Tag Archives: mystery

The Hebrew Gospel of Matthew and Other Mysteries

midnight-good-evilWhy are we here?

This, the mother of all questions, is addressed in turn by the various streams of Torah thought, each after its own style.

The Talmud states, simply and succinctly, “I was created to serve my Creator.” The moralistic-oriented works of Mussar describe the purpose of life as the refinement of one’s character traits. The Zohar says that G-d created us “in order that His creations should know Him.” Master Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria offered the following reason for creation: G-d is the essence of good, and the nature of good is to bestow goodness. But goodness cannot be bestowed when there is no one to receive it. To this end, G-d created our world — so that there should be recipients of His goodness.

Chassidic teaching explains that these reasons, as well as the reasons given by other kabbalistic and philosophical works, are but the various faces of a singular divine desire for creation, as expressed in the various “worlds” or realms of G-d’s creation. Chassidism also offers its own formulation of this divine desire: that we “Make a home for G-d in the material world.”

“The World a Home”
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe

If you are a traditional Christian, the above-quoted set of paragraphs may present words and concepts with which you are not familiar. Most people have heard of the Talmud, but the Zohar as the primary text for Kabbalah, the prevalent form of Jewish Mysticism in the world today, may be rather alien to you. If you have heard of them, chances are you haven’t heard anything good. Not because Jewish mysticism is inherently bad, but because it is a trail that leads away from the Bible and particularly strays from the good news of Jesus Christ.

But in holding those views, Christians tend to forget that we also have a rich mystic heritage or for that matter, that “Kabbalah was popular among Christian intellectuals during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, who reinterpreted its doctrines to fit into their Christian dogma” (from Judaism 101: Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism). There is even a suggestion that modern Christians can study Kabbalah and still remain within the tenets of the faith.

Granted, that opinion is controversial, but the fact that someone can even ask such a question presents us with the possibility that Jewish mysticism is a relevant subject of study for a follower of Jesus.

No, I don’t consider myself a mystic, although I have done a bit of research and am fond of the tales of the Chassidim, many of which involve mystic themes. I consider mystic stories as a sort of metaphor or even poetic expression, not to (necessarily) be taken literally, but rather as tales or fables that teach a moral or ethical principle. I’m also fond of the writings of Paul Philip Levertoff who, as a Chassidic Jew who came to faith in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, retained his unique point of view as a Chassid and wrote of the Master from a “mystic perspective” that I believe sheds illumination on many mysteries surrounding Moshiach (I’m particularly fond of Love and the Messianic Age which I previously reviewed).

But I’m not writing this meditation today to advocate for Jewish mysticism.

Church tradition holds that Matthew wrote the first gospel. According to Papias, “Matthew compiled the oracles of the Lord in the Hebrew language, and each [subsequent gospel writer] interpreted them as best he could.” This implies that the original gospel written by Matthew may have been a sayings-gospel, something akin to the Gospel of Thomas, which consists of a catalogue of sayings attributed to Yeshua, completely disconnected from any narrative context. Eusebius says that Matthew wrote his gospel in Hebrew just before leaving the holy land…

According to tradition, Matthew composed his Hebrew Gospel for the benefit of disciples he left behind in Judea…

Unfortunately, the original gospel Matthew composed has been lost. The Hebrew Gospel of Matthew mentioned by Papias and Eusebius is not the same as our canonical Matthew. Our Gospel of Matthew represents a somewhat later stage of development.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Commentary on “The First Voyage of Thomas”
from the readings for Torah Portion Vayak’hel (“He gathered”)
Torah Club Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

What I am writing about today is the relevancy of extra-Biblical texts and information sources as part of studying the Bible and educating ourselves as disciples of Christ.

Pretty strange notion, huh?

gospel-of-thomasNot really. So far in my study of the Torah Club, my understanding of the Book of Acts and the journeys of Paul and his companions to spread the gospel message “first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles” has been enhanced and elucidated by the historical and scholarly information Lancaster has added to his commentaries. How can we understand what Paul, James, Peter, and the other apostles were experiencing and comprehend their actions if we allow ourselves to remain ignorant of the cultures, societies, laws, mores, and other information historians and other academicians have gleaned over the centuries of the world of first-century Judaism and the spread of early Christianity into the world outside of Jerusalem?

