Tag Archives: atheist

Christianity Without Christ

Why is that so many people think my affirmations are antithetical to Christianity? I think it is because Christianity has placed all of its eggs in the belief basket. We all have been trained to think that Christianity is about believing things. Its symbols and artifacts (God, Bible, Jesus, Heaven, etc) must be accepted in a certain way. And when times change and these beliefs are no longer credible, the choices we are left with are either rejection or fundamentalism.

I think of Christianity as a culture. It has produced 2,000 years of artifacts: literature, music, art, ethics, architecture, and (yes) beliefs. But cultures evolve and Christianity will have to adapt in order to survive in the modern era.

-John Shuck, Presbyterian minister
“I’m a Presbyterian Minister Who Doesn’t Believe in God”

My first reaction to Mr. Shuck’s article when I saw it posted on Facebook was to write him off as a loon, but then in reading how he relates to Christianity, it occurred to me that there are some secular and Reform Jews who relate to Judaism the same way. That is, they both see Christianity and Judaism as primarily cultural without a basis in a supernatural, all-powerful creative being. You know…God.

I think Shuck has a problem though. A Jew who is an atheist is still a Jew based on ethnicity and heritage. Even if your distant ancestors converted to Judaism a thousand years ago, you, as a descendant, are fully Jewish. Even Jews who convert to Christianity don’t stop being Jewish. Sure, they may forsake the mitzvot, abandon the Torah, and deny the continuing authority of the Sinai covenant, but they are still Jews ethnically, by family heritage, and probably to some degree, culturally.

I’ve known some Jewish people who went to our local Reform/Conservative synagogue, not because they were religious in the slightest, but to connect with Jewish community. Boise, Idaho doesn’t have a large Jewish population. Heck, there are barely 1,500 Jews in the entire state of Idaho. There just aren’t many places to experience Jewish community that aren’t synagogue related. So it makes a sort of sense that even secular Jews would be seen entering a synagogue on Friday evenings.

But none of that applies to Christians.

John Shuck, Presbyterian minister
John Shuck, Presbyterian minister

No one is born a Christian. There’s no such thing as an “ethnic” Christian, since Christianity in its broadest definition, is inclusive of all ethnicities. Admittedly, Christianity can be a culture. I happen to think that individual churches can be self-contained cultures. But this isn’t something that one is born into.

The sort of Christianity that Shuck is describing is like joining some long-standing social group. You can come. You can go. You can choose to belong. You can choose to dissociate. Nothing ties you to being a Presbyterian other than what you desire to experience at a wholly human level. There’s no shared ethnicity and no shared history as a people group. It’s all based on practices and traditions that Shuck calls “human constructs”. Might as well be a political party.

It is said that Judaism is based on what you do, that is, performing the mitzvot. In Christianity, it’s all about what you believe. But can you have a “beliefless” Christianity?

Shuck continues:

I believe one of the newer religious paths could be a “belief-less” Christianity. In this “sect,” one is not required to believe things. One learns and draws upon practices and products of our cultural tradition to create meaning in the present. The last two congregations I have served have huge commitments to equality for LGTBQ people and eco-justice, among other things. They draw from the well of our Christian cultural tradition (and other religious traditions) for encouragement in these efforts. I think a belief-less Christianity can be a positive good for society.

Belief-less Christianity is thriving right now, even as other forms of the faith are falling away rapidly. Many liberal or progressive Christians have already let go or de-emphasized belief in Heaven, that the Bible is literally true, that Jesus is supernatural, and that Christianity is the only way. Yet they still practice what they call Christianity. Instead of traditional beliefs, they emphasize social justice, personal integrity and resilience, and building community. The cultural artifacts serve as resources.

But what about belief in God? Can a belief-less Christianity really survive if God isn’t in the picture? Can you even call that Christianity anymore? In theory, yes. In practice, it is a challenge because “belief in God” seems to be so intractable. However, once people start questioning it and realize that they’re not alone, it becomes much more commonplace.

broken-crossFrom Shuck’s perspective, Christianity has evolved to the point where God and Jesus Christ (at least a Jesus Christ that has any sort of Divine nature) have been left behind. I’ve actually heard some “progressive” Jews say similar things about Judaism, that the mitzvot are just human constructed moral codes and that Jews don’t really believe in the Exodus except at Passover. Kind of like how some Jewish people only go to synagogue during the High Holy Days. Kind of like how some “Christian” people only go to church on Easter.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has devolved and morphed to the point where, except for a few superficial rituals, their values, beliefs, and practices are absolutely no different from those of the progressive leftist social and political movements in the western nations. It’s “religion lite” and God non-existent. At some point, and I must contradict Shuck here, without a traditional view of Christ, there is no Christianity. The PCUSA becomes decoupled from the central tenets of faith and is reduced to a social club masquerading as a church.

Someone quipped that my congregation is BYOG: Bring Your Own God. I use that and invite people to “bring their own God” — or none at all. While the symbol “God” is part of our cultural tradition, you can take it or leave it or redefine it to your liking. That permission to be theological do-it-yourselfers is at the heart of belief-less Christianity.

Or perhaps a meaningless “Christianity”.

I understand some Christians may react with hostility and panic to this idea — they already have — but it deserves an honest discussion.

