Tag Archives: love

Love and Divorce, Part 1

Today’s daf discusses a case of one who is forbidden to divorce his wife.

Sh’lom bayis is a very complex area which requires much finesse and understanding. One must be very deft with a couple facing challenges in their marriage. Teaching each spouse to understand the other’s point of view and how to explain his or her own perspective without making judgments is essential when trying to establish good sh’lom bayis.

Although the Sichos HaRan, zt”l, writes that, in general, one should not divorce his wife unless compelled to by the halachah, there are certainly exceptions to this rule. Some people—even those with experience working with couples—believe that every rift in a marriage can be healed. According to that view, if a couple did not make their marriage work it must have been that one or both were unwilling to work hard enough to build their relationship. Although this is true in the vast majority of cases, there are times when the best option does seem to be divorce.

A certain ben Torah worked with a husband and wife who had many areas of conflict, and tried his best to heal their relationship. When his efforts turned out to be of no avail, he brought them to the Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, for assistance. After they had explained all of their many issues, the Chofetz Chaim suggested that they get a divorce. The astounded ben Torah could not contain himself. “How could it be that you won’t even try to make peace between them?”

The Chofetz Chaim explained. “If you are correct that in every situation divorce is avoidable, why did God give the parshah of voluntary divorce in the Torah? Clearly the Torah provided the halachos of gittin because sometimes the only way to bring peace to this couple is to allow them to divorce and go their separate ways!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“The Parshah of Gittin”
Temurah 5-1

The subject of divorce can be pretty touchy in the community of Christ. On the one hand, it is generally believed that there is no valid reason for divorce except for adultery. On the other hand, the available statistics seem to indicate that the rate of divorce in the church is no different than in the secular world, with about 50% of all marriages breaking up resulting in shattered hearts and devastated families. But before proceeding, let’s review the scripture you are all probably thinking about right now.

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” –Matthew 19:3-9 (ESV)

This teaching of the Master is sometimes used to give Jews a hard time regarding divorce, but as we see from the daf, the desire to make peace among a feuding husband and wife is extremely strong in Judaism. In fact, our example showed us how the ben Torah working with the couple in dispute was shocked when the Chofetz Chaim actually recommended that the couple divorce as the only way to bring peace between them. Also, as I mentioned before, since the divorce rate in the church mirrors the secular divorce rate, we don’t have a lot of room to criticize Judaism, either in ancient or modern times, for allowing divorces.

But what’s wrong? As Christians, on our wedding day, we take a vow before God to love, honor, and cherish our spouse under all circumstances. It’s virtually the only vow the church maintains formally in the 21st century, especially given the Master’s teaching about not taking vows in Matthew 5:36-37. Why do we divorce so much?

I suppose I should say at this point that I am not literally including myself in “we” since my wife and I have been married for almost 30 years. My parents have been married for almost 60 years. I can’t speak for my parents, but I do know my own marriage hasn’t been without without it’s “rocks in the road” and I claim no special abilities on my part that resulted in my wife and I remaining united. I think marriage is always difficult at times and perhaps many “happily married” couples have considered divorce at one point or another. Troubles in the marriage are to be expected. It’s how you react that makes the difference.

But I’m not here to lecture and I’m certainly not here to hold myself up as some sort of example (if I tried that, my wife could easily chime in and lay out all of the details regarding my many faults). I’m here to talk about the humanity of marriage and divorce. Sometimes break ups are necessary…they just shouldn’t be so common.

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. –Ephesians 5:22-24 (ESV)

I’m sure you’ve heard examples of how certain “primitive” Christian (so called) men have used this passage to justify making their wives jump through all sorts of hoops because God told her to “submit”. I’m no Bible expert and I don’t read the New Testament in Greek, but I’m still going to say, “Oh brother” to these fellows. Remember that the Bible also says this.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. –Ephesians 5:25-30(ESV)

Husbands, if you are supposed to be loving your wife like Christ loves the church, consider for a minute just what the love of Jesus Christ means. The number one way we know that Jesus loves us is because he voluntarily surrendered his life for the sake of our eternal relationship with God. Not only that, but it was completely unfair in that he did not deserve to die at all. Add to that the fact that it was a long, lingering, painful, and shameful death. If you Christian husbands love your wives in the same way, I suppose you should be putting up with a lot from her, even the stuff you don’t deserve. Remember, Christ died for us while we were still his “enemies” (Romans 5:8). He didn’t wait until we turned to him in love in order to die. If he had, we’d have no chance at redemption or salvation at all.

