Tag Archives: The Rebbe

Why Do Christians Hate Judaism?

This is the decree of the Torah, which Hashem has commanded, saying…

Bamidbar/Numbers 19:2

Rashi explains that the unusual introduction of “this is the decree of the Torah” (rather than an introduction specific to the subject of parah adumah), is a response to Satan and the nations, who tauntingly ask, “What is the purpose of this commandment?,” to which the Torah answers that it is a decree from Hashem, and it is not for anyone to question it.

-from “A Torah Thought for the Day,” p.62
Sunday’s commentary on Parashas Chukas
A Daily Dose of Torah

I’m continuing to write on the general theme of the role of non-Jews in Messianic Jewish community, a study started in this blog post and most recently addressed in yesterday’s morning meditation.

Chana Sara in her blog post from a few years back asks Where Do I Fit? It’s certainly a question I keep asking myself, both in relation to my decision to study the Bible through the lens of Judaism and particularly Messianic Judaism, and the larger existential question of where do I fit in my relationship to God.

Once you accept that any sort of connection to God must go through Israel, the Jewish people, and especially through the exceedingly Jewish Messianic King, then you must come to the realization that in order to relate to God you must enter into a completely alien world, that is, alien for the non-Jew. You must enter a Jewish world or at least a worldview.

Even many secular Jews feel, when attempting to observe a mitzvah or when attending a synagogue prayer service, that they are also “strangers in a strange land.” True, they are Jews in the midst of Jewish community, but the traditions, the customs, the halachah, the Hebrew, if you haven’t been raised in an observant home nor had the benefit of a traditional Jewish education, can seem even to the ethnic Jew, like a trip down the rabbit hole to “wonderland.”

And most people become uncomfortable when faced with the unfamiliar and the unknown. People become defensive and even hostile when thrown abruptly into an alien environment. We prefer what we’re used to.

Chana Sara wrote in the aforementioned blog post:

As a ba’alat teshuva, I have a lot of questions when it comes to where I “fit” within Judaism. I was born into a conservative Judaism family, meaning that my mother can’t part from the egalitarian idea of the conservative movement, but keeps conservative standards of kosher and Shabbat.

As soon as I had my bat mitzvah I don’t remember going back to shul for any reason. Possibly the high holidays, but possibly not even then.

jewish women prayingThis is a commentary on a Jewish journey into Yiddishkeit, which is also a journey my wife embarked upon a number of years ago. I remember the struggles she faced in her first attempts to connect to Jewish community and Jewish observant praxis. How much more difficult is it for the non-Jew, with no direct connection to Jewish community and lifestyle, to face the challenge of entering the Jewish world in order to comprehend and obey the Jewish Messiah?

I understand that God is not just the God of Israel but also the God of the nations, but every shred of Biblical content that we have with us today was produced by Jews, and, for the most part, for Jews. Only certain sections of the Bible directly address the nations, and not all of those references relate to us kindly. Amalek comes to mind.

The commentary I quoted from at the top of the page, specifies those commandments in the Torah that have no discernible reason or purpose, but nevertheless must be followed because they are God’s will for the Jewish people. Rashi’s interpretation of the above-quoted verse from Numbers supposes that HaSatan, the adversary, and the Goyim, the Gentiles, would criticize the Israelites for observing such commands or would actually bring into question the Torah as the Word of God based on what appears to be a collection of meaningless decrees.

And therein lies the root of my question, “Why Do Christians Hate Judaism?” I know “hate” is a strong word and I use it in part for dramatic emphasis as opposed to literal meaning. Most Christians don’t actually hate the Jewish religion or form of worship, but they do believe that it is merely a religion of works which exists in opposition to Christ and the Christian doctrine of salvation by grace.

I also don’t mean to indicate that Christians hate the Jewish people or the state of Israel. Many Evangelical churches say they love the Jewish people, and no doubt, they are sincere. Of course, that love for Jews and national Israel is predicated on a very Christian understanding of the eschatological meaning of the existence of Jews and Israel relative to the second coming of Christ.

This brings us back to those Christians who have come to realize that what they’ve learned from the pulpit or in Sunday school isn’t, strictly speaking, the exact Gospel message Messiah and his apostles taught in the late Second Temple period. Once we have learned that the Church’s current theology and doctrine is all based on a two-thousand year old mistake and is the result of a violent divorce between the early Jewish and Gentile Yeshua disciples, then we’re faced with a horrible reality.

In an ekklesia that is wholly Jewish and that can be only understood and communicated with through a wholly Jewish process, a process alien to anything we were formerly taught as Christians in our churches, who are we, what do we do, and where do we go to pursue our faith given this totally Jewish contextual reality?

unworthyDo you see where this might cause some anxiety or even a crisis of faith among the devout Gentiles when facing a life within Jewish community and educational space?

Do you see why Christianity was invented in the first place, as an alternative to this crisis, as a means to take control over worship of God and devotion to Christ by redefining it as Gentile and not Jewish?

Although my father’s recent illness is the primary reason I chose to abandon plans to be in Israel right now, another reason was the idea that, as a Gentile (and a flawed, imperfect human being) who is oriented toward but can never be a part of Israel, who am I to set foot in the Holy Land?

However, there are other responses to this crisis. There are some Christians who have walked away from the Church but who still do not feel comfortable surrendering their identity to Jewish interpretation. They have invented a world of their own which states that while they are not ethnically Jewish, nevertheless, they are Israel as much as the Jewish people are, and thus they are as obligated to the Torah of Moses as any observant Jew.

But there’s a caveat.

They still reject Judaism, or at least Judaism as it has evolved over the past nearly twenty centuries. They reject, for the most part, that entity we know as Rabbinic Judaism, the “traditions of the elders,” the so-called “made up” laws that add on to or perhaps even defy the plain meaning of the written Torah.

