Tag Archives: Rabbi

FFOZ TV Review: Raising Disciples

ffoz_tv12_startEpisode 12: Everyone knows that Jesus had twelve disciples but many would be surprised to find out that the institution of discipleship existed centuries before the time of the apostles. In episode twelve viewers will gain a better understanding of what it means to be a disciple from the understanding of Judaism in the days of Messiah. Jesus tells us that “Every disciple fully trained will become like his teacher.” Indeed, to be a Christian means to be a disciple of Jesus, a student responsible for learning and becoming like one’s rabbi.

-from the Introduction to FFOZ TV: The Promise of What is to Come
Episode 12: Raising Disciples

The Lesson: The Mystery of the Meaning of Discipleship

Whenever we consider being disciples of Christ, most of us in the church probably think that means being believers in Jesus. However, according to First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) teacher and author Toby Janicki, it’s really much more. But how much more? What does it really mean to be a disciple of Jesus?

Toby first spends a lot of time in this episode showing the audience what discipleship meant in Judaism in the late Second Temple period; during the earthly lifetime of Jesus:

The disciples of Yochanan and the disciples of the Prushim would often fast, and they came and said to him, “Why do the disciples of Yochanan and the disciples of the Prushim fast, but your disciples do not fast?”

Mark 2:18 (DHE Gospels)

Here we see that not only did Jesus have disciples but that John the Baptist and the Pharisees had disciples. In fact, all of the teachers or Rabbis in all of the streams of Judaism in that day had disciples. But we still need to understand what it is to be a disciple in general and a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth in particular.

To me, a lot of the information presented about discipleship wasn’t a great revelation since I’ve been exposed to it before, but it may be that some Christians believe only Jesus had disciples and that he only had twelve of them. This, of course, is not correct:

After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go.

Luke 1:10 (ESV)

While some translations say that seventy were sent out and others say seventy-two, Toby says that from the context in the rest of this chapter, those sent out were also disciples of Jesus. This illustrates how common disciples were in that day and age. He also cites Acts 9:36 to illustrate that women were disciples, Acts 6:1 and 6:7 to illustrate how there were many, many disciples, and Acts 11:26 to show that there were both Jewish and Gentile disciples of Jesus.

ffoz_tv12_tobyAccording to Toby, the word “Christian” is used only three times in the Bible, but the words “disciple” and “disciples” relating to followers and students of Jesus were used many times. Perhaps it’s more accurate to call ourselves disciples of Christ rather than Christians. But then again, that would depend on the meaning of disciples and discipleship. Which brings us to our first clue:

Clue 1: All early believers of Jesus were called disciples.

But going back to the question I just asked and the question Toby repeatedly asks, we need to understand how Christ’s original Jewish audience and the first Jewish readers of the Gospels would have understood discipleship. To get the answer, we turn to FFOZ teacher and translator Aaron Eby in Israel.

Aaron provides a great deal of background information on early Jewish discipleship including the fact that discipleship predates Jesus by quite a bit. Discipleship was considered the primary method of higher Jewish education, but it wasn’t just a matter of going to school and studying different subjects. A disciple was a student but specifically, a student of a Torah teacher. In the days of Jesus and before, when a young man thought he wanted a life of Torah learning, he would apprentice himself to a Torah master, however, this apprenticeship might not be what you imagine.

A disciple was to be a learner/imitator. He would memorize all of his Master’s teachings, learn to imitate his Master’s style of dress, mannerisms, inflections of speech. The disciple in some ways considered himself a servant or even a slave to his Rabbi, his “great one.” In some ways, he thought of himself as a son to a Father, but the Rabbi was considered greater than the disciple’s biological Father. Disciples were tremendously devoted to their Masters, more so than to their own families or even their own lives. And so it was with the disciples of Jesus, their Master and ours.

Back in the studio, Toby describes the concept of discipleship as a job description.

A pupil is not above his teacher; but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher.

Luke 6:40 (NASB)

That the disciples of Jesus were imitators of their Master and memorized his teachings is the reason why we have the Gospels today.

Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.

1 Corinthians 11:1 (NASB)

Here we see that Paul considered himself a disciple of Christ as his imitator, and he suggests to the readers of his letter that they should imitate Paul. Were they then Paul’s disciples? I’ll answer that in a bit, but we have arrived at our second clue:

Clue 2: The primary job of a disciple was to be like his teacher.

