Tag Archives: Education

Children’s Books Are The New Weapons In The Culture Wars

The cover of Gender Queer and the author, Maia Kobabe. Photo by Tristan Crane

Warning! As you scroll down on this blog post, some highly offensive drawings are presented that many will find extremely distasteful. I included them to make a point about what is and isn’t acceptable in children’s literature in the 21st century. If you believe you will be offended and want to avoid that, do not read this article.

I’ve thought about writing this but initially decided not to. There are times when I can dig a little too deep into the controversial “culture wars” and figured I didn’t need the aggravation. However, this morning I read an article called
Roald Dahl books rewritten to remove language deemed offensive
. The sub-heading is:

Augustus Gloop now ‘enormous’ instead of ‘fat’, Mrs Twit no longer ‘ugly’ and Oompa Loompas are gender neutral


Continue reading Children’s Books Are The New Weapons In The Culture Wars

Will Our Children Have Faith?

It may seem strange to consider Judaism a missionary religion. Yet the Pharisees are described as “compass[ing] sea and land to make one proselyte.” (Matthew 23:15) Rabbinic Judaism, the product of these Pharisees, saw in Abraham and Sarah the models for those who converted non-Jews to Judaism, speaking of them as “making souls.” (Cf. Gen. 12:5)

The proselyte was viewed with special favor. Unlike the Israelites at Sinai the proselyte had come under the wings of the Divine Presence without the impetus of thunder and lightning. Conversionary activity, however, diminished as Christianity gained power and proscribed conversion to Judaism. Even so, there were notable conversions to Judaism in the medieval period.

In the modern period with the advent of “Outreach” in the Reform Jewish community, there is renewed interest in presenting Judaism as an attractive option to those outside of Judaism who might be interested.

-Leonard Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitzky
“Judaism as a Missionary Religion,” p.14
Chapter One: At Sinai Moses Received the Torah
Pirke Avot: A Modern Commentary on Jewish Ethics

This isn’t the only time in the first fourteen pages of this book that the authors quoted from the Apostolic Scriptures (favorably), which is something of a surprise in a (non-Messianic) Jewish publication. I’ve also read similar commentaries in the past on the historic and arguably modern interpretation of Judaism as “missionary.”

Of course, it’s well-known that the Chabad have a very active and even aggressive outreach process, but this is usually directed at non-observant or minimally observant Jews. They aren’t actively trying to convert Gentiles to Judaism although, on occasion, they will encourage non-Jews to observe the seven Noahide Laws.

I’ve been thinking about Messianic Judaism across multiple generations, especially as applied to non-Jewish members or adherents otherwise known as “Messianic Gentiles.” I’ve read a couple of blog posts over the past few days, both written by “Hebrew Roots Gentiles,” discussing the desire to pass their beliefs on to the next generation.

This is really difficult to do.

Even in modern Judaism and Christianity, there is no guarantee that your children will follow in your footsteps. Sure, it’s more likely in Orthodox Judaism for your children to continue in an Orthodox lifestyle, but in Reform Judaism, it’s not such a big step from there to becoming completely secular and even assimilated. There are also plenty of Christians whose children leave the faith. It can be truly said that God has no grandchildren. We each negotiate our own relationship with our Creator, regardless of who our parents are or what they believe and practice.

OK, that’s not exactly true for Jewish people. Even a secular and assimilated Jew is still a Jew. Jewish people are the only population to ever exist who are born into a covenant relationship with God, whether they want to be or not. I believe at the end of the age, each Jew who chose not to respond to the covenants will have to give an accounting to God.

Yes, the rest of us will too will have to give an account, but it won’t be the same since no non-Jew is born automatically having a specific set of obligations to God based on a set of covenants made thousands of years ago.

And in Messianic and Hebrew Roots communities, the problem is compounded.

A few years back I attended the First Fruits of Zion Shavuot Conference at Beth Immanuel in Hudson, Wisconsin. There were a number of families there, both Jewish and Gentile, who were discussing matchmaking. That is, they were concerned about who their children were going to marry.

This wasn’t idle chatter. Some of the younger generation present at the event were approaching or already at marriageable age. There were even suggestions being made as to which two young people to match up (much to the discomfort of the young people present who were being discussed).

There are just tons and tons of Christian churches and Jewish synagogues of various denominations and branches available almost everywhere on Earth. A Christian desiring to marry a Christian companion might not have any more difficult a time at finding an appropriate mate than any given atheist. For Jews it is probably the same, given access to a sufficiently large Jewish population (here in Idaho, it would definitely be more of a chore).

learning hebrewBut what about Messianic Jews and Gentiles? At least in the U.S. and Canada, there aren’t that many communities to choose a proper companion from. Do you marry a Christian and call it good? Do you marry a (non-Messianic) Jew and give up your faith in Yeshua (Jesus)?