Now here’s the trick.

If we Messianic Gentiles accept Messianic Judaism as a Judaism, and accept the validity of the teachings of the Jewish Sages, teachings which, for the most part, have nothing to do with us, then what does that mean for us? For understandable reasons, as much as Christianity has rejected Judaism, Judaism has rejected Christianity. They aren’t on speaking terms and can barely stand being in the same room with each other.

JerusalemOnce we Gentile believers come to a Messianic Jewish understanding of the Bible, the Messiah, and God, once we see how much God loves Israel, how special Israel is to God, and how we people of the nations are only saved through Israel and not because the nations have any sort of direct covenant connection with God, what is our most likely initial response?

The Torah states, “And Korach, the son of Yitzhor, the son of Kehas, the son of Levy, took …” Why does the Torah take the time to tell us his lineage?

Rashi, the great French commentator, explains that the key reason for Korach’s rebellion was his envy of his cousin, Elizaphan the son of Uziel, who was appointed prince of the tribe of Levy. Moshe’s father was the first of four brothers and his sons were the leader of the Jewish people and the High Priest; Korach figured that since he himself was the firstborn of the second son, that he should have been appointed the Prince of the Tribe of Levy.

Envy is destructive. It prevents a person from enjoying life. If ones focus is on other’s success and possessions, it will cause pain and lead to highly counterproductive behavior. No wonder that Pirkei Avos, Ethics of the Fathers 4:28, lists envy as one of three things which destroy a person (the other two are lust and desire for honor).

To overcome envy, focus on what you have and what you can accomplish in this world. The ultimate that anyone can have in this world is happiness. The secret to happiness is focusing on what you have. And if you are happy, you won’t envy others!

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
based on his commentary on Parashas Korach in
Growth Through Torah
as found at Aish.com

Especially in our modern western egalitarian culture, the idea that any one group might be special and especially privileged is abhorrent to most of us. When encountering certain Biblical realities, we attempt to refactor them by applying our modern worldview, thus reinterpreting the Bible beyond all reasonable credibility. We make statements to the Jewish people in Messiah that are the moral equivalent of the politically correct comment to check your privilege:

“Check Your Privilege” is an online expression used mainly by social justice bloggers to remind others that the body and life they are born into comes with specific privileges that do not apply to all arguments or situations. The phrase also suggests that when considering another person’s plight, one must acknowledge one’s own inherent privileges and put them aside in order to gain a better understanding of his or her situation.

Rebbe
Rabbi M.M Schneerson, the Rebbe

While the concept of “check your privilege” is, in my opinion, somewhat questionable, or at least has the potential to be grossly misused, applying it to the relationship between Messianic Gentiles and Messianic Jews (or any group of Jews) is Biblically unsustainable.

So where does that leave us?

I don’t have an answer, at least not a whole one. I do have a clue, also written by Chana Sara in her recent blog post My Experience with the Rebbe:

But he was more than just a rebel. He was a person with a fervor for life, for Yiddishkeit and for people. Everyone was important, Jew or non-Jew, male or female, child or adult. Every person was important and he wanted to do good for all mankind. The U.S. has dedicated Education and Sharing Day as a tribute to the Rebbe and steps he took toward the betterment of education for all U.S. children. He stressed the importance of the Noahide laws. He wanted to make sure that all of mankind was healthy and well and ready to take on the world in the way Hashem desires them to. He was really into everyone being the best that they can be and being able to help them realize their potential. The world isn’t finished being built, and the Rebbe wanted to make sure we were aware of that and are putting on our best faces to be able to finish making this world a dira b’tachtonim, a dwelling place for Hashem.

While there are voices within Messianic Judaism who advocate for a strict bilateral relationship between Jews and Gentiles, it is also part of the process of tikkun olam for Jewish and non-Jewish scholars and teachers within Messianic Judaism to make their lessons available to the Messianic Goyim so that we may learn and understand the teachings of the Master within his own context and turn our praxis and our devotion to God accordingly.

While there are plenty of resources available including those authored by Christian Pastors writing from within a Messianic context, as far as my experience goes, there are still no real answers.

If we acknowledge that Christian tradition does not adequately or accurately reflect the Jewish context of the Bible, and if we admit that Jewish praxis is not Gentile praxis in any form, including one that adopts the appearance of Judaism while rejecting the last eighteen hundred years or so of Jewish teaching and writing, what do we have left?

A mystery and no answers.

In previous comments on other blog posts I’ve written on this topic, it has been suggested that Gentile identity within Jewish space will have to evolve over a long period of time, decades if not centuries (barring the timing of King Messiah’s return, of course).

But courageous Jewish leaders such as the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of righteous memory, indeed, had a heart not just for the Jewish people but for all people. Although his special mission and devotion was for Yiddishkeit, he understood that Messiah’s coming would herald the redemption of all of humanity in an unparalleled era of peace.

That’s the heritage of not just Israel but of all mankind, of you and me, all of us.

rebbe yahrzeit
People visit the grave site of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson

The twenty-first yahrzeit of the Rebbe has just passed and perhaps, if I may be so bold, in his merit, we can remind ourselves that somewhere, somehow, the people of the nations have a place in God’s redemptive plan, too. However, that plan and how we figure into it, isn’t very clear when viewed through a Jewish lens, since that lens was designed to reveal God’s relationship with the Jewish people and with Israel.

But it is the only lens we have that most accurately reveals the true reality of God’s message to the world, one that doesn’t diminish or destroy Jewish people, the nation of Israel, or the traditions, writings, and praxis of Judaism.

However uncomfortable or disorienting it may be to live life as a Gentile poised on the edge of our understanding of the God of Israel, the Jewish Messiah, and the Jewish scriptures, our best response should never be envy, supersessionism, or disdain. Instead, let us don the garments of humility, wonder, and awe, and then begin walking our path, one that is uncharted and unknown, toward the undiscovered country of who we are, which isn’t really defined by Judaism or even Christianity but rather by God.

