Tag Archives: Emor

Emor: Being Your Slave What Should I Do?

onfire.jpgAnd G-d said to Moses: … [a Kohen] shall not contaminate himself [through contact with] the dead of his people. Except for his closest kin–his mother, father, son, daughter or brother. Or for his virgin sister… who has not married a man–for her, he should contaminate himself…

But the Kohen Gadol, the greater of his brethren… may not come in contact with any dead; [even] for his father or mother, he may not contaminate himself.

Leviticus 21:1-11

A heretic once asked Rabbi Avahu: “Your G-d is a Kohen; so in what did He immerse Himself after He buried Moses?” Replied Rabbi Avahu: “He immersed in fire.”

-Talmud, Sanhedrin 39a

But one thing remains unresolved: surely G-d is no ordinary Kohen, but a Kohen Gadol, whose greater holiness proscribes any exposure to impurity, even for the sake of his closest relatives. How, then, could G-d “contaminate” Himself, even for His “children” or His “sister”?

Put another way: if, in His relationship with us, G-d assumes the role of an ordinary Kohen, whose lesser holiness allows him contact with impurity for the sake of “Israel, His kin,” G-d certainly transcends this role, possessing also the inviolable sanctity of the Kohen Gadol.

“A Pool of Fire”
-Adapted by Rabbi Yanki Tauber
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
Commentary on Torah Portion Emor

I couldn’t help but think, not only of the crucifixion and death of Jesus, but of his role as High Priest in the Court of Heaven. One role seems inconsistent with the other, because how can the High Priest cleanse himself when he has not only touched the dead, but has been the dead person? It’s a mystery I choose not to pursue because, in all likelihood, it cannot be pursued from the mortal realm, but then again, Rabbi Tauber also said this of God as the High Priest:

As “Kohen Gadol,” G-d effects all without being affected, pervading the lowliest tiers of His creation without being tainted by their deficiencies. Yet G-d chooses to also assume the more vulnerable holiness of the divine “ordinary Kohen” (which translates, on the human level, into the ordinary Kohen’s permission to contaminate himself in certain circumstances): to contaminate Himself by His burial of Moses, to suffer along with His people, to bloody Himself in the process of extracting them from exile. He wants us to know that He is not only there with us wherever we are, but that He also subjects Himself to everything that we are subject to.

At the same time, He is also there with us as “Kohen Gadol”: transcending it all, and empowering us to also attain something of His inviolable sanctity.

I know that I’m reading far more into this than Rabbi Tauber would ever have intended, but again, we see Jesus as both mortal man and Divine High Priest of Heaven. As “Kohen Gadol,” the Messiah transcends our world in inviolable sanctity, but as the teacher who walked among his people Israel, he pervaded “the lowliest tiers of His creation without being tainted by their deficiencies.”

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

2 Corinthians 5:21

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.

Hebrews 4:15

He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.

1 Peter 2:22

Rabbi Tauber also says this, as was quoted above.

…transcending it all, and empowering us to also attain something of His inviolable sanctity.

Jesus lived among human flesh as human flesh and yet did not sin. And he died and was resurrected and in glory, sits at the right hand of the Father. And he is our High Priest in the Heavenly Sanctuary who never sinned and yet who can sympathize with our human weaknesses.

Shechinah-Above-The-TownAnd if I can borrow from Rabbi Tauber, by Messiah’s holiness and his example to us, we can aspire to become better than who we are, as he has empowered us to “also attain something of His inviolable sanctity.” How like Paul’s comment from 2 Corinthians 5:21 that “we might become the righteousness of God” is the commentary from the Rabbi?

Although “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23), it is also said, “but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy'” (1 Peter 1:15-16). Thus holiness is something to be acquired by man, not purely through our own efforts but through faith, and yet not only through faith, but through our efforts.

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 25:34-40

Jesus the man. Jesus the Messiah. Jesus the Priest. Jesus the Divine. It’s hard to know how to relate to him. Most Christians prefer to address Jesus as a close friend and companion, a “bosom buddy,” even a cuddly comforter. Yet in Revelation 1:17 when John, who had walked with Jesus in this world, saw him in the Heavenly realm, he ” fell at his feet as though dead.”

