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When Does a Faith Become a Culture?

This morning on Fandango’s This, That, and the Other blog, I read a post of his called Share Your World — Coffee and Climate. He was responding to a Share Your World challenge on another blog.

One of the questions was If you drink coffee, how do you like it best? Hot, cold, iced, with cream, with sugar or black as black?, however it was Fandango’s answer to Global warming? Reality or myth? that I focused on. His answer was:

Global warming (aka, climate change) is reality. The Bible is myth.

He used the photo below to emphasize his point:

bible myth
Found at the “This, That, and the Other” blogspot – Photo credit unknown

I thought about his answer while I was getting ready for work, and then crafted this response:

Interesting that you brought the (Christian) Bible into the mix since the question had absolutely nothing to do with it. I can only assume that you deliberately were taking a shot a Christians just because you could.

Now I would never try to convince you regarding my belief system. You’re not interested, it would take too long, and adopting a faith in an all-powerful Creator is as much a metaphysical experience as it is anything else.

However, you probably didn’t think through the ramifications of your statement. I mentioned the “Christian” Bible before, but the first two-thirds of it, what Christians call the Old Testament, make up the Jewish Bible.

The writings in the Jewish Bible are the very basis for the existence of Israel and the Jewish people. I know liberal, secular Jews who would disagree with me, but given that my wife is Jewish and I’ve had extensive experience in both some churches and some synagogues (I know you might not believe this, but not all Christians and not all Jews are the same, and in fact, there are churches and synagogues, even here in red state Idaho, that are highly progressive), so my opinions are not entirely uninformed.

So in calling the Bible a myth (and that’s your right), you may well be invalidating every single observant Jewish person in the present and for the past 3500 years, as well as the Jewish people as a whole. I know you didn’t consider the implications of all this, but the Holocaust tried to do the same thing (and I’m absolutely not accusing you of being anti-Semitic or a Holocaust denier).

Yes, I’m going to extremes but to make a point. Whether you believe in something or not (speaking of Colin Kaepernick), it doesn’t mean those who do are invalid. The Bible, once you study it (and Bible studies are complicated) is an incredibly nuanced and complex document, and I’m the first to admit that most churches don’t even know how to study it (I’ve argued endlessly with many Christians on this point).

I am curious about your opinion of the Koran (it’s transliterated from Arabic, so it can be spelled different ways in English). Is it myth as well? Would you stay that on your blog if you know Muslims were reading it?

I know you made the comment casually, but words have power. As writers, we should be aware of that.

Oh, I take my coffee black, nothing else in it.

Now, I wasn’t the first reader of his to object, and his response to her was:

You’re right. I was expressing my opinion. The nature of the Share Your World prompt is to get people to share their opinions. And yes, Christians are entitled to believe whatever they want to believe. It was not my intention to mock and scorn. My philosophy is “whatever floats your boat,” and I wasn’t taking a dig at your beliefs as much as I was expressing my own, personal opinion in a post on my blog that the stories in the Bible are mythology. If you choose to believe in and accept that mythology as your religious truth, go for it.

As I was composing this missive, he did respond to me directly:

Whether the Bible (Old or New Testaments), the Koran, or any other religious text, they are all, in my opinion, myths. I assume at least some Muslims have stumbles across my blog, but perhaps not. So while I used the Bible as an illustration, I was not intending to limit my belief that all religions are base [sic] in mythology to Christianity.

Why did I bring it up at all? Just to offer a contrast between those who deny climate change and those who eagerly embrace religious mythology. I also don’t think you need to be religious in order to believe that the Holocaust happened and to be embarrassed by the inhumanity that humans perpetuate against one another in the name of their favorite god, for “ethnic cleansing,” or for the whatever religious beliefs to which they adhere. Is all that part of GOD’s infallible plan? That millions of people — his children — shall be killed and persecuted in his name?

I am not a religious person in any way and I believe that all religions are based on made-up bullshit. But I don’t deny that there is much to be learned by reading religious tracts and that if it helps people make it through their lives, then who am I to be critical of them? But that doesn’t make me believe that the Bible is any more true than Tolkien’s Middle Earth, for example,
or other fantasy tales. It’s great literature, but it’s mythology at its finest.

Okay, enough of this meandering response to your comment.

As if all Christians or people of faith are Luddites and don’t believe it’s possible for human beings to damage the global environment.

I suppose I should just drop it at this point, but then there’s my original intention in crafting this blog post, plus another concern Fandango’s most recent comment brought up. I’ll take the latter first.

I also don’t think you need to be religious in order to believe that the Holocaust happened and to be embarrassed by the inhumanity that humans perpetuate against one another in the name of their favorite god, for “ethnic cleansing,” or for the whatever religious beliefs to which they adhere. Is all that part of GOD’s infallible plan? That millions of people — his children — shall be killed and persecuted in his name?

Ah yes, the fallacy that people only kill other people, at least on a large-scale such as war, because of religion, and if there were no religions, we’d all love each other and there’d be peace forever.

Okay, I’m overstating the matter, but to make a point. John Lennon’s classic Imagine makes this point as well, along with doing away with the concept of nations (sort of like Katy Perry’s more recent no borders comment). Lennon’s lyrics also suggested having personal possessions as a problem, so I suppose anyone agreeing with his “no religion” statement should advocate for dismantling all national borders and the laws pertaining to them (good luck with that), and should give away all of their possessions thus eliminating want and greed everywhere (I don’t see that happening either).

But I digress.

Blaming all forms of mass violence on religion denies the vicious acts of Stalin, Mao, and others who ran secular, atheist, totalitarian regimes. The only problem with an organized worship of God (or governments for that matter) is people. People have a tremendous capacity for twisting any institution to their own needs, so yes, in the name of God, millions have been enslaved, tortured, and murdered.  Whole cultures have been destroyed forever. For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church and wider Christianity have been doing such to the Jewish people. The early Christian Crusaders murdered Muslims as well as Jews (which some say has led Islam to develop a fundamental hate of Christianity that persists to this day).

This also denies the tremendous good Judaism and Christianity have done across their respective histories. For instance, according to numerous sources including Bible Mesh, CNS News, and Breakpoint, the modern institution of the Hospital owes its existence to both Judaism and Christianity.

