Tag Archives: arguing

Korach: Learning How to Dance

korach-buried-aliveThere are two rebellions this week. First, Korach, a Levite, was passed over for the leadership of his tribe and then challenges Moshe over the position of High Priest. No good rebellion can be “sold” as a means for personal gain, so Korach convinces 250 men of renown that they must stand up for a matter of principle — that each and every one of them has the right to the office of High Priest (which Moshe had announced that God had already designated his brother, Aharon, to serve).

Fascinatingly, all 250 followers of Korach accept Moshe’s challenge to bring an offering of incense to see who God will choose to fill the one position. This meant that every man figured he would be the one out of 250 to not only be chosen, but to survive the ordeal. Moshe announces that if the earth splits and swallows up the rebels it is a sign that he (Moshe) is acting on God’s authority. And thus it happened!

The next day the entire Israelite community rises in a second rebellion and complains to Moshe, “You have killed God’s people!” The Almighty brings a plague which kills 14,700 people and only stops when Aharon offers an incense offering.

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Commentary on Torah Portion Korach
Aish.com

A fanatic is someone who redoubles his efforts while losing sight of his goal.

-George Santayana

You’d think after seeing the deaths of Korach and the 250 rebels that the rest of the Children of Israel would have been frightened enough to back away from speaking against Moses, Aaron, and ultimately God. Unfortunately, they seemed to have panicked and panic has no reason. Neither does fanaticism which is defined as “a belief or behavior involving uncritical zeal, particularly for a religious or political cause or with an obsessive enthusiasm…the fanatic displays very strict standards and little tolerance for contrary ideas or opinions.”

Since I blog in the world of religion, I suppose that someone could come along and accuse me of being a fanatic when I defend a particular point of view and don’t acquiesce to another’s contrary viewpoint. But then I hope there is a difference between steadfast determination and being a fanatic.

Korach and the 250 didn’t back down and neither did the Israelite community until after over 14,000 people died. What does it take for the rest of us to look at a situation, know when to press ahead with our point, and know when to back away?

In describing in his commentary how not to argue, Rabbi Packouz lists nine points. One of them is:

Turn the argument into a discussion. Don’t defend a position; set forth an idea or problem to be clarified. People of good will who reason together can come to a common conclusion. Listen with an open mind. Be a judge, not a lawyer!

calvinism-vs-arminianismIn the blogosphere, it’s difficult to keep a discussion into spilling over the threshold of civility into an argument. A lot of religious people take a “my way or the highway” stance with the theologies and doctrines to which they adhere. My exploration into Calvinism vs. Arminianism is a good example of such a dialog. So far, no one has come along on my blog to take me to task for my viewpoint in that debate, but if I found the right venue for the discussion, I’m sure a “passionate” exchange would occur. There have indeed been such debates in the comments section of my blog in the past.

So how do we know when we are defending a position for our faith and for the sake of God as opposed to our own ego and bullheadedness?

This week’s Torah portion tells the story of Korach’s dispute with Moshe. The mishna (a teaching) in Pirke Avot 5:20, states that “Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will be of lasting worth and one not for the sake of Heaven will not be of lasting worth. Which dispute was for the sake of Heaven? That of Hillel and Shamai. Which was not for the sake of Heaven? That of Korach and his company.”

That’s part of the Dvar Torah presented in Rabbi Packouz’s commentary. Here’s something similar.

When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”

Acts 5:33-39 (NRSV)

I suppose this isn’t the first time this passage from Luke’s Acts of the Apostles has been compared to the Korach rebellion. The trick is to know our own motivation, which is harder than you may think. A good many people have been utterly convinced that they were arguing and even fighting for what is good and right, only to ultimately discover that their motives were totally selfish. Human beings are very good at self-delusion, sometimes with disastrous results.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”

Matthew 7:21-23 (NRSV)

Woman in the darkThat’s a terrifying thought. I don’t doubt that those of whom the Master speaks sincerely believed (some of them, anyway) that they were “fighting the good fight,” speaking prophesies in his name, casting out demons in his name, and doing many other powerful things in the name of Christ. What bitter disappointment will they suffer when they find they are completely rejected and in fact have been following the wrong path all along.

And how do I know for sure that the path I am following is the right one? How do I know if I will be among those accepted in the Kingdom or tossed out in the dark?

Remember, self-delusion is incredibly common with people.

The mishna should have said that the dispute not for the sake of Heaven was that of Korach and Moshe, not between Korach and his fellow conspirators! Why didn’t the mishna mention Moshe as the antagonist? Korach started the dispute for his own personal gain (not for the sake of Heaven) while Moshe was upholding the Almighty’s word and the Almighty’s honor (you can’t get more “for the sake of Heaven” than this!)