God is at once Almighty in the ultimate, cosmic, radically One sense, and also close to His people, acting tenderly toward us, as a Father, as a husband, as a brother:

It would therefore follow that G-d, who ascribes to Himself the Halachic status of a Kohen (see Talmud, Sanhedrin 39a) is precluded by Torah law from “contaminating” Himself through contact with the impurities of mortality. Yet the Torah tells us that G-d Himself buried Moses, and the Talmud discusses how He subsquently purified Himself in a “pool of fire.” Our sages explain: The people of Israel are “G-d’s children”; Moses is thus one of G-d’s “closest kin,” for whom a Kohen is permitted–indeed obligated–to become tameh.


Rabbi Tauber comments from a Talmudic and mystic sense, so we probably can’t directly apply his words to our discussion on Jesus, but his imagery is so wonderfully kind, gentle, and intimate, that it’s difficult to resist such an “inappropriate” application.

For we too have been dead in our sins and yet Jesus cared enough to bury us with him, so to speak, so that we could come alive in the resurrected Christ.

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…

Ephesians 2:1-6

rabbi_wasserman_funeralMetaphorically then, as our Kohen, he “is permitted–indeed obligated–to become tameh” for the sake of his beloved ones.

I know that for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been commenting on the various articles in David Rudolph’s and Joel Willitts’ book Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations. Messianic Judaism stresses a significant distinction between Jewish and Gentile believers in the Ekklesia of Messiah, but for today’s commentary, I chose to focus on what we have in common. Although Israel was chosen and remains the “apple of God’s eye,” so to speak, I can’t believe that we Gentiles are the proverbial “left-handed, red-headed foster children” of God, and that He merely tolerates us and only truly loves Israel. For the promises of Messiah to be true, we have to be his beloved children as well, so that Jesus was willing, even obligated, to become “tameh” for us as well.

What would I do for the High Priest who considered me as a close member of his family, and who attended to my “body” while I was “dead in sin?” What wouldn’t I do?

I would be willing to take the lowest position in the Kingdom, the moral equivalent of the guy who cleans the toilets or takes the trash out to the dumpster while everyone else is seeking glory, seats at the head of the banquet table, and partying with the Prince in the palace, just so I could be the least of his servants.

Being your slave what should I do but tend
Upon the hours, and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend;
Nor services to do, till you require.

-William Shakespeare
Sonnet 57

Good Shabbos.

152 days.

Shoshie’s Rules

im-aliveIn Parashat Emor we are commanded, “Do not desecrate My Holy Name, and I shall be sanctified within the Children of Israel.” These two mitzvot (commandments), desecrating God’s Name and sanctifying it, can be interpreted as very general principles that guide us to sanctify God’s Name in every action that we do and not to desecrate it. Nonetheless, the particular mitzvah of sanctifying God’s Name is specified regarding situations in which we are required to give up our lives in total self-sacrifice.

Jewish law holds that human life has supreme and fundamental value and the Almighty wants us to live in this world and not to die. This is why any life-threatening situation usually overrides all other mitzvot, as the verse states, “Observe My statutes and My laws that an individual does and he shall live by them” on which the sages expound, “but he should not die by them.” Yet, under certain circumstances we reveal that there is something beyond even the fundamental essence of life, as Rashi comments on the verse in Parashat Emor, “‘I shall be sanctified’―sacrifice yourself and sanctify My Name.”

-Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh
“Sanctifying God’s Name”
Commentary on Torah Portion Emor
Wonders From Your Torah

Embracing the simple concept of sanctifying God’s Name as opposed to desecrating it seems comfortable and almost joyful. To say, “I bless Your Holy Name” in prayer to the Almighty strips away all of the conundrums, mysteries, puzzles, and blind arguments in which we engage every day when facing the enigma of the Bible and the infinitely greater enigma of the infinite, eternal, omnipresent, radically One, Ein Sof, God.

It’s also comforting to know that, regardless of how we perceive our responsibilities to God, that He considers (at least in Judaism) our lives so important, that in the vast majority of situations, we are free to take whatever extraordinary measures are required to preserve our lives and the lives of others. You don’t have to fret that the ambulance won’t come to take you to the hospital and that instead you’ll die of a heart attack just because it’s Shabbat. If you have had an accident and are bleeding profusely, you don’t have to be concerned that the paramedic won’t provide emergency treatment because coming in contact with your body fluids might make him ritualistically impure. And if you’re starving to death and the only food available is a slice of pork, God won’t send you to hell without an electric fan if you need to eat the pork to survive.

