Category Archives: divinity

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

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.

The Blood of the Prince

tallit-prayerThis is one of those “hot” topics. A Messianic Jewish rabbi friend of mine recently got an email from a distraught woman urgently asking him to intervene on behalf of her husband. I would like some opinions on the matter from my readers. I will paraphrase that email below to protect all parties:

Please pray for us and help us. You see, my Jewish husband (who is from Israel) believes that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel through whom God redeems and saves, but he refuses to believe that Jesus is God too. My husband is adamant that he will not accept this belief. I don’t know what to do – I don’t want him to be lost. I need urgent help and I think my husband will benefit from your counseling. I am really hoping that you would be able to convince him of his error before it’s too late.

Question for my readers: should this woman be concerned about the spiritual fate of her husband? If this Jewish man never changes his mind on the nature of the Messiah, should he be concerned about his final destiny and should we?

-Gene Shlomovich
Crisis? A Jewish husband believes that Jesus is the Messiah but not G-d
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Daily Minyan blogspot

I’m not in the habit of quoting one person’s full blog post to begin one of my own, but this question, which I thought was unanswerable, may just have been answered (though judging by the subsequent comments that have been accumulating as I’ve been writing this missive, maybe not). There was a lively debate by various folks commenting on this blog but it degenerated (and is still degenerating) into a “Jesus is God” vs “Jesus is Messiah but not God” vs “I don’t know what Jesus is” kind of debate. A few people took a stab at actually trying to answer Gene’s question, but no one really knew or could support their opinions from scripture…that is until now:

I am convinced that Peter’s first introduction to Messiah (John 1:41), and his own confirmation of that introduction (John 6:69, 11:27) brought him into sonship, and is all that is expected of any Jew to be saved and secured for Kingdom status (Romans 10:13, 11:26).


Then Gene replied:


Thank you for providing an answer to my exact question directly from scripture.

Traditional religious Judaism doesn’t spend a great deal of time worrying about whether or not Jews are saved. In the merit of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, Jews are all considered to have a place in the world to come. However, in Christianity and the various corners of the Hebrew Roots and Messianic Jewish movements (which all overlap but are not really the same), there are a couple of important questions that have remained unanswered:

If Jews are “saved” through the merit of the patriarchs, what significance does Jesus have as the Messiah to them?

On a more fundamental level, the question is:

Are Jews saved?

I’ve struggled with these questions as well. To say that the process of salvation for a Jew is identical to a Gentile means that prior to the coming of the Messiah, no Jews could be saved. I also means that the millions of Jews who refused to convert to Christianity because they believed we Christians practiced paganism and polytheism, have been consigned to hell, often having suffered torture and murder at the hands of the church who was attempting to force their conversion, first.

I’m not sure I have the answer regarding “salvation” relative to all Jews everywhere, but it appears that Brad, armed with “only” a Bible, has answered the first question. Let’s take a look at his material in a more detail. His statement can be broken up into two main sections:

I am convinced that Peter’s first introduction to Messiah (John 1:41), and his own confirmation of that introduction (John 6:69, 11:27) brought him into sonship…

PrayingSo what do we see when we are introduced to the Messiah and that introduction is confirmed? What brought Peter into “sonship?”

The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi”, “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah”. He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas”. –John 1:35-42 (ESV)

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” –John 6:66-69 (ESV)

Mary, the sister of Martha, also faced the same question and arrived at the same conclusion.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” –John 11:25-27 (ESV)

Now here’s section two:

and is all that is expected of any Jew to be saved and secured for Kingdom status (Romans 10:13, 11:26).

So what is actually expected of a Jew for salvation through the Messiah?

For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” –Romans 10:10-13 (ESV)

Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,

“The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” –Romans 11:25-27 (ESV)

“No distinction between Jew or Greek” seems to be relative to the issue of salvation, so the Messiah has always been a vital element, but as Paul also said, “a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved,” so this two is part of God’s plan for Israel.