I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. In the daytime (for there will be no night there) its gates will never be closed; and they will bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it; and nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. There will no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and His bond-servants will serve Him; they will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. And there will no longer be any night; and they will not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God will illumine them; and they will reign forever and ever.

-Revelation 21:22-22:5 (NASB)

Notice that it’s not just Israel who exists in the presence of God and of the Lamb. The nations are there…we are there, too, and we will be healed.

The tzadik is one with G-d.

We recognize him because within each of us is also a tzadik who is one with G-d.

Inside each of us is a spark of Moses.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
From the wisdom of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory
Chabad.org

Within each of us is a spark of the Messiah. Have faith and courage.

Up to Jerusalem

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Judgment and Guilt

Rabbi Chayim of Tzanz once said to an evildoer, “Don’t think that because you give in to your evil inclination in some areas you therefore must be evil in all areas. Rather, in whatever ways you can, do good and overcome evil.” (Maigdolai Hachasidus: Hoadmor Maitzanz)

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“No matter how far away you are from the Almighty you can always come close when you make an effort,” p. 417
Commentary on Torah Portion Re’eh
Growth Through Torah

As a flawed and imperfect human being, I find this enormously comforting but it isn’t what Christianity always teaches. It’s also a lesson that if misused, could be employed in the service of laziness or hypocrisy. As servants of God we could be tempted to believe that it is acceptable to be obedient to God in certain areas while disobedient in others. This would certainly be in error, but there’s the opposite to consider.

How often does a “religious” person bemoan their state in never being “good enough” either for God’s acceptance or more likely for the acceptance of their faith community? All churches and synagogues (and other religious traditions) have standards, both formal and informal, and violation of said-standards can elicit responses, from the casual “tongue-clicking” of gossips and judgmental people to more formal criticisms and reprimands (and sometimes there is no more legalistic and judgmental institution than the Christian Church).

Although other streams of Orthodox Judaism may not be so open, the Chabad tends to run on the belief that encouraging a Jew to observe even one mitzvah may ultimately lead to another and then another and so on. Thus, Chabad, at least in theory, accepts Jews from all walks of life and backgrounds within their synagogues, even if they have to (or choose to) drive to services on Shabbat.

The Rebbe himself (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson), although strict and demanding in issues of halachah, nevertheless embraced a certain “flexibility” (I apologize if that’s not quite the right word) in his expectation of even Orthodox Jewish practice.

In 1977 after his heart attack, the Rebbe started seeing cardiologist Dr. Ira Weiss who was an Orthodox Jew. As with most physicians, Dr. Weiss labored under the heavy demands on his time and admitted to the Rebbe that he was often late in reciting Mincha (the afternoon prayers) which caused him great guilt and distress. The Rebbe responded:

“In a case like this, where your obligations are first to your patients, and where making them wait can cause them physical or emotional harm…you are not entitled to delay them any further. You have to finish your work with them first, and God will understand the delay in your Mincha. You don’t have to make any apologies for a late Mincha.”

-Joseph Telushkin
Chapter 8: “I’m Also Tired, So What?” p. 127
Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History

Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson

The Rebbe went on to caution Dr. Weiss that when time is available and he is not in the service of his patients to not become lax or indifferent and that indeed he had a duty to pray at the appointed times, but he wanted to relieve Dr. Weiss not only of any guilt he experienced but even the idea that he had done anything wrong. The Rebbe went so far as to tell the doctor of the serious demands on his own time and circumstances that resulted in the Rebbe sometimes starting Mincha late.

I realize that for a Christian, this doesn’t seem like anything we would worry about. After all, we don’t have set times of prayer and compared to Orthodox Judaism, very light requirements from our religious calendar and traditions. However, as I said above, there are times when the Church can be quite legalistic in its own expectations, they simply do not codify their requirements in as open a manner as Orthodox Judaism. And the fact remains that regardless of our religious preferences, it is a human trait to judge others.

I recently read another Rabbinic commentary whose source escapes me (I thought it was Rabbi Pliskin’s but I can’t find it now). It tells of a poor man who was invited to a wedding. The family who invited him were quite well off and the man was embarrassed that he couldn’t afford a good suit to wear to the occasion. He finally asked a neighbor if he could borrow a suit and his neighbor generously lent the man a $1000 suit.

The day of the wedding, the man discovered that many of the people at the wedding were wearing suits not as fine as his and he began to look down upon them. This, of course, is the improper response, since this poor man could not have dressed as well as even the most casually attired wedding guest of his own resources.

And yet, as faulty as we all are in our obedience of and service to God, we can almost always find someone who is more (apparently) faulty than we are and at least within our own thoughts (though sometimes with our facial expressions and even our words) judge them.

J.K McKee in his book One Law for All: From the Mosaic Texts to the Work of the Holy Spirit opposes a Gentile (Christian) from adhering to the Torah mitzvot in the manner of the Jews as a matter of covenant obligation. Although McKee has other reasons for believing in the “One Law” for Jews and Gentiles, he states that relating to the commandments as an obligation can lead to a form of legalism and judgmentalism within One Law Christian communities.

I think McKee is simply describing human nature. I think the “cure” if there is one, is for each of us to focus on our own lives, consider where we are called to serve God, and to attend to our own “observance,” however we choose to define it.

God is the righteous judge of the world. We, as the people we are now, are to judge no one but ourselves and even then, it would be good if we didn’t judge ourselves too harshly or in too lenient a manner. Since striking the proper balance in assessing our own service to the Almighty will take a lifetime to master (regardless of how young or old you are when you take up the task), there should be little time in your life to be concerned about how well someone else is doing.

