Tag Archives: imagination

If You Could Imagine

Imagine that King David encouraged you to recite his Psalms. Imagine that King Solomon encouraged you to learn from the wisdom of Mishlei (Proverbs). Imagine that Hillel and Rabbi Akiva encouraged you to study Torah. Imagine that the Baal Shem Tov encouraged you to pray with passion and fervor. Imagine that the Chofetz Chaim encouraged you to be careful with your power to speak, and to speak words of positive encouragement and never to speak negatively about others or to insult people. Imagine that Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berdichev encouraged you to see the good in others and to find merit for them. Imagine that Rabbi Meir Shapiro encouraged you to learn Daf Yomi and to encourage others to do so. Imagine that Rabbi Noah Weinberg encouraged you to light the fire of Torah in every Jewish heart.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
from Chapter 37 of his new book
Encouragement: Formulas, Stories, and Insights

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Rabbi Zelig Pliskin

This is part of Rabbi Pliskin’s advice for how to use our imagination to encourage ourselves. Of course, he’s writing for a Jewish audience, so we may find ourselves limited in imagining that David might really encourage the Goyim to recite his Psalms, and certainly in envisioning the Baal Shem Tov encouraging us to pray with passion and fervor.

As much as I enjoy Rabbi Pliskin’s writing, I wonder if this one isn’t a bit of a stretch.

What would Rav Yeshua (Jesus Christ) encourage a non-Jewish disciple to do? What about Rav Shaul (the Apostle Paul)? The answers to those questions might seem self-evident to a traditional evangelical Christian, but when you realize that the hearts of Yeshua and Paul were first and foremost turned to their Jewish brethren, what does that mean for the rest of us? Do we have the right to even imagine they would encourage us?

Of course, Paul’s epistles to the various Gentile communities he established were full of encouragement (as well as, in some cases, criticism and even condemnation). After all, he was the emissary to the Gentiles, specifically appointed by Rav Yeshua in a metaphysical vision.

So if we were to imagine Paul encouraging us, what would he say?

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:38-39

Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give fully to the work of the Lord because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

1 Corinthians 15:58

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

2 Corinthians 8:9

Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.

James 1:12

The Jewish PaulThese are just quotes and don’t really address how we could imagine Paul encouraging each of us personally. Paul wrote these letters to a different audience, different of his “churches” nearly twenty centuries ago. How can we imagine what he might say to you or me today?

Let’s take a look at part of Rabbi Pliskin’s quote again:

Imagine that King David encouraged you to recite his Psalms. Imagine that King Solomon encouraged you to learn from the wisdom of Mishlei (Proverbs). Imagine that Hillel and Rabbi Akiva encouraged you to study Torah. Imagine that the Baal Shem Tov encouraged you to pray with passion and fervor.

Now, allow me the arrogance of rewording it.

Imagine Rav Yeshua encouraged you to review all that was written about him in the Gospels. Imagine that the Apostle Paul encouraged you to read everything he wrote to encourage the early Gentile disciples in his Epistles. Imagine that James and the Elders in Jerusalem encouraged you to read the Jerusalem letter as an invitation to stand alongside Jewish Messianic community.

Does that seem more reasonable to you? Can you imagine being encouraged in that way by those people?

I don’t know.

Jewish people can feel a kinship for David, Solomon, Rabbi Akiva, and all of the other ancient Jewish luminaries because they are all united, both by blood and by covenant. In a sense, they are all extended family.

Not so for the Gentiles. We have no direct covenant relationship with God, even through Christ (at least not as the Church teaches it). We are symbolically adopted, metaphorically grafted in. We belong only by the grace and mercy of the God of Israel. The only standing we have before our Maker is the one He decides we have.

That said, I’ve met Christians who truly believe the Apostle Paul would feel right at home in their Baptist churches, and that the “services” Paul led were pretty much the same as church services today (I kid you not), in fact, even with a language in common, Paul would find most or all church services totally alien to him.

He might not feel that much more comfortable in a modern synagogue service, but at least the Hebrew and some of the prayers would be familiar so he’d know he was in Jewish community.

I hate to over-generalize. It’s one of the failings of the Church, the belief that each and everything written in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation was specifically written for and to Christians.

Context tells us otherwise, or it should. Much if not most of the Bible is specifically written to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Unless you’re Jewish, that doesn’t include you or me.

So there is only a tiny handful of scripture that we can or should even imagine has anything to do with the rest of the world. Where does prayer stop and self-serving imagination begin?

Man aloneI haven’t been feeling myself lately. I’m doing a little bit better than I was, but recovery is slow. At least I can concentrate enough to write again.

If you can imagine any Biblical luminary speaking directly to you, oh I’m not suggesting self-serving wish-fulfillment, but what legitimately anyone in the Bible would have to say to you as an individual, who would it be and what would they say?

