Tag Archives: Tikkun Olam

Finding My Metaphor

Ten times a day repeat these dynamic words, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31) (Stop reading and repeat them NOW slowly and confidently.)

Ten times each day, practice the following affirmation, repeating it out loud if possible. “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” (Philippians 4:13) Repeat those words NOW. That magic statement is the most powerful antidote on earth to inferiority thoughts.

Put yourself in God’s hands. To do that simply state, “I am in God’s hands.” Then believe you are NOW receiving all the power you need. “Feel” it flowing into you. Affirm that you are in God’s hands that “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21) in the form of adequate power to meet life’s demands.

Remind yourself that God is with you and nothing can defeat you. Believe that you now RECEIVE power from him.

-Norman Vincent Peale
from his book The Power of Positive Thinking
Chapter 1 “Believe in Yourself” (pp 13-14)

This is a continuation of the themes introduced in my blog posts Learning Acceptance and Practicing Stillness. It has been suggested to me recently that I need to learn the difference between what’s important and what’s not important, and then let go of what doesn’t warrant my time, energy, and worry. I tend to make myself busy and then keep myself that way. I even look at relaxing as sort of a “task” and assign it a certain amount of time. Often, when I finally get to bed, I’m exhausted. Then I don’t get enough sleep, get up early, and start all over again.

Something’s got to give.

As part of this “suggestion,” I’ve been given a bit of “homework” (another task) to do. I’m supposed to read Norman Vincent Peale’s classic tome from which I quoted a few moments ago. Naturally, I’ll see this assignment through as I do all my obligations (sounds grim, doesn’t it?) but I have a problem. I hate inspirational books.

Reading Peale’s book isn’t much different than reading other material of a similar vein. There are no end of inspirational blogs on the web, such as morningcoach.com and Dumb Little Man and although I read them from time to time, they don’t do very much for me. I find them just too “fluffy” and “phony” sounding.

More to the point, I don’t find them very practical. Inspirational material almost never meets the person where they are starting from but rather, paints a sort of idealized picture of “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps” just as “easy as pie.” Regardless of whether you’re trying to learn a sport or recovering from a horrible plane crash, these little “sound bytes” of enthusiasm approach the audience’s conflicts in fundamentally the same way. Worse, the comments written in response are almost always stuff (fluff) like, “this helped me so much” or “I tried your suggestion and it was amazing.” No one writes anything like, “I tried what you said and fell flat on my face, ending up a thousand times worse off than I was before.”

Am I being cynical?

Although Peale’s work has been criticized on a number of levels, the vast majority of reviews on “Positive Thinking” are…positive. But although I’ve only read chapter 1 so far, I have a problem with Peale’s approach, especially his use of scripture. Take a look at the quote from the beginning of this blog post again. Do you see my problem? What about the context of what’s being said in those passages from the Bible?

One of the issues I have with some Bible studies is that they tend to take one or two lines from the Bible and build an entire theology around them. It’s as if the words weren’t part of a conversation or an overall Biblical background, but instead, the cornerstone of a complete way of thinking and behaving. Did Paul intend for one sentence in his letter to the Romans to be the focus of his entire message? Was Philippians 4:13 supposed to be a Christian mantra? And when Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21 [ESV]), was he really saying that all Christians “are NOW receiving all the power” they need to accomplish their goals?

And yet, I can’t deny that a lot of people say that reading and studying his book has helped them. I also can’t deny (though I find it hard to grasp) that lots of people find inspirational blogs, books, tapes, and videos helpful in improving their day-to-day lives. There really is nothing new in this material from one source to another. It all seems to say the same things but in different ways (I feel that way about many of the blogs I write, too). It’s no secret that “you are what you think” and this philosophy is the basis for the “positive affirmations” you’ll find in Peale’s book as well as in many other inspirational materials. It all seems so easy, but for me, it’s also so hard to swallow.

Shifting scenes for a moment, most of you may not know that my Mom (Hi, Mom) is a periodic reader of this blog (no pressure). Having perused some recent posts that have expressed my usual angst, she responded in part, like this:

I have read quite a few of your blogs, but not nearly all of them. Although I enjoy reading them you make religion so hard.

Here is what I think not about what you write but about what I believe.

Re read John 3/16 and beyond. It says it all for me.

The church we belong to is like a family, Not to say we haven’t had our ups and downs like families do. Maybe were like a family because most of us are from somewhere else with no relatives near. When Dad had both knees done and I had my surgery. lots of our friends showed up and just sat in the waiting room. We have a prayer chain that prays for the persons who are having difficulties. Of course we know God answers prayers, but maybe not the way we want him too. I love the fellowship that I have with other Christians. It didn’t happen like a fire cracker going off. It came slowly like most good things do.

I send this e-mail with much love. Just wanted to get my two cents in, but do keep writing there are people you are helping. I’m one of them.

Love Mom.

Thanks, Mom.

Naturally, I was captured by the words, “you make religion so hard.” In a later email, Mom told me that:

My faith is so easy, I only have to trust and believe. Because of my faith I will try to do good, which at times I fail miserly and I’m happy that I have more. But I’m a firm believer in everyone has to do what they have to do.