I could go on and on, but I want you guys to savor the example Christ gave to us as husbands (I’ve never been a wife, so I’m not going to try and speak from that perspective). The next time you get angry at your wife, feel annoyed because she makes some unreasonable request, or otherwise contemplate how much easier your existence would be if she weren’t around, think about Jesus and what he did for us. Imagine how much we sin, even after we have accepted Christ as Lord and Savior. Don’t you think he should have the right to be annoyed with us for our “unfaithfulness?” Yet he hasn’t abandoned us, though he probably should in some cases. Where do we get off abandoning our wives either physically or emotionally when the going gets tough?

So is it ever acceptable to get a divorce? I’ll express my opinions on that next time in Love and Divorce, Part 2.

“Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.”

-Robert Frost, American poet

When Your Soul Seeks Peace with God

There is no fight as bitter as a family fight. The bitterness and scars remain long after the incident that may have originally sparked it is long since gone and sometimes even forgotten. Many times the bitterness and hard feelings remain even in generations of descendants of the original antagonists, as though somehow genetically transmitted.

Yosef and his brothers reconcile in this week’s parsha. But the divisions within the Jewish people then and now are apparently never really healed and forgotten. The commentators point out that the rebellions against Moshe in the desert, that of Korach of the tribe of Levi and Zimri of the tribe of Shimon and Datan and Aviram of the tribe of Reuven, are all part of the residue – of the fallout of the tragedy of the disagreement of Yosef and his brothers.

-Rabbi Berel Wein
“Right and Wrong”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayigash
Torah.org

“But Judaism, more than any other major religious tradition, does not see skeptics as second-class citizens. It would be difficult to imagine a committed Christian” (or in my thinking, many “Messianic Gentiles”) “for whom some faith statement about Jesus was not a central religious tenet, or a Muslim openly skeptical about Allah. In that regard, Judaism does not require faith statements as a sign of legitimacy. Judaism does not ask Jews to give up their questions or to deny their doubt. In Jewish spiritual life, faith is not the starting point of the journey. Uncertainty is not the enemy of religious and spiritual growth. Doubt is what fuels the journey.”

-Rabbi Daniel Gordis
“Judaism and Belief in God — Can the Skeptic Embark on the Journey” (pg 44)
God Was Not in the Fire

Sometimes I think I say the same things over and over, or at least periodically recycle various themes in my blogging. The chapter I’m quoting from in Rabbi Gordis’ book talks about the uncertainty we can experience in exploring our faith and Rabbi Wein talks about how family fights can cause the deepest wounds. If you include the “family of faith” and the “body of believers” in that group, then we who profess our faith in Jesus Christ and our trust in God also have the greatest capacity to injure and harm each other. No wonder it is said in Christianity that “the church is the only Army that shoots its own wounded.” In the “wounded” category, I include those individuals and groups who are judged to be involved in pagan idolatry…such as decorating pine trees at Christmas (oh the horror).

Yes, I thought this topic was a long dead horse we were all getting tired of beating but alas, it came up again on a recent blog of Derek Leman’s so once again, it’s “off to the races” of who’s right and who’s wrong in the religious blogosphere.

What kills me about all of this is the drop-dead certainty displayed by the religious pundits who are weighing in on the blog comments. I guess that shouldn’t surprise me because the nature of human beings is to pigeon hole and to index information, then to draw some sort of conclusions from what they’ve gathered, and finally to set those conclusions in cement. Once an opinion puts on the cloak of “absolute truth”, it starts being not just truth but fact.

That’s particularly true in Christianity and Islam, but not quite so in Judaism, according to the aforementioned book by Rabbi Gordis. For a Jew, it’s not required to come to absolute terms with faith and truth. Judaism doesn’t seek a solidified code carved in granite but rather the experience of touching the hem of the garment of God.

