How Forgiving is Our Teacher?

teaching-childrenMy late teacher Rabbi Louis Finklestein used to say, “When I pray, I speak to God; when I study, God speaks to me.” In the words of our liturgy:

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the universe…who commanded us to study the words of Torah. May the words of Torah…be sweet in our mouths and in the mouths of all Your people so that we, our children, and all the children of the House of Israel may come to love You and to study Your Torah…Blessed are You, Lord, who teaches Torah to the House of Israel.

Note the tense of the verb: God “teaches,” not “has taught,” Torah to Israel. God, then, is a teacher not only at Sinai, in antiquity, but today as well, and not only today but also in the world to come. The souls of the righteous who have perished are described as having gone to “the yeshiva on high,” where God will be their teacher and will elucidate all the puzzles of the Torah that were never clarified while they lived on earth.

-Rabbi Neil Gilman
“Chapter 4: God is Nice (Sometimes),” pp 62-3
The Jewish Approach to God: A Brief Introduction for Christians

I’ve mentioned before that I think of God as a teacher, at least sometimes, a bringer of enlightenment and truth. There are also some in religious Judaism who believe that when Messiah comes (or comes back), he will teach Torah perfectly. I suppose this means he’ll teach the Gentiles as well as the Jews how Torah is to be correctly applied to our lives and all of the messy confusion we experience now will finally go away…as long as we choose to accept his teaching and incorporate them into our daily practice.

It seems amazing that we might not, but as I read the Bible, even after the second advent, there will be plenty of people who won’t recognize him as King, even as he sits on the Throne of David in Holy Jerusalem.

But then again, even when we acknowledge God, sometimes we can still be opposed to Him; we can still be angry with Him. But that may not be as strange as it seems:

Yet even then, their anger at God’s behavior was always expressed from within their long-standing relationship with God. They never allowed their sense of being mistreated by God to drive them out of the religious community and its belief structure.

-Rabbi Neil Gillman
“Chapter 5: God is Not Nice (Sometimes),” pg 65

I know the idea of being angry at God usually elicits a certain amount of “pushback” from some readers, but I maintain that it’s a common human response to God…we just don’t talk about it. But what is God’s response to us when we are angry at Him?

Job’s “comforters” arrive and evoke the classical Torah interpretation of suffering: Job must have sinned. But Job retorts that he has not sinned, or that he has not sinned nearly enough to justify this punishment. At the end of the book, God addresses Job in the speeches “out of the whirlwind.” These are a paean to God’s power and to the complexity of God’s creation. Their message is “Job, don’t try to understand Me. Don’t try to fit Me into your neat moral categories. I am God; you are a human being.” Surprisingly, Job acknowledges the difference:

I know You can do everything,
That nothing You propose is impossible for You…
I had heard You with my ears,
But now I see You with my eyes;
Therefore, I recant and relent,
Being but dust and ashes.

-Job 42:2, 5-6

This implies that Job has now achieved a clearer understanding of God’s ways and a measure of closure.

-Gillman, pg 69

forgiveness_jayThis seems not unlike the article Jay Litvin wrote about his own need to attain closure or at least regain closeness with God, in Mr. Litvin’s case, by “forgiving” God for Litvin’s terminal illness. But Job’s and Litvin’s approaches are quite different. Whereas Job acknowledges God’s statement that he cannot understand the ways of God and thus should abandon any attempt to put God in a theological or doctrinal box, Litvin sets all this aside and treats God, not as understandable, but nevertheless, forgivable.

I suppose you could argue that having the temerity to “forgive” God might require that we would then need to be forgiven by God, that too is the act of a loving Father rather than a harsh and punitive Judge:

He will not always strive with us,
Nor will He keep His anger forever.
He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him.
As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
Just as a father has compassion on his children,
So the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him.
For He Himself knows our frame;
He is mindful that we are but dust.

Psalm 103:9-14 (NASB)

Then comes the theological underpinnings for the power of repentance: “For He knows how we are formed; He is mindful that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). God grants us the power of repentance because God knows how we were created: from the dust (Genesis 2:7).

-Gillman, “Chapter 6: God Can Change,” pg 91

In Rabbi Gilman describing the Jewish relationship to God for Christians, he says that God gives human beings the ability to repent because God knows how weak and frail we are (dust and ashes). Out of that knowledge, God desires to forgive us, which, of course, requires that we first repent.

Jonah chapter 3 tells the simple but powerful tale of Jonah prophesying to the great city of Nineveh that unless they repent of their sins, they will be destroyed by God. Amazingly, this Gentile and corrupt city, from the King to the lowest commoner, repent, and because of this, God relents and forgives.

