Tag Archives: religion

Facts, Truth, and How to Understand God and the Universe (an imperfect commentary)

flat earth
© Elena Schweitzer/Shutterstock

I don’t write here much anymore. Back in the day, I was practically fanatical in my rapid pace of authoring some sort of missive, sharing my perspectives on faith, Messiah, Judaism, and the people of the nations of the world.

What happened?

Well, it got to the point where I felt I said everything I had to say. After all, I’m not a professional theologian. I haven’t been to school for this sort of thing, and have no special training beyond what any layperson in a faith community would have access to. I’m just a guy with an opinion, and believe me, there are far too many of us in the blogosphere, religious or otherwise, as it is.

However, yesterday, I had an interesting conversation with my friend Tom. I see Tom on Sunday afternoons every other week unless one or the other of us has another commitment. Tom suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS, sometimes called “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” He is a man of great faith who, at least when I’m present, faces his ailment with remarkable courage.

We visit in the back bedroom of his home which has been converted to a small den or office. Topics of conversation run from science fiction, comic books, movies, the possibilities and problems with colonization of the Moon, Mars, and even Venus, and just about anything else. We also talk about our faith and what is called “Messianic Judaism” and “Hebrew Roots.”

Many years ago, I ceased attending my local Messianic community (which subsequently disbanded) because I was in a position of leadership and teaching, and as my understanding of my faith and its Biblical foundations evolved, I came to realize that what I had been teaching was pretty much dead wrong. I also realized I had no business teaching anyone anything because I was totally unqualified.

The people I worshiped with didn’t seem to mind one bit and said they enjoyed what I was teaching, but as a matter of conscience, I couldn’t continue.

For a lot of reasons I won’t mention here, I eventually started attending a small, local Baptist church. Just about everyone was nice, and the head Pastor took a liking to me, even to the point of having one-to-one meetings with me almost every Wednesday evening. But in the end, he was trying to convince me to become a good Baptist, and I was trying to convince him of the centrality of corporate Israel in God’s plan of redemption, that the Jewish people remain under the Sinai Covenant, and that the New Covenant, which for the past twenty centuries, has just been peeking through the door at the faithful, so to speak, is merely the writing of Torah on the hearts of Israel, rather than throwing the Five Books of Moses and the writings of the Prophets out the window.

We parted company, and in the years since, I haven’t heard anything from him or anyone else at church.

I’m pretty much a lone wolf these days, reading, studying, and worshiping privately.

So when my friend Tom, who does keep in touch with local, long-term members of the Messianic community, told me there were currently a total of seven “Hebraic” faith groups in our area, I was intrigued. Not enough to sample them, which would complicate matters, including my home life, but I was interested in hearing more.

kjv
© James Pyles – The KJV Bible my Grandma gave me when I was eleven years old

He mentioned a couple who I’d met years ago, and how they had formed their own group. He also mentioned a schism in that group, which happens with some regularity in many of these collectives, but this one was interesting. I guess the problem started with a woman, who is a very intelligent and well-educated mathematician, and who also became a very strict Bible-literalist, as well as a King James Bible only proponent, believing all other translations of the Bible from the original languages into English are bogus.

The most startling revelation was that she also is a Flat Earther. I was stunned.

Supposedly, she dismisses all of the evidence that we live on a globe as conspiracy theories, fake news, faked photographs, and such. This is quite surprising coming from a mathematician, but there are generally two areas of human understanding where dogma and belief seem to outweigh facts in most cases: politics and religion. When you enter those realms, faith and devotion to a set of beliefs, and in many cases, a charismatic leader figure (political or religious) trumps the facts (no pun intended).

The head Pastor at the church I once attended was something of a Bible literalist but not to such an outrageous degree. We live in an observable universe which, to the best of our techniques and our technology, we can objectively examine and re-examine using the scientific method.

Unlike some people I experience in the secular world, I believe science is NOT an object of absolute devotion, and it certainly doesn’t yield accurate results one hundred percent of the time, which is why science is never “settled.” It is a logical, fact-based process of asking questions about some observation, doing research, constructing a hypothesis, testing it, and so on. It is not merely a set of definitive pronouncements by people in lab coats who some treat as their “High Priests.”

All that said, as a person of faith and a rational, (hopefully) intelligent, and educated human being, I believe that the objective universe and the Bible cannot conflict, because in the former case, the universe was created by God, and in the latter case, our Holy writings were inspired by the same God (inspired, but not authored…it’s complicated).

I know atheists who would jump all over me at this point, citing multiple inconsistencies between Biblical text (which they read in English and with little or no background in solid hermeneutics) and what we know about the universe around us.

As far as how we understand scientific knowledge about some phenomenon, let’s consider black holes which are the end products of stars over a certain mass (our sun doesn’t quality and will eventually become a white dwarf star). Albert Einstein first predicted the existence of black holes in 1915, and when I was taking astronomy classes in the mid-1970s, I was taught a certain set of (then-known) “facts” about black holes. The late Stephen Hawking revolutionized our current understanding of black holes, and even more recent studies indicate that perhaps he didn’t get it quite right.

black hole
Credit: Shutterstock

No, science is never “settled.”

However, if studies and experiments are unbiased (and remember, federal government grants fund an awful lot of scientific studies), the results, given the limitations of our tools and our understanding, should be taken as fairly reliable, which is why I believe the Earth is a sphere and not a flat dinner plate.

My understanding of the history of God’s interactions with human beings tells me that He encounters them/us in all manner of circumstances including worship contexts, which means that the Catholic Church, Seventh Day Adventists, or any other body of worshipers is NOT the one and only “true church” rendering every other congregations of believers invalid. Just look at how much the early worshipers of Christ during the lifetime of the apostles gathered, their praxis, and their prayers differ from most if not all church communities today.