Yes, and I’m honestly discussing it. I momentarily became a little hot under the collar when reading Shuck’s article but I realize that Shuck and the PCUSA have so removed themselves from anything taught by Messiah (Christ) that they aren’t even in the ballpark of a theological discussion, themselves being without theology. The world is full of human organizations that have nothing to do with religion, God, faith, or spirituality. The PCUSA is just one more of them.

How Can We Love The World?

How can we heal the world?

When a Jew, wherever she or he goes, carries every other Jew in his or her heart, then all of us are one.

And when we are one, all the peoples of the world can live in harmony as one.

And then the world is healed. For we are the heart of the world.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“We Can Heal the World”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

John 13:34-35 (ESV)

It’s interesting that Rabbi Freeman suggests that Jews can heal the world by loving other Jews. Shouldn’t you heal the world by loving everybody indiscriminately? Isn’t that what Christians are supposed to do, to love everybody?

But what is Jesus saying in his new commandment? Is he telling his disciples (who at that point were all Jewish disciples) to love everybody? No. He’s telling them to love each other. In fact, he says that by every Jewish disciple of the Master loving each other, everyone else will know they are Christ’s disciples. It is a defining characteristic of being a disciple of the Jewish Messiah King both then, and in the present day world.

How odd.

Doesn’t that fly in the face of this parable?

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” –Luke 10:25-37 (ESV)

Jesus not only defined the two greatest commandments, which are the container for all of the mitzvot, but he “operationalized” them by giving us an illustration. It’s fairly well-known that Jews and Samaritans didn’t get along very well. They still don’t (yes, Samaritans still exist). Nevertheless, this Samaritan went out of his way to help the injured Jew proving, if we take Christ’s parable seriously, that he not only loved God with all of his resources, but that he did love his neighbor as himself.

So how are we to reconcile these two situations as Christians? Do we only love other Christians as Jesus himself defined our role, or are we also, as an expression of our love and devotion to God, to love other people, even people who aren’t like us, even people who don’t like us?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. –Matthew 5:43-48 (ESV)

In this case, loving your enemy doesn’t mean giving the soldier of the opposing army a kiss on the cheek during battle. Your “enemy,” in this example, is also your neighbor, your fellow citizen, a member of your community. They’re just someone you don’t like and who doesn’t like you. Well, it’s a little more than that. Your “enemy” can be someone you may have regular contact with but, on some fundamental level, they aren’t part of your “group.” Kind of like Jews and Samaritans or Atheists and Christians. But there’s more.

The New Testament is replete with examples of this type of love and the secular, atheist world (and politically liberal religious people who have adopted those liberal social imperatives) is watching us very closely to see if we are showing that kind of love. More to the point, they are watching us to see when we don’t show that kind of love, so they can call us hypocrites and many other names.

So we are responsible to God for how or if we love, we are responsible to the fellowship of believers who we are commanded to love, and we are responsible to humanity, who we are also to love as we love ourselves.

But what is love?

Generally, it’s not the warm and fuzzy feeling you get in relation to small children, cute kittens, or the really attractive person you’ve just started dating (if you’re single and dating). Love is what you do. The Torah is also replete with examples of how to love people you may not necessarily like. Here’s a brief example.

“You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep going astray and ignore them. You shall take them back to your brother. And if he does not live near you and you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home to your house, and it shall stay with you until your brother seeks it. Then you shall restore it to him. And you shall do the same with his donkey or with his garment, or with any lost thing of your brother’s, which he loses and you find; you may not ignore it. You shall not see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen down by the way and ignore them. You shall help him to lift them up again. –Deuteronomy 22:1-4 (ESV)

The ancient Jewish mitzvot for how to love your Jewish neighbor became the cornerstone of the teachings of Jesus and not only affirmed these Torah commandments to his Jewish disciples, but established them as a way of life for all the non-Jewish disciples who came after them, hundreds and even thousands of years later.

But do we really love by doing? Do we go out of our way to help others?

Probably not as often as we should. The opportunities to fulfill the commandment to love are just endless. You probably come across such opportunities, great and small, everyday. Even holding the door open for someone fulfills this commandment. So does changing a person’s flat tire. So does smiling at someone who looks rather blue.

But while God may judge our love for others in this manner, most of the world doesn’t. Usually, Christian love is judged by how closely we approximate agreement with the various political and social priorities of the prevalent western, progressive society. Most recently, the most important social litmus test for whether or not a Christian truly loves is whether or not we wholeheartedly and unconditionally support “marriage equality” and all of the goals and priorities of the LGBT community.

I hate to bring politics into this, but this sort of thing has permeated the mainstream news media stories and it’s all over the numerous social networking venues. Reduced to its simplest form, for a progressive, a religious person is good if they completely agree with “marriage equality” and evil if they don’t.


But is that really love? Does being loving absolutely require total agreement with all popular social imperatives of the majority culture?

Do you always agree with those you love? Do you always agree with your spouse, your children, your parents, your closest friends? Do you always totally share every single social or political attitude and opinion with them as if they were your very own?

