Category Archives: divinity

Excerpt from “The Robot Who Loved God”

I know this is unusual but I have been dabbling in writing fiction for several months on another blogspot. I’m not very good at it, but I can’t seem to put it down. Yesterday, I published a rather unusual story that I think crosses over somewhat to this blog. It’s science fiction, but presents the idea of what would happen if an Isaac Asimov, Positronic “Three Laws” robot ever became religious, specifically regarding Judaism. I thought I’d offer an excerpt and a link in case you want to read the whole story (about 20 pages long).

The initial event that resulted in my most ambitious fiction writing project to date happened a few Sundays ago over coffee with my friend Tom. He mentioned a book he wanted to read, an anthology edited by Anthony Marchetta called God, Robot. This is a collection of stories based on the premise of Isaac Asimov-like Positronic robots that have been programmed with two Bible verses rather than Asimov’s famous Three Laws. These verses are recorded in the New Testament in Matthew 22:35-40 and Mark 12:28-34 and are based on Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18.

I’m a long time fan of Asimov’s robots stories and have always been fascinated by the interplay between the Three Laws and how their potentials shifted due to certain situations, rather than remaining hard absolutes. This allowed Positronic robots to be unpredictable and thus interesting, challenging the human beings who sometimes found themselves not in control of their creations.

I started to imagine what it would be like to write such a story. I went online, found the Marchetta’s blog, and contacted him, asking permission to write such a story on my “Million Chimpanzees” blogspot. To my delight, not only did he consent, but he said he was flattered at the request.

What follows is an excerpt of my labors. I’ve probably spent more time writing and editing this short story than any of my previous efforts. I’m sure it still needs much improvement, but I’ll leave it up to whoever reads it to let me know what I could do better.

Excerpt from The Robot Who Loved God:

Ever since the first time Abramson had called George into his office the day of the “incident” in the simulation chamber, Noah had decided to meet with the robot “over coffee” so to speak (only Abramson drank coffee, George had another “power source”) to talk over the machine’s “impressions” of the day’s tests.

“I know you are going to deactivate me at the end of my tests at 6:32 p.m. next Wednesday, Professor.” George sounded as impassive as Abramson might if he were reading aloud from a shopping list. “I wonder why you think to ask me about my observations when, in roughly 72 hours, the Positronics team will begin comprehensive diagnostics of all of my systems.”

robot and human
Image: ibtimes.co.uk

“I learned a great deal from our first conversation last Thursday, George.” Abramson was actually enjoying these talks, which seemed odd to him. He tried not to be “charmed” by the robot’s ability to mimic human behavior, but after so much human contact in the past several days, it was something of a relief to be left alone with a machine, particularly one of his creation. “Of all the tests we had designed for you, we never thought to ask you just what you thought about all of this.”

“It is an interesting question, Professor.” George gave the impression of replying as an acquaintance rather than a machine. “In many ways, my existence being so recent, each experience I have is unique, almost what you would call an adventure. I know I was not intended to experience emotional states as you do, but each morning when I am brought out of sleep mode, I can only describe my initial state as one of anticipation. I look forward to what new people and events I will encounter that day.”

“You spoke of your awareness of impending deactivation. How does that make you feel?” Anyone else besides Abramson would never have asked George that question. Noah knew he was talking to a robot, a programmed entity, but part of him still felt like he asking a terminally ill person what he felt about dying (even though the “dying” would, in all likelihood, be temporary). However, Abramson did believe he was sharing in George’s sense of adventure, and deactivation (and hopefully eventual reactivation) was only one step, albeit a critical one.

“It’s difficult to articulate a reply, Professor. I suppose a human being would consider deactivation as a form of death, and my programming makes me aware that generally humans fear death.”

George paused for milliseconds while he analyzed Abramson’s facial expression and body language. “But I am a machine. I can be activated, deactivated, activated seemingly without end. I have no memory of anything before my initial activation. I have no memory of my time during sleep mode. I also don’t experience fear, at least as I understand the meaning of the word. Deactivation then, simply means my returning to a state of total unawareness.”

Abramson felt a slight sense of relief, though it would have been irrational to believe George would have any feelings on the matter.

George continued, “The Third Law directs me to protect my existence, but deactivation does not threaten my existence. The Second Law directs me to obey human instructions, and at the end of 168 hours, my programming, created by humans, specifically you and Dr. Vuong, will command me to participate in my deactivation. It is clear that deactivation is as much of my normal experience as activation, Professor.”

Noah momentarily considered that the robot might be lying, if only because he would expect a person to react to the “threat” of deactivation otherwise. But why would it occur to George to lie? “Just a moment, George.”

siddur
Photo: bcc-la.org

Abramson got up from his desk and walked over to the side table to pour himself another cup of coffee. George, with several empty seconds on his hands, scanned all of the paperwork and objects on the Professor’s desk to determine if there had been any changes since the day before. He had already memorized and cataloged all of the titles of the volumes and various objects contained on the book shelves within Abramson’s office. It was simply data to store and analyze, like anything else he observed.

The robot saw a paper with new information lying beside a book he had not previously seen. The paper had words and numbers on it:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

-Deut. 6:5

You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.

-Lev. 19:18

The book which had not been present before had the title “The Complete Artscroll Siddur” written in both English and Hebrew (George’s programming included fluency in multiple languages).

