Tag Archives: morals

The Torah for the Nations of the World

Question:

Why is Judaism so intolerant of idolatry? I don’t mean massive temples with human sacrifices. What about a civilized idolater, in the privacy of his own home. With a job, a family, a mortgage, donates to the World Hunger Fund and Greenpeace — and instead of one G-d, he just happens to have two or three or even several dozen, all lined up on the dashboard of his car. Why does Judaism make a cardinal sin of it, demanding total eradication of idolatry in every corner the world? As long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, what’s so terrible?

Answer:

There are many ways to answer this, but let’s take a historical perspective. Historians agree that our current standard of ethics stems from the Jewish ethic. Yes, the Greeks gave us the natural sciences, philosophy and art; the Romans gave us governmental structure and engineering; from the Persians we have poetry and astronomy; from the Chinese, paper, printing, gunpowder, acupuncture and more philosophy, and so on. But the historical fact is that all those cultures (and all the other unmentioned cultures) sustained and even glorified attitudes and behaviors that today we universally find abhorrent. Today, if you dispose of your unwanted infants, practice pederasty, set humans to kill each other for sport, ignore the rights of those lower than you on the social ladder and refuse to acknowledge any social responsibility to the poor and the unhealthy, and can’t wait to run to war against the nation next door, you are a barbarian. You may have made a wonderful citizen of Athens or Rome, but today, no club will take you.

Where did those values come from? There’s only one source historians can point to: Torah.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“What’s So Terrible About Idolatry?”
Commentary on Parshah Acharei-Kedoshim.
Chabad.org

Sorry to be such a “Chatty Cathy” and post two missives in one day, but when I read the paragraphs above, they seemed to spell out something a lot of non-Jewish believers operating in the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots spaces have been puzzling over if not actively struggling with. Is there some sort of “universalism” to the Torah? That is, does the Torah apply to everyone and not just to the Jewish people?

The answer to that question is enormously complex, even though some people seem to believe the answer is an incredibly simple “yes.”

Toby Janicki
Toby Janicki

I’ve written on this topic at length including in my original review of Toby Janicki’s article The Gentile Believer’s Obligation to the Torah of Moses as well as my revisiting that material sometime later. I’ve also written of the Torah and Gentiles in my “in a nutshell” explanation of Torah and Christians and in Torah and the Gentile Believer. Hopefully, I’ve rendered a consistent message across those different blog posts that studying the Torah is appropriate for a non-Jewish believer for a wide variety of reasons, but stating that we share an identical obligation to observe the mitzvot with the Jewish people in a manner identical to theirs, and claiming that the Torah and being “grafted in” also makes Gentiles “Israel” is way over the top.

That’s not to say that we “Messianic Gentiles,” and arguably the mainstream Christian Church don’t have special obligations and duties. It’s just that the duty of Messianic Gentiles and Christians isn’t to observe the mitzvot but to encourage and support Jews to observe the mitzvot.

That said, I do think there is a universal aspect to the Torah, one that applies to every man, woman, and child who has lived throughout history and one that applies to all of us across the world today.

It’s spelled out in Rabbi Freeman’s answer to the question about idolatry.

We tend to think of application of Torah as an either/or sort of thing. Either it applies in exactly the same way to everyone, or it applies to no one at all. There’s no such thing in the minds of certain people as differentiation of application, or the idea that Torah is received by the Jews in one way and by the Gentiles in a different manner.

How the Torah applies to the world, even the world of people belonging to different religions or no religion at all, is in how it has shaped our world ethically and morally. American criminal and civil law, as well as many of our social mores, is based on the Torah.

This isn’t a religious application. Heck, you don’t even have to believe in God. You can be an atheist and still live in a world where the basic moral and ethical structure is based on the “blueprint” of the Torah.

Torah at SinaiRabbi Freeman in his somewhat lengthy answer says that while many peoples, nations, and civilizations have come and gone across the vast corridor of time, only the Jewish people have remained.

Why is that? For one thing, for the entire existence of the people of Israel, since Hashem gave the Torah at Sinai, the Jewish people have kept and preserved the Torah. If Israel had been wiped out by some ancient enemy and the Torah lost forever, upon what would the world have built its ethics and morals? As Freeman states, in ancient times (and maybe in modern ones), if you didn’t like the ethics of a particular “god,” you simply worshiped another one. After all, without the knowledge of a single, all-powerful, all-encompassing, creative God, morals and ethics are relative and impermanent.

