Tag Archives: Avot Pirkei

The Tefillin and the Shoemaker

Praying with TefillinAnd they (Korach and his following) converged upon Moses and Aaron and said to them: “Enough! Every one of the congregation is holy, and G-d is amongst them. Why do you raise yourself above the congregation of G-d?”Numbers 16:3

There are those who maintain that they have no need of a mentor to guide them through life. They claim, as did Korach, that each and every individual can forge his relationship with G-d unaided. They argue that since the Jewish faith rejects the concept of an intermediary between man and G-d, they have no use for a rebbe or master.

They fail to understand that the entire Jewish people are a single entity, that every individual soul is, in truth, but a limb or organ of the soul of Israel. Just as each limb and organ of the human body has its function at which it excels, so, too, every soul has its role and mission, as well as its limitations. The ‘loftiest’ of souls is dependent upon the ‘lowliest’ for the attainment of the single, unified goal. And were any limb to strike out on its own, detaching itself from the ‘head’ which provides the entire body with vitality and direction – the results are self-understood.

Said Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok of Lubavitch: “When an individual adapts the attitude that he can do it all on his own, he reminds me of the story told about the peasant and the tefillin. Once, a Jew noticed a pair of tefillin in the house of a gentile peasant. Upon seeing a holy object in such a place he began to inquire about the tefillin, wishing to purchase them from the goy. The peasant, who had looted the tefillin in a recent pogrom, grew agitated and defensive. “What do you mean, where did I get them?” he blurted out. “Why, I made them myself! I myself am a shoemaker!”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
Once Upon a Chasid
“Jack of all Trades”
Chabad.org commentary on Torah Portion Korach

Paul explained that he received the gospel through a revelation of Yeshua the Messiah (Jesus Christ). He claimed that the gospel message he preached to the Galatians was not man’s gospel. It was not the normal gospel message. He received a different gospel. This is an important point – a critical point – for understanding Paul. The message of the gospel that Paul proclaimed was not precisely the same message of the gospel that the rest of the apostolic community proclaimed. In other places, Paul specifically refers to this unique gospel as “my gospel” (see Romans 2:15-16, Romans 16:25, and 2 Timothy 2:8-9).

-D. Thomas Lancaster
The Holy Epistle to the Galatians
“Sermon Three: Paul’s Gospel (Galatians 1:11-24)”
pp 35-6

But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!Galatians 1:8 (NASB)

Reading Rabbi Tauber’s commentary on the previous week’s Torah Portion Korach, I saw an inevitable collision with the above-quoted portion of Lancaster’s “Galatians” book. Although Korach and his co-conspirators claimed authority because all of Israel was holy to God, while Paul claimed authority based on his personal revelation from Jesus (see Acts 9:1-19 and Acts 26:15-18), they both set themselves (apparently) in opposition to the established authority representing God, Moses in the case of Korach, and the Jerusalem Council, in the case of Paul.

We know that Korach, Dathan, Abiram, and the 250 who were with them came to a bad end (Numbers 16:28-35) and their story is sometimes told in congregations as a cautionary tale not to go against the established leadership, but what about Paul? Does Paul’s receiving a personal revelation and mission from Jesus exempt him from respecting and obeying properly established authority? Lancaster says, “no”:

Despite the dismissive air, Paul submitted to their authority. He had already conceded that, if they had rejected his gospel of Gentile inclusion, he would have been running his race in vain. They had the power to utterly discredit the gospel message he had been presenting. Therefore, he certainly did respect their authority. But he seems less than reverently respectful in Galatians 2:5.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
The Holy Epistle to the Galatians
“Sermon Seven: Remember the Pour (Galatians 2:6-10)”
pg 71

While Paul could be opinionated and “outspoken”, he nevertheless realized that he was a man under not only the Master’s authority, but under the authorities established by God in Jerusalem, which included James, Peter, and John. But he had to approach these “pillars”, present his position based on the Master’s revelation to him, and hope they’d see things his way. Fortunately for Paul (and the Gentiles), they did. Otherwise Christianity, as we understand it, probably wouldn’t exist today. In that case, any person not born a Jew who wanted to enter into a full covenant relationship with God would have to convert to Judaism (for the sake of this blog, I will define Gentile Noahides -in contrast to Christians – as meriting a place in the world to come but not enjoying a full covenant relationship with God on par with the Jews).