The Gospel of Thomas was mentioned earlier and what we know of it strongly suggests that it not be considered a reliable source of information about the early apostolic “adventures” into the lands to the east of Israel or any other parts of the world. Nevertheless, these documents exist and it would be irresponsible of us to ignore their study, even if for no other reason than to confirm or refute their accuracy.

Tales of a Hebrew (more likely Aramaic) language version of the Gospel of Matthew have been in circulation for a very long time, but we must remember that not one shred of physical, tangible evidence in the form of Matthew’s early gospel document or fragment thereof has been produced to confirm it ever existed. It’s not that it can’t have existed since the writings of Papias and Eusebius offer some support, and certainly the possibility fires the imagination, but even in the community of faith, we must separate established fact from wishful thinking.

But there are tremendous gaps in our knowledge base regarding the first century and the “acts of the apostles.” Can Paul and his small body of companions have been solely responsible for the spread of the gospel message of Christ to all of the Gentile lands? Did Luke only record a small sample of what really happened, who else was sent out, where they went, what they did, and the communities of the Messiah they established in the four corners of the then-civilized world?

So history, archaeology, literature, and similar bodies of study should all be considered valid information sources to add to our collection of methods by which we understand the world of the apostles and the prophets and well as the Word of God. But what about speculation such as an early Hebrew or Aramaic gospel of Matthew?

Lancaster’s endnote (18) for the above-referenced commentary on the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew states (TCv6, pg 581):

This original Hebrew Gospel of Matthew is not the same as our Greek, canonical Matthew, though the latter may be a Greek adaptation of Matthew’s original Hebrew manuscript. On the other hand, most synoptic-gospel scholars agree that canonical Matthew is an adaption from the Greek of the Gospel of Mark. The Gospel of Matthew cannot be both a Greek translation of the original Hebrew Gospel of Matthew and a redaction of the Gospel of Mark. Canonical Matthew does contain non-Markan elements, some in common with Luke, and quite a bit that is unique to Matthew alone, but for the most part, Matthew seems to depend upon Mark as his primary source. This does not preclude the likely possibility, however, that the author of canonical Matthew had Hebrew Matthew in hand to consult and compare with Mark. Perhaps the Gospel of Matthew bears that name because its author used Hebrew Matthew as one of his sources.

Recent attempts to identify “Shem-Tov Matthew” as Matthew’s original Hebrew Gospel are not founded on good scholarship.

hebrew-matthew-shem-tovIn case you missed it, one of the things Lancaster (and many other scholars besides) suggests is that Gospel of Matthew may not have actually been written by the Matthew we see in the gospels. However, the main point is that without concrete evidence, we can only speculate about a “Hebrew Matthew” gospel. We can’t say that it ever really existed or if it did, what it might have said.

Still, it is compelling and it at least opens the door to the possibility that one day such a “Hebrew Matthew” (or some fragment) may appear. If it does, we don’t have to be completely shocked.

But that’s still a far cry from mysticism. Are mystic writings and philosophy ever a valid study for a “true believer?” For that matter, what is “mysticism?” According to Merriam-Webster.com:

  1. the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality reported by mystics
  2. the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (as intuition or insight)

When we pray, it is as if we are trying to draw God down to us in whatever place we happen to be, so that we can experience Him, encounter Him, speak to Him. In a mystic experience, it’s as if we are trying to elevate ourselves to connect to God where God is.

That’s probably one of the reasons that I don’t dive deeply into the mystic realms. I’m afraid it’ll work and I’ll suddenly find myself confronted with mysteries and powers beyond my ability to comprehend or even tolerate. I think most religious people are more comfortable with some sort of veil or barrier between themselves (ourselves) and an infinite, all-powerful, all-creative, awesome, majestic, uniquely, radically One God!

Or to use Boaz Michael’s introduction to the Love and the Messianic Age Commentary as one possible response:

Love and the Messianic Age is not a book that will appeal to everyone. It is not easy reading. It deals with large abstract theological concepts in a short summary form. Levertoff’s language is terse, densely packed, and often as cryptic as the sources he’s citing.

Kabbalistic literature is, generally speaking, comparable to a large, sprawling city with many treacherous back-alleys, dangerous neighborhoods, and sudden, unexpected dead-ends. Even with a good map and a good sense for direction, the visitor is likely to find himself lost and confused and may easily stray into a bad part of town. Rather than trying to find your way through this maze-like metropolis on your own, we recommend you follow a reliable guide. Paul Philip Levertoff is just such a guide.

