Tag Archives: Balak

Balak: What Do We Do When Israel Is Cursed?

Balak, the king of Moav, wanted to hire Bilaam to curse the Jewish people for a fortune of money. It is interesting that Balak believed in God and the power of invoking a curse from God, yet thought that God would change His mind about His Chosen People.

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

In this week’s Torah portion, the King of Moab, very fearful of the armies of Israel camped practically at his doorstep and knowing he couldn’t defeat them in a military operation, chose to hire the greatest known Gentile prophet, Bilaam, to curse the Israelite nation. It is said that “I will bless those who bless you and he who curses you, I will curse” (Genesis 12:3) but that hasn’t stopped an endless stream of individuals and nations from trying, sometimes (seemingly) very successfully, to curse the Jewish people. Even a casual glance at Jewish history over the past several thousands of years reveals this.

I suppose then, I shouldn’t be surprised at the latest atrocity I’ve discovered aimed at the Jews and their nation Israel. No, in this case, I’m not taking about the tragic murders of the three teenage boys Gilad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel, and Eyal Yifrah, though certainly they are always on my mind. I’m talking about something my wife sent me via email a yesterday.

The debate over the New York Metropolitan Opera’s performance of “The Death of Klinghoffer” raises serious questions about the functioning of American Jewish leadership.

Leon Klinghoffer was a 69-year-old wheelchair- bound American Jew who, in 1985, with his wife and 11 friends, celebrated his 36th wedding anniversary on the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro, that was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists. Klinghoffer was taken aside, shot and dumped overboard in his wheelchair.

The opera based on these events was composed by John Adams and the librettist was Alice Goodman, a convert from Judaism who is now a priest in the Anglican Church.

The opera was intentionally titled the “death” – not murder – of Klinghoffer, and purported to present “both sides of the equation.” The Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, said that Adams sought “to understand the hijackers and their motivations, and to look for humanity in the terrorists, as well as in the victims” and enable the “audience to wrestle with the almost unanswerable questions that arise from this seemingly endless conflict and pattern of abhorrent violent acts.” In other words: present the murderers and their victims as morally equivalent.

The opening scene honors terrorists. With a backdrop of graffiti on a wall proclaiming “Warsaw 1943, Bethlehem 2005,” Jews wearing kippot and headscarves enter the stage and plant trees on what is conveyed to the audience as plundered Arab territory.

The Palestinian chorus sings, “My father’s house was razed in 1948 when the Israelis passed over our street.” The Palestinians sing, “We are soldiers fighting a war. We are not criminals and we are not vandals but men of ideals.”

-Isi Leibler
“Candidly Speaking: The ‘Klinghoffer’ opera and the American Jewish establishment”
The Jerusalem Post, June 30, 2014

What is stunning is that the opera premiered in Brussels in 1991, as well as in various locations in the U.S., and is still going. It was cancelled in Boston after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but in 2014, the New York Metropolitan Opera scheduled a major global performance as well as a launch in over 70 U.S. theaters with a plan to simulcast the production to 2,000 theaters in 66 countries — an audience of millions of people.

terroristThis is crazy. You’re talking about a worldwide effort to glorify and praise terrorism and to somehow justify the murder, not just of Jewish people in general, but a 69-year-old wheelchair bound American Jew. You may remember the Achille Lauro incident. I certainly do. Time should never erase the stench of injustice and unavenged wrongs.

The fact that the opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” praises murderers and terrorists whilst justifying the killings of innocent Jewish people, including the infirm and disabled, is nauseating. That this story should appear so closely to the recent deaths of Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal is the emotional and moral equivalent of soaking their parents in gasoline and then lighting them on fire. It’s like defiling the graves of these recently buried young Jewish men.

Not only should this opera never have seen the inside of a performing hall, but it should have been cancelled the instant Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal were discovered to be murdered. Why is it still going on? Worse, why is no one (besides me and various Jewish news reporters and commentators) complaining about it?

Over the past 40 years one of the most positive features of American Jewish leadership has been its uninhibited self-confidence, assertiveness and willingness to raise its voice with courage and dignity on behalf of Israel and Jewish causes. American Jewish leaders prided themselves on having rejected shtadlanut – reliance on silent diplomacy in lieu of public action. Alas, there are now grounds for concern that this is changing, maybe as a consequence of the adverse pressures emanating from the Obama administration.

How else can one ascribe the pitifully subdued response to the Met’s decision to perform an opera that not merely incorporates vicious anti-Israeli diatribes but which is blatantly anti-Semitic and seeks to romanticize and provide rationalization for the cold-blooded murder of a disabled person solely because he was Jewish. And this is an institution that is disproportionately funded by Jews, in the city with the greatest concentration of Jews in the Diaspora.