Probably not. I know I don’t. It doesn’t mean I don’t love them, it just means we have a difference of opinion or perspective on some matter. I love my three-year old grandson with all my heart, but I don’t always agree with him about what he wants to eat, how much television he wants to watch, and whether or not he should cross the street without holding my hand.

That’s not a great example for what I’m trying to say, but you get the idea. You can love someone a lot and still say, “No” to them or disagree with them, even on very important issues.

But what about the rest of the world? Do I love the stranger I walk past on the sidewalk in the way I love my wife? No, I don’t. So do I love the stranger at all? Yes, if they need my love. Unless I fail in the commandment, if they have a need that I can fulfill, I should fulfill it. Can I fulfill the needs of all strangers everywhere? No. I don’t have those kind of resources. So does that make me a failure at love as defined by God? I don’t think so. We should love as we have the ability to do so, not to the point of bankrupting ourselves or behaving irresponsibly.

If I say I love people including gay people, but I don’t wholeheartedly and absolutely support “marriage equality,” am I a failure at love?

I don’t think so, but opinions vary wildly on this point. Does loving someone mean agreeing with them on everything they say, want, feel, and do? If I don’t agree that gay marriage is the will of God because I cannot find it presupposed anywhere in the Bible, does that mean I don’t love a gay person or wouldn’t help him out with a meal, change his tire, open a door for him, smile at him, and otherwise express love toward him as God defines it?

I don’t think so.

But as you discovered at the beginning of this meditation, what love is and how it is expressed can be complicated. God is the source of our love. Before loving other people, we must love God, not just casually and not just abstractly, but with all of our mind, our emotions, our soul, and our resources. Only then are we equipped to love other people, starting with our own faith community but spreading out to the rest of humanity.

Children of GodThe “Good Samaritan” didn’t save all Jews who had been robbed and injured everywhere, he only saved the one he encountered. He may not have agreed with how the Jew defined religion, the various political and social causes he supported, or even the Jew’s attitudes about Samaritans (though those attitudes may have changed after this incident). All the Samaritan did, was take care of the injured man and made sure he was in a safe and secure place with his needs provided for. They didn’t have to be best friends and they didn’t have to share common social or personal opinions.

How can we love the world? We can start by carrying another person in our heart. We don’t have to always agree with each other. Loving other people doesn’t mean becoming a homogenous social mass without distinction. Ultimately, it will mean we all must love God, but obviously, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. However, for those of us who do love God, we can make a greater effort to love each other and to love others who are not like us. It doesn’t mean we have to surrender our moral imperatives as we understand them. It does mean that we must always be ready to change a tire, bind a wound, and take care of anyone who may need it and who we encounter.

Even if they don’t like us. Because in loving those people who say they’re our enemy, someday, we may heal them, and us, and everyone.

Take a Deep Breath

I am grateful that the secular spirit of the modern world has made the medieval option of fear of God’s punishment spiritually irrelevant. I felt dignified and challenged as a teacher of Torah in not having the support of God’s punitive powers as a fallback for awakening interest in Torah. In my experiences as a teacher, I never saw Judaism as necessarily weakened by the modern emphasis on the significance to or distaste for the terrifying descriptions of divine retribution awaiting the sinner found in the liturgy and rabbinic midrashim.

-Rabbi David Hartman
from the Postscript of his book
A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism

That isn’t exactly a statement that would be palatable to many traditional Jews and particularly fundamentalist Christians, who adhere to the words “the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) Nevertheless, I don’t think Rabbi Hartman absolutely has to be discussing the absence of divine judgment of humanity, but rather, our human response to God. One of the criticisms leveled against Christianity is our punitive nature, both toward the secular world and within our own. I’ve heard it said more than once that “the church is the only army that shoots its own wounded.” No wonder we don’t have a stellar reputation for love, compassion, and peace within the societies where we live.

Very recently, I’ve been expressing my recurring feelings of diminishment as a believer and frankly, as a human being. It seems that once you become a Christian, as far as other religions and the secular world are concerned, you surrender your passport to travel among your fellow human beings and within your society, and are relegated to a cage assigned to bigots, superstitious louts, and Bible-thumping thugs. If you actually express your faith in terms of compassion, charity, and love toward other people (and not just those who agree with you socially and politically), then repeatedly hearing what a fascist you are can be hard to take.

Time to take a deep breath.

I am deeply frightened by the growth of religious dogmatism and intolerance in many parts of the world, including Israel. I believe that a relationship to God based on fear of punishment, excessive repression, and fear of natural joy and spontaneity contributes to the growth of religious dogmatism and fanaticism.

-Rabbi Hartman

I’m frightened, too.

I’m frightened because one of the results of dogmatism is the destruction of the message of the Bible which promotes love of your fellow human being as the primary expression of love of God. How can the name of God be sanctified if hostility and extremism is overwhelming the voice of Jesus Christ? It’s not like the Messianic lesson doesn’t include moral and ethical components. Far from it. At the heart of the ancient Judaism in which Jesus taught, is the emphasis on the laws of ethical monotheism and the universal benefits that they yield when applied to human society. But as Paul famously said:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. –1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (ESV)

I get tired of fighting but what I’m trying to fight isn’t really all of the times atheists say, “I hate Christians” or all of the times Jewish people say, “Christianity is a pagan religion.” I get tired of fighting how badly Christianity has carried the message of Christ forward into the 21st century. I get tired of supersessionism in the church. I get tired of extremist exclusivism in Christianity which goes to the point of defining itself by what it’s against rather than by the nature and character of God’s grace and love.