There’s a certain irony, at least to me, in Rabbi Gillman final commentary in this chapter:

The poem then concluded with a theological justification for God’s compassion:

You are slow to anger and ready to forgive. You do not desire the death of the wicked but that we return from our evil ways and live. Even until our dying day, You wait for us, perhaps we will repent, and You will immediately receive us. Our origin is dust and we return to the dust. We earn our bread at the peril of our life. We are like a fragile potsherd, as the grass that withers, as the flower that fades, as a fleeting shadow, as a passing cloud, as the wind that blows, as the fleeting dust, and as a dream that vanishes. But You are ever our living God and sovereign.

The echo of Psalm 103:14…is unmistakable here. God must forgive because God above all knows what it means to be a human being and to live a human life (not because of Jesus, according to Jewish thought, but because God is the creator of all).

-ibid, pg 96

Jonah's KikayonAs a Reform Jewish Rabbi, Rabbi Gillman isn’t about to acknowledge the Christian view of Jesus, but comparisons between his closure to Chapter 6 and the following are unavoidable:

The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:9 (NASB)

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Hebrews 4:14-16 (NASB)

It’s not that God couldn’t feel compassion and empathy for human beings without experiencing a human life. What creator is unable to understand his creation? And yet, Jesus as both divine and human is uniquely positioned to understand human frailty and to act as intercessor between a fallen mankind and an ultimately Holy, Ein Sof God. Peter also echos Psalm 103 and “foreshadows” the Yom Kippur service in his words.

I sometimes wonder why we have a Christianity that is completely separate from Judaism. If modern religious Judaism is correct and the Gentiles are to come to God through Israel but without the Jesus of the Bible, then why isn’t modern Israel, the Jewish people, a light to the world, opening that door for the rest of humanity? I know the only “Jewish” requirement for Gentiles is our obedience to the Seven Noahide Laws, but without Jewish mentors and a Jewish understanding of this framework, non-Jewish humanity is without comprehension, let alone community (as far as I know, there are no exclusively Gentile Noahide “synagogues” or “churches”). Does modern Judaism truly believe that God left each generation of Gentiles without a means of redemption? It would seem so, since Judaism, for the most part, does not encourage “Noahidism” among the Gentiles.

Christianity was born of Judaism but we have been separated. Jewish people say the separation occurred when Paul developed an anti-Law religion for the Gentiles, effectively making Paul a Jewish traitor and perverter of Jewish teachings into a new Gentile religion. Christians say that Paul understood that the Law had been replaced by the grace of Christ and Torah entered into a period of obsolescence, making Paul the Jewish vanguard out of Judaism and into Christianity. Even my Pastor, who believes there will be a Third Temple and that there will be sacrifices again, tells me that the Torah was always intended to be temporary, and Paul was the instrument of closure for that part of Jewish existence.

I don’t accept either viewpoint. I can’t. One of the comments made on a recent blog post said in part:

In the case of the biblical literature, re-interpretation is a necessary part of such developments because many adherents to a given system are not native to the languages of the source literatures.

It may have become necessary for the form and structure of religious thought and practice to also have been reinterpreted because of the innate differences between Jewish and Gentile disciples of Messiah. Not only are the covenant structures different (or at least overlapping), but based on the much longer and unique Jewish history with God at the point of the apostolic period, how discipleship was transmitted by the Jewish apostles and received by the various Gentile populations in the then-civilized world, may have well required a sort of cultural “morphing,” even when Gentile Christianity and Jewish “Messianism” were still on speaking terms in the late Second Temple and early post-Temple time frame.

infinite_pathsGod is God of all and God desires to forgive all so that none should perish, but it seems apparent, given the wide variety of Jewish and Gentile approaches to God we’ve seen over the past two-thousand years, that God’s people have yet to come to any sort of consensus as to how that approach should look. Maybe this too is part of God’s gracious forgiveness, not locking human beings into a too tightly structured “approach pattern.”

I know that Jesus said that we only enter through the narrow gate (Matthew 7:13-14), but some Christians believe that gate is as narrow as a single denomination. Some Christians believe you are only “saved” is you are baptized in running water vs. a wading pool. As for observant Jews, how many believe other Jews who do not observe Shabbos will not merit a place in the world to come? How many Jews believe that only their branch of Judaism or only their Rebbe has the true teachings of Torah?

But if God is our teacher and perhaps ultimately, our only teacher, where can we go to learn from Him without having to endure endless layers of human filters? Ourselves and delving into the Bible by the power of the Holy Spirit you say? Many claim to possess the true Spirit and thus out of that (or their own imagination), possess the true teachings of Christ, but I still maintain that there is a lot more chaff than wheat in human understanding of God. I can only hope and pray that God is a lot more merciful and forgiving than some people of faith say He is, so that our honest but fumbling attempts to know Him aren’t in vain.