This opera is an abomination and an offense not only to Jews but to all Americans and all decent people who oppose terrorism and racism. It has no bearing on the rights or wrongs of the Arab-Israeli conflict or alleged grievances of Palestinians, which can be debated in other venues.

I don’t know how else to say it. What the **** is wrong with people?

They were already dead before we even knew they were abducted? Before prayers throughout the world stormed heaven for their safe return? Before Jews of every religious and political stripe united in a way we have not seen in years? Before the three mothers appeared at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva pleading for support? Before 15,000 Israeli soldiers, not much older than the boys themselves, spent two weeks without sleep or showers combing every basement and tunnel beneath the terrorist stronghold of Hebron? They were already butchered, their young bodies lying in a shallow grave miles north of the search area.

And in the ocean of our mourning, a question rises up like a sea monster: Were our prayers and our good deeds and our unity in vain?

-Sara Yoheved Rigler
“Were Our Prayers in Vain?”
Aish.com

Tisha b'Av at the Kotel 2007Rigler started her article with the words, “Tisha B’Av came early this year.” Sadly, I have to agree. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if year by year, Tisha B’Av ever really ends.

It’s not the fact that terrible things continue to happen to the Jewish people. Unfortunately, the world has been trying to exterminate Jews ever since Jewish people have existed. What makes me so angry is that the effort to destroy Israel and the Jewish people is escalating and yet no one is crying out for justice. Quite the opposite in fact. Every time Israel attempts to defend herself through arms, the rest of the world accuses Israel of brutality, while every time a Jew is slain by a terrorist, the murder is celebrated in Gaza and Ramallah and I suspect in most of the rest of the world.

I would love to see churches all over the world this Sunday offer up prayers for the families of Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal. I would love for Pastors to lead their congregations in prayers for Israel and for the protection of the Jewish people. I call on Christians everywhere to stand up and cry out to God for justice. But we must also make our voices heard among the people of the world, that Israel will not go quietly into the night, she will not vanish without a fight, she is going to live on! She is going to survive!

And not only that, but God will fight for His people and His nation. He will not let them be extinguished. In fact, not only will Israel survive, but she will thrive. She will be the head of all the nations while we will be the tail. She will lead the world into an era of unprecedented peace and tranquility. And Israel’s King, who will rule the Holy Land and the rest of the world, will punish all the countries who went up against Israel.

He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming quickly.” Amen. Come, Lord Yeshua (Jesus).

Revelation 22:20

But here’s the problem:

While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god. The people partook of them and worshiped that god. Thus Israel attached itself to Baal-peor, and the Lord was incensed with Israel. The Lord said to Moses, “Take all the ringleaders and have them publicly impaled before the Lord, so that the Lord’s wrath may turn away from Israel.” So Moses said to Israel’s officials, “Each of you slay those of his men who attached themselves to Baal-peor.”

Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. When Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he left the assembly and, taking a spear in his hand, he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. Then the plague against the Israelites was checked. Those who died of the plague numbered twenty-four thousand.

Numbers 25:1-9 (JPS Tanakh)

If cursing fails, people can be victimized in any number of other ways, sometimes by being their (our) own worst enemies.

grievingAs Isi Leibler commented, the Jewish leadership in the U.S. needs to be the first to speak up about “The Death of Klinghoffer” and its ghastly implications, but American churches and indeed, all American people who love justice and hate cruelty need to speak out as well. You are not going to save lives through “stealth protesting”. Simply “waiting on the Lord” to do something may be waiting in vain, for who is to say that God isn’t waiting on us to do something. Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal are waiting on us. What are we waiting for?

God has always used people to accomplish justice in our world and I have no reason to believe He’s stopped now. Heavens armies will come one day to wage war against Israel’s enemies but in the meantime, we need to become Heavens armies, if not with guns and cannons, with words, letters, petitions, demonstrations, protests.

Even if you just send the link to this blog post via email to one other person, post it on your Facebook page, tweet it on twitter, that’s something. But do something. Don’t just sit there staring at the screen of your computer or smartphone.

The blood of the murdered cries out from the ground where it was spilled, and the killers are laughing.

Leibler ends his opinion piece thus:

If Jewish leaders feel inhibited about raising their voices on such issues, they are betraying their mandate and moving backward to the “trembling Israelite” role that American Jews assumed in the 1930s.

Rigler’s last words in her commentary are:

And we, the families of the boys, their friends, their neighbors, and all of us, are left to suffer their loss, to mourn the tragedy of their young lives cut short. Our Bible tells us that there is, “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.”

