The Long Dark Road

intermarriage“Marrying gentiles is like playing into the hands of the Nazis,” Yad Vashem Council Chairman and former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau has been quoted as saying to students from Ramat Gan’s Ohel Shem High School.

According to the students, the rabbi made the remark during a lecture on the Holocaust and on his personal memories as a survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp which he delivered to teenagers who had returned from a trip to Poland.

-Udi Avni
“Intermarriage plays into Nazis’ hands”

Now, on my suggestion, Benjamin is trying some churches (and looking to get re-involved in a mainstream synagogue, perhaps, since he can’t get Jewish prayer in a Messianic congregation there). His experience in Church-Land so far has been dreadful. I didn’t think it could be worse than in the so-called Messianic congregations, but at least in a bad Messianic group people are usually sympathetic to Jewish concerns on some level. Yes, you guessed it: Benjamin has already been told that it is wrong to be Jewish!

-Derek Leman
“Jewish Adventures in Church-Land”
Messianic Jewish Musings

I have to admire some of the high school students listening to Rabbi Lau since, according to the news article, “Lau’s remark and the nature of his lecture caused several 12th graders to walk out of the auditorium.” The person leading a small group study at the church Benjamin attended wasn’t quite so principled:

The person leading this week’s small group time was “uncomfortable with my keeping the law,” says Benjamin. He “asked me to go home, pray for the Holy Spirit to give me discernment as to what Scripture says, and read Romans and Hebrews.”

Part of the “mission” of my blog is to explore the issues and ramifications of being intermarried and how sometimes Christianity and Judaism can have “uncomfortable encounters”. I don’t experience these sorts of issues in my home life, but I have no doubt I would elicit such responses from at least a few folks in both the church and the synagogue. It’s not that either venue is populated by bad people, but we all have biases and opinions based on our experiences, and we can all act out those experiences on people around us.

I don’t really blame Rabbi Lau for making statements against intermarriage and assimilation. As a Holocaust survivor, he has experienced the extraordinary pain and suffering of the Jewish people and is responding in a way that he believes will repair the damage. He sees intermarriage as just another form of Holocaust (and he’s not alone in this) and is reacting to assimilation of Jews as the same sort of danger (and he’s probably not entirely wrong). Still, according to one 12th grader:

“He said the Jewish people must not assimilate and that we must maintain the Jewish identity. In addition, he presented delusional statistics, claiming that had there been no assimilation the United States would now have 30 million Jews, and showing contempt for those who assimilated – as if they are inferior to others.”

My wife has neither assimilated nor is she inferior. With respect to Rabbi Lau, I will not accept his judgment on intermarried Jews and particularly not on my wife.

On the other hand, I can’t exactly give “props” to the church for making a Jew feel inferior because he has faith in Jesus and also continues to live as a Jew. This shows a complete lack of understanding of who Jesus is, what he taught, and everything he brought into the world in order to allow the nations to have a covenant relationship with God. If the church would try to understand Jesus in his actual context (and I tried to explain this yesterday), perhaps the small group leader at Benjamin’s church wouldn’t have (metaphorically) kicked him in the teeth for being Jewish.

The introduction to The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature adds dimension to the historical roots of this dynamic, which has targeted what is often seen as the essence of what it is to be Jewish.

Christian theologians and historians have on occasion viewed the Talmud, much more than the Hebrew Bible itself, as encapsulating the spiritual and intellectual core of Judaism. This interest has not always had benign results; it has, at times turned the Talmud into a target of polemics and even violence. Repeated burnings of the Talmud and its associated writings by Christian authorities in medieval Europe were meant to destroy the intellectual sustenance of Judaism.

We don’t seem to have advanced very far from those times, at least in some churches, have we?

More than once recently, I have despaired God’s creating the universe. More than once I wondered why He did it and, if He could do it all over again, would He? Of course, in a sense, He creates the universe anew every year. He reaffirms His faith in humanity annually by punching the cosmic reset button and recreating the world and our souls as brand new, bright and shining.

And then, I start reading Genesis and the daily news and look at what happens. The place is a mess again. Life is a mess again. Sometimes, I get pretty angry at the injustice and the suffering. Then I realize that I’m also angry at my own imperfection and my own impatience with God.

Anger at your faults is arrogance, and of a very self-destructive form. Every failure becomes pain, every pain becomes a gruesome punishment.

