Tag Archives: student

Top Hat and Shoes

Top Hat and ShoesAbsolute truth is hard to come by. Many gedolim made it their life goal to speak and act only in accordance with their true level. Rav Yerucham Levovitz, zt”l, gave an interesting explanation of why one should not act above his level.

He said, “This can be compared to a person who wears a luxurious top hat but is absolutely barefoot. Surely all who see him will remark at the inappropriateness of such an imbalance in this man’s apparel! The same is true in spiritual matters. One must first put on his shoes, which are the foundation middos. Then he can aim for higher.

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
“Perhaps He is Not His Father…”
Chullin 11

I’m immediately reminded of two other stories; the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Anderson, and Kabbalah and the Art of Tying Your Shoelaces by Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh. The former tells a tale of self-delusion which others are willing to buy into, and the latter assures us that the Torah was given so that even the most mundane acts in our lives can be seen as holy.

Besides the clothing motif, what do they have in common? Let me explain.

Rav Levovitz shows us that, as people of faith, we strive to achieve higher spiritual goals. If we are at all connected with God and we’re on speaking terms, we “know” that we can be closer to Him and we can be better people. We can be the people God designed us to be. However, it’s not that easy.

Have you ever set a goal for yourself that, in retrospect, you realized was unrealistically high. Have you ever aimed at achieving something lofty before doing the ground work and laying a foundation for what comes next? I know I have. I believe it’s a fairly common human behavior. We fail, not because we are lazy or don’t have high aspirations, but because we don’t look at the entire sequence of events between where we are and where we want to go. We try to jump from “A” to “Z”, without going through the intervening letters of the alphabet. We fool ourselves into thinking that we don’t have to.

Rabbi Ginsburgh puts what we need to do very simply and elegantly:

First put on your right shoe, then your left shoe, then bind your left shoe, and finally bind your right shoe. That’s the way Jews do it.

Hans Christian Andersen shows us what happens when we cut corners and don’t pay attention to the difference between fantasy and reality.

If you feel like you’re in a rut in your church life, in your synagogue life, in your prayer life, in your spirituality…it’s probably because you are.

A relationship with God is like being married. When you first get married, it’s all exciting and romantic and thrilling. Then five years go by. Ten. Fifteen. Suddenly, you realize you’ve been married for almost thirty years and sometimes, life at home seems pretty boring. Not much romance is going on. No thrills have happened for months, maybe years. Is this the goal you were shooting for?

Let’s go through that story again with a slight twist. You’ve been married for fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years. Some days are better than others. The “magic” in the marriage comes and goes, waxes and wanes. It’s sometimes pretty good and sometimes not so good, but in the end, you find that nothing really gets better or more intimate. Stuck in a rut again.

Let’s apply that back to your relationship with God.

You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. –James 4:2-3

In marriages, sometimes a breakdown in communication makes it difficult to understand your spouse. Since God always understands us, the breakdown in our relationship with Him can only come from us. We don’t know what to ask or we ask with bad motives. Who am I? Who is God? What do we have in common? How can we communicate? How can I get closer to Him? I put on my best top hat, but I forget to put on socks and shoes. What can I do? Maybe Rav Yerucham has the answer:

In Kotz, a certain chassid who served God with his entire heart once exclaimed while praying, “Oy, Tatte! Oh, Father!”

A fellow Kotzker heard this and quoted a statement on today”s daf, “And maybe he is not his father…”

This shook the chassid up quite a bit and pushed him to consult with the Kotzker Rebbe. Although the rebbe gave many short shrift, he gave this man encouragement. The rebbe said, “You need to cry out, ‘Oy, Tatte,’ so much that He becomes truly like a father to you!”

That sounds almost like:

I will proclaim the LORD’s decree: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have become your father. –Psalm 2:7

Going to GodA few days ago, I wrote about how a spiritual leader can profoundly affect our lives, not just by what he teaches or by his example, but by inspiring us to be better people. It is said that the Rebbe who is head of a Yeshiva is like a father to his students. Indeed, the Rebbe is considered even more of a father than the student’s actual father. A father brings physical life to a child but a Rabbi and teacher brings the student to the Torah and to God, which gives life beyond measure.

Both in Judaism and in Christianity, we call God “Father”, but we don’t recognize Him as our Father until we desperately cry out to Him with all our strength. At that moment, He becomes our Father and we become sons and daughters. All people were created in God’s own image, so regardless of your religious tradition or even if you have no faith at all, you are still God’s child. You only need to recognize that fact and call out to Him.

For those of you who know you are sons and daughters, but who seem to be spinning your wheels in your relationship with Him, cry out to Him. Tell Him you need Him (He knows this, but you might have to remind yourself). Whether you call out “God” or “Father” or “Abba”, you are calling Him. As Christians we are told that what we pray to God in the name of Christ, will be heard in Heaven and answered.

It’s time to move out of apathy and into action. It’s time to reach new heights in your relationship with Him, or perhaps develop a relationship with Him for the first time. Go to God. Put on your finest clothes for the occasion. Just remember to put on your shoes so you can keep your balance.

What the Talmud Says About Gentiles, Revisited

Talmud StudyI originally wrote this article in October of 2009 for the Congregation Shema Yisrael blog. While I no longer am affiliated with that congregation (for many reasons previously stated), I wanted to “import” the article here, since there have been some recent conversations on the blogosphere issuing a “warning” that overly studying the Talmud or other Jewish writings could result in a Christian apostatizing from the church and abandoning faith in Jesus. Speaking for just myself, I find a great deal of value and wisdom in reading the Jewish writings and don’t find myself being drawn away from my faith. In fact, quite the opposite. I find many parallels between how the sages taught and the teachings of my own “Rebbe”.