But as I said before, politics and religion are areas where people seem to feel free to leave their brains at the door and rigidly adopt perspectives that are sometimes wildly outside of reality (to the best of our ability to understand said-reality).

The Earth is not flat, the KJV Bible is merely the first biblical text that was translated from ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into (now archaic) English and widely disseminated, and science does not disprove God.

Surprised at that last one? How can I say that? There are entire volumes published on trying to answer that question, but let’s briefly consider the nature of God. God creating all of timespace, everything we can observe about the universe and everything we can’t, is like me writing this blog post or drawing a sketch. The creator, by definition, cannot be dependent upon the creation.

Sure, I can write a story about myself, or make a self-portrait, but objectively, I still exist outside of those products. If I delete the blog post or burn the drawing in my fireplace, I don’t cease to exist. I’m still outside of those “universes.”

So is God.

Of course, God can choose to interact with human beings, and His “interaction” with Mount Sinai in Exodus 19 attests that He can physically affect geography, in this case burning the top of the mountain to ashes.

How He does this no one knows, which is why we call it a miracle.

We can observe, again to the best of technology and methodology, everything inside of the universe, but God is not in the universe, which is why whenever people attempt to experience God outside the context of prayer, they turn to arcane mysticism, which is a topic all its own.

In a nutshell, this is why I believe the Earth is a globe, we’ve put men on the Moon, we have populated Mars with human-made robots, and that God is real.

Understanding God, the Bible, and coming to faith isn’t something that happens in an instant and then the religion is “settled.” Yes, people can come to faith in a single moment, but for most of us, it’s a sometimes long process of exploration. It’s one that I haven’t finished yet, and I probably won’t until the day I die. Just like scientific study, the study of the Bible, and evolving in a life of faith is ongoing, and just like science, it is a never ending process. In both circumstances, we largely accept many things about reality because we have to live and interact in the world without constantly confusing ourselves. We have “faith” in the conclusions by which we operate in a day-by-day life, both scientific conclusions and Biblical conclusions.

But none of that means we know it all. The minute we stop asking questions is the minute we become ignorant, uninformed, dogmatic, rigid, and out of touch with the realities of the universe and the Bible.

In the case of the “Flat Earth” lady, she believes in a certain, rigid understanding of the Bible that contradicts observable reality. In some other person’s case, they believe in a certain, sometimes rigid understanding of science, and that all of its conclusions are absolute and final, without considering realities that exist beyond the timespace continuum, and that can only be realized metaphysically.

No human being can know the mind of God, so, as the Apostle Paul quipped in 1 Corinthians 13:12:

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. (emph mine)

The best we can do in understanding both an infinite God and a finite universe is by looking “in a mirror dimly,” a highly distorted and limited set of lenses, because we ourselves and all of our tools and understanding are limited by design.

mirror
Photo credit unknown after search

But it’s not always going to be that way. A day is coming when we will see clearly and everything that we puzzle over now or even downright deny will suddenly make sense. It will be like the day a resurrected Jesus (Yeshua) encountered two men on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), and his explanation of key portions of scripture opened their eyes to the truth of the Messiah (and I wish what he said had been recorded by Luke, because I’d like to hear it, too). Someday it will be like that for all of us, but until then, we need to keep asking questions. Don’t take anything for granted, because if you do, if you stop asking questions, stop seeking a better understanding, whether you are religious or secular, you will become the moral equivalent of a “flat earther.”

I’m very grateful for my relationship with Tom and our regular conversations. He has a brilliant mind and a compassionate heart. He is a good friend and an excellent role model for a man of faith. As David wrote in Psalm 23:3, I think God uses him to restore my soul.

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Finding What’s Most Important

I despair for my involvement in humanity, religious and otherwise. I suppose it was predictable. In fact, a lot of people predicted it. I pretended that I could go it alone, but in the end, it wasn’t possible, let alone reasonable.

I’ve been through the religious argument wars, the Jewish identity wars, the “you’re just a Goy” wars, and I’ve survived. But it’s gotten worse, much worse.

My Aberrant Theology was bad enough, having to struggle with the various flavors of normative Christianity, which frankly, hasn’t appealed to me for quite some time.

But given all of the recent racial unrest, assaults, murders reported in the mainstream media lately, religious people who are also what have been called Social Justice Warriors (not the person who originally posted this to Facebook but one of the more vocal commentators), who are also religious and at least in theory, hold a theological view somewhat similar to my own, I despair.

What’s the point of attempting dialog when each and every time, the only answer is to remain silent or capitulate?

I tried to clarify my views and seek a dialog, but when the discussion got to a certain point, it was abandoned, probably because I didn’t “see the light”.

It’s just like church. It’s just like the contention in Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots, at least as far as my involvement has been.

I know it’s my fault. I’m not easy to live with (a fact my wife can confirm). I don’t play well with others. I don’t roll over. I ask too many questions. When pushed, I push back. Nobody likes that, especially when the point of online debates is to be right and to make sure everyone else knows they’re wrong.

Social justice sounds nice, it sounds, well… “just”, but just like religion, it’s only as good as its weakest link…human beings.

I admit that as I’ve gotten older, my tendency toward being somewhat misanthropic has increased. Yesterday, I put my one year old granddaughter in a stroller and took her for a walk in the neighborhood. During the walk, I kept identifying the potential threats to my grandchild. The family walking two large dogs. The pre-teen boys playing basketball and not paying attention to their proximity to my granddaughter and the potential for collision. Cars driving too fast through the neighborhood.

My granddaughter loves to go for walks, but by the time we got back home, I was a nervous wreck.

