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The Wild and Dangerous Jungle of Religious Blogging

In all my days I have never had to look behind me before saying anything.

-Shabbos 118b

Lashon hara (gossip or slander) is not necessarily untruthful. The Torah forbids saying something derogatory about a person even if it is completely true.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
from “Growing Each Day” for Shevat 30
Aish.com

The primary reason I was compelled to close comments on this blog was the startling amount and frequency of (sometimes) true but disturbing, harassing, and occasionally derogatory comments being made by others.

whisperIn reading Rabbi Twerski’s commentary on Lashon Hara, I was reminded of those times many years ago when my wife would say something truthful about me that nonetheless was painful to hear. On occasion, she’d make these statements in front of others, which was certainly embarrassing, and when I would complain about this, she’d say, “Well, it’s true, isn’t it?”

According to Rabbi Twerski and the Talmud, it doesn’t matter if the statement is true or not if it also causes pain.

Derek Leman, who describes himself as “a rabbi, and speaker at the intersection of Judaism and Christianity,” recently wrote a blog post called The Infamous Incident at Antioch. While I generally agree with Derek’s “take” on the topic at hand, a large number of the 80 plus (as I write this) comments different people have composed in response to Derek’s blog (and to the other people commenting) are disturbing.

Yes, each person is telling the “truth” from their point of view, but the debate for some has gotten quite personal. It seems in this case, as in many or most other cases in the religious blogosphere, that “truth” always trumps kindness.

More’s the pity, for we are also commanded to love one another:

I am giving you a new mitzvah: that you love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. With this all will know that you are my disciples: if love dwells among you.

John 13:34-35 (Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels)

From many of these blog commentaries, it would be very difficult for an outside observer to determine who the disciples of Messiah are based on this commandment.

Of course, at least one person commenting on the aforementioned article is Jewish and not Messianic, so I suppose this commandment does not apply to him, but to the degree that Shabbos 118b does apply to Jewish people, what does that say?

bullyingI should mention that the litmus test for Lashon Hara is whether or not you’d make such a statement in public. Since all these dialogs are incredibly public and available to anyone with an Internet connection, does that mean anything we’re willing to write on a person’s blog, regardless of the lack of kindness, cannot be considered gossip, slander, or hurtful just because we dare to press the “Post Comment” button? I hope the answer is abundantly apparent, but just in case it isn’t, the answer is “no”.

Targum Yonoson states that the center crossbar was made with wood that came from the trees that Avraham planted. I heard Rabbi Mordechai Mann of Bnai Brak comment on this that these trees were planted by Avraham for the purpose of doing kindness for travelers. The center crossbar was placed right in the middle of the tabernacle to remind us that even when we are devoting ourselves to serving the Almighty we should never forget to have compassion for our fellow men, who are created in the image of the Almighty.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Even when serving the Almighty remember to do acts of kindness for people,” pp 207-8
Commentary on Torah Portion Terumah
Growth Through Torah

I don’t doubt that each and every person commenting on Derek’s blog, or who have made problematic comments on mine in the past, sincerely believes they are serving God in what they say, trying to straighten me and many others out, so to speak, correcting the “error” of our ways.

However, in (from their points of view) serving God, they are forgetting that some of what they say and write is not kind at all nor acknowledging that the objects of their criticism are indeed made in the image of God.

Some are even a little smug about it:

You could be 90 years old, standing right in front of me and I’d still tell you to your face that you need to be more mature in your online interactions. It’s the truth.

“It’s the truth.” As if that is sufficient moral justification for tearing down another human being.

But I suppose this could also make me guilty of Lashon Hara for I’m also trying to tell the truth at the cost of the dignity of other people.

If I am guilty of this, I ask forgiveness, but it would have been even better had I never written and published this missive.

So what’s my point?

If you want to serve God, is the best way to go about it to charge into battle or to do kindness and show compassion?

This concept of the Chinuch is a basic one for becoming a better person. Even if you are not able to have elevated thoughts at first, force yourself to behave in the way in which you hope to eventually become. If you want to become a giving person, even though you are inwardly very selfish you will eventually succeed if you continue to behave in a giving manner.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“You create yourself by your behavior. This allows you to become the person you wish to be,” p.168
Commentary on Torah Portion Bo
Growth Through Torah

closedI suspect if this principle were applied to becoming kinder human beings while in the service of the Almighty, the comments made on various religious blogs would be quite a bit more gentle, or maybe these comment sections would become astonishingly quiet.

Since it is unlikely that such a principle will ever become a reality among many religious people who comment on blogs (see my rants on this topic here, here, and here), and given that there is a significant overlap between Derek’s readership and mine, I’m convinced I’m doing the right thing by continuing my “closed comments” policy.