Even the Pirkei Avot or “Ethics of our Fathers,” a set of Jewish teachings that predated Jesus says, “Raise many disciples.”

ffoz_tv12_aaronA Rabbi’s job was to create a new generation of disciples who would learn everything from the Rabbi and about the Rabbi and then, when they were fully trained, the disciples would become Rabbi’s themselves, raising up their own generation of disciples in order to preserve the Torah teaching and wisdom of their own Master. This process would be repeated from one generation to the next with the goal of creating an unbroken line of discipleship, generation by generation, that would preserve the teachings of Torah for each Teacher, often by establishing great schools such as the Houses of Study of Shammai and Hillel. This maps well to Matthew 28:19-20 where Rabbi Yeshua instructed his Jewish disciples to raise up a generation of disciples from the people of the nations, which the Church often refers to as “the great commission.” However, as we’ve seen, the idea of “the great commission” hardly does justice to what Jesus was actually commanding.

Now we have arrived at the third and final clue:

Clue 3: The job of a disciple was to raise up more disciples.

But here Toby introduces a strong caveat:

But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.

Matthew 23:8-12 (NASB)

This set of verses has often been misunderstood or just not understood at all. Does this mean we shouldn’t have respect for our Bible teachers and Pastors? Here’s where having a Jewish perspective on the New Testament comes in especially handy. According to Toby, this is Jesus defining the difference between the relationship of Jewish disciples to the Sages and disciples of Jesus, our Master, to himself.

Remember, the purpose of discipleship was to learn all there was to learn from your Master and then to establish your own House of Study in your name passing on what you originally learned. Your disciples would be taught in your name, not in the name of your own Master, and your disciples would teach in their own names, not in yours (actually it was more like, “I teach you in the name of my Master, who taught in the name of his Master,” and so on).

Jesus said his disciples would be different. Each Torah Master would eventually age and die, but his teachings would be preserved in his disciples and in each generation of disciples that followed. Jesus is alive! We hear this enthusiastically declared every Easter or Resurrection Day in Church. James, Peter, and Paul were not to set up their own houses of study and teach in their own names by making their own disciples (in spite of what we saw relative to Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:1). They were not to raise up disciples for themselves but instead, they were and we are to raise up disciples for our Master, our one and only Master, Jesus the Messiah, Yeshua HaMashiach.

What Did I Learn?

I learned the meaning behind Matthew 23:8-12 which I tended to ignore in the past because I couldn’t figure it out. It makes a lot of sense now. I used to think that we inherited a broken system of discipleship since the teachings of Jesus were never transmitted generation to generation in the manner we have seen described in this FFOZ TV episode. Now I realize that it was by design, since we were never intended to be the students of any Master except Jesus. He is our only teacher, our only Torah Master. This does not mean we shouldn’t respect any Bible teacher or Pastor in our Church, but we must always remember that none of them take the place of Jesus. If we see a group of believers who esteem their Pastor or spiritual leader as anything approaching our true Master, then there is something wrong (and sadly, such situations make an appearance the news media from time to time, usually as scandals involving some highly public and popular religious leader).

ffoz_tv12_extra2I also thought of some questions as I was watching this episode and in fact, I was reminded of some of the narratives of Toby from other episodes that involve how he commonly introduces himself. He says that he isn’t Jewish but rather a Gentile who practices Messianic Judaism. It isn’t always apparent, but he usually wears a kippah while on camera (A kippah is a head covering typically worn by religious Jews either just in synagogue or during their waking hours, depending on their level of observance).

What is the difference between being a Gentile who practices Messianic Judaism and a Gentile who practices Christianity? More importantly, how do these two “states” relate to being a disciple of Christ, our Master? Since this television show was created to present the Gospels and Jesus Christ to a more traditional Christian audience by introducing a more Jewish perspective and interpretation, what does that say about the level of discipleship and imitation of our Master relative to “Messianic Gentiles” and Christians?

This question is especially important to me, since it factors into how I think of myself as a disciple of the Master by calling myself a Christian and attending Church. One of the motivations for me to return to Church after an absence of many years was the book Tent of David: Healing the Vision of the Messianic Gentile written by FFOZ president and founder Boaz Michael. Have I become a better imitator of my Master by following this template of church attendance and Christian affiliation or a worse one? At some point in the near future, as the one year anniversary of my returning to Church comes near, I plan to write one or more “meditations” on the application of Boaz’s Tent of David in my life and the results I see so far.

Closely related to this situation, Toby also didn’t drill down into something that I think it’s vital to know. When we say that a disciple of Christ is an imitator or Christ, just exactly what are we imitating? This isn’t an idle question. Many in the Hebrew Roots movement insist that discipleship means imitating the Jewish Jesus in every aspect of his Judaism, including wearing kippot (plural of kippah) and tallitot (plural of tallit) and to otherwise look and act in a manner identical to modern religious Jews (in spite of the fact that Jesus isn’t a “modern religious Jew,” but rather, he was an ancient Jewish Rabbi and he is the Jewish Messiah King).