Dr. Ira Weiss wasn’t worried about any other Jew being late in reciting Mincha, only about himself. As an Orthodox Jew, he knew the standards by which his service to God was measured. The Rebbe reminded him of the higher duty the doctor had to his patients and that God was a lot more understanding of human frailty and limitations than we are as human beings.

jewish-repentanceThe Rebbe was a great believer that it was never too late to make teshuvah (repent) and to return to God. When we fail, we must remind ourselves that we too can repent and return, and that the struggle between our humanity and God’s perfection is one we will live with every day of our lives. It’s not perfection we seek in this lifetime, it’s persistence, endurance, striving to climb higher, and forgiveness when we fall. Don’t worry about the other guy. He’s got enough worries of his own without you adding to his list. God will help him even as he does you…and me.

Fish Out Of Water

FishOutofWaterA 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
“Connecting”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

“The Son of David will not come till a fish is sought for an invalid and cannot be found.”

-Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a

The Son of David is a diminutive reference to the Messiah, who will be a descendent of the royal house of David, King of Israel. The diminutive reference is strange in itself, but even more strange is the contention that the coming of the Messiah is dependent on an invalid in search of an unfound fish. What did Rabbi Menachem Mendel see in this passage that could reflect on his present situation?

-Rabbi Eli Rubin
“Lisbon 1941: The Messiah, the Invalid, and the Fish:
The private journal of the Lubavitcher Rebbe reveals a dual vision for the future of humanity”
Chabad.org

My wife sent me the email version of Rabbi Rubin’s article about the Rebbe, the Messiah, the Invalid, and the Fish and I still can’t figure out why. Maybe she just thought I’d find it intellectually stimulating or maybe she was sending me a message about my faith in Jesus as Messiah.

I do find it stimulating, which is why I’m writing about it, but more than that, I think the Rebbe’s message about Messiah tells us something about ourselves.

But I’ll get to that in a moment. One of the things I found in the article and learned at some previous point in time is that at least within some streams of Judaism, there is no single scenario that is thought to bring the Messiah. As far as what the Rebbe was teaching he said that there were two different generations that could possibly see the Messiah come: one that was entirely worthy or one that was entirely unworthy.

Seems contradictory and unnecessarily complicated from a Christian point of view. We tend to think that the Messiah will come when he comes. It’s up to God, not us. We can’t do anything about it and we certainly can’t be “worthy” of his coming.

…as it is written:

“There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God.”

Romans 3:10-11 (NRSV)

But then, as my wife has told me before, Christians and Jews think in fundamentally different ways. As I previously said, in certain areas of Judaism, it is thought that people have the ability to change the timing of Messiah’s arrival based on our collective behavior. That then lends itself to multiple circumstances by which Messiah could appear (or “return” from the Christian perspective):

Rabbi Menachem Mendel offers two explanations of the earlier passage, corresponding to these alternative scenarios. In the first, the redemption is well deserved due to the lofty station at which society has arrived; in the second, redemption is bestowed because the alternative is utter deterioration.

This brings us back to our invalid: The diminutive designation “Son of David” indicates that the redeemer is worthy of his messianic status only due to his lineage. Likewise, the generation to be redeemed is also deficient, suffering from the spiritual maladies of sin and moral degeneration.

At a time when the world was ailing, and the Holocaust was already underway, Rabbi Menachem Mendel confronted the paradoxical possibility of evil in the presence of G‑d. The cause of such spiritual illness, he wrote, is human forgetfulness. We can do evil only if we forget that we are in the presence of G‑d.

lisbon-to-new-yorkThe Rebbe’s commentary didn’t come out of a vacuum. The backdrop for all this was the Holocaust, World War Two, when the Rebbe and his wife were trying to leave Lisbon for the United States to escape Nazis in 1941. The time when the world went mad or as mad as anyone thought we could get up to that point.

“We can do evil only if we forget that we are in the presence of G‑d.”

Well, yes and no.

“Yes,” in the sense that when we believe we are doing “evil” or anything wrong, we cannot simultaneously be acutely conscious of the fact that God is watching over our shoulder, so to speak. It would be like a man cheating on his wife while his wife was in the same room. If we choose to sin, we must temporarily pretend that God isn’t watching in order not to be immediately seized with horrible guilt (of course if we are wired correctly in a moral and spiritual sense, we should experience guilt anyway, even without a direct awareness of the presence of God).

But it is also “no” in the sense that we do “evil” and do not recognize what we are doing is evil. People who operate within the bounds of what you might call “self-righteousness” are quite guilty of this and also quite unaware of their guilt. In fact, they might feel completely justified and even believe that God approves of their evil acts, calling their evil “good.”

Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

Isaiah 5:20

For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.

2 Timothy 4:3-4

The Westboro Baptist Church is the most extreme example I can think of within “Christianity,” though I don’t count them as disciples of Christ. They perform heinous acts against grieving families of American military personnel who have died in the service of our country and believe it is somehow all for the glory of Jesus.

Of course, most believers commit such “evil” in far less spectacular ways but they are no more conscious of their wrongdoing than the aforementioned Westboro folks. Confront them if you will, but they’ll turn every argument you make against you (and that’s happened to me more than once) as if you, in attempting to uphold the Biblical principles of forgiveness, kindness, and compassion are making terrible Biblical errors and their own fire-breathing doctrine is the only way to please God.

That makes the following statement all the more ironic.

This is where the Talmudic fish comes in. Fish are a metaphor for the knowledge that we are ever submerged in the presence of G‑d. Just as a fish cannot live out of water, so the spiritual health of humanity can be preserved only if we are consciously aware of G‑d’s all-encompassing presence. It is at a moment that G‑d’s presence is utterly hidden—when no fish can be found for the invalid—that the redemption must arrive.