Putting it all together, nothing else but what has been presented above is required to answer Gene’s question (and I’m paraphrasing): “Is a Jewish man ‘saved’ if he comes to faith in Jesus as the Messiah but not as God clothed in flesh and blood?”

Peter believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the holy one of God and that he had words of eternal life. Mary, sister of Martha also believed that Jesus was the Messiah and Son of God that that “everyone who lives and believes in him shall never die.” Everyone, Jew or Gentile, who calls on the Lord’s name shall be saved, and Gentiles, in God’s mercy, are brought into the Kingdom through the temporary hardening of the Jews. In the end, as Paul continues, “all Israel will be saved.”

God will not abandon the life of his heritage Israel nor let the blood of the Messiah go to waste:

The poor man stood in the doorway, smelling the sweet, freshly baked bread, and held out his hand for something to eat. Hunger gnawed at his stomach, for he had not eaten in days. He had tried to find work, but no one wanted to hire him. At last, hearing that Rabbi Yitzchak of Kalush had an open heart and an open door, he came to his house late one Friday afternoon.

Even before they opened the door, he could smell the fresh baked bread . . .

The cook looked at her challahs, golden baked and twisted, and sprinkled with poppy seeds. The cook did not want to give him a slice from the challahs. They were for Shabbat. She looked in the kitchen cabinets and drawers for an old, stale piece of bread, the kind that is usually given to beggars, but she found none.

“Slice up a loaf,” a man’s voice said, “no blood will be lost because of it.”

And so she cut into the loaf, soft and white, and gave the poor man a thick slice to eat. Unless a person has truly been hungry, he cannot know the meaning of bread. The poor man ate greedily. As he left, a man with kind eyes nodded. He was the one who had told her to cut the bread. The poor man knew that this man had saved his life.

-from a commentary on
Ethics of Our Fathers (4:3)
“The Blood Not Lost”

The Son of God is the bread of life to all mankind but particularly to His people the Jews. The blood of the Prince was not spilled in vain on Jewish soil and was not wasted for the sake of Israel. We in the church should not consider the Jew with contempt:

Ben Azzai used to say: “Do not regard anyone with contempt, and do not reject anything; for there is no man who does not have his hour, and nothing which does not have its place.” -Avot 4:3


It is not uncommon for a first-time visitor to fall in love with Yerushalayim. And the place most people feel most attracted to in Yerushalayim is the Kosel itself. When someone told Rav Yosef Shalom Eliyashiv, shlit”a, that many people who live in Yerushalayim do not visit the Kosel at least once in every thirty days, he was astounded. “That is like a man whose ailing mother lives in the same city as he does, who doesn’t visit even once a month! Just as being in such a position is obviously morally untenable, the same should be true about one who is able to visit the Kosel once a month but fails to do so.”

Yet many visitors—perhaps because they come from so far—understand that the Kosel should be visited as often as possible and envy those who live so close, who sadly often visit much less than they would like.

One man on a short trip to Yerushalayim was all broken up about having to go back home to America. “If only I could bring the Kosel with me, it wouldn’t be so bad. Why can’t they instantaneously transport me there every day for shacharis? I would have so much more composure and could much more easily cope with the pressures of the day.”

But of course this was impossible.

When a friend heard about his trouble he made a novel suggestion. “Why not take a small piece of the Kosel back with you? That way you will feel connected and just looking at it will bring you back to the good times when you were here.”

He was very impressed with this idea, but as a religious Jew he was afraid to take such a step without consulting with a posek.

When this question reached Rav Moshe Feinstein, he ruled that this is forbidden. “It is clear that even one who uses the stones of har habayis transgresses me’ilah; how much more so regarding a fragment of a stone from the Kosel itself!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“A Memento?”
Me’ila 15

They say that “familiarity breeds contempt,” so I suppose it’s not surprising that when you have a fabulous resource or experience just minutes from your front door, you might not take every opportunity to visit it. That’s why people who live in cities with wonderful museums containing priceless treasures don’t visit them on a regular basis (usually it’s only when out-of-town guests come to visit).

