A Christian at the Gates of the Temple of God

Toward the light“Yes, religion consoles us for our fate, but it also moves us to believe that with God’s help, we can change it. Hence the Christians, Jews and others who fought to abolish slavery then, global poverty now.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
from “When People Lose Faith in God, They Lose Faith in Humanity Also”

“To the Jewish mind, the understanding of God is not achieved by referring in a Greek way to timeless qualities fo a Supreme Being, to ideas of goodness or perfection, but rather by sensing the living acts of His concern, to His dynamic attentiveness to man.

Abraham Joshua Heschel
God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism

“Why would the Jewish people ask for G-d’s name?”

from the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute lesson book
Toward a Meaningful Life

This is the last in my series of blogs based on this Rohr JLI course but probably not the last thing I’ll write about the significance of people and how we can have a relationship with God, which after all, are rather universal questions. Also, the question I’m asking today is really at the heart of just about every article I’ve written on this blog: “Can I apply Jewish wisdom, teachings, mysticism, and folk tales to Christians and our relationship with God through Jesus Christ?”

Gee, that’s quite a mouthful. Here’s what I mean.

Take another look at the link to the Toward a Meaningful Life course work. Notice the title of the course says, “Toward A Meaningful Life: A Soul-searching Journey for Every Jew”, That’s “for every Jew”. Does that mean I’ve been wasting my time going over this material because I’m not Jewish? Has it been written and presented in such as way that it cannot apply in any aspect to a person who isn’t a Jew and specifically can’t apply to a person who is a Christian?

Just about every quote I borrowed from the material I’ve been reading, when it refers to people at all, refers to people; human beings, not necessarily just Jews. Here are a few examples:

The Holy One, Blessed be He, has any number of names. All of these names, however, designate only various aspects of divine manifestation in the world, in particular as these are made known to human beings.

-Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
“Divine Manifestation”

A human being should feel the same sense of warmth and security when he or she comes home.

-Simon Jacobson
“Why is Home Life So Important?”

The Biblical view of marriage is unique among the many extant religious, philosophical and sociological views. The Bible sees a married couple as two people who have made a contractual agreement…

-Rabbi Pinchas Stolper
“The Man-Woman Dynamic of Ha-Adam: A Jewish Paradigm of Marriage”

Every one of these references can easily be applied to people in general and not just Jews specifically, so it seems as if this material can have meaning for a wider audience. Of course, it is marketed to a Jewish groups rather than to churches, mosques, and corporate management seminars, so I may be wrong in my assumptions here. Also, looking at the quote from Rabbi Stolper’s article, even the title says, “A Jewish Paradigm of Marriage” and he points to the “Biblical view of marriage” being different than other religious perspectives (presumably including Christian perspectives) on the topic, so again, I may be reading too much into his content.

I’m not picking on any of these teaching materials or the contributing authors, but I do want to examine just how far we can generalize concepts and teachings that were originally written for Jewish people living in a completely Jewish ethnic, cultural, and religious context into a much broader population. OK, this material is also for Jews who are not well connected to religious Judaism and designed to help re-connect them to who they are, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we can extend all this to the rest of us, does it?

I spend a lot of thing wondering if I’m taking everything I’m reading too far. I can read something by a Jewish author and see how it might connect to something in a Christian context (at least “Christian” as I understand the term), but that doesn’t mean there’s anything causal going on. To put it another way, just because Rambam wrote something in the 12th century that seems to connect to how I understand the words of Jesus doesn’t necessarily mean the two are related in any sense. It certainly doesn’t mean that the source of what Rambam wrote in any way shape or form, can be traced back to any of Christ’s teachings.

