Emor: Favorable Light

The Rambam writes: (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos De’os 5:1.) “Just as a wise man can be recognized through his wisdom and his character traits, for in these he stands apart from the rest of the people, so too, he should be recognized in his conduct.”

The Rambam’s intent is that the Jewish approach to knowledge must be more than theoretical. Instead, a person’s knowledge must shape his character, and more importantly, influence his behavior. This is what distinguishes him as wise.

Among the types of conduct mentioned by the Rambam as appropriate for a wise man is refined speech, as he continues: (Ibid.: 7) “A Torah scholar should not shout or shriek while speaking…. Instead, he should speak gently to all people…. He should judge all men in a favorable light, speaking his colleague’s praise, and never mentioning anything that is shameful to him.”

The wording employed by the Rambam “judging… in a favorable light” and “never mentioning anything that is shameful” imply that a Torah scholar may recognize faults within a colleague’s character. Even so, he will “speak his colleague’s praise.” When speaking to his colleague privately, he may patiently and gently rebuke him for his conduct. (See ibid., 6:7.) But when speaking to others and when viewing his colleague in his own mind he will think and speak favorably of him.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
“Inspiring Light”
from In the Garden of Torah
Commentary on Emor

I doubt I could be classified as a “wise man” and certainly not a “Torah scholar,” but it seems as if the Rambam (Rabbi Mosheh Ben Maimon) is offering advice that should be attended to by any reasonable and prudent person. Unfortunately, the Rambam didn’t anticipate the Internet and blogging and I’m sure if he could have access to the web today and review some of the religious commentaries present (including mine), he’d be appalled.

Recently, my friend Gene Shlomovich posted a blog article called Crisis? A Jewish husband believes that Jesus is the Messiah but not G-d (oh, and if you decide to visit his blog and join the debate, please be polite and considerate). The basic issue is that a woman sent an email (I’m not sure if it was originally to Gene or not) saying that her Jewish husband has come to faith in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, but he does not accept the traditional Christian teaching that Jesus is one part of the Godhead and is God himself in living flesh.

Naturally for a Christian woman, this is of some concern (and probably most Christians reading this will be equally upset). Here;s the question: is the Jewish man who believes Jesus is Messiah but not God “saved?”

Gene asks this question (which is by definition, emotionally charged within the community of believers) as dispassionately as possible, and his interactions with people responding to his question have been measured, calm, and thoughtful. Most people responding have been pretty reasonable too, given the nature of the conversation. It hasn’t been absolutely smooth sailing, though:

Commentor 1: Did you know that the ancient Jewish followers of Yeshua Did not believe that Yeshua was G-d in the flesh?

Commentor 2 in response to 1: The original followers of Yeshua, his disciples, bowed down and worshiped him. Matthew 14. Either that’s idolatry, or Yeshua is God.

There were later groups like the Ebionites who rejected Messiah’s divinity. They also rejected Paul’s writings, and some of the gospels. Your case is weak, and not a few who have taken that path have ended up as apostates.

Gene in response to Commentor 2: You don’t have to constantly, over and over, threaten people with a boogie man of apostasy just to make your point. Over its history, Christendom has excommunicated (or worse) countless followers of Yeshua and branded them as apostates over slightest doctrinal differences. That’s why we have over 43K Christian denominations today, many condemning each other to hell. Some, perhaps many of them, would no doubt consider your Gentiles-must-observe-Mosaic-Torah beliefs as some sort of neo-Galatian heresy and would consider you as a hell-bound grace-forfeited apostate.

OK, no one is being terribly rude, but as I was reading the above-quoted commentary on this week’s Torah portion, I was wondering what Rambam would think of the transaction (the tone, not necessarily the content). Can we judge each other in “a favorable light” and still disagree, particularly on important points of theology and doctrine? Gene says the failure to treat each other favorably within the body of the Messiah has resulted in that body being fractured into over 43,000 different denominations. That’s a lot of different pieces. Imagine taking a rock and throwing it as hard as you can at a large, beautiful, pristine pane of glass. Imagine what will be left over after the rock has done its job and you’ve gone scurrying off to elude the police.

Christianity is fractured and I stand with the myriad pieces scattered around my feet declaring a “Humpty Dumpty-esque” message about the impossibility of the church’s reconstruction.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall;
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King’s horses
And all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again!