The single greatest gift the Jewish people have given the world is the Torah. No, not the obligation to obey Torah on the level of the individual commandments in a way identical to the Jews, but as the broader basis of civilization. According to Freeman, what we think of as civilization wouldn’t exist without the Torah.

Today, we are witnessing the most dramatic results of Abraham’s strategy in action: Our progress in the last 500 years, to the point of the current empowerment of the consumer with technology and information, only became possible through the rise of this ethic. In a polytheistic world, this could never have occurred. It was only once the people of Europe began actually reading the Bible and discussing what it had to say to them, that the concepts of human rights, social responsibility, the value of life, and eventually the ideal of world peace took a front seat in civilization’s progress. And it is only such a world that could have developed public education and health care, old age pension, telephones, fax machines, personal computers, the Internet, environmental design and nuclear disarmament.

I’ve read other articles from Jewish sources stating that the Torah has applications for the whole world, but I never quite grasped what they meant. I guess it was because of the continuing debates we have on the web between Messianic Judaism(s) and various aspects of the Hebrew Roots movement regarding the question of how much of the mitzvot a Gentile should take upon himself or herself that blinded me to a wider perspective.

It’s about the people of the nations creating and then living in “a world that values life, world peace, individual rights, freedom of expression, literacy, knowledge and compassion for those who have less…” That’s the universal quality of the Torah. That’s the Torah for the nations.

The moral and ethical principles are identical for the Jews as they are for the rest of us. The only difference is that there are many additional instructions that only have to do with the Jewish people.

the crowdYou and I as non-Jews participate and “observe” the Torah every day, at least if we’re reasonably ethical, moral, and are law-abiding citizens. For those of us who are believers, this evidence of Torah in our lives becomes all the more apparent, but the larger reality is that untold millions of people everyday also live out the Torah just by committing acts of compassion, by sending their children to school, by obeying the highway speed laws, by upholding the rights of the disadvantaged, and in a thousand other ways.

The answer of how the Torah can be universal seems so elusive until you look at it from the perspective Rabbi Freeman brings in his online article. Once seen from that viewpoint however, everything becomes clear.

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Where Did the Last Mentor Go?

In grammar school, you had a new teacher every year. Just when you became familiar with one teacher, it was time to move up a grade and meet the next one. As adults, we need to take a different approach. Ideally, you should find one mentor to use throughout your life.

To find the right mentor, don’t just take the nearest expert, the one on the block. “Shop” intelligently. Get references. Check credentials. See if he lives honestly and consistently with his knowledge. Test his wisdom with questions. Find out who his own mentors are. Make sure he’s part of a respected community.

The key to a good mentor is to develop strong trust and communication. Criticism is difficult to swallow, but it’s a less bitter pill when it comes from someone you trust, someone who has insight and wisdom, someone who you believe is only out for your own good. Choose someone who understands you, and who knows your background and family history.

Above all, make sure the mentor is available. Because you can have the greatest mentor in the world, but if you can’t speak with him/her, what good is it?

If you can’t find the right person, make an “interim mentor” to bounce ideas off of and be accountable to. King Solomon was the wisest person who ever lived, yet he still had a mentor. Tradition says that as long as Solomon’s mentor was alive, he never made a mistake; once the mentor died, Solomon erred. Having an objective advisor is so crucial that even if you choose someone who is “less wise” than yourself, it’s still worth it.

Always be on the lookout and don’t give up until you find the right one.

-Rabbi Noah Weinberg
“Honor the Wise Person”
Way 10 of 48 Ways to Wisdom
Aish.com

Who is wise? One who learns from every man.

-Pirkei Avot 4:1

That doesn’t help.

OK, let’s look at this suggestion.

The idea is that, rather than expecting to learn what you need to learn about life, God, and everything by some sort of trial and error process, you should seek out one or more (ideally one) SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) in your fields of interest and consult them. More accurately, you should serve them in some capacity, observe them, listen to them, and learn from them.

That’s a short description of a discipleship process, but how many of us are in a position to dedicate a few decades (or more) to disciple under a Master of some sort?

(To get a better idea of what discipleship means in both Christianity and Judaism, see Jacob Fronczak’s excellent blog post, Discipleship in Christianity and Judaism, expanded edition.)

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that I very often refer to us, to Christians, as “disciples of the Master,” meaning disciples of Jesus. You’re right, I do. But we don’t actually have the opportunity to sit at our Master’s feet and absorb his wisdom as did the original Apostles nearly 2,000 years ago.

The discipleship model usually requires that the Master’s wisdom is passed from teacher to student across multiple generations. Students of a Master become teachers themselves and eventually gather disciples of their own, teaching them in their own Master’s name.

