Tag Archives: unity

Healing the Enemy

healingIt is not incumbent upon you to complete the work.

Ethics of the Fathers 2:21

In economics, the bottom line measures success and failure. Someone who goes into a business venture with complete recklessness, yet makes a great deal of money, is considered a successful entrepreneur. Another person who was extremely cautious and applied sound business principles, yet went bankrupt, is considered a failure.

Unfortunately, we tend to apply these values to our personal, non-business lives. If things do not turn out the way we wish, we may think that we have performed badly. This is not true. If parents abuse and neglect their children, yet one child wins the Nobel Prize, or discovers the cure for cancer, they do not suddenly become good parents. On the other hand, if they did their utmost to raise their children well, yet one becomes a criminal, they are not necessarily bad parents.

We must understand that we have no control over outcome. All we can control is process, i.e. what we do. If we act with sincerity and with the best guidance available, then what we are doing is right.

Parents whose children turn out to be anti-social invariably fault themselves and may be consumed by guilt. Their pain is unavoidable, but their guilt is unjustified.

Humans do not have the gift of prophecy, nor do we always have the most accurate knowledge. We should hold ourselves responsible for that which we can control, but we should not hold ourselves responsible for that which is beyond our control.

Today I shall…

…try to realize that I must judge the correctness of my actions by how I arrive at them, and not by what results from them.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Adar 16”

There’s a lot going on here including the struggle to define what is good and what is bad, not only in our own actions, but in the actions of others. We all know our own intent when we say or do something, but even when that intent is good, especially on the Internet, our words can be taken in the wrong way and people can respond with offense and even hurt and anger, as if we had gone out of our way to try to injure them. On the web, that’s usually how we define an “enemy.”

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. –Matthew 5:43-45 (ESV)

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. –Romans 12:14-21 (ESV)

None of this is suggesting that Jesus or Paul wanted us to give a kiss on the cheek to someone who’s holding the barrel of a loaded handgun to our head. It’s not as if we are forbidden from defending ourselves in war or must allow ourselves to be beaten during a robbery attempt. We see Christ’s intent in his juxtaposing the words “neighbor” and “enemy.” Someone can be our “enemy” if they are our next door neighbor. Maybe we’re upset with them because they borrowed our favorite power tool six months ago and never gave it back, or they have a dog that barks half the night but refuses to quiet the animal. For whatever reason, our “neighbor” can become our bitter enemy and they can even say bad things about us and malign our character unjustly.

WrongThis happens a lot on the web and often in blogs and blog comments (and I’ve written about this many times before). While I haven’t been “stung” in a little while, in my readings this morning (as I write this), it occurred to me that misunderstanding and misinformation are rampant on the Internet, and disagreements or differences of opinion on a good many things, but particularly in the world of religion, have created many enemies from the body of our neighbors. Against my better judgment, I’m going to refer to a blog post by Judah Himango, his commentary on a sermon delivered at his wife’s church (Judah attends church with his wife on Sunday but considers his Hebrew Roots congregation, which meets on Saturday, to be his primary place of worship) which Judah calls My experience at church today, a friendly criticism of Pastor Troy Dobbs’ sermon on Jesus and the Sabbath.

In reading Judah’s commentary, I must say that I agree with him that the Pastor in question was not accurate, (in my humble opinion) and that his message from the pulpit reflected a very traditional supersessionist stance which we have often observed in the church historically. I have been fortunate to find a church and a Pastor who sees beyond the rhetoric and back into the Scriptures in a way that reflects what I believe to be the true intent of Jesus and the Apostles relative to Jews, Judaism, and the Torah (although we don’t agree on everything), but many other churches still have a long way to go. Does that make the particular Pastor at Judah’s church my “enemy” or any sort of enemy to those of us to disagree that “the Law was nailed to the cross and replaced by grace?”

Absolutely not. In fact, at one point in the comments section, Judah even defends this Pastor by saying, “Pastor Dobbs has much great teaching.” It’s only on certain points that Judah and Pastor Dobbs disagree; it’s not (I hope) a more general drawing of battle lines between Hebrew Roots and Christianity, as if they were mutually exclusive entities (although I’m disappointed to find out that Judah “posted [a] friendly criticism on the Church’s website, underneath their post for this particular sermon, and on the Church’s Facebook page, but they deleted both..”) I think we in the church should be big enough to take a few criticisms rather than assuming what we say will always be taken as “Gospel” by literally everyone hearing the message without question.