Religious pundits make me nervous. So do social justice warriors. At least in social media, they want me to agree with them while asking no questions and simply accepting what they believe is self-evident; that they are always right.

Some months ago, I did a purge on Facebook, Google+, and twitter to eliminate some of the more negative forces in my life. I really need to find more peace and less contention. I don’t thrive on conflict and bringing conflict to others. I need to stop letting myself be drawn into endless and fruitless debates.

It’s nothing personal. I need to do this for me, not against you. It’s been over two weeks since I’ve posted here. Granted, I’ve blogged elsewhere, but even at Powered by Robots, I’ve allowed conversations to occur I never should have. What started out as a venue for my fiction writing turned into a social platform, at least some of the time.

I’m tired of fighting.

I’m considering what next to eliminate from my life so I can reclaim some peace of mind. Maybe killing all news feeds would be a start.

One of the few things I’m sure of is that my grandchildren love me. My grandson loves playing with me, and my granddaughter smiles and laughs when she first sees me after we’ve been apart. That should be what’s most important. Not jumping through the religious and social hoops of people who need something from me I do not have to give.

I don’t have anything to prove to anyone. If God wants me, He certainly knows where to find me. I’ll be on the floor playing with children. And later in the night, I’ll be sleeping and dreaming of tomorrow.

How To Build A Better Life

Writes Rabbi Twerski: the sum total of all the traits that are unique to human beings comprise the spirit that makes us distinctly human. Whether one believes that the spirit was instilled in man by God or somehow developed in the process of human evolution — the fact that human beings have a spirit is independent of one’s belief.

If one is seeking spirituality, then one must exercise his uniquely human capacities. Spirituality is thus nothing more than the implementation of these capacities, hence spirituality can be seen as being synonymous with humanity. To the degree that a person is lacking in spirituality, to that degree he is lacking in humanity.

Without including religion in the definition of spirituality, the above definition is for generic spirituality. However, for Jewish spirituality one needs to look to the Torah for direction on how a Jew should exercise his uniquely human capacities!

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz citing
Rabbi Abraham Twerski’s book Twerski on Spirituality
in this week’s “Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Aish.com

Which begs the question of what Rabbi Packouz or Rabbi Twerski would believe a non-Jew’s proper expression of spirituality should be. Probably as a Noahide, but I’ve covered that territory before.

Taking a step back, what makes human beings unique and spiritual beings? From R. Twerski’s book, Rabbi Packouz lists eight attributes:

  1. The ability to learn from past history.
  2. The capacity to think about the goal and purpose of one’s existence.
  3. The capacity to volitionally improve oneself.
  4. The capacity to delay gratification.
  5. The capacity to reflect on the consequence of his actions.
  6. The capacity to control anger.
  7. The capacity to forgive.
  8. Free will.
Rabbi Kalman Packouz
Rabbi Kalman Packouz

Granted, that people possess these abilities doesn’t mean they exercise them all the time (and some people exercise them almost none of the time, or so it seems), but we do possess them and they are at our disposal.

Please click the link to R. Packouz’s article that I inserted above to read the definitions for each of the numbered items. I’ll quote from the last one here: Free Will.

Animals are under the absolute domination of their body and cannot make a free choice. If hungry, it must look for food. It can’t decide to fast today. If a jackal sees a tiger eating a carcass, it will refrain for fear of retribution. Only a human being can be in a position with no possibility of detection or retribution and decide not to steal because it is morally and ethically wrong.

To the best of my understanding, only a human being can contemplate God and his/her relationship to Him. Only a human being can deliberately ignore God or dismiss Him as “unreal”.

However, since God gave us these capacities, we are responsible for putting them into play and in how we choose to use each of them.

That means we are responsible for not only learning from our past mistakes, but the past mistakes of our ancestors; history’s past mistakes.

Thus a world of human beings should have learned from thousands of years of anti-Semitism and Jew-hatred, but that doesn’t seem to be taking place. The Church as a unified entity (understanding that there are actually thousands upon thousands of separate denominations) should have learned that the Jewish people and Israel have not been rendered obsolete because of “Jesus,” but that doesn’t appear to be happening either. So far, humanity has done a rather poor job of learning from history, in spite of the fact that so-called “progressives” believe they are “on the right side of history” (but are they on the “right side of God?”).

I mentioned a little earlier that only human beings are able to contemplate God. Item two seems related to this since our goal and the purpose of our existence cannot be separated from God’s reason for creating each of us. And yet, how many times have you asked yourself why God specifically created you and why you are here in the first place? I’ve asked myself that question many times. I still do.

I heard a bit of dialogue in an otherwise unremarkable movie once that’s stuck with me:

Her: “People change.”

Him: “Most people don’t.”

Once we’ve locked on to a goal or goals for ourselves, we can create a plan for personal improvement and enact that plan.

Yeah, right.

OK, maybe that’s unfair, but most people, including me, get to a certain point in our personal development and then tend to stay there. Depending on what stage the person is stalled or stuck at, they can be adequate and even accomplished human beings, or they can be desperately flawed and dysfunctional.

FallingSome people make many plans and goals but fall flat at the execution stage. Others become too anxious to even imagine a plan to change and perform the metaphorical act of “hiding under the bed,” as if life will just leave them alone if they ignore it.

Fasting on Yom Kippur (or for other reasons) teaches delaying gratification. Actually, anyone who’s ever been a parent or grandparent knows all about delaying gratification.

My wife and I had our grandkids for the weekend. Actually, our son brought them over for dinner last Thursday and Friday evening as well, so we saw a great deal of them all. My grandson is seven years old, and my granddaughter is 9 months. They have radically different needs and meeting the needs of both simultaneously isn’t always easy.