I’ve known more than a few young adults, Jewish and Gentile, who are Messianic and who either took many years to finally find a good match or who are still waiting for him or her to come along.

Messianic Judaism is a missionary religion but with a twist. It’s main focus is or should be to spread the good news of Messiah to other Jews.

For instance, on the main page of the Tikvat Israel website, it states:

Where Jewish people and their families & friends can experience a Jewish service & community while believing Yeshua (Jesus) is Messiah.

Gentiles are hardly excluded but the outreach and call to faith is definitely directed “to the Jew first,” so to speak.

I think many “Messianic Gentiles” self-select our way of life. I’ve heard endless stories from people who used to go to church saying that what they were being taught from the pulpit just wasn’t satisfying and didn’t seem to match up with what the Bible actually says. I think we’re all attracted to a more Jewish interpretation of the scriptures for a variety of reasons. Many of us are intermarried with Jewish spouses and so are exposed to religious and cultural Judaism as a matter of course. And many “Hebrew Christians” have returned to the Torah by way of Messianic Judaism and brought their non-Jewish family members with them into the movement.

But while children don’t have much say about which church or synagogue their parents take them to, as these young people grow into adulthood, they have plenty of say over their lives.

I know in my own experience, as soon as I was old enough to tell my parents I wasn’t going to church anymore, I did, and I didn’t see the inside of a church as a worshiper for decades.

My own children went through a series of religious “encounters” starting with church, then a Hebrew Roots group, and then the local Reform/Conservative shul. They all eventually exited out of Yeshua-belief and then just about anything that resembles Jewish observance. Except for some approach to keeping Biblically (but not halachically) kosher and ethnically identifying as Jewish, they have no relationship with God as Jews.

I don’t doubt that Gentile and Jewish believers will continue to be drawn from their churches to Messianic Judaism and/or Hebrew Roots. Thus generation after generation of adults will enter these movements and learn something about some “Hebraic” method of interpreting scripture, gaining a more Jewish apprehension of the Messiah, the Gospel message, and the function of the New Covenant. But what about our children?

I don’t have a solution, but I do have a joke:

Three rabbis were talking over regular Sunday morning breakfast get-together.

Rabbi Ginsberg says, “Oy! We have such a problem with mice at our schul. The shammos set out all kinds of baited traps but them keep coming back. Do either of you learned men know how I can get rid of these vermin?”.

The second rabbi, Rabbi Cohen replied, “We have the same problem at our synagogue, we’ve spent all kinds of gelt on exterminators but the problem still persists. Any suggestions?”.

The third rabbi, Rabbi Slosberg looked at Rabbi Ginsberg and Rabbi Cohen and told the following story. “Rabbis’, we had the same problem with mice at our synagogue, we tried traps, exterminators, even prayers; nothing worked.”

three rabbis“Then one Shabbos after services were over a brilliant idea came into my mind. The next shabbos I went to the synagogue about and hour before services started. I brought big wheel of yellow cheese and placed in the center of the bima. Well, soon tens of mice appeared on the bima and headed for the cheese. While they were feasting on the cheese I Bar-mitzvahed all of them.

I never saw them in Schul again!

The reason that’s funny is because it’s tragically true. As much as you as parents try to teach your values to your children, someday, they have to make a decision as adults whether to make your values their values. Sometimes they decide “yes,” but they can also say “no” and choose their own path. The only way a person is truly drawn to God is by God.

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: Where are the Scholars?

Separating-the-Wheat-from-ChaffLast week a friend pointed me to a web site where a guy, claiming expertise in something else (cryptography, I think, but it doesn’t matter) also claimed to have established beyond dispute and for the first time in modern scholarly studies the “true” meaning of a particular Greek word used by Paul. Moreover, on this basis the guy claims a radically different understanding of what Paul had to say on the topic with which this Greek word is associated. So, what did I think?

Well, I have to say that it’s curious that someone with no training in a given field, lacking in at least some of the linguistic competence required (both relevant classical language and key modern scholarly languages), thinks himself able to find something that has eluded the entire body of scholars in that field who labor year-upon-year to try to discover anything new and interesting. It’s also curious that, as is typical, the guy doesn’t submit his findings to scholarly review for publication in peer-reviewed journals or with a peer-reviewed publisher, but flogs his thinking straight out on his web site, complete with bold claims about its unique validity. We mere scholars in the field, by contrast, do submit our work for critique by others competent in the subject. We present at symposia and conferences where other scholars can engage our views. We strive to get published in peer-reviewed journals and with respected publishers. Even after publication, we hope for critical engagement by other scholars.