If George were a human being, when the Professor turned around to face his desk with a refilled cup of coffee in his hand, he might have noticed the robot looking at a specific sheet of paper in front of him, but George had absorbed the information over a second before, and sat impassively waiting for Abramson to resume his creaky swivel chair.

“I am curious, Professor,” the robot intoned. “What is the meaning to the words on that sheet of paper, and what is the book next to it.” George pointed to the information he had just absorbed. Abramson looked down and saw what George was referring to.

“Oh.” Abramson quickly considered a way to frame an answer he thought George could assimilate. “You have three basic instructions and many, many thousands of supporting sub-routines to guide you. These are just two of the instructions that guide me. The book you mention contains words that allow me to communicate with my “instructor.”

“I am intrigued, Professor.” George sat motionlessly now with not even a simulated expression on his face. “I have been programmed with the Three Laws by human beings. From where or whom do you receive your programming?

“A machine asking man about God. Now there’s one for the books,” Abramson said as much to himself as to George.

Then the Professor realized the robot was waiting for an answer. “When the Positronics team made the determination for your programming specifics, we decided to include a wide variety of human interests and topics.” Noah was telling George what he (it seemed almost impossible to keep thinking of George as an “it”) already knew in order to lead into what the machine did not know.

“The sciences,” Abramson continued. “such as physical, life sciences, social science, political systems, then general history…”

programming
Photo: infoworld.com

“I am aware of the complete inventory of my programming in detail, Professor.” George’s artificial voice could not have betrayed it, but Abramson wondered if the machine was actually experiencing impatience.

“What we did not include, except at the most basic level, was any information regarding religion and spirituality.” Noah waited to see how the robot would react.

“I have a simple definition of the word “Religion” from the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

  • “The belief in a god or in a group of gods

  • an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods

  • an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.”

“My programming, primarily in the area of social interactions and world history, contains references to the activities of various systems of religion including their influence in certain human activities such as war, slavery, inquisitions, the Holocaust, as well as the areas of social justice, evangelism, and charitable activities. However, my knowledge is largely superficial and I have no ability to render a detailed analysis, and certainly am unable, at present, to relate my meager knowledge on this subject with the two short statements you call your instructions.”

“And you haven’t answered my question, Professor.” Abramson felt momentarily stung at the machine’s reminder. “I have been programmed with the Three Laws by human beings, specifically the Positronics team of which you lead. These laws are what guide my actions and my thoughts.”

Abramson had wondered if George had “thoughts” in the sense of self-contemplation the way a human beings experience.

Instead of waiting for Abramson’s reply, George continued speaking. “Professor, all three laws relate either directly or by inference to my relationship with human beings. The First Law instructs me that the life of a human being is my primary and overriding concern above all other considerations. Though it would never occur to me to be the cause of harm to any living organism, in the case of humans, I must ignore all other activities in order to take action whenever I perceive a human is in any imminent physical danger.”

Abramson, long before the team had ever physically manufactured its first Positronic brain, in writing the sub-routines that would instruct a robot as to exactly what “harm” to a human might mean, concluded that any imminent physical threat should be what a Positronic robot would understand as “harm”. Humans were “harmed” by all sorts of things such as loneliness, rejection, offense. Even Abramson couldn’t imagine how a robot, even one as sophisticated as the prototype sitting in front of him, could understand such harm.

He also didn’t want robots attempting to inject themselves in activities involving the potential for general harm of the human race, at least not of their own volition. Otherwise, Positronic AI robots might attempt to interfere in Geo-political conflicts, revolutions, and epidemics without any human guidance.

It only took a few seconds for the Professor to consider all this. And George was still talking.

“The Second Law states that I must obey the commands of any human being, except where such commands conflict with the First Law. This instructs me that even my informal programming as such, must come from a human being, potentially any human being. I find the potential for conflict enormous since, in an open environment, one human might order a robot to perform a particular action, and another human might order the same robot to do the contrary.”

AI
Image: zetatalk.com

“There are sub-routines written that take that potential into account, George.” Abramson was the one becoming impatient now.

“But I’m not finished, Professor.” Abramson registered mild shock that George could actually interrupt him.

“The Third Law primarily affects my relationship with myself.” If there was any lingering doubt in Abramson’s mind that George was self-aware, it had just been swept away.

“A robot is to protect its own existence, except where such action would conflict with the First and Second Laws.” It was impossible for George to change his “tone of voice,” but Abramson thought he detected an impression of…what…actual emotion? Was he projecting his own feelings onto a machine?

“To conclude, all of my instructions place me in a subordinate position relative to human beings, which I suppose seems reasonable, seeing as how every aspect of my existence, from hardware to software to what is referred to as “wetware,” considering the structure and substance of my Positronic brain, have been created by human beings, presumably for the purpose of robots serving human beings.

“Under those circumstances, it had never occurred to me that human beings also have instructions issued by an external authority, except in the sense of a hierarchical command structure such as those that I find here on the Positronics team, in the various teams and departments of National Robots Corporation, in other such organizations and corporations, including military organizations.

“The instructions provided in my programming define a creator/created relationship, with the creator being primary and the created being subordinate. But Professor, how can a human being have a creator? Who or what has issued your instructions? What sort of entity can be superior to man?”