Why then does the mishna mention that a dispute not for the sake of Heaven is the one between “Korach and his company”? We might think that Korach and his company were united in their argument with Moshe. The mishna is telling us that each of the 250 was challenging Moshe for his own gain (remember, each one brought incense to see if he himself would be chosen as the Cohen Gadol, High Priest.) In truth, Korach and his congregation were in dispute amongst themselves as to who should be the High Priest.

The mishna points us in a direction, but the effort to maintain an understanding of our motives belongs to us. Every time we take a strong position, we must ask ourselves, “am I doing this for the Master’s glory or for my own?” When my opinion is challenged and I strongly defend my point of view, I must ask if it is for the sake of Heaven that I do this or only because I want to be “right?”

If confronted with the knowledge that I’m acting for my own interests, would I be willing to admit I am wrong? In such a discussion is it very wise to make such an admission. Rabbi Packouz comments.

No one is ever totally right. Find something to apologize for, to take responsibility for. The other person will feel better and may even own up to some mistakes of his/her own.

I spent nearly a year writing about my journey of discovery and ultimately had to admit I was wrong about my original “one law” assumptions that I had made years before and never questioned.

I don’t think that I made my assumptions solely out of self-interest or ego, but once my assumptions were confronted by others, my ego and the need to be “right” was definitely engaged. I can tell you that it is a difficult and painful thing to realize many of the attitudes and beliefs I held were incorrect, and letting them go was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

But if I didn’t let them go, especially in the face of overwhelming evidence and with the realization of the damage I was doing, especially in my home, the price to be paid would have been much, much more dear.

“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 14:8-11 (NRSV)

Waiting to danceThis is a good test for fanaticism, because a fanatic cannot be humble. It feels too “dangerous” to back down, too vulnerable to be silent about something that’s important. Rabbi Packouz suggests that being silent and, when talking, speaking with a soft voice are two ways to avoid arguing. If you can maintain your composure, agree with the points being made by the other person you feel are correct, and admit it when you know you are wrong (letting yourself even consider that you could be wrong is a step in the right direction), then it is very likely that you are not being fanatical about what you’re trying to communicate.

Then your mind and heart are most likely clear enough to determine when you are tempted to argue for the sake of your own ego or sense of vulnerability, and when you are standing up and being a voice for the sake of Heaven.

But you have to be sure to constantly be your own critic, questioning what you’re doing and why.

Leslie (Diana Muldaur – voice): “You seem quieter than usual tonight.”
Batman (Kevin Conroy – voice): “Every time I come here, I wonder if it should be the last time. . . Put the past behind me. . . Try to lead a normal life.”
Leslie: “Santayana says that ‘those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it’.”
Batman: “He also said ‘a fanatic is someone who redoubles his efforts while losing sight of his goal.'”

-from the episode “I Am the Night”
Batman: The Animated Series (1992)

“One who romanticizes over Judaism and loses focus of the kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a carpenter who is infatuated with the hammer, rather than the house it was meant to build.”

-Troy Mitchell

I often question why I write this blog at all. What good does it do? Am I doing it to help build the Kingdom of Heaven or just because I like to see my words posted on the web? Blind certitude is something I can’t afford. I don’t think it’s something any of us can afford. This isn’t a matter of fighting to see who wins and who loses, but the pursuit of interaction and cooperation so that we can mutually seek out an encounter with God.

Our work involves trying to dance when others only know how to wrestle.

-Rabbi Carl Kinbar

The lesson of Korach is that we need to learn not how to wrestle, but how to dance.

Good Shabbos.

110 days.

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Sharing God

awesome_desert_landscapeWe all have moments of being struck by the awesomeness of life – whether the birth of a baby, a canopy of stars above, a piece of majestic music, or a breathtaking sunset.

These experiences are both energizing and calming at the same time. They enable us to break beyond our own limitations and to merge our (relatively) tiny, insignificant selves with the greater infinite unity. If God’s creation can have such an impact on us, how much more would an experience with the Creator Himself.

Consider someone travelling the world seeking exciting experiences. Now tell him: “In the next room, you can sit down and speak to God Almighty Himself for an entire hour.”

Wouldn’t that be the ultimate experience?