Tisha B’Av came early this year. It is a time to weep and a time to mourn. But if we can only hold onto the unity we achieved in these 18 days, then in its merit the Redemption will come, and it will finally, finally, be a time to dance.

I know Rigler’s trying to be comforting, for after all, sometimes that’s all you can do, but I agree with Leibler, and not just in terms of Jewish leaders. We cannot allow ourselves to feel inhibited in raising our voices. If we do not stand up for justice now, how many more Jewish victims will go to their graves before Israel is redeemed by her King, and the God of Justice stands up against us?

A good person will resist an evil system with his whole soul. Disobedience of laws of an evil state is therefore a duty.

-Gandhi

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Balak: Disciples of Abraham and Bilaam

Moses at NeboThis week’s portion is one of the most fascinating psychologically-revealing portions in the whole Torah! Bilaam, a non-Jewish prophet, was granted a level of prophecy close to Moshe’s level of prophecy. The Almighty gave Bilaam these powers so that the nations of the world could not say at some point in the future, “If we had a prophet like Moshe, we too would have accepted the Torah and would have lived according to it.” Bilaam is an intriguing character — honor-driven, arrogant and self-serving. Unfortunately, not too unique amongst mankind.

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

Interesting commentary, but don’t the Gentiles also have a prophet in Jesus Christ? Well, not exactly. Not as a “stand-alone” Gentile prophet. However the Jews have a greater prophet than Moses, and therein lies a tale:

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.

Deuteronomy 18:15 (NRSV)

Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets. Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you from your own people a prophet like me. You must listen to whatever he tells you.’

Acts 3:19-22

Moses announced that a prophet like him would arise in later days and Peter announced that Yeshua (Jesus) was that prophet. That is good news, very good news for the Jewish people, but what about the Gentiles? Don’t we still have the right to say that if we had a prophet like Moses, we too would have repented? How can you compare Bilaam to Moses? Rabbi Packouz characterizes Bilaam as “arrogant and self-serving” while we know that Moses was the most humble of all men (Numbers 12:3).

The Talmud gives the characteristics of the disciples of Abraham: a benevolent eye, a humble spirit and a meek soul. The traits of the disciples of Bilaam are: an evil eye, an arrogant spirit and a greedy soul.

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 5:2
from Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski’s Dvar Torah on Balak

If Jesus was the prophet and Messiah for the Jewish people only, then we Gentiles have no hope. The best we can aspire to is being God-fearing Gentiles or Noahides, non-Jewish people who adhere to the seven laws of Noah as codified by Orthodox Judaism.

But what more can we say for ourselves?

Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is then also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

Romans 4:9-12

Apostle-PaulSo Abraham was the father of the circumcised and the uncircumcised, the Jews and the Gentiles, and all through faith, not works. Does this not make us sons of Abraham even as the Jews are his sons? Do we also not have faith, though we are not Jewish?

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

Matthew 28:19-20

But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

Acts 9:15-17

It seems fairly straightforward then, that the “prophet greater than Moses,” the Jewish Messiah King is also the prophet to the Gentiles, specifically assigning Saul (Paul) to take the good news which is good news to the Jews, and declare it also good news to the Gentiles.

Yes, there were prophets among the Gentiles, and depending on how you view Abraham pre-circumcision, you may think of him as a Gentile, but we are sons of Abraham by adoption and disciples of Messiah, the great Jewish tzaddik and prophet and Moshiach, not of such men like Bilaam…that is unless we choose such a path, Heaven forbid.

Even Bilaam could not disobey the word of God by speaking ill of Israel, but his heart was not pure and where is “magic” failed, his evil schemes succeeded. But he spoke with God. Balak talked and God answered him. How can such a thing be?

“Bilaam spoke up and said, ‘Whatever God puts in my mouth, that I must take heed to speak” (Numbers 23:12). Are these not the words of a tzaddik (a righteous person)? Anyone hearing Bilaam might conclude that he is a very God-fearing person.

-Rabbi Twerski

The Almighty allowed Bilaam to go to Balak (cautioning him to only say what God told him). The Almighty gives every person free-will and allows us to go in the direction that we choose. Three times Bilaam tried to curse us and three times the Almighty placed blessings in his mouth. Balak was furious! So, Bilaam gave him advice with hopes of collecting his fee — “If you want to destroy the Jewish people, entice the men with Moabite women and tell the women not to submit until the men bow down to an idol.” Balak followed the advice and consequently the Almighty brought a plague against the Jewish people because the men fell for Bilaam’s plot.