Ironic and true.

We live in a world where no fish can be found, when it seems as if the presence of God has completely left our world. Good literally is being called evil and evil is literally being called good in terms of the various social priorities and journalistic pronouncements we find daily in the popular media.

I keep expecting Jesus to come around the corner at any second, given what the Rebbe has said.

“Just as a fish cannot live out of water, so the spiritual health of humanity can be preserved only if we are consciously aware of G‑d’s all-encompassing presence.”

We are one sick and dying fish.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s second interpretation lays out the flip side of this vision. So long as the hand of G‑d has not yet been forced, and the redemption has not yet arrived, the burden of responsibility still lies on the shoulders of humanity. We can repair the world, so we must repair the world, ultimately bringing it to an era that is “entirely worthy” and ripe for redemption. In an era of human perfection, man will strive to lose all sense of ego, desiring to become utterly submerged within the divine self.

But maybe not completely dead (though I wouldn’t say we can possibly be “worthy”).

feeding_the_hungryAt least from a Jewish point of view, we can do something to help. Maybe we can’t actually summon the Messiah, which is what a Christian believes, but we can still be more “Messiah-like.” Some Christians used to wear those “WWJD” or “What Would Jesus Do” bracelets, but we can go one better and just do what Jesus would do in the world. What did he teach? Is the answer going to come as a big surprise?

Feed the hungry, visit the sick, comfort the grieving, help anyone hurting in whatever way they need help. Change someone’s flat tire. Volunteer to take “meals on wheels” to the elderly and the infirm. Pick a need and fulfill it. I don’t care which one. Just quit being a “sick fish” by going out of your way to hurt other people because that is your special or only way of “serving” God.

According to the Rebbe’s metaphor, the fish is “sick” for the love of God but as immersed as the fish is, the fish and the water aren’t ever going to be the same thing:

Similarly, the worthy invalid is “sick” with love for G‑d, desiring utter submergence but unable to cross the infinite divide separating man from G‑d.

The best we can do, and that’s only by the grace of God, is to imitate our Master in how we do good to others. Maybe that will bring the Messiah back sooner and maybe it won’t but it sure couldn’t hurt. In fact, it probably will do some good, if not in a cosmic sense, then at least in a down-to-earth human sense.

Four decades later, Rabbi Menachem Mendel delivered a public talk in which he explained that at every moment we face two very different visions of the future. On the one hand, we anticipate the imminent revelation of a new era of eternal good; on the other hand, we invest long-term commitment and energy into a more gradual transformational process, changing the world from the bottom up.

I don’t believe the world and the people in it are anywhere near “the imminent revelation of a new era of eternal good.” Looking at the news headlines for five minutes will tell you that humanity is no better now than at any time in the past, and some might argue that we’re getting worse all the time. That leaves the Rebbe’s “Plan B:” investing in a long-term commitment to gradually transform the world from the bottom up, one act of kindness at a time.

Multiple sources have been attributed to the famous quote, “If you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem.” Whoever first said it knew what they were talking about. Sitting on your bottom and doing nothing isn’t actively “evil” but it does nothing to produce “good.”

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

-Edmund Burke

That’s pretty much it. How many “good men” did nothing while six-million Jews died? How many good men have done nothing while countless men, women, and children starved, or died in wars, or died in riots, or died due to political indifference to human rights?

Doing nothing won’t keep you safe and doing evil in the name of good is just as bad or worse.

If we are truly connected to God and truly love Him, then we have no choice but to also love human beings. God loves human beings…all of us, regardless of race, creed, color, nationality, language, and (gasp) religion. Like it or not, God loves the Muslim, the Taoist, the Buddhist, as well as God loves the Christian and the Jew. God loves us even though we screw up pretty much all the time, even the best of us.

If we restrict our love, then we are hardly being “Christ-like” and thus we’ve already tainted our response to God and our ability to do good in the world.

“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”

Matthew 5:46

rocket-scienceThis isn’t rocket science. This isn’t esoteric and arcane knowledge hidden within the murky depths of some obscure part of the Bible. This is the “easy stuff.” Well, it’s easy in that it’s pretty easy to comprehend. Obviously given the state of certain areas of the religious blogosphere and various believing congregations, home groups, and families scattered across the landscape, it’s not really that easy to do, otherwise there’d be a power surge of constantly doing good in the world.

Take a look at the last time you talked to another person. Was it in kindness, indifference, or anger? If you’re a blogger (or you comment on blogs), what was the last topic you wrote or commented on? Were you encouraging and supportive? Were you insulting and accusatory? Given everything I’ve written so far, you should be able to quickly figure out if you’re doing the will of the Master in the world or the opposite.

Do not bring us into the power of error, nor the power of transgression and sin, nor into the power of challenge, nor into the power of scorn. Let not the Evil Inclination dominate us. Distance us from an evil person and an evil companion. Attach us to the Good Inclination and to good deeds and compel our Evil Inclination to be subservient to You. Grant us today and every day grace, kindness, and mercy in Your eyes and in the eyes of all who see us.

-from the Siddur

You’re either a fish in the water immersed into the reality of God or you’re a fish out of water (Marco Polo). If you’re out, then you’re dying and you don’t even know it. You think you’re in a vast ocean when in fact, your tiny little puddle is evaporating like a raindrop in the Arizona desert sun in August. You don’t have much time.

I don’t believe people will ever be “worthy” enough for the age of Messiah to come. I think our world and the people in it will continue to degrade until he either comes or we destroy ourselves, eating each other alive. But those of us who are disciples of the Master can continue to strive to be a little more like him every day. In that way, maybe he will find at least a few people who have faith when he finally returns, may it be soon and in our day.

 

How to Get to Where We Belong

“You mean, Mr. Zacks, that there is this vast structure G-d has created of plants, animals, food chains, stars, and planets. And, that the only creature in all of creation that doesn’t understand how to fit in and live their life purposefully is the human?”