God says your life and mine are more important than “the rules…”

…in most cases, but then again, that’s Judaism, and how much of that applies to me anyway? All I’m trying to hang on to is the belief that God thinks my life is more important than someone else’s theology or doctrine or how they “obey the rules.”

Is just being alive sanctifying God’s Name? I don’t know. Probably not. Lots and lots of people are alive and they don’t give God a second thought, or if they do, they curse His Name, or laugh at Him, or certainly laugh at those who love Him, deeming them ignorant, superstitious, bigots, anti-progressive, or all of the above.

groucho-marxFor the past couple of weeks, I’ve posted a series of reviews on most of the essays that were published in David Rudolph’s and Joel Willitts’ book Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations. A number of people registered their displeasure at my opinions, and the endless back-and-forth wrangling about religious concepts in the blogosphere and in other realms makes me despair for religion as an institution. Or as Groucho Marx famously said, “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”

I find great comfort, wisdom, and illumination in God, I’m just not always sure about those who say they follow Him (including me). Actually, that reminds me of another famous quote.

“I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.”


The irony is that we have all of these Internet arguments because we say we’re trying to be more like Christ. Go figure.

Our teacher the Baal Shem Tov said: Every single thing one sees or hears is an instruction for his conduct in the service of G-d. This is the idea of avoda, service, to comprehend and discern in all things a way in which to serve G-d.

“Today’s Day”
Hayom Yom: Iyar 9, 24th day of the omer
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

So every single thing I see or hear, including in these blog conversations, is an instruction for how to serve God. It is also said:

The theme of Pesach Sheini is that it is never too late. It is always possible to put things right. Even if one was tamei (ritually impure), or one was far away, and even in a case of lachem, when this (impurity etc.) was deliberate – nonetheless he can correct it.

I suppose it’s unreasonable to expect that I can avoid hurting someone’s feelings by expressing my personal opinions, especially religious opinions. How do I simply sanctify God’s Name and experience the peace and joy at knowing, at least from God’s perspective, each and every one of our individual lives is exceptionally important to Him? The minute I stray away from “meditations” that are more suited to a greeting card and that involve looking at different perspectives on the Bible, life doesn’t seem so special anymore, and the sanctity of God’s Name comes into question, at least if that sanctity depends on the behavior of God’s followers (including me).

But what choice do I have?

“Against your will you live; against your will you die”

– Ethics of the Fathers 4:22

Woman in fireI have no control. Nadav and Avihu brought “strange fire” before God and were incinerated for their efforts, and theologians, saints and rabbis have been trying to figure out for centuries what that meant. What if Nadav and Avihu were the strange fire themselves? There’s a commentary on Pirkei Avot 4:22:

“The soul of man is a lamp of G-d.”

The flame knows no rest, for it lives in perpetual conflict between two opposite tendencies. On the one hand, it cleaves to its wick, drinking thirstily of the oil that fuels its existence. At the same time, it surges upward, seeking to tear free of its material tether. It knows that such disengagement would spell the end of its existence as a manifest, illuminating flame; nevertheless, such is its nature.

This is the paradox of the flame’s life: its attachment to wick and fuel sustains both its continued existence and its incessant striving for oblivion.

Man, too, is torn between these two contrasting drives. On the one hand, he tends towards self, towards life and existence. At the same time, he yearns for transcendence, to tear free from the confining involvements of physical life, to reach beyond his material self.

“Against your will you live; against your will you die” – the tension created by these conflicting drives is the essence of the human experience. The desire to escape the trappings of physical life is what separates the human from the merely animal; but the escapist nature of man is counterbalanced by the compulsion to be, a compulsion that binds him to the material reality. Back and forth, back and forth runs the cycle of life, from being to transcendence and back again.

God drives me crazy sometimes, but He doesn’t drive me as crazy as the people who follow Him (including me).

Rabbi Ginsburgh said:

True, sometimes for various reasons we are unable to observe the entire Torah; we cannot always reach out to every Jew; and there have been long periods in history when we have been unable to occupy the whole of the land. But we must realize that in essence, the Torah is complete, the Jewish people is complete, and the land of Israel is a complete entity.