-Rabbi Noah Weinberg
“Way #31: Seek The Ultimate Pleasure”
Aish.com

I’m continuing to read comments on Derek Leman’s blog post The Sabbath is Between God and the Jewish People. Frankly, I’m beginning to see why the Gentile Christians and Jewish disciples started going their separate ways early on, that is, if they faced the same situations that are evident in the accumulating comments on Derek’s blog. I mentioned in my previous meditation (and in an extra meditation) that I’m getting a little frustrated with the whole “jockeying for position” activity going on between what we refer to as Messianic Judaism and the Christians in various expressions of the Hebrew Roots movement. Rabbi Weinberg talks about the ultimate pleasure of encountering God. Do we ever encounter God in these blog discussions?

Next to love of God, all other pleasures are insignificant. We can have delicious pizza, lots of money, love and power. But humans yearn to transcend the mundane side of daily life. That’s why mystery, magic and miracles capture our imaginations.

When all is said and done, no human being can be truly satisfied unless he reaches out and connects with the infinite transcendent dimension. We all seek to connect with that which encompasses all pleasures. Because nothing finite, nothing bound up in this world, can compare to the infinite.

Um…hello, religious blogosphere? Do you think you might be missing something?

I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the best pieces of advice I have received recently comes from a friend of mine. Seeing past all of the “stuff” we tend to argue about, he told me to not seek “Christianity” and to not seek “Judaism” but to seek an encounter with God.

In his article, Rabbi Weinberg describes ways that people can develop a love for God. You can click the link I provided above and read this entire write-up, but in general, he suggests learning to love God through nature, through history, and through Torah.

Oops! Well, as Meat Loaf has famously sung, two out of three ain’t bad. Well, maybe I’m exaggerating. As I’ve also said before, a significantly large portion of the Torah is immediately available to any Christian, whether we choose to call it “Torah” or not. In fact, one of the people commenting on Derek’s blog unexpectedly said this:

Besides, the fact that Christianity doesn’t keep the external commandments of the Torah, doesn’t mean that Christians don’t keep a *lot* of the Torah’s commands. In fact, many Christian groups keep a lot more of the Torah’s commands than a lot of the more liberal Jewish groups. So I don’t put too much stock in what these other groups do or don’t look like.

i-choose-loveSo even Christians can love God in the manner that Rabbi Weinberg suggests with only a few small adjustments (it’s unlikely that most Christians will choose to express love for God by laying tefillin or fasting on Yom Kippur nor, as we see in Acts 15, is it required) but those adjustments are probably less significant than you might imagine. But what Rabbi Weinberg says next is very illuminating.

One important manifestation of loving God is the desire to share it.

When you love God and you see other people getting caught up in all sorts of trivialities, it hurts. Why? Because it pains you to see a fellow human being missing out on such an awesome pleasure. So when you’re filled with enthusiasm about being close to God, you want all of humanity to have that relationship, too.

This is not like human beings who become jealous when the attention of their beloved is directed elsewhere. When it comes to God, there’s no jealousy when other people have a relationship with Him. Because God is infinite.

Wow! Let’s go over that again and apply it to the theme of today’s missive:

When you love God and you see other people getting caught up in all sorts of trivialities, it hurts. Why? Because it pains you to see a fellow human being missing out on such an awesome pleasure.

My point exactly!

The rest of what he says sounds almost “Christian.” I mean after all, what are we urged to do as part of our Christian faith but to share the Gospel with everyone we meet. The church I attend has a strong missionary component. The head Pastor was a missionary and is the son of missionaries. The church supports numerous missionaries all over the world. Pastor Randy encourages us often from the pulpit to share our faith, to be active, to be vocal, to live holy lives.

When it comes to God, there’s no jealousy when other people have a relationship with Him. Because God is infinite.

God is infinite. His love, mercy, grace, compassion, and kindness are infinite. He provides for us in unlimited amounts. We cannot exhaust His supply of His gifts for humanity by sharing them with too many people. We are commanded to share. We are commanded to love.

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Matthew 22:34-40 (ESV)

sharing-christIn my previous meditations, I compared some of the mitzvot to “toys” and painted a picture of how children are usually taught to share what they have. It doesn’t mean they’re surrendering a thing, it just means they’re sharing something pleasurable with a friend or even with a stranger. Children will start playing with a kid they don’t know faster than any adult will begin a conversation with a lonely stranger.

Again, I’m not trying to convince Jewish people to violate their sense of covenant identity by agreeing to a “one size fits all” philosophy regarding Torah, but I am saying that Paul didn’t seem to have a problem with the Gentiles meeting in a synagogue with Jews on Shabbat. Peter ate with Gentiles. It’s likely Cornelius davened at the set times for the prayers. This didn’t make Gentiles “Jewish” or “Israel,” but it did allow them to worship God using the only model they had available.

