God as a Teacher

Talmud StudyThe metaphor of God as teacher and human beings as His pupils, a metaphor that gains prominence in the rabbinic period, is also an apt means of describing the covenantal relationship. God as teacher encourages His pupils to think for themselves and assume intellectual responsibility for the way Torah is to be understood and practiced. The fact that the rabbis not only declared that the age of prophecy had ended, but insisted also that the talmudic sage ranked higher than the prophet, seems to suggest that the community has a higher appreciation of its covenantal relationship to God when it sees Him as its teacher than when it sees Him as an authoritarian voice dictating His will through the prophets.

God as a loving husband and the devoted teacher do not require reward and punishment to play a significant role in the covenantal relationship. They are not frameworks of absolute power of one covenantal partner over the other, but frameworks in which the integrity of both partners is recognized and the human partner is enabled to feel personal dignity and to develop the capabilities of responsibility.

-Rabbi David Hartman
from the Introduction of his book
A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism

Are you a God-fearing man, Senator? That is such a strange phrase. I’ve always thought of God as a teacher; a bringer of light, wisdom, and understanding.

-Erik Lehnsheer/Magneto (played by Ian McKellen)
X-Men (2000)

I just did two strange and different things, at least from a Christian point of view. I used Rabbi Hartman’s quote to describe God as primarily a teacher, and I quoted a comic book movie to do the same thing. Strange. Interestingly enough, the character of Eric (Magneto) Lehnsheer is portrayed as a Jewish Holocaust survivor, so his perspectives may have a place in today’s “meditation.”

It’s not as if Judaism doesn’t see God as a Judge, but He is not only a Judge (and I need to be careful here, since I’ve mischaracterized aspects of Judaism before). The Bible is replete with “marriage metaphors” in which God is portrayed as a loving husband to a sometimes faithless Israel. While this metaphor is occasionally used by Christianity to justify the supersessionist view that the church (the loyal wife) has replaced Israel (the faithless wife), in fact, God has also said that He will take back Israel when she turns back to Him and that He will never permanently abandon her.

However, I’m less interested in discussing the topic of supersessionism and more interested in exploring God as our teacher. As Rabbi Hartman seems to say, this casts God in a completely different light than the one by which we are accustomed to viewing Him. It also nicely fits into how Judaism sees the role of human authority within the realm of faith. I continue now with Hartman as he speaks in his book’s Introduction.

When Christian ministers ask me at what age or on what occasion I received my calling as a rabbi, I often find myself hesitating over how to respond. If I answer it began when I entered yeshivah at age five to study Bible and Talmud, they might believe that I am likening myself to Jeremiah, who received his prophetic calling as a child. If I tell them that I never received a calling but was ordained after my teachers concluded that I was intellectually capable of rendering competent decisions regarding what is prohibited and permitted by Jewish law, they might be shocked at meeting a modern version of a Pharisee. They could perhaps find confirmation for the allegation that legalism had replaced the living guidance of God.

…Yet, as a traditional halakhic Jew, I know that a rabbi is a teacher whose spiritual role is premised on possession of an intellectual understanding of the Jewish tradition and commitment to the Jewish people. A direct call from God is not required to legitimize activity as a rabbi in Israel.

I can only imagine that the confusion Rabbi Hartman expects of the Christian ministers he references is reflected in the minds and hearts of any Christians reading this missive. Indeed, Judaism is often seen as a legalistic, works-based, and spiritually “dead” faith for exactly the reasons Rabbi Hartman states. And yet he also says that a “rabbi is a teacher whose spiritual role is premised on possession of an intellect understanding of the Jewish tradition,” presupposing that rabbis actually have spiritual roles in Judaism. So where is the spirituality?

What is spirituality?

According to Wikipedia, spirituality “refers to an ultimate or an alleged immaterial reality; an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his/her being; or the “deepest values and meanings by which people live.” That’s probably not a very helpful definition, but spirituality is difficult to define, largely because the spirit cannot be conclusively demonstrated in a material world.

In some branches of Christianity, spirituality is considered synonymous with emotion, or more specifically, an emotional experience that is inspired by a spiritual encounter with God (or one that bypasses God and focuses specifically on Jesus Christ). We tend to think of spirituality as a “feeling.” Most Christians don’t tend to relate to spirituality as a thought or as something that happens when we study and learn from a teacher or rabbi.

And yet, Rabbi Hartman seems to be saying that learning Torah and Talmud is a spiritual experience. I don’t know if that’s what he’s actually saying, but I think I can make a case for it. I think that in Judaism (this is just my opinion, of course), the sense of a Jew’s identity is inexorably tied to Jewish history, traditional Jewish thought, Talmudic study, midrash, halachah, and understanding. You might even think of the passionate debates that occur in yeshivah as a metaphor for a Jew “wrestling with God.” (Genesis 32:22-32)

The concept of wrestling or debating with God may seem alien and even sacrilegious to a Christian, even though we have ample examples from the Bible. Look at Abraham boldly debating with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-33) and Moses pleading with God to spare the Children of Israel after the sin of the Golden Calf. (Exodus 32:9-14). Can a Christian even understand this the way a Jew can?

That said, Rabbi Hartman doesn’t see a complete dissonance between Jews and Christians.

…those early experiences were given profound intellectual and philosophical support in the years of my graduate study at Fordham University. Living with the Jesuits, sensing the intellectual and spiritual integrity of my teachers, observing how our different faiths were reciprocally enriched through our encounters – these were experiences that I could not ignore in developing my own appreciation of what it is to stand as a covenantal Jew before God.