The example of Paul presents a problem, though. His experience was entirely subjective. No one else saw or heard the details of his visions and so no one could verify independently, that he was telling the truth. In theory, he could have made the whole thing up in order to further some personal agenda he had in relation to Gentiles becoming “Messianic” disciples. If we accept the Biblical record on faith as well as reason, we accept that his visions were real and his authority was real.

But what about “authorities” today?

Most mainstream churches and synagogues are lead by a Pastor or Rabbi (respectively) who has received the education required to be ordained by their branch of faith and they have been appointed to a specific congregation upon the approval of that congregation’s board of directors. The board, and its various committees, have the authority to set the specific duties of the clergy, approve and renew their contractual relationship, and even fire the clergyperson if necessary. While the Pastor or Rabbi is the “face” and “voice” of the congregation in many ways, he or she can hardly act with total autonomy or impunity and are held accountable to the standards and authority of the congregation and their overseeing denomination or sect.

Sadly, not all religious groups and leaders operate on this principle. Paul’s “example” of receiving a personal revelation can be and has been terribly misused and misappropriated by many so-called “leaders” and “prophets” to set themselves up as the sole and individual authority over their congregations. If anyone complains about the “leader” and his or her lack of accountability to others, Paul’s example is cited and then the dissenters are accused of being like Korach and his band (implying that the dissenters will suffer a similar fate if they don’t withdraw their objections).

I know such a ploy may sound improbable and even silly to some of you reading this blog post, but the power of cult leaders over large groups of “believers” can be formidable to those who have made a commitment and who believe their “leader” is the “real meal deal”; the one and only person anointed by God to spread a special “message” to the “remnant” of the faithful.

I’m sure you are thinking about some of the infamous and extreme examples of what I’m describing, such as Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Marshall Applewhite, but there are probably thousands of other religious groups out there that operate below our radar, so to speak. Certainly a number of groups loosely affiliated with the Messianic Jewish (MJ) movement, function under the sole authority of the “Rabbi” in charge, acknowledging only his (in the vast majority of these cases, the leader is male) “right” to make decisions and pronouncements for the congregation, based on the leader’s self-described “anointing” from God.

(I want to make it clear at this point, that there are many MJ congregations that do operate on a board of directors model and that do receive authority from a central, overseeing organization which does provide a series of checks and balances for congregational leadership – I’m not painting “Messianic Judaism” as such with a single, broad brush – however, because “the movement” is largely unregulated, some people -usually not Jewish- just put on a kippah and a tallit, declare themselves a “Messianic Rabbi”, and proceed to gather a “flock”. Then they go about sharpening whatever theological ax they have to grind, which much of the time, has only a faint resemblance to anything Jewish).

Everything I’ve said up to this point certainly could make you doubtful or concerned if you find yourself in a “one-man show” type of congregation or even one where you might suspect (correctly or not) that the the congregation’s board is pretty much “rubber-stamping” the clergy’s decisions. On the other hand, we are taught to respect authority:

Rabbi Ishmael would say: Be yielding to a leader, affable to the black-haired, and receive every man with joy. -Pirkei Avot 3:12

It’s confusing. However, anyone, leader or otherwise, should recall this:

Rabbi Akavia the son of Mahalalel would say: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting. -Pirkei Avot 3:1

There is a Heavenly authority who holds us all accountable for what we say and do. Examples like Paul’s vision are extremely rare. They were extremely rare in Paul’s day and perhaps they may not even occur in the common era. Judaism has a long tradition of centralized authority but generally, that authority is not held by a single individual. The great sages often disagreed and it was through those debates and dialogues that justice and mercy was distilled throughout the centuries and applied to the devout in response to the unique needs of their communities and the time in which they lived.

Some respond to religious leadership concerns by refusing to affiliate with any faith group, but we all come under some sort of authority, including our employers, and local and national governments. Meeting with our congregations is how we prevent ourselves from entering into individual error (though I’m hardly one to talk at this point):

Rabbi Shimon would say: Three who eat at one table and do not speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten from the slaughter of the dead, as is stated, “Indeed, all tables are filled with vomit and filth, devoid of the Omnipresent.” But three who eat at one table and speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten at G-d’s table, as is stated, “And he said to me: `This is the table that is before G-d.’ ”

Rabbi Chanina the son of Chachina’i would say: One who stays awake at night, or travels alone on the road, and turns his heart to idleness, has forfeited his life. -Pirkei Avot 3:3-4

We are charged to test the validity of a leader as the Bereans tested the validity of Paul’s teachings (see Acts 17:10-12). We also know that valid and righteous leaders are established by God for the good of the world:

It was for this reason that actual peace in the world was brought about through Aharon, who descended to all creatures and elevated them to Torah.