And style and lifestyle aside, isn’t experiencing God the whole point?

We are called “strangers” before we are reconciled to God, but God doesn’t let that stand in His way. He is completely and totally accessible to anyone who wants Him at any time and from any place.

So for those of us who (in theory) are reconciled with God, who know Him, who walk in the footsteps of our Master, why should we be afraid to share our pleasure in Him rather than continually drawing lines in the sand and saying which toys are “obligated” to the grafted in branches vs. which toys only belong to the natural branches? If someone who is unfamiliar with these sorts of debates is trying to make up his or her mind about whether or not to devote themselves to God, what are they going to learn when they visit your blog or mine? Are we sanctifying His Name or desecrating it, even inadvertently?

God is infinite beauty, grace, power, wisdom and meaning. What have you done to share that with someone today? What have I done?

Tomorrow, a more optimistic view.

The Chavruta Illusion

Study with a chavruta, or partner, is a hallmark of traditional Jewish learning. Together you break your heads on the texts. Two minds applied to a problem are almost always better than one.

Each checks and corrects the misconceptions of the other, questioning and sharpening the other’s ideas, while the necessity of articulating one’s thoughts to another person brings greater clarity than learning alone. Indeed, the Talmud goes so far as to say that one who learns Torah alone becomes stupid! (Berachot 63a)

Chavruta comes from the Hebrew word meaning, simply, “friend.” Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) states the fundamental importance of companionship in Jewish learning (and in general): “Make for yourself a teacher, find yourself a friend, and judge every person favourably.”

-Rabbi Julian Sinclair
“Chavruta”
TheJC.com

Periodically, I find myself on the receiving end of a certain amount of criticism because of my opinions, my beliefs, and sometimes “just because.” I’m willing to debate others, both in the comments section of my own blog and on the blogs of others, as long as I can see that there is an honest exchange of ideas without the personalization of conflict. When it becomes apparent to me that the other person is arguing just for the sake of arguing or only for the purpose of driving, forcing, or compelling me to acknowledge that they’re “right” without considering the possibility that their own viewpoint isn’t entirely valid, I tend to withdraw from the discussion. If this happens on my own blog, it’s incredibly easy since, after all, I’m the blog owner. On someone else’s blog, I just stop “talking.”

Debate, discussion, and a frank exchange of ideas is one thing, but I’ve got better things to do with my time than to either let myself be backed into a corner by a someone emulating a verbal “pit bull” or to endlessly explain what I’ve already explained fifteen different times, trying to find new and unique ways of expressing the same thought in the vain hope that I’ll be able to get my point through to someone who is never going to listen to my side of things.

OK, at this point, some of you reading this may be taking my descriptions personally. Please don’t. I am not describing a specific individual or collection of individuals here. I’m expressing “the worst of” experiences I’ve had in the blogosphere in the years I’ve been participating and then exaggerating it just a tad more to produce an impression. I’m trying to say that there are some otherwise well-meaning people on the web who are not really productive communicators.

Now, back to the topic at hand: Chavruta or rather, the Chavruta “illusion.”

I never get the “Chavruta illusion” from a Jewish person. I just wanted to let you know that. It’s always from a non-Jewish person involved in Messianic Judaism, Hebrew Roots, or a similar religious expression.

When I complain or draw attention to what I perceive as the “adversarial” or “hostile” tone of a person’s interactions with me (or with others), they accuse me of not understanding how learning takes place in a Yeshiva setting and invoke the concept of Chavruta. I also sometimes get “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17) and something like “Take away the dross from the silver” (Proverbs 25:4). This supposedly is to show me that an unbridled lack of graciousness and common courtesy, along with an essential rudeness is required and even encouraged when discussing differences of opinion in the realm of religious beliefs and ideas…at least as far as the “Jewish ideal” goes.

But wait a minute.

I never went to a Yeshiva. As a non-Jew, I probably would never be accepted for formal Yeshiva study. End of story. My experience in the Chavruta process is non-existent but (and this is important), since my detractors are also non-Jews, their experience in Yeshiva is just as anemic.

So where does this argument come from and is it valid? Can a Gentile Christian adopt the Chavruta process for learning and is it properly applied to a blogosphere comments discussion?

Let’s look at the context:

Yeshiva (Hebrew: ישיבה‎, lit. “sitting”; pl. ישיבות, yeshivot) is a Jewish educational institution that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts, primarily the Talmud and Torah study. Study is usually done through daily shiurim (lectures or classes) and in study pairs called chavrutas (Aramaic for “friendship” or “companionship”). Chavruta-style learning is one of the unique features of the yeshiva.