Assuming you’re not a true mystic and devoted or even driven to extend yourself beyond the mortal plane of existence and to, like Paul tells of (supposedly) himself, be caught up to the third heaven…caught up to paradise” in order to “hear things that cannot be told, which man may not utter,” mystic writings, as I mentioned before, can be treated as metaphor, allegory, and as morality tales based on Jewish and Christian concepts that illustrate something we otherwise would find more difficult to comprehend. Mystic writings can also encompass speculation, debate, discussion on matters of God, Divinity, Messiah, and Heavenly realms that we might not have a language to describe in any other manner.

It is the world that exists beyond our own and for which we have no proof or even faith to understand. Mysticism gives us permission to talk about what otherwise would be unmentionable, those thoughts and feelings that exist only behind a shadowy glass, a darkened mirror, that we know we should not inquire after, but that for some people, are completely irresistible.

ezekiels-visionEzekiel had his mystic experience. So did Paul and John (see the Book of Revelation). It was Levertoff who read the Gospel of John and said that he could not understand how Christians were able to comprehend those writings since John’s Gospel was so much like the mystic Chassidic texts on which he had been raised and educated.

Speculation into additional or extra-Biblical texts isn’t evil and neither is an investigation into mysticism. They both have their benefits and values but they (especially mysticism) are also full of landmines and trap doors. As Michael wrote, trying to navigate the maze of the mystics is “comparable to a large, sprawling city with many treacherous back-alleys, dangerous neighborhoods, and sudden, unexpected dead-ends.” If you don’t know what you’re doing or you don’t have a capable guide, it’s easy to get lost, abandoned, mugged, beaten, and left for dead on some dark and foggy dead-end street that is more akin to a Constantinople back alley of a hundred years ago or a story narrated by Rod Serling.

If you’re not sure, then don’t go there. If you’re willing to risk it, there is some possibility of reward, but there are no guarantees.

But there’s something compelling about a mystery. There’s a bit of the siren’s call in going beyond the well-known neighborhoods and breaching good judgment and common sense. The Bible must be the tangible foundation for everything we know and believe about our faith but having said that, it doesn’t mean we are confined only to a single concrete slab. As long as we keep a foot on solid rock, we may sometimes take the risk to putting the other outside, perhaps as Paul did, or John, or Ezekiel, and seeing what lies beyond.

Sometimes it’s a fool’s errand, and sometimes it’s part of the strange path we must walk in answering the call to encounter God.

How else can we answer questions like, Why are we here?

Don’t take the world and its darkness so seriously—it is not as real as it feigns to be. It is only a creation, and it is being re-created out of absolutely nothing at every moment.

The only thing real about it is its purpose of being—that you should purify it.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Serious Darkness”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

What about me? Actually, I’m a pretty cautious fellow. I don’t like to go off the beaten path all that often. But every once in a while, just a like a certain home-loving Bilbo Baggins, the Took family character takes over and I go off on a small, mysterious adventure.

Pondering the Puzzle

“I have to confess, I don’t really get it. If you believe in Jesus, you believe he is the King. The Lord. The Boss. Your Boss. There is no other option. It’s an integral part of his identity. The fact that some people have lost sight of that fact is evidence, to me, of how far we have come from a really Biblical idea of who Jesus is. We have forgotten that there is no such thing as a Jesus who is not our King, a Jesus we don’t have to obey.”

-Boaz Michael
President and Founder of
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

I’ve mentioned most of this recently, but this is what’s available in my mind and in my blog for today’s “morning meditation.”

I keep trying to turn my rather unusual conceptualization of my Christian faith over and over in my mind, as if examining a rare piece of pottery crafted in ancient times. I’m pondering the runes and arcane markings on this archaeological object trying to tease one more clue to its nature and origin out of it; trying to discover one more secret. No, I’m not a latter-day Indiana Jones, but I am curious.

I’m curious about things I really don’t have the educational background to explore. That doesn’t stop me from wanting to explore them, but it’s like wanting to explore the deepest parts of an ocean but not knowing how to swim. The best I can do is rely on people who are expert oceanographers (who know so much more than just how to swim), their books, their findings, and the occasional special on PBS, to provide glimpses of what I want to know.

