Tag Archives: theology

Seeking Helpers

fred-rogersAll the ways of a person are pure in one’s eyes.

Proverbs 16:2

As a rule, people do not do anything that they believe to be wrong. Those who do wrong have somehow convinced themselves that what they are doing is in fact right. They justify themselves with ingenious rationalizations.

If we are so susceptible to our minds playing tricks on us and deluding us that what is wrong is right, what can we do to prevent improper behavior? Solomon provides the answer: Direct your actions toward God, and your thoughts will be right (Proverbs 16:3).

The distortion is greatest when the motivation is, “What do I want?” If we remove ourselves from the picture and instead ask, “What does God want?” the possibility of distortion shrinks.

While there is less distortion in the latter case, we cannot say that distortion is completely absent. Some people have strange ideas about what God wants. However, if we take ourselves out of the picture and are motivated to do what God wants, there is greater likelihood that we might consult someone in a position to give us an authoritative opinion as to the will of God. While this is not foolproof, there is at least a chance of escaping the distortions of rationalization that are dominant when one seeks to satisfy primarily oneself.

Today I shall…

try to dedicate myself to doing the will of God, and try to learn what His will is by studying the Torah and accepting guidance from Torah authorities.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Tevet 4”
Aish.com

The Almighty loves those who constantly find merit in others.

Right now, think of someone you have been critical of. Now find something meritorious about that person.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #671, Find Merit in Others”
Aish.com

It’s not easy to find merit in some people, particularly when we perceive that their primary character traits and behavior are particularly “unmeritorious.” The recent tragedy in Connecticut has mobilized a great deal of emotion in our nation, and as a people, we are divided as to how we should respond. There have been many comments on the web over the past several days where it is obvious that people are not trying to discover merit in their “opponents.”

On the other hand, I saw a quote on Facebook attributed to Fred Rogers (yeah, that Mister Rogers).

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

That seems more like trying to find people who are already meritorious in a difficult situation rather than finding merit in a person who may be a “difficult” individual, but I think it’s a step in the right direction.

What about finding merit within ourselves? According to Rabbi Twerski, that could lead us to self-deception, since we all have a tendency to justify our behavior, spinning it toward being good and not finding fault with ourselves. The Rabbi’s answer is to first seek God’s will in all things rather than our own, which is a point I tried to make in yesterday’s morning meditation.

light-of-the-worldSeeking God’s will and God’s standard for doing good helps us avoid self-deception, but as Rabbi Twerski pointed out, we still must be careful. Many, many religious people believe they have sought out and successfully received the will of God, and then proceed to justify the most evil and hurtful actions based on their “sketchy” understanding of what God wants (and who could possibly call themselves a child of God and yet take advantage of the extreme grief of others for their own personal or organizational benefit?).

I guess those last few sentences weren’t exactly reflective of looking for merit in others. See how hard it can be sometimes?

I agree with Mister Rogers’ mother that even in the darkest place, we should look for the light that is shining from the helpers. If we can’t find it, then I think we’re obligated to be the helper and to shine with a light for others to see.

Never forget that your true place is a place of light. Even when you find yourself in the midst of darkness and sorrow, know that this is not your home.

Where is your home? Where does your true self live?

It lives absorbed within the very origin of light. From there, a glimmer of itself escapes and splashes below.

All it takes is that glimmer to transform the darkness, that it too should shine.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Staying Above”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

I admire Rabbi Pliskin in his ability to seek out the merit of others, particularly those “difficult” people and groups who exist in our world. While I believe his advice is sound, there are just some folks I will always struggle with because what is most obvious about them is also extremely hateful or at least “challenging.” If I can’t always see past the problem to get to that glimmer of merit that is possessed by another, may I look to God and ask that I exhibit some small piece of Him in myself that can be an inspiration instead.

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75 Days: A Little Help, Please

All over people are fighting. Religious fighting, national fighting, family fighting. Some are even ready to die because they think they’re right. How are we ever going to put this world back together?

Way #11 is dik’duk chaveirim – literally “cut if fine with friends.” See the importance of sitting down, of reasoning together. Don’t assume your viewpoint is correct. Open yourself to the ideas of others. “You don’t have to kill me. If you persuade me that you’re right, then I’ll join you.”

We need real friends – someone you can trust, to discuss plans, feelings, ambitions. With a friend, you don’t worry about scoring points or winning ego contests. A good friend will listen to the pros and cons and give you straight, honest feedback.

This is especially important with decisions like: Should I marry so-and-so? Should I accept this job offer? Should I move into this neighborhood? Everyone has different insights. Amongst many people you’ll find many solutions.