Yeshiva page at wikipedia.org

“Friendship?” “Companionship?” Rabbi Sinclair talked about a Chavruta “judging every person favourably.” Hmmm. That hardly reflects many of the “challenging discussions” I’ve been describing.

Chavruta learning takes place in the formalized structure of the yeshiva or kollel, as well as in Talmudic study that an individual does on his own at any time of day. Although a man skilled in learning can study on his own, the challenge of developing, articulating, and defending his ideas to a study partner makes having chavruta a desirable relationship.

Chavruta page at wikipedia.org

Certainly wikipedia isn’t the foremost authority on Jewish educational studies, but I think a few brief quotes will provide sufficient context for the points I’m trying to get across. The discussions that occur within a Chavruta relationship are not a verbal, emotional, and intellectual free for all that allows each participant to behave anyway their feelings, biases, and personal priorities dictate. The partners are not randomly thrown together in an online venue where they can’t even see each other let alone develop any sort of meaningful relationship. There is a carefully organized and formalized structure to the entire process, supervised by experienced teachers in a time-honored tradition that goes back centuries.

Using the Chavruta model to explain why someone thinks they can verbally assault you on a blog is like using the model of a martial arts class at a respected Dojo established and led by an esteemed master as an excuse for starting a back-alley knife fight.

Even if the person’s intent in the blog comments is non-hostile at its core and the individual using the Chavruta example has a benign character, the comparison is still completely inappropriate. The comments section is practically uncontrolled compared to the environment constructed for Chavruta pairs to interact. The required relationships do not exist let alone approach the closeness of Chavruta, and only the blog owner really “supervises” any of the discussions on his/her blog, to varying degrees of effectiveness.

Bottom line is that comparing blogosphere discussions to the Chavruta relationship between two Yeshiva students is just an illusion and one situation has no connection to the other.

So is there any sort of model that we can consider more appropriate to guide us when disciples of the Master interact and particularly when we disagree?

I’ve quoted John 13:34 enough recently that my regular readers should know it by heart, but does “loving one another” mean we can’t disagree? Of course not. I’m sure even those closest to Jesus disagreed with each other. Disagreement isn’t a sign of lack of love, but maintaining love in disagreement can be challenging. 1 Corinthians 13, sometimes referred to as “the love chapter,” outlines the qualities of a disciple who truly experiences love of others. Even those with great spiritual and intellectual gifts who lack love seem to “gain nothing” and perhaps even fail to see the Master as clearly as those who possess love.

What happens when we do disagree?

I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; –Philippians 4:2-5 (ESV)

I know this is an isolated set of verses, but Paul appears to be saying that he wants Euodia and Syntyche, who seem to be disagreeing, to be entreated to agree in the Lord. Rejoicing in the Lord and reasonableness seem to be connected to Paul’s request. Sadly, “reasonableness” isn’t always found on the Internet.

I suppose the following two quotes capture my feelings on the matter.

If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. –Romans 12:18 (ESV)

Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. –Hebrews 12:14 (ESV)

So is my little “rant” encouraging peace? Probably not. Hardly in keeping with the spirit of Elul or this morning’s meditation, I must admit. I guess I could have kept all this to myself and just continued to post uplifting and supportive material, which isn’t a bad way to go. But as I’ve mentioned in the past, this blog is as much about what I’m thinking and feeling at any given point in time as it is a place where people can read a “morning meditation” (or afternoon or evening meditation for that matter). I suspect there are more than a few people who have similar feelings but are simply more gracious than I and thus, don’t express such feelings in a public arena.

And though you may consider me lacking in peace and grace by writing and posting this missive, it’s been on my mind for a while now and I think it’s important to dispel a sort of “Messianic blogosphere myth” about the justification some people have used to behave harshly toward others. Disagree if you will (I know I will from time to time). Argue, debate, discuss, and even harass and harangue if you must. Know that I will limit your outbursts on my blog if I deem necessary, not because I’m denying you “freedom of speech” or “censoring” you, but because I have the right to protect myself and the people who visit my blog. This is not tyranny, it’s responsibility.

With all that in mind, if you have the self-awareness to understand what you’re doing and even why you are doing it, please “come clean” and just say that you’re upset or offended or hurt or you just like to fuss and argue. Leave the Chavruta illusion out of it. It doesn’t apply.

Thanks.

 

Collision

Criticizing another person is not out of the question. It’s just that there are a few conditions to attend to before you start.