Addendum: Sunday Morning I’ve gotten a number of encouraging emails this morning and also a link to the definition of Insult at Jewish Virtual Library. That definition re-enforces the idea that even if you feel responsible to rebuke someone, you are required to do so in a manner that causes no embarrassment or other emotional discomfort. That’s pretty rare in the religious blogosphere. I’ve also been reminded that in 170 comments on this blog post of mine, no one tried to turn it into the “wild west shootout” that has recently occurred on Derek’s aforementioned blog article. So I’ll try a little experiment and temporarily reverse my decision by opening up comments on this one blog post and “take the temperature,” so to speak, of this matter. Can we be civil and non-exploitive in dialog?

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A Book Review By Invitation

My recent post/review of Boaz Michael’s Tent of David has really fostered some good discussion. Probably one of the longest and best discussion thread on any post on this blog. At times it has been spirited, but peace and grace have been the general tenor. Thank you!!

Leaders in the discussion have been bloggers James Pyles of “My Morning Meditations” and Ruth of Sojourning With Jews. Both are friends I have gotten to know over the last year in the blogosphere and though we do not see eye to eye on all things Messianic, we all desire truth and enjoy the pursuit thereof. Each of us has publicly wrestled with thoughts and understandings as we search the Scriptures (though I envy both for being more open with their hearts than I have been…).

-Pete Rambo
“You are invited….”
natsab.com

Hebrew Roots (HR) blogger Pete Rambo has issued a challenge to me (Ruth had to back out) to read one or more leading HR books (since Pete and I have already discussed Boaz’s book Tent of David: Healing the Vision of the Messianic Gentile in the comments section of his review) and to “co-review” the book, he with his perspective on his blog and me on mine.

Pete generously sent me two books to choose from, both written by a gentleman named J.K. McKee who maintains a personal/professional website called TNN Online (Theology News Network Online). McKee’s rather lengthy Statement of Faith is also available on his site, so in addition to his About page, you should be able to find out all you need to know about him.

As far as Pete goes, he describes himself as a “46 [year old] recovering seminary trained pastor.” He also says:

During most of my life I have had a particular interest in eschatology (end times events/prophecy) and in understanding truth. (I used to be a conspiracy theorist… now, I am a conspiracy factualist… ) In my quest, I began to run into pieces of information that challenged my very conservative traditional Christian religious perspectives. Only when I began to pray earnestly for Yahweh to show me TRUTH did He move my focus from geopolitical events and onto a close scrutiny of what I now call ‘Churchianity.’ As I learned how far the Church had moved from the simplicity of the Book of Acts and the clear teaching of the Word, I became convicted of the need for a personal reformation.

Tent of DavidTo “bottom line” it, my understanding (and please correct me if I get this wrong, Pete) is that both Pete and Mr. McKee would fall into the theological/doctrinal category within Hebrew Roots of being One Law (and I’ve linked to a set of definitions created by Rabbi David Rudolph from his website MessianicGentiles.com).

The book Pete and I agreed upon (via email) to review first is McKee’s One Law for All: From the Mosaic Texts to the Work of the Holy Spirit. The book is about two-years old and so far has rather stellar reviews on Amazon with a total of nine reviews as I write this. Either the book is incredibly good, or the deck is stacked, or both.

Let me explain.

Since I’m also published author, though not in the religious or theological space, the publishers I’ve written for typically send me anywhere from five to ten “review copies” of my books once they go to market so I can pass them out to family and friends, asking them to write and publish reviews on Amazon.

This is a traditional marketing technique and the assumption is that the author’s family and friends or perhaps “fans” of his/her work will be more likely to write favorable reviews, elevating the book’s ranking at Amazon. Of course, at least from my experience, every time I’ve sent out review copies of one of my books and asked people I know to review it, it’s always a tad risky, since I want the reviewers to be honest and sincere, and there’s always a chance they’ll take exception to some portion of what I’ve written (if not the whole book). On the other hand, I don’t want anyone to be dishonest in writing their opinion of something I’ve created. If one of my books is to be praised, I want that praise to be authentic.

I say all this with the idea that the individuals who have reviewed McKee’s “One Law” book at Amazon may be those people who are already predisposed to like the content of McKee’s book (and his general theological bent) and thus write positive reviews.

I know one of the reasons I reviewed Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships is because I knew it would draw exactly two audiences: those who automatically supported his platform and those who automatically opposed it. I wondered if Mr. Vines would ever get a truly objective review of his work, so I made it my “mission,” so to speak, to do just that, setting aside as much of my own personal bias as was possible.