An objective person is able to look at his faults and what needs to change and say, “This is what G-d gave me to work with.” He accepts stormy weather as part of the course and slowly and patiently steers his ship to port.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

What man does with his religions isn’t always what God intended. Probably what man does with his religions isn’t what God intended the vast majority of the time. I think we’ll all be very surprised when the Messiah finally comes and he straightens out all of our messed up thinking and crazy ideas about what God wants, how we are supposed to worship Him, and how we are supposed to treat each other.

The faults that God gave me, and gave all of us to work with reminds me of what God said to Paul once.

Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” –2 Corinthians 12:8-9

This is the world God gave us to work with. It’s a broken world populated by broken people. Even the best of us is a mess compared to God’s expectations. We focus our attention on the wrong things a lot of the time (and I’m probably a very good example of this). For instance, in Benjamin’s experience in the small group study:

This week, Benjamin spoke during small group, since the small group leader asked for people to share stories of things that had “brought them closer to Jesus this week.”

That seems an innocent enough question, but statements like this always make me wonder where Christians think God took off to. I don’t think of the things that bring me closer to Jesus when I pray but rather, I think and ponder upon the way Jesus brings me closer to God. If man has one, pure, transparent interface between himself and God, it is the Messiah. It’s the reason He came. It’s the reason He died and was raised. So that the rest of us could enter into covenant and be reconciled to the God of Israel. Nevertheless, Israel and the Gentile disciples continue to collide with each other, perpetuating a conflict that has lasted for millennia.

This isn’t the world God originally created but it’s the world we have to work with. Only faith can convince us that it can be repaired. Only faith can inspire us into action and allow us to work with God in tikkun olam. Only God can show us that we will succeed, with His help and grace.

I see we have a long way to go.

Addendum: I just finished reading a couple of blog posts written by Julie Wiener for the series “In the Mix”, a blog series about Jewish/Gentile intermarriage. Today’s entry, Intermarriage And The Holocaust: Part II mentions Rabbi Lau comparing intermarriage to the Holocaust, but you’ll also want to read Part I to get the whole picture.

The road


Where to Find Jesus

Hasid AlleywayIt is important that before we dig into the Gospel texts themselves we understand some of the cultural background regarding ritual purity in the late Second Temple period. The Tosefta tells us that during this time “purity broke out among Israel.” Archeological evidence verifies that in the decades preceding the fall of the Temple in 70 CE ritual purity had become a major concern even among the common people throughout the land of Israel.

-Toby Janicki
“The Master and Netilat Yadayim”
Messiah Journal
Issue 108 – Fall – 2011/5772 p. 27

This isn’t the first time I’ve discussed netilat yadayim or the ritual handwashing, but I’m not making it my main focus this time. Rather, I want to address how Janicki supports his argument for Jesus advocating, or at least not dismissing this portion of First Century Jewish halacha. The clue is right in the quote that is just above. Not relying on the Bible alone to interpret the Bible.

That’s probably going to raise a few eyebrows among some people reading this. I’ve heard it said often enough that we should “let scripture interpret scripture”, which I take to mean using one part of the Bible to interpret another part. I wonder if that’s always possible or if we shouldn’t also take into consideration other information, such as the “archeological evidence” Janicki mentions. Of course, that’s not the only supporting data he cites.

While the washing of hands before eating bread is not specifically commanded in the Torah, the sages of the Talmud attempted to find a scriptural basis for it in various biblical passages. For example in Leviticus 15:11 there is the injunction, “Anyone whom the one with the discharge touches without having raised his hands in water.” They felt that the Torah made allusions to the entire scope of this practice in a roundabout way (citing Chullin 106a). -Janicki p. 27

I know that Mark 7 seems to be very clear that Christ disapproved of the hand washing ritual, but can we rely just on the text as translated into English without any contextual frame of reference to tell us the entire story? I know that Christians (and many “Messianics”) are rather squeamish when it comes to the Talmudic wisdom, especially since it was documented decades to centuries later than the events in Mark 7, but halachah did exist in Christ’s day, he was (and is) a Jew, and despite what supersessionist church teachings may say to the contrary, Jesus did not play fast and loose with his being a Jew.

I’m saying all this (and it’s not the first time) to illustrate that we cannot simply pick up a Bible, read a passage, and immediately know all of the details and subtle nuances that are being communicated. In fact, we don’t know what is being said and often, we don’t bother to try and find out. We, meaning Christians, tend to rely on the traditional church interpretation of the passage and believe that Jesus was talking about how all meats were clean and ham sandwiches were forevermore a really cool snack. However, a close reading of even the English text (minus Christian perspective) will reveal that he wasn’t talking about food at all.