-Rabbi Packouz

Though a prophet, Bilaam was wholly evil and disobeyed God whenever the Almighty would permit such a thing. Although Moses was not a perfect man, he was dedicated to preserving the Children of Israel and obeying God in guiding them through the wilderness for forty years and making sure they arrived at the Jordan and the threshold of the promise.

ancient_jerusalemWhat can we learn from all this? The important lesson is that we Gentiles, those of the nations who are called by His Name, have no entry into the Kingdom of Heaven or relationship with the God of Israel without Israel, her promises and her prophets and especially the prophet, the Holy One, the Tzaddik, Yeshua (Jesus), the Messiah. There is no “Gentilized” allegory or process that paints us into God’s picture. We enter the Kingdom through Israel or we enter it not at all.

To say that we accept Jesus while disdaining Israel makes us disciples of Bilaam and not Moshiach.

And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.

Genesis 12:3

If we curse Israel, even as we bless Jesus, we are also cursed. Maybe those Christians who curse Israel are among the following:

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

Matthew 7:21-23

Good Shabbos.

96 days.

Balak: The Good, The Bad, and The Gay

In some years, Parshas Balak is read together with Parshas Chukas. For it is the selfless commitment implied by the name Chukas which makes possible the transformation of evil into good. When a person fans the spark of G-dliness in his soul and expresses it through unbounded devotion to the Torah, he influences his environment, negating undesirable influences and transforming them into good.

And as this pattern spreads throughout the world, we draw closer to the fulfillment of the prophecies mentioned in this week’s Torah reading: (Numbers 24:17, cited by Rashi, Rambam, and others as a reference to Mashiach.) “A star shall emerge from Yaakov, and a staff shall arise in Israel, crushing all of Moab’s princes, and dominating all of Seth’s descendants.”

-Rabbi Eli Touger
“Remembering What Should Be Forgotten”
In the Garden of the Torah series
Commentary on Torah Portion Balak
Chabad.org

Just to let you know, I’m probably going to break every rule that was ever made about writing a commentary on a Torah Portion. In fact, it will probably seem like I’m stretching credibility beyond all reasonable limits. So if you want to take exception for the content of today’s “morning meditation,” you’ll have to look elsewhere. Oh, and today’s “meditation” is really long. Sorry. Just worked out like that. Remember, you have been warned.

In reading Rabbi Touger’s statements which I quoted above, I was captured by phrase, “negating undesirable influences and transforming them into good.” On the surface, they sound a lot like something many Christians would be familiar with.

What Satan intended for evil, God intended for good.

This isn’t in the Bible exactly, and it’s actually adapted from something Joseph said to his brothers (the ones who tried to kill him) after Joseph revealed his true identity to them (along with the fact that he was still alive).

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. –Genesis 50:20 (ESV)

You can probably point to events in your life when something happened that looked like it was going to be trouble or something actually caused trouble, but it eventually worked out to be some sort of advantage or had a good outcome.

But that’s not what I’m talking about. I just wanted to get that particularly viewpoint out of the way.

The evil “wizard” Balaam was hired by Balak, a King, to use his abilities to curse the Children of Israel. If you have even a tenuous familiarity with this week’s Torah Portion, you know about this. You should also know that God told Balaam that he was forbidden to perform the curses and, as it turns out, every time Balaam tried to curse the Israelites at Balak’s behest, he uttered blessings instead.

What was intended to be evil actually turned out to be a good thing.

However, we could spin this idea in another direction. We could say that something that was once considered evil (or undesirable, or unacceptable, or intolerable) has turned out to be good.

Such as being gay and even gay sex.

I separate the two because being gay isn’t really an issue in the Bible since God doesn’t forbid a person from being attracted to the same-sex. He simply forbids the Israelite men from having sex with other men.

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. –Leviticus 18:22 (ESV)

In virtually the same breath, God also forbids an Israelite man from having sex with a woman during her menstrual period, having sex with his neighbor’s wife, and having sex with an animal. Most of these “thou shalt nots” make sense to Christians and they are all part of the list of unlawful sexual relations we find in Leviticus 18 (which a friend of mine calls, “the icky chapter” of Leviticus).

Progressive liberal thought has, for decades, supported the right of people to behave freely in accordance with their sexual orientation, be that straight, gay, bi, or transsexual, but in recent months, it’s almost become “popular” to be gay or to be straight and to support gay causes. We see this in everything from President Obama’s public statements supporting gay marriage to how gay relationships are being depicted in comic books.

Politics and children’s entertainment make strange bedfellows.

But it brings up the question that if mainstream politics, entertainment, social discourse, and even comic books are progressing beyond mere tolerance of the LGBT community into active support and promotion of what is being called “marriage equality,” then what impact will this have on the world of religion?