The clue that may lead to an answer was provided at the end of this episode by Boaz Michael who appeared on camera and said that next week (episode 13), the topic would be how the Torah is the foundation of Messiah Yeshua’s instructions to his disciples. How can the Torah be applied to both the Jewish and Gentile disciples of our Master?

I’m hoping my review next week will help answer these questions.

Today is Hoshana Raba, the last day of Sukkot. Lord, please abundantly save us. Candle lighting for Shmini Atzeret is tonight at sundown. God, continue to be with us.

Day Zero.



Where Does Faith Go When It Is Lost?

strange-landWhat happens when one day a rabbi discovers that he has lost his faith? Dr. Paul Shrell-Fox, a clinical psychologist and researcher asked himself that question – which turned into to a fascinating study.

Seven rabbis agreed to “talk about it” – three Conservative community rabbis in the United States, and four strictly Orthodox rabbis who live in Israel and have a double identity: Secretly atheists, and rabbis and believers openly.

-Tali Farkash
“Atheists in closet: Rabbis who lost God”
Published 07.28.13, 11:13, ynetnews.com

Over a year ago, I published a blog post on a very similar topic called When We’re Left Behind. It was based on an article written by Barbara Bradley Hagerty for NPR.org called “From Minister to Atheist: A Story of Losing Faith”.

How crushing would it be to love your Pastor or Rabbi, having attended his (or her) congregation for years and growing close to him (or her) as a model of faith, and then to discover that this “Holy person” has no faith in God at all and in fact is an atheist? What would that do you your faith (or mine)?

I don’t want to recycle something I’ve written before, but this brings up some new questions about the nature of religion (as opposed to faith) and how we live it out in our lives. While I certainly can’t deny the social role of church for Christians, we lack (in most cases) the connection to our religious community based on ethnicity, culture, and sometimes race. It is true there are churches that have such a basis, such as African-American churches and Korean churches, but for the most part, the Church as a social entity is just a group of people who (in theory) share the same theology and doctrine about God but who otherwise come from a wide spectrum of social, economic, educational, and employment backgrounds (this probably isn’t true in an absolute sense, but I’ll use it as a general principle for the sake of this essay).

Jewish synagogue life is a different thing because what is being shared is a lot of cultural, ethnic, traditional, religious, and even national and DNA components. It goes back to the difference between “What is a Jew?” and “What is a Christian?” You can’t just say people who have different religions. Being Jewish is enormously more complicated and in some ways, elusive in definition.

So I can see a Rabbi who becomes an atheist having a tougher time in leaving his/her community than a Pastor in the same situation (not that it wouldn’t be really hard on the Pastor as well). From a Rabbi’s point of view, if you are leading a shul in a small community, leaving the synagogue would be leaving behind your entire social, friendship, and possibly family circles. Your entire life, or most of it, probably flows through synagogue life. I suppose something similar could be said of a Pastor as well, but perhaps not quite to the same depth.

How about extending the topic beyond Rabbis and Pastors? My wife says that at our local Reform/Conservative synagogue, the Friday night service is aimed at more secular Jews who connect socially and through traditions, while the Saturday Shabbat service is more for “religious Jews.” The missus even says that some of the synagogue members wish that the current Rabbi would retire/move on (he’s still in his 40s, so is nowhere near retirement age) because he’s “too religious.”

At the opposite religious extreme are the Ultra-Orthodox or the Haredim, who seem to take the slightest infraction of the mitzvot, even among those Jewish people who are not Haredi, so, so seriously, to the point of being abusive and assaultive. It seems like something has gone horribly wrong in certain corners religious Judaism where, on the one extreme, God is all but ignored, and on the other, God is exceptionally tightfisted and punitive, and adherents experience no problem in actually attacking other human beings.

I don’t know if you get that exactly in Christianity, although to be sure, we have churches that are so extremely liberal that God seems like an afterthought and Biblical standards are as fluid as quicksand. We also have churches and groups so hyper-conservative that they too don’t care who they hurt or what damage they do to other human beings, even desecrating the funerals of military men and women for the sake of their distorted theology and need to push their weight around. I’d call that going horribly wrong, too.

It’s enough to make me lose my faith in religious people.

