There are two approaches to the Bible that prevail in philosophical thinking. The first approach claims that the Bible is a naive book, it is poetry or mythology. As beautiful as it is, it must not be taken seriously, for in its thinking it is primitive and immature. How could you compare it to Hegel or Hobbes, John Locke or Shopenhauer?
The second approach claims that Moses taught the same ideas as Plato or Aristotle, that there is no serious disagreement between the teachings of the philosophers and the teachings of the prophets. Aristotle, for example, used unambiguous terms, while the prophets employed metaphors.
Abraham Joshua Heschel
God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism.
Everything is within the power of Heaven except fear and awe of heaven. –Berachot 33b
Although I may have left the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute’s lesson on Toward a Meaningful Life behind with yesterday’s morning meditation, the Christian search for God in the Torah, Tanakh, and Talmud still occupies me. I’m sure reading Heschel’s classic only provokes my interest.
The quote from his book which I just posted presents a more interesting dilemma than the one Heschel considered. He was presenting how Jews view God through the lens of the Torah as compared the perspective of the Greek (and later) philosophers and their “more rational” position on God. From a Jewish way of looking at the issue, it’s a matter of Jewish religion vs. non-Jewish, secular philosophy. Now let’s toss a monkey wrench into the spinning machinery.
It is said that much of how Christianity understands and interprets the Bible stems from the study and adherence to Greek philosophy. I’ve known more than one believer who has left the church because they came to realize that the Christian tradition had “Helenized” the Bible, stripping it of its original Hebraic meaning and intent. If they are right, then a Christian studying the Jewish perspectives will either discover something precious or lose something essential in their faith.
Almost two months ago, I read a blog post warning Christians that to study Judaism and Jewish writings was an invitation to apostacy and the abandonment of Christ himself. The danger was that becoming too attracted to Judaism would result in a person who would eventually lose their Christian faith and perhaps even decide to convert.
That concern doesn’ t particularly worry me. There’s something else to consider. I wonder if the Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible even speak the same language. Ponder this statement from Heschel’s book (page 25):
The central thought of Judaism is the living God.
That begs the question, “what is the central thought of Christianity?” The most obvious answer is “Jesus Christ”, but is that the same answer, a related answer, or does this represent two completely different answers? When a Jew thinks of God, he isn’t thinking of the Messiah because nothing in Judaism presupposes that the Messiah must be God. We imagine because the Jewish Bible makes up the first two-thirds of the Christian Bible, that there must be a significant overlap in how Christians and Jews think of, understand, and approach God, but that isn’t particularly true. As my (Jewish) wife keeps telling me, Jews conceptualize God, faith, and the world around them in a fundamentally different way than everyone else, particularly Christians.
But is there no common meeting ground? Don’t both Jews and Christians seek God? Doesn’t the yearning to walk in His Presence stir in both the Jewish and the Christian heart?
The Bible has several words for the act of seeking God (darash, bakkesh, shahar). In some passages these words are used in the sense of inquiring after His will and precepts (Psalm 119:45, 94, 155). Yet, in other passages these words mean more than the act of asking a question, the aim of which is to elicit information. It means addressing oneself directly to God with the aim of getting close to Him; it involves a desire for experience rather than a search for information. Seeking Him includes the fact of keeping His commandments, but it goes beyond it. “Seek ye the Lord and His strength, seek His face continually” (Psalms 105:4). Indeed, to pray does not only mean to seek help; it also means to seek Him. (Heschel page 28)
There’s a certain irony in the fact that, while I as a Christian am seeking God through a Jewish understanding, there was once a Jew who did quite the opposite…and yet remained Jewish:
He read the Gospels in German. Then he obtained a Hebrew version and reread them. Though he was in the midst of a Gentile, Christian city where Jesus was worshiped in churches and honored in every home, Feivel felt the Gospels belonged more to him and the Chasidic world than they did to the Gentiles who revered them. He found the Gospels to be thoroughly Jewish and conceptually similar to Chasidic Judaism. He wondered how Gentile Christians could hope to comprehend Yeshua (Jesus) and His words without the benefit of a classical Jewish education or experience with the esoteric works of the Chasidim.
Taken from Jorge Quinonez:
“Paul Philip Levertoff: Pioneering Hebrew-Christian Scholar and Leader”
Mishkan 37 (2002): 21-34
as quoted from Love and the Messianic Age
Paul Philip Levertoff, born as Feivel Levertoff first encountered a page from the Gospels as a nine-year old Chasidic Jewish boy in the late 19th century. He found a scrap of paper in the snow one day written in Hebrew and assumed it was from a Jewish holy book. He took it home to his father to see what should be done, but when the man realized what was written on the paper, he threw it in the stove to burn. But while that scrap of paper was reduced to ashes, a different kind of fire was kindled in Feivel Levertoff that day and that fire never left him for the remainder of his life.
Levertoff couldn’t believe that anyone not schooled in the Zohar, the Tanya, or other mystic and Chasidic Jewish wisdom could ever understand the words such as are written in John’s Gospel. As much as anything, Levertoff’s experience lets me anticipate that someone with an essential faith in Jesus can hope to allow that faith, understanding, and worship to grow and expand when nurtured with some of the same fertile Jewish prayers and readings (see my review of Levertoff’s Love and the Messianic Age for more).
Returning to Heschel (page 31):
There are three starting points of contemplation about God; three trails that lead to Him. The first is the way of sensing the presence of God in the world in things; the second is the way of sensing His presence in the Bible; the third is the way of sensing His presence in sacred deeds.
What Heschel is describing as three starting points are what he later defines as worship, learning, and action. In my reading and subsequent review of Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, I noticed that it was not recommended for each to person take the same path to God. It seems that not everyone is cut out for the “mystic approach”. Rather, some people are best suited to approaching God through deed, others mainly through study, and still others, primarily through prayer and worship. How interesting that Heschel should offer the same three options, mapped to different scriptures:
- Worship: “Lift up your eyes on high and see, Who created these? –Isaiah 40;26
- Learning: “I am the Lord thy God.” –Exodus 20:2
- Action: “We shall do and we shall hear.” –Exodus 24:7
The human race is a people seeking God. Many don’t understand that His face is the one they long to see and if you ask them about it, they’ll deny it vehemently. And yet, mankind thirsts for justice, cries out for mercy, begs for forgiveness, and pleads for their wounds and sicknesses to be healed. Who are they crying out to if not God?
How much more can this be said of those of us who understand that we are seeking the face of God and yet, there seems to be more than one road to His Throne (not contradicting John 14:6). Even in narrowing these methods to worship, study, and actions, there are still so many choices to consider. I continue to make my choice in one particular direction. Hopefully, Rabbi Heschel wouldn’t have minded.