Interestingly enough, from the Jewish point of view, scripture is interpreted by tradition as well, although the tradition points to the sages and the Mishnah. This is something completely foreign to Christians and many “Messianics” who say they embrace the “Jewish Jesus.” But from our early 21st century perspective, do we really know just how foreign Jesus would be to us if we could go back and meet him on the streets of his home village or in the courts of the holy Temple in First Century Jerusalem?

Connecting to the Master and thus to the God of our faith means entering worlds where we are considered strangers. We have to cross the barriers of time, culture, and education. We have to set aside our western preconceptions and look at the person Jesus as an ancient near-eastern man living in an occupied nation; a former carpenter turned itinerant Rabbi. This isn’t the Jesus you learned about in Sunday school or the European-looking actor you’ve seen portray him in half a dozen films.

To learn about the true “Maggid of Nazaret”, you’ll need to do what Toby Janicki did in researching the Master and the Netilat Yadayim. You’ll need to look for him in all of the ancient Jewish places, in all the traditional Hebrew texts. You won’t find him any place else.

The Tent of God

Downtown Dewey Square is crammed with tents and tarps of Occupy Boston protesters, but organizers made sure from the start of this weeks-old encampment that there was room for the holy.

No shoes are allowed in the “Sacred Space” tent here, but you can bring just about any faith or spiritual tradition.

A day’s schedule finds people balancing their chakras, a “compassion meditation” and a discussion of a biblical passage in Luke. Inside, a Buddha statue sits near a picture of Jesus, while a hand-lettered sign in the corner points toward Mecca.

“Religion claims its place in Occupy Wall Street”
-by Jay Lindsay
found at

We tend to think of religious and secular activities as isolated from one another. Secular people rally around “separation of church and state” (though that’s not exactly what the Constitution says) while at least some Christians say that the United States was founded as a Christian nation (which isn’t really true, either). However, there is a distinct impression of polarity between what some might think of as “faith vs. facts”. Reality isn’t quite so clear cut, though.

For instance, a number of weeks ago, I came across an article at Network World called Science and religion can and do mix, mostly. The takeaway blurb says:

Rice study shows only 15% of scientists at major US research universities see religion and science as always in conflict.

That’s not the impression you get from the news media, at least when religion and science come up in the same story. There’s a tendency to believe that people of faith and people of science are mortal enemies. One avenue of evidence many atheists use against religious people is that the various sciences “prove” or at least support, an origin of the universe and of the earth that does not match up with how Genesis describes those events in the Bible. Science is also used in some manner or fashion, to support natural rather than supernatural processes for the creation and development of life, and of course, there’s no direct, scientific observation that supports the existence of God.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book God in Search of Man : A Philosophy of Judaism said that science was not an adequate tool for determining the existence of God, since science, as a method of examination, can only investigate those things that are available for examination within the scope of our universe. God is “extra-universal”, so to speak, and escapes all methods of man trying to capture God and put Him under the microscope.

That probably sounds like a convenient excuse to some, but I’m not going to present a detailed defense for God’s existence against the various scientific disciples. They operate on completely different playing fields. To be fair to the Biblical rendition of the Creation event in Genesis though, I don’t believe it was written as a “cookbook” on how God created the universe, nor do I believe it can be understood outside of a deeply mystic frame of reference. I’m not the only one with this viewpoint. For instance, Rabbi Joshua Brumbach on his blog Yinon, recently replied to a commenter:

I don’t believe the intention of Genesis is meant to be a scientific account, but rather a theological one. As such, I am not necessarily a literal 6 days person. IMHO, like you, I don’t think the Biblical text and Science are in conflict with each other.

There’s no real reason to say that the “big bang” theory, which is accepted by the vast majority of the scientific community as the most likely explanation for the origin of the universe, should be at odds with the acceptance of the Genesis story in the Bible. And while the scientific understanding of the big bang event has evolved over time, it still has some uncertainty attached to it as reported by

“The problem is, there’s no reason whatsoever to believe general relativity in that regime,” said Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at Caltech. “It’s going to be wrong, because it doesn’t take into account quantum mechanics. And quantum mechanics is certainly going to be important once you get to that place in the history of the universe.”

So the very beginning of the universe remains pretty murky. Scientists think they can pick the story up at about 10 to the minus 36 seconds — one trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second — after the Big Bang.

So in the time that existed just prior to “one trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second” before the big bang, could the hand of God have been at work? I believe so, but then, that’s an opinion based on faith. To say that God absolutely could not have been involved requires as much faith, if only because there’s no way to be so definite on that point without invoking faith, either in God or in God not existing.