Waiting to danceBut what makes a person lose their faith in God? Of some of the folks and groups I’ve just mentioned, they probably didn’t have faith as such to begin with. Their religious venues are more a tradition-based, cultural, and social outlet, as opposed to a gathering where an encounter with God is sought. At the opposite extreme, it may not be God that anyone is looking for, but the need to impose internal punitive, restrictive, and ultra-conservative standards on the entire environment of human beings. As far as I can tell, God’s chosen method of operation isn’t to either ignore His standards or massively exaggerate them and then force them on others without so much as a by your leave.

I know my Pastor will disagree with me, but I believe we have a choice. I believe we have lots of choices in life, the first or at least the most important being whether or not we are going to have a relationship with God. After that, other choices follow. I believe God is like a Father or teacher (sometimes the roles overlap). Certainly if we act foolishly, we should fear Him, but fear isn’t the primary foundation upon which our relationship is built. Neither is hate. Neither is casualness and pandering to social agendas.

Once we have faith in God, and more importantly, trust, how can we lose that? Some folks say you can’t unless you never had it in the first place:

My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”

John 10:27-30 (NASB)

That creates a problem because here we see people, Pastors and Rabbis, who have lost their faith (although Jews, because they are born into covenant, are accountable whether they have faith or not). Did they have it in the first place or did something else happen? What if they actually have faith somewhere at their core, faith in God that is, but lost something else instead? What if they lost their faith in religious people or the mechanics of religion?

I don’t think I could lose faith in God but there are days I’d throw religion and religious people out the window, slam it shut, lock it, and never look out again. A life in community, whether in person or online, can be really frustrating at times. We have all of these high ideals about love, companionship, worship, and holiness, but our real lives are so messy by comparison. We don’t always treat each other well, even when we intend to.

Some people are cranky by their nature or because they have adopted a victim stance and out of that, are perpetually defensive (I know bloggers who write out of that position pretty much all the time). Some people are generally OK until you hit one of their “hot button topics,” and then watch out (I wonder if that’s how I’m going to be next week in Sunday school?). Being in community with religious people is like walking through a mine field or living in an alcoholic family. You never know when the peace will be shattered by an abrupt and devastating explosion.

If I ever lost my faith, it wouldn’t be in God, it would be in human beings.

“You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”

-Mahatma Gandhi

There are times when I think it’s the ocean that’s dirty and only a few drops are clean.

Until you can see the good within a person, you are incapable of helping him.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

desert-islandAnd sometimes that’s an amazingly difficult thing to do. Reading quotes from Gandhi and Rabbi Freeman present a very pleasant picture, but life in the trenches of religion is anything but, at least for those folks who are struggling with faith (and don’t we all at some point).

I know why a Rabbi and Pastor (or probably just ordinary people) would stay in their religious communities after they’d lost faith in God…because of the continued social rewards. Most people who lose faith in people but not God would just leave the community and either try to find another or bail on community life entirely. But what if community life fails you but you still find God is present within the synagogue or church? What do you do then? Are you even aware that it’s God who’s holding you there? Maybe what feels like losing faith in God is just a protracted silence? God doesn’t always talk. But we’re supposed to have faith in the desert too.

I don’t have all the answers. Sometimes I don’t even know the right questions to ask. I just know that this religious life that is supposed to bring us closer to God isn’t pain-free, and it seems for some folks that the pain increases exponentially as we strive to approach Holiness. Maybe that’s why most religious people hit a comfortable plateau and just stay there, neither being too hot or too cold in their spirituality, but only lukewarm. Maybe that’s why some people quit completely, because being numb is better than being set on fire and writhing in the flames.

Where are the Gandhis and the Freemans with their soothing, supportive words? Where is the so called “community of faith?” Where is God?

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…

-William Shakespeare
“Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141)”

The Rabbi and The Taxi Driver

HumbleThe position which baalei teshuvah [penitents] occupy cannot be occupied even by tzaddikim [completely righteous].

-Berachos 34b

A surgeon once encountered difficult complications during an operation and asked his assistant to see if there was anyone in the surgical suite who could help. The assistant replied that the only one who was there was the chief of the surgical staff. “There is no point in calling him,” the operating surgeon said. “He would not know what to do. He never got himself into a predicament like this.”

As far as people’s own functioning is concerned, it might be better not to have made mistakes. Still, such perfection makes them relatively useless as sources of help to others who have made mistakes, because they have no experience on which to draw to know how to best help them correct their mistakes.

A perfect tzaddik may indeed be most virtuous, but may not be able to identify and empathize with average people who need help in correcting their errors. The “position” to which the Talmud is referring may be the position of a helper, and in this respect the baal teshuvah may indeed be superior to a tzaddik.

