Tag Archives: paul philip levertoff

The Undiscovered Continent of God


All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NRSV)

Wisdom that can only be accessed by the angels or by enlightened sages is limited wisdom. Torah is said to be G-d’s wisdom and as such must be boundless. Just as G-d is everywhere and in all things, while at the same time entirely transcendent of all things, so His wisdom must be a wisdom that is equally accessible to a five-year-old child as to a great scholar–as long as there is a mind there to receive. Stories about two brothers fighting, rules about splitting an article of disputed ownership–these are simple matters that everyone can relate to. And yet, in the way Torah deals with them, you can find a well of infinite wisdom.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“G-d in the Talmud”

This will probably get me in a lot of trouble, but I’ve been thinking about part of the conversation Pastor Randy and I had last Wednesday night. We had gotten together to discuss chapters 6 and 7 of D. Thomas Lancaster’s book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians, but one discussion inspiring comment in this book often sends Pastor Randy and I down unanticipated trails.

We were talking about the “nature” of the Bible. Pastor Randy is a self-proclaimed literalist and rests the core of his understanding of the Bible on being able to read the text in its original languages, factoring in the context, history, and “personhood” of the writing and the writer. On that level, you should be able to understand 100% of the Bible’s content as long as you have a sufficient background in the ancient languages, cultures, histories, and in some cases, biographies involved in the authoring of the various books and chapters.

But we both acknowledge that it doesn’t seem to work out that way. While some parts of the Bible seem to be understood in the same manner by most people, others elicit wild disagreements, sometimes even by people within the same church, let alone between different Christian churches, between different denominations, and certainly between Christianity and Judaism.

The other part that came up, as noted by Rabbi Freeman above, is that the Bible can be accessed on a variety of conceptual levels, from that of a five-year old child, to an aged, wise, and highly educated scholar. Pastor and I agreed that the Bible contains “depths” such that we can continue to explore forever and we will never comprehend all that there is this side of the Messiah.

I tried to introduce the idea that there might be a “mystic” side to all this built into the Bible itself but that statement came into conflict with Pastor Randy’s view of the Bible as an “object” that God deliberately caused to be written in human languages by human beings. In other words, God wants us to understand the Bible as a revelation…

…doesn’t He?

In my opinion, yes and no.

An atheist can look at the Bible and compare it with other religious, mystical, and philosophical texts. The Bible is sometimes studied in universities as literature rather than as a sacred text. If only viewed at the level of an object containing words on paper, it should be ultimately knowable, and if it wasn’t uniquely inspired by God, it should be ultimately known. After almost two-thousand years of intense study, you’d think we’d have the Bible pretty much “mapped” by now.

mariana_trench_edgepointExcept we don’t. We haven’t reached the “limits” of the Bible. In plumbing its depths, we haven’t reached the bottom of its Mariana Trench. Those people who feel there’s nothing left to learn from the Bible either gave up too soon or they are choosing not to take the Bible seriously and meet it at where the Bible “lives.”

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Genesis 1:1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

John 1:1-5

God spoke and the world was, and yet that spoken word is somehow also the living Messiah and if every word in what we call “the Bible” is also God-breathed, then the Bible we hold in our hands, though it is a printed book, is also something much more. So what do we find in the Bible when we actually try to read and understand what God is trying to tell us and how do we find the deeper message?

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.

John 14:26

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.

Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.

“For who has known the mind of the Lord
so as to instruct him?”

But we have the mind of Christ.

1 Corinthians 2:12-16

explorerWe seem to require a unique set of tools beyond the usual hermeneutics, at least if we want to get past a certain level of comprehending the Bible. We actually seems to require some spirit-breathed help, since the Bible is as much a spiritual entity as it is a physical document. Perhaps those depths I’ve been discussing cannot be understood or even discovered without a competent guide, much like Indiana Jones following an ancient map in order to find an even more ancient and elusive treasure.

Or as Rabbi Freeman writes:

Similarly, Torah is not just about “what G-d thinks about” but also about “how to think like G-d.” G-d can choose to think about whatever He wishes to think about. The issue is not the subject but its treatment. That’s why Torah learning, as distinct from typical academic studies, is much more about process than about content. More about “how you got there” and less about “where you got to.”

Certain streams of Judaism have no problem at all understanding the Torah as associated with and even equivalent to God’s own wisdom and thoughts, not just the content of His mind, but the process of God’s thinking. And didn’t Paul say “we have the mind of Christ?”

Almost a month ago, I said that the Bible is water, but from a Chasidic point of view, this is more true than you might think:

When the sages compared the Torah to water, Rabbi Schneur Zalman explains, they had this quality in mind: Just as water descends from the highest place to the lowest without change, so the Torah descends from its place in the highest realms to become invested in mundane, material issues so that every person can grasp it–without any essential change in that wisdom.

It is true that God wants us to know Him from the Bible, but that may be a greater truth than we realize. The Bible is designed to be accessible and knowable to just about anyone, and yet it is not so knowable that it can ever completely be known, even by the greatest sage or scholar in any tradition across the vast span of human history.