I don’t believe it Judah’s intent to say that only his perspective is correct and everything produced by any Christian Pastor is wrong (unfortunately, a number of people have commented on his blog who seem to have a more “adversarial” relationship with Christianity and the church), but it is all too easy for most of us to start making enemies between different factions of Christianity by pointing out where they (we) disagree and ignoring how much alike both sides actually are. It’s inevitable that we are going to disagree, particularly in the religious blogosphere, but then, what are we supposed to do about it? What did Jesus and Paul say to do in their words as I quoted them above? What did Rabbi Twerski say?

Today I shall try to realize that I must judge the correctness of my actions by how I arrive at them, and not by what results from them.

Said another way, perhaps we should try to realize that we must judge the correctness of the actions of others by how they arrive at them, not by what results from them. If we understand that our good intentions can be misunderstood, then we must certainly grant that same “grace” to others. No, it’s not like we have to agree with everything that everyone else says and we can certainly recognize and challenge error, but the fact that we disagree with someone and think they’re wrong about something doesn’t make them bad or evil, nor does it make them our enemy, unless we choose to decide that they are. churches

Pastor Dobbs isn’t Judah’s enemy and frankly, he isn’t mine, either. Extending that out from individuals to systems, it also doesn’t mean that the church is the enemy of Hebrew Roots or even Messianic Judaism (or any Judaism). Yes, there has been great enmity between Christians and Jews historically, and yes, sermons like those delivered by Pastor Dobbs have often been used to maintain the distance and to some degree, the hostility we sometimes experience between Christians and Jews. To deny the validity of Jews and Judaism within the confines of what once was a sect of Judaism is kind of crazy-making, especially if you think the scriptures support such a position.

But the answer to this problem isn’t to make enemies, to revile “the church,” or to believe that some other movement that exists outside of Christianity is the only valid expression of the worship of Messiah. The answer, or at least part of it, is communication, fellowship, and patience. This is why I thought it was rather poor form of whoever manages the church’s website and Facebook page to remove Judah’s commentary (assuming it was worded in a respectful manner). Of course, depending on the church’s policy on public communications, it might be a conversation that would better be conducted (initially) in private, but even that might not have yielded Judah a friendly and receptive audience.

What to do? There’s probably no one right answer for all people and all churches, but I think part of the answer is what Boaz Michael suggests in his book Tent of David. We need to persist in the church. We need to be present in the church. We need to be the change we want to see in the church, not by forcing our thoughts, feelings, and opinions down the church’s collective throat, but by living the sort of life we believe is right in relation to Jews, Judaism, and Israel. But this doesn’t mean we should act like Jews, Judaism, and Israel (and I said just yesterday, that the best way to preserve the safety and continuance of Judaism and the Jewish people is for we Christians to protect Jewish identity, especially from ourselves).

Paul says we must do our best, as far as it depends on our own behavior, to “live peaceably with all,” which includes those with whom we disagree. And when we disagree, our response is not to beat our “enemy” about the head and shoulders with a blunt instrument (such as a handy Torah scroll), but to “heap burning coals” on their heads by offering them acts of kindness, meeting their needs, and providing for their requirements. Part of that, for some of us anyway, is to show up at church every week, to attend Sunday School, to take a weekday evening class offered at church, to smile and be friendly, to make relationships.

No one is going to listen to us, especially in a disagreement, unless we’ve first established a relationship with them and we’ve demonstrated that we are committed to being part of the church community. Even if we go on a more or less regular basis, if we are going as if we’re just guests and not part of the church, who will want to listen to us? Why will anybody care? They don’t think we care, so why should they?

If you want to inspire change, you have to demonstrate love. This isn’t just one group trying to convince another group to change their minds or to acknowledge that our group may have a valid point. The ability to commit and to show love has much wider and deeper implications.