-Larry Hurtado
“Expertise and How to Detect It”
Larry Hurtado’s Blog

I was reading the various articles and blogs I use for morning studies and came across this piece by Hurtado. It brought to the forefront something that Messianic Judaism and particularly the large number of Hebrew Roots bloggers seem to struggle with. There are a great many pundits in the religious blogosphere and, as Dr. Hurtado points out, not all of them are scholars in a strictly defined sense. And yet, like the individual Hurtado describes, that doesn’t stop most people from presenting an opinion as fact without any significant scholarly or educational basis.

Before continuing, I want to say that I don’t describe myself as an expert or scholar in religious studies. The purpose of my blog is not to lay down doctrine and theology as if I’m a teacher or instructor of any kind. My blog is simply an expression of my thoughts and feelings on any given morning. I ask more questions than I provide answers and even when I seem to present conclusions, they are my opinions and often, I publish them on the web to inspire conversation so that I can learn more from my readers. I do not fit Dr. Hurtado’s definition of a scholar nor would I ever claim to.

But what about scholarship in the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots spaces (I separate the two movements because to me, they don’t represent the same emphasis, at least in terms of population)?

I believe there is a growing scholarly expression existing within Messianic Judaism. Educational organizations such as The New School for Jewish Studies and The Messianic Jewish Theological Institute kinbaroffer the promise of an organized educational basis for producing scholars in this specific area of religious studies. I’ve not taken any courses from either school so I can’t personally attest to their quality, but there is at least an effort being made to build a valid, intelligent, and organized teaching framework from which to produce teachers and researchers within the Messianic Jewish space.

I’m less familiar with any organized group of teaching institutes within the wider collection of Hebrew Roots groups. The only two that immediately come to mind are TorahResource.com, which was founded by Tim Hegg and TNNOnline.net which seems to be edited by someone named J.K. McKee (I should say that I’ve met Hegg on several occasions and, while he and I may not always agree, I more than acknowledge his educational and scholarly background, however I’ve never met McKee and don’t know what he brings to the table, so to speak).

Dr. Hurtado continues:

Now, of course, I believe in freedom of speech and thought, and I wouldn’t press for a gag on the sort of dubious stuff that I criticize here. But in scholarly life the peer-testing of claims/results is absolutely crucial, and it’s really considered rather unscholarly (and so of little credibility) to present as valid/established claims that haven’t gone through such testing. People (specifically those not clearly qualified in a field) have always been able to make bold claims about a subject of course, asserting their idiosyncratic “take” over against whatever view(s) is/are dominant in the subject. But before the World Wide Web I guess it was much more difficult to get such unqualified opinion circulated. Now, however, ”the Web” and the “Blogosphere” make it so easy.

But, frankly, when I’m shown something that hasn’t been through the rigorous scholarly review process (often, it appears, peer-review deliberately avoided), and comes from someone with no prior reputation for valid contributions in the subject, I’m more than a bit skeptical. If the work is really soundly based, then why not present it for competent critique before making such claims?

Obviously, Hurtado sets some very specific standards for information he’s willing to take seriously, which makes about 99% of the blogosphere unacceptable as sources of theological scholarship. But the question we must ask ourselves is whether or not either the Messianic Jewish or Hebrew Roots movements have any process in place for a “rigorous scholarly review process” and have access to writers with “prior reputation for valid contributions in the subject(s)” being addressed in their respective areas (I’m not being snarky here, I’m asking a serious question).

I do know based on my ten plus years of history within Hebrew Roots that it tends to be a magnet for just about anyone with an opinion. Some of the individuals presenting information are well-meaning and are trying to work through both intellectual and personal issues in regard to how they see Christianity and Judaism. Others, unfortunately, have theological axes to grind and produce vast amounts of dreck designed to provide religious “thrills and chills” but which have absolutely no basis in fact or scholarly research.

For example, I’ve heard people claim that the lost ark of the covenant was hidden underneath the crucifixion site of Jesus and that his blood “anointed” it. I’ve heard people say that the “lost years of Jesus” were spent with the young Yeshua traveling through India at the side of his “uncle” Nicodemus. I’ve heard some folks claim to have possession of the lost original Hebrew manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew. I even read one individual say on a blog that the reason the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed was that the Jewish priests failed to share the pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton with the nations of the world, thus preventing the Torah from going forth from Zion (see Isaiah 2:3 and Micah 4:2).

All of that stuff is baloney, but it’s important to remember that Hebrew Roots is an extremely wide container and its contents are enormously varied.

yeshiva1I more or less regularly read a few blogs in the Hebrew Roots space, not because I agree with their opinions but so I can be aware of them. I absolutely avoid the kind of “crazy” material posted on the web that makes claim to the sort of “hidden truths” I listed above.