-From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson
Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. VIII, pp. 103-107

The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace. –Psalm 29:11

Faith and history have established the relative authority of Korach and Paul and God’s justice and mercy was enacted in both lives in accordance with the actions of these men. Our lives are the same. We serve the same God. We all benefit from His providence. We are all accountable to His justice and we all rely on His mercy. We should not take the Name of God or His authority lightly. In the end, God prevails:

If you play for your own glory and not God’s you have no place here. -a Maggid

Rabbi Akivah would say: Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of G-d]; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to him that he was created in the image, as it is says, `”For in the image of G-d, He made man.” -Pirkei Avot 3:14

A man’s soul is the light of God. –Proverbs 20:27

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Knowing

ReachingNo longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’
because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” –Jeremiah 31:34

If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” –John 14:7

Just as wisdom is not something you can touch with your hands,
so G-dliness is not something you can grasp with your mind.
The mind cannot experience G-d.
G-d is not an idea.
G-d is real.
G-d is better found in inspired deeds than in inspiring thoughts.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Mental Limits”
Chabad.org

How do we “know” God? A Christian might answer that we know the Father through the revelation of His Son, and Jesus said this about himself. Yet, there’s a danger in “anthropomorphizing” the infinite, ever-present, all-powerful, ultimately creative God of the Cosmos, and reducing Him to an old man with long white hair, a bushy beard, and a comfortable lap. It’s like taking God and turning Him into your kindly grandfather who used to give you little treats when you were a child and let you stay up past your bedtime.

This isn’t to say I dispute the words of the Master, I only understand them as illustrating both what we can know about God from Jesus when he walked among men, and what we can’t know. We can’t know the infinite, but we can know how our lives intersect with the Holy through the teachings and example of the Master. Our duty then, is to spend the rest of our lives living out that understanding with “inspired deeds”, as Rabbi Freeman says, as our understanding grows and as it sometimes twists, bends, and warps.

Excuse me, what did I just say?

Isn’t God eternal? Isn’t God’s truth unchangeable? Well, “yes” and “no”.

OK, in an absolute sense, yes, God is God and God is unchangeable. Nothing we can do can alter the nature, character, and qualities of the Creator of the Universe (not that we can perceive the vast, vast majority of those qualities). But while God may be unchanging, human beings change all the time. What we understand changes all the time. If not, if we couldn’t go beyond the Sun circling the Earth and the Moon being made of green cheese, then modern Astronomy would be a lost cause.

I know, it’s not a surprise to understand that as children grow and as people age, they learn new information to replace old data, but it’s also true (at least potentially) of humanity over time. Believe it or not, at one point in history, things like microwave ovens, DVDs, iPads, and the Internet didn’t exist. Even bound books haven’t been available forever (never mind eBooks on Kindle). Gutenberg didn’t invent the printing press until around 1440 and the vacuum tube, which was used in early 20th century technologies such as radios, the first generation commercial computers, and televisions, first saw the light of day in 1904.

Why am I telling you all this? Because what we understand about a concept or a technology may be one thing at a certain point in time but later on, we may amend or change what we believe to accommodate new information, discoveries, and inventions.

This is also true of the Bible and thus what we know about God.

I’m currently reading the book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians by D. Thomas Lancaster. This isn’t another typical Christian commentary on what most believers consider Paul’s “anti-Torah”, “anti-Judaism” rant. Rather, it’s a fresh perspective on how to understand Paul as a Jewish man, declared the “Apostle to the Gentiles” by Jesus in a vision, and who through that incredible and unprecedented role, had to make some hard decisions about how to bring non-Jewish God-fearers and former pagans into the community of faith. One principle decision was the controversial choice of not demanding Gentile believers convert to Judaism in order to become disciples of the Jewish Messiah.

Much of what Lancaster states in his book (and I haven’t finished reading it yet) won’t be universally accepted by the church and perhaps just a decade or two ago, such a book might not have been published. However, it’s important to understand there’s a difference between God’s eternal, unchangeable knowledge and how human beings acquire new data and adjust our understanding based on that information.

About a month ago, I reviewed a scholarly article called Isaiah’s Exalted Servant in the Great Isaiah Scroll written by Steven P. Lancaster (D. T. Lancaster’s brother) and James M. Monson. Based on new information acquired through a study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, how we understand the prophet Isaiah’s description of the Messiah has been significantly changed (and please feel free to read that review by clicking on the link I just provided…it’s fascinating stuff). The information Lancaster and Monson provide in their conclusions almost literally re-writes the “suffering servant” Messiah to “the appointed one”. Who could have known about this, even five years ago?