I intend to do the same thing here with the caveat (please pay attention to this part) that I am theologically and doctrinally opposed to the position that there is One Law, that is, a single and unified application of the Torah mitzvot that applies to all disciples of Jesus Christ (Yeshua HaMoshiach) whether they be Jewish or Gentile (that application would ultimately be applied to all human beings since the Bible refers to how “every knee will bow, see Romans 14:11; Philippians 2:10).

I have a history in “One Law,” and after coming to faith within the context of a Christian church nearly twenty years ago, I swiftly (long story) transitioned into a Hebrew Roots/One Law congregation (which billed itself as “Messianic Judaism”) and learned my basic understanding of the Bible and my faith there.

Without going into a long explanation, after some years, I finally was prompted to question all of the assumptions I naively accepted back in the day and spent nearly a year publicly exploring said-assumptions on my previous blog spot (to which I no longer contribute).

In the spirit of friendship and learning, I have agreed to Pete’s proposal but I could be considered what trial attorneys call a hostile witness in that my attitudes and beliefs regarding “One Law” are not supportive of the theological presuppositions it entails.

one law bookThe goal is as Pete states on his own blog:

In the process of our discussion, I mentioned to James via email that we ought to read and review/discuss a book at the same time…

One point to stress for all of us from the outset: the goal here is to learn and grow. We may be challenged, but we want to plan on good vigorous discussion that at the same time is peaceful and displays the fruit of the Spirit!!

That is, Pete and I will read McKee’s book and each of us will post our impressions/reviews on our respective blogs (and I also intend to post a review on Amazon). We will insert McKee’s book into a crucible and attempt, through our differing viewpoints, to tease out the essence of what’s been written, then present those findings to whoever chooses to read our blogs.

As Pete says, we both want to show that two people can discuss differing theological perspectives in a peaceful and cooperative manner, and avoid those emotional meltdowns that we all frequently have witnessed in the religious blogosphere. We aren’t (necessarily) trying to convince the other to change his mind, but rather are trying to provide clarity of thought and expression of our respective points of view.

I hope you will follow along on our two blogs and feel free to join in (politely and respectfully) on our discussions.

Toldot: Eating Words

eat_words1“And Yitzhak was forty years old when he took Rivkah, the daughter of Besuail the Aromite, from Padan Arom, the sister of Lavan the Aromite, for himself for a wife”

Genesis 25:20

The Torah has already stated (in last week’s Torah portion) that Rivkah was the daughter of Besuail, the sister of Lavan, and was from Padan Arom. What do we learn from this seemingly superfluous information?

Rashi asks this question and answers that the Torah is emphasizing the praises of Rivkah. She was the daughter of an evil person, the sister of an evil person and lived in a community of evil people. Nevertheless, she did not learn from their behavior!

Many people try to excuse their faults by blaming others as the cause of their behavior. “It’s not my fault I have this bad trait, I learned it from my father and mother.” “I’m not to blame for this bad habit since all my brothers and sisters do it also.” “Everyone in my neighborhood does this or does not do that, so how could I be any different?” They use this as a rationalization for failing to make an effort to improve.

Dvar Torah on Torah Portion Toldot
based on Growth Through Torah by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
quoted at Aish.com by Rabbi Kalman Packouz

I’ve had the displeasure of reading two very vitriolic and venomous blog posts written by a single individual (with comments, some of which were equally virulent) this week (no, not in my “morning meditations,” fortunately). I have to remind myself that online attack dogs are often really victims in a real or perceived sense (even if you misinterpret what is going on around you as “victimizing,” the emotional distress is still the same).

In this week’s Torah portion, we see some rather disturbing behavior by Isaac, his wife Rebecca, their son Jacob, and particularly Esau. Esau thinks so little of his birthright that he sells it to the rather clever Jacob for the price of a meal (it’s unlikely Esau was literally starving on that occasion). Both Isaac and Rebecca play favorites among their children, though Rebecca has some “inside information” about Jacob from God to guide her reasoning. And his two apparent acts of deception force Jacob to abruptly leave home and seek out the relative safety of the ancestral home of Paddan-aram and the house of Beuthuel.

Isaac is the son of Abraham, who walked with God, and yet he and his family, who should have known better, would be called “dysfunctional” in our day and age. But what does the Dvar Torah say of Rebecca (Rivkah)? She was raised in an environment of evil and you would expect that she’d emulate her family, including her father Laban.

We see from Rivkah that regardless of the faulty behavior of those in your surrounding, you have the ability to be more elevated. Of course, it takes courage and a lot of effort to be different. The righteous person might be considered a nonconformist and even rebellious by those in his environment whose standard of values are below his level. However, a basic Torah principle is that we are responsible for our own actions. Pointing to others in your environment who are worse than you is not a valid justification for not behaving properly.

