Encountering Differences

differencesThe Talmud says, “Precious is the human being who was created in the image of G-d. And an even greater sign of this preciousness is that man was informed that he was created in G-d’s image.”

-Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf
“Freedom and Self Awareness”

Don’t be afraid of the other person because he is different from you. There is far more in common between any two human beings than there are differences.

As for the differences, think of them as the hooks that hold us together.
Differences are that which we have most in common.

(The Rebbe was talking to children and discussing relationships between Jews and non-Jews).

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

I was wondering how I’d start off writing about what was on my mind today and Rabbi Freeman handed me the answer in my email inbox. This theme of “differences” has been coming up a lot lately. As most of you who read my blog regularly know, my post on an openly gay Orthodox Rabbi performing a same-sex wedding ceremony has attracted a lot of attention and many comments. What’s really interesting is that the conversation shifted from the primary topic to Orthodox Judaism in general. Add to the mix Derek Leman’s Torah Fundamentals blog series which compares Christian (or Gentile Messianic depending on your perspective) and Jewish differences in how the Torah is read and understood, and a whole “can of worms” is opened up and spewed all over the place. The “Messianic” movement is the intersection where Christianity and Judaism tries to meet and integrate, which is sort of like taking the contents of the can and packaging it together again in a new way. However,  like intermarriage (something I’m familiar with), differences don’t always enter the mixing bowl very smoothly and sometimes there are significant bumps, lumps, and bruises involved in the process (and I apologize for mixing my metaphors along with Christians and Jews).

When Rabbi Freeman quoted the Rebbe in his conversation to children about relationships with non-Jews, he offered some hope that there can be a conduit of communication between Judaism and Christianity. I wish I could have heard the entire conversation. I’m sure it would have been inspiring.

I think the Messianic movement, at least for the Gentiles in it and perhaps for some of the Jewish members, believes the “keys” to the “Judaism” in “Messianic Judaism” are held, in part, by the Orthodox. This may or may not be true in any sense, but because the Orthodox live in a manner so distinctive in its Judaism and tradition, many Gentiles see them as “the real Jews” (some Jewish people think that Christians = Catholics and believe that all Christians follow the Pope and consider the Vatican as our “holy city”). In following the comments on last week’s blog post, it became apparent that what most Christians don’t know about Judaism in general and the Orthodox in particular, would fill volumes. That includes those non-Jews in the Messianic community, but Messianic non-Jews can make their lack of knowledge exceedingly apparent because many are trying to live a “Jewish” lifestyle without knowing that much about Jewish lifestyles.

I suppose it’s one of the reasons I don’t currently worship with Messianics on a regular basis and prefer to self-identify as a Christian. I can probably “do” Christianity a little better than I can “Judaism” at this point (though I’m sure I’d stick out like a sore thumb in any church once I started opening my mouth) and as far as me being a Goy is concerned, it’s a little more honest, too.

While Rabbi Freeman’s previous message is very encouraging, he also wrote a message about guiding each person to their own path:

Just as it is a mitzvah to direct someone onto the path where he belongs, so too it is a crime to direct someone onto a path that does not belong to him.

Each person is born with a path particular to his or her soul, generally according to the culture into which he or she was born.

There are universal truths, the inheritance of all of us since Adam and Noah. In them we are all united. But we are not meant to all be the same.

Our differences are as valuable to our Creator as our similarities.

interfaithFor people who are traditionally Christian or people who are traditionally Jewish in their religious and cultural expression, the path that belongs to them may be quite apparent, but for those of us who straddle the line between two worlds (since I’m intermarried) the path where we belong isn’t always very clear. I know in this, Rabbi Freeman would be the first to say that my path should lead me to a church or perhaps back to Noah, but if combined with the idea of making differences live together, and believing that Jesus was and is a Jew, I can’t allow my focus to become that narrow.