Beyond all that, I refer interested parties to William T. Cavanaugh’s book The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (84% of the reviews on Amazon are four and five-star if that sort of thing matters to you).

However, my main point has to do to my original response to Fandango. At what point does a body of faith become a culture?

It’s an interesting concept. Various aspects of Judaism or collective bodies of Jews are certainly cultural. While I don’t believe most reasonable people would object to differing groups of human beings behaving out of and celebrating their cultures, should they object to a culture based on that body having a covenant relationship with God? This is an especially poignant question given that during this week, millions of Jews all over the world are celebrating the festival of sukkot, many eating and sleeping in a sukkah, celebrating the protection of God over the Jewish people and nation.

Let’s use a specific example. I was once online friends with a person who was an atheist. We had a shared interest in the Linux operating system and performing charitable acts toward disadvantaged children. However, he posted a meme on Facebook several years ago ridiculing the practice among Orthodox Jews of having young boys wear Payot (click the following link to learn more about this and Upsherin) and even calling it a form of child abuse.

payot on yemeni boys
Source: Zio Mania

We “discussed” it, he was unrelenting, and this was the first and last straw for me as far as his opinions were concerned.

Is Christianity a culture? On first blush, it certainly doesn’t seem that way, though even among Jews, not all Jewish groups have uniform practices and beliefs (but at the end of the day, they’re still all Jews), particularly between the observant and the secular.

My last experience in a church taught me many things (one of them being that I don’t belong in a church), but one important realization was that the church had a sort of “culture,” a collection of ideations, beliefs, and practices that, however subtle, were unique to that group. Of course, I can’t make the same case for Christianity being a culture (and as a whole, I doubt it is) as I can for Judaism, so again, I digress.

I can understand that plenty of folks out there are atheist and believe anyone who is religious must be brain-damaged or incredibly superstitious. Having known plenty of Christians and observant Jews over the years, I can attest that isn’t true (for the most part…there are always outliers), but let’s roll with this. Okay, you believe an all-powerful, intelligent, creative being is impossible and even mythical. I really don’t mind. I don’t mind that you make your beliefs public. After all, your free speech rights are my free speech rights.

But at what point does that become denigration, especially if you also value a diversity of human beings in your environment? Does diversity hit a brick wall when religion comes into play?

I may be chasing a cat up the wrong tree, so to speak, and my commentary is probably all for nothing, but when does a religious person get to say, “I respect you as a human being though you disagree with my beliefs, but when will you respect my humanity and worth as well?”

No, I absolutely don’t believe Fandango intended all of that. He was merely speaking his mind. But as I told him before, words have power. We know that for an absolute fact. This is why you don’t casually lace your speech and writing with racial or ethnic slurs. Because they can cause emotional pain. As people of faith, we are commanded to treat others, especially those who are not like us, with kindness and compassion. Being human though, we sometimes don’t obey that command, and in my experience, Christians can be pretty biased, both relative to secular people as well as to each other (you have never been in a contentious community until you’ve been involved in religious blogging).

I’ve been an atheist, so I know how that looks and feels, and I know religious people who have left the faith, so I know how strong their feelings and viewpoints are as well. However, if you have been a life-long atheist and never, ever have had a faith in anything outside of yourself, society, or some other human construct, then you can’t possibly imagine how or why an intelligent, competent, educated, and accomplished person could also have faith in God.

If you don’t understand us, try not to judge us. Chances are, you’ve only met the worst, and most “fringy” Christians. You don’t know the rest of us.

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Is Jeff Sessions Trying to Establish an American State Religion?

sessions
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

I just found out that “Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday announced the Department of Justice’s creation of a ‘religious liberty task force’ to ‘help the department fully implement our religious guidance'” over at CNN.

Actually, someone I know from my Powered by Robots sister blog reblogged an article called The First Amendment Under Siege posted at The Shinbone Star. You can find out more about their staff here (although discovering that one of their reporters used to work for MSNBC told me a lot about the particular bent of this publication).

I suppose I shouldn’t get into politics on my “religious” blog, but this topic is or should be of interest to all people of faith in the U.S.

It’s tough to get an unbiased view of what Sessions is up to, so I had to look at a number of differing sources, including The Hill and a memo on the Department of Justice website.

So “The Shinbone Star” states that the First Amendment is under attack, while Attorney General Jeff Sessions says he’s trying to defend it.

The “Star” believes that any government involvement in the realm of religion or religious institutions is a violation of the First Amendment, and at least hints that it’s an attempt to form a “state religion,” or rather:

We already know how 45 feels about the press and about free speech for anyone who dares oppose him. We also know that the neo-Nazis who march in favor of his policies are “very fine people,” according to him, while the opposition is repeatedly disrespected and dismissed.

So that leaves the first part of the amendment, a provision drawn up by men who opposed the idea of a state religion and who in fact did not mention a deity in the whole of the Constitution.

Sessions’ “religious liberty task force” is an outgrowth of the Trump Administration’s indebtedness to the Evangelical Right, which apparently doesn’t like being told that whom people marry and whether they choose to reproduce is no one’s business.

And this most telling passage:

So, baking a cake is an “ordeal’ for a baker, but being forced to have children isn’t an ordeal for a woman who can’t afford contraception? And I don’t know of any nuns who’ve been “ordered to buy contraceptives,” but in the light of revelations that religious sisters in Africa and elsewhere have been sexually molested and even impregnated by priests, it sounds like a good idea to me.

Not sure who is forcing women in the U.S. to have babies since you’d also have to force them to have sex first.

Okay, let’s find a counterbalance. What does “The Hill” have to say:

Sessions said the cultural climate in this country — and in the West more generally — has become less hospitable to people of faith in recent years, and as a result many Americans have felt their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack.

“We’ve seen nuns ordered to buy contraceptives. We’ve seen U.S. senators ask judicial and executive branch nominees about dogma—even though the Constitution explicitly forbids a religious test for public office. We’ve all seen the ordeal faced so bravely by Jack Phillips,” he said, referring to the Colorado baker who took his case to the Supreme Court after he was found to have violated the state’s anti-discrimination laws for refusing to make a cake for a same-sex wedding.

This seems to present opposing views as to who should have rights and who should not. Are the rights of religious people and those belonging to other groups mutually exclusive?