While the esteemed Rabbi’s thoughts go in directions my brain cannot follow, he touches upon the difference between the doing and the being. Sometimes we can’t do everything God wants us to do and be everything God wants us to be. Heck, most of the time we can’t come anywhere close to the expectations of God, especially when we’re in contact with other people of faith. There are days…most days, when I imagine myself sitting at the bottom of the abyss. Light filters down so I can see. It’s dry and warm and really not so uncomfortable. Most of all, it’s quiet. There’s plenty of peace and plenty of time just to contemplate God. I talk to God and He listens. There are no other voices. Only the silence of God speaks to me.

i_give_upI know I’m not supposed to give up on people because God never gave up on people. I know, I know. There are those out there who say my life only matters if I consider myself “Israel,” otherwise I’m a “non-event.” But I can’t help but believe that God cares not only about His people Israel, but the rest of the world as well. Is God only the God of Israel? Didn’t He create the Gentile as well as the Jew? Does He not cause the rain to fall on the fields of the Gentile as well as the fields of the Jew, making the crops of each grow and flourish. Does He not put food on my table as well as on the table of the Jew?

Or am I just making all this up?

Rabbi Simcha Barnett wrote a tender and heartbreaking story about a 12-year-old girl named Shoshie Stern, who lost her life recently in a tragic accident.

Mike and I are best friends, and over the years I spent a lot of time at his Shabbat table, where he and his wife Denise took tremendously good care of their guests, making everyone feel extremely comfortable and well-fed. Denise would prepare a first course of incredible bounty and variety, and Mike would jokingly refer to the rules cited above to break the ice, making a connection with the many disparate people at the table (and also to get the food circulating). Mike and Denise are my chesed (kindness) mentors, and I keep them with me always at my Shabbat table through the Rules.

Tragically, Mike and Denise lost their 12-year-old daughter Shoshie a”h last week in a tragic accident, and though I didn’t really know Shoshie well, I feel that through the experience of the funeral and Shiva, I got a glimpse into the soul of a rare human being, one created in the Stern image, yet with her own unique spin. Through this experience I discovered a whole new set of rules – the Shoshie Stern Rules:

Give up your seat, make peace, and see the good in everyone.

A 12-year-old girl had the remarkable ability to teach a Rabbi something new, but she had to die to bring “Shoshie’s Rules” to the world. Of course, the rules are not unique and I’m sure you can find their origins in the Bible with little effort. However, in the midst of struggling over who has the “right” to wear tzitzit and whether or not Christians are equally “Israel” along with the Jewish people, these are the very rules we all forget.

As I write this, it’s Thursday morning and I know I have enough commentary on Rudolph’s and Willitts’ book in my “queue” to last through Monday. That means from today through Monday, I’ll have well-meaning and intelligent people telling me I don’t know which end is up and that my blogged opinions and commentaries aren’t worth the electrons they’re printed on. Like I’ve said in the past, I don’t mind being disagreed with, I just mind being told I have to do the moral equivalent of a home invasion on Israel and the Jewish people for the sake of someone else’s theology and doctrine.

ShoshieSternRulesIt’s less important to me to wear a kippah, don a tallit gadol, and lay tefillin before prayer than it is to just pray. It’s less important to me to take the seat at the head of the banquet table than to give up my seat for the sake of the ways of peace.

And I would really, really love to have the ability to see the good in everyone.

But even Jesus said, only God is good. I guess that’s why I’d like to just bury myself somewhere alone with Him.

He won’t let me, but it’s still fantastically appealing. But it’s also incredibly selfish. Rabbi Barnett finishes his tribute to Shoshie this way:

This past Shabbat, my thoughts turned to my dear friends the Sterns, who were amidst a heart-wrenching mourning period. But instead of the familiar Mike Stern Rules, I invoked a new set of rules at the Shabbat table: the Shoshie Stern Rules:

Give up your seat, make peace, and see the good in everyone.

I’m hoping to apply the Shoshie Stern Rules to my life. May it add merit to her soul for eternity.

I don’t think you can learn any of these lessons let alone live them out unless your heart is perpetually breaking.

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”

-George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright

153 days.

Singing the Monkey House Blues, Part 2

Frequently, we may look at other people, and feel jealousy. We wonder why this person was born wealthy, this one with a brilliant mind, this one with great beauty. Others may also look at the Torah, and wonder why this group is different from that group, or why the Rabbis gave certain responsibilities to one group and not another.

The truth behind the distinctions of the Kohanim should teach us. Jewish thought does not tell us to seek fame and glory. Our lives are not about power and privilege. The Torah tells us that we are here to seek and to serve our G-d, through performance of Mitzvos and good deeds.

