Tag Archives: Hillel

Oneness, Twoness, and Three Converts

Let us use the famous story of Shammai, Hillel and the three converts (Shabbos 31) to demonstrate the fusion of Halacha and Aggadah,: A gentile once came to Shammai, and wanted to convert to Judaism. But he insisted on learning the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai rejected him, so he went to Hillel, who taught him: “What you dislike, do not do to your friend. That is the basis of the Torah. The rest is commentary; go and learn!” Another gentile who accepted only the Written Torah, came to convert. Shammai refused, so he went to Hillel. The first day, Hillel taught him the correct order of the Hebrew Alphabet. The next day he reversed the letters. The convert was confused:”But yesterday you said the opposite!?” Said Hillel: “You now see that the Written Word alone is insufficient. We need the Oral Tradition to explain G-d’s Word.” A third gentile wanted to convert so he could become the High Priest, and wear the Priestly garments. Shammai said no, but Hillel accepted him. After studying, he realized that even David, the King of Israel, did not qualify as a cohen, not being a descendant of Aaron…

from “Hillel, Shammai and the Three Converts”
Saratoga Chabad

This is sort of the “B-side” to my earlier blog post Twoness and Oneness: From Sermons by David Rudolph which, in turn, was a response to a blog post written by Peter Vest called David Rudolph to Gentiles: Like Yeshua, Our Mission is to the Jews, not Gentiles

The basic allegation is that certain Messianic Jewish organizations, congregations, and leaders are being “exclusionist” and even “racist” by having a mission only or at least primarily to the Jewish people. This was based on a twenty-minute sermon delivered by Rabbi Rudolph called Our Mission. I listened to the sermon and, not finding anything disturbing or offensive in the content, looked for other sermons and materials to add some dimension to this discussion, and then I wrote “Twoness and Oneness.”

I knew that there would be some folks my response wouldn’t satisfy. There will always be someone who disagrees and there are people with whom I disagree. That’s the nature of human beings, especially in discussions of religion and politics.

The comparison of Messianic Jewish congregations to churches such as Chinese or Korean churches broke down, at least in one person’s eyes (see the comments on Peter’s blog post for details), because it was argued that if you were not Korean but attended a Korean church (let’s say you regularly attended with Korean family members or friends) your role would not be restricted because you weren’t Korean.

In certain Messianic Jewish congregations (and this is regularly debated and agonized over in many of those congregations), non-Jewish members are not allowed to fulfill certain roles or perform certain functions (be a Rabbi or be called up to an aliyah, for example) as those roles and activities are reserved for Jewish members only.

I have no idea how any of this works at Tikvat Israel, Rabbi Rudolph’s congregation, and I can hardly speak for his position, but even if it’s true, there is a foundation for making such distinctions.

Notice the quote I placed at the top of this blog post. It’s a rather famous story that would have taken place about a generation before the time of Jesus. Three Gentiles wanting to convert to Judaism for various reasons first approach the sage Shammai with their rather outrageous requests and are chased away. When they approach Rabbinic Master Hillel, he accepts all three as converts and students but he does so with a “twist.”

The relevant convert is the man who wanted to be Jewish so he could fulfill the role of High Priest and wear the priestly robes. Hillel didn’t explain that it would be a role forever denied him because, even converting to Judaism, he wasn’t a Levite and he wasn’t a direct descendent of Aaron. He let the convert find out for himself.

Hillel and ShammaiI remember reading a commentary that described a conversation between the three converts some years after these events. I can’t find where I read it and only sort of recall it (such is my middle-aged memory), but I think these three men realized finally that not only were they incredibly arrogant in their original motivations, but that Hillel, in his graciousness, enabled them to learn the truth for themselves and saved them from condemnation by Hashem.

If someone can point me to the actual commentary online so I can correct any errors in recall, I’d really appreciate it.

As applied to the latest allegations against Rudolph in specific and Messianic Judaism in general, frankly ladies and gentlemen…this isn’t “church”.

