Sailing Toward the World’s Edge

worlds-edgeSometimes the sages tell us, “This wisdom is out of bounds. This contains truth for which you are not yet ready.”

If the soul is intact, it will thirst all the more to attain that wisdom. In truth, that is the inner reason we are told such things.

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

When someone asked the Korban Nesanel, zt”l, whether he should make a brochah when doing shiluach hakein, he replied that he should not. “The reason why is obvious: maybe the egg or eggs are inedible. As we find in Chullin 140 there is no mitzvah to do shiluach hakein on such an egg. It follows that we cannot make a brochah on this mitzvah.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
“Blessing the Mitzvah”
Chullin 140

Generally in this blog, but especially in the last two blog posts, I’ve been trying to filter Jewish Rabbinic learning through a Gentile Christian understanding. Most of the time, I believe that Christians must struggle with Judaism in some manner or fashion in order to gain a better insight into our faith and our Savior. I believe there is a dimension to be explored that, if we dare enter, will provide a form of illumination into who we are as disciples of the Master that otherwise would completely escape us.

Of course there is the other side of the coin. As Rabbi Freeman suggests, perhaps there is a “wisdom…out of bounds” for us, a boundary that we should not cross, a road that we should not travel, even though it cruelly beckons us.

I don’t know.

Part of my frustration is that I lack the essential educational and cultural foundation to truly do justice to the path I’ve selected. As has become abundantly clear, there is so much I do not know, not only at the level of education, but of experience and identity. Although I seriously doubt I see the world the way most other Christians see it, I also am incapable of seeing the world the way most Jews see it. I deliberately inserted a small paragraph from the Daf on Chullin 140 to illustrate this point.

But if the story of religious Judaism as transmitted in the Bible cannot be comprehended by Gentile Christians, then what the heck are we doing here and why are we reading it? Most churches and Christianity as a whole have refactored the Bible to make it transmit a wholly non-Jewish message and that message, for the most part, is extremely comfortable to most Gentile believers. It speaks our language which is certainly not Hebrew or Aramaic and it offers us a picture we can conveniently wrap our brains and feelings around with little or no effort.

Once you start deconstructing the story of the Bible back to its original language, context, and people, that message becomes increasingly alien to us. We blink our eyes a few times and discover once familiar terrain has become unrecognizable, incomprehensible, and even frightening. A 21st century Gentile Christian suddenly caught on the other side of the Bible, hundreds or thousands of years in the past, among a foreign people, trying to cope with strange customs, and a virtually encrypted language is totally removed from understanding the people of the Bible and hasn’t the vaguest idea how to approach God. Even the safe and loving Jesus Christ becomes Yeshua ben Yosef, whose face, voice, and demeanor are completely at odds with our “meek and mild” Savior. Just how strange would he appear to us and, to the degree that he rarely spoke with non-Jews, if we could understand him, what would he say to us, if anything at all?

So what are we doing here, why do we read the Bible, and especially, why do we attempt to understand where it came from and who the people inhabiting its pages really were as flesh and blood human beings? Should we attempt to know them? Can we really know them?

Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death. –Genesis 24:67 (JPS Tanakh)

Isaac took his bride into his mother’s tent. All this time Sarah’s tent had been empty and forlorn, symbolizing the absence of the eishet chayil (virtuous wife). The Torah portion began the story of Rebekah by telling us of the death of Sarah. Since his mother’s death, Isaac had been in mourning. He keenly felt her absence. Isaac taking his bride into Sarah’s tent symbolizes Rebekah stepping into Sarah’s role as matriarch over the house of Abraham. In the language of the rabbis, Rebekah became the house of Isaac.

“Love and Marriage”
Commentary on Parasha Chayei Sarah

here-there-be-dragonsThis is where a Christian can intersect with the ancient Jewish universe, understand what is going on, and learn what it is for a person to interact with God. Who couldn’t understand grief at the loss of a mother, loneliness, and the need to be comforted? How many of us who depend on God have come to realize that we also need to hold onto a living, breathing human being when we are troubled or in distress? In this, is it so hard to understand Isaac and what he was going through at that moment?