The Talmudic sages are often depicted as being very much against non-Jews in general and Christians in specific. While I believe, given the long history of Christian persecution of Jews, that the tzadikim had good reasons to feel leery of the church, if we actually look at what the Talmud has to say about non-Jews, we see a more evenly balanced perspective. I wanted to inject the content from my almost three-year old article into my current blog to provide a reminder that Jews and Christians don’t have to be at odds with each other and particularly, that Christians don’t have to be at odds with the Talmud or avoid Jewish study. Here, for your illumination, is the content of my original article What Does the Talmud Say About Gentiles? in its entirety.

The Talmud contains many references to righteous gentiles whose behaviour is held up as a model for all people. The example of Dama ben Netina is known to all Jewish children (Kidushin 31a): ‘They asked R. Eliezer how far one should go in honoring parents. He said to them: Go and see how one idol worshipper in Ashdod honored his father, and Dama ben Netina was his name. The sages wished to purchase gems from him for the Ephod [for a tremendous profit] … but the key [to the box containing the gems] was under his father’s pillow [while his father was sleeping] and he did not trouble his father [by waking him even though he gave up a tremendous profit].’ Dama was rewarded for his virtue the next year when a red heifer [required for the Temple service] was born in his flock. When he sold it to the sages he told them that he knew that they would pay any price he asked for it, but he asked only for the amount he had not earned the previous year when he refrained from waking his father.

-quoted from a now defunct website

Messianics and many traditional Christian churches support Israel and the Jewish people as chosen and established by God. We seek to “honor the root” of our faith in Yeshua (Jesus) by honoring Jews; the only people who worshipped the one true God, and kept His Shabbat and Holy Torah for thousands of years, while the rest of the world was immersed in idolatry.

While many Messianics particularly, feel a close connection to the Jewish people though the keeping of the Shabbat, the prayers, and many other Hebraic practices, we sometimes we don’t realize that the door swings both ways. What does the Talmud and other writings teach Jews about Gentiles?

I’ve been interested in this topic for quite some time, but what made me dig a little deeper into the subject was a thread in a discussion forum at Arutz Sheva, an Israeli news service, started by a former Christian living in Israel, who had recently converted to Judaism (the non-Messianic kind). You can read her reasoning in the thread and the many responses her post elicited, but one of the main reasons she felt led to embrace Judaism and reject Yeshua as the Messiah, is that Judaism and Torah doesn’t teach that God can be a man. In that view, Yeshua as the earthly incarnation of the God of Heaven is impossible.

I’m not going to explore the view of the Christian Trinity through Jewish eyes, but I do want to take a more general look of how Gentiles are viewed in classic Judaism. Interestingly enough, some of the best sources I found on the topic are no longer available on the web or may soon become unavailable.

For instance, one of the best collections of Talmud quotes relevant to Gentiles was housed at The Talmud Exposed, formerly maintained by M. Gruda. Unfortunately, the site hadn’t been updated in almost a decade, and even worse, it was hosted at GeoCities. I came across it only days before Yahoo! permanently closed down all GeoCities sites. Fortunately, I copied the text content off of the page and will present it later in this blog for your review.

Another extremely helpful site is The real truth about the Talmud, hosted at angelfire.com. The angelfire hosted site is maintained by Gil Student and hasn’t been updated since 2000 (as far as I can tell). Since Angelfire is also a free web hosting service, it could also, in theory, disappear at any time, and so the content may not be as durable as if it resided at a more reliable (paid) host.

Before continuing, I want to emphasize why the Talmud is such an important information source in Judaism. For those of us without a classic Jewish education, we tend to look at the extra-Biblical Jewish writings as “mere commentary”, that we can either take or leave. The following from Daf Digest may help illuminate the Jewish perspective somewhat:

On today’s daf we find the unerring honesty of Rav Huna who explains why the halacha is like Rav Nachman, not himself.

Rav Wolbe, zt”l, once explained why absolute honesty must be attributed to the true chachamim of each generation. “Every Torah Jew must have absolute confidence in the great achronim of every generation. We must never suspect the Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, or the Chazon Ish, zt”l, of falsehood even in worldly matters and certainly not in the all-important area of halacha.

“When the Chofetz Chaim rules in a certain way it is as if he says this in the name of his teacher and his teacher’s teacher all the way back to Moshe (Moses) at Sinai. Someone who doubts this, doubts the veracity of Hillel and Rabi Akiva as well since what is the real difference? Even this confused person must concede that if the halachic process of our greatest authorities is based on falsehood, perhaps the same is true regarding the earlier authorities, chas v’shalom!

“When Hashem sent prophets to warn powerful kings that they would fall and their kingdoms would be destroyed, they did so fearlessly despite the terrible dangers involved. The word of Hashem burned in their hearts and they foretold these events without the slightest change. Even though some suffered blows or even imprisonment for telling people what they did not wish to hear, they would not falsify or even hold back their prophecy. “Like the prophets, the sages valiantly taught Torah whatever the consequences, since their only interest was to promulgate the truth. There can be no doubt that regardless of pressure or political considerations, the great sages of each generation remained true to the halacha which burned in their hearts. It is not for nothing that Chazal teach in Shabbos 138b, that ‘devar Hashem’ refers to both prophecy and halacha!”

From the Daf Digest
Bava Basra 65
Stories off the Daf
“The Halachic Process”

As you can see, Talmud commentary is considered in the same light as the writings and sayings of the ancient Prophets of God. To question Talmud, in some sense, is like questioning all of the Prophets, going all the way back to Moses. A Christian wouldn’t question something said by Jesus or Paul in the Apostolic Scriptures, nor of the Prophets in the Tanakh. Think of how Judaism sees the commentaries of the wise Sages. With that under our belts so to speak, let’s continue with how Judaism and Talmud speaks of Gentiles.