The purpose of every human being is to serve his Creator, and that is a service of great joy: “I, puny mortal and decidedly finite being, serve with my deeds the Infinite Creator of All Worlds! I am bound to the Source of Life from birth, and all the many raging waters of this world cannot tear me away from that bond. Even if I sometimes fail, I may always return and in a single moment reconnect all my soul.”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Infinite Connection”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

communityI disagree with Judah that it will always be a mistake to ask anyone who supports Jews, Judaism, the Jewishness of Messiah, and the centrality of Israel to become part of a traditional church (though I admit, it isn’t for everybody). After all, Judah and his wife are part of a church and yet that doesn’t seem to have inhibited his ability to express a differing opinion. I’m a part of my church, and the content of my blog posts should provide ample evidence that I haven’t been “brainwashed” or otherwise inhibited from holding and expressing my individual perspectives. Boaz Michael, who wrote Tent of David, and his wife Amber regularly attend a small Baptist church in their community and yet, he is not only able to write such a book, but his Pastor actually wrote the book’s introduction, endorsing Michael’s views.

The church isn’t a building or a denomination or even a theology. The church is people. The church is the body of Messiah, all of us, each and every individual who acknowledges that Jesus Christ is Lord and Yeshua HaMoshiach is ani or ha-olam (light of the world). Yes, the body of the Messiah seems hopelessly shredded, fragmented, scattered, and dismembered, with the bloody parts strewn to the four corners of the globe. But God has promised to gather the Jews who are called by His Name back to Israel (Zechariah 10:6-8, Micah 2:12) and He has also promised to gather the Gentiles from the nations who are also called by His Name (Zechariah 14:16-19, Amos 9:11-12).

One day the body of the Messiah will be One just as God’s Name is One. The body will still have “parts” even as an individual human body has many parts, but all of those parts must work together in harmony if the body is to live and to maintain good health. So to it will be for the body of Messiah. Yet, we in that body will only wither and die if we say that we reject another body part or that our own part is the only thing the body needs. Can a person live without a heart or a liver? Can the lungs say that they are the only body part the person needs and all of the other parts are “wrong?”

Even when Israel has behaved in total disobedience, God called her back to Him like a groom calls his virgin bride. How can we do any less when we perceive disagreement between ourselves and some other part of the church? I know the analogy is far from perfect, but to believe otherwise is to deny that Christ has a body of those who are called by his name or worse, it’s to say that in our own opinion, we have judged only ourselves to be the “true church” and that all congregations who don’t agree with us right down to the finest theological detail, are not part of the larger Messianic community.

Seize the vision of hope, healing, unity, and community. The beginning of restoration of the body of Christ starts with one person reaching out a friendly hand to another, even when they’ve disagreed, and calling him “brother.”


whitewashMordechai said to respond to Esther, “Do not think that you can save yourself [from Haman’s decree of annihilation] because you are in the royal palace.”

Esther 4:13

Esther, the heroine of the Purim episode, received this sharp rebuke from Mordechai. No Jew should ever assume that anti-Semitism will affect only others but not oneself. No one has immunity. Every Jew must know that he or she is part of a unit, and a threat against any Jew anywhere in the world is a threat to all Jews.

History has unfortunately repeated itself many times. Spanish Jews who held powerful governmental positions were sent into exile along with their brethren. Jewish millionaires and members of European parliaments were cremated in Auschwitz ovens. Throughout the ages, those who had thought to escape anti-Semitic persecution by concealing their Jewish identities sadly learned that this effort was futile.

Esther accepted Mordechai’s reprimand and risked her life to save her people. In fact, the Megillah (Book of Esther) tells us that Esther had not revealed her Jewish identity because Mordechai had instructed her to keep it a secret. She never would have stayed hidden in the palace and watched her people perish. Mordechai spoke his sharp words not to her, but to posterity.

Some people simply refuse to accept history’s painful lessons. In defiance, they continue to say that they will be different. Neither any individual who feels secure for any reason nor any community that lives in what it considers to be a safe environment should have this delusion of immunity.

Mordechai’s message reverberates throughout the centuries: “Do not think that you can save yourself by hiding when other Jews are being persecuted.”

Today I shall…

…be forthcoming and proud of my Jewish identity and at all times retain a firm solidarity with my people.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Adar 14”

Purim is typically celebrated as a time of joy, happiness, and even silliness, but there is always an undercurrent of sheer terror and a hint of cringing under the spectre of death. The Jewish people had “dodged the bullet,” so to speak, and it’s not so difficult to understand that when you thought you would certainly die and then are miraculously saved at the last-minute, you’d want to “whoop it up” a little because you’re so relieved. Hence the costumes, wigs, and hamantash.

But let’s get back to that “spectre of death” thing for a minute. The story of Esther is only one story in the long history of persecution and multiple times of “certain death” for the Jews, not just individual Jewish people, but the entire Jewish people. Nevertheless, God in his infinite mercy and love for His Children, though He may rebuke them, even harshly, never allows their light to be completely extinguished from the earth.