Mainstream Christian and Jewish educational and research foundations have a long, world-wide history and are well established, but the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots movements are in their infancy. I place Messianic Judaism as an entity in a rather narrow field in order to exclude the more “loosely defined” collections of non-Jewish folks out there who have shall we say, rather unusual and unsubstantiated statements to make. Unfortunately, that puts them in the same container as others in Hebrew Roots who are sincerely attempting to study and research the Bible in a manner that will provide illumination within their own context.

But at this point, I’m asking a question because I don’t know. Given the brief set of statements made by Dr. Hurtado (I provided a link to his blog post above), do either Messianic Judaism or Hebrew Roots in its various forms, have or are they building an educational and scholarly system that would provide the same level of peer review and well researched papers as Hurtado describes from his own experiences as an educator and researcher?

One of the books produced by those I would consider established scholars in Messianic Judaism is Introduction to Messianic Judaism. Do you think this book would meet Dr. Hurtado’s expectations for scholarly and peer-reviewed work? Are there other books and papers that would do so within Messianic Judaism? What about Hebrew Roots? Do the writings of Hegg and McKee fit the bill? Are there others doing similar work within that space?

The Internet is a wild west show with no oversight and anyone can create a blog and start publishing anything they want within minutes. It’s important to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. In order to do so, where do we begin?

More Than The Heart Can Bear

Rolling the Torah ScrollThey have forsaken Me, the source of life-giving waters, to dig wells that cannot give water.

Jeremiah 2:13

In a world filled with nationalistic pride, where nations, ethnic groups, and individuals are all searching for their historic roots, it is nothing less than mind-boggling that a people who has an unparalleled wealth of recorded and documented history and literature would so ignore its rich heritage. What do most Jewish children know about their people? Only a fraction receive more than a fragmentary awareness of Jewish history. All can identify Twain and Poe, but few know Maimonides or Yehudah HaLevi. They are likely to know much about Nathan Hale and even Simon Bolivar but have never heard of Rabbi Akiva and Bar Kochba. They may remember the Alamo, but not Massada.

Why do we so despise ourselves? Where is our pride? How can we expect our youth to develop a sense of self-esteem if by our own dereliction we fail to convey to them a justified sense of pride in who they are?

We do not need to drink at others’ wells. Our own is filled with sweet, life-sustaining water.

Today I shall…

do whatever I can to further Jewish education both among adults and children.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Av 16”

As a Christian, you may think it strange that I support Jewish education. It’s not that I don’t support Christian education, but after all, my three children are Jewish and they should know what it is to be Jewish, to know their history, to study the writings of the learned sages, and to cleave to what it is to be a Jew.

But as Rabbi Twersky points out, even many Jewish children raised by two Jewish parents today hardly know who the Rambam or Hillel were, much less are able to discuss even one single lesson they taught.

In my children’s case, that’s my fault for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I’m not a Jewish father. Also, my wife and I came to faith rather late in life, when our children were already growing up. First we went to a church, then to a “Messianic” (One Law) congregation, then we split the difference with me taking the kids to the local Reform shul and my wife worshiping elsewhere (it’s a long story). Finally, I set my course on Christianity (albeit with an unusual expression and emphasis) and my wife on traditional Judaism.

But my kids are all adults now.

I remember that when my wife and I first started attending a church, we were not yet believers (I guess the church called us “seekers”), but we sent our kids to Sunday school and the church youth group to help them get a more focused moral center…one that we as parents did not yet share.

Horrible mistake. Grievous error. You can’t teach your children morals and values by proxy.

From what time may one recite Sh’ma at night? – 2a

In the Sh’ma, which we read every day, the verse instructs us to learn Torah ourselves and teach it to our children. In fact, a person can expect to be successful in transmitting God’s laws to his children only if he himself learns as well. If he makes no effort to acquire Torah knowledge, how will he have the ability to influence and to lead his children along the right path? Only when there are those who inherit the Torah’s teachings can these lessons in turn, be passed down to the next generation.

In a similar vein, a story is told about Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the Kotzker Rebbe. One of his Chasidim asked for a beracha that he merit that his sons study Torah with devotion. The Rebbe replied that the chassid himself had the key to ensure that this blessing could materialize. The Rebbe pointed out to this father that he should learn Torah with devotion, and then he could anticipate that his sons would follow his example. “For, if not,” the Rebbe warned, “your sons will come with the same request – that their sons should study with devotion while they occupy themselves with other matters.”

Torah can only be fulfilled when we are willing to exert ourselves directly and personally in its ways. We must demonstrate the importance of Torah learning by setting an example that others might follow. By merely stating ideals, these goals will not be reached. This lesson in Sh’ma is one of great importance, so much so that we must reinforce it twice each day.

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Teach it to your children—by personal example…”
Berachos 2

I remember meeting with the Youth Pastor at the church we attended at the time and I asked him what I had to do to encourage my children in their “Christian walk.” He gave me essentially the same answer, although worded with more of a Christian “spin.” Most parents with any sort of wisdom at all realize that our children will almost never do what we tell them to do if they see we are not living examples of our lessons. They will however, always watch what we do and our behavior will become their teacher.

