Tag Archives: mussar

The Aftermath of Reviewing Michaelson’s “God vs. Gay”

And you shall love Hashem your God …

Deuteronomy 6:5

And you shall love your neighbor as yourself…

Leviticus 19:18

Both of these statements are positive commandments. We might ask: How can a commandment demand that we feel something? Since love is an emotion, it is either there or it is not there.

The Torah does not hold that love is something spontaneous. On the contrary, it teaches that we can and should cultivate love. No one has the liberty to say: “There are some people whom I just do not like,” nor even, “I cannot possibly like that person because he did this and that to me.”

We have within us innate attractions to God and to other people. If we do not feel love for either of them, it is because we have permitted barriers to develop that interfere with this natural attraction, much as insulation can block a magnet’s inherent attraction for iron. If we remove the barriers, the love will be forthcoming.

The barriers inside us come from defects in our character. When we improve ourselves, our bad character traits fall away, and as they fall away, we begin to sense that natural love which we have for others and for God.

Today I shall…

…try to improve my midos (character traits), so that I will be able to feel love for God and for my fellow man.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
from “Growing Each Day” for Cheshvan 7

The first thing that attracted me to this daily “devotional” of Rabbi Twerski’s is the obvious parallel to the teaching of the Master:

One of the scholars heard them arguing and drew near to them. He saw that he answered well, and he asked him, “What is the first of all of the mitzvot?”

Yeshua answered him, “The first of all the mitzvot is: ‘Hear O Yisra’el! HaShem is our God; HaShem is one. Love HaShem, your God, with all of your heart, with all of your soul, with all of your knowledge, and with all of your strength.’ This is the first mitzvah. Now the second is similar to it: ‘Love your fellow as yourself.’ There is no mitzvah greater than these.”

Mark 12:28-31 (DHE Gospels)

Rabbi Abraham Twerski
Rabbi Abraham Twerski

I don’t know if R. Twerski is at all familiar with the Apostolic Scriptures (probably not, but who knows) or even the portion I quoted above, but it seems amazing that nearly two-thousand years after the Master uttered this teaching, the same source material from the Torah should be linked together in a very similar manner by an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi and Psychiatrist.

Then, as I was performing my Shabbat devotionals, I came across the following:

The orlah, “foreskin,” symbolizes a barrier to holiness. Adam HaRishon was born circumcised (see Avos D’Rabbi Nassan 2:5) because he was as close as a physical being can possibly be to Hashem. So great was Adam at the time of his creation, that the angels thought he was a Divine being to whom they should offer praise. Thus, he was born circumcised; there was no orlah intervening between him and Hashem. Even the organ that represents man’s worst animal-like urges was totally harnessed to the service of Hashem.

-from the Mussar Thought for the Day, p.151
for Shabbos: Parashas Lech Lecha
A Daily Dose of Torah

Now compare the above quote to the next one:

Episcopal lesbian theologian Carter Heyward, whose work we briefly noted in part I, has described her project this way: “I am attempting to give voice to an embodied — sensual — relational movement among women and men who experience our sexualities as a liberating resource and who, at least in part through this experience, have been strengthened in the struggle for justice for all.” Heyward and others…are attempting nothing less than a recovery of the physical, embodied, and erotic within Christian traditions that have traditionally suppressed them. Building a theology of relationality that is reminiscent of the work of Jewish philosophers Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas, Heyward has proposed a spiritual valuation of eros — which she defines as “our embodied yearning for mutuality.” Openness to embodied love opens us to other people, the biological processes of the universe, and to God. Thus, Heyward writes, “my eroticism is my participation in the universe” and “we are the womb in which God is born.”

-Jay Michaelson
Chapter 17: “And I have filled him with the spirit of God…to devise subtle works in gold, silver, and brass,” p.156
God vs. Gay: The Religious Case for Equality

I previously quoted that paragraph in my third and final review of Michaelson’s book, but I think it bears repeating.

When Rabbi Twerski, (unintentionally) echoing the teachings of the Master speaks of loving God and loving his neighbor, he isn’t talking about erotic love or eroticizing our relationship with God or our fellow human being. When he writes of our “innate attractions to God and to other people,” he isn’t saying that these are sexual or romantic attractions any more than Messiah was speaking of sex.

The Mussar thought from the Artscroll “Daily Dose” series speaks of the male sexual organ as representing “man’s worst animal-like urges.” Throughout his book, Michaelson favorably compared people to animals in that both expressed their sexuality with same-sex partners, and yet we see that the traditional Orthodox Jewish viewpoint is to separate man from the animal world.

Even setting the midrash aside, the Mussar teaches that man is to be considered unique and separate from animals and further, that the single worst urge a man must bring under control in the service of Hashem is his sexual urge.