-Rabbi Yaakov Menken
“Privileged People”
Commentary on Parshas Emor

Disclaimer: As I mentioned in part 1 of this two-part series, I am expressing my viewpoint on Jewish uniqueness and distinctiveness in the community of Messianic believers and suggesting that Jews and non-Jews embody different, or at least, overlapping sets of responsibilities and duties to God while remaining absolutely equal in God’s love and in His salvation. Chances are, some of you reading this will not be happy with me and will disagree with my perspectives. I understood that when I started writing “Monkey House.” Now let’s continue and see how the various parts of the Bible and the perspective of the sages can illuminate this issue.

I know I’m probably going to make some people reading this unhappy, but it’s important to understand that if groups of Jews in the Messianic movement need to preserve their distinctiveness relative to the Torah and God, it isn’t an attempt to “cut out the Gentiles” or to make themselves more exalted. It’s a response to the Torah and the covenant of Sinai. The specific distinctions between Jews and non-Jews in modern Messianism is just as valid and legitimate as the distinctions between the Kohenim class and the larger body of Israel in ancient (and arguably modern) times.

Rabbi Menken said something very important that most Christians should pick up on:

Jewish thought does not tell us to seek fame and glory.

Compare that to this parable of the Master:

Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” –Luke 14:7-11 (ESV)

The reason the Torah is a story about God’s interaction with humanity and not just about God’s interaction with Israel, is because the Bible is a tapestry woven with the very threads of human nature. It’s human nature to want what we can’t have. It’s human nature to desire what another person possesses by right or ability and to think it’s unfair if we can’t be exactly like them. It’s human nature to sometimes want to be someone we’re not.

Perhaps this is the human dynamic that lead the Levites to be jealous of the Kohenim as well that what’s going on in the Messianic community these days. It may even be the original root of early supersessionism in the church.

I once read a short story in Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s anthology Welcome to the Monkey House where no one was allowed to be better at anything than anybody else. For example, using the slowest runner in society as a baseline, anyone who could run faster was made to wear weights to slow them down to the same speed as the slowest runner. That way the slowest runner wouldn’t have to feel bad knowing that other people could run faster. The entire society was organized this way so that even the perception of greater or lesser ability and privilege was eliminated for the sake of absolute uniformity.

I’m sometimes reminded of Vonnegut’s story when I encounter the desire for uniformity by non-Jews in the Messianic movement.

But God didn’t make us uniform. He didn’t make the Kohenim uniform with the rest of the tribe of Levi or with the Israelites in general. God also didn’t make Jews in the Messianic movement uniform with the larger Gentile Messianic, Hebrew Roots, and mainstream Christian community.

I know that if the lessons in the Bible cannot overcome human nature in the body of faith, my one little blog has no hope of doing so. Nevertheless, since Rabbi Menken’s Torah commentary speaks to this theme, I thought it appropriate to adapt it for a somewhat different audience. We need to understand that different doesn’t mean “better” or “worse,” it just means different. If someone else has a job as a writer because that is their special skill set, it doesn’t make them better than you, it just makes them different based on natural ability. The same goes for people who are skilled musicians, artists, and computer programmers.

Rabbi Menken ended his commentary with the following words, and I suppose I should do the same:

G-d gave us the Torah to assist us in our search. We need not wonder why some of us are Kohanim, some Levites, some Israelites, and why our tasks and responsibilities are different – because just as each individual is different, what will help one person to grow could be harmful to another. And when we perform our tasks correctly, and succeed in our mission, then these outside distinctions do not determine who is considered truly worthy: “An ill-begotten scholar is preferable to an ignoramus priest.” It is not how we were born that makes us – it is how we die.

We can either try to learn from these lessons or be stuck in the “monkey house” singing the blues.

There is no one for whom to pride oneself. We must toil strenuously. With patience and friendliness we can prevail in all things, with G-d’s help. With a denigrating attitude toward others and inflating our own importance we lose everything, G-d forbid.

Hayom Yom: Iyar 20, 35th day of the omer
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

NOTE: Oh, neither the title of this blog post nor my choice of comparing the Korah rebellion with some of the conflicts in the Messianic movement are intended to be disrespectful. As I said, the dynamics between the Kohenim and the Levites is very similar to that of Jews and Gentiles in Messianism. And having recalled the name of Vonnegut’s anthology, I had to figure out a way to weave it into my little missive. I just liked the imagery.