Today I shall…

…reflect on how I dealt with the mistakes I have made, and share my experience with others who may benefit from them.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Shevat 8”

I love stories. I suppose you know that if you’ve been following these “meditations” for very long. I like the stories the Rabbis tell. Many of them are very inspiring without being particularly schmaltzy.

I like stories that tell a lesson or impart a moral, and one of my favorite movie lines about this comes from an unlikely source:

But there’s a bright side to this, and a moral. I think morals are good for you, I love morals, and the moral of this story is: If you’re walkin’ on eggs, don’t hop.

-Jack Braddock (played by Warren Oates)

I didn’t include that quote randomly. Mr Oates, who sadly passed away in 1982 at the age of 53, often played tough guys and other character roles rather than the “leading man.” In that way, he could be much more relatable to the audience than the handsome and always capable hero-type. The above-quoted line was delivered with his usual Kentucky drawl that, in spite of him playing a rather intimidating character, was like the advice you might get from your father or favorite uncle.

I think that’s what a life of holiness is supposed to be like.

Now I suppose that last statement requires an explanation. After all, how can a tough guy character actor delivering a line in a 1983 action film remind me of a life of holiness?

Time for another story.

I once had this exact conversation with a taxi driver. He was Catholic, and asked me if rabbis marry. I told him that not only are rabbis allowed to marry, they are obligated to marry. “Be fruitful and multiply” is a command to all, regardless of career or position in the community.

The taxi driver shook his head and said, “You Jews have got it good. In my community, when someone is dating and confused, or is going through a rough patch in his marriage, or needs guidance on how to discipline their kids, who should we turn to? Our celibate priest? He wouldn’t have a clue what it means to argue with your wife, he’s never been dumped, and certainly doesn’t have a kid that pokes other kids’ eyes out. If I have a question in theology, or need to know which prayers to say, then sure, I’ll go to him. But real-life issues—he can’t help me!”

This taxi driver’s comments brought home for me an important truth. Judaism does not differentiate between “clergy” and “laymen.” Whether you are a rabbi or a taxi driver, you are expected to live a “normal” life, to be involved with the struggles and pleasures of the mundane world.

But it works the other way as well. Whether you are a taxi driver or a rabbi, you are expected to make your everyday mundane world a home for G‑d. The Torah’s ideal is to create a society of holy people. Sanctity and morality are not the domain of rabbis alone: every individual must live to the same standard, and each one of us can engage in direct dialogue with G‑d and Torah.

The rabbi is there just to help others bridge the needs of the spirit with the realities of life. But he has to do the same in his own life.

Perhaps that cab was a microcosm of an ideal world. What could be more beautiful than a society in which taxi drivers share spiritual wisdom, and rabbis change diapers?

-Rabbi Aron Moss
“Can a Rabbi Get Married?”

taxiRabbi Twerski and Rabbi Moss are almost telling the same tale. In the first story, we have a picture of two “experts,” two surgeons, one who is “ordinary,” and one who is “chief of the surgical staff.” In this instance, although the first surgeon has encountered a problem and needs help, no one believes the “chief,” or in the case of a moral dilemma, the “perfect tzaddik,” will be much help, because they’ve never encountered the problems of an ordinary person.

Rabbi Moss adapts that to the relationship between a married Catholic who has children and a Priest. How could the celibate Priest possibly understand the problems of a husband and a father, at least by direct experience?

But the Rabbi can. Further, not only can the Rabbi relate because he is not only allowed but commanded to marry and have children, but he is, in many ways, no greater keeper of holiness or wisdom than the taxi driver.

What could be more beautiful than a society in which taxi drivers share spiritual wisdom, and rabbis change diapers?

That’s a life of holiness we can all live and pursue. In some ways, maybe that’s the only way we can understand God and other human beings, by being immersed both in a world of spirituality, and in a world of going to work every day, taking out the garbage, and changing diapers. Life has many troubles, but a journey of faith does not serve God if it is undertaken in some ivory tower or study hall where you never encounter pain, frustration, or tears.

In these days especially, when by G-d’s kindness we stand at the threshold of redemption, we must make every conceivable effort to strengthen every facet of our religion. Mitzvot must be observed b’hidur, with “beauty,” beyond minimal requirements. Customs must be kept scrupulously, nothing compromised. It is a Mitzva and duty of every Rabbi in Israel to inform his congregation that the current tribulations and agonies are the “birth-pangs of Mashiach.” G-d is demanding that we return to Torah and mitzvot, that we not hinder the imminent coming of our righteous Mashiach.