If a person is an atheist, whether they’ve been religious in the past or not, that person might not understand the depth of the struggle a Catholic Nun might experience if she were forced by law to provide contraception to a patient. They might also not understand what Jack Phillips went through when forced by law to provide a service he felt violated his religious beliefs. In this case, can we say that religious people in the United States have a right to practice their faith without it being abridged by the law or not?

In theory, yes. That’s one of the things the First Amendment guarantees. In fact, the “Star” even quoted those rights from the Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances

–First Amendment to the United States Constitution

It seems that’s exactly what Phillips did, but somehow, he’s “wrong.”

Are Nuns being forced to buy contraceptives or to provide them to others? Not that I’m aware of, unless someone can point me to a relevant and credible news source. I’m not sure where Sessions pulled that from, but if Catholic medical institutions should one day be legally ordered to provide contraception and abortion services, then certainly someone’s rights are going to be trampled on.

Frankly, I’m a little uneasy about this summit and what it could mean. I don’t want the government (Trump’s administration or any other) to get too close to the freedom we enjoy here in practicing our faith. If somehow all of this results in people of faith gaining greater rights and freedoms, then it must be applied equally to all faiths across the board, not just Christianity. And in spite of what Sessions has declared, compared to many other countries, Christians don’t experience much, if any actual persecution in our nation. If you want to find out where Christians are really being persecuted, go to this page at Christianity Today.

But according to the “Star,” this all boils down to:

What this all boils down to is a backdoor way of making abortion illegal and forcing school prayer.

The bottom line from “The Hill” is:

Sessions said the federal government under the Trump administration is not just reacting but is actively seeking to accommodate people of faith.

“Religious Americans are no longer an afterthought,” he said.

These two publications have wildly differing interpretations over what Sessions is proposing.

I can see why the “Star” author is so upset, since any threat to abortion rights tends to trigger a very panicked response, but school prayer? Oh the horror (that last part is sarcasm). Then again, as I’ve written elsewhere, Toxic Fear is the basis for a great deal of hostility, including hostility aimed at religious people.

Actually, school prayer isn’t illegal. Any teacher or student may pray as an individual, and probably if a few religious students wanted to say grace before eating lunch, I can’t see that being particularly harmful or damaging to anyone around them.

It’s organized school prayer led by school staff where students who may not be religious (or of a different religion that has a different praxis) are compelled to participate that’s illegal. Of course, there are also religious schools where (naturally) the right to pray cannot be abridged.

I think there is some merit to what Sessions is saying about the rights of religious people sometimes taking a backseat to the rights of other groups. I guess that’s what the courts are going to have to hash out eventually.

As far as the whole “Christian Baker/Same-sex marriage” thing goes, I’ve said before that the simplest way to deal with the matter is to let the marketplace do what it does best. If one merchant refuses to provide you with the desired cake, then they don’t get your money. Find a different baker who will provide the cake, and then they will get your money. It really isn’t that complicated, and if the Christian bakers in the U.S. suffer a significant drop off in business, they’ll either have to rethink their convictions or stand by them and earn fewer profits.

Oh, to the degree that a Christian person has the right to sue based on a violation of their First Amendment rights, such as Phillips did, then there is, at that point, some sort of intersection between religion and government. The fact that we have an amendment that guarantees the rights of religious people is another intersection, so it’s not like you can completely isolate people of faith from legal recourse.

This isn’t a perfect nation, but to the degree that so many people want to cross our borders and live here, it can’t be all that terrible, either, or at least not as terrible as the countries many folks are trying to escape.

I agree that the rights of people of faith should be considered no higher than any other group, but then again, they shouldn’t be considered any lower, either. Every time leftist politics wins another social justice victory, conservative religious people lose a little more ground (I know I’m going to take criticism for that statement, and for having the audacity to write this blog in the first place).

I’d enjoy living in a country where we really all were equal relative to our basic rights, but Sessions had better walk, very, very carefully. One of the good things about our nation is that Christianity isn’t the state religion. Neither is Judaism, nor Islam, nor any other faith. We should keep it that way.

However, there seem to be other (non-religious) ideologies where the supporters want to have their values tacitly made “state values,” and to the degree that they’re getting laws passed, I’d say their plan is working. This is morally the same thing as a “state religion.” Certain ideologies, such as what I imagine the “Star” espouses, may not be a “religion,” but the “dogma” is just as passionately “preached” and defended (particularly in social and news media) as any theology or doctrine by any religious group.

How Listening to Negative Voices Destroys Our Peace

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Rabbi Zelig Pliskin

Imagine hearing this announcement when you start off each day: “Welcome to your own broadcasting show. We’re on the air today and every day. We run from this moment on, for the rest of your life. You can’t shut off the show, but you can choose what to hear. We advise you to choose wisely. Don’t be upset with yourself if the show is not proceeding the way you wish. Instead, thank your mind for working. Be nice and friendly to it. And kindly and respectfully ask your mind to give you a truly great show today. Have a fantastic day, today and every day.”

If the above represents what you would like to hear on your own mental show, then you can choose it. If you would like to run a different show, just choose what you would like to hear.

Your mental broadcast can have any guest you want. What do you want your inner mental guests to say to you? What do you want them to speak about? Choose the subject that you would like your self-talk to be about, for as long as you’d like. You might want to hear a great interview with yourself and your ideals and values. You might want to hear a certain song or many songs that uplift you and help you feel good. You might want to hear a well-known story over again. This could be a story with a lesson that you really need to hear right now. It could be an inspiring story. It could even be an entertaining or a funny story.

If you find yourself broadcasting distressful ideas and thoughts, you can switch to uplifting and joyous ones. You can give yourself messages of hope right now and at any time you choose.

When you listen to recordings of speakers or speeches you like, you can be grateful for the opportunity to add their messages to your own mental library. Once those recordings are stored in your brain, you can access them as often as you like.

Be grateful to the Creator of your mind and your life for giving you your own broadcasting show. The quality of your life depends on the quality of your inner broadcasting show. Keep raising the quality of what you say to yourself, and you will live a happier life, full of self-development and self-empowerment.

-from Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s book: “Conversations With Yourself”, pp.185

Sorry for the long quote, but I think once again that Rabbi Pliskin makes an excellent point.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote lately as it relates to the tremendous amount of negativity we experience, not only from broadcasts on news and social media, but from life experiences as well.