In focusing more on “relationship with God” than on “belief in God,” Judaism differs from other Western religious traditions. While some Christian communities urge their followers, “Believe, and you will be saved,” Judaism’s rough equivalent is “Search, and you will find meaning.” Jewish life certainly does not consider God unimportant; God is central to Jewish spirituality. But most of Jewish tradition decided long ago to focus not on essence, but on God’s presence; Judaism seeks not God’s truth, but His closeness. (pg 55)

Rabbi Gordis cites the beautiful poem Yedid Nefesh (Beloved of the Soul) written by Rabbi Eleazar Azikri in the 16th century. This poem can still be found in many Siddurim today and is sung to illustrate the desperate longing of a Jew to draw nearer to his God.

Beloved of the soul, Compassionate Father,
draw Your servant to Your Will;
then Your servant will hurry like a hart
to bow before Your majesty;
to him Your friendship will be sweeter
than the dripping of the honeycomb and any taste.

This, more than anything, is the goal and the passion of the observant Jew and where many non-Jews in the “Messianic” movement fail to grasp even the faintest glimmer of what it is to worship as a Jew. The passion for many of these non-Jewish “Messianics” as in the church, is to establish an absolute right and wrong between men, as if God were of secondary concern in the matter. As long as all of the “rules” are pounded out, then we let our relationship with God take care of itself.

For many Gentiles who have chosen to adhere themselves to the commandments, it’s as if the mitzvot have taken on a life of their own, independent of a relationship with God. Yedid Nefesh sings to the heart of God and beckons him as a lover beckons her companion, and love is the thread that binds them and their universe together. The mitzvot are the beginning of the relationship, allowing the construction of an “interface” that lets us meet with God, our beloved, on a common ground and permits us to give Him the “gifts” of our heart, not mere obedience to sterile and lifeless rules. Those commandments are not the relationship itself, and yet for the many who have come to “Torah awareness” but failed at “Torah understanding”, the rules are all they have.

I admit, there are some who never get past obeying God’s “checklist” as their only means of showing faith and devotion, but if the checklist becomes a god unto itself in their lives, is that not also idolatry? If you fail to show your fellow love and respect as God shows us love and respect, what have you learned and what is your “obedience” worth? The Talmud speaks of Jews who showed idol worshipers far more respect than what some believers show their brothers and sisters in Christ. I’ll offer a summary of what I previously chronicled to paint this picture.

“[it is proper to] support the idol worshippers during the sabbatical year… and to inquire after their welfare [commentators: even on the days of the holidays of their idols, even if they do not keep the seven Noahide commandments] because of the ways of peace.” (Shevi’it 4,3)

The rabbis taught: ‘We support poor Gentiles with the poor people of Israel, and we visit sick Gentiles as well as the sick of Israel and we bury the dead of the Gentiles as well as the dead of Israel, because of the ways of peace.” (Gitin 61a)

Kidushin 32 contains descriptions of the manner in which our sages honored and respected the elderly. The passage specifically refers to elderly gentiles who were honored in various fashions by the sages.

In TY Baba Metzia there are a number of descriptions of sages going out of their way to return lost objects to gentiles (Elu Metziot).

Tosefta BK 10,8: “.. it is more grievous to steal from a gentile because of the desecration of G-d’s name ..”

Tosefta BM 2,11: “.. one who sees a lost donkey of an idol worshipper must take care of it exactly the way he takes care of the lost donkey of an Israelite ..”

At Avoda Zara 18a the Talmud relates the remarkable story of how a Roman guard of one of the sages who was brutally murdered by the Romans repented. It was made known to the sages that the guard and the sage were welcomed to the World to Come together.

At Hullin 7a there is a report of how the sage Pinchas ben Yair miraculously split a river in order to speed his way to carry out the commandment to redeem captives. He went out of his way to split the river again in order to allow a gentile who was accompanying his group to also cross the river to speed his way.

None of this says to emulate the ways of the idol worshiper, but to show him the compassion that God shows anyone made in His image. Would some of the “righteous” among those who speak against the practice of Christmas treat a neighbor who goes to church and puts up Christmas lights even half as graciously as the sages say a Jew must treat a pagan Gentile?