Here we see that pointing the finger at others, even if the others are “worse” than you (or you only believe them to be worse) is no excuse for what you do or fail to do. Yes, it takes courage to walk the moral high road, to show compassion rather than negativity, to offer friendship rather than rejection, but how often is this kind of courage displayed by those people in the Bible who were closest to God?

messiah-prayerAlthough Sodom was unspeakably evil, Abraham pleaded with God to spare the city if it contained just ten righteous people (Genesis 18:16-33). After the sin of the Golden Calf, God was intent on destroying the Children of Israel and ready to start over by making a great nation of Moses, but Moses begged God to relent (Exodus 32:11-14). Even the Master, suffering on the cross, spoke no curses against those who were killing him but instead said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” (Luke 23:34).

If you ever find yourself saying, “It’s not my fault I did this. It’s because of the way I was raised or because I learned it from so and so,” change your focus to, “I’ll make a special effort to improve in this area to overcome the tendency to follow in the footsteps of others.”

Blaming others for your faults and saying that you cannot do anything to change them will be a guarantee that they will remain with you. Make a list of the negative traits you picked up from your early environment. Develop a plan of action to improve in those areas!

Even if someone wrongs you, even if someone disappoints you, even if someone you trusted seems to have betrayed you, how you react to them tells the world more about you than any flaw another person may have or display (whether that flaw is real of just imagined by you).

There’s no excuse for playing the victim card in order to express hostility, maliciousness, malevolence, spitefulness, viciousness, vindictiveness, or any other harsh or savage behavior or speech (and “speech” includes what you post in the blogosphere, in discussion forums, and on websites).

As a disciple of the Master, you have a responsibility to represent him in this world. So do I. So do all of us. We can either exalt or denigrate his name by our behavior. Provocation is no excuse. Any sense of victimization by others (real or imagined) is no excuse. Rachel didn’t use that excuse. Abraham prayed for Sodom. Moses pleaded for the Children of Israel. Our Master asked that the Father forgive his executioners.

Look at yourself in the mirror and ask, “What am I supposed to say and do?”

Be careful of the words you say. Keep them soft and sweet, because you never know, from day to day, which ones you’ll have to eat.

-K. McCarthy

Good Shabbos.

Easterphobia or Why Do You Have to Throw Christians Under a Bus?

i-hate-easterYour newfoumd (sic) respect for a holiday named after a goddess is coupled with a newfound (sic) contempt for Hebrew Roots.

While you say your new book is about respecting others, I notice in your blog posts, comments, and writings, the Hebrew Roots whom your organization once seved (sic) is referred to almost exclusively in the negative light. Your above comment is no exception.

Judah Gabriel Himango
from a comment on the blog post
God Fearers: Easter Ham or Passover Lamb?

If you’ve been reading my blog over the past few days, you’ve seen how my own recent Easter experience went as well as my own inability to make a connection to the observance. Nevertheless, I don’t think Easter is evil, wrong, bad, or pagan, whatever the origin of the name of the observance. I suppose my Pastor used terms such as “Resurrection Day” and “The Lord’s Day” last Sunday to get around that little problem, but since there were absolutely no bunnies or eggs present (well, eggs were probably served for brunch, but most likely they were scrambled), I didn’t see any obvious idolatry involved.

I didn’t want to write on the conflicts between some minority expressions of Hebrew Roots Christianity and the more traditional Christian churches, but when I read some of the comments on Toby’s blog post, including the one I quoted above, I couldn’t let it lie (and I didn’t want to start something again with Judah because I actually like the guy). My personal struggles are what they are, but I get a little tired of Hebrew Roots people playing the “superiority” card and saying that Christians in churches are terrible people because they won’t embrace some of the Hebrew Roots priorities. Frankly, such bigotry against Christians by these groups is ill-befitting of anyone who claims to be a disciple of Christ (or Messiah if that’s your preference).

I was just talking about this issue a couple of weeks ago when discussing the problem with religious people. If a religious person, particularly in a minority variant of Christianity which sees itself as above or superior to the majority of Christians, encounters other believers who hold different views, sooner or later, there’s going to be a “spitting match” in the blogosphere. I have tried avoiding blog posts such as this one because I didn’t want to participate in such a match, but where do I draw the line when I see unjust comments being made against believers by other believers?

I suppose I could have ignored this poorly considered jab against Christians who celebrate Easter and that would have ended it, at least from my point of view, but it was included in a collection of remarks that were direct responses to something I’d said on Toby’s blog. Yes, I still should have ignored it.

But I chose not to.