I’m not suggesting that Christianity “liberalize” to the point of blending into secular culture, but there’s a difference between standing on a firm moral center and using it as a blunt instrument to commit violence against anyone who steps outside of your interpretation of “Biblical truth.”

I’m tired of being blamed for a system and a history I have no control of and do not participate in. I think it’s possible to do good and be a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, an atheist, and just about anyone else. My understanding of good is the teachings of the Jewish Jesus. Your mileage may vary.

For myself, belief in the unity of God requires that one learn to appreciate the way every human being reflects the divine image. The unity of God is a challenge to find a shared moral and spiritual language between different faith communities. The declaration of Judaic faith, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” must lead a Jew to relate the profound sense of the particular and intimate relationship of Israel to God (“The Lord is our God”) to an appreciation of the way God is manifested in the variety of spiritual cultures existing throughout the world (“The Lord is One”). Whereas for Maimonides, correct reasoning provides the healing powers that make belief in the unity of God possible, from my perspective the power to appreciate the other, the overcoming of individual or communal narcissism, is essential if we are to act in a way that reflects belief in the unity of God.

-Rabbi Hartman

Obviously, Rabbi Hartman’s views do not represent all of religious Judaism and they certainly don’t represent most of Christianity, since exclusivism is a requirement for access to God on a covenantal level. For Jews, the covenant is Mosaic, although Gentiles may access through the Noahide laws. For Christianity, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) is an absolutism that locks out anyone who is not a Christian and, in many cases, not a member of a specific congregation or denomination. Even in Judaism, the debate rages on “who is a Jew” which, in its extreme form, is expressed in the contrast between the Haredi Jews and secular Jewish Israel.

Time to take another deep breath.

Let’s try to set all that aside just for a few minutes. I know that most religious people fear the term “unity” because they feel it must also mean “homogeneous,” the idea that in order to have unity, you must surrender all distinctions from the other groups around you, and particularly the dominant group (which, in most cases today, is atheist secular humanism). In other words, the fear is that to have unity, you must either stop being religious, or be religious in name only while really embracing and practicing the entire package of liberal progressive modernism.

But that’s not what I mean.

In Christianity, I understand two things. I understand that God is the God of the universe and not just the God of Christians, Jews, or Muslims. I also understand that every human individual, no matter who you are (yes, even atheists) was made in the image of God. Besides being generically human, we all have those two things in common (whether you choose to recognize that or not). If God is a complete unity of One, then according to Rabbi Hartman, He created humanity to reflect that “oneness,” that particular sort of “unity” whereby we share a common drive to serve Him.

If you’re an atheist, a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, or anyone else, and you have a need for justice and mercy in the world, we all have that in common because God desires justice and mercy. I don’t care if you recognize God as the source of those two qualities or not, the fact remains, in spite of our differences, that we have a common need to create justice and mercy.

We aren’t going to agree on a good many things. That much is certain. But if we find something we can agree upon, let’s say it’s feeding hungry people, is it only good if you do it but not if I do it? Really, do you have to be an atheist to do good? Do you have to be a Christian to do good? Do you have to be a ...fill in the blank here... to do good?

That’s the sort of crap that’s wearing me down. Well, it’s not all of it, but if I could crawl out from underneath societal condemnation long enough to share something good with you, and affirming that we have that much in common, I’d feel a lot more lively and optimistic.

Christians are accused, and sometimes rightly so (but only sometimes) of being bigots and exclusivists. But many other human groups are guilty of the same thing including (believe it or not) political and social progressives. Inclusiveness is supposed to “include” but it often excludes people like me for no other reason than the label “Christian” I have stamped on my forehead. If you want me to listen to you, get to know you, and not judge you on shallow and superficial appearances, then shouldn’t you practice what you “preach?”

I should, too.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9). Making peace doesn’t require compromising morals or ethics, but it does require doing good and putting aside prejudice and bigotry. If Christians and Jews weren’t capable of doing that, there would have been no civil rights movement in the 1960s. We can do it, we can all do it if we choose to. Or we can choose to continue to wage this senseless social battle of defining ourselves by who we’re against rather than what we can do for good.

That’s your choice and it’s mine.

No, I don’t think this is going to work. I don’t think one small human being writing on one small blog is going to change the world. Heck, I won’t even be able to change predominant social opinion on the Internet. But I can take the moral high road just to see what happens. I can promote good just because it’s the right thing to do. I can love God by loving my fellow human being.

And I can continue to remind myself that even if no one else gives a rip, that each and every step I take, every piece of trash I pick up, every person I smile at today just because I can, is noticed by God. Hopefully, some of it will do other people some good as well.

We live in a broken world. Many of us are broken people. Only by realizing that we are all broken together can we begin to heal. One day we will all realize that our healing comes from Heaven. I know many of you don’t believe me. Let’s try out a little cooperation and see how it works. For the rest of it, just wait and see.