I’ll never be able to do the exploring first hand, anymore than I’ll ever be able to read and understand the runes and markings of the “faith object” I’m holding in my hands. I have to depend on someone else’s translation and hope they aren’t selling me a bill of goods, so to speak.

Now that I’ve tossed out sufficient qualifiers, here’s a few of the things I’m curious about. As I said, I may have mentioned them before.

Is the New Testament as “authoritative” as the Old Testament? That is, can we rely on the New Testament writings, including the Gospels, the Epistles, and the Apocalyptic writings to have the same authority of law as do the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings in the Tanakh?

That’s a tough one, but here’s my opinion, for what it’s worth (and not being a theologian, I guess it’s not worth all that much).

I would say that since the Gospels relate the direct teachings of the Jewish Messiah, then they would have an impact equal to and perhaps greater than the Torah. No, they don’t particularly override Torah (although traditional Christianity will disagree with me here) but they represent the correct presentation and interpretation of God’s intent and will for the Jewish people and ultimately, for the world. If a Christian wants to take something as “law” in the New Testament, it should be teachings of the Messiah in the Gospels.

But what about the Epistles? Is literally every word of every letter Paul, Peter, and James wrote to be considered undying and unchangeable law, applicable in exactly the same manner now as they were in the lives of the different churches they were addressed to in the first century diaspora?

Another tough one. Shooting from the hip, I’d tend to say, “no.” This is where a degree in New Testament scholarship would be handy because I suspect that digging into the different layers of these letters and asking questions like, which ones are considered authentic, who actually wrote them, to whom, under what conditions, and so forth, would yield fascinating results.

What if, for instance, the majority of the material in these letters are meant not to establish new laws and traditions for the church, but to interpret and apply pre-existing Bible law to people and situations for which the law of God was not originally intended? After all, Paul only had a Jewish template by which he could comprehend service to his Creator as a Jew. How does all that work when you’re trying to build a practical worship community for a bunch of non-Jews that is centered around the Jewish Messiah?

No wonder Paul’s letters are so difficult to understand, even today, and why there is so much debate around them among New Testament scholars.

And the Apocalyptic writings? What about John’s Revelation or for that matter, portions of the Gospel of John? Mystic visions are a vast mystery that I’m not even sure how to classify. It’s not a direct teaching of the Master and it isn’t a commentary by the Apostle to the Gentiles. It’s a look behind the veil between Heaven and Earth but I’m uncertain what to make of it all.

What else do I ponder?

When the Messiah returns, what will he teach? I’ll narrow this down a bit. There’s some debate about what sort of “Judaism” Jesus will practice and promote upon his return and as he establishes his reign in Jerusalem. Most Christians probably don’t consider that he’ll practice a Judaism at all but rather a perfect form of Christianity. At best, Gentile believers would probably accept that he’d reset the Jewish calendar back to what was being practiced during his first incarnation among humanity, that is, what many folks out there would call “Biblical Judaism.”

This is opposed to what we refer to as “Rabbinic Judaism” which is generally frowned upon my most Christians as being full of man-made rules and exists as the modern inheritors of the “leaven of the Pharisees,” which is not a complement.

But wait a minute.

A careful examination of the teachings of Jesus and his interactions with the Jewish authorities and common people of his day seems to reveal that, for the most part, he was “OK” with first century normative Judaism, including all of its Halacha and traditions. While the church tends to view first century Jewish tradition as wholly inconsistent with the Bible and a harsh punishment the corrupt Jewish religious authorities set upon the shoulders of the ordinary Jewish population, it was neither invented by those authorities, nor considered bizarre or unusual by Jews.

The topic of rabbinic authority, opinions, and rulings in the time of Jesus and before is enormously complicated and beyond my meager skills to investigate, but I highly recommend Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s book Hillel: If Not Now, When? which provides an insight into Hillel, a great Jewish teacher and leader who lived a generation before Jesus.

Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that Jesus was perfectly fine with normative Judaism of the late second temple period, which would have differed from the Judaism of previous eras. What if…just what if when Jesus returns, he’ll be OK with normative Judaism as it exists on that day?