Talmud Study by LamplightAccording to the Judaism 101 site, “Judaism maintains that the righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come”, however, Jews are seen as especially chosen by God and the Jewish people possess a favored position, and very specific responsibilities to God. Only Jews are responsible for keeping of the entire Torah, while Gentiles, in order to merit a place in the World to Come, must only keep the Seven Laws of Noah.

Many Christians have the idea that Jews disdain or otherwise dislike Gentiles. I recall having an extended email conversation with one fellow who was actually angry at Jews for denying Gentiles access to God and Heaven, by not evangelizing Gentiles and attempting to convert them (us) to Judaism. From a Jewish perspective, it’s not necessary for the rest of the world to convert to Judaism, and Jews do not believe that God rejects the rest of the non-Jewish world. Being Jewish or non-Jewish is a matter of roles and responsibilities to God, not the presence or absence of God’s ultimate love and compassion.

This actually goes a long way to explaining the sudden shift in theology of the Messianic educational group First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ), who now state that only Jews are obligated to comply with the Torah commandments, while Gentiles are “divinely invited” to keep as many as they are called. This isn’t quite what Judaism teaches, as illustrated in my article up to this point, but it is a solid move in that direction.

As a Messianic or a traditional Christian, you might be asking yourself right now why any of this should be important to you. If you are a person who has visited, or is intending to visit a traditional synagogue to share Yeshua with your Jewish brothers and sisters, it might help to understand something of the Jewish perspective. It’s also important for us as Messianics to see where our worship and faith practice aligns with Judaism and where it deviates. Much of the theology of “Messianic Judaism”, at its core, is Christian rather than Jewish. Many in the Messianic movement haven’t explored the real “Judaism” part of “Messianic Judaism”, and I think it behooves us to become more knowledgeable in this area.

What does the Talmud say about Gentiles? From M. Gruda’s now non-existent site, here are the available quotes. This list is somewhat long and the text is verbatim:

“They said of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai that no man ever greeted him first, even idol worshippers in the market” [i.e., Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai was the first to greet every person, even idol worshippers] (Berachot 17). At the same location the sage Abaye advocated soft speech and words of peace to everyone, especially including idol worshippers.

“[it is proper to] support the idol worshippers during the sabbatical year… and to inquire after their welfare [commentators: even on the days of the holidays of their idols, even if they do not keep the seven Noahide commandments] because of the ways of peace.” (Shevi’it 4,3)

The rabbis taught: ‘We support poor Gentiles with the poor people of Israel, and we visit sick Gentiles as well as the sick of Israel and we bury the dead of the Gentiles as well as the dead of Israel, because of the ways of peace.” (Gitin 61a)

The Talmud contains many references to righteous gentiles whose behaviour is held up as a model for all people. The example of Dama ben Netina is known to all Jewish children (Kidushin 31a): ‘They asked R. Eliezer how far one should go in honoring parents. He said to them: Go and see how one idol worshipper in Ashdod honored his father, and Dama ben Netina was his name. The sages wished to purchase gems from him for the Ephod [for a tremendous profit] … but the key [to the box containing the gems] was under his father’s pillow [while his father was sleeping] and he did not trouble his father [by waking him even though he gave up a tremendous profit].’ Dama was rewarded for his virtue the next year when a red heifer [required for the Temple service] was born in his flock. When he sold it to the sages he told them that he knew that they would pay any price he asked for it, but he asked only for the amount he had not earned the previous year when he refrained from waking his father.

Another example of righteous gentiles whose behaviour is held up as a model is to be found in the story of the King of Katsia and his subjects. One of his subjects purchased a ruin from his neighbor and found a treasure in it. He insisted on giving it back to his neighbor, claiming he had purchased only the ruin, and not a treasure. His neighbor refused to take it, insisting that he had sold the ruin and everything in it. The two litigants came to the King to decide the issue. When the King discovered that one neighbor had a son and the other one had a daughter he ruled that the children should marry and share the treasure. It is related that Alexander of Macedonia saw this judgement and was amazed by it. He told the King of Katsia that in his country the two neighbors would be executed (since in his land found treasure had to be delivered to the King at the pain of death). The King of Katsia is reported to have asked Alexander if the rain fell and the sun shone and if there were animals in the land of Alexander. When Alexander answered affirmatively the King of Katsia told him that the sun shone and the rain fell in the merit of the animals, not the people of his land. (Gen R 33 – further sources are referenced at this location).

Baba Kama 38a: “But we learned: R. Meir says – whence do we learn that a gentile who is occupied in the Torah [the reference is to those commandments which apply to gentiles] is like the High Priest? As it says [a proof text is given]…”

Kidushin 32 contains descriptions of the manner in which our sages honored and respected the elderly. The passage specifically refers to elderly gentiles who were honored in various fashions by the sages.

In TY Baba Metzia there are a number of descriptions of sages going out of their way to return lost objects to gentiles (Elu Metziot).

Avot 3,14: “He [Rabbi Akiva] was accustomed to say: Beloved is man [commentators: the reference is to all mankind], for he was created in G-d’s image ..”

Tosefta BK 10,8: “.. it is more grievous to steal from a gentile because of the desecration of G-d’s name ..”

Tosefta BM 2,11: “.. one who sees a lost donkey of an idol worshipper must take care of it exactly the way he takes care of the lost donkey of an Israelite ..”

At Avoda Zara 18a the Talmud relates the remarkable story of how a Roman guard of one of the sages who was brutally murdered by the Romans repented. It was made known to the sages that the guard and the sage were welcomed to the World to Come together.

At Hullin 7a there is a report of how the sage Pinchas ben Yair miraculously split a river in order to speed his way to carry out the commandment to redeem captives. He went out of his way to split the river again in order to allow a gentile who was accompanying his group to also cross the river to speed his way.