A Christian Regarding Judaism

Such autonomy was made possible by God’s readiness to limit His say in human decision making and to grant the Jewish community the right to decide for itself how it should understand the commandments that it had received from Him in the Torah. Human reason, employed in clarifying and elaborating the halakhah, was seen as sufficient for that, without any need for divine intervention. Human responsibility for the conditions of life, moreover, was not confined to the religious sphere in the narrow sense, but included mastering the sciences and establishing institutional frameworks for alleviating disease, poverty, illiteracy, and other social evils.

-Rabbi David Hartman
Chapter 10, “Two Competing Covenantal Paradigms”
A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism

This may not seem like a typical description of a religious framework if you’re an atheist or an agnostic. Most atheists I interact with seem to believe that religion and science are mutually exclusive terms. Some atheists also seem to think that religion and the moral responsibility to alleviate “disease, poverty, illiteracy, and other social evils” are also incompatible concepts and practices.

If you’re a Christian, you may also take some exception to Rabbi Hartman, since he appears to be advocating for the idea that God gave human beings the ability to decide just how to apply the Word and Will of the Creator in the world. I mean, wasn’t all this stuff made absolute and set in granite the second God caused Moses to create the Pentateuch (Torah) and the other authors to write the rest of the Bible?

I ask that last question ironically.

I can’t even say what Rabbi Hartman is proposing represents the entirety of Jewish thought since, as we’ll see, there are differing opinions in Judaism on just about everything. That, by the way, is the point for today’s mediation, but we’ll get to it all by the by.

In this chapter of Rabbi Hartman’s book, he compares and contrasts the viewpoints of two of the great Jewish sages: Maimonides and Nahmanides. You can learn more about these two Jewish philosophical luminaries by clicking the links I’ve provided, but certainly studying the wisdom and writings of both of these gentlemen would not be a waste of your time or effort.

I won’t go into too many of the details Rabbi Hartman presents, but I do want to draw attention to one critical area of disagreement between Maimonides and Nahmanides that should resonate with some Christians:

Messianism in Maimonides is therefore simultaneously a heroic and a realistic principle of hope anchored in the eternal covenant of Sinai. It is important for him because it does not allow Judaism to become merely a private existential experience. Messianism counteracts the heresy of turning Judaism into a faith for isolated human individuals. It springs from the essential concern of Judaism with the sociopolitical drama of the community. It also expresses the dimension of Judaism that goes beyond the tribal and national framework, since it makes the Jewish community aware that Judaism’s fullest expression requires a changed world order if there is to be a reign of peace.

Nachmanides, on the other hand, uncompromisingly embraced the assumption that Maimonides resolutely sought to eliminate: in the messianic era human nature will be changed. It will be redeemed such that human freedom will no longer lead to sin…

Clearly for him, the messianic age will be characterized by a fundamental transformation of human nature. The problematics of human freedom will be overcome, as all will then yearn to live always in accordance with the will of God.

In reading this chapter from Rabbi Hartman’s book, I immediately found the perspective of Nahmanides very familiar because it seemed to echo the viewpoint of Christianity (and I’m sure Nahmanides never intended such a linkage). As least as I recall my own early days in the church, I was taught that in the Messianic Age, we would lose all desire to sin and would only long to please Jesus in a complete and perfect manner.

Maimonides, by comparison (at least as Rabbi Hartman presents him) believed that the Messianic era will be a time of social and political change. Israel will be the head of the nations and the Messiah will rule “with a rod of iron” such that the other nations of the world will obey his laws. Man will still have the ability to sin and perhaps even the desire, but the rule of King Messiah in Israel will be obeyed as God establishes His kingdom on Earth. Certainly Maimonides does not deny a supernatural reality, but understands that it works in concert with the natural mechanics of humanity and politics. For Nahmanides, the supernatural power of God simply overwhelms mankind and our very natures are changed such that it is His miraculous power alone that brings about His rule with no intervention by human institutions.

Why do I bring this up?

To throw a monkey wrench into the machine.

More accurately, to present the idea which may not occur to some Christians (or for that matter, atheists and everyone else), that there is more than one way Jews look at God, faith, Torah, halakhah, and the Messiah. Rabbi Hartman even confirms this:

To prevent misunderstandings, I must emphasize again that I am not claiming that Maimonides provides the only possible way whereby an observant Jew can participate in a return of the Jewish people to history such as has occurred in modern Israel.

Rabbi Hartman was talking specifically about the establishment of the modern state of Israel as part of the Messianic plan and the rather troublesome divide in Judaism as to whether Israel should even exist before his arrival (return) or not. I’m not competent to answer that question and, as I said before, my main point here is just to point out that Judaism isn’t a single, cohesive idea, concept, or religious movement. There are different focuses and perspectives in larger observant Judaism, many that contradict each other and occasionally seem wholly at war (sounds sort of like how different Christian denominations treat each other, don’t you think?).

Even though I am married to a Jewish wife, I am an outsider looking in. But if I can say that and live with a Jew every day, I can only imagine what it must be like for the traditional Christian with little knowledge of Judaism and Jews, beyond what is preached from the pulpit, to try to understand what it’s like on the other side of the fence. I think, as Christians, it’s important for us to make that attempt, though. We often “demonize” that which we don’t understand, and history has shown us that such “demonization” of the Jewish people has led to pogroms, exile, torture, and death.