If God had a name, what would it be?
And would you call it to His face?
If you were faced with Him in all His glory?
What would you ask if you had just one question?

-Joan Osborne
from the lyrics of “One of Us”

The Worlds Within Ourselves

??????????????????????????????????That’s when I noticed the rosary beads.

The woman next to me had them on her lap, running them through her fingers. Was she a nun? I didn’t want to violate the Code, so I couldn’t just turn and look. I also didn’t want to distract myself from my davening for too long. (How long is too long? I think it’s similar to the five-second rule for eating food you dropped on the floor – a moment is okay, after that you’re asking for trouble.)

Then I noticed the plastic divider in front of me, which separated us from the driver (affording him protection from spitballs, if nothing else). It was reflective, and I could see my seatmate perfectly well in it without having to turn.

She was middle-aged, dressed conservatively, her nondescript features notable only for the intensity of her expression, her lips moving in fervent prayer. Was she a nun on holiday, and thus out of her habit and habitat, or just a holy roller on her way to work? Was she even now praying for the return of Jerusalem to the Church’s hands? Had she noticed me with my siddur and added in a few prayers for the salvation of my soul? Or maybe its damnation! After all, she’d no doubt been taught that someone in my family had killed her Lord. Even though her Lord was actually someone in my family

-Eric Brand
“Peace on Earth in 30 Min., 45 with Traffic: Rosary beads, a yarmulke, and a lot of overthinking”
Aish.com

Eric Brand will never know how glad I am that he wrote this missive. Lately, I’ve been going through one or two challenges as far as how Jewish people see Christians. I haven’t experienced it as very complementary, to say the least.

On top of that, I’ve been musing about how my wife and children see my Christian faith. I’ve been taking a few conversations and a few cues and clues, and winding myself up quite a bit about what they mean. Maybe I’m right, but then again, like Mr. Brand, maybe I’m overthinking things.

A chance encounter on a public bus in New Jersey results in a Jewish man and a Catholic woman sitting next to each other. Both of them are praying, him with a siddur and her with rosary beads. Their religious orientations are unmistakable. While the “code” of riding public transportation from Jersey to New York forbids each of them from talking with or even looking at each other, what could they have been praying about?

That ticked me off. Was it right to stereotype and scapegoat me? Hadn’t my people suffered enough? Did I have to be subjected to this? I was just a guy on a bus!

I tried to go back to my siddur, but I could see those hands working the rosary beads out of the corner of my eye, and I could sense those lips going a mile a minute, spewing who knows what. Well, okay, lady, I thought, maybe this is a test from God to see if I have the right reaction! How about I throw in some prayers for your soul? How about we have a nice debate and pick apart your faulty theology?

I was mulling this over, thinking about a good opening crack, when I was struck by another thought. If I can see her, she can see me. And she can see me looking at her – and not davening. Better get those lips moving, buddy, you don’t want to give this religious nut a leg up on feeling superior.

I admire Brand’s transparency in describing his thoughts and feelings. I try to show that side of myself as well. What “teachable moment” might we inspire or intersect if we just write down what we think and feel about each other and let those words be accessible via the Internet? More than that, what can the writer learn in the writing?

I was still mouthing some words from the siddur when my brain re-engaged momentarily and focused on what I was reading. “God is close to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him sincerely.”

Oh, while there were two people in that seat, there were actually three “personalities” present. God had something to say to Brand and maybe to his Catholic traveling companion as well (we’ll never know what she was thinking during all this, alas).

“God is close to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him sincerely.”

jewish-christian-intermarriageI know the assumption in the text from the siddur is that “all who call upon Him” means “all Jewish people who call upon Him,” but if God’s House is really to be a house of prayer for all people, then all people aren’t just Jewish people. It’s everyone who “calls upon Him with sincerity.” What if the Catholic woman was calling upon God sincerely? Was God as close to her as He was to Brand? Is God close to all of us when we sincerely call upon Him? Is He as close to me, a Christian, when I pray as He is to a davening Jew?

We religious people make a lot of assumptions about God and we make a lot of assumptions about each other. It would have been a complete breach of public transportation etiquette for Brand to have introduced himself to his seat-mate and struck up a conversation with her about their faiths. But if that could have been accomplished, maybe his fears would have been allayed somewhat (or maybe not). One Catholic person commented on Brand’s column and this might help figure out what the woman on the bus could have been thinking:

As a Catholic, who reads aish.com, I can almost guarantee that very few of us are condemning anyone to hell. We are all G_d’s children.

While Brand never talked with the Catholic person next to him on the bus, God managed to get his attention in the pages of his siddur.