This is also true of the relationship between Jews in Jerusalem and the Kotel or what some Christians call “the Wailing Wall.” This is also true of the relationship between some Christians and God.

Think about it.

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands — remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. –Ephesians 2:11-13 (ESV)

Examine the experience of someone who has just converted to Christianity, someone who was far off from God who has now been brought near by the blood and grace of Jesus Christ. That person is typically very excited and absolutely thrilled. He takes every opportunity to pray, to go to church, to go to a Bible study, to fellowship with other believers. He is a sponge, taking in every detail, every experience, every subtle nuance of being a Christian.

But sooner or later, the fire cools off. Since God is always near, how often do we visit Him? For some Christians, beyond going through the motions, not very often.

I suppose I should say at this point that this experience is common among people of all faiths, not just the church, but after all, the community of believers in the Jewish Messiah, is my primary audience.

But what about the rest of the story off the Daf? For those who truly appreciate what they can touch, how do you carry away a piece of holiness with you? In terms of the Kotel, you don’t. It’s an unspeakable crime to chip off a little bit of the wall and to carry it around with you as if it were a lucky charm. It’s not the stones themselves that impart holiness, it’s where they are built, why there were built, and what they represent. This doesn’t require that we literally carry a pebble or stone with us. But the man in the story was right in one important way. We do need to constantly carry holiness with us, no matter where we go. We need an anchor to hold us in place and to link us to God, as we are swept this way and that by the storms of everyday life.

We do not keep our traditions for the sake of the past but for their power to create a future, a power that will never end.

For the Torah was not given to this world so that it should return to its former glory, but so that it will transcend itself.

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

One of the ways Judaism has carried holiness and a connection to God with them across history and no matter where they were living (having been driven out of one place and then another, and so on), was and is their traditions. Traditions themselves are not physical objects, though they can employ such objects, but they are concepts and ideas that represent love, faith, and devotion to God. You cannot carry a piece of the Kotel with you, but you can carry the desire to see Jerusalem in your heart. You can pray for the coming of the Messiah and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple. You can enter into prayer with a minyan and summon the presence of God within your midst.

What do we Christians carry around with us to transmit the sense of holiness?

Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. –John 13:16 (ESV)

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. –Matthew 28:19-20 (ESV)

We are not greater than the one who sent us, but we have been sent. We carry that Spirit and that mission within us and that sacred duty must never leave us. Many Christians think that only “official” missionaries take the Good News of Christ to the unbelievers, but even if we never overtly speak of our faith, if our behavior is consistent with the one who sent us, then we always declare our love of God and humanity by the one we carry around inside of us.

What is holiness? It’s not a thing you can hold and touch and feel. It’s not a candlestick or a kippah or even a Bible, although in their proper contexts, these objects are important or represent something important. Holiness is a spirit and an inspiration. It is God, not only among His people, but within His people. He is represented by our words and our actions, not just during worship and prayer, but as we go about our business in every hour of every day. That is what we carry and what anchors us to Him.

We are holy and sacred as emissaries (and we are all emissaries) and it’s not just what we have, but what we do that matters.

An emissary is one with his sender. This concept is similar to that of an angel acting as a Divine emissary, when he is actually called by G-d’s name. If this is so with an angel it is certainly true of the soul; in fact with the soul the quality of this oneness is of a higher order, as explained elsewhere.

From “Today’s Day”
for Iyar 8 23rd day of the omer
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

ShekhinahWe, as mere servants, are not greater than the One who sent us, but we are one in goal and purpose. We must not exalt ourselves beyond our station as believers and disciples, but we must take who and what we are very seriously, because not only God, but a desperate and suffering world is watching us at every moment, looking with diminishing hope for evidence that there is a loving God and that He can save.

Yet there is another message we can take away with us from the words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe; a lesson that may explain much, but cause some concern as well. The quote from the Rebbe recalls this event:

“Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him. –Exodus 23:20-21 (ESV)

It may amaze you that God told Moses that a mere angel could forgive sins, but then, if the Name of God is upon the angel, then the angelic being wears God’s Divinity like a shroud, acting for Him in all things, as if it were God Himself.