That didn’t happen in Christianity because of the break between the Gentiles and the Jewish mentors of old. Christianity, as we understand the term today, has experienced a distinct disconnect from the original method, style, and interpretation of the teachings of our Master. We certainly do not have an unbroken line of teachers extending from the present all the way back to the founder of our faith, to Jesus Christ.

So what do we do?

Rabbi Weinberg also said:

Human beings like independence. We hate to admit that we need others. Most people would rather learn from their own mistakes, than learn from others. We imagine we’ll just “figure it all out” as we go along. “I know I’m smart. I can work it out.”

It is an American value to be self-reliant (that is coming under question in the current political and social climate, but I digress), independent, and to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, so to speak. If we want to learn something, we buy a self-help book or take a class. I suppose the author or teacher could be considered a mentor, but not in the way Rabbi Weinstein suggests. A mentor is more than just a temporary teacher, he or she is a guide to life, a source of not only knowledge, but of wisdom, which I would take to mean the proper application of information and experience.

A Rabbi TeachingIt’s not really a bad idea, it is just a difficult model to find actually being practiced in the modern, western world.

In the world of the Chassidim for instance, it is probably a lot more common. A Jewish yeshiva student may consider the Rosh Yeshiva or one of the other Rabbis to be their mentor. However, a life of learning in that particular context is foreign to most of us, including the vast majority of Christians. Even if we wanted to find a mentor, where would we go and who would we seek out? I doubt most Christian Pastors would want such a role. Yes, they teach, but the teaching model is more akin to the modern school classroom and is limited in time, scope, and relationship. Teaching is time-limited, on a specific subject, and the students don’t achieve anything like the intimacy required in a mentorship or discipleship relationship.

On top of that, it’s been suggested recently that religious instruction doesn’t really change human beings.

“Religion,” novelist Mary McCarthy wrote, “is only good for good people.” Weigh the violence of the Inquisition against the humanity of Martin Luther King or homicidal fanatics against Oxfam, and you have to suspect that religion supplies a context for justifying or motivating moral choices rather than a reason for them.

-Philip Ball
“Morals don’t come from God”
Nature.com

If we are believe that statement, then a good person in a religion would have been just as good in either a different religion or no religion at all. That would mean religious teaching imparts the specific mechanics of the religion (doctrine, dogma, and such) but not the underlying moral fabric that induces fundamental human change.

Ball’s article continues:

Thousands of people — varying widely in social background, age, education, religious affiliation and ethnicity — have taken the tests. Pyysiäinen and Hauser say the results (mainly still in the publication pipeline) indicate that “moral intuitions operate independently of religious background”, although religion may influence responses in a few highly specific cases.

The authors’ paper may annoy both religious and atheistic zealots. By taking it as a given that religion is an evolved social behaviour rather than a matter of divine revelation, it tacitly adopts an atheistic framework. Yet at the same time it assumes that religiosity is a fundamental aspect of human psychology, thereby undermining those who see it as culturally imposed folly that can be erased with a cold shower of rationality.

Of course, this scientific investigation discounts any possibility that a supernatural influence could be involved, and so can hardly claim that “the leading of the Spirit” is, in any way, related to the moral behavior observed within any religion’s framework. People are good or not good, not because of what they’re taught, but because of who they are, perhaps because of an evolutionary imperative.

That would mean, by extension, that mentorship also would not be a significant factor in imparting moral change in disciples or students. So even if you find a mentor, it won’t really matter. You’ll learn a great deal about the “nuts and bolts” of your religion or philosophy, but that’s only information, not wisdom and not moral instruction and guidance.

Do you believe that?

As a person of faith, I can’t really go for it, but I certainly have to consider that it’s a possibility for a certain collection of people who only take their faith so far. We like to think that our faith makes us, not the other way around, but for some, entering a religious life is just a matter of confirming who they already are as people. In that case, they (we) don’t really want to learn anything, at least anything that would contradict their (our) already established basic moral understanding.

PrayingBut what if we really could find a true mentor, one who could take us beyond the perceptual world and into one where we are actually challenged on a fundamental level. At my age, finding a mentor is an increasingly diminishing probability, but for a much younger man or woman, it is at least still a possibility.

I know some of you Christians reading this will say that “the Lord is my mentor” or “I am guided by the Holy Spirit,” but chances are, those experiences aren’t the same as actually talking to another human being. You don’t really hear an audible voice outside of your head telling you specific information and providing concrete answers to discrete questions.