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16 thoughts on “How Forgiving is Our Teacher?”

  1. mI do agree that “text and Spirit” approaches have failed many Gentile disciples, as witnessed by Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Branch Davidians, People’s Templars and other cults. Also, not that I would teach this, but I could never see God turning away the Jews killed in the Shoah because they couldn’t “accept” Messiah, because they were never really SHOWN Messiah by most Europeans of that time, as we know our loving Yeshua. In fact, the great silence in Heaven, for that half-hour, may indicate the time when He let them in, too moved with compassion and too angry at their horrible treatment for any other inhabitants of Heaven to dare make a sound. We ALL get there by His grace anyway, right?

  2. It may be tempting to some to suggest that the separation of Christianity from Judaism began when Rav Shaul insisted that non-Jews could be cleansed and accepted by HaShem without converting to Judaism via circumcision, and, kal v’homer, accepted likewise by Jews. However, I would place responsibility for the separation more certainly upon the prejudices and politics of the Roman Empire as they came to be expressed in Imperial universalistic Christianity and embodied in the declarations of the Nicene and later Councils. Such political attitudes were no doubt exacerbated by the Jewish national resistance that was beaten down in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the Bar Kochvah revolt of 135 CE. It is then understandable, though not forgivable, that the Christianity adopted and re-invented under the auspices of a Roman Emperor should have expressed such anti-Jewish doctrines and enforced separation from Jewish teaching and practice. It has been a very recent modern phenomenon to repudiate these ancient errors and seek the forgiveness and reconciliation that might be found in the restoration of Jewish insights into biblical teaching for Christians.

  3. Whatever the original reasons for the Jewish/Christian split in the first few centuries of the common era, both Christianity and Judaism have created theological reasons for the separation. It is true that post-Holocaust, many Christians are abandoning the position of supersessionism or replacement theology, but the identity and nature of the Messiah is still a point of great contention. That’s why I think Messianic Judaism, though a tiny movement in our modern world, is key in providing a Jewish lens by which we can view Moshiach.

    I know that there are a great many Christians who are eager to look through this lens and hopefully, many will be encouraged by what they see. On the other hand, based on my experience, when some Christians realize just how “Jewish” Messiah is and how the very “landscape” of our faith changes with such knowledge, they tend to retreat, because the reality of the Jewish Messiah King seems so unfamiliar. We let go of our old traditions with difficulty.

  4. “If modern religious Judaism is correct and the Gentiles are to come to God through Israel but without the Jesus of the Bible, then why isn’t modern Israel, the Jewish people, a light to the world, opening that door for the rest of humanity?”

    What is your source for the first part of that question? And when you refer to “modern Israel” to whom or what do you refer? The Jewish people do not have any sort of central office that makes policy, and “modern religious Judaism” includes many different viewpoints.

  5. I realize I’m speaking in over generalized terms, but if I didn’t, the blog post would be a great deal longer. All I’m saying in that part of my post is that if the intent for Gentiles is to follow the Noahide laws, both individually and corporately (nationally), how is this information to be disseminated? On a more cosmic scale, if God intends for the non-Jewish people of the world to follow the Noahide laws, why do we not see that part of his plan in our world?

  6. ” Not only are the covenant structures different (or at least overlapping), but based on the much longer and unique Jewish history with God at the point of the apostolic period, how discipleship was transmitted by the Jewish apostles and…”

    I’m a bit stuck on what you mean by the Jewish and Gentile ” covenant structures [are] different (or at least overlapping)…”

    Besides the Noahic covenant, when did God covenant with Gentiles?

  7. But Ruth’s question still stands — Neither Jeremiah’s statement of a “new” covenant made with Israel and Judah, nor any of Rav Yeshua’s teachings, presents any sort of covenant with non-Jews. In fact, Rav Yeshua specifically protested to one non-Jewish woman that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Only Rav Shaul’s midrashic appeal to Avraham prior to the giving of Torah, particularly the statement that the nations will bless themselves because of Avraham’s obedience to HaShem in binding Yitzhak as a sacrifice that was then replaced with the offering of a ram, opens the door to non-Jews. These appear in some prophecies to participate in covenantal blessings by affiliating themselves with the Jewish covenant, but no covenant is made directly or specifically with them. The covenant with Noa’h is generally applicable to all of humanity (i.e., his descendants who exist solely because he survived the great flood), but that one doesn’t offer much more than insurance against destruction by another great flood. The Noahide “laws” are not directly formulated as any sort of covenant, and are only indirectly associated with the “rainbow covenant” because they were presumably taught by Noa’h with whom that covenant was made. Nowhere in scripture is there an appeal to the covenant with Noa’h on behalf of non-Jews. It was Pharisaic/rabbinic drash that teased out from the scriptures the notion of the Noahide laws, which may also explain why Christianity never popularized them as representing even part of HaShem’s plan for non-Jews. These are only a few of the blessings that were withheld from the non-Jewish world by its rejection of Jewish teaching, and it is not HaShem’s fault that He hasn’t emphasized them by other means in spite of that rejection.