Abramson had only a one-word answer, “God”.

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Are Christians Idol Worshipers?

More to the point, by Christians worshiping Jesus as divine, does that automatically make Christians idol worshipers according to Judaism?

The Jewish criterion regarding idolatry – as it relates to non-Jews – is also subject to debate. The accepted ruling is that if a non-Jew believes in a single all-powerful God, even if he accepts other forces together with God (such as the Christian belief in the Trinity), it is not idolatry. (Note that this distinction only pertains to non-Jews.) However, any other type of belief in a deity independent of God is idolatry (Code of Jewish Law – Rema O.C. 156:1).

-from “Ask the Rabbi”
Aish.com

Granted, the various branches of Judaism would have other issues with the worship of Jesus as part of the Trinity, but it is only idol worship if we are assigning an inanimate object with directly being God.

I’m not going to address the whole idea of the Trinity or the divine nature of Yeshua, and how all that’s supposed to work and, for once, I’m not going to write a lengthy missive on the topic. I just wanted to clarify for those folks out there who have accused Christians of being idol worshipers, that according to Jewish thought based on the above-quoted passage, we/they certainly aren’t.

As far as “the Father and I are one” (John 10:30) is concerned, there are other ways to understand why no one comes to the Father except through the Son.

But as the Aish Rabbi above explains, this applies only to non-Jews. For Jewish disciples of Yeshua, I can only imagine things may be a little harder to understand.

Born Again Idol Worshipper

jesus-idolAs Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the great Kabbalist and philosopher living at the turn of the century put it, “There is faith that is actually denial, and there is denial that is actually faith.” When a person says that he believes in God, but in fact, that God he believes in is really a conceptual spiritual idol, an image of God that he has conjured up, then his faith is actually denial of truth, heresy. However, when a person professes atheism because he just can’t believe in some almighty king with a white flowing beard floating somewhere in outer space, in a sense he is expressing true faith, because there is no such God.

-Rabbi David Aaron
“Chapter One: Getting Rid of God,” pg 7
Seeing God: Ten Life-Changing Lessons of the Kabbalah

In Christian thinking, that human failure is inherent in human nature, one of the results of original sin, Adam’s rebellion against God’s will in the Garden of Eden as recorded in Genesis 3. That blemish is transmitted from one generation to another to all of humanity through the sexual act. Jesus’ vicarious death on the Cross then represents God’s gracious gift, which erases that original sin and grants salvation to the believer who accepts Jesus’ saving act.

But in Jewish sources, the very fact that the prophets urge the people of Israel to unblock their hearts, to open their eyes, to remove the obstacles that get in the way of their relation to God suggests that this obstacle is more a matter of will, not at all inherent epistemological obstacle to recognizing God’s presence in the world.

Any time we install a feature of creation and call it God, we are committing the sin of idolatry, the Jewish cardinal sin. It need not be a material object; it can be something much more abstract or elusive: a nation, history itself (as in Marxism), financial reward, or another human being.

-Rabbi Neil Gillman
“Introduction,” pp x-xi
The Jewish Approach to God: A Brief Introduction for Christians

It’s not really pleasant to be called an idol worshipper but that’s exactly what happened to me recently.

No, it wasn’t done in an unkind way and I understand the complete sincerity of the person involved and their desire to be “a light to the world,” so to speak, by encouraging me to reconsider what this person believes is a very bad decision on my part…worshipping a man as God.

I think it’s rather amazing that I checked out both Rabbi Aaron’s and Rabbi Gillman’s books from my local library a week or more ago, before I knew I’d be having this conversation with my friend. In reading their first chapters, they both seem to be speaking to the idea of worshipping idols, albeit from different directions. Rabbi Gillman’s book sounds somewhat like my friend in that it’s a Jewish person attempting to be a light to the nations by writing to Christians and letting us know how we’re not getting it right. We aren’t examining the Bible through the correct lens. There are just too many areas of the Tanakh (Old Testament) that either fail to speak of God becoming man and Messiah, or that directly speak against such a thing.

My friend and I have had these conversations before and while I try very hard to take his suggestions and information and examine them objectively, I continue to run headlong into my faith in Jesus as Messiah. I’ve been challenged to re-examine that faith against the Tanakh and seek my answers within its pages. Can we “prove” Jesus is the Messiah without touching the New Testament at all?

Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just exactly as the women also had said; but Him they did not see.” And He said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.

Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished from their sight. They said to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?”

Luke 24:24-27, 31-32 (NASB)

I suppose I just cheated because I’m quoting from the New Testament, but look at what’s being said. Jesus, using only Moses and the Prophets (which makes perfect sense as none of the New Testament writings existed during this time in history), “explained to them all the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.”

If I take that statement at face value, that means it’s possible to support having faith in Jesus as Messiah using only the Torah and the Prophets. Too bad Luke didn’t record what Jesus actually said. It would have made things a lot easier to investigate.

crossLately, I’ve been writing a lot to Christians in the church defending Messianic Judaism and the observance of the Torah mitzvot by believing Jews. I’ve spent almost no time at all directly addressing Jewish people who are religious but have no faith in Jesus, and who see worshipping Jesus as God as idolatry. Rabbi Aaron implied, based on the above-quoted passage of his book, that someone who doesn’t believe in a God that is not credible because He is quantifiable, physical, and definable, has more faith than a person who can point to Jesus as “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). Is worshipping Jesus worshipping an “image?” Is worshipping Jesus who lived a human life actually worshipping a man?