What if acquiring a mentor as Rabbi Weinberg defines the person (please read the entire article for all of the details) were indeed a possibility and even a likelihood? Let’s assume the person has to be alive today and reasonably accessible (I suppose email and instant messaging would do, but face-to-face meetings would be preferable). Who would you choose and why? I don’t mean as far as a temporarily set of interactions to learn a single topic, but an extended relationship to learn not knowledge, but wisdom, to learn about life from someone who has lived, to experience God through a true tzadik or saint.

Who would you go to? Where would you find this person? Is there anyone left who is so wise, honest, and honorable, and also who is accessible?

Red Stew in Context

campfire-stewOnce when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished”-which is why he was named Edom. Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” And Esau said, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?” But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright.Genesis 25:29-34 (JPS Tanakh)

Let there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears.Hebrews 12:16-17

We usually think of right and wrong as based on some set of formal or informal standards. For religious people, there tends to be a formal code against which actions are judged morally. It’s a little more fuzzy if you are a secular person, but that amorphous entity known as political correctness seems to be the final arbiter of proper actions (I tend to think of it as the doctrine of “Thou shalt not offend anybody”) in humanistic philosophy or atheism.

The example I’ve presented, from this week’s Torah Portion Toldot may seem to be difficult to understand in terms of how right and wrong are defined. Just what did Esau do that was so wrong? If it was his birthright, why shouldn’t he sell it for a bowl of red stew or anything else?

We don’t have a concept of the “rights of the first born” in modern, western society, so the question of Esau’s “sin” is mysterious to us. It cannot be understood outside of it’s literary and religious context and it is that context that provides the actions of Esau and Jacob with meaning. The First Fruits of Zion commentary on Toldot offers some illumination.

Whenever we allow our appetites to rule us, we are following in the footsteps of Esau. How often our desire for “red, red stuff” dictates our decisions! Opportunities to honor or despise our birthright pass before us on a daily basis. We are constantly placed in positions where we must decide between what we crave and what is right. A man who lets his appetites control him is a godless man. For many men, sexual temptation is the “red, red stuff” for which they are willing to compromise their birthright. For others it may be the desire for power or control. For others it may be desire for possessions. For still others, it may lie in the realm of physical addictions. All of these are signs of Esau. They are the “red, red stuff”.

Esau accepted Jacob’s offer. The Torah artfully describes Esau’s cavalier exit with a succinct series of one-word verbs: “He ate, he drank, he rose, he left and he despised his birthright.”

In some ways, the exchange between Esau and Jacob becomes a metaphor for how people confuse their priorities and their values, choosing something quick and satisfying at the expense of what is precious and enduring. The transaction becomes a lesson and a cautionary tale for people of faith to stay the course and to cling to our principles rather than giving in to momentary stressors, challenges, and temptations.

Now let’s take one giant step backward.

Right and wrong are defined within a contextual framework. Without such a framework, morals, ethics, and values either do not exist or become highly subjective (something is good because it is good for me or I like it, regardless of its impact on you). As I previously mentioned, religion isn’t the only framework that defines right and wrong. The secular world has a set of standards and morals that guide people in “right living”, but those standards often contradict what religious people think of as proper behavior. To be fair, between different religions and even within different sects of the same religion, the standards for right and wrong vary…sometimes by quite a bit.

vandalism-in-JerusalemThe recent Sydney Morning Herald news story When women and girls are the enemy illustrates how members of the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community are seemingly “at war” with women, or at least with their appearance in photos and advertisements, which they believe is immodest and sexually “tempting”. But from an outsider’s viewpoint, it’s one thing to object to an image on moral grounds and something else entirely to commit acts of vandalism to enforce those morals. This example is uncomfortably close to a proposal in Saudi Arabia that may require women, who are normally completely covered from head to toe except for their eyes (and they have to see somehow), to cover even their eyes if these women have tempting eyes.

I suppose the philosophy behind both sets of behaviors is that these Jewish and Muslim men are incredibly concerned that they’ll be inspired to some sort of sexual attraction by women and are making the women (or the photo ads of women) responsible for the men’s feelings. I’m sure I’ll receive some sort of rebuttal about what I just said and I admit that I lack the context by which to completely understand what these Jewish and Muslim men are thinking and feeling, but like I said, right and wrong are defined contextually. For instance, seeing a little, red-headed girl as the official icon for the Wendy’s Hamburger restaurant chain is no big deal to me, but it might seem offensive to a conservative Jewish or Muslim man.