I want to present this tiny slice of Judaism as an example that Jews are not a “type” or a “thing” or an object of any kind. They are a people. They are dynamic. Religious Judaism has many shades and colors and textures. It is even possible for Judaism to teach us a thing or two about our own Christianity. But in order for that to happen, we have to be willing to let ourselves become uncomfortable and to explore new territory.

I’m not talking about walking out of the church, far from it. I’m only suggesting that the next time you look at a Jewish person, try to see a person, a human being. If they are a religious Jewish person, try to see their faith, their relationship with God, their desire to serve Him, not just a collection of “dead” rules and regulations.

Judaism is alive. Jews are alive. It’s kind of cool, actually. It shows the rest of us that in spite of thousands of years of enmity between Jews and the rest of the world that ultimately led to the murder of six million Jewish souls, God kept His promise that the descendants of Jacob would always be a people before Him.

Jews will always be a people in the world and among us, the Gentile nations. If you love and laugh and hurt, so do they. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:39). Perhaps we should learn to do so with all of our neighbors, including our Jewish neighbors because of the ways of peace. If all people, religious and otherwise, could put that into practice as well, it would certainly be a plus.

Oh, I’m sure people who are more informed about the history of religious Judaism may point out my mistakes. But remember, I sometimes stick my neck out to try and make a point, and I don’t know everything (alas).

Seeking Out a Greater Imagination

“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.”

-Matsuo Basho

Rabbi Sholom Ber of Lubavitch used to say that if the hedonists would know the ecstasy of mystic union, they would instantly drop all their worldly pleasures and chase after it.

It is not just pleasure. It is the source of all pleasures.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

I recently had a discussion with an (apparent) atheist in the comments section of one of my blog posts. As with many other Christian/Atheist discussions on the web, he found Christianity wanting due to its lack of morality. That generally means “lack of morality” as progressive secular humanism defines the term (and the definition tends to shift over time). But is the sole reason for someone to become a person of faith or a person of faithlessness to gain a sense of morality and ethics?

Probably not. At its core, I think a person selects one system of philosophy or theology over another in an attempt to seek a reason for existence. Rabbi David Hartman in his book A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism (chapter 9) says it this way:

As history has shown, the human being is not only a fact-seeking animal, but equally and possibly more so, a value-hungry individual seeking direction and significance in life. We hunger for a frame of reference that orders and orients everyday existence into some meaningful pattern. In spite of the extreme importance of facts, their range does not exhaust the sources from which one constructs a vision of life that gives meaning and direction to existence.

Beyond the quest to determine the moral relativity of right and wrong, and even beyond the desire to understand the nature of the universe, its origins and its development, is the overwhelming desire of human beings to seek out and discover themselves. This is perhaps the greatest mystery within our awareness, greater than the origin of life and greater than the scope of the cosmos.

Who are we? Why are we here? Is this all there is? Is there something more?

I was recently watching the first part of a two-part episode of Star Trek: Voyager called “Scorpion”. The starship Voyager was about to enter an area of space dominated by the Borg, which is a highly malevolent cybernetic race and mortal enemies of the Federation. It is the only path Voyager can take to make it back to the Alpha Quadrant and home.

The Borg are under attack by an equally malevolent race of beings from a realm outside our universe who are referred to only as “species 8472.” The destruction caused by the war between the Borg and species 8472 is vast and multiple star systems have been destroyed in its wake. If Captain Kathryn Janeway (played by Kate Mulgrew) orders Voyager to go forward, the ship and everyone on board will be annihilated. If she turns the ship around to ensure everyone’s safety, she must admit that she will never get her crew home. She’s trapped in an endless loop of guilt and remorse, because it was her decision to save an alien race that stranded the Voyager crew over 70,000 light years away from home nearly four years ago.

As a diversion, Janeway had previously programmed a holodeck simulation of Leonardo da Vinci (played by the acclaimed British actor John Rhys-Davies) and his workshop environment. Janeway takes on the role of Master da Vinci’s student in order to relax, work on various art projects, and be inspired by a holographic replica of one of history’s most innovative creators. In the throes of despair, as Voyager is poised to either move forward to destruction or turn back in defeat, Janeway makes a midnight visit to the Master’s studio seeking a solution she cannot find within the limits of her own resources.

She finds da Vinci sitting in his darkened studio, softly illuminated by dozens of candles, staring at light and shadow as they play upon a blank wall. Janeway sits with him and asks him what he sees. da Vinci (Rhys-Davies) responds:

A flock of starlings; the leaves of an oak; a horse’s tail; a thief, with a noose around his neck… Uh… And a wall, with the candlelight reflecting on it. There are times, Katarina, when I find myself transfixed by a shadow on the wall, or the splashing of water against a stone. I stare at it, the hours pass, the world around me drops away, replaced by worlds being created and destroyed by my imagination. A way to focus the mind.

Out of desperation, with all other options exhausted, Janeway turns to this computer generated simulation of one of the world’s finest minds and imaginations and opens her soul to him.