Since babies need more attention than little boys, my grandson sometimes had to delay gratification. When I was alone watching both kids and I needed for feed my granddaughter, my grandson had to find something else to do besides play with Grandpa (don’t worry…we found plenty of opportunities to have adventures).

It goes without saying that my wife and I, as well as the kids’ Dad, Uncle, and Auntie, all delayed gratification to one degree or another when the children were in our home. That’s what adults do, especially when taking care of kids. That’s what you do when you love someone and you put their needs and wants ahead of your own.

Ideally, it’s what you do when you love God and you recognize what He wants you to do and what His priorities for you are. It’s not like God is a dictator or doesn’t want you to have time to relax or have fun, but as His servants and His children, we have a responsibility to Him first and foremost. If we see someone else in our world who has a need, God has given us the ability to attend to that need first because, after all, it’s the right thing to do.

Not that we actually do so all the time.

Consequences, like Karma, are a b**** (you probably know how to finish that quote). They are also a reality of life. For instance, if you choose not to pay a debt, your wages or taxes can be garnished. I think this goes along with delaying gratification.

Unless you are insanely wealthy, you have only so much money each month to work with. That means, if you are at all responsible, you have a budget. You may “flex” it a little bit with a credit card, but when all the bills come in, they need to be paid.

That means choosing to pay for necessities first, such as food, housing, clothing, and so forth, and only afterward using money to “play”. Reversing that process tends to lead to painful consequences.

no evil
Image: vintagecardprices.com

There are also consequences for “blowing off” God. They most likely aren’t immediate. We know that will be an accounting, a judgment at the end of all things, so it may seem as if God is giving you a pass with what ever sin(s) you have a problem with.

Sure, God can arrange for natural consequences. If you use drugs or alcohol habitually, all God has to do is wait for your body to start falling apart. Same for overeating (which is a big problem in our nation). Same for a lot of things. The consequences are built into many sins. For some though, you just have to stand by. Don’t worry. They’ll come. Or you can learn from your mistakes and improve your life so you stop sinning and thus avoid uncomfortable consequences.

Your choice (free will, remember?).

Every time I drive anymore, I get a lesson in controlling my anger. I’m not always successful. It seems that as I get older, I don’t have as great a capacity to tolerate traffic. Good thing I live near Boise, Idaho now rather than Orange County, California.

But going back to the example of being a parent or grandparent for a moment, let’s take another look at controlling anger. Sometimes adults get angry at kids, at least momentarily. You catch a kid coloring on the freshly painted walls of her bedroom or letting the air out of your car’s tires (I did the latter once when I was five). Your immediate tendency is to explode at them (Don’t worry, my Dad didn’t).

If you are a mature adult, you stop yourself. Really, they’re just kids. They do stuff like that. Yeah, you can create consequences for their behavior so they can learn more about right and wrong, but blowing up at a kid is just satisfying your own impulses rather than displaying good parenthood.

The same is true when you get angry at another adult in the presence of your kids. Parents fight sometimes. Some fights are louder than others. While yelling and screaming at a significant other doesn’t do you or them any good (how many people have changed for the better as a result of being screamed at?), if kids are around, it’s not only uncomfortable, it’s terrifying.

When Mom and Dad have a major emotional eruption at each other, it’s like the kid’s world has fallen apart. The two people in life who a child absolutely must depend upon and believe in have just exploded into a temper tantrum that makes Mount St Helens look like a firecracker, and that means the two people who are supposed to provide for the physical and emotional security of their child have completely failed and gone down in flames, pulling their child in with them.

divorceOK, I get it. People argue sometimes. Fine. We’re all human, in good ways and bad. But don’t do it when your children are around. That’s not being a good parent, adult, or human being.

The flip side is the capacity to forgive. But wait.

I think Rabbi Packouz (and maybe Rabbi Twerski) missed something. It’s not just about putting our own hurts aside and forgiving the person who hurt us. How about the ability to say you’re sorry, mean it, and ask for forgiveness when you’re the one who’s “blown it?”

If you indeed have blown up at someone or otherwise have failed to maintain behavior consistent with being a mature adult, after you’ve calmed down and realized the consequences of your actions, you have the option of apologizing and asking forgiveness.

Bernie Sanders recently accused the IDF of killing 10,000 innocents in an operation responding to terrorist acts initiated in Gaza. He admitted in the radio interview that he wasn’t sure of his statistics, then went ahead and uttered his outrageous statements anyway.

When later confronted with the fact that the figure was more like 2,300 “Palestinian” Arabs, and many of them were combatants, not innocent bystanders, instead of Bernie apologizing, he said that the New York Daily News distorted his statement.

I heard the radio interview and nothing was distorted or misrepresented except Sanders’ so-called “facts”. Bernie could have taken the moral high road and admitted his mistake (it’s pretty easy to make one when you don’t have accurate information immediately at hand), but instead, he chose to (in my opinion) lie about it, avoid personal responsibility, and blame others for his own inadequacies.

While R. Packouz citing R. Twerski’s list of items of what it is to be human seems pretty optimistic, it’s all too apparent that being human has some serious drawbacks. We have all of these wonderful abilities, and a lot of the time, we don’t use them or don’t use them very well.

Which brings us back to free will.

We can recognize that we are flawed, imperfect, and sometimes even damaged and dysfunctional human beings who have these terrific capacities and screw up using them more often than not.

screw it
Image: giudittagareri.com

We can recognize all that and say “screw it.” We can give up. Someone recently wrote about this on her blog. Her choice was go not give up and not give in, but to stay the course.

Moved by her struggle, I offered this:

Affirmations are powerful. They work for us or against us. Every statement we tell ourselves about who we are and what we find possible is really an affirmation. Positive affirmations build us. Negative affirmations do the opposite. So right now you can tell yourself a great affirmation: “I choose better, higher, and wiser self-talk each and every day.”