Purim teaches us the age-old lesson, which has been verified even most recently, to our sorrow, that no manner of assimilation, not even such which is extended over several generations, provides an escape from the Hamans and Hitlers; nor can any Jew sever his ties with his people by attempting such an escape.

On the contrary: Our salvation and our existence depend precisely upon the fact that “their laws are different from those of any other people.”

Purim reminds us that the strength of our people as a whole, and of each individual Jew and Jewess, lies in a closer adherence to our ancient spiritual heritage, which contains the secret of harmonious life, hence of a healthy and happy life. All other things in our spiritual and temporal life must be free from any contradiction to the basis and essence of our existence, and must be attuned accordingly in order to make for the utmost harmony, and add to our physical and spiritual strength, both of which go hand in hand in Jewish life.

-Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of righteous memory
from Personal and Public Correspondence of the Rebbe
7th of Adar, 5713 [February 22, 1953] Brooklyn, N.Y.

In this letter, written by the Rebbe just over sixty years ago, he tells us of two types of dangers to the Jewish people: “Hamans and Hitlers” and “assimilation.” However of the two, it would seem that assimilation is the greater villain in our “Purim play” for while violence and oppression can be resisted, passivity and apathy is like a cancer in the bones. And yet even as Esther’s supposed “assimilation” did not exempt her from her duty to her people, and even as assimilation did not save the European Jews from the horrors of Hitler’s Holocaust, the Rebbe says that assimilation will not hide the Jewish people forever, even “extended over several generations.”

jewish-assimilationBut what about whitewashing?

In a sense, Jews assimilating into the surrounding culture is a form of whitewashing; a form of disappearing into the background, blending in, disappearing, vanishing completely. But what of the reverse? What if the “background” blends into the Jews?

I suppose one way of doing that would be if the rest of the world converted to Judaism, but that hardly seems likely. In fact, the rest of the world is going to do everything in its power to avoid looking or acting like Jews for fear of being mistaken for them and being swept up in the next persecution, pogrom, or holocaust.

But time and again on blogs like mine, the theme of a kind of “reverse whitewashing” comes up where it is not the Jews who are disappearing into the Christian background, but certain elements of the Christian background are springing up and looking like Jews. But how could this be much of a problem? I mean, after all, history shows us that the Jewish people need all of the allies they can get, even allies in Christianity (which historically has been one of the greatest forces in attempting to exterminate Judaism).

But a Christian cannot convert to Judaism (except arguably Messianic Judaism, but that’s a discussion for another time) without renouncing Christ, and such a thing would be unthinkable (see Matthew 10:33). However, what if you could assume a Jewish “identity” without ever converting to Judaism?

Some say that’s exactly the situation James and the Jerusalem Council set up in Acts 15, but as you may know if you’ve read my Return to Jerusalem series, that is not quite the case. But then again, we know that Paul applied a sort of halachah to the non-Jewish disciples of Jesus, and we also know that even in the absence of Jewish teachers, devout non-Jews worshipped the God of Israel in a manner very similar to the Jews in the days of Paul and Silas.

So where is the dividing line that separates Jewish and Gentile identity in the body of the Jewish Messiah? I think that’s still being worked out. There are some in Messianic Judaism who say that no Christian should ever worship in a body of believing Jews nor perform any mitzvot that even remotely suggests Judaism. There are others however, who say that Lydia and her group of devout women in Philippi (see Acts 16:13-15) should be a sort of model for the rest of us; a template for Gentile Christian congregations to recite the Shema, pray the Shemoneh Esreh, and read from the Torah and the Prophets during Shabbat services.

In less than three months, a group of Jews and Gentiles in Messiah will gather together in Hudson, Wisconsin to celebrate Shavuot and to discuss and share the gifts of the spirit. Last year I attended this conference and was blessed to be part of this unified body of Messiah, which for just a few days, seemed to summon the Messianic future we will all one day enjoy.

Since the gathering included a wide variety of people representing different expressions of faith, philosophy, and theology, there were a few who were still struggling with the “identity issue,” including one Christian gentleman who said he insisted on wearing a kippah and tallit gadol to different churches in his area to act as a “witness” to his faith. This viewpoint was gently challenged by the hosts of the event, but the majority of us seemed to have a clear idea of who we are in Christ and what role God expects of each of the parts of Messiah’s body.