AnointingI’m not trying to undo the ties of Christian faith and the scriptures upon which that faith is based, but I would like to suggest that those ties can be untangled. We labor, without realizing it, under the yoke of centuries-old assumptions, bad translations, and misinformation founded on prejudice. Some of that misinformation, as recently presented by Derek Leman on his blog, is how the church declares rather boldly, that a Jewish person who has come to faith in the Jewish Messiah, must surrender their entire Jewish identity. Galatians, and other sections of the New Testament, seem to give this impression, but we can also be courageous enough to go back to our time-honored texts and read them with a fresh eye, consider them in the original Greek language and “refactor” them in the Jewish/Hebraic mindset of the people who wrote them. We can challenge what we think we know and see if our knowledge stands up to the test.

I’ll leave you with a tangible example of how knowledge changing over time affects not only our day-to-day life, but how we comprehend God, our duties to Him, and our obligations to each other:

The Chazon Ish, zt”l, explains, “Rashi records when he is unsure, to teach that admission of uncertainty is also Torah. One should always be clear of what he knows and what he does not know.”

Rav Yosef Yitzchak Lerner, shlita, contacted Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, regarding a correction the latter had added to the “Lev Avraham.” In this work, Professor Avraham Avraham, shlita, brought the opinion of Rav Avraham ben HaRambam, zt”l, and Rav Sherirah Gaon, zt”l, as conclusive. Both luminaries hold that Chazal’s teachings regarding medicine are not Torah; they merely reflect medicine as understood in their time. If contemporary science disagrees the halacha follows the medical experts. Rav Shlomo Zalman maintained that since other authorities disagree, this opinion should be prefixed with “some say.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
“Admitted Ignorance”
Menachos 105

Some of the rulings of the honored sages were based on the best medical knowledge available to them in their day, but as we see, modern medicine has rendered many of their judgments out-of-date. Being open to new information about the Bible and how to read it, can help us understand that some traditional Christian interpretations of the Bible need to be updated as well. I read and review articles like Isaiah’s Exalted Servant in the Great Isaiah Scroll and books such as Lancaster’s Galatians for exactly that reason. Knowledge and faith is a garden which yields only the fruits of our labors. Like prayer, meeting God and understanding more about Him requires our time, effort, and an unquenchable need to learn.

Rabbi Chalafta the son of Dosa of the village of Chanania would say: Ten who sit together and occupy themselves with Torah, the Divine Presence rests amongst them –Pirkei Avot 3:6

“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” –Matthew 18:19-20

The Inescapable God

MitzvahBe as careful with a minor mitzvah as with a major one, for you cannot know the rewards of the mitzvos.Ethics of the Fathers 2:1

On the surface, the mishnah’s point is simple enough: do not weigh and categorize G-d’s commandments. But upon closer examination, its words seem fraught with ambiguity and contradiction.

Are there or are there not differences between mitzvos? The mishnah seems to saying that there aren’t, but it itself uses the terms “minor” and “major” (kaloh and chamurah) – terms which are used to categorize mitzvos in the Talmud and its commentaries and in the various codes of Torah law.

On the Essence of the Mitzvah:
Commanding Connection and Refining Deed
Sivan 13, 5771 * June 15, 2011
Chabad.org

What does it mean to obey God? What does it mean to sin? Are their big sins and little sins? Can one form of obedience be better than another?

The commentary from which I quoted above struggles with this question and the meaning of what obeying the commandments does for us and for others. And while it is true, this commentary was written for a Jewish audience, I think there is more than ample reason for Christians to take it seriously as well.

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.-Mark 12:28-44

If you love me, keep my commands. –John 14:15

This isn’t to suggest that the commands issued by Jesus and applied to his non-Jewish disciples were identical to the 613 commandments given to the Children of Israel at Sinai, but it is clear that the grace of God did not wipe away the law of God in the world and that each of us has a responsibility to obey our Creator and to avoid rebellion against Him.