Greenberg-weddingAfter all, atheists and progressives have traditionally portrayed religious people in general and Christians in particular as being backward, superstitious, intolerant, and even bigoted. With the continued dynamic shift in attitudes toward supporting LGBT in the larger culture, what increased social pressure will be applied to people of faith who have long been considered (and in most cases, rightly so) anti-gay? Has acceptance or rejection of LGBT and specifically marriage equality become the litmus test of the progressive left as applied to religion?

It would seem so. But contrary to how Christianity has been painted with the same, broad brush by the media, how the church (I use that term in the most generic sense) responds to homosexuality including homosexual acts, is split along political lines (and Jesus is once again being dragged into the political arena, whether he wants to be or not).

It’s in these contentious times that I do what culturally-concerned Christians should do — turn to Will Ferrell for insight. And insight he brings us…

Yes, it’s the legendary “dear Lord Baby Jesus” scene (from the 2006 film Talladega Nights), where Ricky Bobby prays to the Jesus he likes best, which of course triggers an intensely thought-provoking discussion:

Kyle Naughton, Jr: “I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt because it says, like, I wanna be formal, but I’m here to party too. I like to party, so I like my Jesus to party.”

Walker (or is it Texas Ranger?): “I like to picture Jesus as a ninja, fighting off evil samurai.”

The whole scene is basically a three minute summary of much of what passes for contemporary Christian theology. We invent the Jesus we like best, name that version the God we serve (or partner with), and then find the church (or friend group) that aligns with our vision and — voila! — we’ve got our faith. To be clear, our version of Jesus typically corresponds with some of his attributes, but the picture is always so woefully incomplete.

Gay Rights Jesus is about sex, love, acceptance, and — above all — no judgment (except of course, you can judge someone else’s alleged intolerance). Gay Rights Jesus isn’t bound by your antiquated notions of sexual morality anymore than he’s bound by antiquated dietary rules that maybe involve shellfish . . . or something.

-from “Homosexuality, Morality, and Talladega Nights Theology”
Patheos.com

Irreverent though the quote may be, it tells a certain amount of truth about how we treat religion, adapting it (and Jesus) to fit the moral, ethical, and popular agendas of our society and ourselves.

But it prompts the nasty question of whether or not “commandments” can be adapted, or were intended to be adapted based on the needs of each generation? A blatant example from Judaism are things like cars and microwave ovens that didn’t exist when the Torah was given at Sinai, and they still didn’t exist during the time of Jesus or the later Talmudic period. Once they were invented, someone asked a Rabbi if they could be used on Shabbat, and Rabbinic authority had to consider the Torah and the relevant halakah and render a decision. The commandments regarding Shabbat had to be adapted to fit the needs of the current generation.

But homosexuality wasn’t “invented” recently since the Bible records the prohibition of an Israelite man having sex with another man back in the Torah.

If I were to stop with Judaism, I suppose I could say that the prohibition should remain intact unless some significant evidence is brought forth stating that the Leviticus 18 portion of the Torah was only intended for the ancient Israelites but not modern generations of Jews (but then you have to start asking questions about all of the other forbidden sexual relationships listed in Leviticus 18).

But how many of the Torah prohibitions regarding sex trickle down to Christianity?

In response, it is not enough to point out that Jesus never said anything explicitly about homosexuality or homosexuals. Since he was Jewish, silence cannot easily be filled with a viewpoint that was not common in Judaism in the first century – however much one might go on to insist that Jesus’ views did not always mirror what most people thought.

Jesus taught us to allow love for neighbor and concern for human beings to trump other concerns – even if it leads to healing on the Sabbath or eating sacred bread. Even if it means to breaking other laws, laws which according to the Bible were laid down by God himself.

Dr. James F. McGrath, June 29, 2012
“The Well-Thought-Out Christian Rationale Behind Christian Acceptance of Gays and Lesbians”
Patheos.com

ShabbatDr. McGrath makes the classic Christian assumption that Jesus broke (and therefore invalidated) the commandments regarding the Sabbath (which is highly debatable) and thus, Jesus could have and probably did break other commandments in Judaism including, in this case, those prohibiting homosexual behavior among the Jews.

If we follow Dr. McGrath’s line of thinking and assume it is all correct (and since he’s the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University in Indianapolis, he’s got a lot of “cred” behind him), then we might make a “quick and dirty” conclusion that Jesus not only didn’t have a thing against homosexual behavior among the Jews (and by extension, the later Christians), but he was all for it (Keep in mind that Rabbi David Hartman says, “The Sabbath, therefore, does not force us to choose between a theocentric focus on the world and the dignity and significance of human existence,” so healing on the Shabbat does not particularly constitute breaking the Shabbat).