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin

The trick about positive affirmations, is that they need to be used as motivators for actual change, not just internet “memes” that sound good, but only serve to create the illusion that you already are the person you want and need to be.

Using the positive affirmation that you are courageous means that you have to follow-up by facing some difficult situation with courage, rather than avoiding it. Using the positive affirmation that you are compassionate means that you have to follow-up by showing compassion to another person, even if they aren’t very easy to get along with. Using the positive affirmation that you are productive and self-supporting means…

…well, you get the idea.

Bernie Sanders is a politician, so I expect him to lie, even to himself. However Bernie Sanders, like the rest of us, is a human being, and thus, he is ultimately responsible for using what God gave him or to face the consequences…in this life or the next.

Since he’s Jewish, as the quote I placed at the top of today’s “meditation” attests, he’s responsible for looking “to the Torah for direction on how a Jew should exercise his uniquely human capacities!”

As far as I can tell, he’s got a long way to go.

But so do the rest of us.

Where do we look (assuming non-Jews) for direction on how we should exercise our uniquely human capacities? If you are a normative Christian, you’ll probably say “the Bible” and really means your particular church’s interpretation of scripture.

If you’re someone like me, the answer is essentially the same, but the interpretation is different, sometimes really different.

I recently read a question in a closed Facebook group asked by a non-Jew who was wondering what sources he could consult to determine if we, like the Jewish people, are obligated or at least allowed to participate in specific times and practices of prayer. There was a brief but lively discussion, and the general consensus was that while we may not be obligated, we are most likely allowed to pray in a manner similar to Jewish praxis, adjusting for a non-Jewish and non-covenant relationship with God.

And all this takes us back to the question I implied at the top of today’s blog post: What is a non-Jew’s proper expression of spirituality given a more “Judaic” understanding of the meaning and purpose of the Bible, the Messiah, and Jewish Israel?

loveThat answer is our ongoing struggle for self-definition and, for some of you at least, your role and purpose within Jewish community. For the rest of us, it’s merely working out who we are to God and to other human beings, community notwithstanding. At the end of the day, regardless of who we are, who is in our lives, and what we believe, it’s just us and God.

What we do matters. Each day is an opportunity to do just a little bit better than you did the day before. With each morning’s dawn you can dedicate yourself to having a good day. With each passing day, you are building a life. Let’s all try to build a good one.

Individual commitment to a group effort — that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.

-Vince Lombardi

What Does “Torah” Mean To You?

For clarification, by the word “Torah,” I do not just mean the Torah, as in the Five Books of Moses, but to all Jewish religious texts such the Hebrew Bible, rabbinic and halakhic texts, and kabbalistic and hasidic texts.

-Rabbi Joel E. Hoffman
“Why I Learn Torah Daily”
Aish.com

This somewhat dovetails with what I wrote in The Torah Without Judaism, and particularly the brief exchange I had in the comments section of that blog post with reader ProclaimLiberty.

The question for the Messianic and particularly the “Messianic Gentile” or “Talmid Yeshua” is what the word “Torah” means to us.

There’s probably no one answer, since depending on the given disciple, Jewish or Gentile, the perspective is going to vary.

What do I mean by “Torah?”

This is just my personal opinion. I’m not trying to tell anyone what to do. But I think it’s a helpful question we should all ask ourselves periodically, rather than just assume that our answer is “the answer.”

From my point of view, “Torah” includes the whole Bible, and by that I mean the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets, the Writings, and the Apostolic Scriptures. However, I also habitually read articles and commentaries found at Aish.com and Chabad.org, mainly to get a Jewish viewpoint on what I’m studying.

Granted, I am doing a lot of mental editing when I read content from those resources, since those sites and their information are written by and for Jews, not Gentiles, particularly not for Christians, and absolutely not for anyone with my unique conceptualization of scripture, Messiah, and Hashem.

christian books
Photo: sharonglasgow.com

I don’t typically read traditional Christian resources, even though they are far more Yeshua (Jesus) focused, because, frankly, I just don’t relate to them. I’ve always had a problem with “Christianese,” even when I first became a believer about twenty years ago.

I do read the occasional Christian-oriented book here and there, but either I don’t get very much out of them, or I actively criticize their content.

There have been other resources I have heavily consumed in the past, and they still guide the majority of my thinking and beliefs, but for a variety of reasons, I’ve chosen not to pursue them further, at least to any significant degree.

I have become aware that a debate somewhat like the one I previously mentioned is occurring at a Hebrew Roots blogspot, and the discussion there is very contentious.

However, the blog owner did provide a link to a brief review of a book by Rabbi Chaim Clorfene called The World of the Ger. You can learn more about it at the blog Soul Mazal.

I know that there are some “Messianic Gentiles” who at least suggest the path of the Noahide is an appropriate journey for them/us as well, and I’ve written on this before.

I think there are some things we might take from that example, but it’s also filled with trap doors and land mines. It’s far too easy for some of us to confuse our faith in Hashem and devotion to our Rav with the practice of Judaism or Noahidism. Hence the fact that we see some non-Jews in our communities as well as in churches leave Yeshua-faith and either join the ranks of the Noahide or convert to (Orthodox) Judaism.

It would almost be better for believing Gentiles to stay in their churches rather than take such a risk.

But then, in my opinion, their perspectives regarding what the Bible really says about Israel, the Jewish people, the redemption of the world, and yes, about Judaism, would remain limited if not misguided.

studyAs with many other questions I bring up, I don’t have a hard and fast answer for you. Interestingly enough, this brings us back to Rabbi Hoffman’s brief essay:

I learn Torah every day because it gives me a cohesive set of answers to all of the ultimate questions.