    Hence any reference to a non-Jewish covenant structure that somehow overlaps with the explicitly Jewish covenantal structure makes no sense. Non-Jews do not have a covenant — they can (and do) receive blessings, but it is not by means of a covenant.

  8. Maybe I’m not being clear. My understanding is that through God’s promise to Abraham about his seed being a blessing for the entire world, the seed and the blessing is Messiah. The promise isn’t just to Israel (although all of the other promises God made to Abraham, Issac, Jacob, and the Children of Israel apply to them alone) but the seed, Messiah, brings salvation to all of us.

    The problem we sometimes encounter is that some folks interpret this as ALL of the covenants God made with Israel apply to everyone, not just Israel once we Gentiles are grafted in. But only one promise God made to Abraham (and not all of the promises God made to Abraham), applies to the rest of the world, either. I suppose in that sense, I can’t say that God specifically made a covenant with non-Jews, but we do receive certain blessings based on that one promise God made to Abraham.

    Is that any clearer?

  9. “As it turns out, it’s not easy to follow the trail of breadcrumbs from Abraham, to the New Covenant, to Jesus, but it can be done.”

    Actually, the “trail of breadcrumbs from Abraham, to the New Covenant, to Jesus” isn’t a problem for me at all, but you’re saying, I think, by leaving off your “trail” with Jesus, is what many Christians who don’t understand covenants say/assume, which is: because we believe in Jesus, the New Covenant is with us.

    It is not with us, it is with Israel, and by accepting Israel’s Messiah we get to partake in Israel’s blessings. As an example, if my husband receives a family inheritance, then as his wife I would obviously partake in it too. However, it isn’t “MY” inheritance, and my receiving any benefit from HIS inheritance requires connection to him.

    I don’t see God covenanting with Gentiles in the Bible, rather, we receive blessings of Israel as we draw near to them.

  10. Yes, I think that is a bit clearer — I was being rather a stickler for precision by distinguishing between participating in covenant and partaking of promised blessing.

  11. A fine post, James. You asked, “But if God is our teacher and perhaps ultimately, our only teacher, where can we go to learn from Him without having to endure endless layers of human filters?” Our Teacher has placed us in complex relationships with these “human filters” who sometimes have to be “endured” (as they have to endure us) but at other times inspire us (as we hope to inspire them. Not to mention our traditions, which are also marked by joy and pain.

    Hopefully, we also experience those very rare moments of utter love and holiness with God himself – moments of simplicity that do not transcend life but help direct us in the midst of its complexities and uncertainties.

  12. Hopefully, we also experience those very rare moments of utter love and holiness with God himself – moments of simplicity that do not transcend life but help direct us in the midst of its complexities and uncertainties.

    I do, but never where and when I expect them. I had one today over coffee. It’s very humbling.

  13. It is always difficult to be an individual and a member of a community simultaneously. We are all individuals and yet we cannot thrive alone. We must find our way into the Father’s arms with both the help and the obstacles that are presented by man’s organized attempts to define the way into His arms. Not until I moved toward Messianic Judaism – or it moved toward me – did I feel that there was an authentic, discernible way to understand how to reach the Father’s arms. It describes, for me, the way of Moses and the way of Paul through Jesus as Messiah; a straight, unified way that two mainstream filters – Christianity and Judaism – have yet to find. But it is there, a rational, reasonable light in the darkness that has escaped the trap of Replacement Theology and is now available to both. The intersection of Judaism and faith in Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah provides true rest for my weary soul and new hope of rest for the souls of others by way of its “bodacious” authenticity. It is, for me, the full-spectrum shard of escaped light sneaking betwixt and between the two main human filters of Christianity and Judaism. As well as the best hope for the lost world since the Church Fathers claimed Jesus as their own two thousand years ago. Left at its simple best – that is, Gentile and Jewish believers both walking in the footsteps of Jesus, who walked in the footsteps of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and the Prophets – the nations will see unprecedented spiritual light such as has never before had the opportunity to shine into the darkness to this extent – a highway of Holiness, being built between two mountains, so to speak… at least, as far as this grateful “fool” sees it:

    “And a highway shall be there,
    and it shall be called the Way of Holiness;
    the unclean shall not pass over it.
    It shall belong to those who walk on the way;
    even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.”

  14. I keep getting reminders to “go the extra mile” lately. Maybe that’s what the end of one year and the beginning of another is all about. Not the reset button, but the next version…or the next vision.

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