Actually, I’m not sure I can take Dr. McGrath’s commentary that far (since he doesn’t), but he does say this:

Ancient Israel’s marriage laws reflected those of the time, and the workings of the marriage institution as an element of patriarchal society allowing men to treat women as property so as to ensure that their other property passed to their legitimate heirs. Times have changed, marriage has changed, and none of the conservative Christians I know who are married are involved in anything that mirrors “Biblical marriage” in all its features.

And so of course our thinking about marriage reflects the wider perspective of our time and place. Thinking about marriage among the people of God always has. And as with so many issues, such as women’s equality and slavery, we sometimes advocating the setting aside of practices that can be justified by careful exegesis of certain Biblical passages, on the basis of more fundamental Biblical principles. We pick and choose from both the Bible and our culture based on overarching principles and convictions about the centrality of love, the importance of justice, concern for the poor, and so on.

I’m fully willing to admit that there are a lot of things in Paul’s letters that I can accept as situational and that were intended to apply only to the specific group Paul was addressing in a certain place at a certain time. But how far can we “relativize” the Bible and the teachings of Jesus before we become guilty of the following?

Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter!
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,
and shrewd in their own sight! –Isaiah 5:20-21 (ESV)

How about this one?

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. –2 Timothy 4:3-4 (ESV)

Even if I were to take a conservative Christian approach regarding homosexuality and homosexual acts, I’d have to admit that the commandments can only apply to religious Jews and to Christians. You have to be a member of the covenant before you come under the commandments (OK, Christians believe in a final judgment of all humanity by God, but that’s up to Him, not us). A conservative Christian is able to apply the Bible commandment prohibiting homosexual acts to someone performing such acts as a practicing Christian. However, he couldn’t do so regarding two men who are atheists, gay, and having sex anymore than he could against a man and woman who are atheists, living together as an unmarried couple and having sex (you don’t see a lot of Christian groups protesting against the latter these days).

As far as I can tell, the church has every right to police itself (and given the abuses in the church that occasionally come to light in the public media, perhaps they should) but they cannot apply their (our) own commandments and prohibitions onto the larger culture and attempt (and this is an extreme example) to legislate the Bible into local, state, or national law (even though significant portions of our laws are based on the Bible).

I know that’s what some Christians don’t want to hear.

Getting back to earlier portions of this blog post, are liberal Christians guilty of choosing “baby Jesus” or “Ninja Jesus” or “Gay Rights Jesus” over the closest approximation of “real Jesus” we can gather from the actual New Testament texts to satisfy modern cultural imperatives, or are, as Dr. McGrath suggests, we allowed to adapt the teachings of Jesus to be more appropriate with the needs of the current generations and even to override certain commandments for the sake of loving our neighbor unconditionally and without reservation under all circumstances, no matter what?

There’s no denying that there is an enormously complex set of variables in operation here. For many Christians, just policing their own backyard relative to homosexuality isn’t enough and they want to make the larger culture more “comfortable” for them/us. However, for the past 2,000 years, Jews have constantly lived as a subset of a larger culture that absolutely wasn’t comfortable to them and that existed in complete opposition to all of the commandments held more dear in religious Judaism.

And they managed to get by.

Why does Christianity expect anything different to happen to them?

Last November, I blogged on similar issues in a missive called At the Intersection of Intolerance and Humanity. I don’t believe that the church as the right to commit wholesale condemnation of all LGBT people everywhere as people because of the moral and religious commitments we’ve made as Christians. Perhaps we have the right to do so in our own churches, but this becomes problematic if your church accepts heterosexual couples living together as “OK” but not gay couples living together.

Whether you approve or disapprove of homosexual behavior based on your personal feelings and/or your understanding of the Bible doesn’t mean you have the right to disregard someone as a human being. Jesus expected us to, among other things, visit people in prison, meaning he wanted us to extend compassion to people who are convicted of crimes (and probably guilty of sins) and to treat them with respect. Why is being gay so much worse than being a bank robber, or someone who beat his wife, or even a murderer?

I’m not a big fan of having the larger, popular culture shove their values and ideals down my throat just because there are more of them than there are of me and they have the support of MSNBC and CNN. On the other hand, they do force the body of faith to confront moral issues that we’d just as soon avoid or even condemn, without actually examining what the Bible seems to be telling us, and especially without examining our own thoughts and feelings.