Recently in my small little corner of southwestern Idaho, we had a tragedy were a person from Los Angeles living in a local apartment complex, targeted a child’s birthday party and stabbed nine people, six of them being children. The little girl who had been celebrating her third birthday died a few days after the assault.

It’s things like this that suck any sense of hope out of me.

But I can’t be like that. I mean, if you have faith in God, if you try, however badly, to follow in the footsteps of Rav Yeshua (Jesus Christ), then you can’t just give up.

Believe me, I do have my days, though.

I’m a white, straight, “cisgender” (I still balk at that one for some reason), old, religious, conservative (relative to Idaho, I’m probably a moderate, but relative to hyper-liberal Seattle or San Francisco, I’m likely considered a fascist), married, Dad, Grandpa, male. In other words, for the pundits on twitter and Facebook, I’m public enemy number one, no questions asked.

Really, it’s like I’m not even a person anymore, just a “type.” In fact, it seems caring has stopped being about human beings, and is only conferred if those people belong to certain demographics.

Well, the little murdered girl I mentioned above was an immigrant from the middle east, and relative to the more liberal people who follow my doings on social media, when I posted about my outrage over her death, the only response I got was “crickets.”

I’m reminded of a quote from the original Star Trek series episode “The Immunity Syndrome (1968):

Spock (Leonard Nimoy): I’ve noticed that about your people, Doctor. You find it easier to understand the death of one than the death of a million. You speak about the objective hardness of the Vulcan heart, yet how little room there seems to be in yours.

But let’s turn that around. Are we only to care about the suffering of large groups, but never individuals? Are we only to care about someone because they belong to a disadvantaged group, or can we still care because they’re human. Can’t we care because a single child needlessly lost her life? Why do only children separated from their parents at our southern border matter (and I’m not saying they don’t)?

ruya kadir
A 3-year-old girl died on Monday after suffering a fatal injury during her birthday party outside her family’s Boise apartment complex. (Idaho GOP/Twitter)

I think Picard (Patrick Stewart) once said something about the value of mourning the loss of a single life, but I can’t find the quote after a quick Google search.

Negative messages come in unabated from the news, from social media, and from all around us.

It’s overwhelming, and yes, it engenders a sense of hopelessness.

That’s why I’ve been thinking about the good Rabbi’s quote. I’m not forced to plug the internet into my head. I don’t have to read or listen to or watch negative, hateful, spiteful messages from the world around me. I’m responsible for my own programming and my own self-definition.

So are you.

You may have noticed that people of faith are an easy target for those who feel they hold the moral high ground and are on the “right side of history.” You also don’t have to listen to them. Unless they live with you or are otherwise unavoidable, you can just unplug them.

I don’t recommend doing that permanently. I think it’s important to listen to and understand opposing opinions (unlike those folks who are living in their “save space” or believe that all opposing opinions must immediately be shouted down as “violence” or “hate speech”).

I think we all know that a large part of our self-programming is reading and studying the Bible, and yet, the Bible isn’t as easily and quickly accessed as social media. Given the choice, most of us will choose “the quick and easy path,” to quote Yoda when he discussed the Dark Side of the Force with Luke.

While we can’t ignore the world around us, we can take breaks from it. We can turn off the television, our computers, our smartphones, and otherwise turn off all of the negative, disheartening voices that are ever eager to attempt to overwrite us with their version of justice and morality.

In other words, if you are a negative voice in my life, I can turn you off and restore my peace of mind and spirit.

Human beings who feel like they are the final source for all morality, righteousness, mercy, and justice are terrifying, because believing that, they’re capable of any act, no matter how unjust and cruel, in their name of their own ego, or worse, the ego and highly flexible morals and values of the human race.

I know we religious people are accused of doing the same thing in the name of God, but as an Aish HaTorah Rabbi reminds us, religion is sometimes misused by selfish, greedy people, just as attacks on our faith are also a misuse and misapplication of the true nature of scripture and God.

If we continue to strive to become better disciples of our Rav, whatever part of us that may be guilty of what we are sometimes accused of must fall away. We can remake ourselves through our faith and allow the Spirit to remake us so that we more resemble our Rav in thoughts and deeds.

True, we will still be accused of all manner of crimes simply because of who we are or because someone once did something bad and claimed God told him or her to do it, but that’s not us. It’s not who we are.

We cannot communicate the sense of peace we achieve through our faith and the merit of our Rav if we allow outside influences to throw us into chaos. We can only communicate peace by being peaceful, and here’s the rub:

When people are in emotional pain, they tend to speak and act in ways that sound angry and aggressive. And if you, too, are in emotional pain, you are likely to speak to the other person in ways that he will perceive as angry and aggressive. Each person adds to the emotional pain of the other, and the distress of everyone involved keeps increasing.

When you are calm, it’s easier to see the emotional pain of others. That is when you can build up your attribute of compassion. The goal is to have so much compassion that even when you personally are experiencing emotional pain, you are able to be sensitive to the emotional pain of the person with whom you are interacting.

Coming from a place of compassion you will be able to address the thoughts and feelings of the other person in a way that alleviates his distress. Then he is more likely to speak and act more sensibly and reasonably towards you.

-from Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s book: Harmony with Others, p.130

When people are angry at us for whatever reason, and we feel pain because if their behavior, we must understand they are in pain, too. Being in pain doesn’t justify unkind, cruel, and unjust responses, and we don’t have to let ourselves be mischaracterized, but it might be a good idea to get past the other person’s anger and discover their pain. Then we’ll have a much better platform on which to build communication.

peaceTake care of yourself. Associate with like-minded believers so that you can support each other. Try (and this is difficult) not to reflexively react when someone in person or (more likely) in social media insults you, either individually or because you belong to some “type” they don’t like, don’t understand, or have been conditioned to despise.

We’re here to help make the world a better place, but if we let the world tear us down, we will have failed.

It starts with being grounded in the Word and in our Rav. His peace can be ours. It just takes a lot of practice.

Try unplugging sometime. I think it will help. It does me.

Another Look at Torah Principles and the Gentile

Spirit, Torah, and Good NewsFor years, I’ve subscribed to daily updates from the Aish HaTorah Jewish educational website. I know, I’m not Jewish, but I find that the vast majority of their content “resonates” with me better than most traditional Christian commentary.