I can’t explain why Jewish teaching materials, commentaries, and lessons call to me in a way that Christian books and blogs never do. Derek Leman recently published a blog post called The Message of Jesus via Scot McKnight (Leman is something of a “fan” of Scot McKnight), After scanning Leman’s blog post, I found that I didn’t have a great deal of interest in what McKnight had to say at the moment. Some of the quotes from McKnight’s materials posted in the comments of Leman’s blog seemed to confirm that McKnight’s opinion of Jews, in relation to the church, weren’t any different than many other Christians: that the Jews are “done” as far as God is concerned, and it’s now all about the church and Jesus. Here’s an example:

“The book stands on four arguments: that the gospel is defined by the apostles in 1 Corinthians 15 as the completion of the Story of Israel in the saving Story of Jesus; that the gospel is found in the Four Gospels; that the gospel was preached by Jesus; and that the sermons in the Book of Acts are the best example of gospeling in the New Testament.”

“The completion of the Story of Israel”? Guess the fat lady has sung.

I suppose I’m being unfair and maybe I should spend some time on McKnight’s blog to see more of what he’s all about, but I really, really get tired of “big shot” Christians saying, “we Christians are so cool and the Jews are toast”. On top of that, Antwuan Malone mirrored a lot of my frustrations with the church in his recent blog post 7 Things Getting Old in the Church…Fast!

I feel like I’m caught between two worlds but I don’t belong in either of them. I don’t belong in a church because of how commercialized and secular most of them have become and frankly, because my perspectives are just too “un-Christian” (if you can’t tell that from reading my blog, you haven’t been paying attention). I don’t belong in the synagogue because, frankly, I’m not Jewish. That is, I’m not connected culturally and ethnically to the Jewish community. I wouldn’t fit in. I’d be too “Christian”.

River of LifeWhere do I go from here?

I’ve just spent the past week or two spewing my angst on whether I can have a relationship with the Creator of the Universe all over the Internet, so that’s the only place I know where to go. Even then, my relationship with God is far from perfect. I struggle every day with the simplest of ideas, concepts, feelings, or efforts to make the most ephemeral of connections.

Can I apply Jewish themes to a Christian life? I don’t know, but in my case, I’ll probably keep doing it anyway, just because nothing else makes sense to me. Do Jews intend for their themes to be applied to a Christian life? Probably not.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok of Lubavitch was famed for both his selfless devotion to the needs of every Jew and for his steadfast stand on the integrity of the Torah. The Rebbe maintained that to deal with the growing danger of assimilation and Jewish rootlessness by compromising on the Torah’s principles will only serve to repel those whom one is seeking to “accommodate”. Deep down, said the Rebbe, the Jew wants the truth; offer him a watered-down quasi-truth and you will drive him even further away from his identity.

Once, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok was asked: “True, under ideal conditions, one wants his water to be pure. But when a fire rages, is this the time to be particular? The fire must be put out by any and all means at one’s disposal, including polluted or tainted water. The current crisis of identity among the Jewish people is threatening our very existence. Surely it is a time to be more flexible and accommodating.”

Replied the Rebbe: “What you say is true, so long as one battles fire with water. But if one rushes to pour any liquid on the flames, without realizing that his bucket contains say, benzene instead of water, the result is the exact opposite of what one is seeking to accomplish.”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“The Accommodating Firefighter”
Once Upon a Chasid: Parshah Re’eh
Chabad.org

What did Rabbi Tauber’s commentary say? “The current crisis of identity among the Jewish people is threatening our very existence. Surely it is a time to be more flexible and accommodating.” Here’s Rabbi Yitzchok’s response to that suggestion: “What you say is true, so long as one battles fire with water. But if one rushes to pour any liquid on the flames, without realizing that his bucket contains say, benzene instead of water, the result is the exact opposite of what one is seeking to accomplish.”

Expanding that to the current conversation, Judaism can’t extend itself very far outside its own sphere without risking the danger of losing its identity and cultural integrity. Trying to “marry” traditional Jewish and Christian viewpoints and concepts will either water things down too much or, like tossing benzine on a fire, cause an explosion.

Yet, there’s a certain beauty in many of these things I read and then write about, that provides me with a unique way to approach God that wouldn’t be available to me any other way. Even if I’m climbing the proverbial “wrong tree” from everyone else’s point of view, it still seems like the “right tree” to me. It’s the tree that, in the climbing of it, seems to lead to God more than any of the others in the forest.