I can’t argue against what Mom says, but as most of you know, it’s hard for me to view religion as easy. But then, is it religion or faith we’re talking about? Is faith easy?

Faith, in terms of accepting the existence of God and the Messiahship of Jesus, isn’t exactly “easy” but it’s quite a bit more approachable than some of the other issues I grapple with such as trust, which isn’t the same as faith, fellowship, and reconciling my Christianity within the context of intermarriage. Digging down into this mud-pie, I find that what I’m really afraid of is getting too comfortable. There are too many Christians (and I suppose too many people in other religious traditions) who just accept what they’re told, never question it, and set their spiritual journey on cruise control. When you take your hands off the wheel, you have no part in where you end up. I suppose letting God take control and “giving it all to Him” is a common refrain in many churches, but did God create us to be little Christian robots with no will of our own and no participation in our relationship with Him? Aren’t we supposed to struggle?

Maybe I don’t like inspirational books and blogs because they suggest that everything is easy and struggle free and that all problems have perfect solutions. If there’s no struggle with life and no struggle with God, where is the spark in that life? Yes, I want peace, and I want to let go of needless worries, but I don’t want to be in a coma. How am I supposed to approach the “peace beyond all understanding” without feeling as if I’ve completely dumbed down my life into a series of Biblical platitudes?

There is only one thing that can put you further ahead than success, and that is surviving failure.

When you are successful, you are whole and complete. That is wonderful, but you cannot break out beyond your own universe.

When you fail, you are broken. You look at the pieces of yourself lying on the ground and say, “This is worthless.”

Now you can escape. The shell is broken, the shell of a created being. Now you can grow to join the Infinite.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Getting Ahead with Failure”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

I’m not all that keen on being broken up in order to find freedom, but is Rabbi Freeman’s rendition of the teachings of the Rebbe really so different than the words of their Christian counterparts? It seems so to be, but I bet if I looked hard enough, I’d find a Pastor or Christian author who has said more or less the same thing. I just like how Rabbi Freeman frames his statements better.

One of the “secrets” to being a successful teacher (or salesperson or entertainer or…) is understanding your students (or audience). Once you get inside their heads, comprehend their language, and grasp the meaning of their internal metaphors, all you have to do is take your message and craft it in a compatible style. Maybe what I’ve been kvetching about isn’t the inappropriateness of the Peale’s message but the style in which it’s presented. He’s writing to an audience of which I do not belong. It’s not that I’m not a Christian, but how I conceptualize my Christianity is very different than most church goers. If I can set style aside or refactor his words into a style that fits me better, will I be able to listen to what he is trying to say?

The concept of tikkun olam or “repairing the world” requires that each person be able to see himself or herself as a junior partner in the task of making the world a better place in which to live. In that manner, Jews believe that every act of kindness and charity brings the Messiah just one step closer to arriving. We don’t have total control, but we have a part to play and without each of us, the Messiah will be delayed, perhaps indefinitely. However, in order for a person to participate in tikkun olam, they must first understand and acknowledge that they actually have a role with God, and then find out what that role is. The role in their partnership with God also has to “fit” who the person is and their relative skill sets, and they have to be able to really see themselves as being able to hold up their end of the bargain, so to speak.

How can you convince a mere mortal human being that they have a meaningful and even indispensable role to play in the plan of God? How do I define my relationship, as an individual, with the unimaginably infinite Creator of the Universe? In trying to make my own peace with God and finding out how to live out my indispensable role in tikkun olam, I need to find the message written in the right language…or be able to write it myself.

God is in the Backyard

We don’t say a person “will be going to heaven.”
We say this person is “a child of the world to come.”

Heaven is not just somewhere you go.
It is something you carry with you.

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

Well, I – I think that it – it wasn’t enough to just want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em – and it’s that – if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with! Is that right?

-Dorothy
The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Sometimes I don’t think we know what we want as people or faith. Sometimes I don’t think we know what we have. We are always looking off to the horizon, off to the brightest star in the sky or at the furthest cloud on the wind. We look for God in Heaven and long for the return of Jesus but we forget that we are right here and that God is with us. We forget that we have a job to do here. We forget that God expects us to be His junior partners in repairing a broken world and paving the way for the Messiah’s coming.

Earlier this month, I wrote a blog post called The New Testament is Not in Heaven, the title of which, is a play on the words of the Torah in Deuteronomy 30:12. Here we see Moses giving the Children of Israel his final, impassioned speech before he proceeds to his own death and sends the nation of Israel across the Jordan and into war without his leadership.

The Torah is not in Heaven. What does this mean except that what we need from God is not far from us at all. What we have, as Rabbi Freeman tells us, is what we carry with us. Dorothy too tells us that if we think we are missing something, it isn’t missing at all. It’s as close as our “own back yard.” Why do we pretend that God is distant and His will is far away?