Boaz Michael, author of the book Tent of David, which I mentioned on Toby’s blog, corrected something I said:

TOD addresses Easter, “Another area of difficulty involves the observance of Christian holidays. Some churches heartily embrace some of the pagan-derived aspects of Easter and Christmas. Understandably, this makes many Messianic Gentiles uncomfortable. The simple solution is not to go during that time of year. It should not have too significant an impact on your relationships there to miss church for one or two weeks; in fact, it’s quite common for people to be out of town during holidays.”

tent-of-davidLate last year, I deliberately didn’t go to church for Christmas services for more or less the reasons Boaz stated, but to my way of thinking, Easter is the “higher” tradition as far as the church is concerned. The crucifixion and resurrection of the Master is at the center of all things and without these events, there would be no salvation for all of mankind. That the church should ignore something so vitally important seems ridiculous and while I believe the Passover Seder could have much meaning for Christians, it doesn’t always cover the full, expansive intent and glory of the risen King.

So I chose to attend Easter Sunday services at my church and did not consider such services optional. As I mentioned above, it wasn’t a spiritual “power surge” and I ended up feeling more disconnected from the community because of my lack of emotional attachment, but that has more to do with me than the importance of fellowship and the beauty of watching a new day dawning and knowing that the tomb is empty.

One of the other comments Boaz made addresses this point very well:

Actually, the consequence of Tent of David is not necessarily the celebration of Easter but rather a respect for those that do honor the resurrection of the Messiah. It is about learning to see the good in others, appreciating and valuing people’s attempts to connect with God. It is about learning to manage things Easter with love and care of the individual that is sincere in their intentions and efforts. It is about building relationships that will create bridges of dialog.

At the end of the day TOD is about respecting others, not assuming evil intentions, and a mission of transformation.

He said, It is about learning to see the good in others.” Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?

Nevertheless, I’ll probably get “slam dunked” by my critics and my friends alike for how I’m wording all this, but what I’m writing at least has the benefit of sincerity and transparency. If you disagree with how different churches do things, then don’t go to those churches. If you have a problem with church in general, you don’t have to go to church. I don’t complain about where you go to worship. Why do you (whoever you are, since I’m addressing more than one disgruntled person at this point) have to complain about where I choose to worship?

I know Judah was complaining more to Boaz about TOD than he was to me, and I don’t think Judah intentionally disdains all people who go to church and call themselves “Christian” instead of “Messianic,” but the Boaz has a point. Even if we struggle with some of the practices in the church, we cannot dismiss her or her service to Christ. We must, since we also call ourselves disciples of Messiah, learn to see the best in others. After all, Christ died, even for those believers we may not like or don’t agree with. If Jesus thought his sacrifice, even for “those people,” was worth it, who are we to say he was wrong?

The Problem with Religious People

rob-bellThe former pastor and founder of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich., made the comment during a guest appearance this past Sunday at The Forum at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco to discuss his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God.

Grace Cathedral is the Episcopal Cathedral of the Diocese of California and describes itself as “an iconic house of prayer for all” and is home to an “inclusive congregation.” The congregation’s dean, the Very Rev. Dr. Jane Shaw, moderated The Forum discussion before a live audience.

When asked by Shaw if he was in favor of “marriage equality,” the politically-charged term used by some who want “marriage” redefined, Bell said:

“Yes, I am for marriage. I am for fidelity. I am for love, whether it’s a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, a man and a man. I think the ship has sailed and I think that the church needs to just … this is the world that we are living in and we need to affirm people wherever they are.”

-Nichola Menzie
“Rob Bell Supports Same-Sex Marriage, Says He Is for ‘Fidelity and Love'”
March 18, 2013 | 2:42 pm
ChristianPost.com

As for Acts 15, this is not a set of different instructions for Gentiles. But salvation is by faith, for Jew and Gentile alike. We believe they will be saved the same way we will be saved. The Torah is not the yoke that we nor our fathers have been able to bear, but rather, specifically, the Torah “according the custom of Moshe.” So it is that Paul recalls his words to Peter in Galatians, that Peter did not live “like a Jew.” The followers of Messiah Yeshua inherently cannot submit to all of the traditions of Judaism. To do so would be to disobey the Master and the Commandment of God. In separating himself from the Gentiles, Peter was submitting to Jewish halachic rulings that are not in step with the gospel, and requiring Gentiles to do likewise. Gentiles should start with the four prohibitions in Acts 15—which people are cut off from Israel for breaking—so that they can join the assembly and learn the Commandment of God, which is read in every city every Sabbath. They do not need to become Jewish and submit to the Oral Torah, they simply need to have faith in God and His Mashiach and let obedience to the Commandment working through love be the expression of that faith.

-Charles commenting on my blog post
Moshiach Rabbeinu

Why is everyone trying to change my mind?

I saw the news item about Rob Bell a few days ago. The link was posted by a Facebook “friend” (I put “friend” in quotes since I’ve never met the individual and know him solely through Facebook). It wasn’t directed specifically at me, though I did comment about it a few times on Facebook and then dropped the issue.