In this week’s Torah portion, Balak offered Balaam a small fortune if Balaam would consent to curse the Children of Israel, and given the fact that the evil Balaam could even speak with God, we have every reason to believe such a curse would have worked to the detriment of the Israelites. But what Balak intended for evil, God chose to make good. Are we to go so far as to say that what God considered evil in Leviticus, He chose to make good in the 21st century?

I don’t know if I can go that far. The popular media outlets are choosing to depict the LGBT community as “especially good” these days. We believers aren’t supposed to decide which people we love and which we hate. (Matthew 5:46). Although we are held to a higher moral standard (atheists and progressives would debate this) than the world around us, that isn’t a mandate to circle our wagons and to restrict love only to our own groups. If God so loved the world, the entire world, and everyone in it (John 3:16) while we were all still enemies of Christ (Romans 5:10), who are we to do any less?

Don’t turn good into evil and evil into good, but do good in order to overcome evil (Romans 12:21). I think rewriting the Bible to fit a modern moral agenda is going too far. But instead of overcoming what we believe is evil by force, we can do what Paul suggested in Romans 12:20 whilst quoting Proverbs 25:21-22

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Doing good doesn’t mean surrendering to evil. It means surrendering to God.

Good Shabbos.

Addendum: For more on loving your enemies, you might want to consider New Testament Scholar Larry Hurtado’s recent (and short) essay, Hermeneutics of ‘Agape’. Also, Dr. Stuart Dauermann presents a somewhat related blog post (not incredibly related but when you read it, you’ll see why I’m including it here) called Re-masculinizing the Church and Synagogue – Toward Addressing the Problem. Food for thought.

Awakening Messiah

AriseIn each one glows a spark of Moses. He is our teacher. A teacher’s job is to open a small window for the inner knowledge to pour down into the conscious mind.

How do you awaken Moses? By waking yourself.
How do you awaken yourself? By finding someone in whom Moses is awake.

Only the awakened can waken others.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Moses Inside”
Chabad.org

In Judaism, none like Moses has ever appeared upon the earth again; a man who spoke to God “face-to-face”. In Christianity, only one person has appeared who is greater than Moses:

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” –Matthew 16:13-16

If we extend Rabbi Freeman’s statement into the life of a Christian, what can we say? Perhaps the clue is in a commentary from this week’s Torah Portion Balak:

The Torah portion Balak relates how Balak, king of Moav, hired the prophet Bilam to curse the Jewish people. G-d, however, frustrated the king’s scheme and caused Bilam to utter praises and blessings of the Jewish people.

Among Bilam’s words of praise and blessing, we find the following: “I see him [Israel] from the peak of flintrocks, and gaze upon him from the heights; it is a nation dwelling alone, entirely dissimilar to other nations.”

In explaining the words: “I see him [Israel] from the peak of flintrocks,” Rashi comments: “I gaze upon their beginnings and their roots, and see them braced and as strong as these flintrocks and rocky heights, on account of their Patriarchs and Matriarchs.” Bilam’s statement was thus allegorical.

The true power of a Jew lies not in his physical might but in his spiritual prowess, particularly his power of mesirus nefesh , a submission to the Divine that is so profound that he is willing to lay down his life if necessary for the realization of G-d’s will. The soul that possesses the power of mesirus nefesh is referred to as “the peak of flintrocks.” This power emanates from a Jew’s mighty, firm and immutable faith in G-d, a faith so powerful that a Jew will offer his very life in order not to renounce G-d.

The Alter Rebbe thus explains that the power to act with mesirus nefesh is a byproduct of G-d’s shining within every Jewish soul, for mesirus nefesh flies in the face of nature; a living creature doesn’t do things that cause its own negation.

-Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson for Torah Portion Balak
“A View from Above”
Chabad.org

This fits very well with what Rabbi Freeman wrote earlier and illustrates that strength comes from the presence of the Divine within each individual and within the community as a whole. We see something similar in the writings of Paul:

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. –Philippians 4:12-13

Among his many blessings upon the Children of Israel, Balaam prophesied the coming of the Messiah (Numbers 24:17-19). This is a hope that both the Jewish people and Christianity looks to, though each with a different understanding:

In writing about Moshiach (Messiah), the Rambam states in his Code of Law, Yad HaChazakah : “Whoever does not believe in him or does not await his coming, denies not only [the statements of] the other prophets, but also [those of] the Torah and of Moshe, our teacher, for the Torah attests to his coming, stating: ‘And the L-rd your G-d will bring back your captivity and have compassion upon you.’

-Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson for Torah Portion Balak
“The Prophecies of Bilam”
Chabad.org

Arise and ShineWe see that failing to have faith in the coming of the Messiah is failing to have faith in all the Prophets that came before him and indeed, the entire record of the actions of God among mankind. The twelfth of Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith states this message clearly, and we are to make our trust and hope a centerpiece in our life of faith:

I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he may delay, nevertheless, every day I anticipate that he will come.

It is in that hope that Jews and Christians sustain themselves, regardless of hardship and the struggles of our lives. In addition to what we’ve read so far, Christians look to the following:

As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. –Romans 8:36-39 (quoting Psalm 44:22)

Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. –2 Corinthians 12:8-10

To awaken the Messiah within us, we must find someone in whom the Messiah is awake. If the Messiah is awake in you, awaken him in others. Make his power perfect.

Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. –Isaiah 60:1

Good Shabbos.

He Who Desires Repentance

BalaamThe angel of the Lord then stationed himself in a lane between the vineyards, with a fence on either side. The ass, seeing the angel of the Lord, pressed herself against the wall and squeezed Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he beat her again. Once more the angel of the Lord moved forward and stationed himself on a spot so narrow that there was no room to swerve right or left. When the ass now saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam was furious and beat the ass with his stick.

Then the Lord opened the ass’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” Balaam said to the ass, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.” The ass said to Balaam, “Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?” And he answered, “No.”

Then the Lord uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, his drawn sword in his hand; thereupon he bowed right down to the ground.Numbers 22:24-31 (JPS Tanakh)

This villain was going to curse an entire nation which had not sinned against him [merely by the power of his speech], yet he has to smite his donkey [with his hand] to prevent it from going into a field! …the donkey spoke to Balaam saying, “You need a sword in your hand to kill me? How then do you intend to uproot an entire nation with only your words?” Balaam could not think of an answer, so he kept silent.Numbers Rabbah 20:14

This week’s Torah Portion Balak could easily be called “Don’t make an ass out of yourself”. Balaam, the wicked prophet, who referred to himself as “the man whose eye is opened” (Numbers 24:4), wasn’t seeing so well when God sent an angel to stop him, three times, from cursing the Children of Israel. But lest you consider yourself superior to this ancient wizard, consider that you too have been blind when it comes to God. Paul said, “as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10), and his words certainly must apply to you and me. There is a difference between what we think we see and know and what we truly perceive and understand. In our arrogance and “self-confidence”, we can be humbled, even by a lowly ass.

A few months ago, I wrote a small missive about the difference between faith and trust in God. Many have faith, but trust is much more rare. Few souls attain that truly exalted level of holiness we all desire:

To one whose self is his body, death of the body is death of the self. But for one whose self is his love, awe and faith, there is no death, only a passing. From a state of confinement in the body, he makes the passage to liberation. He continues to work within this world, and even more so than before.

The Talmud says that Jacob, our father, never died. Moses, also, never died. Neither did Rabbi Judah the Prince. They were very high souls who were one with Truth in an ultimate bond—and since Truth can never die, neither could they.

Yes, in our eyes we see death. A body is buried in the ground, and we must mourn the loss. But this is only part of the falseness of our world. In the World of Truth, they are still here as before.

And the proof: We are still here. For if these high souls would not be with us in our world, all that we know would cease to exist.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“High Souls”
Chabad.org

What do you really see and who do you really trust? God?

On the 3rd of Tammuz on the Jewish religious calendar (sundown July 4th to sundown July 5th this year) is the seventeenth yahrtzeit of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, and the yahrtzeit of an exalted sage or tzadik is traditionally a day for reflection, learning, prayer, positive resolutions and acts of loving-kindness. It is an opportunity to humble ourselves before God and before men, set aside an overabundance of confidence in our ability to “see” God and to instead, seek Him with a contrite heart and a desire to rise to a higher level of trust and spirituality.

For this occasion, Rabbi Ezra Schochet writes of Joyful Remorse; the act of repenting or making teshuvah, not with tears and anguish, but with gladness and rejoicing in our hearts.

The Rebbe continued saying that, in fact, repentance is greater than every mitzvah. Its purpose is to correct the transgression of all other commandments, it must fill the spiritual “gap” that the lack of observance engendered. Teshuvah’s ability to do so stems from the fact that it emanates from a higher spiritual source than all the others (as explained at length in the chassidic texts). And “the greater the mitzvah, the greater the joy.”

It would seem that tears and sorrow would be the more appropriate response when repenting of our sins and short-sightedness, but we see here that in performing teshuvah, we are clearing the barriers away that stand between us and God. What could be a better time to celebrate, to lift our spirits high, and to cry out and give thanks to God for desiring that we return to Him?

Blessed are you O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who desires repentance.

-from the daily prayers