I suppose, from Rabbi Hoffman’s perspective, it does, but it doesn’t work that way for me. I still have far more questions than I do “ultimate” answers.

But here’s another wrinkle R. Hoffman introduces:

I learn Torah every day because it connects me with the millions of other Jews worldwide who also learn Torah every day.

That works if you are a religious Jew, but not so much for we non-Jews, even Noahides, I suspect. After all, how Torah applies to the Ger is remarkably different from how it applies to the Jew, at least in the details, although keep in mind that I also previously mentioned a private Jewish school in Utah that teaches Jewish values to a student body made up of 75% non-Jews.

And that’s one of the reasons, maybe one of my top reasons, for studying the Torah as I understand it. To seek a common ground where I as a non-Jew can stand and learn who God is and who I am to Him through a Jewish lens.

But I craft that “lens” to fit more my particular “eyesight” requirements, since I’m not a Jew and I consider myself more than a Noahide.

The one advantage I have is that I stand outside of actual, face-to-face Jewish or Christian community. Neither one can have too strong a pull on me, although the Pastor at the church I attended for two years certainly tried as hard as he could to turn me into a good Baptist.

But since, as I’ve admitted, I find Jewish thought more appealing, I suppose if I were constantly exposed to Jewish community of the non-Messianic variety, I’d be putting myself at risk of being influenced to the point of challenging my faith. I don’t know if it would go that far, but why take the chance?

That may be why so many of us are unaffiliated, although there are plenty of other reasons.

Laying TefillinIf I study Torah as I understand it and don’t adopt the praxis of Judaism, I can’t be as strongly influenced to confuse Judaism with my identity and role as God created them for me. I also can’t be accused (as sometimes occurs) of misappropriating the things unique to the covenant relationship between Hashem and the Jewish people, such as Shabbat, Kosher, the prayers, donning a tallit gadol, or laying tefillin.

If you’re Jewish, then I say what’s yours is yours.

If I’m not Jewish and I don’t identify as a traditional Christian, all that’s left, assuming I retain my Yeshua-faith, is a journey to discover who I am uniquely in my relationship with my Rav.

If you confuse that with either Judaism or Christianity, you might already have lost your way.

The Torah Without Judaism?

The article got me thinking; why don’t we create a 30-Day Challenge for Jewish things like mitzvot to help Jewish people undertake a new level of commitment? After all, Judaism is not an all or nothing religion. Whatever steps a person takes to follow the mitzvot, no matter what level or station of life they are at, that is always a plus and to be applauded and celebrated. If you don’t observe Shabbat but decide to light candles, then good for you! That’s a great positive step. Doing that one thing is better than doing nothing. Judaism is a journey that is taken one step at a time.

-Rabbi Tzvi Nightingale
“The 30-Day Jewish Challenge”
Aish.com

It’s Friday afternoon at the McGillis School in Salt Lake City, and students from the third through fifth grades are gathered for the weekly Shabbat celebration.

They read and discuss a passage about humility by former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Then a blond girl with braided hair prepares to light the candles. A hush falls over the room as the flames are kindled, and the students recite the practiced benediction in unison:

“As we bless this source of light, the warmth these candles bring reminds us of times we gave light and received light,” they sing, followed by a recitation of the traditional Shabbat candle-lighting blessing in Hebrew.

The ceremony is not dissimilar from weekly Shabbat celebrations held in Jewish schools across America.

Except for one thing: The student lighting the candles isn’t Jewish. Nor is the one who follows her to recite the kiddush blessing over grape juice. Nor the one after that who recites Hamotzi over the challah bread.

-Uriel Heilman
“With 75% non-Jewish students, Utah’s Jewish school seeks to universalize Judaism”
Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA)

I had a good conversation with a friend of mine over coffee last Sunday. However, things became a bit “pointed” when the discussion turned to “Judaism vs. Torah.” I know that’s a strange thing to say, but bear with me.

I actually haven’t talked with anyone on this topic in quite some time…maybe for years. It’s the same old saw I used to see wheeled out when I was active in the Hebrew Roots movement; the idea that one can be obedient, or subservient, or compliant to the written Torah without having any sort of involvement with the Talmud or otherwise, the “oral Law”.

My friend referenced two groups of Jews in Israel he has some familiarity with…well, he’s familiar with one group more than the other.

synagogueHe says one group is active in encouraging Messianic Jews in the Land to start attending synagogue services within normative (probably Orthodox) Judaism as opposed to meeting with Messianic Jewish congregations. I don’t know how true this is since I’m getting it third hand, but it’s something to consider.

The other group (I’m purposely not naming names), the one my friend is more familiar with, are Messianic Jews who live their lives observing the written Torah and only the written Torah as they understand it.

Granted, from an outsider’s point of view, many of the customs of say, the Breslovers may seem archaic and odd, but I just don’t see how one can observe the mitzvot without consulting the Rabbis, at least to some degree. This is because the written portion of the Torah doesn’t always describe how to perform the mitzvot. Apart from the Karaites, all religious Jews rely on Rabbinic rulings and traditions to help them navigate the Torah, although according to the Wikipedia page I just referenced:

Karaite Jews do not object to the idea of a body of interpretation of the Torah, along with extensions and development of non-Rabbinic Halakha (Jewish law) that strives to adhere to the Tanakh’s straightforward meaning. Several hundred such books have been written by various Karaite Ḥakhamim (sages) throughout the movement’s history, although most are lost today.

This begs the question of whether or not modern Rabbinic Judaism is an absolute requirement for Jewish (or non-Jewish) Torah observance. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

My friend has certain problems with modern Judaism, such as why the majority of religious Jews aren’t trying to be a light to the nations.