The lesson thus far shows that we cannot be absolutely sure of our understanding of God and His ways, though we do our best, and further, that even if we feel sure, this does not give us a license to batter those with whom we disagree. Nevertheless, referring back to some of the comments on Derek’s blog (and many other places in the blogosphere, including the latest commentary on Judah Himango’s blog), we see some very “non-Judaism” responses to the dread spectre of “paganoia”.

Rabbi Dixler’s commentary on Vayigash at Project Genesis further establishes my point.

Rather, concludes the Midrash, Joseph’s overriding concern was for his brother’s dignity. When they discovered that they had severely erred in their judgment of Joseph and his dreams, that they had put their father through 22 torturous years of mourning for naught, they would certainly not want to be in the public eye. Joseph selflessly risked his life for the sake of his brothers’ dignity.

It’s a powerful message to us. Our culture glorifies the embarrassment of others; recorded gaffes and insults to those in the public eye go viral on youtube, and biting one-line remarks make up a good portion of today’s humor. Magazines whose sole purpose is gossip — usually of the least complimentary kind — abound. Where has the respect for human dignity gone?

How many times have I tried to make this point in the last few weeks? How many blog posts have I written about a religious world with unbalanced priorities where we have all but forgotten about God in our zeal to expose people who put pine wreaths on their front doors (how dare they)? There is so much more I could say, but what would be the point. It’s as if my pleas for sanity and compassion are falling on deaf ears. If only those who profess faith and trust in the One God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and who claim to revere the teachings of the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, would actually behave as God would want them to behave. If only they actually did the things they were taught to do by the Master. If you want to impress anyone (though not me, because I am but dust and ashes), particularly God, feed the hungry, visit the sick, show compassion to the widow and the orphan. If you cherish those mitzvot above all else, you will be doing the will of God and serving the spirit of the companion of your soul.

Considering Replies

Hod is the counterpoint to Netzach. While Netzach strives to connect, Hod ensures that the power and energy in that striving is appropriate and acceptable. As we said earlier, it makes no sense to impress a student if the information is just too much to assimilate. Hod assembles the information to match the capacity of the receiver.

Hod tempers the force of Netzach, which, unchecked, can create distance rather than closeness. We have all experienced the colleague who is so effusive about his proposal that people simply stop listening. We have seen good ideas go ignored because an empathetic heart did not balance the Netzach exuberance. Empathy lies at the core of a caring relationship.

-Rabbi Laibl Wolf
“Hod: Creating Empathy” (pg 181)
Practical Kabbalah: A Guide to Jewish Wisdom for Everyday Life

If you’ve been reading my blog for the past week or so, you’ll know that I’ve been participating in an ongoing dialogue on the issue of Christmas trees and pagan practices in a number of online venues including Boaz Michael’s Facebook page, Jacob Fronczak’s Hope Abbey blog, and Judah Himango’s blog Kineti L’Tziyon. While the content on the blog pages themselves is reasonable (regardless of whether or not you or I may agree with that content), some of the comments made in response were not. I felt they represented an attack on Christianity or at least on those Christians who choose to put a Christmas tree in their homes, decorate it with tinsel, ornaments, and lights, and put gifts under it.

But I did’t write this “extra meditation” to talk about that again. I’m pretty much “talked out” as far as “Christmasphobia” is concerned and would just end up repeating myself if I tried to blog on it one more time. Instead, I’m here to talk about the communication dynamics I saw in those conversations and more in general, how methods of communication sell or sink our message as believers.

Most of the people who regularly read this blog probably aren’t interested in Kabbalah and some of you may be strongly opposed to its study, but in reading Rabbi Wolf’s discussion of Hod and Netzach, I recognized some of the common issues we all have when we want to get out point across.

Christians generally believe we have received a mandate from Jesus in what is called “the Great Commission.”

And you, go to all the nations. Make disciples; immerse them for the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to keep all that I have commanded you. And see, I am with you all the days until the end of the age. Amen. –Matthew 28:19-20 (DHE Gospels)

For nearly 2,000 years, Christians have, in one form or another, been attempting to tell the world about the Good News of Jesus Christ and the promise of salvation. We haven’t always done a good job at it, though. I’d say the various Crusades, Inquisitions, and Pogroms the church has lead can be described as a dismal failure of our evangelical directive. Even today, many non-believers cringe when a Christian asks them questions such as, “If you were to die tonight, do you know where your soul would go?” We are often depicted as judgmental, rigid, sexist, backward, superstitious “Bible-thumpers” and that description isn’t always particularly inaccurate.