Some roads can be traveled alone, but the road of life shouldn’t be one of them. Go with a friend.

-Rabbi Noah Weinberg
“Way #11: Work It Through With Friends”
From the “48 Ways To Wisdom” series
Aish.com

So James, have you thought in terms that you’re robbing people of your fellowship? You have something that is vitally needed to be heard by the Christian community. Not to mention your sweet and gracious nature that is a great example.

I will also respectfully say you’re limiting God. I find that if I trust Him enough to obey and not focus on all the reasons I can’t, shouldn’t, it’s too hard too, then He is faithful to work out the details that I have no control over (the heart condition of others). After all, he doesn’t ask me to control others, only to obey Him.

-Lrw in a recent comment on my blog

What do I do when my love is away
Does it worry you to be alone?
How do I feel by the end of the day
Are you sad because you’re on your own

No, I get by with a little help from my friends
Mm, I get high with a little help from my friends
Mm, gonna try with a little help from my friends

-Lennon and McCartney
With a Little Help from My Friends

I suppose that’s how we all get through things…with a little help from friends. As you can see, it’s been suggested to me that not only might I benefit from fellowship with like-minded believers, but that they might benefit from fellowship with me. Sounds egotistical of me to say it like that, but I think I know what Lrw is saying. This is especially true when, as I’ve been describing in this series, there seems to be so much fighting and feuding and jockeying for position in the religious blogosphere and particularly within the Hebrew Roots movement.

But I must say that religious fighting and religious “haters” aren’t limited to the small corner of cyberspace I happen to occupy. Here’s two examples. First, from the Jewish side of things:

Question: I recently stumbled on an anti-Semitic website and they had a whole list of Talmud sayings that sound very non-PC. One example was: “It is permitted to marry a 3-year-old girl,” which they said means that Judaism condones sexual abuse of a young child. Another example was: “The best of the Gentiles, kill.” Does the Talmud really say this stuff?

The Aish Rabbi Replies: Misquoting Talmudic texts or taking them out of context is an age-old method used to incite anti-Semitism.

In the example that you cite, that a Jew may marry a 3-year-old girl, it simply means that under the age of 3, a “marriage” contract has no validity. Beyond that, any “marriage arrangement” made at above the age of 3 must be accepted and validated by the girl herself at such time that she attains maturity. The Talmud is discussing a technical legal point, not condoning abhorrent sexual activities.

As for: “The best of the gentiles, kill,” the context here is very crucial. The question was raised, how could there be any horses chasing after the Jews with chariots (in Exodus 14:7), when they were all killed in the plague of hail (Exodus 9:19). The Midrash (Tanchuma – Beshalach 8) answers that the horses were owned by those who heeded God’s warnings and locked his animals indoors (Exodus 9:20).

The Midrash concludes that these God-fearing Egyptians — the best Egyptians — turned out to be the ones that gave their horses to chase the Jewish people. In other words, in this particular instance, even the best Egyptians turned out to be oppressors, too. Yet even they – “the best of the gentiles” – were deserving of death.

The Torah states unequivocally that ALL men were created in the image of God (Genesis chapter 1). In fact, the Talmud emphasizes that Adam was created from the dust of all four corners of the earth (so to speak), so that no one nation could claim superiority. And of course, it is forbidden for a Jew to kill a Gentile. (source: Talmud Sanhedrin 57a; “Taz” Y.D. 158:1).

So you see, one can change the meaning of anything by taking it out of context. And better not to waste time refuting these points one by one. God’s Torah is morally perfect, and if something ever sounds otherwise, it is because it is not understood properly.

“Misquoting the Talmud”
from the “Ask the Rabbi” series
Aish.com

Christianity in general has an issue with the Talmud and how it is used in Judaism, believing that it is of no value and that it is the “wisdom of the elders” being placed higher than the Word of God. The Hebrew Roots movement also tends to disdain the Talmud and thus, the last 2,000 years or so of Jewish culture and philosophy as well as Jewish art, literature, lifestyle, and just about anything else Jewish that isn’t, strictly speaking, “Biblical.” And yet, it’s impossible in virtually any sense, for anyone, Jew or Gentile alike, to observe the Torah mitzvot without referencing Talmud and granting the ancient Jewish sages the right and ability to render authoritative halakah. In fact, the very structure of the books, chapters, and verses in the Tanakh (Old Testament) was created by those self-same sages. Try to avoid that if you can.

However, this isn’t just a problem on the Jewish side of the equation:

If you want to see a good example of what be-devils any scholarly analysis of practically anything to do with Jesus and early Christianity, have a read of the postings of the Canadian TV self-promoter, Simcha Jacobovici here.