Singing the Monkey House Blues, Part 1

“They shall be holy before their L-rd, and they shall not desecrate the name of their L-rd, for the sacrifices of G-d, the bread of their L-rd do they bring, and they shall be holy.”Leviticus 21:6

Given only a shallow understanding of the laws of Kohanim, the priests, we might consider them a higher class, “creatures of privilege.” When we had our Land and our Temple, all Jews gave the Kohanim a portion of their crops. Even the children of Levi (the tribe of the Kohanim), who also were given special portions, gave the Kohanim part of what they received. Only Kohanim could enter many parts of the Temple; only they could offer sacrifices; only they could aspire to the position of High Priest, he who performed the special service of Yom Kippur.

A closer examination reveals a far more complex distinction.

-Rabbi Yaakov Menken
“Privileged People”
Commentary on Parshas Emor

The world of Messianic Judaism is undergoing something of a crisis and ironically, it’s something that Rabbi Menken was trying to address.

Let me explain.

Disclaimer: Before I continue, I want to let you know that I am expressing my viewpoint on Jewish uniqueness and distinctiveness in the community of Messianic believers and suggesting that Jews and non-Jews embody different, or at least, overlapping sets of responsibilities and duties to God while remaining absolutely equal in God’s love and in His salvation. Chances are, some of you reading this will not be happy with me and will disagree with my perspectives. I understood that when I started writing this blog post. Now let’s continue and see how the various parts of the Bible and the perspective of the sages can illuminate this issue.

OK, Rabbi Menken wasn’t discussing Messianic Judaism at all, but he was illustrating that the perceived “privilege” of the Priestly class in ancient Judaism was somewhat deceptive. As you may recall from Numbers 16, a number of Levites, lead by Korah, tried to rebel against the authority of Moses and Aaron because the Kohenim (Priests) were seen as seizing rights and privileges that they didn’t deserve and that were desired by all of the Levites (see Torah Portion Korah). As a result of their jealousy, things didn’t work out so well. 250 men died by fire (Numbers 16:35), 14,700 people died in a plague (Numbers 17:14) and the following happened to Korah, as well as Dathan, and Abiram, their possessions and any family who stood with them:

Scarcely had he finished speaking all these words when the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation. –Numbers 16:31-33 (JPS Tanakh)

So what’s all this got to do with Messianic Judaism?

This is an oversimplification, but imagine that the Messianic movement is made up of roughly two different groups: a group who believes that all Jews and non-Jews in the movement are equal and uniform in their practice and obligation to Torah and to God, and a group who believes that Jewish Messianics (and all Jews for that matter) exist under additional obligations and have a unique relationship with God that isn’t absolutely mirrored for non-Jewish believers. The perception of some non-Jews of the Jews in the second group, is that they are seizing rights and privileges that should belong to everyone who has been “grafted in” by the blood of the Messiah.

Wait! Sound familiar?

No, I’m not suggesting any fires or plagues or earthquakes are about to come along, but the human emotions and dynamics involved in the Korah rebellion and the current state of the Messianic movement (or in certain areas, anyway) are very much alike. The response of Aaron and Moses to the Levites is pretty much the same response of the Jews to the Gentiles in the Messianic movement, and is actually how Jews see themselves in relation to non-Jews in general.

Kohenim relative to the Levites and other Jews are not more privileged but rather, are assigned higher levels of responsibility. Rabbi Menken’s commentary continues:

A closer examination reveals a far more complex distinction. The Kohanim received their designated presents, but they did not receive a portion of land. Perhaps they were assured they would have a basic income, but the opportunity to amass individual wealth was greatly reduced. They were prohibited from numerous actions permitted to others. To be a Kohen is not simply to enjoy privileges the rest of us do not.

To shift our focus upon the Jewish people relative to Gentiles, Jews (this is a generalization and doesn’t speak to how any specific Jewish individual may feel) don’t consider themselves better or more privileged than non-Jews, but rather, they see that they have been assigned a higher level of obligation to God and to humanity than the other people groups of the earth. A great deal is permitted for the Gentile, including the Gentile Christian that is not permitted to a Jew.