Potentially, in the Christian hierarchy, anyone can be anything provided they meet certain qualifications. You can be the Pastor of a church, regardless of lineage or background, as long as you satisfy the educational and experiential requirements.

But to be the High Priest, you must be a Levite and a descendant of Aaron. To be the rightful King of Israel, you must be from the tribe of Judah and be a descendant of David.

In the modern synagogue setting, Messianic or not, you must be Jewish to qualify for certain offices and activities (In a Reform synagogue, a Gentile can be on the board of directors, but still will never be Rabbi). As a Gentile, I would not be called up for an aliyah, to read the Torah on Shabbat, in any synagogue in the world. I certainly wouldn’t qualify as a Rabbi or Cantor, even if I had the proper equivalent education (and I would never be admitted into a Yeshiva for study as a non-Jew, though there have been rare exceptions).

Because a synagogue is Messianic, that is, because the members have come to faith in Yeshua (Jesus) as Messiah and as Israel’s King, doesn’t mean it is not a center of Jewish community and worship, and it doesn’t mean that Jewish and Gentile roles have stopped being Jewish and Gentile roles. I’ve written a great deal on the legal decision rendered by James and the Council of Apostles on the status of Gentiles within the ancient Jewish religious stream of “the Way,” and how Jewish and Gentile roles were to be managed.

Granted, after Acts 15, there would be a long period of application and adjustment as copies of the Jerusalem letter circulated in the Messianic communities in the Land and in the diaspora. We don’t have a complete record of how it was (or if it was) finally lived out, unless the Didache can give us some clues, but what we definitely don’t have is a “smoking gun” saying that Jewish and Gentile members of “the Way” were indistinguishable units in the body of Messiah (this is hotly debated in Christianity, of course, relative to Ephesians 2:15, which I addressed in my previous missive).

Again, the opinions I’m expressing are my own. I have no idea, based on the recorded sermons of David Rudolph I reviewed, how things are run at Tikvat Israel. For all I know, they may have a completely different conceptualization of these issues. This is only how I look at these matters.

I don’t say all this in the hopes of convincing anyone to change their minds and to look at Messianic Judaism in a different light. But the question was raised and I thought some people might want to read one possible answer. As I said on Peter’s blog, I’m not interested in toggling back and forth across two or more web-based venues trying to talk about all this. I just want to clarify my position on the issues at hand for the sake of anyone who might want to know.

Korach: Learning How to Dance

korach-buried-aliveThere are two rebellions this week. First, Korach, a Levite, was passed over for the leadership of his tribe and then challenges Moshe over the position of High Priest. No good rebellion can be “sold” as a means for personal gain, so Korach convinces 250 men of renown that they must stand up for a matter of principle — that each and every one of them has the right to the office of High Priest (which Moshe had announced that God had already designated his brother, Aharon, to serve).

Fascinatingly, all 250 followers of Korach accept Moshe’s challenge to bring an offering of incense to see who God will choose to fill the one position. This meant that every man figured he would be the one out of 250 to not only be chosen, but to survive the ordeal. Moshe announces that if the earth splits and swallows up the rebels it is a sign that he (Moshe) is acting on God’s authority. And thus it happened!

The next day the entire Israelite community rises in a second rebellion and complains to Moshe, “You have killed God’s people!” The Almighty brings a plague which kills 14,700 people and only stops when Aharon offers an incense offering.

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Commentary on Torah Portion Korach

A fanatic is someone who redoubles his efforts while losing sight of his goal.

-George Santayana

You’d think after seeing the deaths of Korach and the 250 rebels that the rest of the Children of Israel would have been frightened enough to back away from speaking against Moses, Aaron, and ultimately God. Unfortunately, they seemed to have panicked and panic has no reason. Neither does fanaticism which is defined as “a belief or behavior involving uncritical zeal, particularly for a religious or political cause or with an obsessive enthusiasm…the fanatic displays very strict standards and little tolerance for contrary ideas or opinions.”