He says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Isaiah 49:6 (NASB)

I did mention that The Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, actively promoted Noahidism among the Gentiles. Granted, this probably isn’t what my friend meant when he said Israel is commanded to be a light to the nations, but from the Rebbe’s point of view, that’s exactly what he was doing.

The RebbeOn the other hand, the article published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency shows at least one Jewish school being that light:

“We have Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and LDS students,” said head of school Matt Culberson, using the acronym for Latter-day Saints, or Mormons. “But this school takes Jewish culture as its foundational point. We start with Judaism first.”

The outgrowth of a JCC early childhood program that morphed into an independent K-8 school about 15 years ago, McGillis may be the only American Jewish school of its kind. The vast majority of its students – 75 percent – are not Jewish, by the administration’s reckoning. And though McGillis teaches Jewish values, Jewish holidays and Hebrew, it does not teach Judaism as a religion.

And what are Jewish values without the Jewish religion as such?

Practically everywhere you turn, identical blue posters advertise the school’s guiding Jewish values: tzedakah (translated as “giving to others”); tikkun olam (“repairing the world”); gemilut hasadim (“doing good and kind deeds”); derech eretz (“having respect for all”); limud l’shma (“learning for the sake of learning”), and kehillah (“our community”). Students, teachers and administrators constantly reference these values, albeit sometimes straining to pronounce the Hebrew.

Yes, I can certainly see those values being universal in scope and not restricted to the Torah, the Jewish people, and Judaism, although these values are exemplified in Judaism.

They probably are in Christianity as well, at least most of them, but I’m sure Christians would have different names for those values and activities.

And I did tell my friend that if he believes Judaism is a poor reflection of the Torah as it was originally understood and lived out by the ancient Israelites, then Christianity is just as poor a reflection of the teachings of Rav Yeshua (Jesus) and his emissary to the people of the nations, Rav Shaul (the Apostle Paul).

So should we attempt to reconstruct the Torah observance of the ancient Israelites and the devotion to Rav Yeshua of the very early non-Jewish disciples? I’m not sure how we could do it with any hope of accuracy. Too many Hebrew Roots people who think they have done so marshal a whole lot of chutzpah and much too little respect, and occasionally march into synagogues to tell the Rabbi that he is doing it all wrong.

I have a rather unique view of my local Jewish community through the eyes of my wife, so I’m quite aware of how Jewish people take to such bold intrusions into their space.

PogromI tried to explain to my friend that after nearly two-thousand years of persecution, pogroms, maimings, and murder committed upon the Jewish people by their non-Jewish neighbors (most often Christians), I can see why Jews aren’t falling all over themselves to share their version of the “good news” of the Torah with the rest of the world. Jewish insularity and Talmud have gone a long way to preserve the Jewish people and Judaism, when the rest of us were trying to wipe both from the face of the Earth.

He reminded me that there have been groups of Christian missionaries who have been wiped out by indigenous people in far off corners of the world, at least historically, who have then been followed by more missionaries, risking their own lives, who eventually did share the salvation of Christ with the folks who had butchered their predecessors.

And while I admire the courage of these missionaries, and do not in the slightest demean their accomplishments, it’s one thing for a single, isolated people group to kill one party of missionaries, and another thing entirely for the vast majority of this planet’s population to continually attempt genocide against the Jewish people as a religion and a race.

And if God intends on judging the Jewish people along with the rest of us, that’s God’s privilege, not mine.

Apart from small groups of Messianic Jews (or non-Jews) who believe they can disregard Rabbinic Judaism out of hand and practice a greater fidelity to the Torah and to God by doing so, the majority of religious Jews, Messianic and otherwise, observe the mitzvot and serve Hashem within the religious, cultural, social, and historical context of Judaism.

As we saw in the JTA article, Judaism can successfully transmit universal moral values to non-Jews without necessarily transmitting Judaism as a religious construct.

When brings me back to Rabbi Nightingale’s 30-Day Jewish Challenge, as well as to the idea of a Torah observance without Judaism.

Whether you care to admit it or not, your worship of God operates within a specific religious, social, cultural, and community context. Even if you are alone in your faith as I am, you get your understanding and interpretation of the Bible from somewhere, and your praxis was probably not invented just by you.

Some sort of organized body or bodies imparted all that upon you, and you continue with it because it makes sense to you, even if your religion and practices don’t always make sense to others.

Within the various streams of mainstream Judaism, Judaism makes sense to religious Jews. The same can be said for the numerous denominations of Christianity. That an outside observer can criticize and point to portions of the Bible that seem to contradict the activities within those branches and denominations, doesn’t mean it’s seen the same way from the inside.

McGillis School
Head of School Matt Culberson says the McGillis School tries to inculcate the school’s guiding Jewish principles across the curriculum. (Uriel Heilman)

No system is perfect, and a lot of systems are dysfunctional, but when you say that Judaism is broken because it treats the Talmud as more authoritative than the Torah, you are making that statement from inside some system, not from a 100% objective understanding of the Torah.

If you say that Judaism is biased in a particular way, so are you. We all are. No one exists without bias, without a perspective, without an interpretation.

I’m not in any shape to be tilting at windmills. I’ve got enough to deal with in my own life. Sure, sometimes I take a stab at religious criticism, but I don’t like to make a habit of it.

If I have to judge, I guess I’ll start with myself. If, in any sense, I can be successful in practicing charity, repairing the world, doing good and kind deeds, having respect for all, and learning for the sake of learning (I don’t have a kehillah or community, so that one’s out), then maybe I’m not doing so bad (although a 30-day challenge or some other form of “upping my game” wouldn’t hurt).

If I look at other communities and they’re doing the same thing, maybe they’re not doing so bad either.