I have no way to back any of this up, but the assumption in Christianity and in some parts of Messianic Judaism is that Jesus will make radical changes to Jewish practice, probably tossing out most or all of what has been established in the past 2,000 years in favor of a more Bible-based model. All of the rulings, opinions, discussions and arguments of the sages would have been in vain. The scholarly teachings of the Rambam and Rashi would be dust. The Baal Shem Tov, the Chassidim, and the modern Chabad would be swept out of existence. Something more acceptable to the members of your local church would be installed in their place.

But is that necessarily true? If indeed, Jesus returns as the Jewish King, establishes his rule in Jerusalem, raises Israel as the head of all the nations of the earth, is it not also conceivable that his practice as a religious Jew might be accepting of at least some, if not most of Rabbinic Judaism?

Something to consider.

Last point. Re-read my quote of Boaz Michael from above before continuing.

One of the criticisms of Messianic Judaism is that it tends to focus more on the Torah and on Judaism than anything Messianic. That is, Jesus seems to take a backseat to Moses. Judaism is more important than Messianic.

Ironically, there are many non-Jewish practitioners in Messianic Judaism who are guilty of this, people who all but turn their back on Jesus but who will focus with great intent on how to tie their tzitzit and the correct pronunciation of their Hebrew prayers.

But what about the Messiah? Where does he fit in? Why have his teachings been subordinated to the Torah of Moses? Isn’t the Jewish King even greater than Moshe?

I think this has been a real problem in Messianic Judaism traditionally and it’s about time to start correcting it. I don’t doubt it will cause a great shake up in many congregations and reintegrating the Jewish Messiah as the center of Messianic Judaism will be quite a chore.

I have no idea how to make it work.

But figuring all this stuff out isn’t the point of today’s “meditation.” The point is just to open the box all this stuff has been stored in for so long, brush off the dust, and give them some air.

Fair wiser heads than mine are going to have to find a way to answer these questions. All I know how to do is ask them.

“If both Judaism and Christianity are correct in their definitions of redemption, then Jesus must do both what Judaism is expecting the Messiah to do, and what Christians expect him to do. This means that Jesus will do more than come back and save those who believe in him from sin and death. He will also re-gather his people Israel from exile and restore them to their land in a state of blessing and peace (Isaiah 35, 48:12-22, 52:1-12; Jeremiah 31).”

-Boaz Michael

Wisdom’s Mystery

The author of the Likutei Yehudah, zt”l, recounted an inspiring Torah he heard from his grandfather, the illustrious Chidushei Harim, zt”l, “Every person has something special which finds favor in God’s eyes. In the merit of this singular aspect we are afforded life and vitality from the Source of all life. But what we naturally believe gives God pleasure is often not the correct attribute. With our limited understanding, how can we possibly know what is truly important on high?

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“The Importance of Appreciation”
Bechoros 21

The mind that demands all things enter its realm will contain nothing. The mind that allows for knowledge beyond mind will contain everything.

Every theory has a premise, every explanation an assumption. Every wise person prefaces his pursuit of wisdom by acknowledging, “This I will not be able to explain. This will remain in wonder.”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Conquest Through Surrender”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

We strive to know God for in knowing God, we also know ourselves. To look into the mirror and to see our reflection as God sees us is beautiful and startling. A word of caution though: it is also dismaying, because as accomplished and learned as we may believe we are, in fact, we are “but dust and ashes.” (Genesis 18:27). We know nothing. Realizing this puts us one step closer to the truth about ourselves and about us in God but there is another truth that we find in both the Daf for Bechoros 21 and in Rabbi Freeman’s teaching. We find that we do not even know what truth is important and what knowledge to pursue. What we consider vital in our lives may, from a Heavenly perspective, be trivial, ridiculous, or even completely forbidden for us.

The Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, found his son, Reb Leib, zt”l, learning Moreh Nevuchim a number of times, and on each occasion he reprimanded him. When the Chofetz Chaim eventually took the sefer away, Reb Leib protested. “But I don’t understand what the problem is! Don’t chazal tell us that Avraham Avinu came to belief in God through philosophical speculation?”