I mentioned yesterday that sometimes I have to take time out from this mess, close the books, get away from the computer, and pray. At the point of prayer (and forgive me for saying this), it doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish or Christian or anything else. The moment you move the rest of the world to one side and you authentically engage with God in prayer, it is just you and God. It can be like Jacob wrestling with the angel in that we struggle with God to understand who we are, who God is (we may even ask His Name), and what we are supposed to be doing. We cling to God and in that embrace demand, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” (Genesis 32:27). The mechanics of how we pray and the manner in which we conceptualize God may differ depending on whether we are Christian or Jewish, but the need to connect with God and even to contend with Him is universal.

I have been questioning lately where to find wisdom and insight into God in relation to the traditional Jewish texts but here too, there is an answer and a truth, as expressed by Rabbi Freeman, that we can all consume.

Truth can come from anywhere—there is nothing that does not have its truth. Because, without a spark of truth, nothing can exist. Not even falseness.

Therefore, the wise man is he who knows how to learn truth from every person and discover the truth of each thing.

Different religious traditions and different people groups understand themselves and God in varied ways. Sometimes one group will watch the ways of another and respond by being puzzled, confused, or even appalled. Each group thinks they have the corner market on the best way to pray, do good deeds, worship, and even eat and dress. Yet we were all created in the image of God and despite our obvious differences, that image is the universal link between man and man and between man and God.

13 thoughts on “Encountering Differences”

  1. “This may or may not be true in any sense, but because the Orthodox live in a manner so distinctive in its Judaism and tradition, many Gentiles see them as “the real Jews””

    Well, it’s mostly only the Orthodox that are serious about their religion. Even in Conservative Judaism, it’s more the leadership that lives halachickly, the laity much less so. it’s basically just the Orthodox, too, that are preserving Jewish identity over the generations. The average intermarriage rate is 50% outside the Orthodox, and with no offense meant, intermarriage in today’s Western culture is what tends to end Jewish continuity. The gentile partner gravitating toward the religiosity of the Jewish is rare. You have in a big way, though.

  2. I made that statement to illustrate how some non-Jews in the “Messianic” movement are trying to live a sort of Jewish lifestyle without really understanding how it works or what it means. They look at the Orthodox (as you do) as representing “true Judaism” and try to emulate them, but only very selectively. While many Gentiles in “the movement” believe sincerely that they support the Jewish people and Israel, they also live out a sort of Jewish “caricature” life that probably makes ethnic, religious, and cultural Jews cringe.

    If a Gentile Christian is interested, for matters of personal conviction, in taking on some of the mitzvot, they should really, really learn about what they’re doing and be sure *why* they’re doing it, before launching themselves into action. I’ve made plenty of mistakes on along this route and have had to back up considerably so I could gain some of this perspective. I believe that what such a Christian can carry forward from this point is more valuable than whatever they find by just putting on a kippah, a talit gadol, refraining from ham sandwiches, and claiming to be a “spiritual Jew”.

  3. For the record, I don’t think the Orthodox have some special seal of approval from God for being Orthodox, and there’s tons of problems in Orthodox Judaism, too. God is not going to judge Jews by whether they wore a fedora, kept two sinks, or remembered to check their mezuzot often enough. I was more making the practical argument that, more or less, it’s there you find the steadfast devotion to Torah living and the guarantee of Jewish identity for the grandchild generation. I think I share Derek Leman’s ideal of a Judaism that restores the fervor of the prophets with the best of liberal and traditional halakhic practices. But that is not reality yet. Politics still reigns supreme in religion.

  4. “putting on a kippah, a talit gadol, refraining from ham sandwiches, and claiming to be a “spiritual Jew”.”

    And all this is a million times easier and more immediately gratifying that actually wrestling with the intricacies of the Jewish legal tradition (from Mishnah onward) or establishing real-life two-way connections with normative Jewish communities.

  5. And all this is a million times easier and more immediately gratifying that actually wrestling with the intricacies of the Jewish legal tradition (from Mishnah onward) or establishing real-life two-way connections with normative Jewish communities.

    Actually, I find “wrestling with the intricacies of the Jewish legal tradition” to be infinitely more gratifying, frustrating though it can be from time to time.

  6. Since there has been some discussion of the future of Orthodox Judaism in the U.S. on my various blog posts over the past week or so, I thought I’d pass this ynet.com option piece along: Losing My Religion. While the article’s author is criticized in the comments section for presenting only half the story, it’s still an indicator of the struggle of Judaism, as a religion, in Israel. I know this deviates from today’s topic, but I didn’t want to lose track of the conversational thread on Judaism that has been wandering in and out of my blog lately.