The TalmudFrom M. Gruda: This approach characterized sages throughout all generations. Some examples have been quoted in the earlier parts of this article. Two further examples of interest follow. Many more appear in the literature.

Maimonides (over 800 years ago) in Laws of the Sabbatical Year and Jubilee, Chapter 13, Halacha 13, writes .. “and not only the Tribe of Levy [merits special closeness to G-d] but every single person of those who walk the earth who … walks straight in the manner G-d created him … behold this person is sanctified as the Holy of Holies and [he will receive his reward in the World to Come] as the Priests and Levites.”

Tiferet Yisrael (Boaz) (approximately 150 years ago) on Avot 3,14 writes, ” … even if our sages had not explicitly taught [that righteous Gentiles have a place in the World to Come as we learn in Sanhedrin 105 and Maimonides Chapter 8 of the Laws of Kings] we would have understood this ourselves since G-d is righteous in all His ways … and we see many of the righteous Gentiles who not only recognize the Creator and believe in the divine origin of the Torah and also act charitably … we will say something which is a commandment to publicize … for behold, some of the them have done tremendous good for all mankind, such as Yenner who invented the … which saves tens of thousands of people from disease and death and deformities … and Draka (?) who brought the potato to Europe thus saving [people] from hunger … and Gutenberg who invented the printing press, and some who never received any reward in this world such as the righteous Reuchlin who risked his life [to prevent the burning of the Talmud] … Can anyone imagine that these great deeds are not repaid in the World to Come? ..”

As I mentioned earlier, another good source of information that remains available on the Internet is Gil Student’s The real truth about the Talmud:

In the Jewish worldview all gentiles who are ethical monotheists will achieve salvation. Judaism does not denigrate gentiles and does not see them as condemned to eternal damnation. Rather we see them as fellow human beings, from other nations, searching for G-d and for meaning in life. Judaism wishes them well with their search and celebrates those who succeed in becoming ethical monotheists. Jews are obligated in many rituals and ceremonies and those Jews who fail to fulfill these rituals are considered sinners. Gentiles, however, are not obligated in these commandments and are only obligated to be ethical monotheists. Those who fulfill this obligation receive their full reward in the world-to-come.

This article wasn’t written as a denial of faith in Yeshua, but as an attempt to offer some insight to Messianics/Christians on how traditional Judaism, using the Talmud, views the “ethical monotheistic” Gentiles. While our message about the Messiahship of Yeshua isn’t readily accepted in the Jewish world view, we are accepted as fellow creations of the God of Abraham. May we all find our home and our salvation in the arms of the God of Heaven, Jew and Gentile alike.


Awakening Messiah

AriseIn each one glows a spark of Moses. He is our teacher. A teacher’s job is to open a small window for the inner knowledge to pour down into the conscious mind.

How do you awaken Moses? By waking yourself.
How do you awaken yourself? By finding someone in whom Moses is awake.

Only the awakened can waken others.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Moses Inside”

In Judaism, none like Moses has ever appeared upon the earth again; a man who spoke to God “face-to-face”. In Christianity, only one person has appeared who is greater than Moses:

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” –Matthew 16:13-16

If we extend Rabbi Freeman’s statement into the life of a Christian, what can we say? Perhaps the clue is in a commentary from this week’s Torah Portion Balak:

The Torah portion Balak relates how Balak, king of Moav, hired the prophet Bilam to curse the Jewish people. G-d, however, frustrated the king’s scheme and caused Bilam to utter praises and blessings of the Jewish people.

Among Bilam’s words of praise and blessing, we find the following: “I see him [Israel] from the peak of flintrocks, and gaze upon him from the heights; it is a nation dwelling alone, entirely dissimilar to other nations.”

In explaining the words: “I see him [Israel] from the peak of flintrocks,” Rashi comments: “I gaze upon their beginnings and their roots, and see them braced and as strong as these flintrocks and rocky heights, on account of their Patriarchs and Matriarchs.” Bilam’s statement was thus allegorical.

The true power of a Jew lies not in his physical might but in his spiritual prowess, particularly his power of mesirus nefesh , a submission to the Divine that is so profound that he is willing to lay down his life if necessary for the realization of G-d’s will. The soul that possesses the power of mesirus nefesh is referred to as “the peak of flintrocks.” This power emanates from a Jew’s mighty, firm and immutable faith in G-d, a faith so powerful that a Jew will offer his very life in order not to renounce G-d.

The Alter Rebbe thus explains that the power to act with mesirus nefesh is a byproduct of G-d’s shining within every Jewish soul, for mesirus nefesh flies in the face of nature; a living creature doesn’t do things that cause its own negation.

-Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson for Torah Portion Balak
“A View from Above”

This fits very well with what Rabbi Freeman wrote earlier and illustrates that strength comes from the presence of the Divine within each individual and within the community as a whole. We see something similar in the writings of Paul:

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

Among his many blessings upon the Children of Israel, Balaam prophesied the coming of the Messiah (Numbers 24:17-19). This is a hope that both the Jewish people and Christianity looks to, though each with a different understanding:

In writing about Moshiach (Messiah), the Rambam states in his Code of Law, Yad HaChazakah : “Whoever does not believe in him or does not await his coming, denies not only [the statements of] the other prophets, but also [those of] the Torah and of Moshe, our teacher, for the Torah attests to his coming, stating: ‘And the L-rd your G-d will bring back your captivity and have compassion upon you.’

-Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson for Torah Portion Balak
“The Prophecies of Bilam”

Arise and ShineWe see that failing to have faith in the coming of the Messiah is failing to have faith in all the Prophets that came before him and indeed, the entire record of the actions of God among mankind. The twelfth of Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith states this message clearly, and we are to make our trust and hope a centerpiece in our life of faith:

I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he may delay, nevertheless, every day I anticipate that he will come.