The Chofetz Chaim replied, “You cannot use Avraham Avinu as proof since he lived in a generation of idolaters and had to find his own way to true emunah. Rambam wrote his book for those already influenced by the non-Jewish philosophers. This is the reason for the name of the work, the Moreh Nevuchim—it is a guide for those who are already confused!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“One Type Finds its Match”
Bechoros 22

Here we discover that some sources of learned wisdom do not apply to everyone who wishes to gain knowledge of God. The experiences of Abraham for example, aren’t always appropriate for all other people because the circumstances are different. As Derek Leman points out on his blog:

The Torah contains a mixed set of laws dealing with different spheres of life. Some Torah laws were not perfect, they were accommodations to the broken world in which God called Israel…

Torah is interpreted in Judaism differently for the needs of each generation and even within a single generation, it is interpreted differently depending on the Jewish individual, their class, their responsibilities, and even where in the world they live. When applied outside of the Jewish context, Torah wisdom is substantially more difficult to comprehend and sometimes impossible to apply.

There is knowledge and then there is wisdom. Studying will provide knowledge and knowledge, in and of itself, isn’t always “good” or “bad”, but sometimes it is “relevant” and “irrelevant”. Wisdom tells us how or if that knowledge can be applied to us. The “path of wonder the Torah takes to come into our world” is not a path that Christians can readily follow and even if somehow we can, it’s not a path we are always called to walk. As Rabbi Freeman points out, “Every wise person prefaces his pursuit of wisdom by acknowledging, ‘This I will not be able to explain. This will remain in wonder.'” Since I seem to exist in a dual world, my “wisdom” is challenged daily in my attempt to know what is knowledge I can achieve and apply to my life, and what will always remain shrouded in mystery behind the veil of wonder. Whatever God does grant that I understand, arrives through that part of me that is open to Him.

Bet is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It’s literal meaning in Hebrew is “house.” It is the feminine aspect, as compared to aleph, which is male. Bet is the first letter of the first word in the Torah – Bereshit. (In the beginning…) Notice the shape, which is like a house. Meditate on its meaning. Imagine the world is a house.

Hebrew FireNotice that one side is open to G-d, and the remaining three are closed. In the same way, knowledge of the beginning is closed to us – it is unknowable. Bet is the second letter, corresponding to the second day of creation, when G-d divided the waters into two realms. Think about the two realms of consciousness – higher and lower.

-Rabbi Laibl Wolf
“Meditation on the Letter Bet” (pg 97)
Practical Kabbalah: A Guide to Jewish Wisdom for Everyday Life

As human beings, we are encompassed by our mortal lives with only limited access to the infinite. Depending on who we are within the human realm and who we perceive ourselves to be, we limit ourselves even more. God provided a window in our otherwise closed and locked house through which we can see Him. Whatever He wants us to see is waiting for us when we are ready to look outside. The rest is in the mystery of the Ein Sof.

Searching by Ineffable Light

Light at nightGod is not a scientific problem, and scientific methods are not capable of solving it. The reason why scientific methods are often thought to be capable of solving it is the success of their application in positive sciences. The fallacy involved in this analogy is that of treating God as if He were a phenomenon within the order of nature. The truth, however, is that the problem of God is not only related to phenomena within nature but to nature itself; not only to concepts within thinking but to thinking itself. It is a problem that refers to what surpasses nature, so what lies beyond all things and all concepts. (page 102)

The object of science is to explain the processes of nature. (page 104)

-Abraham Joshua Heschel
God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism

He made His world of contradictions, opposites that combine as one.

Being and not being,
infinity and finitude,
light and darkness,
form and matter,
quantity and quality,
giving and withholding.

At their nexus, a world is formed: Neither can exist without the other, all function together as a single whole.

They are mere modalities—He Himself is none of them. He mixes them and matches them at whim.

Paradox is our window to the Unknowable.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Being and Not Being”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

The “mystery” of God is both that He is unknowable and that the attempt to “know” Him is irresistibly compelling. This is probably why I write on the topic so much (my most recent entry being Mystery Story). Yet the mere act of prayer is an attempt to interface the ordinary with the fantastic; the finite with the infinite; the temporal and the immortal. As Rabbi Freeman says, God “made His world of contradictions, opposites that combine as one.” But while God can exist without us, we can’t exist without Him.

In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
Like clothing you will change them
and they will be discarded.
But you remain the same,
and your years will never end. –Psalm 102:25-27

The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more. –Psalm 103:15-16

In touching the hem of God’s garment, we cannot truly know Him; in approaching the throne, we cannot truly comprehend Him. We are like ancient men trying to understand how an airplane flies or how a submarine descends to tremendous depths. In truth, we are much more ignorant than they. But we still have the need to draw nearer to God, and even the secular person searches for Him without realizing it. To again quote from Heschel’s book:

No one is without a sense of awe, a need to adore, an urge to worship. The question is only what to adore, or more specifically, what object is worthy of supreme worship. (page 88)

We are all in search of the One God but people, in our confusion and incomprehension, turn to other objects, stars, trees, and even people, and devote all our adoration to them, rather than to our Creator and in doing so, declare ourselves “free” of the confines of “religion” and accountability to a standard of holiness we do not understand nor desire to emulate.