I can’t say that all Jews will agree with Rabbi Hartman’s statements and I’m sure not all Christians will either. We see, based on everything I’ve written and quoted up to this point, that Christianity and Judaism conceptualize themselves and their relationship with God on a spiritual level in fundamentally different ways. We see God and how we are supposed to connect to Him from two totally different directions. And yet there are the occasional glimmers when, if we try hard enough, we just might be able to understand that we have a few things in common, as Rabbi Hartman pointed out in his description of his time among the Jesuits.

But God is One. He is the God of the Jews and the nations. He makes the rains descend on not only Jews and Christians, but on the righteous and unrighteous alike. He sent His “only begotten son” “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:0 ESV)

If God is our teacher, is He providing two wholly dissimilar lessons, one for the Jews and the other for everyone else? Christianity doesn’t think so, but their (our) solution is to replace the original lesson God taught at Sinai with the one taught by Jesus at Calvary. Traditional Jews believe that God teaches a larger lesson (the Torah) to the Jews and a subset of that lesson (the Noahide laws) to the nations.

I don’t agree with either viewpoint and believe that it is God’s intention to ultimately reconcile Israel with the nations as co-existing covenant members, Sinai and Messianic, standing side-by-side in front of the throne of God. I don’t know how to completely articulate this relationship yet, especially in terms of our mutually dependent roles being described in scripture, but I believe it is well worth pursuing.

We see that at the end of all things, the ” throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it (the city), and his servants will worship him.” (Revelation 22:3 ESV) I believe those servants are both Israel and we from among the nations who have demonstrated an enduring faith, who have “fought the good fight,” and “have finished the race.” (2 Timothy 4:7)

If God is speaking to both the Jew and the Christian (and indeed, to the entire world), we must discover what the lesson is and what our teacher wants us to learn. Jesus was rightly called “teacher” and “rabbi” and he taught as did the other rabbis during the late Second Temple period in Israel. This was an experience that his disciples found to be completely consistent with how other disciples learned from their rabbis. From what we see in the Bible, it was also consistent with how we Christians experience spirituality, love, compassion, and truth.

Some Jewish thinkers believe that the Second Temple was destroyed, not because of general faithlessness among the Jews, but because of the sin of baseless hatred between one Jew and another. The counterpoint to this sin, and what some believe will aid in the coming of the Messiah, is for Jews to show unrestrained love by…

reaching out to another person – any other person – and showing him care, consideration, and concern. Do a favor for someone else, not because there is a reason to do so, but because you care for him.

“Keeping In Touch: The Three Weeks”
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson
Adapted by Rabbi Eli Touger

If we are trying to hear the lessons being taught by our rabbi and Master, perhaps reaching out to everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, with care, consideration, and concern, might be a good place to start.

A river of life flows through the inner worlds, emerging from there into your own, carrying with it all your needs.

You need to know about that river, for it carries upstream as well.

When you celebrate that river with a blessing for your food, out loud and with joy, then your voice echoes back with even greater force, replenishing all the higher worlds through which the river passes on its way. The channels of life are widened and their currents grow strong.

Take care of your river. Invest in it and reap the dividends.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Echo Upstream”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

7 thoughts on “God as a Teacher”

  1. “In some branches of Christianity, spirituality is considered synonymous with emotion, or more specifically, an emotional experience that is inspired by a spiritual encounter with God (or one that bypasses God and focuses specifically on Jesus Christ). We tend to think of spirituality as a “feeling.” Most Christians don’t tend to relate to spirituality as a thought or as something that happens when we study and learn from a teacher or rabbi.

    And yet, Rabbi Hartman seems to be saying that learning Torah and Talmud is a spiritual experience.”

    Isn’t it both? I don’t know if it’s just a female thing, but I tend to think a lot of times it is the learning and discovering that often triggers an emotional response. Especially when you come to the realization on how those lessons in Torah apply to your own life and the people you interact with and care for everyday.

  2. I think it varies from person to person. Some people relate to God in a very emotional way while others are more cognitive in relation to God. I also think that in general, Christianity is more emotionally focused on God while Judaism is more intellectually focused. I guess that’s one reason Jews are called “the people of the book.” Studying Torah can be considered an actual form of worship.

    1. I think your right, Christianity does seem to relate more on an emotional level. …Jewish wisdom is pretty amazing though. I suppose as spiritual knowledge increases for some, emotional response decreases. Although it doesn’t seem like it was that way for King David. …maybe that also depends on how the individual views him.

      Great post as usual James. I really do like reading your blog.

  3. Thanks, Liz.

    I’m not really trying to juxtapose emotion and intellect. They are both part of who we are as human beings. I believe we can experience God through all the different aspects of who we are. While Christianity tends to be criticized (at least some denominations) because it relies too much on feelings as the means of generating a connection to God, Judaism is often seen as too cerebral and lacking in spirituality and passion. There’s actually something of a movement in parts of Judaism to introduce more of a purely spiritual experience as a method of attracting non-religious Jews back to the faith.

    As individuals, each of us is made to be more attracted to different parts of the worship process. Some relate most to prayer, some to study, some to writing (that would be me), and some to service toward others. Put the human race (or at least that part of it who declares faith in God) together, and we form a whole body that fulfills all that God has asked of us.

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