So we find God in odd places, places we wouldn’t expect to find Him, such as at an Occupy Wall Street demonstration in Boston. Of course:

The tent is one way protesters here and in other cities have taken pains to include a spiritual component in their occupations. Still, Occupy Wall Street is not a religious movement, and signs of spiritually aren’t evident at all protest sites.

So we discover God, or our faith in Him at least, is involved in human affairs because God is involved in us. If the world was not created for the sake of humanity, would the universe exist? That’s like the old “if a tree fell in the forest and there was no one to hear it, would it make a sound” question, and as there are no observers at either event (except God), we have no way of knowing for sure.

To fly in the face of science, God is not a God of facts, but a God of experiencing. We know He is real because we experience Him in ways that defy logic, science, and traditional observation. We believe He has inserted Himself into the lives of human beings and into the course of history, but it still requires faith to see His face shining and His hands working at places like Eden, Sinai, and Jerusalem. Although God is omnipresent, He is most likely found in the places where we carry Him. His being can and has and does manifest anywhere, but He is most often seen, and heard and felt where the people of God are. We are His emissaries to those who have no other method of experiencing Him. The people of God allow the invisible God to be seen by the righteous and the unrighteous alike.

Right now, in downtown Boston, He is sitting in a small tent along with a statue of Buddha, a picture of Jesus, and a hand-lettered sign pointing to Mecca. He was carried there along with those objects and He would be there, even if those other objects didn’t exist. For the method of transport for God into that small tent in Boston, and in all the other places we find God, wasn’t by hands, but by the container of faith He has helped us build within ourselves. And we people of faith, though hardly 99% of the population, are not always who you would expect us to be or where you would expect to find us.

Addendum October 30, 2011: Christians are supporting the “Occupy London” protests. Read about it at

Living in the Echo of Genesis

And Hashem God made for Adam and his wife garments of skin, and He clothed them.Genesis 3:21 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

Not only did God Himself make them comfortable garments, He Himself clothed them to show that He sill loved them, despite their sin. -R’Bachya

If Judaism had relied exclusively on the human resources for the good, on man’s ability to fulfill what God demands, on man’s power to achieve redemption, why did it insist upon the promise of messianic redemption? Indeed, messianism implies that any course of living, even the supreme human efforts, must fail in redeeming the world. It implies that history for all its relevance is not sufficient to itself.

There are two problems: the particular sins, the examples of breaking the law, and the general and radical problem of “the evil drive” in man. The law deals with the first problem: obedience to the law prevents evil deeds. Yet, the problem of the evil drive is not solved by observance. The prophets answer was eschatological…”Behold, days are coming, says the Lord, and I will form a covenant with the house of Israel…not like the covenant that I formed with their forefathers…I will place My law in their midst and I will inscribe it upon their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:30-33). “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit will I put within you, and I will take away the heart of stone out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My spirit within you and bring it about that you will walk in My statutes and you will keep My ordinances” (Ezekiel 36:26-27).

-Abraham Joshua Heschel
God in Search of Man : A Philosophy of Judaism (p. 379)

Creation, existence, devotion, obedience, sin, failure, humiliating shame, but still love.

The story of Genesis is the story of humanity. We are born into the universe and spend our lives trying to understand who we are and why we exist, and then we attempt to live up to what we believe is the purpose of our lives. Those us who have an awareness of God and a faith in our Creator strive to connect to the object of our faith and to join with Him in creating acts of holiness in the world around us.

I acknowledge You, for I am awesomely, wondrously fashioned; wondrous are Your works, and my soul knows it well. My frame was not hidden from You; that which I was made in concealment, which I was knit together in the lowest parts of the earth. –Psalm 139:14-15 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

But we fail, not all the time, but often. How like Adam and Eve we sometimes feel shame and stand naked and exposed in our transgressions against Him.

But love and the struggle to continue in the face of our failures for the sake of Heaven is also the story of Genesis.

Man’s ability to transcend the self, to rise above all natural ties and bonds, presupposes further that every man lives in a realm governed by law and necessity as well as in a realm of creative possibilities. It presupposes his belonging to a dimension that is higher in nature, society, and the self, and accepts the reality of such a dimension beyond the natural order. Freedom does not mean the right to live as we please. It means the power to live spiritually, to rise to a higher level of existence…Freedom is an act of self-engagement of the spirit, a spiritual event. -Heschel p. 411

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. –Galatians 5:1

The irony in Paul’s words is in how the church has misunderstood them to believe that the Torah was slavery and that grace and “lawlessness” was the only freedom. In fact, we are declared free the first moment we touch the hem of the garment of God and acknowledge that we are not chained to the laws of an earthly existence. In the spiritual person’s freedom, we escape the shackles that secular man rattles proudly in our faces as evidence of his emancipation from “religion”.