Since I blog in the world of religion, I suppose that someone could come along and accuse me of being a fanatic when I defend a particular point of view and don’t acquiesce to another’s contrary viewpoint. But then I hope there is a difference between steadfast determination and being a fanatic.

Korach and the 250 didn’t back down and neither did the Israelite community until after over 14,000 people died. What does it take for the rest of us to look at a situation, know when to press ahead with our point, and know when to back away?

In describing in his commentary how not to argue, Rabbi Packouz lists nine points. One of them is:

Turn the argument into a discussion. Don’t defend a position; set forth an idea or problem to be clarified. People of good will who reason together can come to a common conclusion. Listen with an open mind. Be a judge, not a lawyer!

calvinism-vs-arminianismIn the blogosphere, it’s difficult to keep a discussion into spilling over the threshold of civility into an argument. A lot of religious people take a “my way or the highway” stance with the theologies and doctrines to which they adhere. My exploration into Calvinism vs. Arminianism is a good example of such a dialog. So far, no one has come along on my blog to take me to task for my viewpoint in that debate, but if I found the right venue for the discussion, I’m sure a “passionate” exchange would occur. There have indeed been such debates in the comments section of my blog in the past.

So how do we know when we are defending a position for our faith and for the sake of God as opposed to our own ego and bullheadedness?

This week’s Torah portion tells the story of Korach’s dispute with Moshe. The mishna (a teaching) in Pirke Avot 5:20, states that “Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will be of lasting worth and one not for the sake of Heaven will not be of lasting worth. Which dispute was for the sake of Heaven? That of Hillel and Shamai. Which was not for the sake of Heaven? That of Korach and his company.”

That’s part of the Dvar Torah presented in Rabbi Packouz’s commentary. Here’s something similar.

When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”

Acts 5:33-39 (NRSV)

I suppose this isn’t the first time this passage from Luke’s Acts of the Apostles has been compared to the Korach rebellion. The trick is to know our own motivation, which is harder than you may think. A good many people have been utterly convinced that they were arguing and even fighting for what is good and right, only to ultimately discover that their motives were totally selfish. Human beings are very good at self-delusion, sometimes with disastrous results.

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

Matthew 7:21-23 (NRSV)

Woman in the darkThat’s a terrifying thought. I don’t doubt that those of whom the Master speaks sincerely believed (some of them, anyway) that they were “fighting the good fight,” speaking prophesies in his name, casting out demons in his name, and doing many other powerful things in the name of Christ. What bitter disappointment will they suffer when they find they are completely rejected and in fact have been following the wrong path all along.

And how do I know for sure that the path I am following is the right one? How do I know if I will be among those accepted in the Kingdom or tossed out in the dark?

Remember, self-delusion is incredibly common with people.

The mishna should have said that the dispute not for the sake of Heaven was that of Korach and Moshe, not between Korach and his fellow conspirators! Why didn’t the mishna mention Moshe as the antagonist? Korach started the dispute for his own personal gain (not for the sake of Heaven) while Moshe was upholding the Almighty’s word and the Almighty’s honor (you can’t get more “for the sake of Heaven” than this!)

Why then does the mishna mention that a dispute not for the sake of Heaven is the one between “Korach and his company”? We might think that Korach and his company were united in their argument with Moshe. The mishna is telling us that each of the 250 was challenging Moshe for his own gain (remember, each one brought incense to see if he himself would be chosen as the Cohen Gadol, High Priest.) In truth, Korach and his congregation were in dispute amongst themselves as to who should be the High Priest.

The mishna points us in a direction, but the effort to maintain an understanding of our motives belongs to us. Every time we take a strong position, we must ask ourselves, “am I doing this for the Master’s glory or for my own?” When my opinion is challenged and I strongly defend my point of view, I must ask if it is for the sake of Heaven that I do this or only because I want to be “right?”

If confronted with the knowledge that I’m acting for my own interests, would I be willing to admit I am wrong? In such a discussion is it very wise to make such an admission. Rabbi Packouz comments.

No one is ever totally right. Find something to apologize for, to take responsibility for. The other person will feel better and may even own up to some mistakes of his/her own.