I came across something at AskNoah.org a few weeks back that I’ve wanted to share: Will Gentiles be permitted to worship at the Third Temple in Jerusalem? When I first read the title, I really wanted the answer to be “yes”. The article answers the question in part, quoting from Isaiah 2:2-3:

“And it will come to pass at the end of days that the mountain of G-d’s House will be firmly established, even higher than the peaks, and all the peoples will flow toward it as a river. And many nations will go and will cry, ‘Let us go up toward the mountain of G-d’s House, to the House of the L-rd of Jacob, and we will learn from His ways and walk in His paths, for out of Zion goes forth Torah and the word of G-d from Jerusalem.’ “

That sounds very much like this:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever. –Revelation 22:1-5

I doubt that I’ve answered my own question. I don’t feel very satisfied with my answer. I feel like I’ve just asked more questions, but right now, this is the path that’s calling me, so this is the path I will walk. A year from now, I can’t say where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing, but with God’s providence and grace, I’ll be where He wants me to be. Someday, Jews and Gentiles will sit down together at the feast of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Matthew 8:11) and all of these questions will be answered. Until then, it’s the questions, not the answers, that drive me.

“If a foreigner who is not of Your people Israel comes from a distant land for the sake of Your name – for they shall hear about Your great name and Your mighty hand and Your outstretched arm – when he comes to pray toward this House, oh, hear in Your heavenly abode and grant all that the foreigner asks You for. Thus all the peoples of the earth will know Your name and revere You, as does Your people Israel; and they will recognize that Your name is attached to this House that I have built.” –I Kings 8:41-43

The road

The road is long and often, we travel in the dark.

13 thoughts on “A Christian at the Gates of the Temple of God”

  1. James, thanks for this post. I slept in this morning and this was a nice read over my first cup of coffee. If you’re not too busy in Elul, on Wednesday nights, I’ll be having live blog discussions from 9-10 pm EST. Oh, and when you’re ready for a new reading project: Mesillat Yesharim (the new JPS edition with comments by Ira Stone). Nothing wrong with liking Jewish texts.

  2. Thanks for the tip, Derek. I assume you mean this publication of Mesillat Yesharim. I just started Heschel’s book God in Search of Man, so I imagine that’ll keep my busy for a little while.

    Wednesday evening (any evening, really), might be a problem in the near future. I’m currently co-writing a book on a complex technical subject and it’s absorbing almost all of my available bandwidth. When you say “live blog discussions”, are you talking about IM or video conferencing?

    Oh, a quote from a review of Mesillat Yesharim says in part: “and read it as an ethical text that teaches Jews how to develop a saintly life”. That brings me back to the core question of today’s blog: “Can something specifically meant for a Jewish audience be applied to non-Jews and particularly to Christians?” Your thoughts?

  3. Yes, that is the right edition of Mesillat Yesharim. And God in Search of Man is one of my top 20 books of all time. Pure awesomeness. To be an atheist, one must give up all sense of wonder. Heschel makes faith seem necessary for us to be whole.

    Just discussion in the blog comments for the Elul events. No video or conferencing.

    Mussar is applicable to everyone, Jewish or not. And there is much in common between Mussar and Christian devotional classics like Imitation of Christ, The Devout Life, and many others. I enjoy seeing the comparisons in ideas between deeper Christian and Jewish writings about love, goodness, and walking them out.

  4. Very moving post, James. The whole series has been very moving.

    Regarding the application of Jewish texts to Gentiles, I would be cautious about certain (not all) mystical texts, especially some chassidic texts. It’s really important to look at their big picture. In some cases, their thought is tightly bound with what I view to be toxic views of non-Jews. When they speak of the Jewish neshama it is in contrast to what they consider the Gentile’s animal soul. This doesn’t only set up a false dichotomy; the contrast is heightened by downgrading the abilities of non-Jews and exaggerating and elevating the characteristics of the Jewish soul. To take these elevated views of the Jewish soul and apply them universally compounds the error.