Religion becomes sinful when it begins to advocate the segregation of God, to forget that the true sanctuary has no walls. -Heschel p. 414

The mysterious forbidden fruit and the deceit of the serpent are failure, sin, and slavery, but God’s love for us and our bond with Him are our continued freedom. For Christians and Jews and Muslims and all the other traditions struggling to understand the nature of man and God, even “religion” can become a barrier when it becomes an idol in our lives and a greater force than God Himself. For Jews, Heschel (p. 415) says something even more startling.

Even the laws of the Torah are not absolutes.

Only God is absolute and the Torah, the mitzvah, the prayers, all of them exist as the interface by which we connect with God to perform His will, but like the stars in Heaven and the great seas, they are creations, not the Creator.

The ultimate concept in Greek philosophy is the idea of cosmos, of order; the first teaching in the Bible is the idea of creation. Translated into eternal principles, cosmos means fate, while creation means freedom…The essential meaning of creation is, as Maimonidies explained, the idea that the universe did not come about by necessity but as a result of freedom. -Heschel pp.411-12

Under heavenChristianity, in depending on the Greek philosophy imposed on church’s understanding of the New Testament due the original language of the text, accidently or perhaps deliberately filters out the Jewish meaning of the teachings and wonder of Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul said in Galatians 5, we are not possessed by God nor owned by the Master, though our Master he is, but we are free of the weight of human frailty and sin. We are free to allow ourselves to be clothed in not only righteousness but in the performance of the mitzvah, joining as humble partners with God in the task of repairing the world and preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah.

The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Blessed is the king of Israel!” –John 12:12

As the people in Jerusalem spread palm branches in the road, paving the way for the entry of Christ, so by our faith and our deeds do we pave the road for his return, in triumph, glory, and splendor, for as sin has made man a slave on earth, the King of Kings will break our bonds and we shall be free under his reign and under God.

Hashem, what is man that You recognize him; the son of frail human that You reckon with him? –Psalm 144:3 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. –John 3:16

We must continue to ask: what is man that God should care for him? And we must continue to remember that it is precisely God’s care for man that constitutes the greatness of man. To be is to stand for, and what man stands for is the great mystery of being His partner. God is in need of man. -Heschel p. 413

After the failure at Eden, we continue to ask ourselves why God loves us. We try and comprehend beyond our own small ability to reason, that God’s love is boundless and timeless and does not depend on our ability to adequately love Him, for we have no such power. In our weakness, He is strong and gives us strength to love an unknowable God. However, we must grasp onto that strength, lest we fail and fall away.

Man’s survival depends on the conviction that there is something that is worth the price of living. -Heschel p. 422

This is especially true of the Jewish people, but it is no less true for the rest of us.

In trying to understand Jewish existence a Jewish philosopher must look for agreement with the men of Sinai as well as the people of Auschwitz. -Heschel p. 421

We must cling to our God as tightly as possible for only in that attachment may we remain nourished in His love and find our way along the path. Only with God can we survive the failure of humanity and achieve the glory for which we were truly created, both for the Jew and the Gentile.

Israel is the tree, we are the leaves. It is the clinging to the stem that keeps us alive. -Heschel p.424

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. –John 15:5

If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.

Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. –Romans 11:17-22

ForgivenessThe antidote to the cruelty of this broken world is kindness and love, not just to those who are kind and loving to us, but to everyone, because God loves everyone, the sinner and the saint alike, with equal passion and devotion, for we are all devoted sons and daughters but we are also prodigals and wayward.

We cannot hate what God loves. Rabbi Aaron the Great used to say: “I wish I could love the greatest saint as the Lord loves the greatest rascal.” -Heschel p. 424

Both Christians and Jews await the return of the Messiah and the hope of the world to come, though each tradition denies the validity of the other’s interpretation. God is God and He is One, in spite of how we misunderstand and misconstrue. A Christian waits for the end of Revelation and a Jew waits for this and remembers.