I know I’ve wondered if my Jewish wife feels at all threatened about me going to church and what that means about my attitude towards Jews, but I wish she’d believe that we’re all God’s children.

But more than my concerns about my wife’s fears about me, Brand taught me that my own imagination could well be creating a situation that isn’t real.

But I left the bus undaunted – even after Comb-Over stepped on my foot as he rushed to get to the escalator – with a smile on my face. Jewish tradition tells us we should consider the world as though it was created for each of us. Because each of us has a unique touch of godliness that gives the universe purpose.

But there’s another way to look at it. We each create the world for ourselves. Our perceptions, our attitudes, our thoughts produce the world around us every moment of our waking days. We see, hear, experience what we want, what we will. And in doing so, we affect all the other people busily creating their worlds.

That’s a big responsibility. I’m glad I was able to figure this out before the journey ended. Fortunately, there was traffic.

The world is still a big, bad, ugly place in many ways. There’s all kinds of trouble and troublesome people around. But we also create the world we live in. We can choose to be upset, anxious, or angry because we are choosing to imagine what people think and feel about us. We can choose to communicate or choose to be silent. And even if silent, we can choose how we consider the people in our lives, for good or for ill.

I’ve heard it said that an anxiety attack is a person’s response to an emergency that does not exist. It still feels real, but the only danger is the choice we’ve somehow (it’s not volitional) made inside. Perhaps my being a Christian isn’t the danger I’ve imagined it is to my wife and children. And if some Jewish people, including my friends, believe my faith is a problem, please talk to Eric Brand. Maybe my faith isn’t automatically against you. Maybe I love you.

Seeking Out a Greater Imagination

“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.”

-Matsuo Basho

Rabbi Sholom Ber of Lubavitch used to say that if the hedonists would know the ecstasy of mystic union, they would instantly drop all their worldly pleasures and chase after it.

It is not just pleasure. It is the source of all pleasures.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Paradise”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

I recently had a discussion with an (apparent) atheist in the comments section of one of my blog posts. As with many other Christian/Atheist discussions on the web, he found Christianity wanting due to its lack of morality. That generally means “lack of morality” as progressive secular humanism defines the term (and the definition tends to shift over time). But is the sole reason for someone to become a person of faith or a person of faithlessness to gain a sense of morality and ethics?

Probably not. At its core, I think a person selects one system of philosophy or theology over another in an attempt to seek a reason for existence. Rabbi David Hartman in his book A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism (chapter 9) says it this way:

As history has shown, the human being is not only a fact-seeking animal, but equally and possibly more so, a value-hungry individual seeking direction and significance in life. We hunger for a frame of reference that orders and orients everyday existence into some meaningful pattern. In spite of the extreme importance of facts, their range does not exhaust the sources from which one constructs a vision of life that gives meaning and direction to existence.

Beyond the quest to determine the moral relativity of right and wrong, and even beyond the desire to understand the nature of the universe, its origins and its development, is the overwhelming desire of human beings to seek out and discover themselves. This is perhaps the greatest mystery within our awareness, greater than the origin of life and greater than the scope of the cosmos.

Who are we? Why are we here? Is this all there is? Is there something more?

I was recently watching the first part of a two-part episode of Star Trek: Voyager called “Scorpion”. The starship Voyager was about to enter an area of space dominated by the Borg, which is a highly malevolent cybernetic race and mortal enemies of the Federation. It is the only path Voyager can take to make it back to the Alpha Quadrant and home.

The Borg are under attack by an equally malevolent race of beings from a realm outside our universe who are referred to only as “species 8472.” The destruction caused by the war between the Borg and species 8472 is vast and multiple star systems have been destroyed in its wake. If Captain Kathryn Janeway (played by Kate Mulgrew) orders Voyager to go forward, the ship and everyone on board will be annihilated. If she turns the ship around to ensure everyone’s safety, she must admit that she will never get her crew home. She’s trapped in an endless loop of guilt and remorse, because it was her decision to save an alien race that stranded the Voyager crew over 70,000 light years away from home nearly four years ago.

As a diversion, Janeway had previously programmed a holodeck simulation of Leonardo da Vinci (played by the acclaimed British actor John Rhys-Davies) and his workshop environment. Janeway takes on the role of Master da Vinci’s student in order to relax, work on various art projects, and be inspired by a holographic replica of one of history’s most innovative creators. In the throes of despair, as Voyager is poised to either move forward to destruction or turn back in defeat, Janeway makes a midnight visit to the Master’s studio seeking a solution she cannot find within the limits of her own resources.