Gentile believers ate kosher alongside Jewish believers. We had every opportunity to pray side by side, share ideas, discuss our devotion to God, hear the Torah being read, and bask in the glow of the light of the world in one house as one family.

And whitewashing our identities to create some sort of illusion of uniformity (which after all, is not the same as unity) was not requested nor required.

Assimilation and its shadowy twin which I’ve been describing are remnants of the past, vestiges of an era when it was thought that Jews and Christians could not co-exist as co-heirs in one body of Jesus.

Small groups of Jewish Christians (more accurately, Christian Jews) persisted through the first five or six centuries CE, but they were regarded as sects by both the Jews and the Christians. As one fourth-century church father remarked, “They are not Jews because they believe in Christ, and they are not Christians because they observe the Jewish laws.”

-Shaye J.D. Cohen
Chapter 5: Sectarian and Normative
From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, 2nd ed (kindle edition)
quoting Jerome, Epistle 112, in A.E.J. Klijn and G.J. Reinink
“Patristic Evidence for Jewish-Christian Sects” (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1973), 201

diversity-dayenuWhile Cohen may believe (and while Jerome may have believed) that a Jew who is a disciple of Yeshua as the Jewish Messiah and who is still performing the mitzvot is an oxymoron, I do not. I don’t believe those Jews who continued their faith in the Master into the fifth and sixth centuries CE were confused or misguided for their faith or for continuing to observe Torah. I don’t believe that we non-Jewish disciples of our Jewish Messiah King are confused for desiring to recite the Shema or pray the Amidah alongside our believing Jewish brothers and sisters. I just think we need to be exceptionally mindful of the fact that coming alongside Israel does not make us Israel; it makes us the beneficiaries of God’s love and mercy toward humanity through Israel, the light to the nations, and through Messiah, the light to the world.

But if we Christians, especially those of us drawn to the Torah, to the siddur, and to Shabbos, truly honor our Jewish brethen and “love Israel,” then we will do anything to protect them, which means protecting the very identity of the Jewish people and of Judaism, even from ourselves.

Protecting Jewish identity is how Jews and Judaism have always been saved from Hamans, Hitlers, assimilation, and whitewashing.

The Rebbe concluded his letter this way:

With best wishes for a joyous Purim, and may we live to see a world free of Hamans and all types of Amalekites, the enemies of the Jews, of their body, soul and faith.

Put away the paint brush and the bucket of whitewash and enjoy the colors, hues, and shades produced by the differing “organs” within the body of the Christ. Appreciate the “civilized” Jewish branches along with the “wild” Gentile branches, soaking up the same nourishment from the same root, and growing and flourishing together.

Imploring Unity

jewish-davening-by-waterAnd on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together.

Acts 16:13 (ESV)

They did not find any Jews. On that particular Sabbath only a small group of God-fearing Gentile women gathered to worship the God of Israel in the open air. The handful of God-fearers seems to be all that remained of the Jewish community in Philippi. The decree against the Jews had overlooked God-fearers. Even in the absence of the Jewish community, the women continued on with Sabbath observance and prayers.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Torah Portion Terumah (“Heave Offering”) pg 488
Commentary on Acts 15:36-17:14

Yesterday’s extra meditation addressed the “Jewish oral traditions” as applied to the early Gentile disciples in the days of James, Paul, and the Council of Apostles. We saw, based on Lancaster’s commentary, that it is very likely Paul taught a sort of oral law or “halachah” to the Gentiles regarding the teachings of Jesus and how to implement those teachings using a basic understanding of Torah as a foundation.

I wrote that meditation because for the past week or so, I’ve been focused on Jewish halachah and the right of the Jews in the modern Messianic communities to establish and maintain a halachah for themselves that is substantially similar to halachot utilized by other streams of Judaism. But in defining Jewish identity through halachah, Gentile identity definitions have been neglected relative to the Bible. Based on that neglect, some Christians have opposed the maintenance of a unique Jewishness among the Jewish disciples of Messiah, defining it as “exclusivist” and even “racist.” There’s also a suggestion that “things of the flesh” and “things of the spirit” are mutually exclusive, and that God has ceased to apply a special spiritual identity and purpose to the Jewish people, the living inheritors of Sinai, particularly now that the Messiah has come and will (hopefully soon) come again.