We remember the beginning and believe in the end. We live between two historic poles; Sinai and the Kingdom of God. -Heschel p. 426

A person of faith is caught between two realities; the one we live in now and the one we hope for, when God will reign and tears and dread are banished forever. We cannot ignore one for the other. We cannot live in the present without the hope of the future, but we cannot look at the end of the tale without realizing that it will never occur unless we work with God here and now to bring the Moshiach. We live in the echo of Genesis while awaiting the sound of the final Shofar of Messiah. In between, we have palm branches to gather in order to prepare his way.

Genesis: Rerolling the Torah Scroll

IRolling the Torah Scrollf G-d is “perfect,” as Judaism says, what prompted Him to create the universe? What void was He seeking to fill?

The answer provided in Jewish Mysticism is that G-d desired marriage. Marriage necessitates the existence of someone distinct from yourself with whom to share your life, a union of husband and wife. G-d chose humanity as His bride. According to the Kabbalah, the High Holiday season is the annual experience of the cosmic matrimony between G-d and humanity.

-Rabbi Yosef Y. Jacobson
“Souls in the Rain”
Commentary on Sukkot and Simchat Torah

It is impossible to decide whether in Judaism supremacy belongs to halacha or to agada, to the lawgiver or to the Psalmist. The Rabbis may have sensed the problem. Rab said: The world was created for the sake of David, so that he might sing hymns and psalms to God. Samuel said: The world was created for the sake of Moses, so that he might receive the Torah (Sanhedrin 98b). (p.340)

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

Genesis. The very familiar and very confusing Biblical rendition of God’s creation of the universe, our planet, and man and woman. Why did He create all of this and us? In a previous blog post, I took a rather dim view of creation, given how things have turned out so far, and if I were standing at some sort of cosmic reset point, where God were about to create time and space all over again for the first time, I might say to Him, “Do you really want to do this? You know how it turns out.”

Indeed, we do know. God gives man and woman exactly one thing to do and they blow it. Put another way, long before God gives Moses the Torah, with its 613 mitzvot for the Children of Israel, He gave only one to Adam. If a mitzvah contained the same intrinsic meaning for man in the first days of the Garden as it does for a Jew today, then this one task, to refrain from partaking of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, was not simply a matter of obeying (or disobeying) God, but something that Adam and Eve actively participated in with God as part of a cooperative effort. God, speaking from a Jewish perspective, is just as “bound” to the mitzvot as man.

Heschel (p. 361) illustrates the importance of a mitzvot to a Jew this way:

Just as salvation is the central concept in Christian piety, so does mitsvah serve as a focus fo Jewish religious consciousness.

That sentence, more than any other in Heschel’s book, should send shivers down a Christian’s spine. Any believer knows just how much they value their salvation through the blood of Jesus Christ. But Christian, whether you understand it or not, a mitzvah to a Jew is every bit as important to him as your salvation is to you. The difference is that, once you accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, your job is done. Accepting salvation upon yourself is a passive act. God does it all by grace. By contrast, a Jew is always in motion with the mitzvot, acting upon the world and working with God to make it a better place. It’s not as if failing a mitzvah puts the Jew’s soul at risk or that grace isn’t in operation every single moment (to put it in Christian terms), but performing the mitzvah is the active ingredient in any Jew’s faith and life.

In fact, it is said “Without mitsvot one is naked” (Genesis Rabba 3,7). It is thought that one does not perform a mitzvah so much as one “acquires” it. A Jew might say “Adorn thyself with mitsvot before Him” (Sanhedrin 17a) as if the mitzvot were clothing. That is how Heschel (pp. 362-3) can come to this statement:

The supreme dignity of mitsvah is of such spiritual power that it gained a position of primacy over its antonym, namely, sin or averah. Even the sin of Adam was described as loss of mitsvah. After the forbidden fruit, we are told, their eyes were unclosed and “they knew that they were naked” (Genesis 3:7). “One mitsvah was entrusted to them, and they had stripped themselves of it.” (Genesis Rabba 19,17).

Knowing all of this, why did God create the world? Why did he create man? For marriage? For the supreme union between man and God? My, how we made a mess of things early on in the relationship and continue to do so. As Rabbi Yonah writes on the Jewlicious blog:

Jewish tradition teaches that God created the world to infuse it with goodness. However, this stands in contrast to the world we see. Even with the rose-colored glasses of privilege and faith in humankind, we have to admit that the world is full of misery and suffering. Finding God in this mess becomes difficult, if not impossible, for many of us.

failurePerhaps this terrible condition of the world is the only environment where humanity could exist for any length of time. We were going to fall. It was a matter of God deciding whether or not we should be given life, not whether we would fail in that life or not. Perhaps God’s boundless love would never have been understood or appreciated unless we were still loved by Him after we completely failed.