But Charles came to me or more accurately, to my blog to comment on his views and to disagree with mine. He seems like a nice guy. I don’t doubt that he’s sincere. But in reading my blog, he should have known from the start that we were coming from two different points of view.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect to be universally accepted, agreed with, or liked. Especially in the world of religion, it’s almost a given that if you’re outspoken at all, people are going to “hunt you down like a duck” (to quote Buford Tanner from the third Back to the Future movie) from the four corners of the earth just to tell you that you’re not only wrong, but a total blockhead (with apologies to Charlie Brown, who’s been called a blockhead more times than I can count).

But it occurred to me to ask, and especially in the context of Charles and people like him, people who don’t know me or have any particular reason to read, let alone comment on my blog, why do they care what I think, say, and believe?

I mean, the Internet is full of bloggers. According to dazeinfo.com, by the end of 2011, there were 181 million blogs on the Internet. That was well over a year ago, and I’m sure there must be even more by now (jeffbullas.com has some interesting info on the nature of the blogosphere in 2012, but nothing relevant to the religious blog space).

So why me? Do I comment on your blogs? No, and in fact, I’ve deliberately stopped commenting on blogs where I know my opinions will cause a small and virtual riot just because I’m sick and tired of all the arguments. Discussions? OK. But why charge down my throat just because you know you can?

And it’s not just the blogosphere anymore.

a-j-jacobsMy Pastor recently loaned me a copy of A.J. Jacobs’ book The Year of Living Biblically. I’ve just started reading it and so far, find it entertaining and humorous. Jacobs is Jewish and not religious in the slightest, but he was determined, for the sake of writing a book, to live as close to a literally Biblical life as possible for an entire year.

I might have taken some sort of offense to his approach, but apparently this is the type of book Jacobs writes. He immerses himself in a subject for a significant period of time in order to learn, often with amusing results, records his experiences, and then turns all that into a book.

But then I had a thought. Is it possible that Pastor gave me this book to read for a specific reason, one particularly related to whether or not the Torah is possible to observe by Jews in today’s world? I’ll have to ask him, but I don’t see him until tonight.

I can understand why Pastor would want to instruct me, enlighten me, edify me, since we have a one-on-one, face-to-face relationship and I attend his church, but why does the Internet care?

Even the people I agree with theologically have some sort of interest in maintaining my current belief system which dovetails into their’s. I’ve made a paradigm shift before. What if I do so again? Who will be affected? How will they react? How much of other people’s emotions and interests are tied to what should be a single individual’s personal understanding of God and faith?

And then there’s political correctness to consider. Atheists and the socially and politically liberal religious individuals and movements are interested in convincing me (well, maybe not me personally, but everyone like me) that not only “gay is good” but that being gay is biblical and that I should not only adopt that belief as a matter of religion but as a matter of politics, carrying it all the way to the ballot box.

Does my personal opinion about how “marriage equality” factors into my understanding of the Bible have anything to do with anybody else? It’s not like I’m protesting at gay weddings or writing letters to the editor. I’m not even vocal about the issue except when my hand is forced. I live in a nation of laws and when (I don’t doubt that it will happen, it’s just a matter of time) marriage between same-sex couples becomes legal nationally, I won’t say “boo” about it. Actually, it’s not a law I could break, even if I wanted to, since I’m in no position to affect such a law one way or another.

But some people want or need me to agree with them anyway. Go figure.

After finishing Jacobs’ book, I plan to start reading Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. No, I don’t plan to adopt it as my model for a personal spiritual journey, but Castaneda’s books are considered classics in their genre and I’ve been meaning to read at least a few of them for the past thirty years or so. I just never got around to it before.

I’m beginning to get disgusted again with all the little games that people play in the religious blogosphere. I’m really getting tired of all of the “I’m right and you’re wrong” pettiness that is going on out there. If it stayed “out there” it would be easy to ignore, but it’s invading my space. I’m not here to be a target. I want to be free of your chains. But it seems the only way to do that is to abandon contact with religious people and pursue God independently. Yes, that’s full of pitfalls and I returned to church just because of those pitfalls.

But I’m having second thoughts. If God wants me, He’s got me, but that doesn’t mean I have to join your particular club just because it makes you feel better to drag in more members, be ye “One Law,” Two House,” “Hebrew Roots” or any other “label” that comes with a dogma on a leash.

burning-the-sacredI can sort of see why Jacob Nordby wrote his book (which I’ll review shortly) The Divine Arsonist, since it’s the latest in a long line of attempts by people to reinvent God and religion in our own personal image. I can understand why concepts such as free range humans are coming to the surface. People want control of their lives and they’re tired of the environment defining the parameters by which we must live. That includes the parameters by which we must believe and have faith.