Talmud Study by LamplightThis is why Bible study in general and Torah study in specific is so important, because it grounds us in the Word of God and thus in righteousness and holiness. It points to our flaws and urges us to self-discipline. It’s like reading a health and weight loss manual while sitting down in an “all-you-can-eat” buffet. You are immersed in temptation, and yet you hold a reminder in your hands to resist because giving in to the world around you leads (extending the metaphor) to poor health, suffering, and premature death.

The death I’m speaking of is a spiritual death if we attempt to conform our faith to the standards of the world around us rather than conforming ourselves to the standards of God.

None of this demands that we must fail to love the people around us, even those who are very different, such as gay people, and since I’m straight, gay people are different, at least as far as that one quality or trait is concerned. But as I saw by the time I reached the end of the Michaelson book, what he was driving at wasn’t just the equalization of the participation of straight and gay people in the church and synagogue, he was talking about the total transformation of the house of God. Reading Rabbi Twerski and the Mussar for Lech Lecha on Shabbos made it abundantly clear that what Michaelson was proposing, even with sincere intentions, was not at all consistent with how God defines love.

I’m sorry to keep dragging this out and as far as my current intentions go, this is the last blog I’ll dedicate to Michaelson in specific and the topic of gays in the community of faith in general. But having, by necessity, entered, to some small degree, the world of Jay Michaelson’s thoughts and feelings by reading his book, I needed to pull myself back out and re-establish myself in the presence of God through the study of His Word.

We are commanded to love other people including those we find in the LGBTQ community. R. Twerski is correct in that we need not construct barriers between them and us in terms of our compassion. That said, there is a barrier between a holy life and a profane one. In the ekklesia of Messiah, as mere human beings who are daily bombarded with the excesses of the world around us, we constantly struggle with those excesses and with our own natures to seek to remain on the path God has set before us. I know I don’t always succeed and by God’s standards I am a complete failure.

But I can’t give up and either abandon my faith or seek to morph it into something consistent with my external environment, society, and culture. Holiness must be protected and thus we maintain a barrier, not one that doesn’t permit the expression of love, but one that keeps us from getting lost in a highly liberal and distorted use of the term.

When a parent loves a child, it doesn’t mean that parent is ultimately permissive and allows the child to do whatever he or she wants simply because it makes them feel good. We say “no” a lot, and even if the child cries or yells at us and tells us we’re being “mean”, we know we are actually being loving and protective.

That’s what God does to us and those are the commandments we not only obey, but support, uphold, and teach. Even if people like Michaelson want to call me “mean” for doing so, this is how God teaches the community of faith to do love. It’s a loving thing to live inside the standards of God, and as tempting as it may be, it isn’t love to believe you can be right with God outside of the house built by those standards.

TrustTwo more paragraphs from the Mussar thought from which I quoted above will finish the picture (pp.151-2):

When Adam sinned, however, he caused his nature to change. Before his sin, godliness had been natural for him, and sin had been repulsive, bizarre, and foreign. Once he disobeyed Hashem, however, he fell into the traps of illicit desire and self-justification. Suddenly, temptation became natural to him, and Hashem became distant; and when Hashem reproached him for having sinned, Adam hastened to defend himself rather than admitting his sin and repenting. After his fall, the angels had no trouble recognizing his human vulnerability.

In several places, the Torah mentioned … “the foreskin of the heart” (see, for example, Devarim 10:16). This is the non-physical counterpart of the physical foreskin, man’s urges and desires that attempt to bar him from achieving true service to Hashem. We remove the physical foreskin as an indelible act of allegiance, demonstrating our resolve to do the same for the spiritual barriers. Nevertheless, the Torah tells us that ultimately it will be Hashem Who will complete the removal of this spiritual foreskin (see ibid. 30:6) after we have done our utmost, and this will take place at the time of the ultimate redemption.

Why Are We Who We Are?

Who am IA certain man wondered why the mussar works make such a big deal about rectifying one’s character traits. “After all, the Torah hardly deals with this area. Doesn’t that mean that middos are less important than mitzvos?” he posed.

Rav Chaim Vital, zt”l, rejected such reasoning out of hand, however. “Middos are the most important aspect of a person since without good middos it is impossible to observe the Torah properly. Conversely, if one has good middos he will have an easy time fulfilling the mitzvos, as is fitting.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
“Limbs of the Spirit”
Chullin 56

I wake up in the morning with the knowledge that my unique opportunities will be used to convey my individual personality in the places I find myself, thus inspiring the people around me.

-from the Jewish Learning Institute course
“Toward a Meaningful Life”

This is a continuation of the series of blogs I’ve been writing based on the JLI course Toward a Meaningful Life. If you haven’t done so yet, please review yesterday’s installment, Who Are We to God, then return here and continue reading.