The Bible is at once a book that can be read in its simplicity and an amazingly vast and unknown continent that has never been visited by people before. And it is all good, it is all very good.

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.

Psalm 19:7-11 (ESV)

But as accessible as the Bible is supposed to be to anyone and everyone, beyond a certain point, it’s best not to “go it alone.” When exploring unknown or uncertain territory, in addition to a map, it never hurts to have one or more experienced guides.

I’m convinced that it is the viewpoints of men like Paul Philip Levertoff and their uniquely Jewish view of the teachings of Messiah that will help open up the unknown continent to us. It is true that said “lost continent” will never be completely known, but it is completely knowable, and that is the challenge is before us (I’m hardly discounting the Spirit of God as our guide, but scholars and theologians are also men of the Spirit who can teach us).

Everlasting-JewI heard Daniel Lancaster recently say that we must examine the New Testament within its native environment: Judaism. In the case of most Christians, I don’t think it would hurt to have a guide who is Jewish and who knows the lay of the land.

It’s books like Levertoff’s Love and the Messianic Age and its accompanying commentary, as well as the soon to be released The Everlasting Jew by Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein that will be our traveling companions.

Ultimately the Spirit of God and the mind of Messiah will be our guides but we are the explorers. We are the men and women putting on our expedition hats or strapping on an Aqualung to our backs, getting ready to stride into the antediluvian forests or dive into the prehistoric oceans in search of secrets that have only been whispered since the Spirit of the Word moved over those waters who knows how long ago.

Looking at the Bible as a book with words and language and history and context makes it approachable by human beings and thus not so intimidating. Looking at the Bible like mystery novel and mysticism helps us realize how far beyond humanity is the wisdom and words of an infinite God.

This is only the beginning of the adventure.

The Mystic Mirror Darkly: Messianic Divinity Part 3

I’ve said numerous times before in other blog posts, that I’m becoming convinced that we cannot understand the teachings of the Jewish Messiah and his early disciples without some ability to look at those teachings through a Jewish mystical lens. This goes beyond an understanding of Torah and Talmud (and possibly flies in the face of Judaism’s more “rational” understanding of God), but there are “mysteries” exposed in the Apostolic scriptures that suddenly become more comprehensible if we don’t examine them only with a literal and practical microscope. Seeing that Jewish mysticism can trace its origins to the first century B.C.E. (and perhaps before even that), makes it all the more likely that such a tradition found its way into the early Jewish writings describing the person and mission of the Jewish Messiah. How the divine could become a man and dwell among human beings requires belief beyond the physical realm and mysticism is the door that leads to the world where the mysterious can, in some fashion, become known.

-James Pyles
“Search for the Messiah in Pools of Unknowing”
Searching for the Light on the Path

Levertoff believed that the Gospels and Chasidic Judaism merged seamlessly, and he dedicated his scholarship to demonstrating that conviction. He is said to have best developed his ideas in his major life work, a manuscript on the subject of Christ and the Shechinah. Unfortunately, the book was never published and the manuscript has been lost; however, he presented a lecture titled “The Shekinah Motif in the New Testament Literature” to the Society of the Study of Religions that we may assume represented something of an abstract of the larger work. This short paper provides a glimpse into a compelling and radical attempt to reconcile Jewish mysticism and faith in an exalted, divine Messiah.

Commentary on Paul Philip Levertoff and
Love and the Messianic Age

This is the third part in my Messianic Divinity series. If you haven’t done so yet, please go back and read part 1, Exploring Messianic Divinity and part 2, The Living Word of God before continuing I here.

In yesterday’s “meditation”, I attempted to forge a connection between the Divine Presence inhabiting the Tabernacle in the desert, the Kabbalistic understanding that God somehow “clothes” His Divine will and wisdom as the actual Torah scroll and “the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us” (John 1:14). I admit, to make all of that fit, compelling as the imagery is to me, takes more than a little sleight of hand. But then, none of us has a completely unclouded view of the meaning behind the Biblical text, and so we manage to use various “tools” to help us interface with the Word, sometimes including mysticism.

Although Christianity enjoys as much of a historical mystic heritage as Judaism, most modern-day Christians (as well as Gentile Messianics) tend to take a dim view of anything that strays outside of standard theological boundaries, and especially anything that might even vaguely suggest the occult. Kabbalah has more than its fair share of “magical” practices that appear to directly contradict certain portions of the Torah, but on the other hand, mysticism isn’t exactly a stranger in the Bible either.

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. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. –2 Corinthians 12:1-7

I must also point out two other major areas of the Bible that are written with strong mystical themes are Ezekiel 1:4-26, referencing the Prophet’s vision of the Third Temple, and John’s amazing visions recorded in the book of Revelations. It’s also been suggested by some New Testament scholars that the Gospel of John is strongly mystical in its descriptions of the Messiah compared with the other three Gospels. We can hardly dismiss mysticism as “unBiblical” when we find many examples produced directly in the text.