  7. Speaking of Mishnah, I just found this: http://emishnah.com/

    Perfect for beginners like me. It’s very brisk, clear, and concise, with lots of helpful commentary integrated right into the translation, so you won’t be scratching your head. Some of it is still unfinished. Now, if I could only find the time. 🙂

  8. That looks very interesting, Andrew. And to quote Scotty who was quoting Kirk at the time (in the film “Star Trek: Generations”), “When something’s important, you make the time.”

  9. Wonderfully engaging & thought provoking as always!
    I see all other sects of Judaism looking at Orthodoxy as, well, Othodoxy. The right way of living. Other branches have just decided it’s too hard to live that way so they make provisions. That’s been my experience. (No, not all Orthodox are “saints”.) No one questions kashurt or shabbat or family purity or how it’s meant to be done. No one question the authority of Oral Torah. Some just decide not to do it all! One other difference between Orthodox & other branches is that Orthodox accept the authority of Rabbis above them. Conservatives have their own board they go to. Reconstructionists consider all views but make descisions in their own communities.
    James, are you basically saying that there IS no middle road, it’s either Christianity or Judaism? I appreciate your thought that when we go to pray, it’s just us & Hashem & that’s what matters. Now to go pray! : )

  10. I don’t know if I’d say that all branches of Judaism believe that the Orthodox do it best and the rest just decide it’s too hard. I think the different branches of Judaism, like different denominations of Christianity, interpret the Bible based on what they believe is the right and moral path. For instance, the Reform branch of Judaism does not believe in discriminating against women by denying them the opportunity for an aliyah to read the Torah. They don’t believe that the Orthodox are more accurate or more in accordance with God when they don’t allow women aliyah. Also, the Reforms don’t adhere to the same view of the authority of the sages as the Orthodox and in fact, the Reform synagogue in our local community has a Ritual committee which decides specific matters of halacha, rather than going by the traditional (Orthodox) interpretation.

    I sometimes tease that ten seconds after Moses brought the Torah down from Sinai, different committees formed among the Children of Israel to decide how to interpret it to best fit the requirements and desires of the people. That’s not a slam against the Children of Israel but rather, a description of how human beings work. We’d all like to think that there is a “pure” Word of God out there somewhere, but if it exists, no human run organization possesses it. The Bible always has been a mix of the inspired and the mundane.

    Is there a middle road between Christianity and Judaism? If so, it’s an uneasy one and it is very difficult to walk upon for very long. It think it’s like being bi-racial. A woman who had a white father and an African-American mother (and who looked predominantly African-American) once told me that you can’t be half-white and half-black. The world won’t allow it. You must choose one culture or the other to adopt and adhere to in order to have a sense of belonging and to allow the world to interact with you using a “stable interface”. Of course it’s more complex than that, but in the end, you have to call yourself something and then decide what sort of values identifies the “something” to which you belong.

    That’s probably one of the BIG challenges for “Messianic Judaism”, especially because it encompasses such a wide variety of individuals, cultures, and people groups. They are still trying to define their face and their voice.

  11. Hi- I very much agree on the analogy of being bi-racial.
    The reason I never mentioned Reform specifically is because I don’t personally have any experience in it. Your point on aliyah is well taken. Even Conservatives allow women up & believe it is ok. But I hear over & over from my Reconstructionist Rabbis that we are supposed to do all the mitzvot, that Orthodox are doing all the mitzvot (ideally) and that’s our goal to reach. So from a conversion standpoint, Orthodox say you have to be observant to convert, Reconstructionist say do you feel ready? They didn’t care about my observance as long as I am “climbing the ladder”. It may just be my experience, but Orthodox are held in high esteem, because they are actually doing it! Then there are the “unobservant Orthodox”. Blagh.

  12. No worries. I removed the duplicate.

    I all of this, the one constant (besides God) that we can depend upon is that human beings will take what the Creator gave us and, with the best of intentions, really mess it up. 😉

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