Mitzvos vs. Middos. Mitzvos can be thought of as obedience to God’s commandments or performing acts of charity and righteousness. Middos are basically personality traits. Let’s take a look at the statement I quote from the JLI course “Toward a Meaningful Life”, focusing on just a few words:

I wake up in the morning with the knowledge that my unique opportunities will be used to convey my individual personality in the places I find myself…

According to Rav Chaim Vital, my personality traits (your personality traits, anyone’s personality traits) are more important than the acts we perform. Here’s why:

The Alter of Kelm, zt”l, expands on this point. “Just as a person was created with physical abilities that are manifest through the activity of his physical organs, so too does he possess spiritual abilities that are articulated through the middos. His spiritual strengths include the desire for truth and to hate lies; feeling disgusted with injustice; love and humility; a good eye; a modest spirit; love and fear of God and many others. Since we see that people have these middos we understand that these are spiritual attributes that we were created with, just like we were endowed with physical ones. And just like the lack of an essential physical organ renders an animal a treifah, the same is true regarding these character traits. One who lacks one is like a person who has no lungs or kidneys.”

He goes on to say that, “How great is a person who uses his middos single-mindedly to serve God! How much more can he accomplish! And how great is a household that focuses on serving God. The more people who bind together to serve God, focusing on the same goals, the more they can accomplish.”

There’s a certain assumption being made here. The assumption is that all people have the same basic raw materials or personality traits that enable them to serve God in the same way (at least that’s how I’m reading it). Look at the Alter of Kelm’s list:

  • The desire for truth and to hate lies
  • Feeling disgusted with injustice
  • Love and humility
  • A good eye (generosity)
  • A modest spirit
  • Love and fear of God

The question is, does everyone come equipped with these personality traits; these built-in characteristics that are available for use in the service of God?

I don’t think so.

DirectionsI don’t think everyone just naturally has a modest spirit. I don’t think all human beings everywhere spontaneously experience love and humility. Certainly we see evidence in both current events and human history of an abundant lack of love and fear of God in many people.

So does that mean only people who have these natural personality traits (provided by God) can love and serve God? If that were true, it would mean that God has pre-selected His people, those who will be “saved”, using the Christian term, just by creating those people and “wiring” and “programming” them to naturally possess the qualities in the aforementioned bullet list. Everyone else is doomed to failure, right out of the starting gate.

OK, lets assume that’s not true. Let’s assume that it’s possible for people who aren’t naturally inclined to love God, be modest and humble, and who don’t innately desire truth to still turn to God, to learn to love Him, and then learn to serve Him. How is this done?

As it turns out, there’s no end to ways to improve your middos. A quick Internet search yielded quite a few. Examples include Tefillah – When Your Situation Doesn’t Change, Rabbi Forsythe on Perfecting Your Relationships and Self, and The Yeshiva World News discussion topic how do you improve your middos?. In fact, the Mussar movement has existed in Judaism since the 19th century and is “devoted to character and behavioral improvement”, according to Rabbi Ephraim Becker. Probably one of the best known modern texts on Mussar is Alan Morinis’s book Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar. Face it. The Jewish “self-improvement” business is booming.

It seems, despite how the matter of middos was presented in the “Story off the Daf”, there is a significant acknowledgement in Judaism that not all people are “created equal” in terms of “positive” personality traits. Some of us have to face the challenge of overcoming our natural tendencies that lead us away from God, in order to turn to Him and to serve Him and the people around us.

While writing this blog, the thought of being made a certain way and having that be immutable stirred up some rather compelling and disturbing thoughts. If, as was suggested in the Daf, people are all created with the same set of positive qualities and the only difference between people is how we use them, then it would mean people are making very radical decisions. If everyone, literally everyone, is born with an innate love for God, where do atheists come from? If we are all born to be naturally generous, why does personal and corporate greed run rampant in the world? If we all burn with a desire for truth and we hate lies, why are so many people liars?

When the Alter of Kelm says that our personality traits stem from our spiritual gifts, and compares them to our physical attributes, I can’t help but think that physically, we aren’t all the same. Some people are gifted athletes while other people are terribly disabled. If lacking some of these essential spiritual traits is like being born with a severe physical handicap, and we know that some people are born this way, then are some human beings by their very nature, spiritually crippled? Is that how we answer the questions I asked in the previous paragraph? Does this explain how people who are gay or transgender, for example, can truthfully say they were “born this way”?

Those questions and the potential answers suggest startling issues about the nature of God, man, and reality.

We have to be more or at least different than the sum of our parts, or there is no hope for repentance. It would mean that God is setting significant portions of humanity up for failure by creating standards and goals they (we) couldn’t possibly meet.

From time to time, I do encounter someone who really does seem naturally cheerful and giving. A person who just “innately” loves God and other people. Someone who seems to be just “made” to serve God. I don’t meet many people like that, even in the community of faith. Why does doing good to others and loving God seem so hard for so many people, even when they…we desire it with all our hearts?

Who are we really? Are we only the way we were born and can’t become anything more? Why are we who we are?

To keep reading in this series, go to the next “morning meditation” Time is the Fire.