I’m saying all of this to propose that it may well be impossible to begin to grasp the nature and character of the Messiah and his teachings, unless we are prepared to consider Jewish mysticism as one of our interpreters. We already have seen in my quote of Levertoff above, that he saw a connection between Christ and the Divine Presence. Not only may the “explanation” for matters of the Divine nature of the Messiah be found along mystic paths, but it seems more than likely that there was some mystic tradition in the Judaism of the Apostles that allowed sections of the New Testament to be created with a distinctly mystic flair.

Author Gershom Scholem in his book Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism “connects the dots” of Jewish mystic tradition back before the birth of Christ.

The first phase in the development of Jewish mysticism before its crystallization in the mediaeval Kabbalah is also the longest. It’s literary remains are traceable over a period of almost a thousand years, from the first century B.C. to the tenth A.D., and some of its important records have survived…Between the physiognomy of early Jewish mysticism and that of mediaeval Kabbalism there is a difference which time has not effaced.

For those of you who disdain all things mystic and cannot possibly see how I, or anyone, can apply such material to a straightforward understanding of the Bible, I want to say that we might not always be able to understand what God is telling us if we confine ourselves within traditional Christian interpretations. I say that with the understanding that Judaism considers it impossible to interpret the Bible except through their traditions. I’m not one to toss tradition under a bus, so to speak, but it is possible that Christians miss something when we box ourselves in to our own little world of canned teachings and cardboard cutout explanations.

He read the Gospels in German. Then he obtained a Hebrew version and reread them. Though he was in the midst of a Gentile, Christian city where Jesus was worshiped in churches and honored in every home, Feivel felt the Gospels belonged more to him and the Chasidic world than they did to the Gentiles who revered them. He found the Gospels to be thoroughly Jewish and conceptually similar to Chasidic Judaism. He wondered how Gentile Christians could hope to comprehend Yeshua (Jesus) and His words without the benefit of a classical Jewish education or experience with the esoteric works of the Chasidim.

Taken from Jorge Quinonez:
“Paul Philip Levertoff: Pioneering Hebrew-Christian Scholar and Leader”
Mishkan 37 (2002): 21-34
as quoted from Love and the Messianic Age.

I took the above-quote from my review of this First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) material on Levertoff, and if we accept them, and Levertoff, at their word, then we have a direct, eyewitness account of how the Gospels seem to have a distinctly Chasidic flavor. Perhaps we in Christianity are only educated in a single dimension of how to understand Jesus, including what he taught and more importantly, who he was and is as the Messiah and “the Word made flesh.”

Studying TorahI know what you’re thinking. How can we apply mystic traditions and interpretations to the New Testament when these traditions didn’t take form for a dozen centuries after the Apostles lived and died? Isn’t that a little bit like the Talmudic Sages performing Rabbinization on Abraham? Perhaps. I’m not saying the writers of the New Testament had an understanding of mysticism that mirrored Kabbalah or the Chasidic traditions, but I am saying that maybe we can use later mystic understandings as a sort of tool to deconstruct earlier writings. We may not get the absolute meaning, but we at least get to take a momentary peek under the Divine veil at the Messianic mysteries that lie underneath.

If little Feivel Levertoff could read a scrap of paper with bit of scripture from the Gospels on it and recognize something of himself and his Chasidic Jewish life in it, then perhaps there’s something there that can speak to us about who the Messiah is as well.

In 1887 a nine-year-old Chasidic Jew named Feivel Levertoff was trudging home from cheder (a Jewish day school) when a discarded scrap of paper caught his eye. It was printed with Hebrew text. Supposing it was a leaf from a prayer book or other sacred volume, Feivel picked it out of the snow.

He quickly read the piece of paper. It was a page from a book he had never read before. It told the story of a boy like himself – not much older either – whose parents found him in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, expounding the Scriptures and learning with the great sages of antiquity.

That boy found “in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, expounding the Scriptures and learning with the great sages of antiquity” was of course, twelve-year old Jesus.

After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. –Luke 2:46-47

The Gospels spoke to a late 19th century Chasidic Jewish boy in a voice we Christians could scarcely recognize. We need to adjust our hearing and our thinking to be able to listen to that voice as well. It is the voice of the Jewish Messiah and the voice of God speaking to His chosen people. It’s a voice that can speak to us as well, and whisper fascinating stories that we thought we knew, but don’t.

For my next and (probably) last part in this series, I’m going to step outside of my old “Searching” blog and discuss other sources of material on mysticism that just might shed more illumination on a Messiah who we view only “through a glass darkly.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

In Tomorrow’s “Morning Meditation” comes the fourth and final part in this series: Waiting for Spring.

The Living Word of God: Messianic Divinity Part 2

According to this concept, God’s unknowable and divine will and wisdom (which are inseparable from His being) descended to be clothed in the corporal substance of commandments of Torah and ink in a book. This is not to say that a Torah scroll is God, but that the Torah scroll is an earthly container for His will and wisdom. It is similar to the concept of the Shechinah, the “Dwelling Presence of God.” Just as the Shechinah took residence and filled the Tabernacle, the Spirit of God fills the words of the Torah.