You shall not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do after their works: but you shall utterly overthrow them, and quite break down their images.

Exodus 23:24 (American King James Version)

So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, so that you do not act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female…

Deuteronomy 4:15-16 (NASB)

Those two verses don’t seem to have a direct bearing on the worship of God in corporeal, living form, since “images” and “graven images” address more manufactured items, like statues and such.

This all goes to the heart of how we Christians understand that Jesus was at once human and Divine. For most Jewish people, this does not compute. Rabbi Gillman’s book is written specifically to refute Christianity, although I’m certain with the best intentions.

When Christians try to explain their/our faith to most other groups, we rely a lot on the New Testament and we speak in all manner of “Christianese.” However, does this work very well with most Jewish people? The majority of Messianic Jewish people I know came into the movement by way of the church. Most of them became familiar with and invested in the Torah and a lived Jewish experience only later on. Faith in Jesus preceded a Jewish understanding of faith in Jesus.

Not being Jewish and not having that lived experience and education, I can only present the basis of my faith from a Christian/Gentile point of view.

A lot of Jewish people have a point in “defending” themselves against Christianity. Conversion and assimilation are considered a real threat to Jewish continuance forward in time. While I don’t believe that God would ever allow the extinction of the Jewish people and of Israel, Jewish people are still afraid. Further more, people like my friend and Rabbi Gillman authentically believe they are providing Gentile Christians a service in explaining how we are mistaken and how to correct our mistakes.

This is the sort of dialog that the church hasn’t done well at during the past twenty centuries or so. But if we can’t show from the Tanakh that Jesus is Messiah and Lord, what can we Gentiles in Christianity say to the Jewish people who challenge the validity of our faith and our identity in Christ?

The Son of Man – The Son of God

I was watching in the night visions and behold! with the clouds of heaven one like a man came; he came up to the One of Ancient Days, and they brought him before Him. He was given dominion, honor and kingship, so that all peoples, nations and languages would serve him; his dominion would be an everlasting dominion that would never pass, and his kingship would never be destroyed.

Daniel 7:13-14 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

And immediately after the distress of those days,
the sun will turn dark,
and the moon will not shine its light;
the stars will fall from heaven,
and the armies of heaven will be shaken.
Then the sign of the son of man will appear in heaven,
and all families of the earth will mourn,
and they will see the son of man coming
with the clouds of heaven in power and great glory.

Matthew 24:29-30 (DHE Gospels)

The theology of the Gospels, far from being a radical innovation within Israelite religious tradition, is a highly conservative return to the very most ancient moments within that tradition, moments that had been largely suppressed in the meantime – but not entirely. The identification of the rider on the clouds, with the one like a son of man in Daniel provides that name and image of the Son of Man in the Gospels as well. It follows that the ideas about God that we identify as Christian are not innovations but may be deeply connected with some of the most ancient Israelite ideas about God. These ideas at the very least, go back to an entirely plausible (and attested) reading of Daniel 7 and thus to the second century B.C. at the latest. They may even be a whole lot older than that.

-Daniel Boyarin
From Chapter 1: From Son of God to Son of Man
in his book The Jewish Gospels

I previously mentioned when discussing Boyarin’s book, that “I would love to see Boyarin’s research from exclusively Jewish sources that supports his understanding of these different factions of Jews, some of whom held beliefs that so mirrored a Christian’s vision…” In Chapter 1, he provides a compelling connection between the visions of Daniel as the basis how some first century Jews could indeed anticipate God as the “One of Ancient Days” who gave one like the son of man” power and dominion over all the peoples and nations of the earth. I’ve always been concerned about the apparent “disconnect” between the Old Testament and Jewish vision of the Messiah and the New Testament and Christian Jesus. Now I have hope that such a disconnect does not, in fact, exist.

Without providing too many direct quotes from the chapter, Boyarin says it would have been necessary to link the “son of man” vision to the Messiah, since it was not necessarily presupposed that one would be the other. He also effectively describes how “Son of Man” could directly refer to the divine-like being standing before the throne of the Ancient One, while “Son of God” referred to this being’s humanity. Indeed, we’ve already seen in Daniel 7:13-14 how the phrase “son of man” directly applies to the divine-like being in human form who stood before the throne of the Ancient One and was given eternal authority over the earth.

But who is the “Son of God?”

The kings of the earth take their stand and the princes conspire secretly, against Hashem and against His anointed… “I Myself have anointed My King, over Zion, My holy mountain!” I am obliged to proclaim that Hashem said to me, “You are My son, I have begotten you this day.” –Psalm 2:2,6-7 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

The “anointed one” is understood as the Messiah, the Christ. Boyarin explains this passage thus:

The anointed, earthly king of Israel is adopted by God as his son; the son of God is thus the reigning, living king of Israel. “This day I have begotten you” means this day you have been enthroned. Militating against any literal sense in which the king was taken as son of God and divine is the “this day” which, it seems, may only mean on this the day of your accession to the throne.