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” –Matthew 22:36-40

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

I’ve written about all this before, using the same scriptures and perhaps even repeating some of what I’ve written for today. Yet those who claim the cause of Christ still look far away for God, still think He can be captured in a list of “dos” and “don’ts”, still think it is pagan to want to feed the hungry rather than condemn a fir tree decorated with lights. Perhaps for those who pursue a spirit of disdain, God is far away. How can we ever share the good news of Christ while we’re spilling out the darkness in our hearts and calling it light?

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? –Matthew 7:3

Take the plank out of your eye and start looking for God. I think he’s in the backyard near the flower bed.

Friends

On today’s daf we find a discussion of the halachos of taking interest. Some people have a misguided conviction that all non-Jews are bad. This belief is not only very damaging for our relations with non-Jews wherever Jews live, it is also false. The Sefer Chasidim discusses davening for a non-Jew who is a good person.

One non-Jew was a very kind person, always helping his friends both Jewish and non-Jewish. He helped out one particular Jew in many ways, proving his friendship and earning his undying gratitude. When the non-Jew ran into financial troubles and asked his Jewish friend for a very large loan, the prospective lender was in a bit of a quandary. Although his friend had no way of knowing this, the lender’s finances were excellent; he could easily get along without charging interest. His greatest desire was to give his friend an interest-free loan. But he wondered if this was halachically permitted. In general it is forbidden to give an idolater a gift, including an interest-free loan — especially the astronomical sum the non-Jew required. But the Jew reasoned that this may be permitted in this case. After all, hadn’t his non-Jewish friend done so much to help him in the past? How could he be forbidden from responding in kind?

When this question reached Rav Shlomo Eiger, zt”l, he ruled that the lender was permitted to give his non-Jewish friend an interest-free loan. “Not only are you permitted to loan this non- Jew money interest free; if he did many kindnesses for you, you are obligated to give him a loan without charging interest. This is clear in the Radak in Tehillim 15:4, and is halachah l’maaseh!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Two Friends”
Bechoros 16

I can only imagine that everytime I post a fairly large quote from Daf Yomi Digest or a similar source, that most Christians reading my blog tend to tune out (and probably a few Jewish people as well). It’s not easy to comprehend what the Rabbis are saying in these lessons and even when understood, the relevance may seem mysterious. Would it be that big a deal for a Jewish person to offer an interest-free loan to his non-Jewish friend without consulting his Rav? What tends to escape most of us is the need to be absolutely sure (if you are an observant Jew) that you are following the commandments in the proper manner. Certainly, this Jewish fellow wanted to do a kindness for his non-Jewish friend, but the path of Torah isn’t always easy to negotiate without correct halachic guidance and the desire is always to perform every action, including actions of charity and righteousness, in the manner that God has laid out for the Jewish people.

This is a detail that often escapes even those Gentiles who are Christians and believe they are to follow the commandments in the same way as the Jews.

After seeing some recent references of how some Jewish people view non-Jews as somehow “lesser” or lacking the ability to truly perceive God, reading this “story off the daf” was very refreshing. It also presented me with a minor mystery.

The PDFs I receive daily from the Chicago Center for Torah and Chesed (the source of my Daf Yomi lessons) provide footnote numbers but not the footnotes themselves. Their website isn’t particularly illuminating and I can only assume that the source from which they generate their PDFs has more information than survives the PDF creation process. For instance, when Rav Shlomo Eiger, zt”l cites “the Radak in Tehillim (Psalm) 15:4, and is halachah l’maaseh,” there is obviously more information available that interprets the Rav’s intent. How does Psalm 15:4 make it clear that the Jewish person in this story must give his Gentile friend the loan interest free?

A base person is despised in his eyes, and he honors the God-fearing; he swears to [his own] hurt and does not retract. –Psalm 15:4 (source: Chabad.org)

In whose eyes a reprobate is despised,
But who honors those who fear the LORD;
He swears to his own hurt and does not change –Psalm 15:4 (NASB)

It would help to read Psalm 15:1:

A song of David; O Lord, who will sojourn in Your tent, who will dwell upon Your holy mount?

Inner lightSo the person who is worthy to dwell in the Lord’s tent is the sort of person who “despises the base person” but “honors those who fear God”. Putting this back in the context of our commentary on the Daf, it seems as if the Rav is saying that the Jew (who is worthy of sojourning in God’s tent) must honor his non-Jewish friend, who obviously is God-fearing, in this case, by providing an interest-free loan.

I still needed the Radak’s commentary on Tehillim 15:4 but these sorts of references aren’t always easy to come by on the web. I did manage to find the following at DailyTehillim.com (print version only, though):

David here outlines the virtues that render a person worthy of dwelling in Hashem’s “tent” and residing in His “sacred mountain.” According to the Radak, David refers here to the resting place of the soul in the afterlife; it is thus here where we are told how a person earns his eternal share in the world to come. The Radak draws proof to this reading from the chapter’s final clause, where David exclaims, “he who does these shall not falter, forever.” The term “forever” implies that David refers here to eternal peace, which would suggest that he speaks of the soul’s reward in the afterlife.

