Divergent Branches

Cutting BranchesThe Jewish people have no monopoly on G-d and spirituality. In fact, Judaism’s core desire is that the world perceive G-d’s presence in their lives, and grow spiritually. What’s curious then is the wording of what is arguably Judaism’s most famous expression: “Shema Yisrael… Listen Israel, G-d is our Master, G-d is One (Deut 6:4).” If this eternal message relates to all mankind, why is it addressed only to Israel? Would not the One who created and sustains all mankind, by definition, be the Master of all?

-Rabbi Mordechai Dixler
“Note from the Director”
Torah Portion Vaeschanan
Director, Project Genesis

This is part of a brief commentary that Rabbi Dixler wrote for a newsletter to which I subscribe. Previously, I wrote a blog post called The Sons of Noah which asked how non-Jews can develop a relationship with God from a Jewish point of view. A day later, I answered that question from a Christian perspective with the blog article Children of God. Still, there’s more to the issue than I’ve chronicled so far. Although Judaism and Christianity have a common root, we have developed into religions that are light years apart.

For instance, when the Rebbe, Rabbi M.M. Schneerson characterizes the Noahide laws for the Gentiles, (as recorded in Rabbi Tzvi Freeman’s book, Bringing Heaven Down to Earth), he expresses the first Noahide commandment this way:

Acknowledge that there is only One G-d who is Infinite and Supreme above all things. Do not replace that Supreme Being with finite idols, be it yourself, or other beings. In this command is included such acts as prayer, study and meditation.

Look at the Rebbe’s wording. He warns not to replace the One Supreme God with “other beings” and applies it to acts of “prayer”. But in traditional Christianity, Jesus is God as much as God the Father is, and God the Holy Spirit. Also, how many Christians pray directly to Jesus as opposed to God the Father? It’s actually confusing who we should pray to:

And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. –John 14:13-14

The Rebbe (and Judaism in general) characterizes God as One, the Unique and completely self-contained One that cannot be subdivided into any smaller parts or units. God isn’t a molecule that is one thing made up of many smaller components, He is an indivisible, irreducible, complete wholeness. There’s no way to turn that into the concept of the Trinity from a Jew’s point of view.

I’m bringing all this up because there may be an assumption running around out there that Jews can accept Christians as “righteous Gentiles”; as Noahides…but the Christian imperative to view God as both one and as three makes that impossible. Rabbi Dixler ended his letter last week emphasizing this very point:

Rashi’s classic commentary solves the puzzle: G-d might appear to be the Master of only the Jewish people, those who received and accepted the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The nation of Israel got direct instructions on how to live from the Master Himself — “Israel, G-d is our Master.” However, “G-d is One” — we wish and hope for the day when every soul universally recognizes the Al-mighty’s intimate involvement with all, when the spirituality hidden beneath every surface becomes abundantly clear.

I didn’t feel like Rabbi Dixler or Rashi, as his commentary was presented here, really answered the question, so, since there was the option to ask the Rabbi questions on the Project Genesis site, I posed this one:

Thank you for your insightful message, but I must admit to not quite seeing how Rashi’s commentary, as presented in your letter, solves the puzzle. G-d did indeed give direct instructions to the nation of Israel on how to live, but I don’t see where the rest of humanity receives the information that G-d is One.

I’m aware of the Noahide Laws as recorded in Genesis 9, but they don’t resonate from Noah to the rest of the nations in the same sense as the unbroken chain of Torah does from Moses and Sinai to the Jews of today. There’s a unified link between G-d, Moses, and the Israelites who stood at Sinai that can be traced from 3500 years in the past all the way to the present-day Jewish people. When you say that “we wish and hope for the day when every soul universally recognizes the Al-mighty’s intimate involvement with all”, how do you believe this will happen? Will we only become aware of the “spirituality hidden beneath every surface” when the Messiah comes?

I received Rabbi Dixler’s prompt reply thus:

James, You make a great point. He did give instructions to the rest of the world, but not to the level He gave to the Jewish people. It would seem that the discrepancy would give the appearance of Him acting as Master over the Jews, while exhibiting less mastery over the non-Jews. The point of the message was to say that He has as much a desire to have that relationship with the non-Jews, if they reach the required level of recognition of Him. While Jews may not always act at that level of recognition, they are the descendants of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs which gives them an advantage.

The recognition of the non-Jews has been happening throughout history and it will certainly reach it’s zenith at the time of the Messiah. The spread of the belief in monotheism to most of the civilized world was likely the greatest manifestation of this that we’ve seen so far.

