The Man Without a Face

The source of all illness is the lovesickness of the soul. She yearns to return to her Beloved Above, and so is repulsed by the human form, her prison of pain.

Two things, then, must be repaired, and body and soul will be healed:

The human body must open itself to become a holy temple for the Infinite G-d who desires it for His dwelling. The soul must learn to discover the Infinite G-d from within this human form, the place where He most desires to dwell.

-Maamar Ani Hashem Rof’echa
as referenced by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Love Sickness”
Chabad.org

That’s an interesting statement coming from an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi, since the idea of the human body being a Temple for the Spirit of God is such a Christian concept, going all the way back to Acts 2. And yet, as I mentioned recently, the concept of each Jew being a container for the Divine Presence (which probably isn’t the same as the Holy Spirit, but what do I know) is also very Jewish.

This brings to mind what I’ve heard in some Christian “advertisements” recently: (the tale of “the church meets Madison Avenue” isn’t exactly new, more’s the pity) Christianity: it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship. This implies that only through Christianity can a person have a “personal relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ,” and thereby, God. Do I catch a hint of supersessionism in this assumption? Where in the New Testament does it say that through Jesus, we enter into a personal relationship of any kind, or that such a relationship is unique to the modern disciples of Christ?

But I get it. Christianity is continuing to correct what I have recognized as something of a flaw. It’s trying to build an identity.

I suppose I’m overstating my point. Christianity has a very recognizable identity in the world. If I were to walk up to just about anyone and say, “I’m a Christian,” no matter who they were, they’d immediately come up with some sort of idea as to what being a Christian means. Some of those ideas are pretty dismal, but it’s not like anyone would respond, “What does that mean?”

However, my problem with Christianity is my identity as a Christian. To me, the Christian identity seems incomplete and poorly defined. Maybe one of the reasons I’m somewhat attracted to Judaism is that, by comparison, the life of a religious Jew is very well-defined, depending on the branch of Judaism to which he subscribes. The Torah and Talmudic rulings contain a great deal of identifying information that defines the day-to-day role of a Jew among his people, within society, and in relation to God. For the Christian, who has grace in place of the Torah, the definition is rather anemic by comparison. The “freedom” a Christian has in Christ allows for a great deal of latitude, perhaps too much in some cases. Also, in order for that freedom to exist, Christianity must remove the definition the Torah provides for the Jewish people. For most Christians, in order for Christ to live, Judaism must die, and historically this has meant the Jewish people must die with it, either physically or through conversion and assimilation.

But I don’t believe in that definition of Christianity. It would make absolutely no sense for Jesus, Peter, James, and later, Paul, Titus, and Timothy to promote and support a sect of Judaism that was self-annihilating. By “creating” a religious expression that was expressly anti-Jewish and then exporting it to the non-Jewish nations, the Jewish Apostles would be virtually guaranteeing the complete destruction of their way of life, the Jewish religious devotion to God, and every single lesson that was taught by the Jewish Messiah, their Master.

Why would they do that?

The answer is, they didn’t. They couldn’t have.

So where did he go? Where did the original Jesus disappear to? Why can’t we find him in the churches and in the Christian Bible studies?

I said before that Christianity has a very recognizable and robust identity. I didn’t say it was the same identity that the very first non-Jewish disciples had as they embraced the teachings of the Jewish Sage from Natzaret. If I could sit down with Cornelius (see Acts 10), even for one hour, and talk to him (assuming we had a language in common), what could he tell me about being a Gentile disciple of the Master? What world could he show me that has since been lost to antiquity? What portrait of discipleship could he paint? What tapestry of holiness could he weave?

Jesus once asked in lament, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8 ESV) I ask, when he returns, will he find a faith in God among the church that he even recognizes? Is what we teach in the church even remotely associated with what he taught in either content or intent? And will the Gentile Christian church even recognize a fully Jewish Rabbi and Messiah when he returns looking for some remnant of his people among Israel and even in the nations? I wonder if we’ll just miss each other in the crowd? Jesus will be too Jewish for the church and Christians will be too anti-Judaism to be recognized as disciples of the Jewish Messiah. “And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Matthew 7:23 ESV)

I suppose my big problem is that I need to open myself up to the infinite God and become a living Temple for His Presence. Then I must learn to recognize that Presence within this marred and imperfect man of flesh and blood. It sounds simple, but it is enormously complex. I have to disagree with the Christian “marketing department” and say that Christianity is a religion, but it is one whose face is unrecognizable to me. The face of the church looks imperfect, or even sometimes absent altogether, as I search for the face of my Master on its walls and in its sanctuaries. Thus, as a self-professed Christian, I too am a man without a face, searching in the mirror for something I recognize as human and more than human.