-Gordon Zacks quoting the Rebbe
“Where Change Begins”
Chabad.org

In reading Mr. Zacks’ article about his encounters with the Rebbe, I was captured by the statement I quoted above because I couldn’t agree more. Out of everything in God’s creation, only man has no idea where he fits into that creation. Even those of us who are “religious” struggle, and argue and, as we’ve seen in recent events, occasionally conduct world-wide riots, all for the sake of who we think God is and our belief about what He wants.

I recently had an email conversation with a gentleman about, among other things, the differences between Christianity and Judaism. One key difference we noticed is the need, or lack thereof depending on your religious tradition, for absolute certainty. In Christianity, all questions must be answered, all puzzles must be solved. Everything is either black or white. Doubt and uncertainty are not to be tolerated. A bad answer (or God forbid, a wrong answer) is better than no answer at all. When a Christian asks you to describe the details of Heaven and you answer, “I don’t know for sure,” it tends to frustrate the Christian.

By comparison, the name “Israel” is the very heart of struggling with God over every question, every puzzle, every elusive detail, with no guarantee at all that there even is an answer, or at least not one that we could understand. It’s not only tolerable to live at a particular level of uncertainly, it’s practically required in Judaism. Every question has a dozen potential answers, every person has an opinion, ideas and concepts critical to faith in God are bandied about, but no one truly get’s upset, dismayed, or hurt over agreements, disagreements, (although, I have written recently about how such debates typically go wrong in the “Hebrew Roots” arena) and the “I don’t know” statement of another human being.

When the Rebbe was addressing Mr. Zacks, (and I encourage you to read the entire article) it seemed as if the Rebbe knew where man fit and lived purposefully in God’s creation. Further, he expected others, including Mr. Zacks, to know as well. Such late night meetings with the Rebbe typically lasted between 30 seconds and one minute. In his initial meeting with the Rebbe, Mr. Zacks had a conversation with him for about an hour and a half. In that time, one of the things the Rebbe said was this:

He quoted Kazantzakis’ book Zorba the Greek to me during our conversation. “Do you remember the young man talking with Zorba on the beach, when Zorba asks what the purpose of life is? The young fellow admits he doesn’t know. And Zorba comments, ‘Well, all those damned books you read–what good are they? Why do you read them?’ Zorba’s friend says he doesn’t know. Zorba can see his friend doesn’t have an answer to the most fundamental question. That’s the trouble with you. ‘A man’s head is like a grocer,’ Zorba says, ‘it keeps accounts…. The head’s a careful little shopkeeper; it never risks all it has, always keeps something in reserve. It never breaks the string.’ Wise men and grocers weigh everything. They can never cut the cord and be free. Your problem, Mr. Zacks, is that you are trying to find G-d’s map through your head. You are unlikely to find it that way. You have to experience before you can truly feel and then be free to learn. Let me send a teacher to live with you for a year and teach you how to be Jewish. You will unleash a whole new dimension to your life. If you really want to change the world, change yourself! It’s like dropping a stone into a pool of water and watching the concentric circles radiate to the shore. You will influence all the people around you, and they will influence others in turn. That’s how you bring about improvement in the world.”

(Now I feel as if I should read Zorba the Greek)

The Rebbe’s solution to what he saw as Mr. Zacks’ “problem,” was to ask Mr. Zacks to accept a teacher, sent by the Rebbe, into the Zacks home for a year to teach him how to live as a Jew, how to be a Jew.

Understanding who you are, where you fit in, and how to live purposefully in God’s universe isn’t something you just study and understand. Unlike what we are often taught in the church, it’s not just something you cognitively believe or feel emotions about as you sit in a pew or pray in the night. It is something you do, it is a continual experience of life and living and being a child of God, made in His image.

At the Rebbe’s initial request to place a teacher in the Zacks home, Mr. Zacks said, “Rebbe, I’m not ready to do that.” Although through a series of letters, the Rebbe continued to make his request over the years, I don’t believe Mr. Zacks ever took him up on the offer.

While the “solution” to our fitting in and leading purposeful lives as Christians probably isn’t having a Chabad Rabbi live in our homes for a year (or for that matter, a Baptist Pastor), we do need to not just believe in God, but experience what it is to live out God’s purpose for the world and His purpose for our lives. What that is for me as an individual, alas, remains something of a mystery, in spite of everything I just wrote. On the other hand, and I’ve said this many times before, on a very basic level, it’s not that hard to understand and do, either.

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? –Micah 6:8 (ESV)

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ –Matthew 25:34-40 (ESV)

As we begin a new year on the Jewish calendar with Yom Kippur still facing us, if you (or I) have no idea where God wants you to “fit in,” I suppose following the advice of the Master wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

“Don’t dream it, be it.”

-Richard O’Brien
from the song, “Don’t Dream It, Be It”
The Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack

Out of respect for the Jewish people and to honor Rosh Hashanah, which is considered a Shabbat and celebrated for two days starting today at sundown, my next “meditation” will be posted on Wednesday morning.

May you have a good and sweet year

שנה טובה ומתוקה

Shana Tova u’metuka

What Do You Know?

Man, like all creatures . . . possesses both a body and a soul. And just as there are those who are poor in body and bodily needs, so, too, are there paupers in spirit and spiritual needs. Thus, the mitzvah of charity includes both physical charity and spiritual charity. In the words of our sages: “[It is written:] ‘If you see a naked person, you should cover him.’ What is the meaning of this? If you see a person who is naked of the words of Torah, take him into your home, teach him to read the Shema and pray, teach him… and enjoin him regarding the mitzvot….”