It is in that hope that Jews and Christians sustain themselves, regardless of hardship and the struggles of our lives. In addition to what we’ve read so far, Christians look to the following:

As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. –Romans 8:36-39 (quoting Psalm 44:22)

Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. –2 Corinthians 12:8-10

To awaken the Messiah within us, we must find someone in whom the Messiah is awake. If the Messiah is awake in you, awaken him in others. Make his power perfect.

Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. –Isaiah 60:1

Good Shabbos.

Not in Heaven

HeavenThe Torah is not in heaven [i.e. though the Torah is of heavenly origin, it was given to human beings to interpret and apply].

from The Hasidic Tale
by Gedalyah Nigal
pp 148-9

This small snippet from Nigal’s book touches on something I’ve been pondering for quite some time. It’s a concept that’s common in Judaism but almost completely escapes Christianity, including many of the Jewish and non-Jewish believers of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah commonly referred to as “Messianic”. Here’s another example with more detail:

As a result of testimony by R’ Yehoshua b. Zeiruz, Rebbe ruled that fruits and vegetables which grow in Beis Shan were exempt from terumah and ma’aser gifts. Rebbe’s extended family members rose up against his ruling, and they wondered how he could release the obligation for tithing from items grown in Beis Shan, an area which his ancestors had deemed to be obligated in these halachos. Rebbe responded and said that this was an area of halacha which his ancestors had left for Rebbe to rule and to thereby be credited with this decision. Rebbe illustrated that a similar scenario is recorded in Tanach, where we are told that King Chizkiyahu ground up the copper snake made by Moshe Rabeinu to alleviate a devastating plague that threatened the nation. Later, this copper image was abused by the people, as they began to offer incense to it for idolatrous purposes. This is why Chizkiyahu had it destroyed. The Gemara notes that it is wonderous to think that this image which was being used for idolatrous purposes was not destroyed much earlier. Why would Assa and Yehoshafat, both righteous kings, not have destroyed this statue earlier? Rather, it must be that they left it intact in order for Chizkiyahu to take care of the matter.

Daf Yomi Digest
Distinctive Insight
“Leaving room for later generations to make their mark”
Chullin 7

There are a couple of things going on here. One is that the tzadikim (righteous people) and the sages in each age were given authority to make rulings about the Torah commandments and that these rulings were and are binding. The other thing is that rulings on the same Torah laws could be applied differently based on the demands of each generation.

Most Christians believe in “the Word” (i.e. the Bible) as the only authority (and certainly the absolute authority) over the believer’s life and consider the rulings of the Jewish sages to be “merely” the opinions of men and thus, they have no authority over a person’s day to day existence. The following is considered something of a “proof text” of this opinion in the church:

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)

So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

“‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” –Mark 7:1-8

Jesus was most likely referring to Netilat Yadayim or the ritual of hand washing, which is performed by observant Jews even today. This practice is considered to be a method of purifying the person after awakening and before eating and re-dedicating his or her life to the service of God.

It’s unlikely Jesus was speaking against the practice as such in Mark (see the full text of Mark 7 for the details) but rather, he was criticizing the Pharisees for focusing on what might be considered a matter of “lesser” priority and ignoring the more “important” duty (kaloh vs. chamurah or minor vs. major mitzvos) of caring for impoverished and elderly parents (and one of these days, I’d love to research how Jesus probably did practice the halacha of his day).

For the vast majority of Christians, what I’m saying now probably seems like so much nonsense. Christianity tends to put a great deal of value on being “Spirit-led” when trying to understand the Word and the Will of God in their lives and will only rely on local authorities (for the most part) such as a trusted Pastor or teacher to help interpret the Bible. In other words, the Bible is understood on an almost exclusively individual level, though most Christians in the same church or denomination probably share many of the same opinions about what the Bible says. Interpretation for the person though, remains primarily part of the relationship between the individual and the Spirit of God (though this has rather obvious potential pitfalls).

By contrast, Judaism has a vast repository of knowledge commonly referred to as the Talmud, that contains the discussions, arguments, and rulings of a long list of sages stretching back across the centuries to before the time of Jesus. Christianity, with the exception of branches such as Catholicism, has no such tradition. The dictates of the Church fathers and the commentaries of renowned teachers and spiritual leaders, both historical figures and modern men and women, while highly valued, are not considered perpetually binding legal rulings over the lives of the devout of Christ. Rulings, authorities, and judgments in Judaism, particularly among the Orthodox, are much more defined and delineated.

Even for those parts of Christian theology that are considered binding (belief in the Trinity, belief in the resurrection of Christ, belief that people who are “saved” go to Heaven when they die, and so on), it’s hard for the collective church to imagine that “legal rulings” could continue to be issued across the passage of time and into the modern era. What new interpretation of the Bible would be necessary today that didn’t already exist in the time of Jesus and the Apostles (and I know I might be unfair in saying this since “progressive revelation” is part of the Christian belief structure)?

Consider the following:

Do not light a fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day. –Exodus 35:3

Based on this commandment in the Torah, observant Jews, to one degree or another, do not light a flame on the Shabbat. Back in the days of the Exodus, this was understood in a particular way. No candle lighting, no lighting a fire in a home or at a camp, and so on.

Netilat YadayimBut no one ever thought of things like the invention of the automobile, the electric light bulb, and the microwave oven. How does the commandment to not light a flame apply to these technologies? Can an electric spark be considered “igniting” something? Once the question comes up, who gets to answer the question and decide how it is applied and to whom? After all, if you’re a devout Jew who doesn’t want to violate the Shabbat, you’ll need to know if you can start your car, warm up a cup of coffee in the microwave, or pop on a reading lamp when it gets dark on the Shabbat (and as it turns out, the ruling is that an observant Jew can do none of these things without violating the commandment).