Christianity and Judaism stand in stark contrast to each other, even within the context of Messianic Judaism where Jews and Gentiles share the same God and the same Messiah. However, as we saw in Lancaster’s commentary on Acts 16:13 above, in the days of Paul, the Gentile disciples and God-fearers probably looked more “Jewish” than we ever would look today, up to and including observing Shabbos. Lancaster quotes Ben Witherington’s The Acts of the Apostles : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (pg 491) to provide us with a bit more detail.

Presumably these women had assembled to recite the Shema, to pray the Shemoneh Esreh, and to read from the Law and the Prophets and perhaps to discuss its meaning, to hear from a teacher, and to receive a final blessing. In this case, Paul was the guest teacher.

This short paragraph provides us with a rich picture of a group of non-Jewish women, not yet disciples of the Messiah Yeshua, who came together in the absence of their exiled Jewish mentors and teachers, to continue to worship the God of Israel in the only way they knew how. If it had been the custom to light Shabbos candles in that day just before the arrival of Erev Shabbat, I can imagine these devout women doing so with humility and even a sense of awe and wonder, welcoming God’s rest into their homes as best they could.

LydiaMariaElkinsSome Christians, primarily those associated with the Hebrew Roots movement, have come under the mistaken belief that supporting Jewish identity uniqueness means abandoning what the women in Acts 16 were practicing and scurrying off to a Christian church, learning to be a “good goyishe” believer, and forgetting the rich history and imagery of worshiping God within the beauty of many of the mitzvot. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here we have a wonderful example of a small group of women who had devoted themselves to God within the Jewish traditions, but who were isolated from exploring and extending their faith until they met Paul and his small group by the water.

The women gladly welcomed the visitors. Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke sat down with the women and explained their errand to Philippi. They presented the women with the good news of the kingdom.

-Lancaster, ibid

There’s a certain simplicity in picturing such a scene and it makes me long for that sort of encounter with holy men of God and indeed with the good news of the Messiah. I can only imagine what it must have been like to sit by the river and listen to Paul and the others teach. One day, may we all be privileged to hear such words of integrity and holiness.

“Religion” has gotten so complicated and so divisive (not that religious divisiveness didn’t exist during the days of Paul). Even in my own little corner of Christianity/Hebrew Roots/Messianic Judaism, sparks fly, tempers flare, and opinions are bandied about as if they were the sacred texts themselves (well, in the blogosphere anyway…my face-to-face encounters are always very civil and friendly, even when some of my brothers and I don’t see eye-to-eye).

Derek Leman shared a link on Facebook, and I found the article written by Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo called I am Taking Off My Kippah quite compelling.

Don’t be shocked. But I need to be honest. I am contemplating taking off my kippah. No, do not worry. I have no intention of becoming irreligious, or even less religious. Far from it. In fact, I want to become more religious and have come to the conclusion that my kippah prevents me from doing so.

All my life I am trying to become religious, i.e. genuinely religious, but so far I have bitterly failed. Oh yes, I am observant, even “very observant.” I try to live by every possible halacha. It’s far from easy and boy, do I fail!

But that is not my problem. My problem is that I don’t want to be observant. I want to be religious, and that is an entirely different story.

Please pause and read all of Rabbi Cardozo’s missive and capture the full flavor of his message and intent before proceeding here. You see, he makes a very good point. As I read his words, I am aware of a thought and a direction that has become my “traveling companion” for the past few years now. When I was involved in Hebrew Roots (and I still maintain friendships with my former colleagues), I originally fell into the “trap” of mistaking being “observant” for encountering God. It’s not that you can’t do both. It’s not that you can’t wear a kippah, don a tallit, lay tefillin, daven from a siddur and not still encounter God, it’s just that doing a bunch of “stuff” and wearing a bunch of “stuff” doesn’t guarantee the experience, nor does it make you better or more holy than the Christian who doesn’t do all that.

They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long…

Matthew 23:5 (ESV)

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that davening while wearing tzitzit and tefillin is a bad thing (particularly for a Jewish person), but it is a pit that some have fallen into, like the scribes and Pharisees Jesus was addressing. When the “stuff” becomes more important than what you’re trying to accomplish with the “stuff,” then it’s time to put it all in a box, put the box on a high shelf in your closet, and proceed to encounter God unfettered and exposed. Then maybe if you choose to pick some of that “stuff” back up in the future, it will actually mean something to you by then. If Rabbi Cardozo, who is Jewish and who is a child of the commandments can see this for himself, how much more should we who are not Jewish and who are “grafted in” only by faith and mercy see it for ourselves?Jewish_men_praying2

But even in acquiring this view, and returning to Paul and the Gentile God-fearers who have become disciples of the Master, there is a problem. While I do indeed support Jewish identity distinction within the body of Messiah, I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t present a barrier to unity.