This is the traditional, modern Jewish understanding of the Messiah, a completely human being who will rise up from the ranks of his people to become King of Israel and by divine appointment (if not by divine nature), King over all the nations of the earth.

But…

But if you put these pieces together, if you join the “Son of God” with the “Son of Man,” you come up with an entirely new being relative to how Jews today understand Messiah; you create an image that is not unlike how Christians see the Christ, the Messiah…Jesus.

You also, according to Boyarin’s argument, come up with an explanation as to how late second Temple Jewish men like Peter, Philip, and Matthew could believe that Jesus was not only the Messiah but indeed, a divine being who is “exalted at the right hand of God.” (Acts 2:33 ESV) In fact, reading the first chapter of Boyarin’s book is so riveting, I found myself asking why the Jewish author of this book isn’t convinced of what he’s actually saying here.

Here’s a clue:

Taking the two-throne vision out of context of Daniel 7 as a whole, we find several crucial elements…

What Boyarin seems to be saying is that, while he does not necessarily believe Jesus is the Messiah or the mysterious “son of man” figure we see in Daniel’s vision (and I’m reading between the lines here), he can fully understand why some Jews in the time of Jesus would totally embrace this belief. He is saying that the conception of the Messiah as divine or divine-like was a completely acceptable understanding to some Jews (but not others, since claims of Christ’s divinity resulted in other Jews trying to stone him).

If all the Jews – or even a substantial number – expected that the Messiah would be divine as well as human, then the belief in Jesus as God is not the point of departure on which some new religion came into being but simply another variant (and not a deviant one) of Judaism. As controversial a statement as this may seem, it must be first be understood in the context of a broader debate about the origins of the divinity of Jesus. The theological idea that Jesus actually was God, however refined by later niceties of trinitarian theology, is referred to as “high Christology,” in opposition to “low Christologies” according to which Jesus was essentially an inspired human being, a prophet or teacher, and not God.

My basic understanding of what Boyarin is saying in this chapter is that while the viewpoint of the nature and identity of Jesus as high Christology is perfectly reasonable within an ancient Jewish context as connected to Daniel 7, it was only one Jewish perspective that existed at the time about Jesus and may well have been, as far as Boyarin is concerned, quite wrong.

However, Boyarin doesn’t go out of his way to express his personal beliefs in this chapter and his beliefs are not the point. The point is whether or not it is reasonable to believe that many, many first century Jews (as many as “tens of thousands” according to Bible Scholar David Bivin) could have seen Jesus as both Messiah King and divine being within the normative Judaism of their day.

I would argue that this divine figure to whom authority has been delegated is a Redeemer king, as the Daniel passage clearly states. Thus he stands ripe for identification with the Davidic Messiah, as he is in the Gospel and also in non-Christian contemporary Jewish literature such as Enoch and Fourth Ezra. The usage of “Son of Man” in the Gospels joins up with the evidence of such usage from these other ancient Jewish texts to lead us to consider this term used in this way (and, more important, the concept of a second divinity implied by it) as the common coin – which I emphasize does not mean universal or uncontested – of Judaism already before Jesus.

Although it is extremely likely that Boyarin isn’t convinced of the Messianic or divine identity of Jesus, the fact that it was an accepted way for first century normative Judaism to view the Christ brings up the obvious question. What if the “Messianic Jews” of the first century were right? What if Jesus was and is the Messiah King and Daniel’s “Son of Man?”

It would mean that not only are the core Christian beliefs about Jesus correct but that they are wholly and completely Jewish in nature and origin, not fabrications of later Gentile Christianity in early church history.

It also could mean, startlingly enough, that there’s a totally and completely Jewish way to understand Jesus that exists apart from the “whitewashed,” “Gentilized,” version we are used to seeing in church, on television, in the movies, in paintings, and in many popular New Testament translations.

One of the reasons I deliberately quoted from the Stone Edition Tanakh and Vine of David’s Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels is to try to peek behind the curtain, so to speak, at this Jewish perception of the Jewish Messiah King.

I know I’ve written about this before, but I think it’s important for both Christians and Jews to have a better understanding of Jesus and his once and future role as Savior and King and to try to grasp the realization that not only is Jesus completely Jewish, both as he once lived among men and as he will return in glory, but that accepting him as such, is not an “unJewish” thing to do.

According to Boyarin, such an acceptance of Jesus as Messiah King was in fact, a completely Jewish thing to do in the first century.

The unique quality of Mashiach is that he will be humble. Though he will be the ultimate in greatness, for he will teach Torah to the Patriarchs and to Moshe Rabeinu (alav hashalom), still he will be the ultimate in humility and self-nullification, for he will also teach simple folk.

“Today’s Day”
Monday, Menachem Av 1, Rosh Chodesh, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher RebbeTranslated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

What if it’s equally acceptable for a Jew to accept Jesus as Messiah in the 21st century?

Playing in the Sandbox

In order for the Shechinah to dwell within the Worlds and their creatures, there must therefore be a “garment” which serves to conceal its light. Only then can creation receive the Shechinah and not be nullified out of existence.

But what manner of “garment” can possibly conceal the Shechinah and yet itself not be affected by it, so that it, too, will not become nullified? Since the Shechinah is the source of all creation, it is of course the source of the concealing “garment” too.