-from the Love and the Messianic Age Commentary

The deepest longing, therefore, of the genuine Chasid is to become a “living Torah.” The keeping of the Law is to him only a means to an end: union with God. For this reason he tries to keep the Law scrupulously, for “God’s thoughts are embodied in it.”

-Paul Philip Levertoff
Love and the Messianic Age

The Word became a human being and lived with us, and we saw his Sh’khinah, the Sh’khinah of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.John 1:14 (CJB)

For my second part of the “Divinity” series, I’m mining my old “Searching” blogspot again, particularly the articles We Are Living Torahs and Descent of God to Man. In my first part of this series, Exploring Messianic Divinity, I challenged the general assumption of the church that Jesus is co-equal with God the Father and is literally God in the flesh. I proposed an alternate view that some “essence” of the Divine, related to how the Divine Presence occupied the Tabernacle in the desert without actually becoming the Tabernacle, made manifest in the human form of Jesus, allowing the Divine essence to express itself as a human being without God literally becoming a man.

I know, it sounds confusing, even to me, but probably no more confusing than trying to understand how God could simultaneously be the all-powerful God of Heaven, a Spirit within our hearts, and a human being teaching during the Second Temple period in Roman-occupied Judea. All I’m really changing here is the lens we use to look at the Messiah in order to get a picture of who he is. It’s like changing the prescription of your glasses or contact lenses from one set of values to another, keeping in mind that both prescriptions don’t give us a very clear image.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. –1 Corinthians 13:12 (ESV)

Chasidic Jew and late 19th century Hebrew believer Paul Philip Levertoff has presented us with a different view of the Torah, not as a document containing a collection of laws to be followed by Jews, but as the conduit by which a Jew (and to some degree a Christian) may interface with God, drawing closer to Him and His thoughts and purposes. This image of the “living Torah” is then applied to any Jew who desires a relationship with God. How much more can it be applied to the Jewish Messiah Jesus who often in “Messianic” circles is referred to as “the living Torah” and who was the only human to ever reach a perfect fidelity with God’s standards and will. We do say “the Word became flesh”, after all.

Levertoff also presents us with a very encouraging picture of the Torah as the will of God descended from Heaven and physically “clothed” in Torah, as if Torah had a divine “life” of its own. It’s difficult to imagine imbuing life and will to a scroll, but applying the very familiar John 1:14 to Levertoff’s ideas, we can much more easily perceive the human being Jesus as “an earthly container for His will and wisdom” rather than the Torah scroll. Look at the comparison of the functions of the Shekhinah descending from Heaven to occupy the Tabernacle at the end of the Book of Exodus, the Word becoming a flesh and blood human being as our living Torah, and the Chasidic concept of God’s will embodying the “non-living” Torah. The symbolism and imagery matches up amazingly well and gives us something to “hang our hat on” as far as the relationship between the human Messiah Jesus and his Divine nature and character.

In my Descent blog published last spring, I used Levertoff’s writings to show further the relationship between the “will and wisdom” of God contained in the Torah scroll (according to Chasidic thought) and that same “will and wisdom” of God contained in Jesus.

“that the Torah is the divine expression of God’s will and wisdom, placed within the physical limitations of this world and translated into terms comprehensible to human beings. However, God’s will and wisdom cannot be separated from HaShem Himself. If the Torah contains HaShem’s will and wisdom, then it contains something of HaShem Himself; they are ‘one in the same’.”

This is sort of like saying that Jesus is and isn’t God at the same time. If God’s will and wisdom cannot be separated from who God is, then the container for those qualities possesses something of the Divine inside. At the same time, we cannot picture a Torah scroll as literally God, anymore than we picture the Tabernacle being literally God, so how can we view the human Jesus in any different manner? I also want to point out what the Master said in Mark 14:22-24 to show how matzoh and wine can symbolize Jesus and represent his spiritual nature in physical objects without actually being the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Let me provide you with one more picture that I’ve taken from another blog I previously wrote called The Hovering Dove, but first allow me to lay a bit of scriptural groundwork.

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. –Matthew 3:13-17 (NRSV)

And he set up the enclosure around the Tabernacle and the altar, and put up the screen for the gate of the enclosure. When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys. –Exodus 40:33-38 (JPS Tanakh)

I’m not necessarily suggesting that these two events are direct parallels. If I were to say that, then I’d have to say that Jesus was not actually aware of his being the Messiah until God’s Spirit came to him after being immersed by John in the Jordan river. We have some indication that Jesus was aware of his status before this, at least by age 12, when he was debating the Sages at the Temple after Passover (Luke 2:41-52). But from this brief episode, we don’t know if he was really conscious of being the Messiah or “merely” aware of his amazing “natural Torah aptitude.” Traditional Judaism believes that the Messiah will be born fully human of a human mother and father and he will not be initially aware of his “Messiahship”. In fact, there is the idea that in every generation, a person is born who could potentially be the Messiah if God so designates his age as the time of the Messianic coming. Using that as a basis, we can conceive of a Jesus who did not become fully aware of his Divine and Anointed status until he was indeed anointed by the Spirit as we see in Matthew 3:13-17.