And speaking of Kings:

I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” –Luke 18:8 (ESV)

Will the King be able to put our “humpty dumpty” church back together again? It’s assumed that he can and he will and after all, that’s his main job: to perform tikkun olam in a broken world and for a broken church.

To continue Rabbi Touger’s commentary:

The above concepts relate to our Torah reading, which is called Emor. Emor is a command, telling one to speak. In the context of the Torah reading, this command has an immediate application: to communicate laws pertaining to the priesthood. Nevertheless, the fact that this term is used as the name of the reading indicates a wider significance: A person must speak.

And yet, we find our Sages counseling: “Say little,” (Pirkei Avos 1:16.) and “I… did not find anything better for one’s person than silence,” (Ibid.: 17.) implying that excessive speech is not desirable. Nor can we say that the charge emor refers to the commandment to speak words of Torah, for there is an explicit command, (Deuteronomy 6:7.) “And you shall speak of them,” encouraging us to proliferate the Torah’s words. Instead, emor refers to speaking about a colleague’s virtues, as explained above.

If speaking little is the mark of a wise man and scholar, then the blogosphere is contains an immense lack of wisdom and knowledge. Yet, in the view of Rambam, when we speak, we are to speak words of Torah (Christians can mentally translate that into “the Bible”) and to illuminate the Word of God by telling it. We have two ways to use our tongues:

And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. –James 3:6-9 (ESV)

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. –1 Thessalonians 5:11-15 (ESV)

The latter sounds a lot like the advice of Rambam for wise men and Torah scholars. It also sounds a lot like good advice for us. Yet we tend toward the former, more’s the pity.

Woman in fireI’m not saying we shouldn’t speak out when we disagree on important matters, but that when doing so, we should also “judge all men in a favorable light, speaking his colleague’s praise, and never mentioning anything that is shameful to him.” That’s a tall order for many religious people who feel they have a right to be confrontational, harsh, rude, and even condemning based on the outspokenness of Jesus and Paul in the Bible, as if any of us can approach the merit of Paul, let alone that of Jesus (perhaps another example of paying attention to one small piece of scripture to the exclusion of the rest of the Bible).

The tongue is fire and it is poison. We use it to bless God and to curse our neighbor and fellow believers. We are called to truth and to shun lies, but can we do so without “personalizing conflict?” I believe it’s possible, though not particularly common. But if we intend to obey the new commandment of the Master to love one another (John 13:34), then we have to start somewhere. This is particularly difficult for anyone who blogs because of the temptation to respond when someone is wrong on the Internet. Nevertheless, the purpose of studying the Word of God is not to “lord it over” those who we disagree with, but to encourage others and to share the blessings of God.

In the holy Zohar it is written that through the study of the secret wisdom, the final liberation will come with compassion. Not with judgment alone.

Now the wisdom is no longer secret. Sages and masters have found ways to make it accessible to all. Those who learn it and spread it, they are bringing divine compassion and redemption to the world.

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

Good Shabbos.


6 thoughts on “Emor: Favorable Light”

  1. I continue to appreciate your thoughtful commentaries. Whether I agree with everything or not is irrelevant to me…It is a refreshing and enriching experience to be able to consider a variety of thoughts that sometimes differ from your own when they are offered in such a thoughtful, calm and genuine manner. Well done!

  2. Thanks, Eric.

    Of course, I realize we aren’t always going to agree on everything, but the purpose of my blog is to communicate and try to participate in helping people understand one another. The blogosphere can be such a volatile environment. But as different as we all are in relation to one another, there is One God and if we choose to obey Him, then we will listen to His commands and try to come together at the foot of His Throne.


  3. I find it interesting that Jesus rarely corrected people about their theology or even made a huge deal about how he himself was perceived. That’s remarkable considering that he must have encountered Jews from all sorts of sects and with all sorts of beliefs. He knew that people didn’t get him and didn’t understand G-d, even the most learned among his followers and listeners. Instead, Jesus focused on the practical ramifications of people’s beliefs – how and if what they believed affected their actions, treatment of others and view of themselves.

    Good post, James. Have a restful Shabbat.

  4. Very good post brother. You have exemplified the principle, that the spirit of Messiah is to set free captives, To heal, help, teach, and remove stumblingblocks. To live peaceably with all, with as much zeal and dedication as is humanly possible. To offer up ourselves as a living sacrifice, as opposed to offering up the bodies of those who do not hold with the tenets of our faith.

    May the G-d of unity bless and keep you and yours,

    In shalom,

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