But putting aside the specific content of the commandments for a moment, why do we have those that Jesus gave to the nations and those that Moses related to Israel?  Why do we have commandments at all? It’s not as if obeying or disobeying God can add to or take away from His Holiness and perfection. Continuing with the “On the Essence of the Mitzvah” commentary, we find:

In other words, there are two dimensions to the mitzvos. On the most basic level, a mitzvah, by virtue of its being commanded by the Almighty, binds its performer (as well as the resources which he utilizes in its performance) to its Commander. In this, all mitzvos are indeed equal. A mitzvah that takes tremendous sacrifice and many years of spiritual development to fulfill connects us to G-d no more than one which is observed with a single, effortless act.

But G-d did more. He not only opened a channel into our lives by which we may connect to Him, He also made this path a “perfect way”, a way of life which improves and perfects those who travel it. His word not only conveys His will and command, it is also a “refined” word—a word that refines those who heed it. This is the second, “specific” dimension of the mitzvah. When we give charity, we not only fulfill a Divine command, we also develop in ourselves a sensitivity to the needs of others and learn the proper perspective on the material resources which have been entrusted to us.

This reads very much like the “two greatest commandment” I quoted above from Mark. While in one sense, commandments are equal in that they all serve God (though we cannot know their true, relative merit from a Heavenly perspective), they also differ in that some of them connect us to God exclusively while others serve this purpose, plus they make us sensitive to those around us. In other words, what we do for God, though He has no needs at all that we can satisfy, is inexorably intertwined with what we do for people (and we have a great ability to perform acts that benefit other human beings), the act of which benefits others and refines our nature.

Yet, one of the “dangers” of serving other people is that we can let that “feel good” experience when we perform kindness and charity distract us from the One who we are serving as well:

However, warns the Ethics, never lose sight of the deeper import of the mitzvos. Employ the Divine commandments to build a better self and world, thus experiencing them as an entire array of major and minor influences on your life, but remember that they all share a deeper, unified truth. Be equally careful of them all, for their true reward is beyond knowledge and experience.

Studying TorahWhat we do to connect to God, to refine our own character, and to serve the needs of others, must remain balanced within us. To bias our viewpoint in one direction or the other could mean we continue to do mercy and justice while losing sight of the unifying “why”. But even losing sight of God does not mean He loses sight of us. His Hand is still upon us, regardless of who we are or how we are behaving or thinking. How many people have lost sight of God or have never experienced Him in a deliberate and conscious manner, and yet still yearn for Him, His Justice, and His mitzvot?

I do not accept your assertion that you do not believe.

For if you truly had no concept of a Supernal Being Who created the world with purpose, then what is all this outrage of yours against the injustice of life?

The substance of the universe is not moral, nor are plants and animals. Why should it surprise you that whoever is bigger and more powerful swallows his fellow alive?

It is only due to an inner conviction in our hearts, shared by every human being, that there is a Judge, that there is right and there is wrong. And so, when we see a wrong, we demand an explanation: Why is this not the way it is supposed to be?

That itself is belief in G-d.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“True Belief”
Chabad.org

We cannot escape God. We are made in His image. Atheists cannot escape God, for even in crying out against the real and perceived injustices in the world, they unknowingly appeal to the One True Judge. We, as believers, cannot escape God either. You might imagine that, being “religious people” we only want to draw closer to Him, but we must realize that we do so only on His terms, and not on ours.

Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi would say: Make that His will should be your will, so that He should make your will to be as His will. Nullify your will before His will, so that He should nullify the will of others before your will. –Ethics of the Fathers 2:4

If you love me, keep my commands. –John 14:15

Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done. –Luke 22:42

Know the Master you serve and then seek to do His will with all your heart.

The Messianic Tale

The Ba'al Shem TovThe third goal of the hasidic story was to rouse its hearers into action for the service of God. Several compilers of hasidic stories quoted the dictum by R. Elimelekh that ‘it is an auspicious sign for a person if, when he hears what is related regarding the virtues of the tsadikim and their faithful holy service of the Lord, may he be blessed, his heart beats at that time with the desire and very great fervour that he also merit faithfully to serve the Lord, may he be blessed; this is a good sign that the Lord is with him.’

from The Hasidic Tale
by Gedaliah Nigal

As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”Luke 24:28-32

Gedaliah Nigal relates to his audience the importance to the Chasidim of storytelling  about tzadikim (righteous ones), Chasidim (devoted disciples), and the deep and multi-layered influence these tales can have. As you’ve already seen, one of the purposes of Chasidic storytelling is to inspire the listeners to perform acts of righteousness and devotion for the sake of God. We also see in Luke’s Gospel, that the words of the risen Messiah did the same thing. That brings us to an interesting question: is one of the main purposes of the Bible to tell stories that inspire the reader?