The first condition is to make sure this person is your close friend. Those are the only people worth criticizing—not just because they may actually listen, but also since you run a lower risk of making them into your sworn enemies.

If this person you feel an urge to criticize is not yet your close friend, you’ll need to spend some time with him. Find out everything that’s good about him, and go out of your way to help him out. Eventually, a real friendship will develop.

Also, you’ll need to ensure that this person has the same knowledge, understanding and perspective of right and wrong as you do before you can attack his decisions. If he doesn’t, you’ll need to spend some time learning and discussing together until you see each other’s point of view.

Once the two of you are in the same space in Torah and observance of mitzvot, and he’s your good friend to boot, then it’s okay to criticize—if necessary. And if you can remember what there was to criticize.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
from How to Criticize and More on How to Criticize
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do.”

-Benjamin Franklin

I was recently involved in a Facebook conversation started by a fellow who took exception to the King James Version of the Bible and, by inference, all of Christianity. He was very nice about it, but just because someone says “please” and kisses you on the cheek before punching you in the face doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.

OK, that’s a little unfair and he did say something about his motivation for “sharing” the photo criticizing the KJV Bible:

…if something can’t stand inquiry at every level, do we have any business basing huge belief systems on it?

I suppose that’s true and there are many people, both atheists and Christians, who spend a great deal of time examining the Bible and offering critical analyses of the text. I don’t mind serious scholars investigating the writings of Judaism and Christianity and providing illuminating and challenging questions, but at one point does the motivation of those who criticize people of faith become less than scholarly?

And then there’s reddit or more specifically, the sub-reddit on atheism. For those of you who don’t know, reddit is a social news website where the registered users submit content, in the form of either a link or a text “self” post. Other users then vote the submission “up” or “down”, which is used to rank the post and determine its position on the site’s pages and front page. (source: Wikipedia) Sub-reddits are pages within the larger whole that address specific topics of interest, such as music, movies, science, and atheism. However, the atheism sub-reddit isn’t defined so much by what atheists believe as by what they’re against which is, for the most part, Christianity (although the atheist sub-reddit page is probably doing it wrong).

I only bring up reddit because I read it daily and because they go out of their way to bash Christians daily. The fact that popular online social venues regularly criticize not only religious beliefs but religious believers shouldn’t exactly come as a shock. After all, atheism is probably the predominant “religion” in the west today (I say that last part somewhat ironically).

Besides, weren’t Christians told to expect this sort of behavior?

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. –Matthew 5:11 (ESV)

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. –James 1:2-4 (ESV)

However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t consider the other side of the coin. Just why is there so much criticism being directed at Christianity? There are a few reasons.

You can’t really be an atheist unless you are defining yourself against a theist, someone who believes in a god or gods of some sort. Since belief in a god or gods requires a belief in the supernatural, something you can’t examine objectively using the scientific method, atheists who are scientifically oriented define themselves in opposition to religious people who are considered irrational, superstitious, or just plain stupid.

Atheists who may or may not be scientifically oriented have another, wider motivation for not only refuting religion, but particularly being really angry at Christianity. Christians tend to be viewed (and not unjustly in many cases) as being pushy, self-righteous, opinionated, bigoted, hostile, narrow-minded, and generally “in-your-face” about what they believe.

The basis for some of this is “the great commission,” which we find in Matthew 28:19-20:

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.

In other words, Christians are commanded to carry the “Good News of Jesus Christ” to everybody who will listen. That’s fine as far as it goes. If someone is curious about me and my faith, I’ll be glad to explain to them why I believe what I believe and to suggest (if they’re still willing to listen) that a life lived in relation with our Creator has many benefits.

But it doesn’t stop there for many believers.

I mentioned before that atheists tend to define themselves in relation to who they’re against. So does Christianity. Christianity defines itself against sin, or so it says. Christians pursue this definition to the degree that they can be very outspoken (depending on the denomination and how conservative they are) against the values and people currently held in high esteem by popular western culture.

The current popular debates between Christianity often are not based on whether God exists or not, but on the so-called “culture wars” between what some consider Christian values and the more popular, progressive viewpoint. These topics tend to center around social issues such as the rights of women, people of color, and particularly (since it’s been in the news a lot lately) gay rights and what is referred to as “marriage equality.”  Each side accuses the other of heavy-handed tactics in promoting their agenda and attempting to manipulate the minds and beliefs of the next generation.