A few days ago, I came across an interesting question in the Ask the Rabbi column. Actually, it was the answer that was more interesting, but let’s look at the question first:

I’ve been reading Aish.com for years. But the other day someone asked me to describe the principles behind Aish. I must confess that I didn’t know. So what’s the answer?

Here’s the numbered list portion of the Rabbi’s response:

  1. Judaism is not all or nothing; it is a journey where every step counts, to be pursued according to one’s own pace and interest.
  2. Aish HaTorah defines success as inspiring a commitment to grow Jewishly.
  3. Every Jew is worthy of profound respect, no matter their level of observance, knowledge or affiliation. We never know who is a better Jew.
  4. Every human being is created “In the image of God,” and therefore has infinite potential.
  5. Mitzvot (commandments) are not rituals, but opportunities for personal growth, to be studied and understood.
  6. Torah is wisdom for living, teaching us how to maximize our potential and pleasure in life.
  7. Our beliefs need to be built upon a rational foundation, not a leap of faith.
  8. Each Jew is responsible one for another, and each is empowered to face the spiritual and physical challenges facing the Jewish people.
  9. The Torah’s ideas have civilized the world. The Jewish people’s history and destiny is to serve as a light unto the nations.
  10. The Jewish people are bound together. Our power lies within our unity. Unified, no goal is beyond our reach; splintered, almost no goal is attainable.

Now, Aish HaTorah provides educational content created by Jews for Jews. No part of it (as far as I can find) targets anyone else, including (and probably especially) Christians. Obviously, I’m not blocked from visiting their website, and I could even come up with a valid reason for reading their material given that my wife is Jewish, but does any of this stuff apply directly to us.

When I say “us,” in one sense, I mean all Christians, but more specifically, I’m addressing we “Hebraically-aware” Gentile believers (if you’re Jewish and Messianic, you probably don’t even have to ask this question).

I know there’s quite a bit of disagreement about just how much of the Torah can be applied to we non-Jews who find ourselves attracted to Jewish praxis and thought. I’m not here to “solve” that puzzle. I have a personal answer that works for me, but your mileage may vary. Also, since I don’t belong to a faith community, there’s no higher human standard that can be authoritatively applied to me (though some have tried).

Let’s go over this one step at a time.

1: Judaism is not all or nothing; it is a journey where every step counts, to be pursued according to one’s own pace and interest.

Assuming we believe that Christianity in general and Messianic Judaism in specific is the natural and planned extension of everything we’ve read in the Tanakh (Jewish Bible, Old Testament), is it fair to say that we Gentiles practice a form of Judaism (and I’ve addressed this question before)?

Maybe and maybe not. Perhaps the better question is whether or not the philosophy behind this first point can be applied to a Gentile’s spiritual journey with Rav Yeshua?

My guess is that most Christians would say “no.” Why? I think it has something to do with this:

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. –James 2:10 (NASB)

Taken out of context, this seems to directly contradict the Aish Rabbi by stating that you have to keep every single commandment in the Torah perfectly, and if you break one law, you’ve broken them all (although a Christian would say we aren’t “under the Law”).

However, putting that verse back into its James 2 context, in my humble opinion, I think it means if you depend solely on your praxis to reconcile you with God, that’s the standard by which you’ll be judged. However, if you depend on faith, and out of that faith, comes your practice, you will receive mercy.

That could probably be said a lot better than I just put it, but it’s a more comfortable fit with the Aish Rabbi’s statement. After all, who among us is perfectly obedient to God all of the time? No one. Except for Rav Yeshua, I don’t believe that even the most devout of Jews has always perfectly performed the mitzvot every single hour of every single day.

In fact, the Bible is replete with statements emphasizing that rote behavior all by itself does not reconcile you with God, but instead Teshuva (repentance) and a contrite heart are needed.

Since even most traditional Christians believe we are all on a “spiritual walk with Jesus,” I think we could safely apply the “our faith isn’t all or nothing” principle to us as well.

2. Aish HaTorah defines success as inspiring a commitment to grow Jewishly.

On the other hand, point two doesn’t seem to have one darn thing to do with us, that is, we non-Jews. We don’t “grow Jewishly” since we’re not Jewish. No way around this one. Of course, success could be defined as inspiring a commitment to grow “Messianically,” but that opens up another can of worms.

3. Every Jew is worthy of profound respect, no matter their level of observance, knowledge or affiliation. We never know who is a better Jew.

Can we substitute “believer” or “Christian” for Jew? I think we can if we acknowledge that all human beings are created in the image of the Almighty. We already know that God desires all people to be redeemed, not just national and corporate Israel, you I don’t have a problem with believing that people are worthy of respect (though not all of them behave respectfully).

I also agree you’ll never be able to tell who is the “better Christian” just by looking. We all have our inner lives that only God is privy to. No matter how “holy” a person appears, it’s what God sees in their hearts that matters most.

Oh, this introduces a ton of questions about denomination, doctrine, and theology between Christians. For instance, nearly five years ago, John MacArthur held his Strange Fire conference where he and the other speaking Pastors did everything in their power to attack Charismatics. So much for “worthy of respect” (of course, I’ve read how some Orthodox Jews diss Reforms, so this is probably a human trait).

4. Every human being is created “In the image of God,” and therefore has infinite potential.

This is directly linked to item three, and seems to re-enforce it, so yes, we are worthy of respect and have infinite potential because we’re human beings. It’s just a matter of how we choose to apply that potential, and a lot of the time, we don’t do very well.

5. Mitzvot (commandments) are not rituals, but opportunities for personal growth, to be studied and understood.

This one is a bit dicey since, depending on your point of view, a large block of the mitzvot don’t apply to us at all, even acknowledging that without a Temple, Priesthood, and Sanhedrin, there’s a lot of the Torah even Jewish people can’t currently obey.

This answer hinges on whether you believe any of the mitzvot apply to us, and if so, which ones. We’ve had this discussion on my blog many times before, and I doubt that this side of Messiah, we’ll ever come up with the final answer.