In religious Judaism, your life is orchestrated in a beautiful but somewhat complicated dance as you progress through the days and months and years. The Torah is both instruction book and part of the mystic presence of God in your life, but who can understand the Torah and all that it instructs? The average Jew may not have the time, the mental discipline, or the necessary intellectual capacity to study the Torah and the sages in depth and thus understand his or her responsibilities to God in all matters of living. Yet there is halacha and tradition upon which a Jew can count to guide his or her steps in this dance with God and with life. These traditions, rulings, and judgments have provided continuity and consistency in Jewish communities all over the world for thousands of years. Perhaps the Torah and the Talmud have been the instrument by which God has preserved the Children of Israel, when many other people groups from the days of Moses and before have simply ceased to exist.

The Torah may be from heaven but it is not in heaven. God gave it to the Children of Israel from the hands of angels to Moses, not because God wants to control the actions of each individual Jew, but because God loves his Chosen People and wants to take care of them. And while the Mosaic covenant and thus much of the Torah is not applied to the “grafted in” Christian, the Torah was always intended to “go forth from Zion” (Isaiah 2:1-4) and to be a guide and a protector, not only of the Jewish people, but for all the people of the Earth, if they will only turn to and walk with God in faith and trust.

Why am I saying all this? Why should you care?

Perhaps, as a Christian, you don’t care and you don’t think it matters and you believe that the Torah and the Talmud is best left to the Jews. If you happen to be Jewish, you may not care about the potential applications of Torah and Talmud to Christianity. For my part, as a Christian married to a Jew, I can see great value in studying not only the Bible, but the judgments, rulings, and insights of the sages, from Hillel and Shammai to Rambam and Rashi. Unless we understand how Jewish Rabbis and learned scholars read and understand the Torah and God, how can be begin to comprehend the Jewish sage and apostle Paul and what he wrote and taught? Indeed, how can we begin to comprehend the mind, the teachings, and the actions of the Jewish Messiah, the Christ…Jesus, as he was on Earth and as he is in heaven?

Without this understanding, while we may think we understand the sacred writings of the New Testament as they are “in plain English”, we eventually must face the reality that when we Christians read the Gospels, the Epistles, and the Apocalyptic writings, we are reading a deep mystery with very few clues, and peering into a wine-dark glass, seeing only dim shapes of what God is trying to illuminate on the other side. The Talmudic scholars can be our guides into ways of seeing God and His Word that would otherwise be missing hues in our color palettes. What might we perceive if we only chose to open our eyes and look?

A true master of life never leaves this world
—he transcends it, but he is still within it.

He is still there to assist those who are bonded with him with blessing and advice, just as before, and even more so.

Even those who did not know him in his corporeal lifetime can still create with him an essential bond.

The only difference is in us:
Now we must work harder to connect.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman


The burning bushNow Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.” And He said, “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. I am,” He said, “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.Exodus 3:1-6 (JPS Tanakh)

A spark of G-d slumbers within, as a flame hushed within the embers.

Will she awaken from ideas? They are only more dreams to sleep by.

Will she awaken from deep thoughts? Their depth will not reach her.

She will awaken when she sees her Beloved, the Essence of All Things with which she is one.

And where will she see Him? Not in ideas, not in deep thoughts, but in a G-dly deed that she will do, in an act of infinite beauty.

Then her flame will burn bright.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Waking Up G-d”

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.Isaiah 60:1

In Christianity, faith is largely a matter of contemplation; the private and internal consideration of God and a person’s prayers in the name of Jesus. In Judaism, faith is not a matter of thought but of action. Yes, Judaism places a very high value on Torah study, but the study, in and of itself, isn’t meaningful unless put into action.

What was happening with Moses, the shepherd of his father-in-law’s flocks in Midian? Probably not much during those forty years. There’s no indication that he considered the plight of his parents, his brother, and sister, and the other Israelites in their Egyptian captivity. There is certainly nothing recorded in Exodus saying Moses was planning to do anything about the slavery of his people. Yet, as Rabbi Freemen tells us, there’s a fire sleeping inside.

In the case of Moses, the “fire” literally appeared before him and the voice of God called out, commanding Moses into action. What about the fire and voice inside of you…or me?

No matter how much you distrust your own sincerity or question your motives, there is no trace of doubt that at your core lives a G-dly soul, pure and sincere.

You provide the actions and the deed. She needs no more than a pinhole through which to break out and fill those deeds with Divine power.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Promise Inside”

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. –James 2:14-17

Both Rabbi Freeman and James, the brother of the Master, remind us that concealing our faith and devotion to God inside is not faith or devotion at all. The Master himself reminds us that hiding our faith from the world illuminates no one (Matthew 5:14-16), probably not even ourselves. Nothing about who we are as disciples of our Master and children of God matters unless we shine our light into the world and extend our faith into the realm of deeds and actions. We are known by our fruit, not by the root that no one can see.

Dawn“Light” can take many forms. We can donate to worthy causes, volunteer our time feeding the hungry, visit the sick in the hospital, sing inspirational songs, speak of the Bible to our children and our children’s children, even write blogs, articles, and books spreading the good news of the Christ and the glory of God. Light under a bowl does not pierce the darkness and salt that loses its flavor gets thrown away. Living a meaningful life means that you have to actively live in the world, letting the fire inside yield its heat and light to everyone around you.

By acknowledging that within your body is a G-dly soul, a soul that can give your life purpose and lift it above the mundane pursuits of everyday life, you begin to put the pieces of your fragmented life in order.

from Toward a Meaningful Life: The Wisdom of the Rebbe
by Simon Jacobson
based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory.