Impossible? Outrageous? Crazy? Perhaps. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not saying this theory of mine has any foundation in reality or that this is actually how the process of Divine and Human have met in the Messiah, but it is food for thought and discussion. It also is a way to reintegrate Judaism back into the Jewish Messiah as we experience him in Christianity. If Jesus, like Joseph, can completely disguise himself from his brothers, the Jews, so that he is unrecognizable in the body of a foreigner, we will also leave a path of discovery so that the Jewish people can find him again. Kabbalah and Chasidic mysticism could be such a path. All we need to do is learn to walk it and see where it leads and to who it leads.

She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called blessed. –Proverbs 3:18 (ESV)

Tomorrow, the series continues with part 3: The Mystic Mirror Darkly.

Failure to Escape

PrisonRabbeinu Yonah, zt”l, teaches a lesson of teshuvah from a statement on today’s daf. “One who repeats one sin ten times has transgressed ten sins. We learn this from a nazir. A nazir gets a separate spate of lashes for every time he drank wine if the witnesses warned him before each drink.

“Even for a person who keeps the entire Torah, there is often at least one sin that he violates without much inhibition. He acts as though this sin is no sin at all. Even if this lax attitude extended to only one sin that would be serious enough. But most people have many areas that they do not take seriously. Some say the Name of heaven in vain. Others are not careful that their hands or the place they are in be clean before they say God’s Name. Some turn a blind eye to the poor, or one’s weakness may be slander, baseless hatred or arrogance. Or it may that he gazes at the forbidden. And laxness in the hardest mitzvah to fulfill properly is all too common: Torah study which counts like the entire Torah.

“It is therefore proper for every ba’al teshuvah to write down his flaws and mistakes and read this book every day. In that manner he will surely repent.”

Rabbeinu Yonah provides a famous parable on the importance of teshuvah. “This is likened to people who were jailed and managed to dig a tunnel out of their cell. Everyone escaped except one man. When the jailor noticed the tunnel and that everyone had escaped he began beating the man. ‘You fool! Why didn’t you take the opportunity and escape like everyone else?’”

When the Chiddushei HaRim, zt”l, quoted this Rabbeinuu Yonah he taught a brilliant lesson. “We see that failing to do teshuvah is worse than sinning in the first place!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
“Get Out of Jail”
Chullin 82

How interesting. If sin is putting yourself in jail, then teshuvah, the process of turning from sin back to God, is escaping from jail. We don’t normally consider a jailbreak in a positive, moral light, but think about it. If you are put in jail as the consequence of committing a crime, you wait passively. There is little or nothing you can do to secure your release except to wait for time to pass and your sentence to be up. You do not participate in your redemption in any way.

On the other hand, a jailbreak is an active process. It requires planning, gathering the right tools and, in some cases, organizing the different roles required for the escape with other people. You aren’t simply going to be released just because you’re waiting around. You actually have to do something about it. So it is with the process of repentence. So it is with the activity of making teshuvah. It won’t happen unless you take an active part.

But as in Rabbeinu Yonah’s parable, there will always be those people who, for whatever reason, continue to allow themselves to be imprisoned when they could have escaped and become free again. Failure to make amends, to repent, to turn from sin, and return to God is worse than the sin that landed you in jail in the first place.

But there’s more.

Both Passover and bringing of the first fruits are times when we must recognize our blessings and their origin. They say “there are no atheists in foxholes,” but foxholes are a lousy place to get religion! The Torah wants us to develop a connection with happiness and love, rather than fear. The curses found in this week’s reading only come about “because you did not serve HaShem your G-d with joy and a good heart, from an abundance of all.” [Deuteronomy 28:47]

-Rabbi Yaakov Menkin
Director, Project Genesis

This isn’t the first time I’ve blogged about the mystery of “joy”. About six months ago, I wrote something called Failing Joy 101. By nature, I’m not a continuously happy or joyous person. I don’t walk around with a smile on my face all the time. I don’t always approach the day with boundless enthusiasm. I even sometimes find people who really are cheerful all the time as kind of annoying. And yet we have this. Not only are we to stage a jailbreak when we are incarcerated within sin, but essentially, we’re to do so with a song of joy in our hearts.

And if we don’t, it’s a sin. It’s sin that gets us in jail in the first place. It’s sin that keeps us in jail when we could escape. And it’s sin, even when we escape, if we don’t do so joyfully.

I think I’m getting a headache.

Joyous enthusiasm is the child of inspiration. It is the emotional elixir that galvanizes, energizes, electrifies our lives. It empowers us to move mountains and make impossible dreams come true. Without joy, we plod mechanically toward our goals, seeking relief rather than fulfillment, but with joy we soar toward glittering mountaintops.

Clearly then, joy is a critical factor in our service of the Creator. It infuses every observance, every prayer, every moment of study with a divine energy that brings us that much closer to our Father in Heaven. One of the Chassidic masters once said, “Joy is not a commandment, but no commandment can accomplish what joy can.”