I’m not really asking if the Bible is inspirational. I think most believers would say “yes”. What I’m asking is whether or not the Bible is a collection of stories designed to inspire its readers?

I’ve just implied that not everything in the Bible is literally true, a contention supported by many leading New Testament (NT) scholars, not the least of which is Bart D. Ehrman. You might be tempted to dismiss Ehrman based on the fact that he is a self-declared agnostic (though a former Christian), but other scholarly New Testament books address the question of how literally we can take the Bible, including whether or not the New Testament defines Jesus as God (see Maurice Casey’s From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God and Larry Hurtado’s How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God as examples).

If you believe that the Bible is 100% literally true and should be read as a history, I’ve no doubt just shocked you by suggesting otherwise, yet modern NT scholars readily confirm that the Bible is less a history book and more a set of stories (based on eyewitness accounts, at least to some degree) about the teachings of the Jewish Messiah and what they mean to the nations of the world in terms of access to God, forgiveness of sins, and a life beyond the one we know. The New Testament speaks to the Jewish people but it also speaks to the non-Jewish nations about the God of Israel and the Son of God, Jesus, the Messiah who brought the Good News of the Most High to all of mankind. These “stories” represent as much the perspectives and character of the  NT authors (who may not always be the people we attribute these stories to) as well as the nature of character of the Messiah.

That brings us to another purpose of these “stories”:

The very power of the hasidic tale wins adherents to hasidism. Many people, among them some outstanding individuals, have been drawn to hasidism by its stories. R. Menahem Mendel of Kotsk, one of the leading hasidic tsadikim, said of himself that ‘he was made a hasid by an old man who told stories about the holy tasdikim’. The Ba’al Shem Tov excelled in his ability to attract new followers by this means.

Teaching of the TzadikimWhile Nigal is speaking of Jews who turn toward the teachings of Chasidic Judaism, I will admit to being attracted, as a Gentile, to these teachings when I read some of the tales of the Chasidim. It’s difficult to disregard the wisdom and compassion of the inspirational stories about the Chasidic tzadikim, but it doesn’t stop there. This, I think, is also what is so attractive about the tales of the “tzadik” Jesus. In fact, there is one Chasid who, after thoroughly investigating the Gospels, found the “stories” of John especially to be reminiscent of the tales of the Chasidim and as a result, became a lifelong disciple of the “Maggid of Nazeret”.

He read the Gospels in German. Then he obtained a Hebrew version and reread them. Though he was in the midst of a Gentile, Christian city where Jesus was worshiped in churches and honored in every home, Feivel felt the Gospels belonged more to him and the Chasidic world than they did to the Gentiles who revered them. He found the Gospels to be thoroughly Jewish and conceptually similar to Chasidic Judaism. He wondered how Gentile Christians could hope to comprehend Yeshua (Jesus) and His words without the benefit of a classical Jewish education or experience with the esoteric works of the Chasidim.

Taken from Jorge Quinonez:
“Paul Philip Levertoff: Pioneering Hebrew-Christian Scholar and Leader”
Mishkan 37 (2002): 21-34
as quoted from Love and the Messianic Age

If a young Chasid named Feivel Levertoff (he later changed his name to “Paul Philip”) could discover the Messiah in Jesus in the late 19th century because John’s Gospel was so much like the powerful and mystic writings on which he was raised, is it so difficult to imagine that a passionate exploration of Jesus might lead a Christian to discover an extension of his faith in Chasidic tales?

What are you looking for? Wealth? Prestige? Position? You have all these right now. You should be altogether happy. And yet you are miserable – I can feel it for all your brave speech. Can you not be satisfied? And this way of living that fills you with restlessness and discontent – I am not a Jew but even I have sensed something lovely in Judaism, in its faith and in its morality with its emphasis on pity. Even its rituals are not without poetic grace. See how many Gentiles have been converted to your religion. Does that not prove that it possesses virtues which the Greek world lacks? These are at your disposal now. What more do you want?

-Nicholaus to Elisha in the novel:
As a Driven Leaf
by Milton Steinberg

In the days prior to and even after Christ’s earthly existence, it was somewhat common for non-Jews to see the beauty and wisdom in the teachings of the God of Israel, so in those days, many Gentiles converted to Judaism as the only means by which they could live a life of righteousness (though through the revelation of Christ, all people may be reconciled to God). While Christianity begins with Judaism as its root, two millennium of separation between Judaism and Christianity have made them two almost completely unrelated faiths, with only the spectre of a connection between them (most Jews would say that the term “Judeo-Christian” is a misnomer). However, if Christianity truly accepts that we follow the Jewish Messiah, who first came for the lost sheep of Israel and only afterwards for the nations, who never abandoned his people, and as the Apostle Paul taught, all of Israel will one day all be saved (Romans 11:26), then we cannot be so arrogant as to brush aside the natural branch just because we, the wild and alien olive shoot, have been grafted into the root (Romans 11:17).