In listing these virtues, David focuses first on proper interpersonal conduct: honesty and integrity (verse 2), and refraining from crimes such as gossip, causing others harm, and nepotistic protection of unworthy relatives (verse 3). In verse 4, he imposes an important qualification on the virtues of loving kindness and concern for others: “Nivzeh Be’einav Nim’as,” which Rashi translates to mean, “The shameful one is despicable in his eyes.” Although this prototype acts with love and sensitivity, he is at the same time prepared to confront evil and its advocates, rather than extend to them the same kindness and compassion he shows generally. He respects those who deserve respect, while condemning behavior that warrants condemnation.

The Ibn Ezra and Radak explain this verse differently, as meaning that the person sees himself as “shameful” and “despicable.” Despite his many fine qualities, he recognizes how much more he has to grow and accomplish in order to achieve perfection. Rather than falling into the trap of stifling complacency, he constantly strives to improve and to accomplish more.

The message conveyed by this Psalm is thus a dual one. On the one hand, David promises eternal life to everyone who lives in accordance with the basic values of honesty and Godliness; the world to come is not reserved for only the great Tzadikim who have reached the highest levels of spiritual devotion. At the same time, however, to earn eternal life one must spend his life in the pursuit of perfection, working each day to grow and become better than he is. This Psalm does not demand that everybody be perfect, but it does not demand that everybody work towards and strive for spiritual perfection.

This interpretation probably isn’t the one referenced in the Daf commentary, but it does give us more insight into the Psalm and it speaks to the character of both the Jew and his non-Jewish friend. My take on this is that a person who truly seeks to be worthy of God and to obey His desires, must honor others, regardless of who they are, who do the same. If you want to be a holy and honorable person, you must honor those who are holy and honorable. This crosses the Jewish/Gentile and hopefully the Jewish/Christian barrier (remember there are additional reasons why a Jew may object to a Christian Gentile as opposed to a more “generic” non-Jew) in “mixed” relationships but I think it could be justified based on our source story and especially on the line, “One non-Jew was a very kind person, always helping his friends both Jewish and non-Jewish.” Showing compassion and favor is not performing righteousness unless these acts are applied to everyone. Only helping those like you isn’t helping for the sake of God, at all.

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? –Matthew 5:46-47 (NASB)

According to the Daf commentary, not all Gentiles “do the same”. Some Gentiles do better and live up to what Jesus was teaching. Marrying the “daf story” with the teachings of the Master, we understand what he meant when he said “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). Where do we non-Jews get the idea to do kindness, charity, and righteousness? From our own souls? Perhaps, if we are listening to the voice of God as He whispers to us, but where is that voice expressed in its clearest form? The Bible. Where do we get the Bible? The Jews. Even the New Testament (or the vast, vast majority of it) was written by the Jewish disciples.

We see that despite some rather negative viewpoints about Gentiles that exist in modern Jewish commentary, a Jew is not limited to showing goodness just to his fellow Jew, and that Rabbinic judgment supports and even demands a good and kind Gentile be treated with the same compassion that he has treated others. Jesus takes it a step further and tells us to love our enemies (in this, he isn’t talking enemies in war but those who are in our own community but who are unlike us) and he re-enforces the message that it is not just those people who are like us who we must feed and clothe and visit when ill. It’s anyone.

If you are a Christian, you cannot ignore this. If you are a Christian who has been taught by your Pastor and your church to disdain and revile Jews because we (Christians) have replaced them and that they (Jews) are following a “dead” religion (how can something be dead that teaches so many lessons of life?), then you may want to revisit the Bible and revisit God in prayer. Something obviously has gone wrong with your faith and as a disciples, you are not following the lessons of your Master.

Rebuilding

Today’s daf discusses the halachos of a firstborn animal.

Although secular and Torah law sometimes share similar rulings, many times they are at odds. And when it comes to the overtly metaphysical aspects of Torah, non-Jews are understandably clueless. The Chazon Ish, zt”l, once said that the simple understanding of a person not immersed in Torah is often the very opposite of the halachah. For example, if one’s animal caused damage to someone else’s property, a person unfamiliar with Torah jurisprudence would say that the owner is not responsible. After all, why should the owner pay for damage caused by his animal unless it was through his own gross negligence?

In one predominantly non-Jewish community, the local magistrates did not fine the Jewish owner of an animal that had caused damage to his non-Jewish neighbor’s property a cent. They did decide, however, that the neighbor who had suffered the damage could seize the animal in lieu of payment. And this is precisely what the offended neighbor did. Unfortunately, the animal was a bechor.

When the Jew approached his neighbor and broached the issue, the non-Jew refused to sell the animal back to him for the market value. “I have witnesses that the damage caused to my property by your animal was more than he is worth. Now, although the law does not obligate you to pay me for the damage it is perfectly within my rights to seize the creature. If you want it back we can talk about it, but I warn you that it is going to cost you…”

The forlorn owner—who was a kohen— wondered what he should do. Was he obligated to pay more than the value of the animal to the non-Jew? After all, it was not his fault the non-Jew had seized his animal.

