as well. I read and review articles like Isaiah’s Exalted Servant in the Great Isaiah Scroll and books such as Lancaster’s Galatians for exactly that reason. Knowledge and faith is a garden which yields only the fruits of our labors. Like prayer, meeting God and understanding more about Him requires our time, effort, and an unquenchable need to learn.
Rabbi Chalafta the son of Dosa of the village of Chanania would say: Ten who sit together and occupy themselves with Torah, the Divine Presence rests amongst them –Pirkei Avot 3:6
“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” –Matthew 18:19-20
7 thoughts on “Knowing”
very good article. I especially liked the two passages you linked together; Pirke Avot 3:6 & Matt 18:19. Is the Pirkei Avot from the Talmud? I have never read a Talmud, but I was guessing that is what your referring to.
Pirkei Avot means “Ethics of our Fathers” in English and yes, it’s from the Talmud. Saying you’ve never read the Talmud is a little like saying you’ve never read the Encyclopedia Brittanica and there are two Talmuds, the Babylonian Talmud (the most popular) and the Jerusalem Talmud. The material is vast.
I am an extreme amateur when it comes to the Talmud and so far, have only been exposed to parts of it, and only as an individual (as opposed to taking classes). Yet, there is much in the Oral Law and the interpretations and judgments of the sages that speaks to a faith in the Jewish Messiah. I also find him in the stories of the Chasidim, and in the writings of Jewish mysticism.
If you’re interested in the latter, I highly recommend Love and the Messianic Age by Paul Philip Levertoff and the accompanying commentary. It successfully “marries” traditional Chasidic thought with the Gospels, particularly John’s.
Thanks for your comments and I hope you’ll feel free to keep readings and sharing your insights.
Very, very good. It seems so ostentatious of us to be presenting such new and radical ideas and views—but these are gleaned through new layers of interpretation that carefully added through time, updated modern scholarship (e.g. “New Perspective” on Paul), and of course the slow roll-out by God of revealing his truths to his people.
You state this well, “Being open to new information about the Bible and how to read it, can help us understand that some traditional Christian interpretations of the Bible need to be updated as well. … Like prayer, meeting God and understanding more about Him requires our time, effort, and an unquenchable need to learn.”
Thanks, Boaz. A lot of this stems from my own awareness of just how much I don’t know.