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of Hillel, Shammai, and the Three Converts as related in the Ethics of the Fathers (Avot Pirkei). I won’t recount the entire story (you can click on the link I just provided and read it for yourself), but it does illustrate the drive and passion among some of the Gentiles to truly understand what it is to be a Jew and to have that special covenant relationship with God. While Hillel and Shammai died perhaps only within a few years of the birth of Christ, they each established great schools of Jewish learning and their disciples, native Jews and converts, carried on their teachings and traditions for generations and eventually, ensured that their stories would be recorded for all time so that we have them with us even today.

The “Chasidim” of Jesus also made sure the stories of their Master were passed on from generation to generation, eventually being recorded and passed on to the future…to us.

Paul Philip Levertoff thought that the teachings of Jesus read like a collection of Chasdic tales. Perhaps as Gentile Christians reading tales of the Chasidim, we can also find a connection to the Messiah, the Prophet, and the greatest Tzadik, whose own death atoned for not just a few, but for all.

Starting to Walk

WalkingThe Torah is a living document, to be applied to all societies and all generations of history. Thus, the Almighty entrusted the sages and Torah authorities of each generation with the responsibility of interpreting the Torah and implementing it in the specific conditions and circumstances of their time and place.

-from the Chabad.org commentary for
Avot Pirkei (Ethics of our Fathers) Chapter 1
“Barrier and Gateway”

First put on your right shoe, then your left shoe, then bind your left shoe, and finally bind your right shoe. That’s the way Jews do it. The Torah was given to sanctify the mundane.

-Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh
Kabbalah and the Art of Tying Your Shoelaces

For the past several days, I’ve been blogging on topics related to the Torah and the meaning it has for not just the Jewish people, but for all of us. I’ve also been trying to describe that the Torah is more than just a document and in an almost mystic way, it transcends its own physical nature and becomes both the blueprint and container for Creation.

As the Chabad commentary I quoted above states, the Torah has an expansive mission to address all people everywhere and as Rabbi Ginsburgh suggests, part of that purpose is to help us understand that holiness and sanctity are infused in everything we encounter.

The Chabad.org commentary for Chapter 2 of Avot Pirkei introduces an additional mystery in how we are supposed to understand what the Torah, the book of instructions for living in a created world, is to be understood and lived out:

Rabbi [Judah HaNassi] would say: Which is the correct path for man to choose? Whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for mankind…
Ethics of the Fathers, 2:1

[Rabbon Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi] would say… Make that His will should be your will, so that He should make your will to be as His…
Ethics of the Fathers, 2:4

On the surface, Rabbi Judah HaNassi’s statement appears to go against the grain of the rest of the Ethics and, indeed, the essence of Judaism itself.

Simply stated, the basis of the Jewish faith is the belief that the Torah is G-d’s blueprint for existence. In the words of the Midrash, “An architect who builds a palace does not do so on his own. He has scrolls and notebooks which he consults how to place the rooms, where to set the doors. So it was with G-d: He looked into the Torah and created the world.”

So how can Rabbi Judah say that the “correct path” is defined by “whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for mankind”? Imagine the worker who consults the original state of his materials rather than the architect’s plan. “The blueprint calls for a square plank,” he muses, “but the log I have is round. Perhaps we can edit the plans a little?” This is what man is doing when he refers to the “way things are” in his own nature, in society or in the world at large for guidance as to how to live his life. Indeed, why labor to change the world if we can conform our moral vision to reflect it?

To the Jew, the “correct path for man to choose” is determined by the Divine revelation at Sinai, not by what is comfortable or what goes down well in the prevailing moral climate. To be a partner in creation means that one must, at times, contest the opinion polls as well as one’s own nature.

This is why the Ethics, which is the Talmud’s summarization of the Jew’s moral philosophy, opens with the words “Moses received the Torah at Sinai.” Morality, for the Jew, is not the product of man’s subjective thinking but of Divine revelation.