“Today’s Day”
Thursday, Sh’vat 8, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

The baal teshuvah and the tzaddik both live inside of you, and you will see the return of Mashiach, may he come soon and in our day.

Where Did the Last Mentor Go?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is wise? One who learns from every man.

-Pirkei Avot 4:1

That doesn’t help.

OK, let’s look at this suggestion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what do we do?

Rabbi Weinberg also said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ball’s article continues:

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

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

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

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

Do you believe that?

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

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

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

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

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

God as a Teacher

Talmud StudyThe metaphor of God as teacher and human beings as His pupils, a metaphor that gains prominence in the rabbinic period, is also an apt means of describing the covenantal relationship. God as teacher encourages His pupils to think for themselves and assume intellectual responsibility for the way Torah is to be understood and practiced. The fact that the rabbis not only declared that the age of prophecy had ended, but insisted also that the talmudic sage ranked higher than the prophet, seems to suggest that the community has a higher appreciation of its covenantal relationship to God when it sees Him as its teacher than when it sees Him as an authoritarian voice dictating His will through the prophets.

God as a loving husband and the devoted teacher do not require reward and punishment to play a significant role in the covenantal relationship. They are not frameworks of absolute power of one covenantal partner over the other, but frameworks in which the integrity of both partners is recognized and the human partner is enabled to feel personal dignity and to develop the capabilities of responsibility.

-Rabbi David Hartman
from the Introduction of his book
A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism

Are you a God-fearing man, Senator? That is such a strange phrase. I’ve always thought of God as a teacher; a bringer of light, wisdom, and understanding.

-Erik Lehnsheer/Magneto (played by Ian McKellen)
X-Men (2000)

I just did two strange and different things, at least from a Christian point of view. I used Rabbi Hartman’s quote to describe God as primarily a teacher, and I quoted a comic book movie to do the same thing. Strange. Interestingly enough, the character of Eric (Magneto) Lehnsheer is portrayed as a Jewish Holocaust survivor, so his perspectives may have a place in today’s “meditation.”

It’s not as if Judaism doesn’t see God as a Judge, but He is not only a Judge (and I need to be careful here, since I’ve mischaracterized aspects of Judaism before). The Bible is replete with “marriage metaphors” in which God is portrayed as a loving husband to a sometimes faithless Israel. While this metaphor is occasionally used by Christianity to justify the supersessionist view that the church (the loyal wife) has replaced Israel (the faithless wife), in fact, God has also said that He will take back Israel when she turns back to Him and that He will never permanently abandon her.

However, I’m less interested in discussing the topic of supersessionism and more interested in exploring God as our teacher. As Rabbi Hartman seems to say, this casts God in a completely different light than the one by which we are accustomed to viewing Him. It also nicely fits into how Judaism sees the role of human authority within the realm of faith. I continue now with Hartman as he speaks in his book’s Introduction.

When Christian ministers ask me at what age or on what occasion I received my calling as a rabbi, I often find myself hesitating over how to respond. If I answer it began when I entered yeshivah at age five to study Bible and Talmud, they might believe that I am likening myself to Jeremiah, who received his prophetic calling as a child. If I tell them that I never received a calling but was ordained after my teachers concluded that I was intellectually capable of rendering competent decisions regarding what is prohibited and permitted by Jewish law, they might be shocked at meeting a modern version of a Pharisee. They could perhaps find confirmation for the allegation that legalism had replaced the living guidance of God.

…Yet, as a traditional halakhic Jew, I know that a rabbi is a teacher whose spiritual role is premised on possession of an intellectual understanding of the Jewish tradition and commitment to the Jewish people. A direct call from God is not required to legitimize activity as a rabbi in Israel.

I can only imagine that the confusion Rabbi Hartman expects of the Christian ministers he references is reflected in the minds and hearts of any Christians reading this missive. Indeed, Judaism is often seen as a legalistic, works-based, and spiritually “dead” faith for exactly the reasons Rabbi Hartman states. And yet he also says that a “rabbi is a teacher whose spiritual role is premised on possession of an intellect understanding of the Jewish tradition,” presupposing that rabbis actually have spiritual roles in Judaism. So where is the spirituality?

What is spirituality?

According to Wikipedia, spirituality “refers to an ultimate or an alleged immaterial reality; an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his/her being; or the “deepest values and meanings by which people live.” That’s probably not a very helpful definition, but spirituality is difficult to define, largely because the spirit cannot be conclusively demonstrated in a material world.