But what if a person cannot achieve joy? What if a person is overwhelmed by the vicissitudes of life and is unable to free his spirit and let it soar? Surely, he does not deserve to be condemned and chastised for this failure. Surely, he should continue to serve the Creator to the best of his ability even if his efforts are less than inspired.

-Rabbi Naftali Reich
“The Little Voice”
Commentary on Parshas Ki Savo

DespairIt’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who thinks about these things. Rabbi Reich goes on to say, “Some commentators resolve this perplexing problem homiletically. They read the verse as follows, ‘Because you did not serve Hashem your Lord – with joy.’ It is not the absence of joy which is deserving of punishment but rather the presence of inappropriate joy.’

Let’s go back to the inmate who refused to escape from jail. Why wouldn’t he leave? Why stay in sin…unless he liked it there.

I don’t know if Rabbi Reich is reaching a little too far for a solution, but it is one that we could consider. As the Rabbi says, it’s “one thing to fall short in the service of Hashem, to fall victim to the weakness of the flesh. But it is quite another to revel in sinfulness, to delight in the saccharine juices of forbidden fruit.” So the absence of joy in our acts committed for the service of the Creator may not be desirable, that’s not where our sin lies.

A king was angry with his son for neglecting his princely duties. He decided to discipline him by banishing him incognito to a remote village.

When the prince arrived in the village of his banishment, he was mortified. The place was a collection of rude huts without the most basic comforts and refinements of polite society. There were no books or works of art for miles around. The people were vulgar and ignorant. The stench in the streets was overpowering.

A year passed, and the king began to reconsider his decree of banishment against the young prince. But first he sent spies to see how the prince was faring.

The spies arrived in the village, but it was a while before they located the prince sitting among a group of peasants in a barnyard. The once handsome and elegant young prince was filthy and dressed in vermin-infested rags. He was stuffing his face with half raw meat, the red juices running down his chin. Every few minutes, he would roar with laughter at one or another of the coarse peasant stories that were being bandied about. The spies immediately returned to the palace to report on what they had seen.

When the king heard their report, he wept. “If my son is happy among the peasants, he will never be a prince.”

The parable quoted from Rabbi Reich’s commentary tells the same story as Rabbeinu Yonah’s parable. Two men were sentenced to isolation from the world of faith and hope for a certain time. The intent was to teach them, in their misery, that they should desire to return to their former lives and learn appreciation for what was temporarily denied them. Instead, we find that the opposite happened. Both men learned to become accustomed to their life of depravity and sinfulness. I suspect both men lost hope because without hope, there can never be joy.

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. –Philippians 4:12-13

I suspect that Paul could write these words with sincerity because he had hope in Jesus. It was a hope that transcended circumstances and became interwoven with the very fabric of his being. It is a hope that only true trust and faith in God can create and nurture. Knowing God exists provides a certain amount of comfort. Having absolute trust in Him, regardless of your situation is where one discovers faith, hope, and finally, joy.

While we are expected to somehow just “have” these treasures, they don’t simply lie along the common path, like wildflowers growing out of the gravel. Digging an escape tunnel doesn’t just happen. It takes a lot of effort. So, for at least some of us, does the search for the fruits of the spirit.

If we have no joy in our hearts, we deny the love of God. We should not say, “Our heart is the dwelling place of lust, jealousy, anger; there is no hope for us.” Let us realize that we have another guest in us who desires to give us life and joy, notwithstanding our sin.

-Paul Philip Levertoff
Love and the Messianic Age

There’s another reason why the prisoner might choose not to escape; not due to any attraction to or love of sin, but because of the futility of hoping that any escape would be permanent or even long lived. Perhaps the son of David was right after all.

The road

The road is long and often, we travel in the dark.

Seeking the Awe of Heaven

Gates of HeavenThere are two approaches to the Bible that prevail in philosophical thinking. The first approach claims that the Bible is a naive book, it is poetry or mythology. As beautiful as it is, it must not be taken seriously, for in its thinking it is primitive and immature. How could you compare it to Hegel or Hobbes, John Locke or Shopenhauer?

The second approach claims that Moses taught the same ideas as Plato or Aristotle, that there is no serious disagreement between the teachings of the philosophers and the teachings of the prophets. Aristotle, for example, used unambiguous terms, while the prophets employed metaphors.

Abraham Joshua Heschel
God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism.
pp 24-25

Everything is within the power of Heaven except fear and awe of heaven.Berachot 33b

Although I may have left the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute’s lesson on Toward a Meaningful Life behind with yesterday’s morning meditation, the Christian search for God in the Torah, Tanakh, and Talmud still occupies me. I’m sure reading Heschel’s classic only provokes my interest.

The quote from his book which I just posted presents a more interesting dilemma than the one Heschel considered. He was presenting how Jews view God through the lens of the Torah as compared the perspective of the Greek (and later) philosophers and their “more rational” position on God. From a Jewish way of looking at the issue, it’s a matter of Jewish religion vs. non-Jewish, secular philosophy. Now let’s toss a monkey wrench into the spinning machinery.