Jacobovici (who styles himself “the naked archaeologist” on his self-produced TV programmes, and offers no competence in anything relevant to the analysis of the fragment) notes that various scholars (particularly Coptologists and specialists in ancient Greek palaeography) have raised questions about the authenticity of the fragment (announced to the scholarly world in Prof. Karen King’s paper presented at a conference in Rome several weeks ago), and simply trashes all the scholars and queries as “sleeper agents of Christian orthodoxy”.

He claims that they give no basis for their hesitations, which is patently incorrect and misleading. The several scholarly analyses that I’ve seen all in fact present in considerable detail reasons for wondering about this fragment. I’ve seen none, not a one of the scholarly analyses in question, that raises any issue about “Christian orthodoxy”.

-Larry Hurtado
from “The ‘Jesus’ Wife’ Fragment: Self-Promoting Personal Attacks”
Larry Hurtado’s Blog

I suppose I was being rather self-centered or myopic in believing this problem was confined to the wee online community in which I participate. As you can see (and I have discovered), these sorts of problems exist elsewhere and probably everywhere. The only way to avoid them is to be completely disengaged from community, even online community which is as easy to take or lose as opening and closing a web browser.

On the one hand, the thought of facing such vitriolic commentary either online or face-to-face isn’t appealing in the slightest. On the other hand, I have to remember that there are some “religious people” who don’t use God like a blunt instrument with which to beat others repeatedly about the head and shoulders:

Rav Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev was known for his love and good will toward his fellow Jews always trying to assess the good in people rather than expose the bad.

Once on the Fast of Tish’a B’av he saw a Jew eating in a non-kosher restaurant. He tapped lightly on the window of the establishment and summoned the man outside.

“Perhaps you forgot that today is a fast day?” Rav Levi Yitzchok queried.

“No, Rebbe,” the man replied.

“Then perhaps you did not realize that this restaurant in not kosher.”

“No, Rebbe, I know it is a traife (non-kosher) eatery.”

Rav Levi Yitzchok softly placed his hands on the man’s shoulders and looked heavenward. “Ribbono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe,” he exclaimed. “Look at how wonderful your children are. They may be eating on a fast day. In a non-kosher restaurant to boot. Yet they refuse to emit a falsehood from their lips!”

-Rabbi M. Kamenetzky
“Eve of Life”
Commentary on Torah Portion Beresheet
Torah.org

As much as I lament the few rather vocal and hostile nudniks (pests) on the web, there are a lot more people who represent the spirit demonstrated by Rav Levi Yitzchok who continue to be an encouragement to me.

However, the next step, if I understand what is being asked of me correctly, will be a lot harder.

 

 

The Jesus Covenant, Part 5: Blessings and Consequences

I had a strange dream last night (actually, several nights ago as I write this). Actually, I had a number of strange dreams (but then again, all of my dreams are strange). What was really unusual about this particular dream though, is that I was composing this “meditation” in the dream. You know when something has captured your attention when you start having dreams about it.

More specifically, I was pondering the covenant relationships involved in the “Jesus Covenant,” or what binds we Christians to God, and what attaches the Jewish people to the Creator. As you know, by the end of Part 4 in this series, I still hadn’t figured out how or if the New Covenant we see prominently mentioned in Jeremiah 31 or Ezekiel 36 has any sort of blessings for the non-Jewish people of the world. Since then, I’ve gotten some feedback saying, in part, that it is exceptionally difficult for “virtually all individuals to adequately grasp a topic so profound (and yet so intricate) that it has engaged believers, including scholars, on the deepest levels for two thousand years.” That was a different wake up call than I expected. However, I wrote the bulk of this blog post before Part 4 was ever published so, as you read this, please keep that in mind.

Now to continue with the original missive:

As I’m writing this, I still haven’t received any illumination from God or any response but the knowledgable people I’m associated with, so I guess I’ll wait a bit longer before calling it a wash.

But I dreamed something last night.

I dreamed about this.

Moses and the elders of Israel charged the people, saying: Observe all the Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day. As soon as you have crossed the Jordan into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones. Coat them with plaster and inscribe upon them all the words of this Teaching. When you cross over to enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, promised you — upon crossing the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, about which I charge you this day, on Mount Ebal, and coat them with plaster. There, too, you shall build an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones. Do not wield an iron tool over them; you must build the altar of the Lord your God of unhewn stones. You shall offer on it burnt offerings to the Lord your God, and you shall sacrifice there offerings of well-being and eat them, rejoicing before the Lord your God. And on those stones you shall inscribe every word of this Teaching most distinctly.

Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Silence! Hear, O Israel! Today you have become the people of the Lord your God: Heed the Lord your God and observe His commandments and His laws, which I enjoin upon you this day.

Thereupon Moses charged the people, saying: After you have crossed the Jordan, the following shall stand on Mount Gerizim when the blessing for the people is spoken: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. And for the curse, the following shall stand on Mount Ebal: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphthali. –Deuteronomy 27:1-13 (JPS Tanakh)

No, I didn’t dream about the actual scene being described above, but I could see blocks of paragraphs on my blog that I knew where talking about the blessings and the curses. The rest of Chapter 27 and part of Chapter 28 describes the specifics of what was cried out between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, in case you want to read about the details.

But that’s not all I dreamed.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 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.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” –Matthew 25:31-46 (ESV)

TranscendentPart of what I believe about The Jesus Covenant is that it doesn’t exist as a discrete and stand-alone element (which I discovered only recently, much to my surprise). It is derived from blessings included in the Abrahamic and arguably the New Covenant, but the actual people of both covenants are the Jewish people. I further believe that the Sinai or Mosaic covenant, the conditions of which are included in the Torah, possesses no blessings for the nations and thus, does not contribute anything to what binds we Christians to the God of Israel (although even traditional Judaism does believe that certain, limited aspects of Torah coincide with a non-Jew’s responsibilities to God).

The Torah is very specific and detailed in describing the terms of the “agreement” between God and the Jews. But what about us? What about Christianity? What have we agreed to do and what are the consequences of failing our Savior and failing God?

That’s what I dreamed about. I dreamed about the specifics of the consequences, the blessings and the curses, that the Jewish people agreed upon as a condition of the Sinai covenant. I also dreamed about the passage from Matthew 25, and while it isn’t constructed as an agreement as such, we see that Jesus has posed conditions upon us and consequences for accomplishing or failing to accomplish those conditions in our lives.

I guess even when I’m asleep, I’m looking for clues. I’m looking for connections. I’m looking for attachments. Theologically, what I’ve just suggested may be total baloney, but the dream was still with me when I woke up this morning, (again, as I write this) even though I was having a completely different dream when my alarm went off.

So I had to write it; I had to share it by way of an interlude within this series, standing between the mystery of the New Covenant and what I hope will become the solution. My quest now is to get further along in my understanding of the New Covenant, both with the help of God and a few scholarly human beings. As Lennon and McCartney famously wrote, “I’ll get by with a little help from my friends.”

That “little help” has made Part 6 of this series (and more) possible. See you there.

The Sacrifice at Golgotha

The Death of the MasterI am hoping you will be able to resolve a very important issue confronting the very foundation of Christianity.

God’s way of testing Abraham by calling for the sacrifice of Isaac…and then the abrupt staying of the knife…was intended to demonstrate that God abhorred human sacrifice and would not accept it (Gen 22.12). When the great central Law of Judaism (the TORAH) was revealed at Sinai, it called for animal sacrifices. The slaying of an animal and the offering of its blood according to certain prescribed rites, symbolized God’s mercy to the sinner, for this would have been his fate. Later in the Law, Moses gives warning to Israel not to worship God in the manner of the pagans (through human sacrifice) for it is an abomination unto the LORD in any way or form it is practiced (Deut 12.30-32).

Turning to the New Testament, Jesus states that he completely upholds the precepts of the Judaic Law until its complete spiritual enactment through-out the world. This great authorization of the central Law of Judaism renders it supreme (Matt 5.18). Nevertheless, here is where a trouble-some contradiction arises. According to Romans 5.6-11, Jesus’ death was a vicarious atonement. But this is a human sacrifice which is expressly forbidden by the very same Law sanctioned by Jesus.

True, Jesus is unique in being both human and Divine. But by sanctioning the Law He did not allow His uniqueness to detract from His subjection to the Law which is understandable since the Law is the perfect Word of God.

In sum, if Jesus was upholding the Law then His death cannot be sacrificial. Or, if His death is sacrificial, He has rejected the Law which He claimed to uphold. In either case, Christianity’s central doctrine of the sacrificial death of Jesus is proven to be scripturally untenable. Christianity is therefore in peril of crumbling away. The stakes are very high. If Christianity succumbs to an inner breakdown, the moral order in the world will soon follow….