Religion is the interface by which we encounter God. Put in terms that might be a little more “Christian-friendly,” it’s the interface by which we build our relationship with God. It’s the lessons and the conditions and rituals and theologies that create the structure in which we can live out a life of faith. Most people don’t climb a mountain through uncharted territory. Instead, we follow the trails that have been created by those who went before us. In some cases, we create our own trails, but we must be careful that they lead up into the light rather than down into the thousand, thousand pits of darkness that are waiting to accept the unwary and the foolish.

I am following what I believe is the right trail for me, but I am alone. Few, if any, have used this particular path. I suppose I could allow myself the small conceit of believing that I am progressing through the narrow gate. The wide gate is easy and many travel through it, but that’s not the course the Master has recommended. (Matthew 7:13-14)

But then, that could just be a conceit and an excuse as to why I find no companions with me on my journey. It is said that, in all of our roles as disciples, one happens to be as “living sacrifices.” (Romans 12:1) But aren’t sacrifices supposed to be without blemish? I feel anything but unblemished.

The Rav of Tchechnov taught a very practical lesson from a halachic principle brought on today’s daf. “Our sages explain from the verse that only a sacrifice which is unblemished may be offered on the altar.” The rebbe began to weep as he said, “It would appear that we do not fulfill the mitzvah of selfsacrifice while saying shema yisrael each day. Clearly if a person sins he is likened to a blemished sacrifice which is not accepted on high.”

But a moment later the rebbe strengthened himself and joyously exclaimed, “But a temporary blemish does not disqualify a sacrifice. Clearly, when it comes to a Jew, a sin is no more than a temporary blemish since he can do teshuvah. In Kiddushin we find that if a wicked person marries a woman on condition that he is righteous, there is a doubt whether the marriage takes effect. Perhaps he repented for a moment, in which case he was a tzaddik and they are married. We see that one who repents is immediately considered to be a tzaddik.”

The Meor Einayim, zt”l, writes similarly, that one who does not believe that he can become a baal teshuvah by doing teshuvah in an instant hasn’t yet done a true teshuvah!

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“A Temporary Blemish”
Temurah 7

I’ve had it pointed out to me before, that it is uncertain at best, just how far a Christian can apply the teachings of the Jewish sages to a life of faith in Christ, but I have to try, even if I fail completely. There’s just too much “overlap” between Jewish and Christian concepts, in spite of what I said earlier, to ignore the possibility that we who are Gentile disciples can learn from a Jewish template. After all, it is from an ancient version of that template that men such as the Roman Cornelius first learned to love the God of Israel. If he could find a place for himself in that world, then why can’t I? Because the church forbids it? Because the synagogue won’t accept it? If the original Messianic faith of those like Cornelius is lost, then so am I. But I can’t give up trying to become, even momentarily, unblemished. For only in that state, may I be allowed to seek to touch, however briefly, the hem of the garment of the lover of my soul. Without that hope, I have nothing and I am nothing. And when I look in the mirror, the man I see has no face and he, and I, am no one.

For my world is hollow, but I must touch the sky.

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9 thoughts on “The Man Without a Face”

  1. You are not the only odd-shaped peg out there for which there is no corresponding hole 🙂 After more than a quarter of a century treading these dusty paths, I still see Yeshua as that surprising Israeli brother coming up through the Galil, with profound illumination, Hebraic genius and wit… My hubby and I write a weekly commentary that you may (or may not 🙂 enjoy that reflects a bit of the tension found in our partnership–he a former Baptist Pastor/Navy Chaplain/Dallas Theo Sem type … and then there’s ME! Our weekly creative sessions resemble the most passionate yeshiva–with the added excitement of me throwing pots and pans (not really, just in my mind sometimes. 🙂 Seriously, however, we both grieve over the level of apathy to Israel and the Jewish People (at best) and the ease with which supersessionism/anti-Israelism/Palestinian Liberation Christianity (what on earth is that?!) is swallowed whole among the majority of those who claim to be believers.
    Lord bless you, James. So enjoy your writing. Chazak, chazak! Sarah

  2. James is the name of my husband. and now the name of my son. This, after we said that we would not use family names for our children. But I held him in my arms, and as a couple, we decided that it would be an honour for us if he could carry the name forward, on our behalf.

  3. That’s exactly the story my mother tells about me, Ros. My father is named “James” and another name was picked out for me, but I was her first child and when she held me in her arms… The rest is history.

    1. This is why I feel that it is not always right to name a child before it is born into the world. The birth, itself, can often change the life and character of the baby. There are just too many factors to consider before you decide. How people know that they are carrying a ‘Brandy’ (sorry, no offence) when they are only 4 months’ pregnant, is beyond me.

  4. No offense taken. I find it rather interesting that people’s names often describe their personalities, but was this determined by the child being named or, in some inexplicable manner, did God cause the child to be named appropriately by the parents, even before it is born? Who’s to say?

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