It’s not so much the message we are trying to deliver that communicates such a dismal picture of the church, but how that message is transmitted. Christians really can be judgmental, inflexible, and insensitive to the needs of others, particularly of how people need to hear what we have to say (whether they choose to agree with us or not). We’ve gotten to the point where some folks want to run away when they think we’re about to try to convert them.

If you re-read the quotes I presented above, I’m sure you can immediately recognize that when we people of faith get such responses, we are likely leading with Netzach at the expense of Hod. This can especially be a problem with “text-only” communications on the Internet, such as in Facebook and blog comments, because most of what we use to communicate (body language, vocal tone and inflection) is completely absent. All we have is plain text and without anything to modify it, what we think we’re saying clearly can be terribly misunderstood. A message we think we’ve said with warmth and compassion can come across at hostile and uncaring. When confronted with such a message, it’s very easy to get worked up and fire back a response that is actually angry. The web conversation goes downhill from there, and I’m as guilty of such a transgression as anyone else.

Modeh AniWhat’s missing is illustrated by Rabbi Wolf in how he explains the Modeh Ani blessing which is recited by every observant Jew at the very moment when they realize they’re awake each morning.

The Kabbalah explains that this morning affirmation, known as Modeh Ani, provides the space to enter into the magical moments characterized by the transition from the unconsciousness of sleep into the light of day. The term Modah Ani is enunciated first thing in the morning. It means “I accept,” “I surrender,” or “I acknowledge,” or “I bow in front of you.” It is linked etymologically to the word for “thank you” in Hebrew (Todah)…

When we say “thank you” we are withdrawing and creating a comfort zone for another person. We touch their essence and draw it toward us. “Thank you” is a verbalization of the Hod flow. That is why it is so important to teach youngsters to say “thank you,” even if the deeper import is not yet fully understood. It trains children to express humility and an acknowledgment of others.

People who show humility invite more relationships into their lives.

-Rabbi Wolf (pp 185-7)

Putting Kabbalah and even the Modeh Ani aside, pay attention to the key phrase in Rabbi Wolf’s narrative: “we are withdrawing and creating a comfort zone for another person.” If we want someone else to hear us, regardless of our message, we must create a “comfort zone” for them, not for us. Yet we often do the exact opposite, creating a comfort zone for us and putting the listener on the defensive. This is especially easy to do on the Internet, even if it’s not our intent, because most of the elements of complete communication are not available. On top of that, we sometimes “pull rank” by explaining our abundant qualifications to be able to transmit our message. I don’t mind learned people and even “experts” in a particular field who have something to say, but a person who repeatedly has to outline their “quals” while making their point is an immediate turn off to me. The more you have to tell people, “I’m important and a big deal”, the more most people (me included) will believe that you’re not.

In one of the conversations I mentioned, one fellow responded like this:

I am a Hebrew. I am a Messianic Jew. A Kohen Levi. I am not one of the lost 12 tribes, nor do I believe in it.
My credentials…

I have no doubt all that is true for this person and you might say something like, “What’s wrong with what he said if it’s true? Is there a problem telling the truth?”

My answer: yes and no.

I don’t know how many conversations, both online and in person, I’ve been involved in (and where I was being put on the defensive) where the person talking to me responded to my resistence by saying, “well, it’s the truth!” Truth though it may be, if you can’t tell me the truth in a way that doesn’t drag me or other people through the mud (whether you really are or it just sounds that way), am I likely to listen? I’m not saying that you will or won’t convince me of your point of view, but there’s more than one way to present it. If you shove pure “Netzach” in my face while “Hod” has been left ten miles behind in the conversation, doesn’t this create a problem? It doesn’t matter what your family or cultural lineage is, how learned you are, how many languages you speak, and how much of a “Torah expert” you happen to be, if your message is delivered with all the tact of a barbarian horde riding madly across the seven hills of Rome, bent on the destruction, mayhem, and looting. No, I’m not saying that your intent is bad, just your delivery (OK, for some people, the intent is bad too, but it’s almost impossible to separate intent from inadequate communication over the web).