When this question reached the Maharam of Rottenberg, zt”l, he ruled that the owner was not obligated to pay more than the animal’s value. “This seems clear from the Talmudic principle regarding redeeming tefillin and the like from a non-Jew. Such religious objects should not be redeemed for more than their value, as we find in Gittin 45. Just as paying more than their value will encourage non-Jews to steal tefillin and the like, paying more for a bechor is also likely to be used to our disadvantage by non-Jews.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Reclaiming the Bechor”
Bechoros 15

I know the above quoted story is probably difficult for most of us to understand. For the vast majority of Christians and Jews, we wouldn’t necessarily see much, if any dissonance between our religious responsibilities and obeying the secular civil and criminal law of our local communities. There are however, some religious groups that do attend to a specific set of religious codes and sometimes collide head on with the secular law enforcement and court systems. I periodically see examples of this in news items involving the Chabad community in Brooklyn and very occasionally I’ve seen indications of a dissonance between how Mormons see their responsibility to secular law as different than the larger population (it can be very subtle).

This isn’t a new problem.

Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

And they were amazed at him. –Mark 12:13-17

While the “render unto Caesar” example doesn’t include every possible religious/legal conflict, it does act as a general guide that our faith doesn’t absolve us of behaving like good citizens in the places where we live and obeying the laws of the local, regional, and national authorities. That begs the question, whose law is greater, man’s or God’s? Obviously God’s, but I don’t see a particularly strong directive in the Bible that allows people of faith to blow off police officers and legal court orders because God trumps their authority. We know that even secular authority is established by God and Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 2:1-4 to actually pray for our leaders that “we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness.”

All of this is an extension of what I’ve been talking about in one way or another for the past week or so; the relationship between two unlike groups such as Christians and Jews. In terms of culture, getting along isn’t too much of a chore but when we add in our various religious requirements, we can sometimes encounter problems with each other as well as with the society around us. It’s not that we want the problems, but we know that our competing interests can get in the way of each other. Add to that centuries of conflict and mistrust that result in the prejudiced thoughts or ideas we have about who Christians are or who Jews are and how they’ve treated us in the past. It’s amazing to think sometimes that we even worship the same God.

But who, or what, is really responsible for the rift that separates the creatures of God?

When we can’t get along with someone, we like to blame it on that person’s faults: stupidity, incompetence, outrageous actions, aggression or some other evil.

The real reason is none of these. It is that the world is broken, and we are the shattered fragments.

And all that stops us from coming back together is that we each imagine ourselves to be whole.

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

We can sometimes blame the other guy or even blame supernatural forces for how fractured our relationships seem, but in fact, our relationships are broken because the world is broken. It’s as if a man who was intended to be an Olympic-class runner has his knees broken and is forced to limp along for the vast majority of his life when he should be racing around the track. That’s the world we live in. If it bothers you that Christians and Jews can’t get along (or that Christians can’t get along with other Christians and Jews can’t get along with other Jews), it should bother you. We weren’t made for these sorts of struggles. That’s why, instead of focusing on what keeps us apart, we need to contribute just a little bit each day, to putting the world and ourselves back together again. We aren’t whole, but we can strive to be.

What one thing can you do today to make your broken world just one little tiny bit better?

Love and Be Perfect

ForgivenessThe Baal Shem Tov taught that a sin in itself is only the bite of the snake. The real damage comes from the poison that spreads afterwards, saying, “What a worthless thing you are. Look what you’ve done! Now you’re really lost.”

With those few words, all the gates of hell are opened.

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

I spend a fair amount of time on this blog talking about tikkun olam, repairing the world. That’s probably because the world seems so “broken” and in need of repair. In fact, the world seems to be getting more broken all the time.

Yesterday, I discussed how Christianity could be breaking the world in how we treat the Jewish people. Even if we take no overt actions against Jews, what we harbor in our minds and hearts about them is just as much of a sin (see Genesis 12:3, Matthew 5:21-22, Romans 11:17-21, and 2 Corinthians 10:5).

But a broken world sometimes starts with a broken self.

In quoting Rabbi Freeman, I’m illustrating the sort of person who knows that they’re broken and who is caught in a loop of sin, discouragement, hopelessness, and sin some more. Disobedience to God is only the first step and in most cases, it’s a recoverable state. However, once you’ve convinced yourself that your sin makes you truly irredeemable, then why do you have to care whether you sin again or not? You already believe it’s too late for you so you’ve given up.

But what about the person who sins and justifies their behavior? Some people simply lie and say they didn’t sin when they know they did, but others really don’t believe that their sin is a sin or their mistake is a mistake. They have created a set of explanations for themselves, usually based on scripture, that either excuses their poor behavior or completely redefines it as good behavior.

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God — having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.

They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth. Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so also these teachers oppose the truth. They are men of depraved minds, who, as far as the faith is concerned, are rejected. But they will not get very far because, as in the case of those men, their folly will be clear to everyone. –2 Timothy 3:1-9

This is terrifying because Paul isn’t describing the dangers of the secular world. He’s describing the church. Welcome to “terrible times”. It’s become all too easy to teach poor doctrine and be wholly convinced that you are completely correct and in line with the Bible, yet be supporting the most vile of positions and even opposing God.