I spent nearly a year writing about my journey of discovery and ultimately had to admit I was wrong about my original “one law” assumptions that I had made years before and never questioned.

I don’t think that I made my assumptions solely out of self-interest or ego, but once my assumptions were confronted by others, my ego and the need to be “right” was definitely engaged. I can tell you that it is a difficult and painful thing to realize many of the attitudes and beliefs I held were incorrect, and letting them go was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

But if I didn’t let them go, especially in the face of overwhelming evidence and with the realization of the damage I was doing, especially in my home, the price to be paid would have been much, much more dear.

“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at 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 the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 14:8-11 (NRSV)

Waiting to danceThis is a good test for fanaticism, because a fanatic cannot be humble. It feels too “dangerous” to back down, too vulnerable to be silent about something that’s important. Rabbi Packouz suggests that being silent and, when talking, speaking with a soft voice are two ways to avoid arguing. If you can maintain your composure, agree with the points being made by the other person you feel are correct, and admit it when you know you are wrong (letting yourself even consider that you could be wrong is a step in the right direction), then it is very likely that you are not being fanatical about what you’re trying to communicate.

Then your mind and heart are most likely clear enough to determine when you are tempted to argue for the sake of your own ego or sense of vulnerability, and when you are standing up and being a voice for the sake of Heaven.

But you have to be sure to constantly be your own critic, questioning what you’re doing and why.

Leslie (Diana Muldaur – voice): “You seem quieter than usual tonight.”
Batman (Kevin Conroy – voice): “Every time I come here, I wonder if it should be the last time. . . Put the past behind me. . . Try to lead a normal life.”
Leslie: “Santayana says that ‘those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it’.”
Batman: “He also said ‘a fanatic is someone who redoubles his efforts while losing sight of his goal.'”

-from the episode “I Am the Night”
Batman: The Animated Series (1992)

“One who romanticizes over Judaism and loses focus of the kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a carpenter who is infatuated with the hammer, rather than the house it was meant to build.”

-Troy Mitchell

I often question why I write this blog at all. What good does it do? Am I doing it to help build the Kingdom of Heaven or just because I like to see my words posted on the web? Blind certitude is something I can’t afford. I don’t think it’s something any of us can afford. This isn’t a matter of fighting to see who wins and who loses, but the pursuit of interaction and cooperation so that we can mutually seek out an encounter with God.

Our work involves trying to dance when others only know how to wrestle.

-Rabbi Carl Kinbar

The lesson of Korach is that we need to learn not how to wrestle, but how to dance.

Good Shabbos.

110 days.

The Torah’s Great Principle

love-one-anotherRabbi Akiva said, “Love your fellow as yourself” is a great principle of the Torah. A similar principle is gleaned from the famous story of a proselyte who wished to convert to Judaism on condition that someone would teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel the Elder accepted his conversion and told him, “That which you hate, do not do to your friend [the negative picture of “love your fellow as yourself”]―that is all the Torah and all the rest is commentary. Go and study it.”

Obviously, the entire Torah is a true, God-given Torah, but Hillel the Elder and Rabbi Akiva teach us that there is room to meditate on the principle that is the Torah’s “great principle”; the signpost that puts us on the right track.

The need for such guiding lights is most necessary when an outsider wishes to approach the infinite sea of Torah and needs an anchor to show him where to begin.

-Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh
“The Torah’s greatest principle”
Wonders From Your Torah

Our Master Yeshua (Jesus) taught something similar.

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Matthew 22:37-40

Referencing Rabbi Ginsburgh, I periodically write about non-Jewish people (including me) who are drawn to the larger body of Torah mitzvot and who find they have a desire to live a more “Jewish” lifestyle as a means of holiness. Essentially, there’s nothing wrong with this and indeed, the Torah was created not just for the Jewish people, but for humanity, as it is said:

For out of Zion shall go forth the Torah, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

Micah 4:2

I substituted the word “Torah” for “Law” in the ESV translation for effect, but both terms are correct (although I’d argue that “Torah” is the more correct word to use here).