But we all know an angel is not literally God.

Jesus said, “I and the Father are one,” (John 10:30 [ESV]) and depending on how you interpret his words (and I’ve talked about this before), you may believe he was saying that he, Jesus, is literally and physically the same as God. This is a common belief and most people in the church, though they don’t understand it, do not doubt it for a second.

But just as an angel can carry the Name of God with him such that he can forgive sins and thus literally be called by God’s Name, how much more can the Son of God, the Creator’s personal and most trusted emissary, be also called by God’s Name, forgive sins in God’s Name, not be greater than the One who sent him, and still sit at the right hand of the Father.

I don’t understand it either, but it’s something to ponder as we live out the will of the one who sent us.

The Journey of God’s Image

If you were not you, if you saw yourself from the eyes of another, how would you see your journeys through life?

You would see how each journey leads away from home. Away from your birthplace, from those who nurtured you and that which made you what you are. Outwards, away from yourself in so many directions.

But you see your journey from within. From within, every journey leads in one direction: Towards within. Towards yourself. Closer and closer.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Traveling to Yourself”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

What a horrible thought. Imagine if you could see yourself the way others see you. I suppose if you look in the mirror, you may think you don’t look so bad, but when you see a photograph someone took of you, you think you look terrible. That’s the difference I experience between shaving while looking at my reflection in the morning and seeing a photo someone took of me.

Yuk. Put the camera away.

But what about who you are spiritually? This is something we see in ourselves one way and can be seen in an entirely different way from an outsider’s point of view. People may see what we do and judge us, for good or for ill, accordingly. You may see someone and by their deeds, believe they are a righteous person, but inside, who knows but God?

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. –Matthew 23:25-28 (ESV)

What about, “Woe to you?” What about, “Woe to me?”

In the 2000 movie What Women Want, ad executive Nick Marshall (played by Mel Gibson), accidentally gains the ability to hear what women are thinking (but only women, not men). Since he’s the quintessential “male chauvinist pig,” after a period of disorientation, he turns this ability to his advantage in order to manipulate women.

You men out there who complain that you don’t understand women may think that the ability to hear a woman’s thoughts would be an extremely useful and helpful gift. Boy, are you wrong. How do you know what women think of you is at all complementary? Do you really want to be shaken out of your bliss of ignorance by finding out what your wife, your girlfriend, or your female co-workers really think of you?

What does God think of you?

Yes, I know…God is love, but He’s also a judge. You Christians may say that being covered by the “blood of Jesus,” God sees him instead of you, but let’s get real. If God is all-seeing and all-knowing, then He knows all about you with no illusions and no mystical blinders. You can’t control or limit the vision of God by “claiming the blood of Christ.”

I know I see my spiritual journey from only my own point of view. I have no capacity to see myself as God sees me or to judge my path as God judges it. I am trapped within my own perceptions, and no man can truly perceive God. So in traveling forward and seeking Him, how can I really know where I’m going or if I’m even headed in the right direction? I can’t depend on myself and I can’t imagine what God sees when He sees me.

Or can I?

We were created in G-d’s image. The image of His vision.

From a point before and beyond all things, G-d looked upon a moment in time to be, and saw there a soul, distant from Him in a turbulent world, yet yearning to return to Him and His oneness. And He saw the pleasure He would have from this union.

So He invested His infinite light into that finite image, and became one with that image, and in that image He created each one of us.

As for that moment He saw, that was the moment now.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“G-d’s Image”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

This doesn’t tell me what God sees when He looks at me, but it does provide something of a clue. “…a soul, distant from Him in a turbulent world, yet yearning to return to Him…” That’s me. But here’s the really interesting part, though:

So He invested His infinite light into that finite image, and became one with that image, and in that image He created each one of us.

Remind you of anything?

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.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.