Derek Leman wrote a blog post the other day called WhyNotTorah4Christians? It is based on what we read in Deuteronomy 4:6:

Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’

Leman suggests that it is not only vitally necessary for Jews to study Torah (and I agree), but for Gentiles, and particularly Christians to do so as well. I questioned him on this point, asking if that would not somehow encourage Christians to take on mitzvot intended only for Jews. He responded…

You asked: “But how do you reconcile that with opposition to a strict One Law interpretation of scriptures?”

I believe the answer is easy: it is impossible to truly STUDY the Torah and remain in the One Law position. I apologize in advance to those who will be offended. But the One Law position is based on a lack of study of Torah.

The One Law position makes the same basic interpretive error which is common in Christian readings of the Hebrew Bible. People see themselves in Israel’s scriptures by direct substitution. So God says, “And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and rules,” (Deut 4:1) and One Lawers think, “This is speaking directly to me.” They skip entirely the question: this is what God commanded one nation at Sinai and I should study to determine what my relationship is to these commandments.

This is exactly the same as Christians reading Jeremiah 29:11 (“I know the plans I have for you…”) and making it a poster in the youth room as a promise to themselves. Never mind that it was addressed to Israel.

What we need is more study — deep engagement — context — thought.

So studying Torah…really studying Torah for a Christian, is as much about understanding the role of the Jews in relation to God as it is about understanding who we are as Christians in relation to Jews.

Although there are venues for Christians to study Torah, somewhat rarely in a traditional synagogue settings, and a bit more commonly through resources such as First Fruits of Zion’s (FFOZ’s) Torah Club series, I continue to have my doubts that we can fulfill the imperative of Deuteronomy 4:6, or that God intended us to satisfy that directive by going to classes. I think what we were supposed to do is observe the Laws of Israel in action and to derive the wisdom of God and the understanding of the Jewish people by observing their behavior.

The “behavior” of the Jewish citizens of the modern state of Israel is under constant criticism by most of the world these days, and almost no one is praising Israel as “a wise and understanding people.” It is also true that the majority of the Jews in Israel today are not religious and portions of those who are religious seem to demonstrate behaviors that seem hostile, aggressive, and even violent at times.

On top of all that, we have a subset of Christianity who feels that they are able to redefine Judaism in their own image and even insist that Jews do not have the right to define their own observance or establish their own authorities.

In that light, Christians who have little or no experience in Jewish studies will indeed struggle to understand where and how to study Torah in a way that will be meaningful for them.

As for me, I tend to “dabble” in Jewish studies. My opinion is that one cannot simply study the Torah and Talmud in isolation, however qualified teachers of Torah (so far, all of my face-to-face teachers have been Christians) are few and far between in my neck of the woods. Of course, if my sole purpose in learning Torah was to teach my Jewish children, I’m more than a few years too late. As adults, the burden of learning has been passed to my kids and my opportunities for contribution have dwindled to nothing.

And yet, as we see, I have an obligation to learn Torah as a Christian for my own sake, for the sake of the Torah itself, in response to God, and perhaps even for the sake of unknown people who may observe me (or read my blog) and somehow may benefit.

But there’s another reason:

You shall know… and take to heart (Deut. 4:39)

For many years Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch suffered from ill health, compelling him to undertake many trips to various European healing centers to consult with medical specialists.

On one such occasion, a professor-physician who had examined and interviewed the Rebbe categorized his ailment in the following manner: the heart craves something that is beyond the capacity of the mind, and the mind understands more than the heart can bear…

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
from the “Once Upon a Chasid” series

There is an insatiable drive within me, and I believe it is shared by many others like me, to learn, to reach out, to explore, to stretch the limits of knowledge and understanding beyond the five senses, and beyond what the mechanics of the human brain may know. I strive to discover the world beyond the plain, black and white qualities of the known universe and to seek the textures and colors of the infinite and unknowable God, which cannot be detected by logic alone.

This is why I believe we should all study Torah and sit at the houses of learning of the Jewish people, who have kept the Word of God for thousands of years before the first Christian ever rose from the dust of paganism to meet the God of Israel.

It’s not a perfect world and we are not perfect people. Many Christians criticize what Jews teach and believe that they deny the reality of Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Many Jews do indeed deny that knowledge, but a growing number have come to both knowledge and faith. Where do we go to meet each other? Where is there a place where Christian and Jew may intersect and share a common God? Jesus taught upon the foundation of the Torah and I believe Moses would have understood him very well.