Regarding material charity, the law is that the material pauper is also obligated [to give], for even the most impoverished person can find a way to help his fellow pauper. The same applies to spiritual charity. There is no man or woman in Israel who cannot, in some way, influence his or her fellow Jews and bring them closer to the fear of Heaven, the Torah and the mitzvot.

Freely translated excerpt from the very first “public letter” written by the Rebbe
dated Elul 18, 5710 (August 31, 1950)
Printed in Igrot Kodesh vol. 3, pg. 463-4.
As quoted from “A Poor Man’s Gift”
in the “What the Rebbe Taught Me” series
Chabad.org

When I attended my former One Law congregation, it used to bother me a little to teach. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved to teach. I used to craft a lesson the way I write blogs. I’d find inspiration everywhere. I couldn’t read the Bible without getting ideas for future lessons.

But there’s a problem.

I have absolutely no formal educational or vocational background in teaching on Biblical and religious topics. I’m kind of a blockhead that way. I tend to teach as I write; not so much on the nuts and bolts facts, translations, and Greek or Hebrew “wordplay” you see on so many other religious blogs, but on the themes raised by the text and the moral and ethical lessons we can glean from the Word.

It still bothers me to blog for pretty much the same reasons it bothered me to teach. At least now, I’m only representing myself and not a congregation or organization. I don’t have to be worried that what I say and my personal opinions will reflect poorly on others. Now, when I (virtually) shoot off my big mouth, it only reflects poorly (or otherwise) on me.

Well, that’s not absolutely true. As a disciple of Jesus and a worshiper of the God of Abraham, anything I say or do, for good or for ill, reflects upon my Creator. That’s hardly to be taken lightly, but on the other hand, with so many religious bloggers out there, one or two others are probably going to make a few mistakes, too. That’s no excuse of course, but I have to plead that I’m only human. My mistakes are my own, not God’s.

Just in case you were wondering, just how many blogs and bloggers are out there, (I can’t drill down to the specific number of religious blogs, alas) according to nielsen.com, at the end of 2011, there were “over 181 million blogs around the world, up from 36 million only five years earlier.”

Wow!

That’s pretty humbling.

If you’re one of those bloggers and you think your blog is really cool beans, just remember that no matter what you write and how important it is to you, there are almost 200 million other bloggers out there who feel the same way about their messages. Talk about a drop in a bucket.

HumbleThere are a lot of reasons why I continually entertain the thought that I should just quit. Especially after a “bad day” online, I brood a bit and figure I’ll set a date to stop blogging, delete my Facebook and twitter accounts, and let the rest of the world duke it out in cyberspace. I’m sure there are a lot of other things I could do with my time besides blogging a ridiculous amount in the Christian/Jewish/Messianic blogosphere. Besides, it’s not as if my one little online contribution could possibly make any sort of difference in the greater scheme of things.

But remember that I quoted from the Rebbe’s letter at the start of this particular missive.

Often, I use my blog as a platform to encourage and support giving tzedakah in a variety of forms, including material, emotional, and spiritual. But Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson in this commentary presents another idea:

What is often overlooked, however, is the fact that charity not only means feeding empty stomachs, but also includes the nourishing of needy hearts, ignorant minds, misguided spirits, and stagnant souls.

While a now-famous Jewish teaching states, “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world,” according to one Talmudic master, “He who teaches Torah to his neighbor’s son is regarded by Scripture as though he created him.”

But wouldn’t that presuppose being a competent Torah teacher? I mean, it’s not like just anyone can teach Torah or, to put it in more “Christian” terms, it’s not like just anybody can be a Bible teacher.

According to our aforementioned commentary, the Rebbe was fond of quoting the following:

“If only you know aleph (the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet) – teach aleph!”

-Old Chassidic Proverb

I suppose that’s sort of like saying, “if you only know the ABCs, teach the ABCs.” But what does that have to do with teaching the Bible or blogging about religious topics, particularly if you are untrained and uneducated?

Herb Brin, a noted author and the editor of four newspapers, met with the Rebbe after becoming editor of the L.A.-based Jewish newspaper Heritage. The private audience lasted six hours. At some point, the following exchange took place:

“Rebbe, I recently became editor of a Jewish publication. The problem is, I know very little about my people and their heritage. Do I have the right to make sensitive editorial judgments as I do not understand Hebrew, my Jewish education was truncated, and I only know fragments of Yiddish?”

Looking him in the eye, the Rebbe said, “Do you have the right to withhold that which you do know?”

OK, that was only a longer and slightly more detailed commentary on what Rabbi Kalmenson said a moment earlier, so not much more was illuminated.

There are actually two problems here. The first is that you should teach only what you are competent to teach. That can be a tough one because human beings are notorious for grossly overestimating what they know and how far their skill sets can take them. The blogosphere is replete with self-appointed “experts” in their fields, particularly when the field is religion, so it would be easy for someone with limited qualifications, or even a reasonably well-educated person, but with a serious ax to grind, to use Rabbi Kalmenson’s lesson as tacit permission to rattle off whatever “teachings” they feel capable of presenting to a spiritually hungry and needy audience.

I can’t speak for all bloggers everywhere, but for my own part, I make every effort to teach and write within the boundaries of my knowledge. I also have a trusted friend or two who, behind the scenes, lets me know when I’ve gone a bit too far.

But what about the second problem?

Say that as a student, I have the right, even the obligation, to teach, to inform, to educate, to share information with those uninformed; but how dare I encourage others when it comes to Jewish observance? How can I promote the practice of a lifestyle that I myself continue to struggle with?

That is an absolutely excellent question, and one that we should all consider when consulting the various blogs out there (including mine) that suggest how to go about living a moral, ethical, and spiritual lifestyle. How can you know if the author is living up to the standards he or she is teaching to others?

The Rebbe had an answer for that one, too.