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 1:1-5,9,14 (ESV)

I know that when Rabbi Freeman says, “He invested His infinite light into that finite image,” he is talking about God in relation to we human beings as created in His image, but the suggestion of God’s infinite light being expressed a “finite image” inevitably brings the first chapter of John’s Gospel to my mind. Also, when the Rabbi said “He saw the pleasure He would have from this union,” what I see is the joy God has when, through the covenant provided to the nations by the Master, we can also have union with God, even as the Master has such a union.

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. –Galatians 3:27-29 (ESV)

We cannot see God or experience Him in any direct manner, but the Master did say that “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) That probably doesn’t mean that you are literally looking at God when you look at Jesus, but it does (probably) mean that something of God’s infinite and Divine “light” was imbued with the Master to give him a unique identity among men. Through our devotion to the Master, we can “see God,” but we can also see the best in ourselves. We can see a goal to shoot for, though not necessarily attain. We can see the endpoint of our process and the destination of our path.

We can’t see ourselves as God sees us (mercifully), but in keeping our eyes on the Master, we can see ourselves as we should be. We can see ourselves as the person we strive to be; as the person God made us to be.

For my part, I can either look at the photograph of myself and despair, or “look” at the “image” of the Messiah and try to overcome my darkness with his light. The spark within me that is fully realized within the existence of Messiah, longs to return to the Source, but is chained by flesh and blood down in the abyss. A purely human life is always chained in the darkness while longing for the light. A life of trust and faith may live in a world of darkness, but the soul can still fly free and know the day will come when true union with our Creator will be completed, as it is between the Master and God.

I and the Father are one. –John 10:30 (ESV)

Questions You Can Never Ask In Church

There is a Yiddish saying that is familiar to many: “One doesn’t die from asking a question.” This expression is a pithy way to explain to someone who has questions that having a question — or many — is no big deal.

As one gets older and wiser, he has a broader perspective and realizes that questions are a part of life and that we make choices despite questions all the time.

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“The Missing Husband”
Kereisos 11-1

I had coffee after work with a couple of guys yesterday. That’s actually kind of unusual for me since I don’t socialize very often, but this was a somewhat unusual situation. Those of you who have been following my blog for awhile know that one of my “issues” is my lack of fellowship with like-minded believers. You have probably read my discussion about why I don’t go to church. These two fellows are more or less in the same boat as I am. We are all believers, but through one process or another, we find ourselves without a congregation to which we can belong. Maybe we’re too independent or idiosyncratic or something.

So over coffee at Moxie Java, we discussed why we were meeting in the first place. We hadn’t brought our Bibles and we didn’t have a specific plan or agenda for our meeting. The most we had settled on before getting together yesterday was that we wanted to have a meeting and talk. But what about?

We came up with a number of reasons why we were more alike than unalike, and why we don’t seem to fit into a traditional church setting. One of the reasons was that we ask a lot of questions.

You might not think this is a big deal, but I know from my own experience that it’s not a good idea to ask a lot of questions in church, or at least, you shouldn’t ask questions that don’t have canned, pre-programmed, Christian answers. But we were discussing things like the Deity (or lack thereof) of Jesus and whether or not there really is a Trinity, and whether the third Temple would be a real, physical structure built by men (I think so, but someone else didn’t) or something more “spiritual.” These are questions that would probably raise a few eyebrows if you discussed them in adult Sunday school after services. They might even get you quickly escorted to the door by a couple of ushers with a strong “suggestion” never to return.

That’s the difference between how I see Christianity and Judaism. Christianity is about always having the right answers and only asking questions that map to those answers. Judaism is about always asking all kinds of questions and then struggling with the answers, maybe coming up with half a dozen possible responses, and then arguing all of them around back and forth. There’s no sin in wondering exactly what makes Jesus divine and what his relationship is with “God the Father,” but you might not get that feeling if you asked those kind of questions in a church.

But if you don’t ask questions, then you don’t learn. And if you don’t learn, then your relationship with God drops into a deadend rut and never goes anywhere for years and years.

The rebellious child who questions everything sits in a place beyond the one who has nothing to ask.