Crucial to the Jewish notion of chosenness is that it creates obligations exclusive to Jews, while non-Jews receive from God other covenants and other responsibilities. Generally, it does not entail exclusive rewards for Jews. Classical rabbinic literature in the Mishnah Avot 3:14 has this teaching:

Rabbi Akiva used to say, “Beloved is man, for he was created in God’s image; and the fact that God made it known that man was created in His image is indicative of an even greater love. As the verse states [Genesis 9:6], ‘In the image of God, man was created.’)” The mishna goes on to say, “Beloved are the people Israel, for they are called children of God; it is even a greater love that it was made known to them that they are called children of God, as it said, ‘You are the children of the Lord, your God. Beloved are the people Israel, for a precious article [the Torah] was given to them …

Most Jewish texts do not state that “God chose the Jews” by itself. Rather, this is usually linked with a mission or purpose, such as proclaiming God’s message among all the nations, even though Jews cannot become “unchosen” if they shirk their mission. This implies a special duty, which evolves from the belief that Jews have been pledged by the covenant which God concluded with the biblical patriarch Abraham, their ancestor, and again with the entire Jewish nation at Mount Sinai. In this view, Jews are charged with living a holy life as God’s priest-people.

-from Rabbinic Jewish views of chosenness

In part 2 of this “meditation,” I’ll quote a portion of Rabbi Menken’s commentary on Emor that crystallizes the core dynamics of what is occurring between some Jews and Gentiles in 21st century western Messianism.

As for the title of today’s meditation, it’s taken from an anthology of stories written by Kurt Vonnegut called Welcome to the Monkey House. You’ll find out what all that has to do with what I’ve been saying in the next part of my blog post.

Emor: Favorable Light

The Rambam writes: (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos De’os 5:1.) “Just as a wise man can be recognized through his wisdom and his character traits, for in these he stands apart from the rest of the people, so too, he should be recognized in his conduct.”

The Rambam’s intent is that the Jewish approach to knowledge must be more than theoretical. Instead, a person’s knowledge must shape his character, and more importantly, influence his behavior. This is what distinguishes him as wise.

Among the types of conduct mentioned by the Rambam as appropriate for a wise man is refined speech, as he continues: (Ibid.: 7) “A Torah scholar should not shout or shriek while speaking…. Instead, he should speak gently to all people…. He should judge all men in a favorable light, speaking his colleague’s praise, and never mentioning anything that is shameful to him.”

The wording employed by the Rambam “judging… in a favorable light” and “never mentioning anything that is shameful” imply that a Torah scholar may recognize faults within a colleague’s character. Even so, he will “speak his colleague’s praise.” When speaking to his colleague privately, he may patiently and gently rebuke him for his conduct. (See ibid., 6:7.) But when speaking to others and when viewing his colleague in his own mind he will think and speak favorably of him.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
“Inspiring Light”
from In the Garden of Torah
Commentary on Emor

I doubt I could be classified as a “wise man” and certainly not a “Torah scholar,” but it seems as if the Rambam (Rabbi Mosheh Ben Maimon) is offering advice that should be attended to by any reasonable and prudent person. Unfortunately, the Rambam didn’t anticipate the Internet and blogging and I’m sure if he could have access to the web today and review some of the religious commentaries present (including mine), he’d be appalled.

Recently, my friend Gene Shlomovich posted a blog article called Crisis? A Jewish husband believes that Jesus is the Messiah but not G-d (oh, and if you decide to visit his blog and join the debate, please be polite and considerate). The basic issue is that a woman sent an email (I’m not sure if it was originally to Gene or not) saying that her Jewish husband has come to faith in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, but he does not accept the traditional Christian teaching that Jesus is one part of the Godhead and is God himself in living flesh.

Naturally for a Christian woman, this is of some concern (and probably most Christians reading this will be equally upset). Here;s the question: is the Jewish man who believes Jesus is Messiah but not God “saved?”

Gene asks this question (which is by definition, emotionally charged within the community of believers) as dispassionately as possible, and his interactions with people responding to his question have been measured, calm, and thoughtful. Most people responding have been pretty reasonable too, given the nature of the conversation. It hasn’t been absolutely smooth sailing, though:

Commentor 1: Did you know that the ancient Jewish followers of Yeshua Did not believe that Yeshua was G-d in the flesh?

Commentor 2 in response to 1: The original followers of Yeshua, his disciples, bowed down and worshiped him. Matthew 14. Either that’s idolatry, or Yeshua is God.

There were later groups like the Ebionites who rejected Messiah’s divinity. They also rejected Paul’s writings, and some of the gospels. Your case is weak, and not a few who have taken that path have ended up as apostates.