As an example, I’m presenting an interesting photo (no, not the one below, you’ll have to click the link) I found on the atheist sub-reddit page. Although there’s no explanation regarding the photo of this person’s facial bruise and his bumper sticker, since it is posted on the atheist sub-reddit page, I can only assume it’s meant to indicate that a person of faith, possibly a Christian, assaulted this man because the person of faith believed the man in the photo was gay.

This plays into the reputation Christians have in the secular world relative to gays (even though the Bible doesn’t specifically command a Christian to give a gay man a black eye). To say that this particular (assumed) example of “Christian hostility” is unfair and possibly inaccurate is obvious, but to be fair, we have been rather oppressive at times in our treatment not only of gay people, but of any person who doesn’t measure up to the particular standards of the church, however those standards are understood.

In other words, religious people and non-religious people are capable of being unfair and critical. Religious people and non-religious people are easily offended and need to strike back against the person or organization that offered the offense. Religious people and non-religious people believe their particular system of beliefs are right, correct, represent basic reality, and are not only fact but truth.

What do religious people and non-religious people have in common.

They’re all people.

It’s important to remember (curb your dogma for a second) that we all operate inside of systems. Having a particular religious orientation means you are operating within that system and are subject to all of the conditions imposed by that system. Having an orientation toward atheism means you are operating within that system and are subject to all of the conditions imposed by that system. Sure, religion tends to believe that it is a container for truth while atheism tends to believe that it is a container for fact, but both are systems and the people within them will go to great lengths to defend their beliefs including attacking people who hold differing beliefs.

If you’re a Christian and an atheist says or does something that offends you, hurts your feelings, or makes you angry, that happens because you are human. Your faith is important to you and when it’s attacked, it’s like someone has just jabbed you in the eye with a sharp stick. If you’re an atheist and a Christian says or does something that offends you, hurts your feelings, or makes you angry, that happens because you are human. Your beliefs are important to you and when they’re attacked, it’s like someone has just jabbed you in the eye with a sharp stick.

I’m not here to “prove” that Christianity is right or wrong or that atheism is right or wrong. I’m here to say that we are spending a tremendous amount of time defining ourselves by who and what we are against and going out of our way…all of us, to hurt as many people as we can in the process, whether we think that’s our motivation or not.

Since atheism has no formal moral or ethical code attached to it, I can’t hold atheists to any standard of right or wrong. If an atheist wants to go out of his or her way to hurt a Christian, Jew, Muslim, I can’t blame them too much. After all, they are only acting according to human nature.

However, Christianity does come with a formal moral and ethical code (which varies a bit depending on denomination) and I can (and will) hold Christians to a moral and ethical standard. If you’re a Christian and you’re going out of your way to hurt someone just because you can, I’m going call you on it. That’s not “church bashing,” that’s calling believers to return to behaving as we were taught by Jesus and his example.

As I recall, when Jesus became angry, he was usually criticizing the religious authorities around him, not unbelievers and sinners. He used to hang out with sinners, eat with them, talk with them, and provide charity for them. If he defined himself at all, it was in comparison to the standards of the One who sent him, not against the people around him.

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. –John 5:19 (ESV)

No one is born a Christian. Unlike Judaism, we don’t have a biological, genetic, inheritance from our “fathers.” We each come to know God through the example of our Master and teacher at some point in our existence. Then we spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out what that means by acting out of our understanding and Christ’s example. We don’t always do such a great job of it, unfortunately.

But since no one is born a Christian, that means anyone who isn’t a Christian might come to faith one day. If we are obligated to share our “good news” with everyone else, we need to make sure we are really sharing good news and not criticism, judgmentalism, hostility, and bigotry. We must remember that we have been taught to share the good news by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and imprisoned, and there are penalties against us when we fail to do so. (Matthew 25:31-46)

Rabbi Freeman said, The first condition is to make sure this person is your close friend. Those are the only people worth criticizing—not just because they may actually listen, but also since you run a lower risk of making them into your sworn enemies. In other words, all of the time we (believer, atheist, whatever) spend on the web criticizing other people and their beliefs isn’t going to change anything. No one will listen let alone change their minds just because someone they’ve never met thinks they’re either godless or superstitious.

I have no hope of changing anyone as a result of today’s “morning meditation,” either. But who knows? Maybe by advocating that all parties put down their guns, knives, and boxing gloves, maybe we can temporarily arrive at an uneasy truce. In the end, we all want to know the same things.

Who am I and what am I doing here? Is this all there is, or is there something more?

I’m pretty sure bashing people who don’t share our belief system won’t answer those questions.

This is the first part of a series that continues in Repairing Life.

 

Laughing with God

Deeper than the wisdom to create is the wisdom to repair.