A college student once approached the Rebbe in the middle of a chassidic gathering to greet him with a l’chaim. The Rebbe turned and asked him if he was involved with encouraging and helping his fellow students to put on tefillin every day.”But Rebbe,” admitted the young man, “I myself don’t put on tefillin every day!”

“Why is that their fault…?” replied the Rebbe, with a smile.

In sum, Judaism teaches that you don’t have to be rich to give to the poor, you don’t have to be a scholar in order to teach the ignorant, and you don’t have to be perfect in order to help others perfect themselves.

That’s absolutely amazing and explains why the poor can give to the poorer or sometimes, even to the rich. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to have a perfect religious or spiritual walk. Granted, I don’t think the Rebbe was suggesting that it’s OK to be a phony, a hypocrite, or a charlatan, but it is OK to be an honest and well-meaning person with a limited skill set and who struggles with their walk of faith and to still teach what they know and what you know to others. I guess on that basis, I’ll continue to blog for a bit longer. You never know what might happen as a result.

What can the poor man give? The answer is, whatever he has. Jesus talked about this too, but he used more concrete terms in his parable.

And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” –Mark 12:41-44 (ESV)

Now imagine that instead of material funds, the Master was talking about what you know, how you encourage, and your example of living out your faith.

What do you have to give? What do I?

The Chaotic Serene Garden

I have no problem-solving thoughts. I do not intend to suggest a new method of remedying the human situation which I am about to describe; neither do I believe that it can be remedied at all. The role of the man of faith, whose religious experience is fraught with inner conflicts and incongruities, who oscillates between ecstasy in God’s companionship and despair when he feels abandoned by God, and who is torn asunder by the heightened contrast between self-appreciation and abnegation, has been a difficult one since the times of Abraham and Moses. It would be presumptuous of me to attempt to convert the passional, antinomic faith-experience into a eudaemonic, harmonious one, while the Biblical knights of faith lived heroically with this very tragic and paradoxical experience.

All I want is to follow the advice given by Elihu, the son of Berachel of old, who said, “I will speak that I may find relief”; for there is a redemptive quality for an agitated mind in the spoken word, and a tormented soul finds peace in confessing.

-Joseph B. Soloveitchik
from the Foreword of his book
The Lonely Man of Faith

In many ways, reading the first part of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s book is like looking in a mirror. Well, not exactly. He was born over half a century before I was and after all, I’m not Jewish, let alone a Rabbi. Yet everything he says about his own experience and the experience of a man of faith completely reflects my own thoughts, feelings, and uneasy journey with God.

I’ve talked before about trying to find a storyteller who speaks in metaphors I can understand, and so far Rabbi Soloveitchik is one of those storytellers. I don’t think I’ll ever know why men like Rabbi Tzvi Freeman and even the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of righteous memory, use “my metaphors” so much more clearly than any Christian author I’ve ever read. It is true that Thomas Merton, a Trappist Monk, spoke very well and clearly to some parts of me in his book The Seven Storey Mountain, but that’s something of a rarity.

I’m not going to presume a Jewish soul, and in so many ways, I’m such a Goy (at least according to my Jewish wife), so I really don’t have an answer. But at least as far as my reading up to the end of Chapter 1 is concerned, Rabbi Soloveitchik is speaking in a language that could apply to people of many different faiths, not just to the Jew.

And he’s talking about exactly what I experience.

I have a confession to make. There were times when I thought I was going crazy. There were times when I thought I was just a bad Christian, a person with a bad or weak faith, someone who just didn’t “get” what it was to walk on a path that leads to God. And yet just look at how Rabbi Soloveitchik starts the first chapter of his book:

The nature of the dilemma can be stated in a three-word sentence. I am lonely. Let me emphasize, however, that by stating “I am lonely” I do not intend to convey to you that impression that I am alone. I, thank God, do enjoy the love and friendship of many. I meet people, talk, preach, argue, reason; I am surrounded by comrades and acquaintances. And yet, companionship and friendship do not alleviate the passional experience of loneliness which trails me constantly. I am lonely because at times I feel rejected and thrust away by everybody, not excluding my own intimate friends, and the words of the Psalmist, “My father and my mother have forsaken me,” ring quite often in my ears like the plaintive cooing of the turtledove. It is a strange, alas, absurd experience engendering sharp, enervating pain as well as stimulating, cathartic feeling. I despair because I am lonely and, hence feel frustrated. On the other hand, I also feel invigorated because this very experience of loneliness presses everything in me into the service of God.

While Rabbi Soloveitchik’s writing style is very different from mine, what he’s actually saying is just what I’ve been trying to say for a long as I have been blogging. Actually, it’s been a lot longer than that, but blogging has provided me with a unique outlet for my frustration and my need to “follow the advice given by Elihu, the son of Berachel of old” and to “speak that I may find relief.”

Joseph Ber Soloeitchik was born over a century ago, was an American Orthodox rabbi, Talmudist and modern Jewish philosopher, and a descendant of the Lithuanian Jewish Soloveitchik rabbinic dynasty. The words of his book first appeared in print over fifty years ago, when I was still in elementary school. He died at the age of 90 nearly twenty years ago and a continent away from where I was living at the moment his soul ascended to God. I don’t imagine that we would have had a lot in common had we ever met.

Except for how we experience our faith.

Maybe I’m not crazy after all. Maybe faith is designed to be lonely, inconsistent, and chaotic, like riding a roller coaster that alternately travels through a beautiful and serene Japanese garden and the fresh hell of a radioactive Chernobyl.

If I can take the beginning words of the Rav’s book at face value, I guess my journey of faith will never get any easier, and my only solace is in “confessing” my “tortured soul” (in my case, as a blogger on the web). And yet, it’s nice to find out that I’m not alone in feeling alone in my faith.

I’ll let you know how the rest of the book turns out.