In the case of a person who knows they have sinned and who seeks forgiveness, once they have been forgiven by God, they must learn to forgive themselves:

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” –Luke 18:13-14

But what do you do about a person, a group of people, or an entire church who sins and yet refuses to admit it, even to themselves?

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. –Matthew 18:15-17

Tikkum OlamWhen Jesus taught that, he may not have had the Internet in mind. It seems that so much of the bad teachings of Christianity happen online these days. If you attend a church with a Pastor or a Bible teacher who seems to have gone off the tracks, so to speak, you have the difficult choice of either confronting the problem or finding another church. That said, people usually select and attend a church based on agreeing with their doctrinal position in the first place.

On the Internet, opinions fly fast and furious and just about any viewpoint you could imagine, no matter how outrageous, is represented on someone’s blog somewhere. It’s easy to drop reading a blog or at least to not comment on it (depending on how much you need to fix it when someone’s wrong on the Internet) but what do you do about the people?

It would be easy just to give them up too, but do we have a responsibility to help a person to make amends with others and with God?

Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt. –Leviticus 19:17

This verse is the basis in Judaism for the commandment that one Jew should attempt to correct another Jew when the second Jew sins or is about to sin. Admittedly, we can’t say this necessarily applies to Christians as well, but can we say categorically that it doesn’t? Look at the example from Matthew 18:15-17 again. There is a certain amount of effort that goes into approaching someone who has sinned against you. You don’t get to brush them off at the initial affront. You are obligated to first approach them privately and, if they don’t listen, to take a couple of witnesses with you and try again. If the person still doesn’t respond, then you bring the matter to the entire congregation.

How do you do that on the Internet…or do you?

The Internet is a funny place. It fosters a false sense of intimacy based on our perceived anonymity. Because we think people don’t know who we are and can’t find out, we believe we can be more free with disclosing information about ourselves, including our opinions, than we would in a face-to-face encounter. On the other hand, because Internet relationships don’t have the “anchor” of a “real” relationship (the aforementioned “face-to-face”), we can feel very comfortable about cutting people off without even a glance backward to say “good-bye”.

There have been some folks on the web I’ve said good-bye to in one way or another and some I’ve been tempted to drop like an angry rattlesnake. But is that the right thing to do?

Very rarely is the person you disagree with “evil” or “irredeemable”. Most of the time, they’re probably not that much different from you. They are certainly just as loved by God as you are. They are often your brother and sister in Christ and even if they’re not, they have been created in the image of God, just as you have been. How can we walk away from people so casually, abandoning them to what is a problematic but correctable situation?

The oft-quoted “am I my brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9) comes to mind.

I don’t want to take endless amounts of abuse or rebuff in a hopeless attempt to get someone to change their minds on a matter of which they are fully convinced, but on the other hand, there’s this:

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. –Matthew 18:21-22

Forgiveness is one thing, reconciliation is something else. The web is full of concrete people with concrete opinions, based on what they think is a rock-solid interpretation of the Bible but interpretations can be and often are built on sand. A person may say that they are willing to listen to your side so you can “prove them wrong”, but how often do you really encounter someone who is willing to surrender their viewpoint because you devastated them with your overpowering logic?

People can be very afraid of even questioning their assumptions let alone giving them up. We pin a lot of our security on believing that, once we’ve made our mind up about something, the “something” will not change from being right to being wrong. We can justify hurting anyone in any way as long as we believe what we’re doing puts us on the side of right, virtue, and God. That’s how the various inquisitions and pogroms operated. That’s how the Nazis operated when they murdered six-million Jews. That’s how a lot of people operate, including a lot of religious people.

Loving OthersI can try to convince others that they are opposing God (and that is not their intent) but in the end, most will not be convinced. I can walk away from them, but it feels like abandoning a severely injured person trapped in a mass of twisted steel in the aftermath of a twelve-car pile up. In the end, it all belongs to God and not to me, but then what sin do I become guilty of by leaving them?

If we are our brother’s (or sister’s) keeper, then how heavy is the burden supposed to be and how long must we carry it? Seven times seventy? Seventy-seven times? What does that mean? What did the Rebbe say?

Anxieties, worries, feelings of inadequacy and failure — all these smother and cripple the soul from doing its job. You need to find the appropriate time to deal with them. But don’t carry them around the whole day.

During the day, you are Adam or Eve before they tasted the fruit of good and evil.

I had meant to write about learning to forgive yourself after sin, but a great deal of the time, these blogs end up having a will of their own and I’m only the fingers on the keyboard recording them. I don’t know what to do about repairing the world or even “repairing” other people. It seems like I spend a lot of time learning how to repair myself. Yet I know that my responsibilities to God extend outside of myself and into the world around me.

But then, there’s always this teaching from the Master:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. –Matthew 5:43-48

Even on the Internet, I am required to love and to be perfect. Is this where I get to ask God for help in doing that?

Breaking the World

GlobeThis above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!

-William Shakespeare
Hamlet Act 1, scene 3, 78–82

Just as it is a mitzvah to direct someone onto the path where he belongs, so too it is a crime to direct someone onto a path that does not belong to him.