You Christians trying to fulfill your responsibility to share the Gospel with unbelievers, you are no different. Zeal is one thing and frankly, it is very important, but if you don’t create a space in the relationship where the person you’re talking to can feel comfortable, or at least a space where they don’t feel like they’re about to be spiritually jumped on and beaten up, you won’t “win a soul for Christ” (and I really hate the implications of that statement) or even convince the other person that you’re a half-way nice human being.

Being too empathetic makes you look wishy-washy and your message becomes completely ineffective. Being too zealous makes you look like a judgmental crusader out to bash someone’s head in with a Bible and your message becomes immediately disgarded by your audience.

Remember what I said a few days ago about being out of balance?

I’m not trying to bash anyone reading this or anyone who posted a comment in Facebook or on the blogs I mentioned. I’m imploring you to please, please look at the state of your intent and the balance of your Netzach and Hod. It doesn’t matter if you don’t use those terms. I doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of Kabbalah or don’t like what you’ve heard about it. Take the labels off everything I’ve said and look at the dynamics of communication under the hood. That’s what matters. It matters a lot because we’re supposed to be God’s representatives in the here and now. I’ve already mentioned how it really matters what we “loose on earth” because it is also “loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18). Being careless about what we say and how we say it when presenting ourselves as people of faith, can elicit not only a poor response in the immediate circumstance, but create a long-term and even potentially eternal problem in the much larger spiritual realm.

One of the exercises Rabbi Wolf suggests in his book to help people develop Hod, is to participate in conversations where you wait three to five seconds to respond after your conversational partner says something. The exercise directs you to use the time to consider what to say and how to say it. Use the time to consider the impact of your response on your partner. What would happen if we did that all of the time? What would happen if we cared enough about other people to create a comfort zone for them in our conversations, if we listened to what they had to say, and if we stopped and considered their feelings and understanding before launching into our reply?

This probably isn’t true, but imagine this is the reason why God rarely answers our prayers immediately. Maybe He’s waiting until we are in our comfort zone with Him. Maybe He’s considerate enough to carefully craft His reply to us so it will be the most useful reply possible. Maybe God loves us that much. Imagine if we loved each other that much.

Emergence

You cannot reach deeper within another than you reach in your own self.

If you love yourself for your achievements, your current assets, the way you do things and handle the world — and despise yourself for failure in the same — it follows that your relationship with another will also be transient and superficial.

To achieve deep and lasting love of another person, you need to first experience the depth within yourself — an inner core that doesn’t change with time or events. If it is the true essence, it is an essence shared by the other person as well, and deep love becomes unavoidable.

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

That may explain a few things about what was taught by Jesus and Paul. For instance:

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 foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” –Matthew 22:37-40 (NASB)

Jesus is quoting Leviticus 19:18 when he says that loving your neighbor as yourself is one of the two greatest commandments. Paul says something similar.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. –Ephesians 5:22-33 (NASB)

Instead of loving yourself, Paul suggests that husbands are to love their wives as they love “their own bodies.” Sounds kind of narcissistic to me. I think most religious people can understand loving God as the ultimate expression of our existence and both religious and secular people can support a husband loving his wife with a great and giving love, but what does this have to do with loving yourself?

As Rabbi Freeman points out, quite a lot, actually.

Strange as it may seem, being a masochistic, co-dependent, doormat kind of giver doesn’t really express love. Love isn’t having to completely devalue yourself in order to show value to another. If love is a mutual transaction between two people, no matter how much you love the other, if you loathe and despise yourself, the other will never be able to love you. How can you love someone who completely treats himself with complete contempt? You might feel compassion or pity for such a damaged person, but a mature and abiding love?

From God’s point of view, the transaction can never be equal since He loves us with a love that no human being can ever achieve. The closest we come to understanding it is the parallel between the Akedah where Abraham so loved God that he was willing to give up his only begotten son for God’s sake (Genesis 22:1-24), and how God sacrificed His most precious Son for us.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. –John 3:16

Love doesn’t mean the absence of sacrifice for our own sake but the capacity to sacrifice out of a deep understanding of what love is, including loving the best in ourselves. We were made in His image (Genesis 1:27) and so the best in us is a gift from God.

Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. –Matthew 5:48 (NASB)

In this, as in so many other things, Jesus became our perfect example of how to be loved and how to love.

“This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you. You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you. This I command you, that you love one another. –John 15:12-17

Rabbi Freeman talks about loving with an unconditional love and only by loving yourself in that manner do you become capable of loving others and loving God in the same way. That’s quite a task. Very few of us love with absolutely no strings attached. Probably the closest most people come to unconditional love is the love a parent has for a child. An infant isn’t capable of returning love at the same level as a parent, particularly a mother’s love which knows no limits, and if we only love a newborn for the love a newborn can give back, we will be disappointed, and our parental love will be a sham.

Small plantBut how do we learn to love ourselves and thus others with that amazing “deep and lasting love?” I can’t pretend to give you the answer in absolute terms or say that I have achieved this kind of love with any sort of mastery. I can point to the starting place on such a journey and say that God has showed us that love. In the here and now world, Jesus expressed that love while dying on the cross. If God’s Spirit has any sort of effect in our lives, it is to give us the ability to exceed our human limitations and to exemplify the good inclination within us, shunning the temptation to misuse such a love to serve only our self-contained interests.

1 Corinthians 13 is the so-called “love chapter” and is often recited as part of the vows during wedding ceremonies. However, read within its larger context, Paul is not writing about the love between a man and a woman but love we express toward others that comes from God. Such a love is even greater than faith and perhaps this is because true faith in God emerges from the womb of love. True love of others emerges from God as a flowering plant emerges from fertile soil. It is when we learn to love in this perfect way that our love becomes holy.

Loving God

Burning BushWhen God appeared to our Teacher Moses, and commanded him to address the people and to bring them the message, Moses replied that he might first be asked to prove the existence of God in the Universe, and that only after doing so he would be able to announce to them that God had sent him. For all men, with few exceptions, were ignorant of the existence of God; their highest thoughts did not extend beyond the heavenly sphere, its forms or its influences. They could not yet emancipate themselves from sensation, and had not yet attained to any intellectual perfection. Then God taught Moses how to teach them, and how to establish amongst them the belief in the existence of Himself…

Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, a name derived from the verb hayah in the sense of “existing,” for the verb hayah denotes “to be,” and in Hebrew no difference is made between the verbs “to be” and “to exist.” …This is, therefore, the expression of the idea that God exists, but not in the ordinary sense of the term; or, in other words, He is “the existing Being which is the existing Being,” that is to say, the Being whose existence is absolute.

from The Guide for the Perplexed
by Moses Maimonides
translated by M. Friedlander (1903)

This blog continues my series based on the JLI course book for Toward a Meaningful Life. If you haven’t done so yet, please review the previous blog, A Knock on the Door, and then return here and keep reading.

I don’t doubt the actual existence of God and haven’t for quite some time. Too much has happened to me that can’t be explained any other way but that God, the God of the Bible, must exist and be active in the world. It’s comprehending God and particularly, what He wants from a relationship with me that has me “perplexed”. Understanding God is no small matter and I don’t believe it’s possible for any human being to comprehend God, though that hasn’t stopped me from trying to grasp Him on some miniscule scale.

A few days ago, I wrote a blog saying, in part, that God is the only being who truly stands alone and without peer. God is a unique and radical One and there is no other like Him.

G-d replied that His name is “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh.” That is to say: the Being Whose existence depends on nothing but Himself…. “I exist because I exist, not because of another existence. Unlike other beings, My existence and power is not dependent on anything.”

This name does not apply to any other being. They cannot say, “I exist because I exist.” They are only able to say…”I exist because another being exists,” that is, the First Cause upon which all beings depend.

But G-d depends on Himself, not on any other cause….Therefore, His existence is a true existence because He does not need any other being.

Rabbi Yosef Albo
Sefer Ha’ikarim 2:27

This, as much as anything, is what makes God so incomprehensible. As people, we like to think we’re self-sufficient and independent, but even on a human scale, we must admit that our existence is dependent on our parents. On a cosmic scale, all that lives and all that exists depends on God for our very being and purpose. That is a daunting and humbling thought, and if you are a secular humanist, you will reject the concept out of hand. People don’t like to think that we aren’t in control our lives. In fact, we do control what we do with our lives, we just don’t determine why we were created in the first place, and we often don’t have a clue as to which “destiny” or purpose we are best suited. That is up to God, not a blind and random meeting between your father’s and mother’s genetic material, and not by any other set of arbitrary probabilities.