For our own sakes, for the sake of our children and the generation of Christians who will come after us, and most of all, for the sake of God and our own sanity, we must take the next evolutionary step in our faith and rise above the static teachings of supersessionism and replacement theology. Salvation comes from the Jews (John 4:22) but for the church to study Torah; for me to be able to study Torah in a real and meaningful way…

…God will have to create a miracle.

This miracle I believe, when it is brought about, will be another stone upon which the Mashiach will step as he hastens to return to us.

…under the leadership of Mashiach, even Jews who are farthest away from God’s service will be brought back into the fold by gathering them in and rediscovering the point in their hearts with which they still cling to God. These modern worshippers of Pe’or; the spies and the congregation of present-day Korach will all be a part of Mashiach’s redemption. As we see in this week’s haftarah of consolation, “Like a shepherd [who] tends his flock, with his arm he gathers lambs, and in his bosom he carries [them], the nursing ones he leads.” (Isaiah 40:11)

-Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh
“Completing Moses’ task”
from Harav Ginsburgh’s class, 11th Av 5772
Wonders From Your Torah

May the Messiah come soon and in our days.

Randomly Covering Territory

Do you only believe when you can see with your eyes? When your prayers are answered and miracles carry you on their wings? Or do you also believe when circumstances fly in your face?

If it touches you to the core, if it is a belief you truly own, if it is as real to you as life itself, then it does not change.

And if it does not change, then you are bound up with the true essence of the One who does not change.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Faith in the Dark”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

I’ve said before that I don’t consider myself the “sharpest knife in the drawer.” In the world of faith, I think I have plenty of company, though. For instance, I don’t think most Christians consider the idea that there are two basic levels of knowledge in our religion (or probably most religions): the common worshiper’s view and the scholar’s view. For instance, New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado recently posted on his blog an article called An “Early High Christology”. I mean really. What in the world is high Christology and what’s the difference between high vs. low Christology?

I’ll let you click the links I provided since my discussion today isn’t focused on those topics. I’m just including them to illustrate that most people in the church don’t have the same view of God, Jesus, and the Bible as do theologians and Bible scholars. These people talk a different language than we do and conceptualize the Word of God in ways most of us can’t even imagine. I’m not even sure most of them could communicate their ideas and perspectives to a crowd of “regular Christians” at their local neighborhood church in any successful way.

Which is kind of a shame, because the information these people work with would almost assuredly challenge and perhaps even change the viewpoint and direction of most believers in most churches if we had access to it in a comprehensible way.

Well, they do publish popular books, some of them anyway, but most Christians don’t take advantage of that material (let alone anything more scholarly, such as a Ph.D Thesis). Most people who sit in the pew on Sunday are content to believe that they are being adequately “fed” by their local Pastor, who no doubt is doing a good job, but may feel constrained to offer only the “food” he or she believes the audience will comfortably tolerate.

I occasionally get “dinged” for including non-Biblical sources in my writings since they are, after all, non-Biblical and thus cannot carry the same weight of authority as the scriptures in the Bible. But I’m no Bible scholar and I do love a good metaphor, so I include things like Rabbinic midrash, Chassidic tales, and commentary about Kabbalah, largely for their cultural, metaphorical and symbolic meaning. I certainly can’t discuss them from the perspective of a Pastor, Rabbi, or someone else with an advanced education in Theology or Divinity.

That doesn’t keep me from being curious though, and curiosity often leads me down interesting if troublesome paths.

Here’s one such path:

Numbers 22-24: While the Numbers text itself is inconclusive, both rabbinic legend and the Apostolic Scriptures clearly paint Balaam as wicked through and through.

“The Error of Balaam”
Commentary on Torah Portion Balak
First Fruits of Zion

Um, what was that? The Torah was inconclusive about the nature and character of the “wizard” Balaam, but both the New Testament and midrashim agreed that he was evil? That seems like an odd combination. Of course, it’s not that the New Testament writers and the authors of midrash expected to agree with each other, but in this case, strangely enough, they did. Here’s the New Testament commentary on Balaam.

Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness. –2 Peter 2:15-16 (ESV)

But these people blaspheme all that they do not understand, and they are destroyed by all that they, like unreasoning animals, understand instinctively. Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion. –Jude 1:10-11 (ESV)

Admittedly, the opinions being rendered about Balaam in the New Testament text are rather brief. But what about the midrash?

Some say Balaam of Pethor (פתור) was called a money-changer (petor, פתור) because the kings of the nations rushed to him for counsel in the same way that people rush to a money-changer to change their currency. –Numbers Rabbah 20:7

This may not be the only Rabbinic commentary on Balaam, but it’s the only one I have access to due to my limited knowledge in this area.

Am I saying that we can compare the New Testament and Talmud, for example? Probably not, or at least, only very, very carefully, with lots of caveats attached (as a side note, can the New Testament and the later Rabbinic commentaries both be considered midrash?). On the other hand, there is just so much we don’t truly understand about the Bible, and there are so many other sources of information that we have access to that may provide additional perspective. We just need to be able to clearly delineate between the Bible and other information sources. We also need to remember that we don’t have to be so binary in our thinking that we always have to say, “Bible good! Everything else, bad!”