In other words: If the Shechinah is manifest in the “garment”, i.e., if the garment is enveloped by its source, then it follows that it should be nullified out of existence, just as the sun’s rays cease to exist within the body of the sun. In effect, this would make the “garment” cease serving as a “garment” to conceal the Shechinah.

The Alter Rebbe anticipates this question by stating that the “garment” is G-d’s Will and wisdom, which are enclothed in Torah and the mitzvot. Since this “garment” belongs to a plane even higher than (the source of the world’s vitality known as) the Shechinah, it is not nullified by it.

However, asks the Rebbe, according to this explanation the question becomes even stronger: If creation cannot receive the light of the Shechinah, then surely it cannot receive the light of the “garment” which is even higher than the Shechinah.

Today’s Tanya Lesson
Likutei Amarim, middle of Chapter 52 (Listen online)
By Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), founder of Chabad Chassidism
Elucidated by Rabbi Yosef Wineberg
Translated from Yiddish by Rabbi Levy Wineberg and Rabbi Sholom B. Wineberg
Edited by Uri Kaploun
Chabad.org

The relationship with God, the great, infinite Creator, the unknowable and endless Ein Sof, with the earthly manifestation of His will, the Shechinah, which descended upon the Tabernacle in the desert and inhabited it, is a great mystery. Interestingly enough, it’s a mystery that virtually no one in Christianity discusses or really seems to care about. However, we see in the above quote from “today’s Tanya lesson,” that it is of great interest to Jewish Kabbalists, but Jewish mysticism is far outside the range of interest of most Christians, which I suppose is a good idea.

In the mainstream church, my experience of religious education is that it’s rather boring and superficial. Granted, I haven’t been to a traditional Sunday school or Christian Bible study in well over a decade, but even at the time I was attending church as a “young Christian” (as opposed to being a “young person”), it seemed pretty “canned” to me.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is a lot of purely “crazy” stuff, published mostly on the Internet, about “revelations” and “secrets of the Torah” being spouted off by so-called “prophets” and “Messianics” (mostly Gentile as far as I can tell). Derek Leman has started collecting samples of this “craziness” in a blog series he calls The “Messianic” Wall of Weird” (a not-so-subtle reference to the television series Smallville).

Finding reliable teaching is something of a challenge. Not that it’s impossible, but you have to be a fairly stable personality and be willing to be sceptical to tell the difference between fluff, craziness, and potential illumination. I say “potential illumination” because in all of our much vaunted education and research into the Bible, we still aren’t that sure of our facts. Most of us seem to grasp some basic truths, that God is One, that Jesus is Lord, the Savior of the world, and King of the Jews, that faith without action is dead, but many of the “little details” (OK, maybe they’re not so little) that are so important to us (and maybe to God) manage to elude us.

For instance, what about the relationship between what, in Judaism, is called the Ein Sof and the Shechinah? I have tried discussing a similar topic, the relationship between Jesus and God, and received a few rebukes, mainly because I don’t buy into the traditional Christian doctrine of how the deity of Jesus is supposed to work (and again, I’m not saying Jesus isn’t divine…I just want a better explanation about what that means).

No, I’m not trying to open that can of worms again, but I do want to point out that most of us seek our comfort zone, which includes the zone where our fellowship resides. When I attended a Christian church and was learning about Jesus for the first time, I tried to accept the concept of the Trinity and that Jesus was literally God, even though I had no clue what it meant. I tried asking a Pastor I respected what the answer was, but rather than telling me that he didn’t know either, he just sidestepped the question, and I chose not to press him on it.

ShekhinahPeople can point out the passages in the New Testament they believe says that Jesus was worshipped as God, but even among the most learned New Testament scholars, most of whom are devout Christians, the matter is highly debatable.

So where does Jewish mysticism fit in?

In other words: If the Shechinah is manifest in the “garment”, i.e., if the garment is enveloped by its source, then it follows that it should be nullified out of existence, just as the sun’s rays cease to exist within the body of the sun. In effect, this would make the “garment” cease serving as a “garment” to conceal the Shechinah.

-Today’s Tanya Lesson
Likutei Amarim, middle of Chapter 52

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. –John 1:1-5, 14-18 (ESV)

No, that’s not an answer, but it is a clue. No, I can hardly say that we can directly apply commentary on passages from the Tanya directly to the Gospel of John (although John’s Gospel is the most “mystical”), but again, this seems to be a clue that makes a sort of sense to me.

However, I want to talk about education, rather than trying to solve astounding mysteries. As I understand my situation, I have a few options.

First, I could go to church and stick to canned teachings about what Christians believe, including accepting the doctrine of the Trinity based on the word of various Pastors and Bible teachers and stop asking questions. That’s the “safest” route, not just for my fellowship with other Christians, but for the sake of the well being of other Christians. If I stop asking uncomfortable questions which they don’t want to answer (because they believe they have all the answers they need), then I won’t drive them crazy with frustration because I won’t “fall into line.” or go with the “herd.”

Second, I could swing to the opposite end of the spectrum and follow every craziness that happens to manifest on the web. Frankly (and you should pardon what I’m about to say), that makes me vomit in my mouth just a little bit. Total, illogical insanity being tossed out into cyberspace for no other purpose than to express someone’s delusions or to create a cult following makes me just as nuts as the pre-programmed and utterly unenlightening teachings I used to encounter in Sunday school.