Rabbi Dixler stopped just short of referencing Christianity and Islam when he mentioned the “spread of the belief in monotheism”, but without those two non-Jewish religious traditions, there would be no awareness of ethical monotheism, as Jews understand the concept, among any non-Jewish people.

ForebodingThis leads me to my next question. If in the first century, non-Jews were brought to an awareness of Jewish monotheism through the life, death, and resurrection of the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth (and certainly most Jews would take exception to my wording here) and that word of this “Good News” was spread in the diaspora to the Greek and Roman speaking peoples of that time by the disciples of the Jewish Jesus, why didn’t the “Universal Message”, as Rabbi Dixler calls it in the title of his missive, start and continue right then and there? Why didn’t the Jewish and non-Jewish worshipers of the Jewish God (and remember that the original worshipers of Jesus were almost all Jews) remain united? Why did a journey that started out with so much promise and light enter into such darkness?

OK, I know what you’re thinking. Most people are aware of the history of the first three centuries of the church and how a variety of events resulted in an ever-widening gulf between the Jewish and Gentile worshipers of Jesus, until what was once a Jewish sect with Gentile members became two separate and fully independent religions. On his blog yesterday, Derek Leman commented about the change in perception of Christianity from the martyr Stephen in Acts 6, to the Justin Martyr, who actively rejected the law of Moses for anyone, Jew or Gentile, who was a disciple of Jesus (Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho the Jew, ch. 11).

It has occurred to me more than once that for Gentiles to be able to experience a fully-realized relationship with God, we couldn’t do it as a part of Judaism. It’s probably the same reason why the landscape isn’t flooded with “synagogues” of mostly Gentile Noahides who fully embrace the Seven Laws as their core “Torah” and worship the God of Israel on that basis. Rabbi Dixler’s commentary seems to suggest that it should work this way, but he doesn’t operationalize it; that is, he doesn’t say how to make it work this way, particularly since Judaism has no mandate to “evangelize” to Gentiles. The only such mandate that I’m aware of was issued in Matthew 28:19-20 and the program it instituted, as least as administered by Jews, lived and died at the end of the first century. Gentile worshipers of the Jewish Jesus were only able to carve out their own identity as worshipers of the God of Abraham by separating themselves from Judaism altogether.

Today, Christians bristle at the thought that they could learn anything from the Jewish people (especially since Jews reject Jesus) and many still hold fast to supercessionism or the theological belief that the church has completely replaced the Jews in the covenant promises of God. The idea of Jews and Christians co-existing as God’s people, albeit at different levels of responsibility, is abhorrent to many Christians and Jews. Judaism has Moses as the lawgiver and Christianity has Jesus as the “law-taker-away”. As they exist in the minds of their followers, trying to make these two religions work and play well together is like trying to get the National Organization of Women to endorse Sarah Palin for President.

It’s not going to happen. In fact, here are three of the comments people made in response to Rabbi Dixler’s letter that punctuate my point:

I’m a Chab Jew and I have experienced the disdain of other Orthodox jews, some Chassidim. If we cannot be one how can we expect to have the goyim in the boat?

For your remarks. Perhaps no issue is so easily misunderstood as that of particularity or election. As a stranger come into the faith, I still, occasionally, wonder if I have crashed the party. during my morning prayers, for the longest time I changed one to “Thank you for making me a goi.” Even now, every time I recite the prayer, I think that God has remade me. This, however, does not stop the occasional flinch that perhaps I was dissatisfied with the state of my original creation and that I did God a disservice by converting to Judaism.

There is no way to get around the particularism of Judaism. We are “Am Segulah” the special precious possession of Hashem. We are meant to be a light unto the nations, but the nations themselves have no part in the Torah. Non-Jews who feel that they are spiritually close to the Jewish people must go the way of Yitro and Ruth and become part of Am Yisrael.

Without Christianity (and short of having all the Goyim convert to Judaism), there would have been no mechanism for non-Jews to come to faith and trust in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And yet, as a result of Christianity, an enormous wedge has been hammered between Jews and Christians.

Another thing. The Rebbe, when responding to a question about secular and religious Jews, said…

You categorize them as religious Jews and secular Jews! How dare you make such a distinction! There is no such thing as a secular Jew. All Jews are holy.

The Rebbe’s words seem almost an echo of Paul when he said “and so all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:16). You may still choose to debate this conclusion, but there’s no way around the inexorable unity that joins all Jews, even those who passionately disagree with each other, together at an extremely fundamental, “DNA” level. The Rebbe put it this way:

The Jewish people are one. A Jew putting on tefillin in America affects the safety of a Jewish soldier in Israel.