She finds da Vinci sitting in his darkened studio, softly illuminated by dozens of candles, staring at light and shadow as they play upon a blank wall. Janeway sits with him and asks him what he sees. da Vinci (Rhys-Davies) responds:

A flock of starlings; the leaves of an oak; a horse’s tail; a thief, with a noose around his neck… Uh… And a wall, with the candlelight reflecting on it. There are times, Katarina, when I find myself transfixed by a shadow on the wall, or the splashing of water against a stone. I stare at it, the hours pass, the world around me drops away, replaced by worlds being created and destroyed by my imagination. A way to focus the mind.

Out of desperation, with all other options exhausted, Janeway turns to this computer generated simulation of one of the world’s finest minds and imaginations and opens her soul to him.

There’s a path before me – the only way home. And on either side, mortal enemies bent on destroying each other. If I attempt to pass through them, I’ll be destroyed as well. But if I turn around – that would end all hope of ever getting home. And no matter how much I try to focus my mind, I can’t see an alternative.

Then da Vinci replies in a way I found absolutely fascinating, especially since Janeway has always been played as a pragmatic atheist (and after all, she programmed da Vinci).

When one’s imagination cannot provide an answer, one must seek out a greater imagination. There are times when even I find myself kneeling in prayer.

I’m sorry to take you through a mini-tour of one of my favorite Voyager stories (especially if you’re not a Star Trek fan) but this is the point I was building up to. This is what we as human beings are seeking; a greater imagination. I don’t mean one that we can possess, but something beyond ourselves and our reality. Janeway and Voyager are exploring the galaxy, or a non-trivial part of it, as they attempt to travel 70,000 light years from the Delta Quadrant back to the Alpha Quadrant and Earth, but the real journey; the human journey is far more wondrous and vast.

The human journey is the attempt to travel beyond the limits of observation, science, and the very conceptualization of a physical and temporal reality and to find what lies beyond, which must surely be a greater creative imagination than ours and the One who is responsible for everything we now experience.

On a website called The God Debates, a discussion on a cause for the universe’s existence is going on (as I write this). I seriously doubt that the matter will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, but the need to have this discussion is completely human and shows us how much we need to seek out “a greater imagination.” An even more unusual example of this is a story at Jewish Ideas Daily called Disturbing the Universe. This is Kabbalah scholar Daniel Matt’s review of cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss’s new book, A Universe from Nothing: why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing. In the same article, Matt reviews Alan Lightman’s new novel Mr g: A Novel About the Creation. An article where a Kabbalah scholar reviews both a very serious book on cosmology and a seemingly light-hearted but compelling work of fiction on God and Creation? Definitely worth a read.

However, why does one person seek the limits of the universe in a microscope, a telescope, in a chemistry class, in an archaeological dig, or using the cutting-edge tools of physicists? Why does another person seek to escape the limits of the universe entirely and encounter the infinite wonder that lies beyond the scope of the mechanisms mankind feebly constructs with flesh and blood hands?

Maybe sub-atomic particles and a vast, expanding universe are the only wonders that exist, but I certainly hope not. If it is true that this is all there is and there is nothing more, then everything mysterious, wonderful, and astounding about our existence is potentially within man’s grasp and one day, there will be no more mysteries. The universe will be “solved” and man will reach the end of his own adventure and become his own “god” (if he hasn’t already).

But in seeking God, man longs to go beyond the possible and to engage a mystery that can never be solved. But that’s the greatness of spiritual man: the need, the desire, and drive to seek out the impossible and to experience even the briefest glimpse of the unseeable, the untouchable, the unknowable.

In seeking God, man approaches the real purpose of his being. This is what pushes us past the barriers of despair, loneliness, hardship, and torture. This is why man endures. This is why man achieves. Without the search for God, man’s labors are no more significant than an ant pushing a bread crumb across a dirt lot, regardless of the illusion of “greatness” we bestow upon ourselves.

Some abandon the covenant after the death of a single loved one, but others retain belief in God’s love for and commitment to themselves despite having lost their whole family in the Holocaust. One human being leaves Auschwitz an atheist and another as a person whose belief has grown stronger.

-Hartman

I suppose there are many cynical explanations for why a person who has suffered incredible horrors would retain a faith in God and even increase that faith in the shadow of Auschwitz, or a dying child, or a body shattered in war. Some more “enlightened” individuals accuse us of needing a “crutch” as if atheism is far more courageous and noble. But I don’t think it’s a matter of courage and nobility, and I can’t really say what it is that causes one person to deny God and another to seek him out, even sometimes at the cost of his own life.

The best I can see is that, like John Rhys-Davies’s version of Leonardo da Vinci, even when it seems to defy the person we think we are, we absolutely need to seek out a greater imagination than our own. We find ourselves seeking it and Him by kneeling in prayer.

It is only God who makes it possible for a human being to search for that which exists in a place no man can reach or touch or see. But that’s where we will find Him…and us.