More’s the pity.

Indeed, secular man considers Biblical man to be the one who is ignorant and even superstitious, and who can blame him?

The prophet is a fool. The man of spirit is mad. –Hosea 9:7

There is a certain madness to this idea of talking to G-d, of saying “You” to the Ground of Reality–as though this is a person. Like the madness of love or of unbounded joy. Not the madness of a derelict mind, but the madness that rides upon the shoulders of reason, with all its qualities, but beyond.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Divine Madness”

OceanYet what we seek and the faith we grasp so tightly is not without logic but beyond logic. It is not irrational, but super-rational.

I recently attempted to delve into a comparison between Jesus, the Oral Law, and the Talmud, which is a subject far too complex for a single blog post. While there is a tradition in Judaism that says Moses was given both a written and an oral Torah, Kabbalistic adherents believe there is a third, “hidden” Torah as revealed in the Zohar or other mystic writings.

This is certainly controversial and is not accepted among all Jewish authorities. And although Christianity enjoys its own rich, mystic tradition, the vast majority of believers in the church disdain not only the Zohar and any of the Chassidic writings, but even the more rational and grounded Talmud.

And yet, the mystic, in both Judaism and Christianity, exists because of the ineffable nature of the unknowable God, as Rabbi Heschel writes:

By ineffable we do not mean the unknown as such; things unknown today may be known a thousand years from now. By the ineffable we mean that aspect of reality which by its very nature lies beyond our comprehension, and is acknowledged by the mind to be beyond the scope of the mind. Nor does the ineffable refer to the realm detached from the perceptible and the known. It refers to the correlation of the known and the unknown, of the knowable and the unknowable, upon which the mind comes in all its acts of thinking and feeling.

The sense of the ineffable is a sense for transcendence, a sense for the allusiveness of reality to the super-rational meaning. The ineffable, then, is a synonym for hidden meaning rather than for absence of meaning. It stands for a dimension which in the Bible is called glory, a dimension so real and sublime that it stuns our ability to adore it, and fills us with awe rather than curiosity.

No wonder David wrote this:

..what is a human being that you are mindful of him, a son of man that you care for him? –Psalm 8:4

What are we indeed, but the handiwork of the Creator and the clay vessels which contain transformative infinite light. And what Shakespeare said with irony, we can say with conviction:

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god!

-Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 303–312

Light under the doorWhile not “angel” nor “god”, we do tread on the edge or madness and the abyss at each encounter with the Creator, attempting to touch what is beyond our reach and to know what knowledge cannot imagine. Yet it was for this purpose that God created each of us, and that we even have such a word as “ineffable” in our vocabulary speaks to the need to cross the boundary between the tangible and the mystic and to walk the corridors of a Temple not made by the hand of man.

Reason stands on the threshold, trembling to open the door to her own womb, although a blinding light bursts from between the cracks. For in that place, she knows, there is no reason. She has shown the way, but now she must step aside for madness to break in.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Divine Madness

Mystery Story

MysteryCan you fathom the mysteries of God?
Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?
They are higher than the heavens above—what can you do?
They are deeper than the depths below—what can you know?
Their measure is longer than the earth
and wider than the sea.
Job 11:7-9

Whosoever gives his mind to four things, it were better for him if he had not come into the world: what is above? what is beneath? what was beforetime? and what will be hereafter?Mishnah Hagigah 2:2

There are two kinds of ignorance. The one is “dull, unfeeling, barren,” the result of indolence; the other is keen, penetrating, resplendent; the one leads to conceit and complacency, the other humility. From the one we seek escape, in the other the mind finds repose.

-Abraham Joshua Heschel
God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism
pp 56-7

Can we know God? I know that I’ve spent a lot of time writing blog posts about whether or not God wants to know us. My general conclusion was an incredible “yes” but then in any relationship, the current is supposed to flow both ways. Knowing God is sort of like going on a blind date with someone who has talked to our best friend and who knows all about us but we don’t know anything about her (“him” if you’re reading this and you’re female). The date can feel really one-sided and uncomfortable.