It is said that much of how Christianity understands and interprets the Bible stems from the study and adherence to Greek philosophy. I’ve known more than one believer who has left the church because they came to realize that the Christian tradition had “Helenized” the Bible, stripping it of its original Hebraic meaning and intent. If they are right, then a Christian studying the Jewish perspectives will either discover something precious or lose something essential in their faith.

Almost two months ago, I read a blog post warning Christians that to study Judaism and Jewish writings was an invitation to apostacy and the abandonment of Christ himself. The danger was that becoming too attracted to Judaism would result in a person who would eventually lose their Christian faith and perhaps even decide to convert.

That concern doesn’ t particularly worry me. There’s something else to consider. I wonder if the Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible even speak the same language. Ponder this statement from Heschel’s book (page 25):

The central thought of Judaism is the living God.

That begs the question, “what is the central thought of Christianity?” The most obvious answer is “Jesus Christ”, but is that the same answer, a related answer, or does this represent two completely different answers? When a Jew thinks of God, he isn’t thinking of the Messiah because nothing in Judaism presupposes that the Messiah must be God. We imagine because the Jewish Bible makes up the first two-thirds of the Christian Bible, that there must be a significant overlap in how Christians and Jews think of, understand, and approach God, but that isn’t particularly true. As my (Jewish) wife keeps telling me, Jews conceptualize God, faith, and the world around them in a fundamentally different way than everyone else, particularly Christians.

But is there no common meeting ground? Don’t both Jews and Christians seek God? Doesn’t the yearning to walk in His Presence stir in both the Jewish and the Christian heart?

The Bible has several words for the act of seeking God (darash, bakkesh, shahar). In some passages these words are used in the sense of inquiring after His will and precepts (Psalm 119:45, 94, 155). Yet, in other passages these words mean more than the act of asking a question, the aim of which is to elicit information. It means addressing oneself directly to God with the aim of getting close to Him; it involves a desire for experience rather than a search for information. Seeking Him includes the fact of keeping His commandments, but it goes beyond it. “Seek ye the Lord and His strength, seek His face continually” (Psalms 105:4). Indeed, to pray does not only mean to seek help; it also means to seek Him. (Heschel page 28)

Hasid AlleywayI certainly can’t see why this couldn’t be the basis of searching for God for both the Jew and the Christian…or any person seeking the God who calls to them in their pain and their dreams.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that, while I as a Christian am seeking God through a Jewish understanding, there was once a Jew who did quite the opposite…and yet remained Jewish:

He read the Gospels in German. Then he obtained a Hebrew version and reread them. Though he was in the midst of a Gentile, Christian city where Jesus was worshiped in churches and honored in every home, Feivel felt the Gospels belonged more to him and the Chasidic world than they did to the Gentiles who revered them. He found the Gospels to be thoroughly Jewish and conceptually similar to Chasidic Judaism. He wondered how Gentile Christians could hope to comprehend Yeshua (Jesus) and His words without the benefit of a classical Jewish education or experience with the esoteric works of the Chasidim.

Taken from Jorge Quinonez:
“Paul Philip Levertoff: Pioneering Hebrew-Christian Scholar and Leader”
Mishkan 37 (2002): 21-34
as quoted from Love and the Messianic Age

Paul Philip Levertoff, born as Feivel Levertoff first encountered a page from the Gospels as a nine-year old Chasidic Jewish boy in the late 19th century. He found a scrap of paper in the snow one day written in Hebrew and assumed it was from a Jewish holy book. He took it home to his father to see what should be done, but when the man realized what was written on the paper, he threw it in the stove to burn. But while that scrap of paper was reduced to ashes, a different kind of fire was kindled in Feivel Levertoff that day and that fire never left him for the remainder of his life.

Levertoff couldn’t believe that anyone not schooled in the Zohar, the Tanya, or other mystic and Chasidic Jewish wisdom could ever understand the words such as are written in John’s Gospel. As much as anything, Levertoff’s experience lets me anticipate that someone with an essential faith in Jesus can hope to allow that faith, understanding, and worship to grow and expand when nurtured with some of the same fertile Jewish prayers and readings (see my review of Levertoff’s Love and the Messianic Age for more).

Returning to Heschel (page 31):

There are three starting points of contemplation about God; three trails that lead to Him. The first is the way of sensing the presence of God in the world in things; the second is the way of sensing His presence in the Bible; the third is the way of sensing His presence in sacred deeds.

What Heschel is describing as three starting points are what he later defines as worship, learning, and action. In my reading and subsequent review of Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, I noticed that it was not recommended for each to person take the same path to God. It seems that not everyone is cut out for the “mystic approach”. Rather, some people are best suited to approaching God through deed, others mainly through study, and still others, primarily through prayer and worship. How interesting that Heschel should offer the same three options, mapped to different scriptures:

  • Worship: “Lift up your eyes on high and see, Who created these? –Isaiah 40;26
  • Learning: “I am the Lord thy God.” –Exodus 20:2
  • Action: “We shall do and we shall hear.” –Exodus 24:7

The human race is a people seeking God. Many don’t understand that His face is the one they long to see and if you ask them about it, they’ll deny it vehemently. And yet, mankind thirsts for justice, cries out for mercy, begs for forgiveness, and pleads for their wounds and sicknesses to be healed. Who are they crying out to if not God?