If the rebellious child questions, it is because it touches him, it says something to him. Perhaps it even bothers him.

But a perfectly capable human being who has no questions about Torah and G-d — he is stuck in his place. Perhaps he is a good religious Jew who does good deeds and never sins. But there is no sense of the spirit, of the meaning of life, of transcendence.

He is stuck in Egypt and knows of nothing higher.

—at the second Seder, 1965

Chronicled by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Inquisitively Challenged”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

I was discussing this matter with a Pastor on his blog the other day, and his response was that the issue wasn’t Christianity vs. Judaism, but west vs. east. He said that the eastern churches tended to very much encourage question asking and wrestling over difficult issues. The western church tends to be more “goal-oriented” and likes conclusions rather than conundrums. That may well be true. I don’t know. I do know that the traditional Yeshiva model of learning is to argue opposing positions and “posing problems that would cross a rabbi’s eyes.” (from the lyrics to If I Were a Rich Man)

broken-crossSo there we were, three guys sitting around drinking mediocre coffee and occasionally having our conversation being drowned out by the latte machine, asking questions, posing problems, and generally discussing matters that would “cross a Pastor’s eyes.”

But it felt good.

Part of getting close to God is meditating upon Him and His awesome, mighty works and wonders. Part of getting close to God is prayer. Part of getting close to God is reading the Bible and studying the Torah commentaries of the ancient Jewish sages.

And part of knowing God is getting together with a few other guys in a coffee shop in southwestern Idaho and talking about Him, asking all the questions we can’t ask other people, and hoping we get at a few answers, or better yet, a few more questions, that surprise and challenge us.

Because if we can’t find a way to get closer to Him, we’ll always be too far away.

Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

For behold, those who are far from you shall perish;
you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.
But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord God my refuge,
that I may tell of all your works. –Psalm 73:25-28 (ESV)

We’ll get together again next Thursday after work and see how it goes. Maybe, I’ll have a good question to ask. I hope no one comes up with just one answer.

The Glorious Branch

In some English versions of Isaiah 4:2, the translators capitalized the word “Branch.” This tells the reader that the branch here is not literal but someone unique, namely Messiah. So we read, “In that day the Branch of the LORD shall be beautiful and glorious.” The Hebrew allows for that and more. Since “shall be beautiful and glorious” can also mean “shall become beautiful and glorious,” it is possible to capitalize these two words as well. In this way, one should read Beautiful and Glorious as the transformation of Messiah from the ordinary to the magnificent. Glorious, therefore, becomes yet another name for the Messiah: The Branch is Glorious.”

That Messiah is called Glorious (kavod) is no small thing, since Jewish in thought, glory is one of the attributes of God. In the language of theologians, Jews see glory as a divine attribute. One can see why this is so from verses such as “And the glory of the LORD appeared to them” (Numbers 20:6). Accordingly, what appeared before the people of Israel was no mere cloud, but rather Glory personified.

This and other verses lead to some fascinating conclusions.

-Tsvi Sadan, from his upcoming book
The Concealed Light: Names of Messiah in Jewish Sources”
“Glorious,” pp 120-1

I often ponder the nature and character of the Messiah. I suppose these thoughts have been especially accentuated given that I’m currently reading Sadan’s book (available for purchase on March 15th from First Fruits of Zion/Vine of David). I’ll write a full review of this book when I finish it, but so far, examining each of the multitude of names for the Messiah found in the Bible, in Talmud, in the Zohar, and other Jewish writings is like peeling away the different layers of an onion: the more that I explore, the more that is revealed. It’s also like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle whereby, the more pieces that I gather and put together, the more complete a picture is presented. If I can rely on all of these “pieces;” all of these names to be accurate descriptors for Messiah, then I see that he is more amazingly complex than I could have possibly imagined.