Final word. In case you’re wondering, I’m not trying to bang away at my friend. We don’t always agree on everything, but we do get along, and I cherish our relationship. He’s a kind, intelligent person who I believe is close to the Spirit of God and who walks in the footsteps of our Rav.

May it be that way for all of us.

If Your Religion is Boring, It’s Because of You

“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion – its message becomes meaningless.”

-Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

I originally found the meme on Facebook but it led to James F. McGrath’s blog (which is at Pathoes and thus cluttered with too many ads that slow the blog page from loading in the browser) where he doesn’t say that much more about it. All McGrath commented on was this:

The quote was circulating on social media recently, and so I thought it should be turned into a meme. I made the one above and scheduled the post. Then yesterday I saw that Christians Tired of Being Misrepresented had made their own meme with (a truncated version of) the quote. And so I am including that one too, below. I am glad Heschel’s words are getting this much attention just in time for Evolution Weekend, for which they seem especially appropriate.

See also Jim Kidder’s post on the attempt of the Discovery Institute to do precisely what Heschel criticizes.

For some reason, this reminded me of articles such as Millennials leaving church in droves, study finds and 5 Things Millennials Wish the Church Would Be.

The former article begins:

At its core, Christian life is set of sacred traditions linking generations of sacraments and Sunday school lessons, youth ministry morals and family gatherings sanctified by prayer. An unbroken circle, in the words of an old hymn.

netflixMaybe that’s the problem, assuming it’s true. If the rituals, sacraments, and Sunday school lessons don’t connect to anything but the life you lead on Sunday morning and evaporate immediately afterward, then religion is no more relevant to your day-to-day existence than watching an hour-long television show once a week. In fact, given how much attention entertainment is given in our culture, that TV series may actually be more relevant, since it has a much wider audience, thus giving you more people to relate to through the show.

In the latter story, the first question it says millenials are asking is “Is our church real or relevant?”

I guess the question I’d respond with is “Are you real or relevant?”

OK, that was a tad snarky, but hear me out.

In any human endeavour, it can be said that you will get out of it what you put into it. I think that extends to the world of religion and faith as well. If you want a “relevant” relationship with God, you have to seek it out. It’s not just going to happen.

Sure, God can do anything including override your free will, but experience and the Bible teach me that He’s not going to do that. He requires much, and we only find relevancy and a sense of our faith being real when we respond, not just for a few hours on Sunday (or on Saturday if you’re Jewish or otherwise attend a synagogue), but for seven days a week during each waking moment.

I know, I know. Easier said than done, and I’ll be the first one to admit that I don’t attend to the desires and requirements of God every time I take a breath. It’s too easy to get distracted by our jobs, home life, taking kids to soccer practice, dozens and dozens of mundane tasks where, in order to be mindful of the living God, we must make the extra effort to turn to Him, even as He’s waiting for us to do that.

I think the problem with the perceived lack of relevance of religion in modern life is the misunderstanding on what religion is. Yes, part of it has to do with ritual, and particularly for observant Jews, set times for prayer, gathering with a minyan, blessings upon donning a tallit and laying tefillin, blessings before eating, different blessings depending on what you’re eating, blessings after eating, blessings over lighting the Shabbos candles, blessings over…

DaveningI’m making Judaism sound rather cumbersome, but only to make a point.

If that’s your total vision and understanding of your religion, it’s going to eventually get either really boring or a less-than-mindful habit that you practice by rote. Perhaps comforting, but ultimately meaningless.

Christians do this too, it just isn’t called “ritual”. Go to church, get greeted at the door, chit-chat with a Bible in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other until the service starts, go through the ritual of the service, listening to announcements, standing and sitting, singing, greeting the people around you when you’re told, putting money in a plate, more music, listening to the sermon (maybe even taking notes but more often than not just zoning out), going to Sunday school (or not because it’s boring and you have better things to do), agreeing with the standard party line during class and not asking questions that you don’t already know the answers to…

That’s really tedious as well. No wonder there’s a mad rush to leave for Sunday brunch afterwards and then maybe get in a quick game of golf.

I know you’ve heard this before and I know I’ve said this before in a number of different ways, but it’s one of those messages I believe needs to be repeated often.

Because if decades ago, Rabbi Heschel could recognize this problem, and in this day and age, the problem seems worse than ever, just dropping the message into a single blog post and walking away isn’t going to have much (or any) impact.

Is your church or synagogue boring, not real, irrelevant? Maybe that’s because you are. If you want something more out of your religion, start putting more into it. Stop acting like religion is something you’ve just added to your pre-existing life, and start acting like you can’t live without an active, pulsating, moment-by-moment encounter with God.

Easier said than done, I know.

I can’t tell you exactly how to do all that. I’m still figuring it out for myself. This is as far as I can take you, assuming this is territory you want to explore.

I know what I’m about to say is full of trap doors, but your relationship with God isn’t wholly dependent on ritual and religious celebrations. It’s more about stopping whatever you’re doing right now and turning toward God. Then it’s about doing that again as often as you can.

Helping the HomelessIt’s about seeing human needs all around us as opportunities to serve God in a real, meaningful, and relevant way. Donate food to a food bank and your old clothing to a homeless shelter. Visit a sick friend at their home or in the hospital. Comfort the widow who has just lost her husband. Donate clothing, toys, and any other necessary items to foster children.

If you want your religion to be real and relevant, live a real and relevant life. I said I didn’t know how to take you any further, but all of the suggestions I made in the previous paragraph are based on what the Bible says God wants us to do.

If your religion is boring, it’s because of you. If you’re religion is relevant, same answer. All you have to do is listen to God and your faith will never be boring again.

Our problem is we don’t always listen. For some of us, we listen so infrequently that we’ve forgotten (or never learned) what God’s voice sounds like.