We are dependent on so much. Only God is alone.

Rabbi Albo also wrote, in Sefer Ha’ikarim 2:30:

It is impossible for anyone outside of G-d to grasp His essence. Like the answer given by the wise man upon being asked if he knows the essence of G-d – “If I knew Him I would be Him.” In other words, there is no one who can grasp G-d’s essence except God….The ultimate we can grasp about G-d is that we cannot grasp Him. As the wise man said, “The ultimate knowing of You is knowing that I cannot know You.”

Woman prayingAdmitting all of that, where does that leave humans in relation to God? We can’t know Him, at least not in the sense of His most complete essence. And yet, we are commanded to “love the Lord, your G-d, with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your means.” (Deuteronomy 6:5). Jesus taught these very words (Matthew 22:37) so I feel confident that they apply to Jews and to everyone else. We are also taught to fear God (Deuteronomy 6:13) with (my interpretation) a fearful awesomeness. But how do we connect to God when He is so infinite and we are so…not?

An article written by Rabbi Aaron Moss is included in the JLI course material for Toward a Meaningful Life and is crafted in the form of an “Ask the Rabbi” column:

Question: Rabbi, I am uninspired, I used to pray to G-d and study Torah, but I’ve lost the spark. I feel flat and empty and I haven’t done anything spiritual in ages. What should I do to find my soul again?

I won’t attempt to replicate the Rabbi’s rather lengthy answer, but at the core, he says that if you wait for a feeling to inspire you to start praying, studying and rekindling your relationship with God, you’ll wait forever. It’s like an out-of-shape person saying that they can’t go to the gym to get back in shape until they start getting more strength and stamina. They are too out-of-shape to be able to work out in order to get back into shape. I’m sure you can see the “Catch-22” involved here.

Stephen Covey, in his bestselling book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, relates an encounter he had with a fellow after a speaking engagement. The man told Covey that he hadn’t loved his wife for many years and no matter what he tried, he couldn’t resurrect his emotional connection with her. He pleaded with Covey to give him some advice or insight as to how he could start loving his wife again.

Covey’s only answer was, “Just love her”.

If you wait for a feeling before you start treating someone as if you love them, you’ll be waiting forever. This is as true of a relationship with God as with a spouse. To love God, don’t wait for a feeling. Start praying. Start reading the Bible. Start allowing God to just be with you. By the by, you will start “feeling” the love returning.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in his article Each of Us Has a Personal Relationship with God says in part:

I also believe that God supervises the smallest details and every single individual….Thus, God has a plan for each and every human being and every single creature. But I cannot know what His plan is for me. Every now and then I ask Him (and sometimes receive an answer…). What am I supposed to do now according to the plan? Have I done what You wanted me to do, or have I erred and misunderstood you?

SproutI’m sure I’ve asked those questions of God before. Rabbi Steinsaltz goes on:

That is why prayer, no matter the form, is so important. Prayer is always a conversation with God. It is the way we relate feelings, fears or aspirations, or make requests…Human beings have the right (perhaps also the duty) to converse with God, to ask things from Him and also to complain to Him…

Probably the capstone of today’s missive was written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his article When People Lose Faith in God, They Lose Faith in Humanity Also:

We are small but capable of greatness, selfish but often selfless, dust of the earth but also the image of god. When I have faith in God I find that I recover my faith in humanity as well.

Expressing faith through prayer and study, even when the heart seems empty is like coaxing a small, tender shoot to begin to bud in the desert. With persistence, care, and patience, it can grow into a forest.

“But words and music can never
touch the beauty that I’ve seen
looking into you
and that’s true”

-Jackson Browne
from his song “Looking Into You”

This series of blogs based on the JLI course Toward a Meaningful Life will conclude on Sunday’s “morning meditation” when I look at whether or not its reasonable or fair to apply a series of lessons written specifically for a Jewish audience to Christians and the world at large.

Later today, I’ll post my commentary for this week’s Torah Portion, Re’eh: When Did We Feed You?