OK, to be fair, just about every guy has to deal with the struggle of objectifying women in terms of appearance, and if you are a Christian and seriously consider what Jesus taught in Matthew 5:28, then this really is a problem that men must address. In Christianity and in most forms of Judaism however, the responsibility is given to the men and not to the women since it is our eyes, and our brain, and our emotions that are at the root of obedience or disobedience, not the fact that women exist physically and visually.

I mentioned taking one giant step backward before. Let’s take another one.

Is God an Objective being? That is, does God exist independently of whatever religion and creed we happen to follow? Most of us should say “yes”. God doesn’t need us to be a Lutheran or a Catholic or a Reform Jew or an Orthodox Jew simply to exist as God. Moses said:

Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God. –Psalm 90:2

And David said:

The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
the LORD is enthroned as King forever. –Psalm 29:10

If God existed before Creation and He will continue after all things have passed away, then God’s standard of morality, correctness, and justice are certainly independent of our religious orientation or lack thereof. Sure, it’s probably not as simple as that, but I have to start somewhere. The Talmud considers morality to be somewhat mutable and changeable with the needs of each generation, but there is a limit beyond which Jewish people (and Christians and Muslims) say, “this is always wrong.” God must have that limit too, only in His case, His is the ultimate limit. God is His own context. He is, in reality (however you want to define that term), is the final arbiter of right and wrong.

God didn’t really invent “religion”. A religious framework is the interface by which people define and live out the actions they believe to be the will of God. However, religion is a man-made construct designed to interpret the Divine and as something man-made, it is not perfect…probably far from perfect, as a method of interpretation and definition.

How do people choose a religion, assuming they are religious? If you are born into a religious Jewish or Christian family, there is a possibility you will continue the religion of your parents because it is what you have learned and it is a continuation of your family and culture. But that’s not an absolute assurance. Some Jews have chosen to convert to other religions, to reject the religious aspect of their Judaism, or in extreme cases, to reject being Jewish in any lived manner. Someone born into a Christian home isn’t guaranteed to grow up a Christian and many kids leave the church the minute they are old enough to effectively tell their parents, “No.”

Why do secular people choose one religion or another? I don’t want to take up time and space by describing my own experience of becoming a believer in detail, but let’s just say a series of very unlikely events occurred that resulted in me accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior and starting to attend a specific church in my community. My Jewish wife introduced me to the local Messianic Jewish (One Law) congregation and I shifted my religious orientation. Within the past year, I’ve shifted again based on my assessment of the validity of the One Law proposition, while my wife, over the past several years, transitioned into a more traditional (non-Messianic) Jewish faith.

But is my religious orientation (admittedly in a state of flux at the moment) any more or less valid than any other Christian in or out of any other church (or synagogue) or any religious Jew or any Muslim or any other spiritual or faith group?

Tough question.

My personal opinion about why we have so many different religious and spiritual traditions in the world is that we, as human beings, are wired by God to seek Him. On the other hand, as human beings, we want what we want and we want it our way. If how we perceive God’s requirements in one system doesn’t meet our personal requirements for a faith community (whatever those requirements may be), then we go shopping for another faith community until we find one that fits the bill.

I know, that’s kind of cynical, but that’s what we do as human beings. We simply tell ourselves that the religious tradition we have selected is the “true” religion and all of the others are wannabes and posers.

interfaithBut how do you know you are right in your choice? How can you be so sure? Remember, your entire understanding of what is right and what is wrong is based on the religious, spiritual, or moral context you have selected for yourself (and even secular humanism and atheism is a “moral context”). How you think of others and how you treat them is based on that context. How you think of yourself and your place in the universe is based on that context. You chose it. You live with it. If you don’t like it, you can change it. Many people have.

It’s a tough question. What makes you right and everyone else wrong? Or, turning the question around, what makes me right and everyone else wrong? How can I be so sure? What if I made a mistake. If God exists, if God cares for human beings, if God has an objective set of moral standards He wants people to understand and live by, how can we know them and how can we be sure; how can I be sure, that the values I’m living by right now are the ones He has for me?

Or for you?

If Rabbi Freeman is right, that set of standards and context is extremely important.

There is no such thing as a mitzvah done alone.

In a mitzvah, space, time and consciousness converge. You nod your consent, and a flood of generations flows through you to do the rest.

Together with you, every soul of our people, wherever they may be, are swept along in the current.

That works for Rabbi Freeman within his conceptual framework but what about the rest of us? In Judaism, the metaphor can be extended to include performing every mitzvah as a partner with God. Is God waiting to perform the mitzvot with us? Are we are living a life of enduring substance or just noshing on a pot of yummy red stew?