Each person is born with a path particular to his or her soul, generally according to the culture into which he or she was born.

There are universal truths, the inheritance of all of us since Adam and Noah. In them we are all united. But we are not meant to all be the same.

Our differences are as valuable to our Creator as our similarities.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“To Each His Path”
Based on the letters and talks of the Rebbe,
Rabbi M.M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

Both the Bard and the Rebbe, as interpreted by Rabbi Freeman, say something very similar. Not only are we not all the same but we must all “be true” to who we are, differences and all. It’s not a crime to be different from others, even in the worship of God, but there are plenty in the church that would have you believe otherwise. If you don’t go along with “the herd”, if you don’t fit in with “the group”, if you see life, scripture, and God from a different angle based on who God created you to be, not only are you likely not to be understood, but it is very possible you will be actively criticized. In the world of believers, you are even likely to be considered un-Christian, heretical, or apostate.

I’m not saying that there are people who aren’t apostate or heretical, but we must be careful how we toss about our accusations. Are we reacting honestly to the statements and practices of those who profess Christ but who practice a lifestyle opposed to his, or are we allowing our visceral responses to lifestyles consistent with Christ’s but inconsistent with the lifestyle we choose for ourselves to affect us and mistakenly labeling another’s lifestyle apostasy?

I used to consider myself a “Messianic”, that is, a person (in my case, a Gentile) who attached himself to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and who believed that I was required to conform to a completely Jewish religious practice because I was “grafted in”. This actually describes only one subset of the Messianic movement, called “One Law”, which believes that Jewish and non-Jewish believers in Jesus (Yeshua) are all the same in terms of covenant obligation to God. It’s as if becoming “one new man” (Ephesians 2:15) for One Law (OL) means that Christians turn into Jews without having to undergo circumcision. There are tons and tons of problems with this interpretation but one of my problems with OL is that it tends to actually discourage believing people who were born and raised in ethnic, cultural, and religious Jewish families from acting like ethnic, cultural, and religious Jews.

I mentioned in a previous “meditation” that I’ve been following a couple of blog conversations lately. One is A Response to Rabbi Dauermann’s Messianic Substitution and the other is Karaite leader Nehemiah Gordon responds to anti-missionary charges. Not leaving well enough alone, not only did I read these posts at Judah Gabriel Himango’s blog Kineti L’Tziyon, but I replyed. I should have known better. These conversations almost never end well.

If you visit the two blog posts and review the comments, you’ll see various snide remarks and unkind words (I’m not criticizing Judah’s blog, but some of the people who comment occasionally express “interesting” opinions). Granted, there is room for “spirited debate” on the religious blogosphere, but often, the religious blogs follow the same standard as the secular ones, especially in responding to the cry, “someone is wrong on the Internet.” We can’t seem to get it through our thick skulls that sometimes, someone isn’t “wrong”, they are just following a different path to the same destination.

I’m not going to balance the relative differences between Christianity (including the OL/MJ world which views religion from a largely Christian viewpoint) and Judaism, but I do want to caution folks not to point to Jews, including those who believe that the Jewish Messiah is realized in the person of Jesus Christ, and say that they’re “wrong” for wanting to live a Jewish lifestyle, worship in a traditionally Jewish manner, pray from a Jewish siddur, and to actually continue to be Jewish.

WrongOne of my favorite Jewish (not Messianic) blogs is Lev Echad. Blogger Asher is focused on the different “threads” of Judaism that tend to get uncomfortably tied up with each other, and his desire is to support Jewish unity among dissimilar perspectives and practices, forming “one heart” (hence, “lev echad”) among Jews. Much of what he says can be adapted and applied to Christianity and indeed, to humanity. Relative to those in Messianism/Christianity who criticize and virtually “demonize” those Jews who have faith in Jesus and who also live and worship like Jews, there is something that Asher wrote in one of his blog posts, although not intended to be applied to my context, that I believe should be read by Christians:

Similarly, there are some Orthodox Jews who too easily brand their less observant coreligionists as “heretics” or “non-believers.” Yet, prominent sages such as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and the Chazon Ish have ruled that we live in a time of God’s concealment and therefore cannot apply the religious laws concerning heresy to modern-day Jews who question their faith. Furthermore, it is wrong to harm those who deny even Judaism’s most basic beliefs. Not only should we not hurt such people, we should help them if the situation ever presents itself.

Now marry Asher’s words with Paul’s:

And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. –Romans 11:26

This isn’t the first time I’ve addressed anti-semitism among Christians. About six weeks ago, I wrote The Irrelevant Drunkard, which I wish all Christians/Messianics would read and try to comprehend. I realize the tone of that blog post (and this one) could put off a Christian/Messianic from reading beyond the first few paragraphs. It’s tough to take a good, hard look at what you’re saying and doing, especially basing it on scripture (and just because scripture can be bent and twisted to say many different things doesn’t mean all those different things are actually correct), and then to humble yourself before God and realize that you’re using the Bible to trash God’s Chosen People (see Genesis 12:3).

Going back to Asher’s blog, why can’t we do this instead?