However, if “the Torah will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3), then this teaching and the ethics attached cannot be limited to the Jewish people. All of humanity becomes God’s partner in Tikkun Olam; the repairing of a broken world, and in the mission to prepare existence itself, starting with our own lives, for the coming of the Messiah. This effort at once requires that we submit to the demands of the Torah but also to interweave the Torah’s fabric with our own, fusing its life with our soul, resulting in a life made holy by God.

Antignos of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of reward. And the fear of Heaven should be upon you. –Avot Pirkei 1:3

Paul, a servant (or slave) of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God – the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David… –Romans 1:1-3

Here is a painting of “slaves” of God but not slaves who serve out of a desire for self-gain or reward, but out of “fear of Heaven”. This doesn’t necessarily mean fear of punishment but rather an intense awe of God, His Holiness, His purposes, and the immense task of which we are a part. An observant Jewish man wears a yarmulke or kippah on his head to cause him to be always aware of the One who is constantly over him. The Word of God reminds us of the God we serve and who we are in Him.

It’s that awareness that gives us the drive to learn how to serve God and then to devote our lives to that service. The renowned Torah sages Hillel and Shammai both commented on this:

Hillel would say: Be of the disciples of Aaron—a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves the creatures and draws them close to Torah. –Avot Pirkei 1:12

Shammai would say: Make your Torah study a permanent fixture of your life. Say little and do much. And receive every man with a pleasant countenance. –Avot Pirkei 1:15

Many of the opinions recorded in the Mishnah seem inconsistent about whether or not it is praiseworthy to devote an entire life to Torah study. Is it better to study Torah, forsaking all other pursuits or should a person both study and practice the Torah, balancing life between student and “doer”? Torah scholars are still subsidized in Israel today and exempted from military duty and other societal responsibilities, but there is this principle to consider:

Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi would say: Beautiful is the study of Torah with the way of the world, for the toil of them both causes sin to be forgotten. Ultimately, all Torah study that is not accompanied with work is destined to cease and to cause sin. –Pirkei Avot 2:2

It is very similar to lessons we find in Christianity:

For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” –2 Thessalonians 3:10

Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. –1 Timothy 5:8

A desire to serve God and to immerse oneself in His Word does not excuse a person from the mundane chores in life or the requirements of his family. In fact, it actually becomes a sin to study the Torah to the exclusion of all other activities and supposed acts of holiness can become an excuse for disobeying God:

But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God) – then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that. –Mark 7:11-13

That brings us back to Rabbi Ginsburg and the art of tying our shoes.

Shoes allow us to walk the face of the earth, to contact physicality and move around as we wish freely. More than any other material artifact that we possess and utilize daily, shoes symbolize our involvement with the mundane. As we walk forward to achieve our goals in life they protect our feet from the stones and thorns that cover the ground upon which we tread.

But so long as we have not sanctified the earth in its entirety to be a sanctuary for God we need shoes to protect our feet, while continuously on the move, doing our utmost to make this world a better place – a meeting ground for us and our Creator.

Tying ShoesThe world is a work in progress and so are we. Everything we do is a transition from the mundane to the holy. We constantly are on a quest to see the holy in every ordinary object, act, and person. Even getting out of bed in the morning and getting dressed is both common and sacred. People often “get into a rut” by doing the same things in the same way day-in and day-out. We can become bored, numb, burned-out, and tired of life. As Rabbi Ginsburgh says though, the “Torah was given to sanctify the mundane.” Studying and living out God’s Word, God’s blueprint, God’s plan, opens our eyes so that we can see beyond the surface appearance of the world and people around us, and it enables us to see beyond the surface of the Torah itself.

In stripping off the outer layers or reality, we see the mystical substance which makes up the “truer reality” of everything. The world was created through more-than-natural processes in a manner that transcends human understanding and what we think of as “the laws of the universe”. In the Torah, is the lens by which we can take brief glimpses of that reality and from it, gain the strength to get out of bed for another day, get dressed, put on our shoes, and find holiness in tying our shoelaces.

Then we begin to walk on whatever road God sets before us.

“Which is exactly what he will not concede. As he sees it, the Jewish people possesses a unique religious truth, an unsurpassable morality of peace, mercy, justice and human equality-all indispensible to a man’s salvation-and, in addition, a Tradition or way of life in which they are embodied. It is for these and their communication to the nations of the world that we have been appointed. No sacrifice on our part can be too great for the fulfillment of so heroic a destiny. What is more, no power on earth can destroy us, provided always that we remain loyal to our purpose.”

-Pappas to Elisha
in Milton Steinberg’s book
As a Driven Leaf