Yesterday, I read and commented on Derek Leman’s blog post Quick Thoughts: Yeshua as the Radiance of God, which also describes something of the nature and character of the Messiah, particularly in relation to his “deity”. Leman said in part:

But hold on a minute. Many ideas in Jewish monotheism were formed in the centuries after Yeshua and specifically as a reaction against Christian persecution of our people and missionizing of our people. Yet in spite of the desire of many Jewish sages and thinkers to take monotheism in a direction incapable of being harmonized with the idea of a Divine Emanation of God who could take on humanity and be the Divine Man, Judaism has too much vested in the idea of God’s Emanations to go completely in that direction.

From reading the comments, it seems as if most people see what Leman wrote as confirming the traditional interpretation of Jesus as part of the “Godhead,” and as literally co-equal with God the Father and God the Spirit. As Leman references in the quote above, this concept seems to collide rather uncomfortably with Jewish monotheism, yet most of Leman’s readership seems to believe that Trinitarianism and monotheism can be reconciled and “harmonized”. I guess I’m still something of a theological blockhead, or maybe I just don’t like taking anyone’s word for it, especially since the explanation for the Trinity is a “mystery” that isn’t supposed to be questioned.

But that isn’t quite what Leman said. In his comment responding to mine, he wrote:

The emanations of God in the Tanakh were, in fact, God. Spirit. Name. Glory. Word. Voice. Presence. So the idea that Yeshua must be some exalted being of lesser status than God is not a requirement from the standpoint of Jewish theology. The “separate” part means he is not the totality of God. The “equivalent” part means emanates from God as part of God’s Being. Yes, Yeshua is under the authority of God (Father, Direct Being of God).

I’m not sure how the Messiah can be God the Son, co-equal to the other manifestations of God (Gods?) and also be “not the totality of God,” but maybe that’s a part of the puzzle that hasn’t been revealed to us yet (if it ever will be). Somewhere in my heart, I cannot accept the finality of the statement Jesus is God followed quickly by the statement, “discussion over.” In peeling away the layers of the onion and shuffling through the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that I can’t yet fit into the rest of the picture, what I hear instead is, I don’t know.”

Who is the Messiah and in what way does he possess the divine quality (one among many) of being “glorious?” Sadan continues his commentary on “Glorious” as a name of the Messiah with a compelling midrash (and remember that midrash is not fact, so please don’t bite my head off):

In an outstanding Jewish commentary from the ninth century CE on Psalm 36:9, “In Your light we see light,” the author offers an imaginary conversation between God, Satan, and Messiah which reflects his own understanding of who is Messiah and what is his role. In this conversation, Satan attempts to deter God from honoring Messiah. Challenged, God asks Messiah what he intends to do in light of the suffering inflicted upon him because of those whom he came to save, and the Messiah answers:

“Master of worlds, with the joy of my soul and the pleasure of my heart, I accept upon myself that none from Israel will perish and that not only the living will be saved in my day but also those hidden in the soil…and not only those will be saved, but all hosts whom you have thought to create but have not. This is what I desire, this is what I accept upon me” (Pesikta Rabbati, 36).

Ironically, this is not unlike other words of the Messiah we find here:

And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. –Luke 22:41-44 (ESV)

Moses at SinaiIn my morning meditation for Torah Portion Tetzaveh, I commented how alike Moses and Jesus were in that they were willing to sacrifice everything including their lives for the sake of their people Israel. We know that Moses was a man and that men, even courageous and righteous men, do not lay down their lives lightly. If Messiah is God and death means nothing to him, then why was he in agony, why did his sweat become “like great drops of blood,” and why did he need an angel to appear out of heaven to strengthen him? I’m not saying that the Messiah can’t encompass more than man in some mystic sense, but I see him as more than just a flesh and blood “placeholder” for God. Otherwise, what did he sacrifice that can compared to Moses?

Sadan continues:

This astonishing midrash says in no uncertain terms that Messiah is willing to suffer and give up his life for the sake of all Israel, even those who were not yet conceived…The same midrash goes on to say that “on that hour God appointed for him the four creatures who carry the throne of glory, of Messiah.” Messiah, who in this midrash is seated underneath God’s throne, is elevated, glorified, and given the permission to sit on his own separate throne. Messiah’s willingness to give up his life is that which turns him from the ordinary Branch to Glorious , whose throne now is alongside God’s throne.