This contradiction can only be satisfactorily resolved by reference to Scripture. Scripture is a single, self-consistent truth, but beginning to end. Each verse urges its own truth. When two verses appear to exhibit incompatible claims, a contradiction develops. We must then attempt to resolve this contradiction by reference to another verse(s) which will reconcile the two opposing viewpoints…

When reconciliation is not forthcoming, the contradiction remains and the verse(s) in question are not Divinely revealed facts, but have been spoken by the prophet out of his own authority…

The defensibility of Jesus’ sacrificial death has been troubling me for a long while. I am unable to resolve it according to Scripture. I would be very grateful to you if you could clear it up for me…

Quoted from christianthinktank.com

Have you ever been asked a question you were so sure you knew the answer to that you never even worried about it, and then, when you tried to answer the question, realized you didn’t really know how to respond?

That happened to me yesterday afternoon. Let me explain.

On most Thursdays after work, I meet with a couple of other guys for coffee and discussion. There’s no set agenda, but we usually talk about matters of faith and questions that come up in the Bible that sometimes drive us crazy. We are all reasonably comfortable questioning the traditional Christian assumptions and our coffee meetings give us an opportunity to ask questions we could never ask in church.

I commute to and from work with my son David. On Thursdays I usually drop him off at his place, then go to the coffee shop for my meeting. Yesterday, my daughter-in-law had an activity planned with some female friends at their place and asked if David and I could hang out together. I asked him if he wanted to join my meeting and he said, “OK.”

David was the first of my children to develop a sense of spirituality. When he was little, he went to church with my wife’s brother Steve whenever Steve was visiting from the Bay Area. After David went to church with Steve, he’d ask my wife and me why the rest of us didn’t go to church and believe in Jesus (this was years before my wife and I became religious). That was kind of awkward.

Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, David set his faith aside but it’s always been on the back burner, so to speak. Thursday allowed him to revisit old territory and to ask some of those questions that would drive most Christians nuts.

The four of us were having a fairly stimulating conversation when the question of human sacrifice came up. David sees the death of Jesus on the cross to atone for the sins of the world as a direct violation of the commandment not to sacrifice a human being.

So here we are, three guys from different backgrounds but who all have the same fundamental belief in Christ as Messiah and Savior trying to address this question.

I shot off my big mouth first.

Understand, that this is a very troubling question with no simple answer. Also understand that one of the reasons that I am attracted to Jewish mysticism and particularly the Chassidim, is because I don’t think that there is any other way to explain certain things about the Messiah, including his bloody, sacrificial death, outside of a deeply mystic framework.

Just how can a human sacrifice, even that of the Messiah, atone for the sins of the world? What’s the mechanism that makes it possible and that doesn’t violate God’s prohibition against human sacrifice?

My answer was based on the understanding of the death of a tzaddik being able to atone for the sins of a community or even of an entire generation. Of course, my answer was founded entirely on the Chassidic mystic understanding of this process; something which most Jews, particularly in modern times, do not agree with.

So where is this explained in the Bible?

My friend Russ offered David what I would consider the traditional Christian explanation for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. As I listened to him answering David, I realized that I didn’t find the Christian viewpoint particularly satisfying. I know that I’ve had this explained to me before at some point, but my memory is a leaky container and a lot of stuff has dribbled away over time, so I don’t remember exactly what was said or when that conversation occurred.

This really bothered me.

The conversation ended with more questions than answers, which is fairly typical for our little group, but where was David now? He continues to focus on the Torah and the Prophets as the foundation of his understanding about God and the Jewish people, though I’m sure he would benefit from a review of his knowledge base, but the New Testament seems to him like so many exceptions and contradictions to his understanding of Torah. On the drive back to my place, David and I continued our conversation, and I decided to encourage David to start where he is. If the Torah and Judaism are the rock on which he now stands, then I will support him returning to and exploring the cornerstone of his faith.

But it still bothered me that not only could I not give a satisfactory answer to his questions about Jesus, but I couldn’t really answer my own questions. I can’t solely rely on the “mystic” explanation for how a tzaddik’s death provides atonement, and assuming the traditional Christian response to this query is also lacking, then what is the answer?

I don’t know.

I know that faith is sometimes the mortar that fills in the spaces in religious understanding, but I’m uncomfortable with it being the putty that replaces solid Biblical knowledge let alone logic.

OK, I know that logic is the beginning of wisdom and not its conclusion and that once we accept the existence of God, we also must accept the supernatural, but David did bring up what seems to be a huge disconnect between the Tanakh (Old Testament) and the New Testament in terms of death, atonement, and sacrifice. You’ve probably already clicked the link I provided above and read the christianthinktank.com reply to this question. I did too, but I’m not sure I’m buying it.