Of course, there are some obvious points we can all agree on. If we’ve been believers for very long, we all have a sense of the difference between right and wrong, or righteous behavior vs. sin. What we all puzzle over is the more “ritualistic” aspects of the Torah; wearing tzitzit, donning tefillin, and such. Should we pray in Hebrew or are our native languages good enough (assuming Hebrew isn’t our native language)? Maybe this goes back to point one.

I would agree that obeying God’s will is indeed an opportunity for personal growth, and study is the cornerstone upon which Acts 15:21 stands, so yes, we can study the Bible, not just read it.

6. Torah is wisdom for living, teaching us how to maximize our potential and pleasure in life.

There’s actually a lot of the Torah we can apply to ourselves, or at least the moral and spiritual principles behind the mitzvot, which is another good reason to study them. We may not be commanded to wear tzitzit, but understanding why God commanded Israel to do so, may help us realize what God wants from us as well, which then adds to our potential and pleasure in life.

7. Our beliefs need to be built upon a rational foundation, not a leap of faith.

This is where traditional Christianity and Judaism travel in opposite directions, because the Church emphasizes faith most of the time. It’s not that Christians believe their religion is irrational, and Biblical apologetics is a really big deal, but at the end of the day, the Church is all about having pat answers, not continually struggling with tough questions.

This is one of the reasons I tend to favor a Jewish perspective over a Christian one, because I don’t believe the Bible holds every single answer to our questions about God, Jesus, faith, and the universe. I don’t think God ever expected us to settle down in our pews and get comfortable and cozy. Instead, I believe that we all have a little “Jacob” in us as we struggle with our angels (or is it our demons?). I think we study and pray as part of that struggle, and through that crucible, we grow.

8. Each Jew is responsible one for another, and each is empowered to face the spiritual and physical challenges facing the Jewish people.

Are we our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper? The answer to that seems obvious, but Christianity isn’t the same sort of corporate entity as Judaism. We aren’t a single nation like Israel, we are all the rest of the nations, so we don’t share a unified identity.

Of course, not all Jews are the same, and in fact, just like the rest of us, they can be radically different, one from another. Certainly my wife isn’t like the local Chabad Rebbitzin, and although they’re friends, their personalities and level of observance are light years apart.

But if we see a brother sinning, are we responsible for doing something about it, or should we just turn a blind eye? Again, I think the answer is obvious, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. On the one hand, Jesus did give his “new commandment” in John 13:34 only to his Jewish disciples, but why can’t we apply it to ourselves? Does it hurt to love one another just as we believe our Rav loves us?

9. The Torah’s ideas have civilized the world. The Jewish people’s history and destiny is to serve as a light unto the nations.

Okay, here we have the closest statement so far that the Torah principles actually mean something to the nations, but only if Israel is the light. I’ve said before that as Israel’s “first-born son” (metaphorically speaking), Yeshua is that light, and that he directly commissioned Paul (Rav Shaul) to be his emissary to the people of the nations means he intended for that light to be passed on to the rest of us.

There seems to be a thread that we can trace through different portions of the Bible leading to the conclusion that one of the functions of Messiah is to direct Israel’s light upon the rest of the world, only we must remember it’s Israel’s light. We can only benefit from that illumination, we can never possess it directly.

10. The Jewish people are bound together. Our power lies within our unity. Unified, no goal is beyond our reach; splintered, almost no goal is attainable.

That’s probably true of any group. The unity of the original thirteen colonial states in the U.S. is based on that principle.

Christians talk about “the body of Christ” meaning the corporate unity of all Christians everywhere, even though there seems to be a terrific battle going on between at least certain denominations and churches (although, as we all know, within Messianic Judaism, things are very “messy” as well).

When Messiah returns, one of his responsibilities will be to gather together all of the Jewish people around the globe and return them to Israel, so yes, Jewish unity will finally be achieved. That part is certain.

What about the rest of us?

That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it? In my imagination, I believe he will end all of our petty bickering and posturing as well, but I don’t know if that’s particularly mapped out in the Bible. Yes, after all of the wars are over, there will be “peace on Earth,” but will people ever get along? More to the point, will we all agree on matters of spirituality, faith, and praxis?

I don’t know. One of the other things Messiah is supposed to do is interpret Torah correctly. We saw him doing some of that in the Gospels, but will that ever be extended to the rest of humanity? Will we finally know the exact “nuts and bolts” of God’s expectations for us besides the apparent moral and ethical values?

I hope so. It would be nice. But maybe even in Messianic days, we will still be required to struggle. Then again, Jeremiah 31:34 does say that at least Israel and every single Jew, will have an apprehension of God formerly reserved only to Prophets; a full indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Acts 10 shows us that even Gentiles receive the Spirit, so perhaps what the Jewish will know under the New Covenant will be passed along to us as well. Then blogs like this one will be unneeded and I won’t have to ask any more questions.

On Not Counting the Omer

omer symbol

I keep forgetting about Shavuot. I haven’t been counting the Omer, although in the past, I’ve made a case for non-Jewish Christians doing so.

My lack of “observance” isn’t Messianic Judaism’s fault, it’s mine.

Some time ago, someone in the MJ movement reached out to me privately asking for my participation in something. I asked a few follow-up questions, but as time passed, I never responded.

This pretty much says that if I feel any form of disconnection with my chosen religious framework, it’s because of me.

I suppose I could say “once burned, twice shy,” but that’s not true either. I’m an adult, so I don’t have to let a few bad experiences color my judgment. I’ve had a lot of other good experiences.

Truth be told, I don’t live the sort of life that lends itself to “Messianic community.”

Well, that’s only sort of true. The real truth is that I’ve reached an equilibrium point; a place of balance.

Even more to the point, I wonder how much I have left to say on the topic?

Once upon a time, I believe some people considered me to be the “Messianic Gentile” who asked the questions most other MGs were only thinking. However, maybe there are just so many of those questions lying around, and now all that’s left is to rehash and rehash the same themes, just like how Hollywood keeps remaking the same old tired TV shows and movies.

I know there is a Messianic future where all disciples of Rav Yeshua will be engaged and we will have a direction in which to follow. Then, like now, we will have a choice to make as to how involved we want to be.

Most people, without a lot of discipline and motivation, tend to settle for “lukewarm.” The Bible doesn’t say very good things about being lukewarm.

