There is no fight as bitter as a family fight. The bitterness and scars remain long after the incident that may have originally sparked it is long since gone and sometimes even forgotten. Many times the bitterness and hard feelings remain even in generations of descendants of the original antagonists, as though somehow genetically transmitted.
Yosef and his brothers reconcile in this week’s parsha. But the divisions within the Jewish people then and now are apparently never really healed and forgotten. The commentators point out that the rebellions against Moshe in the desert, that of Korach of the tribe of Levi and Zimri of the tribe of Shimon and Datan and Aviram of the tribe of Reuven, are all part of the residue – of the fallout of the tragedy of the disagreement of Yosef and his brothers.
“But Judaism, more than any other major religious tradition, does not see skeptics as second-class citizens. It would be difficult to imagine a committed Christian” (or in my thinking, many “Messianic Gentiles”) “for whom some faith statement about Jesus was not a central religious tenet, or a Muslim openly skeptical about Allah. In that regard, Judaism does not require faith statements as a sign of legitimacy. Judaism does not ask Jews to give up their questions or to deny their doubt. In Jewish spiritual life, faith is not the starting point of the journey. Uncertainty is not the enemy of religious and spiritual growth. Doubt is what fuels the journey.”
-Rabbi Daniel Gordis
“Judaism and Belief in God — Can the Skeptic Embark on the Journey” (pg 44)
God Was Not in the Fire
Sometimes I think I say the same things over and over, or at least periodically recycle various themes in my blogging. The chapter I’m quoting from in Rabbi Gordis’ book talks about the uncertainty we can experience in exploring our faith and Rabbi Wein talks about how family fights can cause the deepest wounds. If you include the “family of faith” and the “body of believers” in that group, then we who profess our faith in Jesus Christ and our trust in God also have the greatest capacity to injure and harm each other. No wonder it is said in Christianity that “the church is the only Army that shoots its own wounded.” In the “wounded” category, I include those individuals and groups who are judged to be involved in pagan idolatry…such as decorating pine trees at Christmas (oh the horror).
Yes, I thought this topic was a long dead horse we were all getting tired of beating but alas, it came up again on a recent blog of Derek Leman’s so once again, it’s “off to the races” of who’s right and who’s wrong in the religious blogosphere.
What kills me about all of this is the drop-dead certainty displayed by the religious pundits who are weighing in on the blog comments. I guess that shouldn’t surprise me because the nature of human beings is to pigeon hole and to index information, then to draw some sort of conclusions from what they’ve gathered, and finally to set those conclusions in cement. Once an opinion puts on the cloak of “absolute truth”, it starts being not just truth but fact.
That’s particularly true in Christianity and Islam, but not quite so in Judaism, according to the aforementioned book by Rabbi Gordis. For a Jew, it’s not required to come to absolute terms with faith and truth. Judaism doesn’t seek a solidified code carved in granite but rather the experience of touching the hem of the garment of God.
In focusing more on “relationship with God” than on “belief in God,” Judaism differs from other Western religious traditions. While some Christian communities urge their followers, “Believe, and you will be saved,” Judaism’s rough equivalent is “Search, and you will find meaning.” Jewish life certainly does not consider God unimportant; God is central to Jewish spirituality. But most of Jewish tradition decided long ago to focus not on essence, but on God’s presence; Judaism seeks not God’s truth, but His closeness. (pg 55)
Rabbi Gordis cites the beautiful poem Yedid Nefesh (Beloved of the Soul) written by Rabbi Eleazar Azikri in the 16th century. This poem can still be found in many Siddurim today and is sung to illustrate the desperate longing of a Jew to draw nearer to his God.
Beloved of the soul, Compassionate Father,
draw Your servant to Your Will;
then Your servant will hurry like a hart
to bow before Your majesty;
to him Your friendship will be sweeter
than the dripping of the honeycomb and any taste.
This, more than anything, is the goal and the passion of the observant Jew and where many non-Jews in the “Messianic” movement fail to grasp even the faintest glimmer of what it is to worship as a Jew. The passion for many of these non-Jewish “Messianics” as in the church, is to establish an absolute right and wrong between men, as if God were of secondary concern in the matter. As long as all of the “rules” are pounded out, then we let our relationship with God take care of itself.