In a previous blog post, I quoted from a commentary on Menachos 89 which says:

Mishnah Berurah writes that according to Kabbalists the primary time for Torah study is from chatzos until the onset of the morning. Shulchan Aruch HaRav writes that at the very least one should arise before morning to learn for some period of time at the end of the night.

The intent of my “morning meditations” is to offer something for you and for me that we can contemplate and then put into action as we start our day. I sometimes write my meditations before going to bed and study them right when I wake up. In the summer, the light of dawn is only slowly changing the horizon from black to grey as my thoughts and my spirit take in the words of the Master, the prophets, the apostles, and the sages.

The Gemara cites the verse in Tehillim (134:1) that mentions those who stand in Hashem’s house at night and R’ Yochanan explains that the verse refers to Torah scholars who engage in Torah study at night and the verse considers it as if they were involved in service of the Beis HaMikdash. The Gemara then cites a verse from Divrei HaYamim (II 2:2-3) and R’ Yochanan explains that this verse also refers to Torah scholars who study the halachos of service of the Beis HaMikdash and the verse considers it as though the Beis HaMikdash was rebuilt in their days. Sefer HoEshkol cites Rav Hai Gaon who notes that the two teachings of R’ Yochanan are juxtaposed to one another to teach that Torah scholars are obligated to study Torah at night and specifically the topic of korbanos. The implication of this teaching is that one who engages in the study of korbanos at night is considered as though the Beis HaMikdash was rebuilt in his days and he offered korbanos there.

Daf Yomi Digest
Halacha Highlight
“Reading korbanos at night”
Menachos 110

By the time the sun is hot and bright in the morning sky, I pray that the fire of God is burning even brighter in your heart and in mine.

Wake up.

The Tefillin and the Shoemaker

Praying with TefillinAnd they (Korach and his following) converged upon Moses and Aaron and said to them: “Enough! Every one of the congregation is holy, and G-d is amongst them. Why do you raise yourself above the congregation of G-d?”Numbers 16:3

There are those who maintain that they have no need of a mentor to guide them through life. They claim, as did Korach, that each and every individual can forge his relationship with G-d unaided. They argue that since the Jewish faith rejects the concept of an intermediary between man and G-d, they have no use for a rebbe or master.

They fail to understand that the entire Jewish people are a single entity, that every individual soul is, in truth, but a limb or organ of the soul of Israel. Just as each limb and organ of the human body has its function at which it excels, so, too, every soul has its role and mission, as well as its limitations. The ‘loftiest’ of souls is dependent upon the ‘lowliest’ for the attainment of the single, unified goal. And were any limb to strike out on its own, detaching itself from the ‘head’ which provides the entire body with vitality and direction – the results are self-understood.

Said Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok of Lubavitch: “When an individual adapts the attitude that he can do it all on his own, he reminds me of the story told about the peasant and the tefillin. Once, a Jew noticed a pair of tefillin in the house of a gentile peasant. Upon seeing a holy object in such a place he began to inquire about the tefillin, wishing to purchase them from the goy. The peasant, who had looted the tefillin in a recent pogrom, grew agitated and defensive. “What do you mean, where did I get them?” he blurted out. “Why, I made them myself! I myself am a shoemaker!”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
Once Upon a Chasid
“Jack of all Trades”
Chabad.org commentary on Torah Portion Korach

Paul explained that he received the gospel through a revelation of Yeshua the Messiah (Jesus Christ). He claimed that the gospel message he preached to the Galatians was not man’s gospel. It was not the normal gospel message. He received a different gospel. This is an important point – a critical point – for understanding Paul. The message of the gospel that Paul proclaimed was not precisely the same message of the gospel that the rest of the apostolic community proclaimed. In other places, Paul specifically refers to this unique gospel as “my gospel” (see Romans 2:15-16, Romans 16:25, and 2 Timothy 2:8-9).

-D. Thomas Lancaster
The Holy Epistle to the Galatians
“Sermon Three: Paul’s Gospel (Galatians 1:11-24)”
pp 35-6

But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!Galatians 1:8 (NASB)

Reading Rabbi Tauber’s commentary on the previous week’s Torah Portion Korach, I saw an inevitable collision with the above-quoted portion of Lancaster’s “Galatians” book. Although Korach and his co-conspirators claimed authority because all of Israel was holy to God, while Paul claimed authority based on his personal revelation from Jesus (see Acts 9:1-19 and Acts 26:15-18), they both set themselves (apparently) in opposition to the established authority representing God, Moses in the case of Korach, and the Jerusalem Council, in the case of Paul.

We know that Korach, Dathan, Abiram, and the 250 who were with them came to a bad end (Numbers 16:28-35) and their story is sometimes told in congregations as a cautionary tale not to go against the established leadership, but what about Paul? Does Paul’s receiving a personal revelation and mission from Jesus exempt him from respecting and obeying properly established authority? Lancaster says, “no”:

Despite the dismissive air, Paul submitted to their authority. He had already conceded that, if they had rejected his gospel of Gentile inclusion, he would have been running his race in vain. They had the power to utterly discredit the gospel message he had been presenting. Therefore, he certainly did respect their authority. But he seems less than reverently respectful in Galatians 2:5.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
The Holy Epistle to the Galatians
“Sermon Seven: Remember the Pour (Galatians 2:6-10)”
pg 71

While Paul could be opinionated and “outspoken”, he nevertheless realized that he was a man under not only the Master’s authority, but under the authorities established by God in Jerusalem, which included James, Peter, and John. But he had to approach these “pillars”, present his position based on the Master’s revelation to him, and hope they’d see things his way. Fortunately for Paul (and the Gentiles), they did. Otherwise Christianity, as we understand it, probably wouldn’t exist today. In that case, any person not born a Jew who wanted to enter into a full covenant relationship with God would have to convert to Judaism (for the sake of this blog, I will define Gentile Noahides -in contrast to Christians – as meriting a place in the world to come but not enjoying a full covenant relationship with God on par with the Jews).