I can read the Bible and study various tomes, but that doesn’t make me an expert on anything except being me. I have no astute or elegantly intelligent opinions to offer. I occasionally find the insights of certain scholars to be enlightening, but you can read them for yourselves. You don’t need me.

Blogging, and especially religious blogging, is about community. If no one reads your stuff, you are alone. People have read my stuff here, which has been pretty terrific for the most part. However, in my opinion, the most interesting articles I’ve authored have been about community (or the lack thereof), because in the end, we may need God the most, but we need each other, too. That’s why worship is corporate and not just one guy or one gal sitting alone in a room with a Bible.

I’ve noticed a severe drop off in participation from both supporters and detractors over the long months. Part of that is because I had to restrict some people from making comments due to the level of hostility that was being expressed.

However, I think also it may be because a lot of others like me are reaching the same “tipping point” relative to their involvement in “the movement.” After crossing a particular threshold, there’s just nowhere else to go, especially if you are “unevenly yoked” like I am.

It’s sometimes said that “love is a verb.” You don’t really love unless you act upon it and “do unto others.” Faith is a verb, too. It’s not something you sit around cherishing in the abstract. If you want to have a relationship with God, you have to “do” the relationship. Otherwise it dies, or worse, it continues to exist, but gets stale, like that carton of milk in the back of your fridge you’ve been ignoring.

In the end, whether it’s you or me or somebody else, if you want to be more than lukewarm, you either have to turn the heat up or off.

I suppose that’s why a lot of we MGs have historically been upset that we don’t have a ritual system as do observant Jews. Ritual and tradition are things that we do, not just contemplate.

Unlike observant Jews, Gentiles have to get up off of their rear ends and “do” something. We have no ritual unless it’s a personal one, which is fine and dandy.

When I want to stop being lukewarm, I may not end up counting the Omer or building my small, family sukkah, but I will have to do something. The same goes for the rest of humanity. God did what He was and is going to do. The rest is up to us, at least until Messiah returns.

Why Christianity Was Invented and What It Means To Me Today

I didn’t think I’d be writing another blog post about Passover this year. After all, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve addressed that theme, particularly relative to being intermarried and being a “Messianic Gentile.” But I had a dream last night that made me look at it from a different direction. Actually, I’ve had this idea running around in my brain for a while now but chose not to express it before.

No, I don’t think my dream was a “prophetic dream” or any such thing. It was probably just my mind processing information.

In my dream, I saw a blog post written by someone whose name many of my readers would recognize (which is why I’m not going to use it) who was criticizing me for being “stuck” in my spiritual development. This person said he wanted to like me but that I needed to move on.

It’s true that I’ve plateaued, but that’s not why I’m writing this.

I’m writing this to ask (and then answer) why there’s such a thing as Christianity in the first place?

To the vast majority of church-going Christians, the answer might seem obvious. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Rav Yeshua (Jesus Christ) tells his Jewish disciples to go make disciples of all the nations, that is the Goyim; the Gentiles.

Then in Acts 9, Rav Yeshua creates a vision for Paul (Saul or Rav Shaul if you prefer) specifically commissioning him to be an Apostle to the Gentiles, a mission he would pursue diligently for the rest of his life.

I suppose we could even give a lot of the credit to Constantine for manufacturing the Roman Catholic Church and making them a dominant religious structure that continues to affect the entire Christian Church and all of its denominations to this day (the Reformation didn’t change as much as people think and in fact continued to support the many crimes the Church has committed against the Jewish people).

Almost four years ago, largely citing New Testament scholar Magnus Zetterholm, I wrote Zetterholm, Ancient Antioch, and “Honey, I Want A Divorce” describing the cultural and sociological dynamics that likely drove a really big wedge between the ancient Jewish and non-Jewish devotees of Rav Yeshua, effectively sending them on two divergent paths, Judaism and Christianity.

But while normative Jewish devotion to Yeshua waned in the subsequent decades and centuries until it was finally (but not permanently) extinguished, the Gentile Christian Church blossomed or, from some points of view, “grew like a weed.” However, Gentile Christianity, in order to form its own identity, had to totally reinterpret the Bible so that not only were Israel and the Jewish people minimized as the focus of God’s attention, but all of the covenant promises the Almighty made to Israel were “spiritually transferred” to the Christian Church.

However, for those few of us who are “Hebraically aware” Gentile believers, an honest reading of scripture reveals that God didn’t change His mind, lie to Israel about His ultimate intent, or go from plan A to plan B somewhere in the first part of the book of Acts.

Christianity as it has existed for nearly 2,000 years including its modern incarnations, is not the logical and natural expression of the Bible. It’s an invention that was required by the ancient Gentile believers in order to form their own identity and praxis completely separate from the Jewish origins of the faith.

So what? A lot of us know that. It’s old news.

Here’s the deal. It’s happening again today. Well, that’s not exactly true. Let’s say an echo of the original schism is happening again today.

JewishI remain a big supporter of Messianic Jewish community, the active and lived experience of Messianic Jews within normative Judaism. While in Reform, Conservative, and even Orthodox Jewish synagogues, you might find the occasional Gentile (a Jewish member’s spouse for instance or perhaps a non-Jew considering conversation), by and large, the people there are almost all Jews and even if a few goys are present, it’s still a wholly Jewish community. No one questions that for a second.

In a Messianic Jewish synagogue, you are likely to find the majority of members are not Jewish since modern Messianic Judaism has its origins in the Church. However over the last few decades, the movement has evolved such that Jewish disciples of Rav Yeshua desire to not have to choose between Jewish identity and praxis and their devotion to their Rav.

That all makes sense. The Jews in Paul’s day who were devoted to Yeshua were pretty much indistinguishable from the Pharisees (that may come as a shock to some people). Paul himself was an observant Jew in the Pharisaic tradition as were Peter, John, Matthew, and all of the other Jewish disciples. Devotion to Rav Yeshua, even after the crucifixion and resurrection, and even after the Acts 15 decree which applied only to the Gentile believers, did not change that fact on any level.

So why should it be any different today?

One argument is that Judaism then isn’t the same thing as Judaism today and that’s very true. However, if you accept, as many Messianic Jews do, the idea that Rabbinic authority allows for the evolution of interpretation of Torah such that Judaism today is the natural and logical extention of true Jewish faith and praxis, then there is some basis for Messianic Jewish praxis closely mirroring Orthodox Jewish praxis.