Again, as we see from Rabbi Ginsburgh’s commentary, the “outsider” (non-Jew or secular Jew) who desires to learn Torah has to start somewhere. Although as Rabbi Ginsburgh states, the entire Torah is true, it’s easy for a beginner (Rabbi Ginsburgh is talking about potential converts to Judaism but I’m applying his statements to the rest of us) to become lost, confused, discouraged or even “seduced” by the complexities of Torah and the vast span of mitzvot. I’ve seen non-Jewish people introduced to the concept of “complete Torah observance” or “obligation” who throw themselves headlong into what they imagine it is to lead a “Torah-submissive life” only to become enamored by “the stuff.”

tzitzit1I call “stuff” all the outward devices, objects, or activities that are typically associated with observant Judaism, such as donning a tallit gadol and tefillin when davening, wearing a tallit katan under one’s shirt daily, wearing a kippah in public daily, lacing their sentences with Hebrew or even Yiddish words, growing a long, furry beard (because they believe God wants this), and so on.

But what does Rabbi Ginsburgh, citing both Hillel the Elder and Rabbi Akiva suggest is the Torah’s “great principle?” What does the Master say is the greatest commandment?

None of those things I just mentioned. What is the anchor for “beginners” in the Torah? “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

This concept sheds light on the Jewish conception of holiness. The Hebrew word kedosh , meaning “holy,” implies separation; (See Tanya, ch. 46.) a distinction must be made between the Jewish approach and a secular approach to any particular matter, as is stated at the conclusion of our Torah reading: (Levitcus 20:26.) “You shall be holy unto Me, for I, G-d, am holy, and I have separated you from the nations to be Mine.”

Such a distinction is unnecessary with regard to the ritual dimensions of the Torah and its mitzvos. These are clearly distinct; there is no need for man to do anything further. Instead, the focus of our Torah reading is on concerns shared by all mortals. Thus the reading relates laws involving agriculture, human relations, business, and sexual morality. For it is in these “mundane” areas that the holiness of the Jewish people is expressed.

Judaism does not understand holiness to be synonymous with ascetic abstention. Instead, it demands that a person interact with his environment, and permeate it with holiness. (See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos De’os 3:1.)

-Rabbi Eli Touger
“What Does Being Holy Mean?”
Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. I, p. 254ff; Vol. XII, p. 91ff;
Sichos Shabbos Parshas Acharei-Kedoshim, 5745

That might be a little “intense” or at least unfamiliar to most Christians. Here’s another way of saying it.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

James 2:14-17

A life of faith and holiness cannot be lived apart from actually living life. Holiness is doing not just praying, meditating, studying, and contemplating. Holiness is an action. Go and do.

An emissary is one with his sender. This concept is similar to that of an angel acting as a Divine emissary, when he is actually called by G-d’s name. If this is so with an angel it is certainly true (See Iyar 6.) of the soul; in fact with the soul the quality of this oneness is of a higher order, as explained elsewhere. (See Tamuz 10.)

“Today’s Day”
Thursday, Iyar 8, 23rd day of the omer, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe;
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

Again, the Master taught something similar.

For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

John 13:15-17

boston_marathon_terror_explosionWe are his servants and we are not greater than he is. He gave us an example of what to do by the living of his life and his teachings. He gave us an “anchor” in the Torah as to where we should begin and where we should stay centered: to love God with all of our being, and to love our neighbor (who is really everyone) as ourselves. And just recently, we’ve been reminded that there are opportunities to fulfill the Master’s mitzvot all around us.

The Mighty Rock, Whose deeds are perfect, because all His ways are good. He is a faithful God in Whom there is no iniquity.

Deuteronomy 32:4-5

These very sobering words are often invoked at moments of great personal distress to express our faith and trust in the Divine wisdom and justice.

People who have suffered deep personal losses, such as destruction of their home by fire or the premature death of a loved one, or who have observed the widespread suffering caused by a typhoon or an earthquake, may be shaken in their relationship with God. How could a loving, caring God mete out such enormous suffering?