But there is that rather mysterious and puzzling question about “whether a person should make a brochah when doing shiluach hakein.” Attempting to force some of the very human lessons of the Bible into a framework made up of Mishnah, Talmud, and Gemara may be a case, at least for me, of my reach exceeding my grasp. I may long to understand the “Jewish condition” and believe that it can be applied to the much larger context of human beings and our desire to encounter God, but longing for a thing does not make it occur nor does that longing even make it possible.

I’ve mentioned this before, but my wife has told me on several occasions that there is a perspective and thought process shared by people who were born and raised in a Jewish cultural, religious, and ethnic context that is fundamentally different from how people operate who come from other contexts. In that sense, it’s amazing any Jew and Christian can talk to each other at all, even though we may have the English language in common. I suppose I’m overstating my point, but with good reason. While I still think that shared knowledge is good and that there is a wisdom Christians can glean from Jewish education on some level, I’m starting to wonder where the limit of that journey lies. In ancient times, people believed that there was an edge to the world and mariners who sailed too far away from safe and familiar shores risked being lost forever as they fell endlessly down into the mists of the unknown. While we now know this “danger” is completely untrue, in a past centuries gone, those otherwise brave and daring men would experience fear and horror while contemplating that part of the map that declared, “Here there be dragons!”

I’m sure there are Jewish people in the world who, from their perspective, rightfully desire to limit Gentile access to Jewish learning. Should a Ger Toshav study the laws pertaining to the Kohen Gadol? Is it proper for a Christian who worships oto ha’ish as God and man to sit in at a “Talmud 101” class taught by a Rabbi at the local Chabad? From my point of view, if there is a line I should not cross or a barrier I should respect and not transverse, I don’t know where it is. In the violent mists and roar of the waters pouring over the vastness of the world’s edge, I cannot see it or hear it. One can only find “world’s end” by sailing across it and then, when it’s finally too late, declaring, “I’ve gone too far.”

Or we can simply turn our tiny wooden vessel around and head for safe harbor.

I’m not inclined to do that right now, but the day may come when I will have to revisit that option. Until then, I’m letting the wind take me to places not on my map and trying to draw a chart of currents, islands, and shoals I don’t always recognize. Even imagining they seem familiar, I am sometimes told by those who live there that I have my map upside down and my picture is askew.

Each pull at the oars takes me someplace I’ve never been before and each gust of wind pushes me into mysterious territory. What will I find and will I even understand what I’m looking at when I arrive? I don’t know, yet I’m driven to continue the journey, dangerous though it may be, until I either finally understand this strange book I hold in my hands or admit that it was written by and for men who are from a different world and always will be. Then I’ll either return to more familiar environs, where ever they may be found, or let myself sail over the edge of the world and discover if I will fly or drown.


6 thoughts on “Sailing Toward the World’s Edge”

  1. James, it is worse in my generation than in yours. Your generation has a cursory, if non-Jewish, familiarity with the Bible. My generation does not. Today in my upper-level college English class, when discussing possible links between a character in a novel named Aaron and the Biblical Aaron, many of the people in the room had no idea who Aaron is. And understanding Aaron in proper context is well beyond that. I am in the odd position of being raised completely out of the church, yet having the greatest personal interest in these things. I want to spend every day of my life wrestling with its meaning.

  2. Except for some Orthodox zealots, I doubt most Jews see your pursuit of understanding of all things Jewish as a bad thing. Every Judaically-informed non-Jew makes the world better for Israel. But they wrongly opine that “oto ha-ish” is idolatrous and incompatible with the Torah.

  3. Probably so, Andrew but I know the question has come up before. Tomorrow’s “morning meditation” will be an extension of today’s with a (more or less) resolution to the question, at least for now.

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