After pursuing my personal faith issues for the past few years, I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that the Bible doesn’t always tell us the “whole story.” Both Christian and Jewish scholars and sages have spent the past several thousand years trying to understand the mind of God by delving into the Word of God. They’ve produced an untold amount of commentary that their audiences judge to be of greater or lesser value in defining the faith. The fact that gentlemen like Larry Hurtado even exist as New Testament scholars tells us there is more to be learned about the New Testament than we already know or think we know. I’m sure the same is true for the rest of the Bible.

I’ve previously mentioned last Thursday’s conversation between me, my son, and two other believers that lead to quite an interesting theological discussion. One of the things I didn’t mention was that David asked me what the minimum amount of knowledge was that would still qualify a person as a believer in God and a disciple of the Master. I don’t recall the details of my answer, but I don’t doubt it’s a good deal less than what the scholars, sages, and experts possess.

I suppose we could limit ourselves to knowing just the basics.

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” –Mark 12:28-31 (ESV)

But people are curious creatures. We very rarely hold ourselves back to the basics, well, some of us, anyway. We want to know more and we push our limits. We push the limits of religious propriety, asking questions the church doesn’t want to answer. We push our intellectual limits, asking questions that have answers we may not have the ability to understand. We push the limits of what are considered viable information sources and methods of study and what are not, at least by those folks who are “in the know,” such as Hurtado or Timothy George.

But the alternative is to shut up, don’t ask questions, and do as we’re told. For some people, that’s the entire scope of their faith. For others, for people like me, that would be the end of my faith. It would die for lack of nourishment.

So I’ll probably keep asking questions, being rebuffed, offending people, entering areas that are “off limits” to mere mortals and those of us with a limited religious education (and IQ), and generally stubbing my toe every other step.

I feel like a person who is trapped in an endless, man-sized maze looking for the cheese. Problem is, the maze is completely blacked out. I can’t see a thing. So the only way to discover my path is to bump into a lot of walls as if I were a human Roomba. My path seems completely random. Hopefully, I’ll cover the necessary territory.

What else can I do?

You don’t need to move mountains.
You just need to know where to aim.
You can transform an entire family forever with one flickering Shabbat candle of one little girl.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“A Small Candle”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

I recently read a very interesting blog post written by Jacob Fronczak called Every man is not a theologian which seems to give me a sort of “permission” not to pretend I know what a theologian knows. You might want to have a look and see what you think.

Looking Through a Dark Window

The Alter Rebbe explained in the previous chapter that the light of the Shechinah, an illumination utterly transcending the realm of the world, must have a “garment” which enables it to radiate there. The “garment” of the Shechinah is Torah.

…As explained earlier, for this reason the Torah is able to act as a “garment” that does not become nullified in the light of the Shechinah which garbs itself in it — since its source is higher than the Shechinah. However, in order for Torah to act as a concealing “garment” it must descend lower than the level of the Shechinah, thereby enabling the light of the Shechinah to be received by created beings.

However, as Torah descended into the Ten Commandments engraved on the Tablets, it did not do so in a manner that would make it similar to other physical things. Rather, as will soon be explained, it remained on a level which is higher than the previously mentioned upper Worlds.

Today’s Tanya Lesson (Listen online)
Likutei Amarim, beginning of Chapter 53
By Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), founder of Chabad Chassidism
Elucidated by Rabbi Yosef Wineberg
Translated from Yiddish by Rabbi Levy Wineberg and Rabbi Sholom B. Wineberg
Edited by Uri Kaploun

OK, so you’re not into Kabbalah or other mystic experiences and the Tanya as a source of information is completely lost to you. Hang in there, you can still learn something from today’s “meditation.” What is Rabbi Zalman saying? Here’s another point of view.

Torah is the interface between the Infinite and creation. On the outside, it speaks the language of humankind. On the inside, its depth is without end.

Grasp either end and you have nothing. Grasp both and you have G-d Himself.

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

I hope my quote from Rabbi Freeman’s interpretation of the Rebbe helped you because it did a lot for me. It’s saying what I’ve said before and what I’ve believed for quite some time. It’s saying that everything we use to try to connect to God is an interface and not a direct connection. Let me explain.

If you’re reading this, you’re using some sort of a computer. It could be a PC, laptop, tablet, smartphone, whatever. Most people relate to their computer they way they relate to their car. They don’t really know how it works, they just turn it on and expect it to work. But when you turn your computer on and use it, your aren’t really directly interacting with the computer hardware or software. You are using a graphical user interface (GUI) to execute commands that are passed on to the computer via the operating system. It’s more complicated than that, and you are actually working through several layers of abstraction every time you read an email, surf the web, create a document, or whatever other activities you perform to get things done on your device.