It is futile to search for logical explanations, and even if there were any, they would accomplish little in relieving the suffering of the victims. This is the time when the true nature of faith emerges, a faith that is beyond logic, that is not subject to understanding.

The kaddish recited by mourners makes no reference to any memorial concept or prayer for the departed. The words of kaddish, “May the name of the Almighty be exalted and sanctified,” are simply a statement of reaffirmation, that in spite of the severe distress one has experienced, one does not deny the sovereignty and absolute justice of God.

Our language may be too poor in words and our thoughts lacking in concepts that can provide comfort when severe distress occurs, but the Jew accepts Divine justice even in the face of enormous pain.

Today I shall…

…reaffirm my trust and faith in the sovereignty and justice of God, even when I see inexplicable suffering.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Iyar 8”

Without trust and faith in God, it’s easy to lose faith in humanity and we are unable (or unwilling) to be the Master’s servant in this world and to do his will by loving and helping others in need.

In a commentary on this week’s Torah portion, we learn from the midrash that one of the reasons for the death of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu was that they loved God “too much.” They came too near the Holy One and were consumed. This was a warning to Aaron that no matter how great his love for God was and the desire to draw near the Divine Presence in the Holy of Holies, he must restrain himself.

G-d knew that Aharon’s love for Him was so great that he would always desire to enter the Holy of Holies. However, by doing so, it could cause his soul to leave his body, as happened with his sons. G-d therefore informed told him of the need to keep his soul within his body so that he could fulfill his mission in this world — transforming it into a dwelling place for G-d.

The lesson we can learn from the command to Aharon is that every Jew has the capacity to love G-d, and indeed is commanded to do so, as the verse states: “You shall love your G-d with all your heart, soul and might.” (Devarim 6:5)

peace-of-mind1While midrash may not appeal to you in a literal sense, when viewed metaphorically or as a moral lesson, it teaches that human beings, out of our love for God, can achieve greater heights of holiness, drawing nearer to God, though we can never be “greater than our Master.” Yet as servants, we must always strive to become better than we are.

It’s not easy. God never gets tired, He never gets scared, He never gets discouraged, He never wants to “throw in the towel,” but we poor, pathetic human beings experience all those things.

People think that if they are not well, they must sacrifice all meaning in their life in order to take care of their physical situation.

In fact, the opposite is true: You cannot separate the healing of the body from the healing of the soul. As you treat the body, you must also increase in nourishing the soul.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Soul Healing”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Just as we cannot separate healing of the body from healing of the soul, we cannot separate our personal need for healing from the needs of those around us. In fact, by acting for the benefit of others and serving their needs, we may discover that our own wounds are also being healed.

I have been guilty on many occasions of wanting to withdraw from humanity and particularly from the community of faith when it has hurt too much. God has shown me (again and again and again) that I’ve been going in the wrong direction.

When in doubt, I must return to the portion of Torah that is for all of us, Jew and Gentile alike, the anchor, the center, the love of God and humanity. Without that, nothing else we do means anything.

160 days.

Shammai, Peter, and Cornelius

hillel_shammaiShammai’s school of thought became known as the House of Shammai (Hebrew: Beth Shammai‎), as Hillel’s was known as the House of Hillel (Beit Hillel). After Menahem the Essene had resigned the office of Av Beit Din (or vice-president) of the Sanhedrin, Shammai was elected to it, Hillel being at the time president. After Hillel died, circa 20 CE, Shammai took his place as president but no vice-president from the minority was elected so that the school of Shammai attained complete ascendancy, during which Shammai passed “18 ordinances” in conformity with his ideas. The Talmud states that when he passed one of the ordinances, contrary to the opinion of Hillel, the day “was as grievous to Israel as the day when the [golden] calf was made” (Shabbat, 17a). The exact content of the ordinances is not known, but they seem to have been designed to strengthen Jewish identity by insisting on stringent separation between Jews and gentiles, an approach that was regarded as divisive and misanthropic by Shammai’s opponents.