For many Gentiles who have chosen to adhere themselves to the commandments, it’s as if the mitzvot have taken on a life of their own, independent of a relationship with God. Yedid Nefesh sings to the heart of God and beckons him as a lover beckons her companion, and love is the thread that binds them and their universe together. The mitzvot are the beginning of the relationship, allowing the construction of an “interface” that lets us meet with God, our beloved, on a common ground and permits us to give Him the “gifts” of our heart, not mere obedience to sterile and lifeless rules. Those commandments are not the relationship itself, and yet for the many who have come to “Torah awareness” but failed at “Torah understanding”, the rules are all they have.
I admit, there are some who never get past obeying God’s “checklist” as their only means of showing faith and devotion, but if the checklist becomes a god unto itself in their lives, is that not also idolatry? If you fail to show your fellow love and respect as God shows us love and respect, what have you learned and what is your “obedience” worth? The Talmud speaks of Jews who showed idol worshipers far more respect than what some believers show their brothers and sisters in Christ. I’ll offer a summary of what I previously chronicled to paint this picture.
“[it is proper to] support the idol worshippers during the sabbatical year… and to inquire after their welfare [commentators: even on the days of the holidays of their idols, even if they do not keep the seven Noahide commandments] because of the ways of peace.” (Shevi’it 4,3)
The rabbis taught: ‘We support poor Gentiles with the poor people of Israel, and we visit sick Gentiles as well as the sick of Israel and we bury the dead of the Gentiles as well as the dead of Israel, because of the ways of peace.” (Gitin 61a)
Kidushin 32 contains descriptions of the manner in which our sages honored and respected the elderly. The passage specifically refers to elderly gentiles who were honored in various fashions by the sages.
In TY Baba Metzia there are a number of descriptions of sages going out of their way to return lost objects to gentiles (Elu Metziot).
Tosefta BK 10,8: “.. it is more grievous to steal from a gentile because of the desecration of G-d’s name ..”
Tosefta BM 2,11: “.. one who sees a lost donkey of an idol worshipper must take care of it exactly the way he takes care of the lost donkey of an Israelite ..”
At Avoda Zara 18a the Talmud relates the remarkable story of how a Roman guard of one of the sages who was brutally murdered by the Romans repented. It was made known to the sages that the guard and the sage were welcomed to the World to Come together.
At Hullin 7a there is a report of how the sage Pinchas ben Yair miraculously split a river in order to speed his way to carry out the commandment to redeem captives. He went out of his way to split the river again in order to allow a gentile who was accompanying his group to also cross the river to speed his way.
None of this says to emulate the ways of the idol worshiper, but to show him the compassion that God shows anyone made in His image. Would some of the “righteous” among those who speak against the practice of Christmas treat a neighbor who goes to church and puts up Christmas lights even half as graciously as the sages say a Jew must treat a pagan Gentile?
The lesson thus far shows that we cannot be absolutely sure of our understanding of God and His ways, though we do our best, and further, that even if we feel sure, this does not give us a license to batter those with whom we disagree. Nevertheless, referring back to some of the comments on Derek’s blog (and many other places in the blogosphere, including the latest commentary on Judah Himango’s blog), we see some very “non-Judaism” responses to the dread spectre of “paganoia”.
Rabbi Dixler’s commentary on Vayigash at Project Genesis further establishes my point.
Rather, concludes the Midrash, Joseph’s overriding concern was for his brother’s dignity. When they discovered that they had severely erred in their judgment of Joseph and his dreams, that they had put their father through 22 torturous years of mourning for naught, they would certainly not want to be in the public eye. Joseph selflessly risked his life for the sake of his brothers’ dignity.
It’s a powerful message to us. Our culture glorifies the embarrassment of others; recorded gaffes and insults to those in the public eye go viral on youtube, and biting one-line remarks make up a good portion of today’s humor. Magazines whose sole purpose is gossip — usually of the least complimentary kind — abound. Where has the respect for human dignity gone?
How many times have I tried to make this point in the last few weeks? How many blog posts have I written about a religious world with unbalanced priorities where we have all but forgotten about God in our zeal to expose people who put pine wreaths on their front doors (how dare they)? There is so much more I could say, but what would be the point. It’s as if my pleas for sanity and compassion are falling on deaf ears. If only those who profess faith and trust in the One God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and who claim to revere the teachings of the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, would actually behave as God would want them to behave. If only they actually did the things they were taught to do by the Master. If you want to impress anyone (though not me, because I am but dust and ashes), particularly God, feed the hungry, visit the sick, show compassion to the widow and the orphan. If you cherish those mitzvot above all else, you will be doing the will of God and serving the spirit of the companion of your soul.