And so, G-d built failure into His world, so that He could give Man His deepest wisdom. To repair.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Repair”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
Chabad.org

How is repair deeper than creation?

-Posted by Avi

If you have unlimited resources–like G-d does–it’s much easier to throw out the broken pieces and start all over again than to keep them and get them to work.

That’s what Torah is–the ability to sustain the world while repairing it.

-Posted by Rabbi Freeman in response to Avi

God did that once. Destroy the world because it was easier than fixing it.

The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” –Genesis 6:5-7 (ESV)

Fortunately afterwards, God has told us that, even though it’s easier to destroy and start creation all over again, He will take another path from now on.

Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” –Genesis 8:20-22; 9:12-17 (ESV)

And while the sign of God’s covenant with Noah has been appropriated for everything from rainbow ponies to the LGBT movement, it remains for me the promise that even though it is easier to destroy and recreate than to maintain, God has promised to continue to “sustain the world while repairing it.”

But what about individual human beings? Can and will God sustain us while we’re “under repair?”

Recently, I’ve commented about the seeming randomness of the purpose of individual lives as well as how faith can wane and leave each of us feeling isolated and alienated from God. While God may wait for us to return to Him, will He wait forever?

I guess since the human lifespan is finite, the literal answer must be, “No.”

On the other hand:

The Lord works righteousness
and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust. –Psalm 103:6-14 (ESV)

We rely on God’s mercy outweighing His judgment for if it didn’t, then how could anyone survive, even for an instant?

But that doesn’t really answer the question. It’s not as if sin doesn’t have it’s effect.

Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save,
or his ear dull, that it cannot hear;
but your iniquities have made a separation
between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you
so that he does not hear. –Isaiah 59:1-2 (ESV)

If God doesn’t seem to be paying attention to us, it’s because we have shut the door between us, not Him.

On the other hand, does arguing with God cause a separation? We have seen times when confronting God has actually been beneficial, such as when Abraham interceded for Sodom, when Jacob wrestled with God, and when Moses pleaded for Israel after the sin of the Golden Calf.

And yet, when God told Abraham to sacrifice the life of Isaac, Abraham didn’t say a word.

So I’m at a loss. How do you know when it is appropriate to contend with God and when you should remain silent and accept what He has said as final?

I don’t know. I don’t know if anyone knows. I only know that a relationship between a human being and an infinite and Almighty God either requires the human to be completely terrified all of the time and to say and do nothing, or the human must have the freedom to interact and even challenge God at times for there to be a relationship at all.

We are awfully casual with God at times. I suppose we rely on not only His mercy, but on His desire to have intimacy with us. To be intimate requires the ability to not only converse, but to argue, debate, struggle, and even yell. But God isn’t a human being, so how we relate to Him can’t really be the same as how we relate to our spouse or other loved ones.

Yes, I know that not even a sparrow falls to the ground without God being aware and that people are worth more to Him than sparrows. I also know anything we ask in Christ’s name will be done for us (though not anything asked frivolously or against the will of God), so we have these as indications of God’s great love for us.

But exactly where is the line that you cannot cross without permanent and irreversible consequences?

Maybe these are questions that should be left unasked or at least unanswered.

Not too long ago, I wrote a blog post describing God as a teacher, a “bringer of light, wisdom, and understanding,” as opposed to a harsh and punitive judge who elicits only fear from us. Maybe we only receive from God that which we look for, or to put it another way:

Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. –Galatians 6:6-10 (ESV)

We can choose to fear God and obey Him out of that fear, and perhaps that’s where we all start out, or we can choose to see God as our great teacher who shows us the lessons for good. I suppose like in a yeshiva setting, we sometimes learn by debating our teacher, but only as a mechanism by which we burn away the inconsistencies and “dross” from our understanding.

In the end, we never doubt that what He says and does is for ultimate benefit. And we never doubt that even in our hottest anger or our darkest fears, that He always loves us. And He has taught us that we should always sustain the world while repairing it. That includes repairing who we are as individuals and repairing our relationship with God, sustaining it and not destroying it…and not destroying us.

Imagine a father tutoring his child, as any tutor will teach a student.

The child does well, and the father returns a smile of approval, as any good tutor would do.

Then the father laughs, slapping his child affectionately on the back, and they both laugh together, as only a father and child could do, the father saying in his laugh, “I always have this pride, this delight in you, that you are my child. Now is just my opportunity to show it.”

Above, our Father awaits His opportunity to laugh with us.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Father as Tutor”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

Imagine a God and teacher who so loves us that we can also laugh with Him.