Christians like to say “God is in control” but when it comes to faith, it’s more like the religions and the people occupying their favorite religions that want to take control…of me.

OK, I’m exaggerating. I’m not that important to anyone, at least to anyone on the web. I could disappear tomorrow and probably not inspire so much as a raised eyebrow. Which makes it all the more mysterious to me why people want to control what I say, think, and believe.

If I don’t believe the same things as you and through my beliefs, I’m not harming you (I don’t visit you, yell at you, try to change your life, picket your weddings and funerals, pollute your holy water, or otherwise interfere in your life and the practice of whatever faith to which you’re attached), then why do you care about my religious convictions? Honestly, if I believe that God really doesn’t expect me to wear a tallit gadol when praying, doesn’t expect me to not mow the lawn on Saturday morning, doesn’t expect me to not eat a cheeseburger, how does that impact you even slightly?

Yes, I’m ranting. It’s my blogspot and I’m entitled to rant here. Tomorrow, I may wake up and feel better but right now, I’m a little tired of “religion” (and please, don’t drop by and tell me that Christianity “is a relationship, not a religion,” trust me, it’s a religion).

If you want to ask me a question, fine. If you want to deliver a polite and civil comment, fine. Even if you disagree with me and want to tell me why you do what you do, fine. Just don’t feel like you can tell me what I can, should, must do just because you’ve made those decisions for you.

When I refrain from eating bacon or sausage for breakfast, I’m not doing it because I think God will fry me in pork fat if I do. I’m making a personal decision based on my own convictions. Please feel free to enjoy a good pork chop or a steaming hot bowl of shrimp scampi. I won’t mind. If you’re a gay guy and want to marry your partner, fine. If you’re a through and through Gentile without a drop of Jewish blood in your veins and you feel you must pray in Hebrew facing toward Jerusalem and calling Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob your “fathers,” go for it.

But I’m not going to pretend they’re my fathers just because you want me to. My relationship with God is my relationship with God. I blog about it. So what? Deal with it. If you don’t like what I say, don’t come to my blog. I promise, I’ll never come to your blogs and I absolutely promise I’ll never comment on any of them.

I write because that’s what I do. I’m a writer. I write for my job. I write to process information. I write for fun. Maybe someday you’ll succeed in chasing me out of the blogosphere, but I don’t know what would compel me to shut up. On the other hand, there are days like today when I could happily pull the plug and just read and study by myself, no other human beings required.

Got it?

What’s Important Now?

When you try to help others and they don’t listen to you, you have a choice. You can say “it’s impossible to help them” and blame them for not being more open. Or you can view the situation as your own lack of proficiency at influencing and motivating others.

A blame-free attitude is the best path to choose. This can motivate you to develop your skills and talents on how to persuade, influence, and motivate. It could be that what you said is exactly what this person needs. As you enhance your presentation skills, in the future you will influence others to follow your beneficial suggestions.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Develop your Motivational Skills”
Daily Lift #570
Aish.com

Oh my! This could be applied to every blogger who has ever tried to convince (often in vain) an audience why their point of view is correct and why his/her audience should change their minds and adopt the blogger’s perspective/belief/faith/whatever.

Really, how many blogs and how many comments on those blogs are specifically dedicated to the blogger blaming the audience (or at least those people in the audience who disagree with him/her) for being blockheaded, stubborn, ignorant, and “impossible to help?”

More than I can count, I’m sure.

So what should we do with this piece of advice? Should we redouble our efforts as bloggers, assume that our presentation skills are lacking somehow, and focus on how better to “influence others to follow our beneficial suggestions” in future blog posts?

Is Rabbi Pliskin’s advice here the answer?

A person who feels joy when performing mitzvahs will forget all his suffering and misfortunes. In comparison to becoming closer to the Almighty, of what import is pettiness and trivialities?

A person who experiences joy in doing good deeds will feel greater joy than a person who finds a large sum of money. Why should a person expend his efforts trying to find happiness in areas where the basis is transient and ultimately meaningless, when he has a far better alternative?

I suspect it is the answer, if we were to take Rabbi Pliskin seriously and actually apply his suggestion to our lives in a consistent manner. Unfortunately, we who continue to participate in the blogosphere, either as active bloggers or the observers who don’t blog but who frequently comment on the blogs of others, take ourselves way too seriously (me included). This is true in spite of the fact that there are probably well over 181 million blogs in the world right now. As far as U.S. bloggers are concerned, our “right” to have our say and express our opinion seems to have reached crazy, chaotic, out-of-control proportions, thanks to cheap, high-speed Internet access and the ability to create a blog for absolutely no cost in just a few minutes.

So what’s the answer, what’s the answer, what’s the answer?