There’s a path before me – the only way home. And on either side, mortal enemies bent on destroying each other. If I attempt to pass through them, I’ll be destroyed as well. But if I turn around – that would end all hope of ever getting home. And no matter how much I try to focus my mind, I can’t see an alternative.

Then da Vinci replies in a way I found absolutely fascinating, especially since Janeway has always been played as a pragmatic atheist (and after all, she programmed da Vinci).

When one’s imagination cannot provide an answer, one must seek out a greater imagination. There are times when even I find myself kneeling in prayer.

I’m sorry to take you through a mini-tour of one of my favorite Voyager stories (especially if you’re not a Star Trek fan) but this is the point I was building up to. This is what we as human beings are seeking; a greater imagination. I don’t mean one that we can possess, but something beyond ourselves and our reality. Janeway and Voyager are exploring the galaxy, or a non-trivial part of it, as they attempt to travel 70,000 light years from the Delta Quadrant back to the Alpha Quadrant and Earth, but the real journey; the human journey is far more wondrous and vast.

The human journey is the attempt to travel beyond the limits of observation, science, and the very conceptualization of a physical and temporal reality and to find what lies beyond, which must surely be a greater creative imagination than ours and the One who is responsible for everything we now experience.

On a website called The God Debates, a discussion on a cause for the universe’s existence is going on (as I write this). I seriously doubt that the matter will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, but the need to have this discussion is completely human and shows us how much we need to seek out “a greater imagination.” An even more unusual example of this is a story at Jewish Ideas Daily called Disturbing the Universe. This is Kabbalah scholar Daniel Matt’s review of cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss’s new book, A Universe from Nothing: why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing. In the same article, Matt reviews Alan Lightman’s new novel Mr g: A Novel About the Creation. An article where a Kabbalah scholar reviews both a very serious book on cosmology and a seemingly light-hearted but compelling work of fiction on God and Creation? Definitely worth a read.

However, why does one person seek the limits of the universe in a microscope, a telescope, in a chemistry class, in an archaeological dig, or using the cutting-edge tools of physicists? Why does another person seek to escape the limits of the universe entirely and encounter the infinite wonder that lies beyond the scope of the mechanisms mankind feebly constructs with flesh and blood hands?

Maybe sub-atomic particles and a vast, expanding universe are the only wonders that exist, but I certainly hope not. If it is true that this is all there is and there is nothing more, then everything mysterious, wonderful, and astounding about our existence is potentially within man’s grasp and one day, there will be no more mysteries. The universe will be “solved” and man will reach the end of his own adventure and become his own “god” (if he hasn’t already).

But in seeking God, man longs to go beyond the possible and to engage a mystery that can never be solved. But that’s the greatness of spiritual man: the need, the desire, and drive to seek out the impossible and to experience even the briefest glimpse of the unseeable, the untouchable, the unknowable.

In seeking God, man approaches the real purpose of his being. This is what pushes us past the barriers of despair, loneliness, hardship, and torture. This is why man endures. This is why man achieves. Without the search for God, man’s labors are no more significant than an ant pushing a bread crumb across a dirt lot, regardless of the illusion of “greatness” we bestow upon ourselves.

Some abandon the covenant after the death of a single loved one, but others retain belief in God’s love for and commitment to themselves despite having lost their whole family in the Holocaust. One human being leaves Auschwitz an atheist and another as a person whose belief has grown stronger.


I suppose there are many cynical explanations for why a person who has suffered incredible horrors would retain a faith in God and even increase that faith in the shadow of Auschwitz, or a dying child, or a body shattered in war. Some more “enlightened” individuals accuse us of needing a “crutch” as if atheism is far more courageous and noble. But I don’t think it’s a matter of courage and nobility, and I can’t really say what it is that causes one person to deny God and another to seek him out, even sometimes at the cost of his own life.

The best I can see is that, like John Rhys-Davies’s version of Leonardo da Vinci, even when it seems to defy the person we think we are, we absolutely need to seek out a greater imagination than our own. We find ourselves seeking it and Him by kneeling in prayer.

It is only God who makes it possible for a human being to search for that which exists in a place no man can reach or touch or see. But that’s where we will find Him…and us.


Repairing Life

R’Simlai notes that the posuk (Yeshayahu 45:23) teaches that everyone in the world takes an oath before God. What is this oath, and when is it administered? The oath is the one referred to in Tehillim (24:3-4), “Who shall ascend into the mountain of God, and who shall be able to stand in His holy place? He who is of clean hands and pure of heart, who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood and has not sworn deceitfully.” The oath itself is that at the time of birth the soul is commanded, “Be righteous, and do not be evil!” It is given when the soul is sent to the world. We recite Tehillin 24 – the paragraph of “L’David Mizmor” – at Maariv immediately after the silent Amidah on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Chaim Hager, the Rebbe from Viznitz, was also known as the Imrei Chaim. When he would read this posuk on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur he would cry. A visitor to his community was taken aback to hear the Rebbe whimpering at the particular point where false oaths are mentioned. The visitor could not fathom how the Rebbe could be so moved about the possibility of having taken a false oath.

As the chassidim passed by the Rebbe after davening, this visitor followed along in the line. When he asked the Rebbe for an explanation, the Rebbe answered: The Gemara (Niddah 30b) tells us that before a soul is sent into this world it is administered an oath which states “You are to be a tzaddik! Do not be a rasha!”