That statement if full of trap doors for a lot of Gentile Messianic believers and probably some Jewish ones, but let’s roll with it for the time being.

Where does that leave Hebraically aware Gentiles?

If Messianic Judaism necessitates exclusive Messianic Jewish community, we Gentiles are right back where we were before. Trying to find community that best fits our identity and doesn’t tromp all over our Messianic Jewish mentors.

The normative Church isn’t the answer. I tried that and my personal experience ended up being pretty frustrating. Hebraically aware Gentile believers for the most part, are a poor fit in that environment.

Acts 13 famously describes what happens when Gentile presence overwhelms Jewish community. Initially, the Jewish leaders of the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch welcomed Paul’s message of the Good News of Messiah, but the following Shabbat when scores of Gentiles (and not just the usual crew of God Fearers) showed up at the door, they were shocked and outraged. The Gentiles had invaded Jewish community in force, and while not having malicious intent, still threatened a wholly Jewish space by perhaps rewriting Jewish community and praxis to fit their own requirements.

So Paul, his companions, and probably most of the Gentiles were kicked out and the Apostle to the Gentiles fought an uphill battle for Gentile acceptance from that point on until his death.

Sort of the reverse happened in modern times. Historically over the past several decades, Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots spaces were largely composed of Gentiles, often badly imitating Jewish praxis, praying using Hebrew transliteration, reading the Torah portion in English (or in the primary language of their nation), and believing they were “Torah observant” or “Torah compliant” or whatever. Oh, and they absolutely drew a distinction between the written Torah, which they adored (as they understood it), and the oral Torah (Talmud) which they despised as “Man-made.”

Of course, there were always Jews present, but many/most of them had not been raised in observant Jewish families, many/most had been raised in intermarried families, and many/most had been raised in normative Christian families, the Jewish parent being more correctly identified as a “Hebrew Christian”.

But that’s been changing slowly and steadily, at least to the best of my knowledge. Now Messianic Jews (some of them anyway) are embracing what it is to be a Jew on all experiential levels and strongly desire to be among normative, observant, Jewish community.

That’s led some Messianic Jews to make the choice to abandon Rav Yeshua and join the Orthodox community in order to realize their desires. It’s also seen a number of “Messianic Gentiles” also abandon their Rav and convert to Orthodox Judaism. For them, it was either Rav Yeshua (and the Christians) or lived Jewish community.

Yes, Messianic Jews can have their cake and eat it too, and it’s not like they won’t let Gentile Messianic believers visit and worship with them or even grant them some sort of “associate membership.” However, in order to be Jewish community, it has to be primarily or exclusively Jewish, just like a normative Orthodox synagogue.

I think this is why we have the (Gentile) Hebrew Roots and Two-House movements today. Oh, they’ve existed for decades and in fact it could be said that modern Messianic Judaism (for Jews) emerged from them. However, that returns us to the question of what to do with these pesky Hebraically aware Gentiles, and the answer (which is uncomfortable to some) is something you’d have to call “bilateral.” That is separate but equal. Yeah, that’s really uncomfortable and I’m (hopefully) exaggerating to make a point.

In other words, Hebraically aware Gentiles are in the position of having to invent their own communities for the sake of Messianic Jewish exclusivity.

What does any of this have to do with Passover?

I observe Passover (well, without the Temple and Levitical Priesthood, no one really observes Passover) in the traditional manner for one primary reason; my wife is Jewish. If she plans a seder in our home, then I lead the seder as head of household.

Last year, my wife spent Passover with our daughter in California and thus, I did not observe Passover in any way.

If, Heaven forbid, something were to happen to my wife and I were alone, I would not continue to observe Passover.

While there are Gentile applications for the festival, truly the Passover feast is wholly Jewish and describes a uniquely Jewish relationship with the Almighty, even relative to Rav Yeshua. In Messianic Days, when the Temple is rebuilt, the Gentile disciples of Rav Yeshua will not be able to eat of the Pascal lamb. We can eat anything else, but not the lamb. Torah is clear on this matter and there is no example whatsoever of a Gentile eating of the lamb (If you think you can point one out, let me know).

But will Gentiles be in Jerusalem at all for Passover?

I’m guessing “yes” (and I’ve been wrong before) but only for one reason.

When Rav Yeshua returns, he is going to straighten out all of our communal and identity conflicts. First of all I think the church is in for a really big shock. Secondly, Yeshua will definitively (I hope) describe the roles and communities fitting for both Jewish and Gentile disciples and then hopefully all of this angst will just go away. If not, then we’ll still have to figure out for ourselves what it is to be servants of the King and so these pain points will continue.

What do to until then?

Some people think that Messianic Judaism as it currently exists is the forerunner of the Messianic Age as it will be.

Maybe and maybe not. I wouldn’t count on it for the simple reason that too many human egos are involved.

I’ve long since decided to withdraw from anything that even remotely resembles Jewish praxis, well, for the most part. It is true that every Saturday morning, I read the Torah and Haftarah portions along with a reading from the Gospels. There are no prayers or ceremony around this act, I simply read them.

Every morning when I wake up, I recite the Modeh Ani in English. That is the extent of my “Jewish” prayers.

The Jewish PaulNo, it’s not that I believe the “Halachah police” are going to kick down my door and bust me for “cultural appropriation.” I just don’t believe it’s right for me to adopt Jewish praxis, especially since my wife, who is Jewish, is pretty sensitive of me, a Christian, doing “Jewish stuff.”

So what to do until Messiah returns? Wait.

That’s all I can do. I can’t see a solution to the conflicts I’ve raised. If Messianic Judaism is Jewish then it is best left to the Jews. Paul had a vision about how to integrate the Gentiles, but his innovation died with him and Yeshua did not assign him a successor, which I find highly interesting. No one, absolutely no one followed Paul’s work. If the Almighty intended for the Gentiles to be integrated into a Jewish faith in our Rav, why did Paul’s work cease? At that point, it absolutely necessitated the Gentiles reinventing their identity into something completely different and new (and scripturally inaccurate).

Perhaps it’s because only Messiah can accomplish so great and difficult a thing.

So I’m waiting for him to do it because I don’t think we can accomplish it on our own.