    That Heschel quote is great. Page #?

  5. Thanks, Carl.

    Yes, I realize there are more than a few trap doors involved when exploring mystic territory but it does figure into my general question of what Jewish text can and cannot reasonably be expected to have wider applications. The answer seems to be “it depends on who you talk to”. As you say, some Chassidic texts define a sharp line between the Jewish and Gentile soul, with Gentiles coming out not looking too good. Part of the problem for someone without the benefit of a Jewish education or context, is being able to draw correct distinctions.

    Page 21, by the way. 😉

  6. I think that concept of having a “Jewish neshama” (as expressed in Chassidism and other mystic traditions of Judaism) can be equated to one being spiritually different and on a higher spiritual plane by having been “born from above” through a direct spiritual connection to HaShem – a New Testament concept taught by Yeshua. One who has been born from above certainly has a different (refined, if you will) “neshamah”, one attuned to G-d, although that doesn’t make him a better person (and few Jews claim that Jews are actually intrinsically better than Gentiles). The “born from above neshama” resists the animalistic neshama.

    Idol worshipers (Gentiles/nations, historically) by nature, lacked such a refined neshama, a connection to G-d (as clearly stated in Ephesians 2:12. Paul’s statement in Ephesians can be taken – wrongly, of course – as VERY racist and prejudicial to Gentiles, at least to the modern ear. Gentiles, therefore, catered more to their “animal souls” than did the Jews. It must be noted that Judaism clearly teaches that everyone, Jews included, has an “animal soul”. I think in this regard New Testment teaching on the previous state of Gentiles (as pursuing their fleshly “animalistic” desires and cut off from G-d) and their need to “get a spiritual neshamah” can be readily reconciled with similar Chassidic texts.

    And finally, Judaism (including Chassidic Judaism who has historically suffered greatly under non-Jews) accepts converts from Gentiles (who then gain a Jewish neshama) and therefore cannot be labeled as racist.

  7. OK Gene, so everyone has an animal soul, Jews and Gentiles alike. In addition, Jews have soul that is “born from above” by virtue of being Jews. Do Gentiles *only* have an animal soul? When coming to God; when accepting Jesus, what happens to the rest of us? I know Chasidic Judaism can’t really answer the part about Jesus, but if Gentiles *only* have an animal soul, what would lead any of us to seek out God in the first place?

    I think the part where *everyone* is created in the image of God allows all human beings to, on some level, be aware of God and gives us the ability to turn to Him. I accept that the Jewish people have a special and unique covenant relationship with God, but I also believe that God desires that no one should perish and that He wants all people to repent; to turn to Him (2 Peter 3:9). That’s what Jesus is all about, opening the door for the rest of us to enter into a covenant relationship with God, as well as fulfilling the Messianic prophecies for the Jewish nation.

  8. James,

    I’ve actually had this explained to me before, i believe what James is saying is that everyone has a animal soul in them Jew and Gentile alike – (similar to the evil inclination and good inclination). But Jews because of their Covenant with G-d and the result being that G-d has shined His Light upon them (Torah), they are on higher levels then gentiles who know not G-d.

    G-d’s Salvation has reached the nations in Moshiach (the Torah made Flesh), so many Gentiles have been raised to a higher level (the soul has been elevated). We now are not strangers to G-d and have been drawn near by Yeshua HaMoshiach, well those who do know Him and walk in His ways 😉

  9. “G-d’s Salvation has reached the nations in Moshiach (the Torah made Flesh), so many Gentiles have been raised to a higher level (the soul has been elevated). We now are not strangers to G-d and have been drawn near by Yeshua HaMoshiach, well those who do know Him and walk in His ways ”

    Ray, that’s is exactly my point too. Through Yeshua Gentiles are able to attain that higher level of spiritual connection to G-d previously known to Jews (but not exclusively to them, as there have always been at least some Gentiles who also had that same sort of connection – and Chassidic mystic tradition acknowledges that!).

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