As we learned recently from Yom Kippur, God made time in such a way that it can be rolled back to the beginning. All wrongs can be made right. All hurts can be healed. We can be as we were “in the beginning”. The intensity and whirlwind of activities that mark the Days of Awe are about to collapse in on themselves and suddenly, time will be rolled back to Genesis even as Torah scrolls are rolled back to the beginning.

I haven’t experienced the joyous highs that most people have who celebrate this time of year, but my experience is unique and my situation has a limited context. Although I am a Christian, I am not a typical cog in that machine, nor do I fit into the Jewish world because of my faith. I have read through many Torah cycles, but this year, going back to the beginning is like making a fresh descent into the abyss of man’s failure without being able to see his future.

How did Abraham arrive at his certainty that there is a God who is concerned with the world? Said Rabbi Isaac: Abraham may be “compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a palace in flames. Is it possible that there is no one who cares for the palace? he wondered. Until the owner of the palace looked at him and said, ‘I am the owner of the palace.’ Similarly, Abraham our father wondered, ‘Is it conceivable that the world is without a guide?’ The Holy One, blessed be He, looked out and said, ‘I am the Guide, the Sovereign of the world.’ ” (Genesis Rabba 39) The world is in flames, consumed by evil. Is it possible that there is no one who cares? -Heschel p.367

There’s a well-known idiom in Hebrew that says, “Yeridah Letzorech Aliyah” meaning “descent for the sake of ascent”. I am descending into Genesis and will once again watch man fail God. Each day that I live, I live the life of a man who has failed God. But as the days and weeks progress and the Torah scroll is rolled further into Genesis, I pray that this will also be an ascent for the sake of my descent. Man has failed God and yet is still loved by God. However tenuous it may seem to me just now, that means there must be hope.

As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust. –Psalm 103:13-14

Good Shabbos.

V’zot Haberachah: When the Party Ends

Hebrew FireAnd this is the blessing that Moses, the man of God, bestowed upon the Children of Israel before his death. He said: Hashem came from Sinai – having shone forth to them from Seir, having appeared from Mount Paran, and then approached with some of the holy myriads – from His right hand He presented the fiery Torah to them. Indeed, You loved the tribes grately, all its holy ones were in Your hands; for the planted themselves at Your feet, bearing [the yoke] of Your utterances: “The Torah that Moses commanded us is the heritage of the Congregation of Jacob.”Deuteronomy 33:1-4

The Rambam writes: “Moshe ordained that on every festival, the Jews should read [a portion of the Torah which reflects] its content.” He continues by listing the passages read on different festivals, and concludes that on Simchas Torah, we read Zos HaBerachah. This implies that the reading of Zos HaBerachah on Simchas Torah shares a connection with the holiday itself; it is not read at that time merely because it is customary to conclude the yearly cycle of Torah readings on that festival.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
In the Garden of Torah
“A Fountain of Blessing”
V’zos Haberachah

The final portion of Deuteronomy is always read on Simchat Torah, the “Rejoicing of the Torah”, as one Torah cycle ends and another begins. It is a reminder that all things end and yet all things are new. The gift of God’s Torah to the Jews is celebrated with much laughter and dancing. In the synagogue, all of the Torah scrolls are removed from the ark and everyone carries them and dances and sings and cheers in joyous appreciation of God’s goodness. Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah also formally end the Jewish holiday season and, the following Shabbat, the reset button is pushed and Parashoat B’resheet starts another cycle of reading.

Yet in the midst of tremendous victory, Rabbi Touger chooses to remind his readers of one of Israel’s greatest tragedies.

In this context, however, a difficulty arises: Rashi explains that the final phrase of the Torah, l’einei kol Yisrael, “before the eyes of the entire Jewish people,” refers to the breaking of the tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Our Sages attach great importance to conclusions, explaining that they summarize the content of all the preceding concepts. Why then does the conclusion of the entire Torah and in particular, the conclusion of the reading V’Zos HaBerachah mention a subject which seemingly reflects the disgrace of the Jewish people, for the tablets were broken because of the nation’s sin in worshipping the Golden Calf.

However, to understand why such a time of shame should be introduced into the culmination of a season of celebration, we have to go back into the symbolism for both Sukkot and for Simchat Torah:

What is the inner content of Simchas Torah? When contrasting the sacrificial offerings brought during Sukkos to those brought on Simchas Torah, our Sages explain that the 70 bulls offered on Sukkos refer to the 70 nations of the world. The one bull offered on Simchas Torah refers to the Jewish people, the “one nation.”