Do we see any example of the death of a righteous man providing atonement for the sins of other people in the Tanakh? Was any man in the Old Testament deliberately killed in order to turn away God’s wrath toward other human beings? We talk about men like Joseph, Moses, and David being “types and shadows” of the Messiah. But we don’t see that their deaths really did anything to illuminate the problem of Jesus being a human sacrifice to turn away God’s fatal judgment from all people everywhere across time who accept Christ as Lord and Savior.

I’m not that smart. Some people think I’m smart. My wife thinks I’m smart (except when she disagrees with me, then I’m not too bright at all *wink*). But it’s not really true. I suppose it’s more accurate to say that in this particular area, I’m not very well-educated. I feel ill-equipped to manage these sorts of questions. On some level, I think that it’s not very easy or maybe even not very possible to use human language and human logic to explain the mysterious, mystical way the death of the Messiah somehow atones for the sins of people.

And yet, that’s all we have to work with. Assuming extra-Biblical and particularly mystical (when my wife learned about this conversation, her response to me was to ask in an incredulous tone, “You talked to him about mysticism?”) sources are not considered valid in this discussion, then we must rely on scripture. But if the Old Testament and New Testament don’t agree that the Messiah must die to atone for sins, then what do we have?

A big, fat, furry mess, that’s what.

So I’m opening up yet another can of worms and throwing this topic out to the public via the Internet. I’m seeking out a greater imagination or at least a more scholarly believer. What’s the answer to how the death of Jesus isn’t human sacrifice? Is there an answer that doesn’t contradict the commandment to not sacrifice people?

The comments section is now open. What do you think?

Waiting in a Minefield

The words and the stories of Torah are but its clothing; the guidance within them is its body.

And, as with a body, within that guidance breathes a soul that gives life to whoever follows it.

And within that soul breathes a deeper, transcendental soul, the soul of the soul: G-d Himself within His Torah.

Grasp the clothes alone and you have an empty shell. Grasp straight for the soul—or even the body—and you will come up with nothing. They are not graspable; they are G-dly wisdom and you are a created being.

Instead, examine those words and those stories, turn them again and again. As fine clothes and jewelry can bring out the beauty of the one who wears them, so these words and stories can lead you to the G-dliness that dwells within the Torah.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Grab the Clothing”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

I quoted the above in today’s morning mediation but it seems this particular lesson isn’t done with me yet. The “clothing” of Torah or of God (take your pick since they’re interchangeable in one way or another) is only one aspect of who we are. We refer to Jesus as “the Word made flesh” declaring that Christianity, as well as Judaism, has a tradition of imbuing the Torah with the life of the Divine, but what about the clothing that we wear as disciples of the Master? Interestingly enough, Rabbi Freeman has something to say about our live clothing, too.

There is a suit we wear that has a life of its own.

It is knitted of the fabric of words, images and sounds, mischievous characters that no one else can see—or would care to know.

You, however, hear them day and night, chattering, buzzing, playing their games in the courtyard of your mind. They are all the threads of the garment of thought that envelops you.

Leave your thoughts to play on their own, and they will take you for a ride to places you never wanted to see.

Grab the reins, master them, direct them, flex your mind, and they will follow. Provide them a script, and they will play along.

Do something quick, because you, after all, are dressed up within them.

We seek to be clothed in the holy but all the while, we struggle with the fabric of the mundane, which is the fabric of our human lives. I suppose that’s as good a way as any of describing the struggle we go through every day as people of faith living in a broken world. It’s also more personal because the brokenness is in each of us, not just in the world we inhabit. Rabbi Freeman says that we can achieve some manner of control over this “suit” we wear by giving it a “script” to follow, but make no mistake, taking control is not the same as shedding your skin, because after all, we “are dressed up within them.” We are all trapped in the mundane while longing for the holy.

Recently, I was accused of not understanding this particular lesson and failing to have compassion for people whose life of faith competed with the demands of family. I suppose I feel that demand a bit less because my children are not adults and are responsible for their own religious existence (or lack thereof), but I still experience the push, pull, and shove between the various “words, images and sounds” that make up the different forces that struggle for control over me. I continue to be encased by the competing priorities of man and God.

Part of the interesting dilemma of asking for advice when trying to make a decision, is that you get some. I’ve been asking for advice about the future of fellowship in my life and have been receiving both public and private messages in response. I’ve been forced to consider options that had not occurred to me and avenues I previously had not considered valid. I feel like a man standing in the center of a room with blank walls and no furniture and who is told that I am surrounded by explosive mines. I’m provided with several conflicting maps showing me a safe path out of the room, but I don’t know which one to trust. I’m also told that my own plans for escaping the room are flawed and will certainly lead to destruction.

There’s a difference between asking for and receiving advice, and then taking it.