God knows all about us and we don’t really know a thing about Him…no, not really.

Sure, we have the Bible. We can read about God’s involvement with people. We can contemplate the mighty works of the Creator and marvel at His power and greatness, but the human mind cannot imagine the unimaginable. God is far beyond our ability to comprehend.

And what if we’re not even supposed to try to know His mysteries? More from Rabbi Heschel:

To the Jewish mind the ultimate enigmas remain inscrutable. “It is the glory of God to conceal things” (Proverbs 25:2). Man’s royal privilege is to explore the world of time and space; but it is futile for him to try to explore what is beyond the world of time and space…We have said..that the root of worship lies in the sense of the “miracles that are daily with us.” There is neither worship nor ritual without a sense of mystery (Heschel pg 62).

That sounds a little like a religious setup. It sounds like the line given by some crafty “holy man” to his new converts telling them that they don’t need to know anything about God. Just let the priests interpret it all for you.

I don’t think that’s what Heschel is saying, though. He isn’t really saying “don’t look under the hood”, he’s saying that it will do us no good to try because we wouldn’t understand what we were looking at. It would be like a physicist trying to explain the inner workings of the CERN Large Hadron Collider to a three year old child. Even if he or she were the top genius of all three year old kids, the child still wouldn’t “get it”. How much less can any one of us “get” the inner workings of God?

Beyond that, the mystery of God is sort of the point. The gods of myth we studied in school were all rather “knowable” because they were pretty much like human beings are. For God to really be God, the God who created the Universe and everything in it, from the largest galaxy to the smallest sub-atomic particle (and whatever else is “out there” that we don’t even know about), then He absolutely has to be beyond our comprehension. That’s the paradox of our relationship with Him. Getting to know and unknowable God.

The awareness of mystery, not often expressed, is always implied. A classical example of that awareness is the attitude toward the Ineffable Name. The true name of God is a mystery. It is stated in the Talmud, “And God said unto Moses…This is My name for ever (Exodus 3:15). The Hebrew word ‘for ever’ (leolam) is written here in a way that it may be read ‘lealem’ which means ‘to conceal’. The name of God is to be concealed.” (Heschel, pp 63-4)

There are some religious circles that won’t want to accept this conclusion, since they put a great deal of value in “knowing” and using the Ineffable Name (which they usually pronounce as “Yahweh” or something similar). Having “secret knowledge” may give some people or groups a certain thrill, but it becomes arrogant presumption to use that which you do not know, and to attempt to possess that which you are not allowed to appropriate.

You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. –Exodus 20:7

The LORD reigns, let the earth rejoice;
Let the many islands be glad.
Clouds and thick darkness surround Him;
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne. –Psalm 97:1-2

AweThis isn’t to say that people have not tried to pierce the veil between man and God. Both Christianity and Judaism enjoy a rich mystic tradition and in both the Tanakh and the Apostolic scriptures, we have examples of men going beyond the normal perceptions of the Creator and seeing much more than most of us were meant to experience. Consider the visions of the Prophets such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. What of John’s revelation. Then there are these witnesses:

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”

And the LORD said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

Then the LORD said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” –Exodus 33:18-23

I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. –2 Corinthians 12:1-4

But where does that leave us?

What would be so bad about letting the mystery be the mystery? This isn’t to say we should avoid drawing closer to God and that study is futile, but the Psalmist said, “The awe (Yirah) of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 111:10). The word “Yirah” in Hebrew can mean either “fear” or “awe”. Fear usually implies a reaction to potential punishment, either in this life or in the life beyond, while awe is our reaction to God in His infinite glory, and not based on whatever consequences we might end up facing:

Though He may slay me, yet I will trust Him. –Job 13:15

Jesus admonished his disciples (including us) not to worry because we have no control over the things God provides (Matthew 6:25-34). Expand his “sage advice” to include not worrying about God, who He is, what He does, how He works. If we trust Him then we do know Him, or at least we know as much as we need to know. It is said that awe (or fear) of the Lord is “the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10), but that doesn’t have to include infinite knowledge or understanding beyond where God has placed His boundary markers. What we need to know, He’s already told us. The rest can remain a mystery, and we can be in awe.