In some branches of Christianity, spirituality is considered synonymous with emotion, or more specifically, an emotional experience that is inspired by a spiritual encounter with God (or one that bypasses God and focuses specifically on Jesus Christ). We tend to think of spirituality as a “feeling.” Most Christians don’t tend to relate to spirituality as a thought or as something that happens when we study and learn from a teacher or rabbi.

And yet, Rabbi Hartman seems to be saying that learning Torah and Talmud is a spiritual experience. I don’t know if that’s what he’s actually saying, but I think I can make a case for it. I think that in Judaism (this is just my opinion, of course), the sense of a Jew’s identity is inexorably tied to Jewish history, traditional Jewish thought, Talmudic study, midrash, halachah, and understanding. You might even think of the passionate debates that occur in yeshivah as a metaphor for a Jew “wrestling with God.” (Genesis 32:22-32)

The concept of wrestling or debating with God may seem alien and even sacrilegious to a Christian, even though we have ample examples from the Bible. Look at Abraham boldly debating with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-33) and Moses pleading with God to spare the Children of Israel after the sin of the Golden Calf. (Exodus 32:9-14). Can a Christian even understand this the way a Jew can?

That said, Rabbi Hartman doesn’t see a complete dissonance between Jews and Christians.

…those early experiences were given profound intellectual and philosophical support in the years of my graduate study at Fordham University. Living with the Jesuits, sensing the intellectual and spiritual integrity of my teachers, observing how our different faiths were reciprocally enriched through our encounters – these were experiences that I could not ignore in developing my own appreciation of what it is to stand as a covenantal Jew before God.

I can’t say that all Jews will agree with Rabbi Hartman’s statements and I’m sure not all Christians will either. We see, based on everything I’ve written and quoted up to this point, that Christianity and Judaism conceptualize themselves and their relationship with God on a spiritual level in fundamentally different ways. We see God and how we are supposed to connect to Him from two totally different directions. And yet there are the occasional glimmers when, if we try hard enough, we just might be able to understand that we have a few things in common, as Rabbi Hartman pointed out in his description of his time among the Jesuits.

But God is One. He is the God of the Jews and the nations. He makes the rains descend on not only Jews and Christians, but on the righteous and unrighteous alike. He sent His “only begotten son” “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:0 ESV)

If God is our teacher, is He providing two wholly dissimilar lessons, one for the Jews and the other for everyone else? Christianity doesn’t think so, but their (our) solution is to replace the original lesson God taught at Sinai with the one taught by Jesus at Calvary. Traditional Jews believe that God teaches a larger lesson (the Torah) to the Jews and a subset of that lesson (the Noahide laws) to the nations.

I don’t agree with either viewpoint and believe that it is God’s intention to ultimately reconcile Israel with the nations as co-existing covenant members, Sinai and Messianic, standing side-by-side in front of the throne of God. I don’t know how to completely articulate this relationship yet, especially in terms of our mutually dependent roles being described in scripture, but I believe it is well worth pursuing.

We see that at the end of all things, the ” throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it (the city), and his servants will worship him.” (Revelation 22:3 ESV) I believe those servants are both Israel and we from among the nations who have demonstrated an enduring faith, who have “fought the good fight,” and “have finished the race.” (2 Timothy 4:7)

If God is speaking to both the Jew and the Christian (and indeed, to the entire world), we must discover what the lesson is and what our teacher wants us to learn. Jesus was rightly called “teacher” and “rabbi” and he taught as did the other rabbis during the late Second Temple period in Israel. This was an experience that his disciples found to be completely consistent with how other disciples learned from their rabbis. From what we see in the Bible, it was also consistent with how we Christians experience spirituality, love, compassion, and truth.

Some Jewish thinkers believe that the Second Temple was destroyed, not because of general faithlessness among the Jews, but because of the sin of baseless hatred between one Jew and another. The counterpoint to this sin, and what some believe will aid in the coming of the Messiah, is for Jews to show unrestrained love by…

reaching out to another person – any other person – and showing him care, consideration, and concern. Do a favor for someone else, not because there is a reason to do so, but because you care for him.

“Keeping In Touch: The Three Weeks”
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson
Adapted by Rabbi Eli Touger

If we are trying to hear the lessons being taught by our rabbi and Master, perhaps reaching out to everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, with care, consideration, and concern, might be a good place to start.

A river of life flows through the inner worlds, emerging from there into your own, carrying with it all your needs.

You need to know about that river, for it carries upstream as well.

When you celebrate that river with a blessing for your food, out loud and with joy, then your voice echoes back with even greater force, replenishing all the higher worlds through which the river passes on its way. The channels of life are widened and their currents grow strong.