Simchas Torah is a day when “Israel and the King are all alone.” This is a time when the essential bond between G-d and the Jewish people is expressed in joyous celebration. This concept is reflected in the name of the Torah reading, V’Zos HaBerachah, lit. “This is the blessing,” and its content, which focuses entirely on the blessings given the Jewish people, and the praise of their uniqueness.

PrayingThat Sukkot includes the nations and not just the Jews is perfectly understandable, given Zechariah 14:16-19, when all the survivors of the war against Israel from among the Gentile nations will be commanded to send representatives to Jerusalem for Sukkot and pay homage to the King in Messianic days. For a Gentile such as myself to celebrate Sukkot now is something of a taste of things to come. But there is something else.

If Sukkot is an invitation for everyone to join God and God’s chosen people, Simchat Torah is a time when, according to Rabbi Touger, the nations are “included out”. This rather punctuates the fact that the Torah was given just to Israel and that the special holiday of honoring the giving of the Torah at Sinai is just between God and His One Nation: the Jews. While God is the Father and Creator of the people of the world, it’s as if the Father wants to have a special day with only His first born. It is also a time when, remembering the Golden Calf, God consoles His special son and brings His son back from his past shame and returns the son to God’s love.

This also explains why Moses broke the first set of tablets, out of God’s great love for Israel:

To explain: When describing the reason for the breaking of the tablets, Rashi states:

To express with an analogy: A king journeyed to a distant country, leaving his betrothed with maids. Because of the depravity of the maids, the reputation of the intended also became tarnished. The bridesman took the initiative and ripped up the wedding contract, saying: “If the king will order to kill her, I will protest, saying that she was not yet his wife.”

The king is the Holy One, blessed be He; the maids, the mixed multitude [of converts who joined the Jews after the Exodus]. The bridesman is Moshe, and the betrothed…, the Jewish people.

Rashi’s intent is to explain that Moshe broke the Tablets to protect the Jewish people from G-d’s wrath. Here we see the unique importance of the Jewish nation. The Torah is G-d’s “delight, frolicking before Him at all times.” And within the Torah, the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were engraved were “the work of G-d… and the writing of G-d,” given to Moshe by G-d Himself. And yet when the future of the Jewish people was at stake, Moshe was willing to break the tablets without hesitation.

Why did Moshe take such a step? Because there is nothing not even the Torah which G-d cherishes more than a Jew.

For a Jew, this makes perfect sense, but for a Christian it is confusing. This is especially true in light of the explanation that the Golden Calf incident is attributed largely to the Gentile “converts” to Judaism, casting Gentiles in an untrustworthy light. But if a Jew considers himself God’s first born, a Christian acknowledges the first born of the Creator as ultimately expressed in the person of Jesus Christ:

About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three sukkot – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.)

While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen. –Luke 9:28-36

Simchat TorahWhat this all means, I don’t exactly know. I do know that the Jewish people have always been special to God and they always will be special, even above all the other people of the earth and yes, even above Christianity, those of us among the nations who have chosen to be disciples of the Master.

Even Paul went first to the Jews and only afterward to the Gentiles (Romans 1:16; Romans 2:10), though he was specifically sent as an emissary to the nations. This should be a message for those Christians who tend to get a little full of themselves contemplating the idea that somehow the church has replaced Israel, while ignoring Paul’s warning in Romans 11:24. Indeed, all of Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26).

But while we continue to eat and fellowship and enjoy Shemini Atzeret, this “extra” day of Sukkot, we are about to be escorted out of the hall and politely asked to leave the party, for Simchat Torah is a private affair between the Jews and God. The last day of the great celebration is limited to a very special people who have, above all the nations, endured extreme hardship and suffering for the sake of keeping God’s Torah and His Shabbat when the rest of the world was wallowing in pools of pagan savagery.

Waiting to danceHow then can the rest of us, though we know God is right, console ourselves as we stand on the outside of God’s special and unique love, looking in? How can we watch the dancing around the synagogue with the Torah while we sit alone in the dark? Only by remembering this and knowing that we are not completely rejected because of God’s love for the Jews.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. –John 3:16

There are many kinds of barriers: Those from within and those from without. Barriers between people. Barriers that prevent you from doing good things.

Barriers of your own mind and your own hesitations. There are the barriers that exist simply because you are a limited being.

Joy breaks through all barriers.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Joy Unleashed”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Someday, we will be asked to dance as well.