How much more can this be said of those of us who understand that we are seeking the face of God and yet, there seems to be more than one road to His Throne (not contradicting John 14:6). Even in narrowing these methods to worship, study, and actions, there are still so many choices to consider. I continue to make my choice in one particular direction. Hopefully, Rabbi Heschel wouldn’t have minded.

Searching for Sparks

Holding SparksAt one time there were tzaddikim who would look into the soul of a disciple, see the place where the G-dly sparks were awaiting this soul and tell the disciple to go to that place to liberate those sparks.

All that has changed is the perception of the disciples. If you are where you are with the blessing of the Rebbe, you are where you belong. And you are there with a profound purpose.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
from the wisdom of the Rebbe
Menachem M. Schreerson
Bringing Heaven Down to Earth

Well, I – I think that it – it wasn’t enough to just want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em – and it’s that – if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with! Is that right?

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

It is said that we contain Divine Sparks from our Creator and those parts of us that belong to Him yearn to return to the Source. It’s what causes people to search for something beyond themselves; sometimes not even knowing what they are looking for or how to find it. It’s the part of us that brings some people to God and others to less than noble destinations, believing some false teaching is the answer they need.

It’s also believed that there are other sparks in the world that correspond to those we contain and that finding and liberating those sparks defines the purpose of our lives. Put in less mystic terms, we all have a purpose that gives meaning to our lives. We only need to discover that purpose in order to experience accomplishment, fulfillment, and to understand why we were created by God.

Some people search for this all their lives and die with the truth about themselves still undiscovered. While Hamlet calls death the undiscovered country, I think that “country” is rather the truth of our existence which we must discover while we are still alive. Even David said that once dead, we can offer nothing:

Among the dead no one proclaims your name.
Who praises you from the grave? –Psalm 6:5

It is not the dead who praise the LORD,
those who go down to the place of silence;
it is we who extol the LORD,
both now and forevermore.
Praise the LORD. –Psalm 115:17-18

Continuing with this theme, Vine of David’s commentary on Levertoff’s Love and the Messianic Age tells us:

“Although every man has the divine potential of a godly soul planted within him, this is not a guarantee that every man will enter into a relationship with HaShem or even that every soul will be redeemed. Instead, the soul is separated from God by a wall of partition – sin and guilt. HaShem removes the wall of partition between man and Himself through the work of the Messiah. When the wall is removed, then the soul can connect with HaShem. Then He can “use it for the gathering of these ‘sparks’.”

We journey near and far looking for and gathering sparks in order to fulfill the script of our lives written by God on our souls. But must we necessarily travel to distant and strange lands to find what we seek? Rabbi Freeman gives us part of that answer as he again relates the Rebbe’s wisdom:

People want to run away from where they are, to go to find their Jerusalem. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing there, make that a “Jerusalem”.

I wonder if the Rebbe ever saw The Wizard of Oz?

Hide and SeekGod is mindful of the days of our lives, where we go, what we are doing. He watches us as a father might watch his small son take his first, halting steps. We watch our children as they learn to walk, almost willing them in how to take the next step and in which way they should go. We cannot interfere unless they are about to be hurt, because otherwise, they’d never discover how to walk on their own. God is like that with us. The difference is, we should know that we are learning how to walk and be paying attention to the path. We should know that our Father is watching over us and that He’s ready to keep us from harm. Often, we don’t:

A certain chassid who had suffered a major financial loss stood before Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi and lamented over his debts. “All you are telling me,” Rabbi Schneur Zalman replied, “is what you need. Who needs you, you don’t say much about. Do what G-d expects from you, and He will provide what you want from Him.”

Lest you think that God only expects us to serve and that He doesn’t care about who we are, our fears, our needs, and our concerns, we have two messages that console us; one from the Rebbe, and the other from “the Maggid of Nazaret”, Jesus:

The teaching of the Baal Shem Tov: Not only is the movement of a leaf as it falls off a tree, the quivering of a blade of grass in the wind-each and every detail of existence directed, vivified and brought into being at every moment from above-but beyond that: Every nuance is an essential component of a grand and G-dly scheme, the gestalt of all those vital minutiae.

Meditate on this. And then think: How much more so the details of my daily life.

-The Rebbe
as related by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. –Matthew 6:25-33

Finally, in our little game of “hide-and-go-seek” with the Divine in ourselves and in the Universe, Rabbi Freeman presents the Rebbe’s teachings on this matter, again from his book Bringing Heaven Down to Earth:

G-d is not something of a higher realm that you cannot reach Him. Nor is He made of stuff ethereal that you cannot touch Him. G-d is “That Which Is” – He is here now, everywhere, in every thing and in every realm – including that realm in which you live. The only reason you do not perceive Him is because it is His desire that you search for Him.

Life is a game of hide and seek. G-d hides, we seek.

God does not play “hide the ball” with the Universe. He means for us to not only find Him, but everyday, to find who we are in Him. Start gathering the sparks. He’s there. And so are you.