The oath continues with the person being adjured that even if everyone in the world tells him that he is a tzaddik, he must never become complacent by believing their compliments. Rather, the person must always strive for perfection and consider himself to be a rasha.

“Now,” continued the Rebbe, “who can confirm that he has fulfilled this oath which his soul has taken and that he is a tzaddik? Who can insist that he has not taken a false

Daf Yomi Digest
Gemera Gem
“Be a tzaddik! Do not be a rasha!”
Niddah 30

This is midrash and not (as far as I know) literal fact, so I don’t suppose that before we are physically born, our souls take an oath before God to be righteous and not to be evil. Still, what if you happen to feel obligated to do good but find yourself doing the opposite? Who are you accountable to and what are the consequences?

I commented in yesterday’s morning meditation about the ongoing debate between Atheists and Christians (and other religious people). I mentioned that atheism as a belief system, does not have a built-in moral or ethical structure. The only requirement to be an atheist is to not believe in God or that any supernatural being had anything to do with the creation of the universe, or is involved in the course of human events.

But if you choose to be a person of faith, you are agreeing to a certain set of moral and ethical standards. If you fail to meet those standards, even occasionally, you have not only reneged on your agreement with your religion and with God, but you have dragged the Name of God through the mud for all to see, especially those who disdain religion and religious people.

If you believe that you have taken an oath before God to be a “tzaddik” and not be a “rasha,” you’ve failed that, too.

The problem is, being human, sooner or later, you will fail. If a non-religious person fails, who is hurt? It depends on the failure. They may hurt themselves, people where they work, their friends, their family, and so forth. Of course none of that is good, but when we who claim faith in God fail, particularly in a moral or ethical area, we fail all those people and we fail God as well. We become a “rasha” and not a “tzaddik.”

I’m exaggerating here. Not all people in religion can be considered tzaddikim, since these are the most righteous, noble, and holy in the world of faith. Christianity would call them “saints.” How many Christians can truly be called “saints” (although some Christian denominations consider all Christians to be worthy of being saints because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ)?

Most of us are “mere mortals” who are doing our best to try to make it through one day at a time. Some days are better than others. Some days we’re better at honoring God and His desires than others. Some days seem pretty crummy, but we try to keep going because of our faith and our belief that God is with us, regardless of our circumstances and, in most cases, regardless of how badly we fail.

That’s why anti-Christian and anti-religious rhetoric on the Internet or in real life is so disturbing. Not because secular people don’t agree with my choosing to have faith, but because it means that I or someone like me has failed. We have failed to show that we are doing our best to follow a moral standard that was set for us by the Creator of the Universe and the lover of our souls. We have given the world the opportunity to believe that our faith is not only a lie, but an excuse to actually indulge in selfish, moral attacks on those we deem weaker or more vulnerable in the world.

I wish I could find the image I saw the other day on the web (thought it was on the atheism sub-reddit but I can’t find it). It was a “rant” on how a young atheist found himself in church (not sure how this happened) and listened to the Pastor preach on how young people don’t have values today. The person listening to the sermon reasoned that the Pastor meant that young people don’t have the church’s values, which the commenter described as repression, inequality, exclusivism and so forth. He defined atheist values as inclusiveness (except if you’re a person of faith, but that’s beside the point), equality, compassion and so forth (I really wish I could find the image because it was just brilliant).

The conclusion is that the church wasn’t particularly moral at all and that atheism, by comparison, was a much better belief system. Of course, the commenter wasn’t really describing atheism but rather western political and social progressivism which includes atheism as a core element. Nevertheless, there are times when Christians do not take the moral high road and liberal progressives do (and I should mention that there are more than a few Jewish people who have doubts about God, too).

But the argument against religion has to discount the times when Christian programs really do feed the hungry, send visitors to the sick, comforts the mourning, defends the widow, the orphan, and the disadvantaged, but those people and programs don’t make it on the news or, for the most part, in the popular social networking sites. It also isn’t generally advertised that the civil rights movement was started and supported by Christian and Jewish activists rather than atheists and scientists.

Whether you as a Christian like it or not, the world is watching and waiting for us to fail (they never expect us to succeed). Some of those watching are really anxious for us to fall face down in the sewer. When we do fail, we fall far, and we hit hard, and we take the reputation of God with us when we go over the edge.

Debating atheists on their own terms will not sanctify the Name of God. You will never elevate God’s reputation by trying to “prove” He exists and created the universe. Living a life of faith and devotion to your ideals by helping others and repairing our damaged world will. You may never convince even one atheist to consider a life of faith, but at your finest, you will be fulfilling your oath, doing your best to live as a “tzaddik,” and helping vulnerable and needy people in the process. But you should always question your own motives before criticizing someone else’s.

If you have not yet succeeded in fulfilling the criteria to be a critic, yet still feel a necessity to provide criticism, there is an alternative:

Sit and criticize yourself, very hard, from the bottom of your heart, until the other person hears.

If it comes from your heart, it will enter his as well.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Last Word on Criticizing”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Repair the world one day at a time. And for Heaven’s sake, be a tzaddik! Do not be a rasha!