And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.”

Acts 10:28 (ESV)

I suppose I could have called this blog post, “Things I Learned in Church Today,” but then, I’d have a lot of blog posts with the same title. I recently came across a “statistic” on a blog (it’s not based on any real data) that said the vast majority of Christianity, something like “99.99999999999%” is “anti-Judaic.” I’ll agree that the church has a rather poor track record relative to Jews, Judaism, and Israel, but that’s changing. I know because the church I attend is very pro Jews, Judaism, and Israel. It’s not just the Pastoral staff but the regular members, too. In my Sunday school class, the teacher, who by trade is an electrical contractor, opined on how much we Christians owe the Jewish people at the very start of class.

But what did I learn in church about Jews, Judaism, and Acts 10? I learned about something called the “18 measures.” Apparently, this was something debated between Hillel and Shammai and while the specifics of these “measures” crafted by Shammai are no longer known, two of them were said to be “anti-Gentile.” Pastor Randy came to speak with me right before services began and shared what he had found out during his research. He said that one of the measures of Shammai stated that it was “unlawful” for a Jew to enter a Gentile’s home because it would be possible for a corpse to be present without the Jew’s knowledge (resulting in ritual defilement: see Num. 19:11-16). This could include a dead person buried under the house, since it seems it was the custom in some households to bury the family patriarch under the structure.

Or was Shammai looking for excuses to keep Jews and Gentiles apart? After all, Israel was occupied by Gentile forces and the Romans never went out of their way to be friendly or courteous to the Jewish population. Quite the opposite in fact. The Jews had good reason to want to avoid Gentiles and particularly Roman soldiers.

Was this part of what Peter was thinking of when he was confronted by God with the news that he was to visit the household of a Roman Centurion? In the above-quoted passage from Acts 10, the greek word translated as “unlawful” as in “how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate…” isn’t the word for “Law,” but the word for “tradition.” Basically, Peter was telling Cornelius that it was against halakhah for a Jew to enter the home of a Gentile because the Jew might well become ritualistically “unclean.” God showed Peter the contradiction (in this case) between the prevailing halakhah of his day and the teachings of God that no human being is “unclean.”

I don’t know if Peter was specifically thinking of Shammai during this whole transaction, but it’s certainly within the realm of possibility.

But am I being too hard on Shammai?

Shammai is a much misunderstood character and you malign him with your words…. according to the Mishnah in Treatise Avot, one of Shammai’s favourite sayings was “Always receive all men with a cheerful expression on your face!” (Avot, chapter 1, para. 15)

-ProfBenTziyyon, 18 Jan 09

I’m not trying to be hard on Shammai or for that matter, on Peter. I did think this was an interesting detail that works to “flesh out” the humanity and the lived context for Peter as he was faced with doing a very hard thing. About fifteen years earlier, Jesus gave his Jewish disciples the “commission” to make disciples out of the Gentiles, but as far as we know, that command received no attention until the Master spurred Peter into action using a vision (Acts 10:9-16).

In this case however, if Peter has responded to halakhah rather than God, the good news of Christ would never have come to Cornelius and his household and arguably the rest of us would have suffered the same fate. Or God would have chosen a different messenger, but He chose Peter. It was Peter who had to grow beyond his prejudices and perhaps only a Jewish apostle could deliver the Gospel to the Gentiles. I mean, the angel (Acts 10:3-6) could have told Cornelius everything he needed to know, but it was more than just information that needed to be delivered, it was the forging of new connections and relationships. While Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, was a “God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation,” God had a far better destiny for him as one of first Gentiles to ever receive the Holy Spirit and be reconciled to God. Peter, for his part, and his Jewish companions needed to be witnesses and to see for themselves that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” They needed to see that even the Gentiles could receive the Spirit and be saved, even as the Jews had done.

This, as much as anything else in the Bible, was an incredible miracle, because God so loved the world.

What biases and prejudices prevent you and me from doing the will of God?