In the end, you get your work completed, but you haven’t really “touched” the raw “guts” of the computer. You’ve used an interface to work with the computer it make what you want to do happen on your terms. Using an interface means you don’t have to learn how to speak the computer’s “language.”

On various Christian blogs I sometimes see statements such as “let’s go directly to the Word rather than relying on human understanding” and “let the Holy Spirit interpret Scripture and not the knowledge of men.”


How are you going to do that? Folks who say such things act as if they have direct and unfiltered access to the original, raw meaning and context of the Bible, as if they were standing right there while Matthew, John, Paul, and scores of others were putting pen to paper, listening to these men explain (in plain, 21st century English no less) what they were thinking and what they really meant as they created their books and letters.

We know we don’t have that kind of insight available to us. We realize that the Bible was written over a period of thousands of years by dozens of writers using variations of languages most of us don’t understand. We realize that the Bible was written within a foreign and ancient national, cultural, and ethnic context that is completely alien to us. And yet we behave as if all of that doesn’t matter.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking something like this:

…these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. –1 Corinthians 2:11-13 (ESV)

You’re thinking that the Holy Spirit, which you possess if you have accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior over your life, will automatically interpret what the Bible is saying to you as you are reading it.

Well, maybe you’re not thinking exactly those thoughts, but that’s as close as I can come to understanding what we Christians expect to happen when we read the Bible and attempt to comprehend its content. We seem to believe that whatever we come up with by way of an interpretation must be from the Holy Spirit just by virtue of the fact that we’re Christians.

But what if the Holy Spirit doesn’t act like an automatic pilot and just routinely guide us to the correct conclusions every time we pick up a Bible and read a few verses? What if other stuff gets in the way?

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. –1 John 4:1-3 (ESV)

Seems simple enough until you try to do it. If you come up with a particular interpretation of the Bible and you believe you arrived at your understanding through the Spirit, do you just call out, “Hey Spirit! Do you confess that Jesus has come in the flesh is from God?” The Spirit would have to say “yes” or “no” before you could determine the validity of your Bible interpretation. Does that happen to you very often?

How about this?

The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. –Acts 17:10-11 (ESV)

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. –1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 (ESV)

Paul advocates for asking lots of questions. Don’t take anything at face value. Test even the spirits. Lots of false prophets are selling their wares out there, especially on the Internet.

But it also says to “not quench the Spirit” which I suppose means not to toss the baby out with the bathwater. Don’t be so skeptical that you close the door to spiritual learning and interpretation. Just don’t believe everything your hear or feel, either.

The Bible doesn’t put it into so many words, but I believe that one of the big factors inhibiting our understanding of the Word of God is our own emotional and intellectual wants, needs, and desires. Once we’ve made up our mind about something the Bible says, we believe that is that. The Spirit has spoken. This is how it is. But is what we believe about our interpretation the way it is as defined by God’s Spirit, or just the way we want things to be because it “feels right” to us?

I don’t have an absolute answer for you, but this is one of the great challenges and mysteries about understanding God and our purpose in life using supernatural means. We have to constantly pay attention to what we believe and why we believe it and not take anything for granted.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. –1 Corinthians 13:12 (ESV)

Even at his best, Paul says that we can only see “in a mirror dimly” but only later “face to face” the things of God. Once we become too sure about our own theology and our own doctrine and stop asking the tough questions we can’t always find answers to, we start having a problem. We start worshiping our own self-assured “image of God” as we’ve created Him in our hearts and minds, and not the unknowable, unfathomable, insurmountable, infinite, unique One God. We have to “grab” both ends of the Bible, so to speak; the spiritual end and the material end. We have to rely on the Spirit and we have to use our understanding and education. Even then, we aren’t absolutely sure of what we’re doing.

“It is the dull man who is always sure, and the sure man who is always dull.”

-H.L. Mencken, American journalist and essayist

The Bible, sermons, lessons, even prayer, are only interfaces; the “garments” God must put on to allow us to even dimly view His existence, as through a mirror darkly. Keep searching the darkness. Look for the light.

Notice! By the time you read this, I’ll have left home and be traveling to the First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) 2012 Shavuot Conference in Hudson, WI. Part of what that means is I’ll have limited access to the Internet. I’ll still be posting “meditations” every morning except for Shabbat and Shavuot (Sunday) but I won’t be able to respond to comments and emails, at least not very effectively. I also probably won’t be able to post links to my meditations on Facebook, Google+ and twitter like I usually do. Please feel free to comment but realize I may be slow in getting back to you, which includes approving first-time comments. God be willing, I’ll be back home very late on Monday night. Thanks for your patience.