The example of Paul presents a problem, though. His experience was entirely subjective. No one else saw or heard the details of his visions and so no one could verify independently, that he was telling the truth. In theory, he could have made the whole thing up in order to further some personal agenda he had in relation to Gentiles becoming “Messianic” disciples. If we accept the Biblical record on faith as well as reason, we accept that his visions were real and his authority was real.

But what about “authorities” today?

Most mainstream churches and synagogues are lead by a Pastor or Rabbi (respectively) who has received the education required to be ordained by their branch of faith and they have been appointed to a specific congregation upon the approval of that congregation’s board of directors. The board, and its various committees, have the authority to set the specific duties of the clergy, approve and renew their contractual relationship, and even fire the clergyperson if necessary. While the Pastor or Rabbi is the “face” and “voice” of the congregation in many ways, he or she can hardly act with total autonomy or impunity and are held accountable to the standards and authority of the congregation and their overseeing denomination or sect.

Sadly, not all religious groups and leaders operate on this principle. Paul’s “example” of receiving a personal revelation can be and has been terribly misused and misappropriated by many so-called “leaders” and “prophets” to set themselves up as the sole and individual authority over their congregations. If anyone complains about the “leader” and his or her lack of accountability to others, Paul’s example is cited and then the dissenters are accused of being like Korach and his band (implying that the dissenters will suffer a similar fate if they don’t withdraw their objections).

I know such a ploy may sound improbable and even silly to some of you reading this blog post, but the power of cult leaders over large groups of “believers” can be formidable to those who have made a commitment and who believe their “leader” is the “real meal deal”; the one and only person anointed by God to spread a special “message” to the “remnant” of the faithful.

I’m sure you are thinking about some of the infamous and extreme examples of what I’m describing, such as Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Marshall Applewhite, but there are probably thousands of other religious groups out there that operate below our radar, so to speak. Certainly a number of groups loosely affiliated with the Messianic Jewish (MJ) movement, function under the sole authority of the “Rabbi” in charge, acknowledging only his (in the vast majority of these cases, the leader is male) “right” to make decisions and pronouncements for the congregation, based on the leader’s self-described “anointing” from God.

(I want to make it clear at this point, that there are many MJ congregations that do operate on a board of directors model and that do receive authority from a central, overseeing organization which does provide a series of checks and balances for congregational leadership – I’m not painting “Messianic Judaism” as such with a single, broad brush – however, because “the movement” is largely unregulated, some people -usually not Jewish- just put on a kippah and a tallit, declare themselves a “Messianic Rabbi”, and proceed to gather a “flock”. Then they go about sharpening whatever theological ax they have to grind, which much of the time, has only a faint resemblance to anything Jewish).

Everything I’ve said up to this point certainly could make you doubtful or concerned if you find yourself in a “one-man show” type of congregation or even one where you might suspect (correctly or not) that the the congregation’s board is pretty much “rubber-stamping” the clergy’s decisions. On the other hand, we are taught to respect authority:

Rabbi Ishmael would say: Be yielding to a leader, affable to the black-haired, and receive every man with joy. -Pirkei Avot 3:12

It’s confusing. However, anyone, leader or otherwise, should recall this:

Rabbi Akavia the son of Mahalalel would say: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting. -Pirkei Avot 3:1

There is a Heavenly authority who holds us all accountable for what we say and do. Examples like Paul’s vision are extremely rare. They were extremely rare in Paul’s day and perhaps they may not even occur in the common era. Judaism has a long tradition of centralized authority but generally, that authority is not held by a single individual. The great sages often disagreed and it was through those debates and dialogues that justice and mercy was distilled throughout the centuries and applied to the devout in response to the unique needs of their communities and the time in which they lived.

Some respond to religious leadership concerns by refusing to affiliate with any faith group, but we all come under some sort of authority, including our employers, and local and national governments. Meeting with our congregations is how we prevent ourselves from entering into individual error (though I’m hardly one to talk at this point):

Rabbi Shimon would say: Three who eat at one table and do not speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten from the slaughter of the dead, as is stated, “Indeed, all tables are filled with vomit and filth, devoid of the Omnipresent.” But three who eat at one table and speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten at G-d’s table, as is stated, “And he said to me: `This is the table that is before G-d.’ ”

Rabbi Chanina the son of Chachina’i would say: One who stays awake at night, or travels alone on the road, and turns his heart to idleness, has forfeited his life. -Pirkei Avot 3:3-4

We are charged to test the validity of a leader as the Bereans tested the validity of Paul’s teachings (see Acts 17:10-12). We also know that valid and righteous leaders are established by God for the good of the world:

It was for this reason that actual peace in the world was brought about through Aharon, who descended to all creatures and elevated them to Torah.

-From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson
Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. VIII, pp. 103-107

The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace. –Psalm 29:11

Faith and history have established the relative authority of Korach and Paul and God’s justice and mercy was enacted in both lives in accordance with the actions of these men. Our lives are the same. We serve the same God. We all benefit from His providence. We are all accountable to His justice and we all rely on His mercy. We should not take the Name of God or His authority lightly. In the end, God prevails:

If you play for your own glory and not God’s you have no place here. -a Maggid

Rabbi Akivah would say: Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of G-d]; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to him that he was created in the image, as it is says, `”For in the image of G-d, He made man.” -Pirkei Avot 3:14

A man’s soul is the light of God. –Proverbs 20:27