I’d like to say “turn it all off,” but I know how difficult that would be in my own case, so I can hardly make that suggestion to others. But Rabbi Noah Weinberg, of blessed memory, makes that exact suggestion, at least in part.

Imagine someone calling you an idiot. Or that you’re stuck in traffic. Or that the boss is hassling you.

When this happens, you can become angry and caught up in the pettiness of life.

The remedy? Take a moment to go outside and walk under the stars. When you witness the vastness of the universe, it puts things into perspective. When you come back inside, you won’t be starry-eyed. You’ll be energized. You’ll say, I’m sorry. Let’s forget it and move on.

Awe helps release you from the limits of the body. You are suddenly in a world of different dimensions, transported into the eternity of beauty, power, majesty. You’ve got an expanded perspective. It’s no longer me versus you. We’re all one. So why be aggravated?

Awe carries us beyond ourselves. In times of war and tragedy – as well as prosperity and joy – people get “bigger.” They treat each other nicer. Pettiness is forgotten.

Anytime you’re in a rut, blast yourself out. Take a walk under the stars. This will unleash the power. You cannot be bored or petty when you are in awe.

The ultimate source of awe is, of course, God. Since we often can’t directly experience God, we usually must “settle” for experiencing the reminders of Him that He has left for us; that is, His universe, His creation.

It’s ironic that when we compare ourselves to the vastness of God and His Glory, we feel very small, and humbled, and yet at the same time, grateful and even exhilarated. We don’t feel jealous that God is so big and we are so tiny. We don’t resent God for being omnipotent while we are so powerless.

And yet let another human being or another group of people claim some heritage, some experience, some relationship that we ourselves don’t have access to, and suddenly we’re deeply envious, hurt, and outraged. We feel victimized. We feel as if our “rights” have been violated. Why can’t we have the same access to what “those people” claim is uniquely theirs?

Yes, of course I’m talking about the current (and seemingly endless) debate between certain corners of Christianity which can be thought of as “Hebrew Roots” or more specifically “One Law” and the various Judaisms, including “Messianic Judaism.”  The struggle is fueled by those who find in the Bible the justification for “One Law” Christians to have the “right” to everything that God granted Israel as a perpetual gift at Sinai, which is the heritage of every Jew on earth today. Naturally, when Jewish people hear such rhetoric, they tend to “push back.”

I suppose this too is an “issue” that we people who were born and raised in the West and specifically in the U.S. have to deal with, since “our rights” are all we tend to think about (or is that “our entitlements?”) relative to what other people have that we want.

But what should we have learned by now as people of faith? What did Jesus teach? To claim our rights? To take what wasn’t given to us? What did he teach that we seem to be forgetting?

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ –Matthew 25:31-40 (ESV)

Did Jesus “teach Torah?” Absolutely! What else would a Second Temple period itinerant Rabbi teach to the “lost sheep of Israel?” Did he expect his disciples to take his teachings and pass them on through imitation and active “preaching?” Absolutely! That’s what disciples do. Do we see Jesus overtly teaching Jewish covenant signs and identity markers to his Jewish audience? Not as such, since each Jew in Roman-occupied “Palestine” would have been raised from birth to know all these things. In other words, for a Jew in that place at that time,  knowing how to tie tzitzit would have been a “no-brainer.”

So what did he teach and what did he expect his Jewish disciples to pass on to the disciples from the nations? (Matthew 28:18-20) What were his most important commandments?

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. –John 13:34 (ESV)

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” –Matthew 22:37-40 (ESV)

That takes us right back to what Rabbi Pliskin said earlier:

A person who feels joy when performing mitzvahs will forget all his suffering and misfortunes. In comparison to becoming closer to the Almighty, of what import is pettiness and trivialities?

It’s pointless to fuss and argue over God and His special relationship with the Jewish people. After all, God gave the nations of the world the most precious gift possible; the life of His one and only son, the unique one, the Messiah, who died so that our sins could be forgiven and who lived so that we could have eternal life with the Father as His own sons and daughters.

The next time someone says something outrageous about religion (or anything else) on the Internet and you want to fight back and stand up for your rights, step away from the keyboard. Go outside. Experience the awesomeness of a thunderstorm or the magnificence of the starry, starry night. Perform a mitzvah such as visiting a sick friend in the hospital or donating a few canned goods to your local food bank. Retire into a quiet place and pray, turning your heart away from your own small concerns or hurt feelings and turning your spirit toward God.

After you have done that, ask yourself, “What’s important now?”

Do I need to take my own advice? Yes. Fortunately, Shabbat is coming up. When sundown approaches, I can put away the Internet and return my heart and spirit more fully to the God of all creation, may His Name be blessed eternally and without end.