I think this is one of those times when I’m supposed to be still and quiet and I’m supposed to patiently wait. As you know, I’m not very good at being quiet, but it seems I have no choice about waiting. In real life, making a move one direction or another won’t result in an actual explosion, but a wrong step will still result in making a mistake (which I suppose is inevitable, no matter what I do). On the other hand, I can choose to grab a chair and make myself comfortable in the center of the empty room. Perhaps this is where God wants me after all…or it may be the consequence I’ve built for myself as a result of my assumptions and decisions.

Either way, I am in an empty room with no clear way out…and God is here.

So I sit and wait for God to make the next move. My only question now is, will the wait be temporary or permanent?

Repairing the Turbulent Suffix

A certain sofer wrote a sefer Torah and was checking it over carefully for any possible errors, when he finally found one…Although with most errors he would only have to erase the problem and rewrite, he was unsure whether he could do so in this case. As is well known, it is forbidden to erase the Name of Hashem. In this case, the problem was not the name per se, but the suffix… Since he did not want to rewrite the entire amud, he wanted to fix the error but only if this was permitted by the halachah.

When this question reached the Taz, he ruled that the sofer could not erase the suffix…It is obvious to me that it is forbidden to erase a suffix to one of the Divine Names. Here is the proof: although we find in Maseches Sofrim that if a drop of ink fell on one of the Divine Names it is permitted to erase the ink in order to correct the blot, the Mordechai explains that this may only be permitted if letter wasn’t yet formed properly. However, if ink fell on a complete Name it would be forbidden to erase the ink. Similarly, if the letter were accidentally connected this would also be forbidden and the same is true regarding a suffix.”

When the Chut Hameshulash saw this response, he presented a different view, however. “In my opinion, although the Beis Yosef brings this Mordechai and it is l’halachah, there is room for leniency regarding a suffix. The proof to this is from Menachos 48. There we find that Rav Yochanan asks if we may do a sin in order to gain something with regard to sacrifices. From the Rambam there it is clear that we hold like the opinion of Rav Yochanan.

He concluded, “Since rectifying the shem Hashem is like saving a sacrifice, it is clear that in this case we may erase to rectify, especially since erasing a suffix is only a rabbinic prohibition.”

Mishna Berura Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
“Erasing to Rectify”
Siman 143 Seif 4(a)

I know that the information imparted in the quote above won’t make a great deal of sense to most Christians and probably even to a good many non-Jews in the “Messianic” movement. However the halacha that relates to the creation of a sefer Torah or Torah scroll is extremely specific if, for no other reason, than to avoid violating the commandment not to take the Name of God lightly or in vain (Exodus 20:7). I’m not going to attempt to provide a commentary on the ruling in this Daf, but I do want to use it as a metaphor.

A few days ago, I created a blog post called Debating Fulfillment Theology for the purpose of inviting polite debate regarding the pros and cons of the Christian theology that states the grace of Christ has wholly replaced the law of Moses. Even under the best of circumstances (and the debate is continuing as I write this “mediation,” so you are free to join it if you haven’t done so already), such dialogues rarely arrive at a unified conclusion. That is, I don’t expect that those who support fulfillment or replacement theology will “repent” and agree that it is a dangerous and unsupportable position, nor to I expect that those who disagree with replacement theology will eventually agree that the Jews must surrender their dedication to Torah and God and submit to the grace of Jesus Christ in a manner that completely denies Jews and Judaism (and I’m sure you can detect my bias based on how I worded that last sentence).

My goal for the debate is to engage in and encourage open, honest discourse with the hope of not resolving this conflict, but presenting alternate points of view. I am disturbed that the church sees replacement theology or supersessionism (though sometimes more politely cloaked as “fulfillment theology”) as concrete fact and the only possible way that the New Testament scriptures can be understood. After all, New Testament scholars have been debating for centuries (and continue to debate today) over the meaning of many portions of Paul’s letters and some of the more “difficult sayings of Jesus.” If a certain amount of scholarly disagreement remains in these interpretations, how can Christianity as a whole believe that replacement theology is such a “done deal?”

In quoting part of the Daf for Siman 143 Seif 4(a), I want to introduce an idea. I’ll use myself as an example (and I’ll try to keep this as short as possible and still form a complete picture). I was an agnostic/atheist until my early 40s as was my Jewish wife. Then I came to faith in Christ in a local Nazarene church (long story). My family and I attended for some time, but we found that many of our questions about God and Jesus weren’t being answered, especially as they related to the Jewish people.