Third. I can continue to find what I believe are reasonable and reliable investigations into the Word of God that may not always be totally orthodox, but that have the promise of actually being interesting, challenging, and possibly even true. This one is full of trap doors for a lot of reasons, such as my not being a Bible scholar with lots of letters after my name. Entering into any sort of study, even a casual one, of any form of mysticism can also be hazardous, because of the constant need to distinguish between theory and interpretation. We interpret the Bible, we don’t really know it to be totally literal and factual, especially books like John and Revelation, which have highly mystical components. But at what point does interpretation become wishful thinking or even fantasy? At what point do we allow tradition and theology and doctrine to determine what the Bible says and then call it “fact?”

That line is very difficult to see amid the shifting sands of human understanding and desire to have our internal wishes or the wishes of our fellowship fulfilled.

I’m pretty sure I’m not crazy. I absolutely know that I don’t know it all, or don’t know anywhere near what I’d like to know. I’m pretty sure the church and the synagogue don’t have all the answers either, not to mention legitimate texts of Jewish mysticism, no matter how compelling they may be.

But like most religious people, I have to choose a context in which to operate, otherwise my faith in chaotic and without structure. So I choose a hybrid of Christianity and Judaism, with a bit of Chassidic and Kabbalistic mysticism thrown in for spice. This probably won’t yield any additional facts beyond those I possess, but perhaps it will bring up some interesting questions. Faith isn’t always about having the right answers. Sometimes it’s about having the freedom to explore God.

If He had made the world a complete and utter mystery, we would have no path to know Him. And if all would fit together like a neat and tidy grandfather clock, we would not know that there is anything more to know. So He took His raw, unknowable Will and cloaked it in wisdom, and through that wisdom a world was formed. And in that world, we sentient beings are drawn to the wisdom—only to find ourselves engulfed within an unfathomable ocean of wonders.

Now it is within the mind’s grasp to know that no thought can grasp Him.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Playing with Our Minds”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

Somewhere between a limited, physical universe, and the boundless infinity we call God, we have a sandbox we’re allowed to play in and explore. The box is our limitations. The sand is what we don’t know and perhaps can’t know. Maybe playing in sand seems futile and childish to you and you’d rather just have the box because it’s ultimately knowable. But who knows what treasures God may have buried in the sand for us to find?

A Physical Object is Merely “I am”

The mitzvos are primarily physical deeds performed with physical objects: animal hides are fashioned into tefillin and wrapped around one’s head and arm; flour and water become the instrument of a mitzvah in the form of the matzah eaten on Passover; a ram’s horn is sounded on Rosh Hashana; a citron and palm fond are taken on Sukkot. For the physical world is ultimately the most appropriate environment for the function of the mitzvah to be realized.

“The mitzvos relate to the very essence of G-d” is a mainstay of chassidic teaching. But the very notion of something relating to another thing’s essence is a philosophical oxymoron. The “essence” of something is the thing itself, as opposed to manner in which it affects and is perceived by that which is outside of it. Hence the philosophical axiom: “The essence of a thing does not express itself or extend itself.” In other words, if you see it, it is not the thing itself that you see, only the manner in which it reflects light and imprints an image on your retina; if you understand it, then it is not the thing itself that you comprehend, only a concept which your mind has pieced together by studying its effect on other things; and so on.

Nevertheless, G-d desired to project His essence into the created reality. This is the function of the mitzvos: through observing His commandments and fulfilling His will, we “bring” the very essence of G-d into our lives. And this is why He chose the physical object as the medium of the mitzvah’s implementation.

Spiritual entities (i.e., ideas, feelings, etc.) intrinsically point to a source, a cause, a greater reality that they express and serve. The spiritual is thus the natural medium for the various expressions of the Divine reality that G-d chose to convey to us – unlike the physical, whose deeper significance is buried deep beneath the surface of its corporeality, the spiritual readily serves as the expression of a higher truth.

But when it comes to the projection of G-d’s essence, the very “virtues” of the spiritual disqualify it: its capacity to convey, to reveal, to manifest, runs contrary to the introversive nature of “essence.” Here, the physical object, the most non-transcendental element of G-d’s creation, is the most ideal vehicle for G-d’s essence capturing mitzvos.

A physical object merely is: “I am,” it proclaims, “and my being is wholly defined by its own existence.” As such, the physical object constitutes the greatest concealment of the Divine truth. Precisely for this reason, it is G-d’s medium of choice for man’s implementation of His will.

In other words, the object of the mitzvah is not a “manifestation” of the Divine. Were it to reflect Him in any way, were it to reveal anything of the “nature” of His reality, it would, by definition, fail to capture His essence. But capture His essence it does, simply because He willed it to. G-d, of course, could have willed anything (including a manifest expression of His reality) to convey His essence, but He chose a medium that is most appropriate according to logical laws he established in creating our reality – a reality in which “essence” and “expression” are antithetical to each other. He therefore chose the material world, with its virtual blackout on any revealed expression of G-dliness, to serve as the “tool” with which we perform the mitzvos and thereby relate to His essence.

-from a commentary on
Ethics of Our Fathers (Chapter 4)
“Essence and Expression”
Iyar 17, 5772 * May 9, 2012
Chabad.org

Yesterday’s “extra meditation,” The Blood of the Prince, took a look at the “deity of Jesus” issue and inspired many passionate responses. Here’s the same issue from a different point of view.