One of the unique aspects of Judaism is learning about all the different roads people take that lead them to God and a life of goodness. While this is certainly a fascinating phenomenon, it can also be a great impediment to how we treat one another. Therefore, our goal in life should not be to turn all our fellow Jews into ideological and/or religious replicas of ourselves. Rather, it should be to guide – not force – others into a life of serving God and His children in a way that best matches their individual personality.

While the above-quote is addressed to Jews about Jews, certainly Christians can extend the sentiment to other Christians and to Jews who have accepted the Jewish Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.

Or, we can lock ourselves in a tiny, unidimensional box with God and the Bible, telling ourselves that we’re right and all other churches, synagogues, and everybody else are wrong. We get to be a big deal and everybody else…not so much.

I mentioned before that one of the reasons I do not consider myself a “Messianic” any longer is that I do not believe the Bible supports a Gentile living an ersatz-Jewish lifestyle. Another reason is that calling myself “Messianic” limits what I can say and who I can say it to. As a “Messianic”, even one who supports the message that Jews and Gentiles have overlapping but distinct covenant relationships with God which do not involve identical obligations, if I say I’m “Messianic”, then only “Messianics” will want to hear what I have to say. Christians won’t listen because they consider Messianics to be Judaizers who want to bring believers “under the law”. Jews won’t want to hear what I have to say because many of them consider Messianics as a combination of “Christians in kippot” and “wolves in tallitot”, particularly the Gentiles who dress and behave as if they’re Jews but who don’t do “Jewish” very well. The value of the message becomes diluted or even discounted because of the label associated with the message and because of the audience it is presumed to be attached.

(I should say at this point that there are many people in Messianic Judaism who I consider friends and who do have a very powerful and meaningful message. It is a message that I pray daily will be heard by all Christians and Jews, not because of its “label” but because of the truth it communicates. I try to communicate a similar meaningful message but I do so from my own perspective and personal identity).

For me, it’s much more straightforward to say that I am a Christian, a Gentile who is a disciple of Jesus Christ, and someone who sees a great deal of added dimension to the teachings and life of the Master through the lens of ancient and modern Judaism. I’m not claiming there are one-to-one parallels between the Gospels and the Talmud, Chassidism, and Jewish mysticism, but there are certainly thematic similarities that can be considered. If I proceed from the basic platform that Jesus was a Jewish man, living in the Second Temple period in what was then Roman Judea, who lived as a Jewish man, taught as a Jewish Rabbi, and who did not abandon what it was and is to be a Jew, then the only logical place for me to go in understanding Jesus is to try (in my admittedly limited fashion) to comprehend Jesus as a Jew.

This doesn’t require that I become Jewish or to pretend to behave as if I were a “pseudo-Jew”. It does require that I make a paradigm shift and to study materials, concepts, and ideas that aren’t considered particularly “Christian” (and in fact, there are Messianic Jews who read many more Christian historic and modern texts than I do).

UnderstandingAs a Christian married to a Jewish wife, I can’t simply take the Christian “party line” and judge my wife as condemned because she doesn’t throw her Judaism into the trash heap and turn into a “good Christian woman”. While there’s nothing wrong with being a “good Christian woman”, that’s not who she is or who God made her to be.

God didn’t create Jews and preserve them against all kinds of hideous persecution including the Holocaust, just to have them finally deleted from existence by converting them into Christians. Those Christians who suggest that Jews stop being Jews are considered to be finishing the job that Hitler started (and while that may sound very harsh, I can see why Jews view conversion to traditional, Jewish-rejecting Christianity that way). Those Christians who want to erase Jews from existence by turning them into clones of themselves are saying they want to destroy my Jewish wife (and as you can imagine, that’s not something I’m going to accept with any amount of graciousness or patience).

Like it or not, it takes more than evangelical Christianity or charismatic Christianity or “Messianic Christianity” (OL) to repair the world and make it whole, as Rabbi Freeman suggests:

To create is to reveal the parts from the whole.

To repair takes a greater wisdom. It is to discover the whole from the shattered parts.

He creates a world, knowing it will be broken, so He may empower us with the wisdom to repair it.

While Rabbi Freeman’s intent wasn’t to address the topic of today’s “morning meditation”, I believe his words can be re-shaped to do so. Repairing the world requires that we have all the pieces. If we throw out some of the pieces as irrelevant, apostate, evil, or just “too Jewish”, we are dooming the world to never becoming whole again. It would be as if God tried to make a person but tossed out the heart as unnecessary or the liver as “too different”. By Christianity condemning the Jews as a whole and particularly those Jews who have come to faith in Jesus as the Messiah, we are literally frustrating the work of Jesus and what he will complete on his return; the final restoration of everything that was lost because of the fall of man at Eden.

It would be ironic and indeed tragic, if Christianity in dismissing Judaism, desiring the eradication of all Jews everywhere through conversion, and in failing to embrace the picture of Jesus as a Jew, were putting the entire Christian church in opposition to everything that Jesus did and does stand for, both as a man on earth and as our high priest in the Court of Heaven. The church then would be opposed to the will of God. Like I said, “ironic”.

Are some Christians helping to repair the world or to break it?