Take care of your river. Invest in it and reap the dividends.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Echo Upstream”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

The Master’s Rebuke

peters-denialThe Ahavas Chaim of Viznitz, zt”l, was a huge scholar with profound yir’as shamayim, like all of those who received semichah from the Maharsham, zt”l, one of the undisputed gedolim of his generation.

The rebbe did not flatter anyone. He was always careful to rebuke the Chasidim when they acted inappropriately. For example, as is well known, it is the custom for a rebbe to distribute shiyarim during the tisch. Many Chasidim would push their fellow and grab whatever they could get as if it was a matter of life and death. In Viznitz, the rebbe would often rebuke them for this. “How can you grab shirayim? Don’t you know that the modest kohanim would not grab a portion of the show breads? Clearly, one should not push and grab even in holy matters. Instead of shoving one’s fellows, he should relax and take shiyarim only if he can do so without pushing his friend.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Proper Rebuke”
Chullin 133

A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.” “You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?Mark 9:17-19

We see that Jesus and the Ahavas Chaim of Viznitz have something in common. They both find it necessary to rebuke their disciples when they display inappropriate or even faithless behavior. Both Masters seem to be a little harsh, but perhaps that’s because there’s so much at stake. If the ordinary Jew is commanded to rebuke a fellow Jew who is sinning or about to sin (based on Leviticus 19:17), how much more so should a Teacher be obligated to rebuke his disciples?

In Judaism (and I’ve said this before) the commandment to rebuke the sinner is compared to saving someone’s life. If a Jew sees a fellow Jew moving away from God by entering into sin and does nothing, it’s like being a lifeguard, seeing a person drowning in the ocean, and not lifting a finger to save him. If one regular person has that level of responsibility toward another, then a Teacher and Rabbi must have a tremendous responsibility to guide his disciples into a proper way of relating to other people and to God. To fail to do so, from his exalted position as Rabbi and tzaddik, would be not only failing his students, but failing God.

However, if you’ve ever been rebuked by an angry, yelling teacher, boss, or parent, you know it doesn’t feel good. Not only that, but you know that being yelled at might not result in you correcting your behavior. If you are even the slightest bit rebellious, your response on the surface might be to appear to be obedience, but inside, your opposition might continue to grow, leading your closer to sin rather than returning you to God.

The story from the daf continues, showing us a different path.

But there is another—often more effective—way to deal with those who are wayward. When Rav Dovid Tzvi Shneiblag, zt”l, was confronted with a student who did not comport himself properly, he would call the student in and open a meseches Chulin to a different statement on today’s daf. He would begin to read in a very emotional tone, . As he did so he shed copious tears. “Rav Yehudah says, ‘One who teaches an improper student falls into Gehinom…Teaching an improper student is like throwing a stone to Merucules…’ ”

As he read, crying, the student could not help but feel moved, until he also cried. The rav would gently explain that certain actions were not befitting for a ben Torah and the young man would tearfully agree to change. Many students later recounted that it was this short time with the rav which galvanized them to make a complete change of direction.”

I don’t believe we have any specific example of Jesus using such a method of “rebuke” when addressing his disciples, but I do not doubt there was a time when the disciples did shed tears and likely did recall everything that Jesus was trying to teach them. Sadly, it was when they thought it was too late that they came to this realization. Peter is an especially poignant example.

While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him. “You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said.

But he denied it. “I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about,” he said, and went out into the entryway.

When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, “This fellow is one of them.” Again he denied it.

After a little while, those standing near said to Peter, “Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.”

He began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.”

Immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows twice you will disown me three times.” And he broke down and wept. –Mark 14:66-72

The Death of the MasterAfter all of his protests to the contrary, Peter utterly failed his Master. His tears at that moment were bitter but they must have been much worse once Jesus was dead and the disciples went into hiding. Small wonder that, when at the first of the week, Miriam of Magdalah told the disciples that the tomb was empty, Peter ran all the way to see for himself (John 20:1-4). Hope beyond possibility had given him a second chance. But the agony of his failure and even the tears were not over yet.

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. –John 21:15-17

Peter denied Jesus three times. After the resurrection, Jesus asks Peter three times if he really loves him. Peter would have to be sure of this, for the days were coming when the Master would not be with him, and Peter would have to carry his faith without doubt.

Tears can be more difficult than a loud, angry rebuke, but they can also be the instrument by which we feel the sorrow, rather than angry rebellion, that will inspire us to repent, to turn to God, and to really go in the other direction, walking away from the person opposing God we once were, and to the man or woman of God we were created to be.