Gene in response to Commentor 2: You don’t have to constantly, over and over, threaten people with a boogie man of apostasy just to make your point. Over its history, Christendom has excommunicated (or worse) countless followers of Yeshua and branded them as apostates over slightest doctrinal differences. That’s why we have over 43K Christian denominations today, many condemning each other to hell. Some, perhaps many of them, would no doubt consider your Gentiles-must-observe-Mosaic-Torah beliefs as some sort of neo-Galatian heresy and would consider you as a hell-bound grace-forfeited apostate.

OK, no one is being terribly rude, but as I was reading the above-quoted commentary on this week’s Torah portion, I was wondering what Rambam would think of the transaction (the tone, not necessarily the content). Can we judge each other in “a favorable light” and still disagree, particularly on important points of theology and doctrine? Gene says the failure to treat each other favorably within the body of the Messiah has resulted in that body being fractured into over 43,000 different denominations. That’s a lot of different pieces. Imagine taking a rock and throwing it as hard as you can at a large, beautiful, pristine pane of glass. Imagine what will be left over after the rock has done its job and you’ve gone scurrying off to elude the police.

Christianity is fractured and I stand with the myriad pieces scattered around my feet declaring a “Humpty Dumpty-esque” message about the impossibility of the church’s reconstruction.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall;
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King’s horses
And all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again!

And speaking of Kings:

I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” –Luke 18:8 (ESV)

Will the King be able to put our “humpty dumpty” church back together again? It’s assumed that he can and he will and after all, that’s his main job: to perform tikkun olam in a broken world and for a broken church.

To continue Rabbi Touger’s commentary:

The above concepts relate to our Torah reading, which is called Emor. Emor is a command, telling one to speak. In the context of the Torah reading, this command has an immediate application: to communicate laws pertaining to the priesthood. Nevertheless, the fact that this term is used as the name of the reading indicates a wider significance: A person must speak.

And yet, we find our Sages counseling: “Say little,” (Pirkei Avos 1:16.) and “I… did not find anything better for one’s person than silence,” (Ibid.: 17.) implying that excessive speech is not desirable. Nor can we say that the charge emor refers to the commandment to speak words of Torah, for there is an explicit command, (Deuteronomy 6:7.) “And you shall speak of them,” encouraging us to proliferate the Torah’s words. Instead, emor refers to speaking about a colleague’s virtues, as explained above.

If speaking little is the mark of a wise man and scholar, then the blogosphere is contains an immense lack of wisdom and knowledge. Yet, in the view of Rambam, when we speak, we are to speak words of Torah (Christians can mentally translate that into “the Bible”) and to illuminate the Word of God by telling it. We have two ways to use our tongues:

And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. –James 3:6-9 (ESV)

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. –1 Thessalonians 5:11-15 (ESV)

The latter sounds a lot like the advice of Rambam for wise men and Torah scholars. It also sounds a lot like good advice for us. Yet we tend toward the former, more’s the pity.

Woman in fireI’m not saying we shouldn’t speak out when we disagree on important matters, but that when doing so, we should also “judge all men in a favorable light, speaking his colleague’s praise, and never mentioning anything that is shameful to him.” That’s a tall order for many religious people who feel they have a right to be confrontational, harsh, rude, and even condemning based on the outspokenness of Jesus and Paul in the Bible, as if any of us can approach the merit of Paul, let alone that of Jesus (perhaps another example of paying attention to one small piece of scripture to the exclusion of the rest of the Bible).

The tongue is fire and it is poison. We use it to bless God and to curse our neighbor and fellow believers. We are called to truth and to shun lies, but can we do so without “personalizing conflict?” I believe it’s possible, though not particularly common. But if we intend to obey the new commandment of the Master to love one another (John 13:34), then we have to start somewhere. This is particularly difficult for anyone who blogs because of the temptation to respond when someone is wrong on the Internet. Nevertheless, the purpose of studying the Word of God is not to “lord it over” those who we disagree with, but to encourage others and to share the blessings of God.

In the holy Zohar it is written that through the study of the secret wisdom, the final liberation will come with compassion. Not with judgment alone.

Now the wisdom is no longer secret. Sages and masters have found ways to make it accessible to all. Those who learn it and spread it, they are bringing divine compassion and redemption to the world.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Unsecret Wisdom”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Good Shabbos.