My wife came into contact with a “Messianic/One Law” group in our community and she was immediately “hooked” (it took me a little longer to warm up to this sudden change in perspective). She strongly suggested that I attend with her and eventually, my family and I shifted our worship context from the Nazarene church to the One Law congregation. Years passed and many transitions took place. Eventually, we left the One Law congregation, and then my wife went back while the children and I attended the local Reform synagogue (another long story). Then my wife left One Law and joined the Reform shul, while I eventually went back to One Law and stayed for a number of years, proceeding from attendee to board member and teacher.

I was happy there for a time but my wife continued to explore her Judaism with the Reform synagogue and later with the Chabad and for the first time in almost 20 years of being together, we became a “mixed marriage”. My wife now identifies with the traditional Jewish community and is not “Christian” or “Messianic” in any sense.

As I watched my wife explore what it was and is for her to be a Jew within a cultural, ethnic and religious Jewish context, the basic tenants of the One Law movement seemed so discordant with what I was discovering (through my wife’s eyes) is actually Judaism (most One Law groups refer to themselves corporately as “Messianic Judaism” thus identifying themselves as a “Judaism”, even if the majority of their leaders and members are not Jews). Questions about assumptions I had made years before started coming to me and I entered into a year long investigation of who I was and what I was doing in my walk of faith (if you like reading a lot, that entire year is chronicled on my now defunct blog, Searching for Light on the Path).

Finally, I did what most religious people (or even what most people in general) don’t do. I changed my perspective, my theology, and my approach to being a disciple of the Master. In essence, I repaired what I saw as a damaged “suffix” in my understanding of God. That required great sacrifices on my part and I entered into more than one serious “crisis of faith” which resulted in quite of bit of emotional distress. These crises resolved into a new framework, the one from which I am now operating on this blog. I still take “heck” occasionally from people who don’t agree with my decision, however it’s a decision I found necessary to make for me and my relationship with God.

Why am I telling you all this and why should you care?

People can change. It’s not easy and it’s not common, but it’s possible. People can make significant and even extraordinary shifts in their theological perspectives if presented with enough evidence, but evidence is not enough. It takes the ability to admit that you can be wrong (not that God can be wrong, which would amount to actually erasing the Name of Hashem) and the courage to make changes (fix the suffix) once that admission has occurred.

No one likes change which is why a couple who is planning their wedding is stressed to the max, even though getting married is what they want to do more than anything. Any change creates stress and crisis, especially if it involves making major alterations to fundamental emotional, cognitive, and spiritual structures such as how you comprehend your trust and faith in God.

That means it is possible, however unlikely, that someone might really change as a result of this conversation. OK, I’m not holding my breath, but I am making a suggestion. As we see from the Daf above, change and correction of perceived flaws is not easy and there are times when it is necessary and times when it isn’t. Changes should be made with the utmost care and only after a great deal of deliberation, prayer, and consultation with trusted advisers.

But if change weren’t possible, no one would become a Christian in the first place, since no one is born into that state, not even people who are raised in a Christian family.

Rabbi Dr. Michael Schiffman recently made a comment on the aforementioned blog post that speaks to what I’m trying to express:

Scripture is scripture, but quoting a verse in or out of context says what the scripture says, but doesn’t tell us what you think it means. If you are going to quote scripture you have not achieved your goal until you tell us what YOU think it means. What you think it means is actually what you are basing your argument upon, so just say what you think it means or you have proven nothing.

Scripture is Scripture and the Bible is the Bible. It exists. It says what it says. But what does it mean? That depends on how we interpret it and what that interpretation means in our lives. Not everyone relates to the Bible and to God in the same way based on how we interpret the scriptures and how we interpret who we are. When presented with the challenges and crises in our life of faith and understanding, we need to keep going, no matter what the obstacles and no matter what the cost, even if the cost is that we must change or be forced to admit that we will always live a life at odds with God and in conflict with His Word.

On their exodus from Egypt, towards Mount Sinai, the Jewish people arrived at an obstacle – the Red Sea.

They divided into four parties.

One advocated mass suicide.

One said to surrender and return.

One prepared to fight.

One began to pray.

G-d spoke to Moses and said, “Why are you crying out to Me? I told you to travel straight ahead. Keep going and you will see there is no obstacle!”

The Jewish people kept going
and the obstacle became a miracle.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Keep Going”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

Keep going. Like Nachshon, plunge into the turbulent seas. When you find them, you can fix mistakes. Miracles are possible.

My God, guard my tongue from evil, and my lips from speaking deceitfully. And to those who curse me, let my soul be silent and let my soul be like dust to everyone. Open my heart to Your Torah, then my soul will pursue Your commandments.

-from the Elohai N’tzor