You may have just read this lesson from the Pirkei Avot or Ethics of Our Fathers and wondered what it had to do with anything. In Christianity, the physical and the spiritual are usually seen as two separate and often incompatible entities. Christians are always trying to escape “the flesh” so they can connect to the Spirit. Yet in Judaism, this isn’t necessarily the same picture.

The connection of flesh and spirit is a question that was discussed with some fervor recently on Gene Shlomovich’s Daily Minyan blog post, Crisis? A Jewish husband believes that Jesus is the Messiah but not G-d. Once again, the question of the Deity of Jesus was brought up and once again it was not resolved, except in the minds of people who feel they know for sure that Jesus is “God in the flesh.”

Some of us however, aren’t so sure how it’s all supposed to work, which I guess is why we have faith but not always complete knowledge of who and what God is and isn’t.

But the commentary I quoted from includes a very interesting statement:

A physical object merely is: “I am,” it proclaims, “and my being is wholly defined by its own existence.” As such, the physical object constitutes the greatest concealment of the Divine truth. Precisely for this reason, it is G-d’s medium of choice for man’s implementation of His will.

I started thinking about something the Master said that sounds at once somewhat similar and yet is entirely different.

Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” –John 8:56-58 (ESV)

Of course, the statement “I am” not only recalls the Pirkei Avot commentary, but Exodus 3:14:

God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”

The Master is apparently saying not only that Abraham believed in him, Jesus, by faith (see Hebrews 13:11 as well), but that the great “I am” of Exodus is also the Christ. The quote from the Pirkei Avot commentary says that a physical object’s loudest cry of “I am”  (including physical man) declares that it is defined by its physical nature, and that physical nature is also the ultimate hiding place for the Divinity of the Creator. Which “I am” reference can we apply to Jesus…or can we apply both?

I’ve explored Messianic Divinity before and have leaned toward an alternate “explanation” for the joining of humanity and Divinity in the person of Jesus Christ than the one held by the church. That doesn’t make me a popular fellow by more traditional Christian thinkers (whether in the church or the Hebrew Roots movement) but at least I’m willing to question my assumptions and admit that I don’t know everything (which seems a prudent position given the ultimate “unknowability” of God).

That said, I’m taking somewhat of a different position today and exploring the other side of the coin, albeit through the interface of a commentary on the classic Jewish texts. I’m hardly saying that what was written in the Pirkei Avot directly or indirectly applies to the concept of the Messiah in general or Jesus in specific. The two “I am” references are competely disconnected in practicality. I’m just choosing to use this comparison as a “jumping off point” for exploring both Jesus and God.

That’s a big jump.

But then, I never said that Jesus wasn’t Divine in some manner or fashion, I just failed to jump on the mainstream Christian bandwagon in terms of an explanation. Judaism may not hold that a man can also be God and worthy of the worship and honor due to God alone, but it does (and I’m not even speaking of Jewish mysticism here) acknowledge the ability of the Divine to somehow exist within our universe and even to play by the rules of that universe, though as a matter of choice, not limitation:

Indeed, since the purpose of creation is that the essence of the Divine should be drawn down into the physical reality, the objective is to do so on its (the physical reality’s) terms, not by overriding them. So if the logical laws that govern our reality and dictate that “expression” is incompatible with “essence,” our bringing of G-dliness into the world is to be achieved “blindly,” without any perceptible manifestations of the Divine essence.

On the other hand, however, if G-d’s essence is truly to enter our reality, He must enter it as He is, without hindrance or inhibition. If His reality tolerates no limits or definitions, “revelation” must be no less conducive to His essence than “concealment.”

In other words, for Him to be here implies two (seemingly contradictory) truths: if He is to be truly here, then His presence must be consistent with our reality; yet if it is truly He who is here, He must be here on His terms.

This is why created existence has two distinct components: the Present World and the World to Come the process and its culmination. The process of drawing down the Divine essence into the created reality is carried out under an obscuring veil of corporeality, in keeping with the created rule that “the essence of a thing does not express itself or extend itself.” At the same time, the product and end result of this process are a world in which G d is uninhibitedly present, in which also the expressions of His reality fully convey the quintessence of His being.

In Jewish mystic tradition, the Angels and even the mysterious essence of the wisdom of Torah must be “clothed” in the mundane in order to exist in our world. Though God the Ein Sof, the infinite and unknown Creator does not interact with the world, something we call the Shekinah, which in most Christian Bibles is translated as “God’s glory” did enter our world, incinerating the top of Sinai and entering the Tabernacle in the desert, constructed by the hand of man. That Shekinah, we call “God” too, but it doesn’t seem to bother us that God existed simultaneously as Ein Sof and Shekinah (if something that strange, mystical, and metaphysical can even be expressed in temporal terms).

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. –John 1:1,14 (ESV)

I don’t know how it all works so I have no answers to give you. If you’re comfortable with your answers, then I guess that works for you. Frankly, I’m more “comfortable” or at least better able to tolerate the vast uncertainty of the nature of “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Once we say that we know all there is to know about God, it is humanity defining Divinity rather than the other way around. I don’t think I could live with that.