Soldier praying with TefillinI haven’t experienced this kind of unity within the church and doubt that even the most devout Christians can claim a bond with each other that is so complete as one Jew has for another. Is this what Sinai did? No one chooses to be a Jew unless you convert, but the vast majority of the world’s Jewish population were “born that way” (to quote a popular entertainer). No Christian is “born that way”, we all make the choice independently, even if we are born into Christian families.

Where did we go wrong? Why do we struggle between our two faiths when God is One? Rabbi Dixler tries to answer those commenting in his newsletter, and maybe even my own question, with these words:

An issue that has been raised by a few is that this message somehow dilutes the idea of the Chosen Nation and that the commandment to love is only towards others Jews. To be clear, the Jews were chosen by G-d to be the recipients of His Torah since they are the children of the the Patriarchs and Matriarchs – those who discovered G-d’s presence for themselves, devoted every ounce of their being to Him, and introduced the pagan world to what it means to have one G-d. At the same time, the mission of Jews that they’ve been chosen for is to spread the knowledge of G-d’s presence to all of humanity, by acting as a light to the nations. Built into this mission is the concern that all of humanity appreciate G-d and the spiritual relationship we have with Him.

Unfortunately, “all of humanity” appreciating God and the spiritual relationship the Jews have with Him has necessitated the separation of the Jews from those of us who were “first called Christians at Antioch” (Acts 11:26).

I had asked Rabbi Dixler if, in his opinion, the unity between the Jews and Gentiles under the One God would only happen when the Messiah comes (a second time, from the Christian viewpoint). He replied that while God has as much desire to have a relationship with non-Jews as he has with Jews, the recognition of God by non-Jews “will certainly reach it’s zenith at the time of the Messiah”. From Christianity’s vantage point, we already have that recognition through Jesus Christ. But it’s the Christian theology and dogma of 20 centuries that has been wrapped around the teachings of Christ and his early Jewish followers like a thick blanket that has both kept us warm in the love of God and isolated from the Jewishness of our Master.

Paul said in Romans 11 that Jewish branches were temporarily broken off the root to make room for Gentile branches but how long will it be until we can both be part of the root again? How long until the Jews and the Christians can share an awareness and a love for our common God and put aside 2,000 years of enmity?

How long?

9 thoughts on “Divergent Branches”

  1. Excellent post! I have been having some discussions of this kind with a friend, we are trying to figure out how in the world can unity be maintained along with the distinctivness of the parts that make the whole? I agree with what the rabbi says, but as you say “how long till we reach that?”

  2. Greetings, JD. Probably not until the Messianic Age as Rabbi Dixler suggests. The question then becomes, do we just spin our wheels in the meantime, or do we each have a specific purpose in contributing to Tikkun Olam (the repairing of the world) that will bring about God’s desired unity?

  3. Thanks for the comment, Carl. Interestingly enough, starting with today’s (the one right after this one) morning meditation, the purpose of each individual’s life is what we’re going to be talking about. I think you voted correctly, but for some people, that answer isn’t so easy to see.

  4. Yeah I agree. don’t they say it’s better to fail while trying something (in this case Tikun Olam) than never knowing neither victory nor defeat but only that dull and grey state that inactivity is? Not saying we are bound to fail at Tikkun Olam either =P but it sure isn’t easy either especially with everybody saying they and they only have the truth and nothing but the truth!

  5. Excellent questions, James, I appreciate this post! Unfortunately, I found the Chabad movement to be mired in a lot of ethnocentric twaddle about the spiritual superiority of Jewish souls and their ontological difference, to the extent that I was once told by a rabbi that gentiles could not perform a truly altruistic act, as they lacked a higher soul. Oy vey.

  6. Thanks for your comments, Byzantine Jewess.

    I can only judge by what I’ve read and I do find myself attracted to the Chasidic writings. No religious movement has the corner market on holiness. Each of our religious traditions has its bright spots and its blind spots. That’s probably as true for Orthodox Christianity as for Orthodox Judaism. I, like anyone else, can only do my best to live out the life God gave me to the best of my ability and understanding.

  7. Very true, James. I see a lot of overlap between the wisdom of the Chasidic sages and the Eastern Christian spiritual tradition myself, and between kabbalah and Christianity. Call me an Eastern Othodox Neo-Hasidic Jew. 😉

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