Psalm 110:1 is probably the most well known example of the Messiah sitting in the highest place of honor at God’s right hand, and in Revelation 22:1 we see the throne of God and of the Lamb in the restored Eden at the end of all things, so it’s not as if midrash is totally undescriptive of the Messiah we, his disciples, have come to know.

We must know certain things to be true and to trust in God in order to be called by His Name, and we must believe in the Messiahship of Jesus in order to be his disciples and worthy of his teachings. One of the things we know about God is that He is unknowable in any absolute manner. Among the Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith, we know that God alone has created everything and rules over everything. We know that He is a perfect and complete One and in that, He is alone. We know that He is not a physical body and that physical laws and limitations do not apply to Him in any way. I wrote a four-part series about the Divine nature of the Messiah, starting with Exploring Messianic Divinity and you can review those writings for more details, but to give a brief summary, I believe the Messiah is of a Divine nature but not simply and literally God transformed into a human being. I don’t know who Messiah is exactly. And I don’t know who God is at all…well, maybe just a little, as some of His tiny shards and sparks have been revealed.

I’m continuing to struggle and at the same time continuing to find some sort of peace while wrestling with God. Judaism is, in many ways, illustrated as a people who struggle with God at every step of the path, and while I’m hardly Jewish, I too feel the struggle. Christianity is founded on accepting theologies, and platitudes, and pronouncements, and woe be on the believer in the sanctuary, the Bible study, or on the Internet, who actually questions any of these “conclusions.” I will probably never understand those things that everyone else seems to know so well that they take them (and maybe the Messiah) for granted. I only know that the glory of God and the eternal light of Messiah are blinding me and I can see neither one with any sort of detail. All I have are questions and no answers. All I see is the human me and not the “more than human” me that somehow contains the image and the Spirit of God.

It is said in Judaism that the Torah is not in heaven, meaning that once the Torah was given at Sinai, it was not up to God to interpret its meaning, but men. But the Messiah was given to men at Bethlehem. Can he be “interpreted” by men in the world, or is his glory still a concealed light under the Throne of God in Heaven? I don’t know. A lot of people seem to think they know, but I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s just that I’m not terribly knowledgeable in this area and am making up mysteries around Jesus that don’t exist, but as I continue to explore the “trail” left for me by Tsvi Sadan and the names of the Messiah, I find more there than I can find in what I’ve been told to expect.

The puzzle is there on the table in front of me and I’m not even sure I have all of the pieces in order to make a complete picture. I take that back. I’m sure many of the pieces to the “Messiah puzzle” are missing. Even if I had all the pieces, I’m like a three-year old trying to put together the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle in the dark. It would be a challenge even for the best puzzle builders. How am I supposed to do this?

Maybe I’m not supposed to see the picture or to understand the mystery. Perhaps all that is expected of me is to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with my God (Micah 6:8). Maybe all I can ever hope for is that God strengthens me enough so that I’m able to continue to put one foot in front of another on this path he has set me upon. And as much as I want to stop and to appreciate the scenery and the beauty that surrounds me, the path calls and demands I try to take one more step, to place one more tiny piece correctly in the puzzle. In doing this, I know that while I live, the destination will elude me, and the picture will always be incomplete. Is the Messiah given to men so that men may know him, or is he still hidden under the Throne of God?

I envy those of you who can see everything the Master is and all that he teaches. I still think that my Master is concealed and yet even hidden, his light blinds me.

The true teacher is most present in his absence.

It is then that all he has taught takes root, grows and blossoms.

The students despairs for his teacher’s guidance,
and in that yearning, the teacher’s work bears fruit.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Present in Absence”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

The sages say, the Torah cannot be taught from the Heavens.” So the only place I have left to seek his teachings is here on earth. That’s going to have to be enough, because I have no where else to look.

For more, go to The Concealed Light: A Book Review.