As Paul spoke about repentance, the Messiah, and the kingdom, “the Lord opened her heart to respond.” She declared her desire to become a disciple. She and her household (children, slaves, and husband if she had one) received immersion into Messiah.

After her immersion, Lydia implored the apostles to consider staying in her home. As a God-fearer, Lydia was aware that Jews did not ordinarily lodge in the homes of Gentiles. She attempted to persuade them, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house and stay.” Her request implies an appeal to judge her favorably on the basis of her observance to the Torah. The apostles expressed some reluctance, perhaps because of uncertainty about the Gentile home or perhaps because their lodging in the home of an unmarried woman (if she was) might appear unseemly. Luke says, “She urged us…and she prevailed upon us.” At last, the apostles agreed to accept her hospitality.

-Lancaster, pg 489

Some folks will jump on the phrase, “judge her favorably on the basis of her observance to the Torah” as an indication that Lancaster believes Lydia and her household were Torah observant in an identical manner to the Jews, and certainly in order for Paul and his party to stay in her household, a number of the mitzvot involving food and wine would have to be followed. We don’t have very many details regarding Lydia’s “Torah observance,” but putting everything together, we can see that she and the other devout God-fearing women in Philippi appeared to follow a number of the mitzvot, and from an outsider’s point of view, much of the behavior of these Gentile women may have been indistinguishable from Jewish women.

But there was a dynamic tension involved when Lydia asked Paul and his group to stay in her home because she wasn’t Jewish and because Paul and his party were Jewish (I believe Timothy was considered halalachally Jewish because Paul had him circumcised…Luke was arguably not Jewish but obviously was accepted as an appropriate traveling companion by his Jewish associates nonetheless). That dynamic tension has resurfaced in the Messianic realm today and for similar reasons…but not identical reasons.

In Paul’s day, being a disciple of Jesus and being Jewish was not at odds at all. While other Jewish sects may have disagreed with the identity of Jesus as Messiah, the Master’s Jewish disciples were unequivocably considered Jews. It was a no-brainer. No one gave it a second thought. But as we’ve seen in some of my previous blog posts, just who and what a Gentile disciple in the Messiah was presented quite a problem. The Apostolic Decree James issued in Acts 15 provided a basic starting point for Gentile disciples, but how far their observance and worship could be taken may have still been up for grabs.

Today, like it or not, the tradition of the church says that a person is only a Christian if they believe Jesus is Lord and died for your sins…and for Jews, they are only Christians if they give up “the Law” and rely on grace alone. No Jewish mitzvot are welcomed along on the journey of Christian faith. Yes, those attitudes are changing, but it’s completely understandable that Jewish Messianics are sensitive to any suggestion that they’ve “converted to Christianity” and are no longer observant Jews. Just as Paul was nearly lynched when it was even suggested that he took a Gentile into the Temple (Acts 21:28-29), a Messianic Jew associating with non-Jews who, for all intents and purposes, are also taking on board Jewish identity markers with apparent impunity, brings forth a lot of questions about just “who is a Jew?” Sometimes the answer to that question prompts “circling the wagons.”

Dr. David Stern in his book Restoring the Jewishness of the Gospel: A Message for Christians insists that Messianic Jews continue to observe the mitzvot and follow halachah as long as it doesn’t hinder unity with the Gentile believers. Paul, Silas, and the others were caught in a similar bind, desiring to observe halachah but also recognizing the need to be accepting of their fellow Gentile disciples.

Shechinah-Above-The-TownI don’t have an absolute answer for this puzzle, but we do see that Paul was able, in some manner or fashion, to overcome the struggle he was facing and allow his party to stay in Lydia’s home. The Bible text is silent about the specific arrangements involved so we don’t have a concrete map to use for our present situation. We also see that “Christian” women were acting a whole lot more “Jewish” than is typical in most churches today. That suggests it may be possible for completely Gentile churches or congregations to “recite the Shema, to pray the Shemoneh Esreh, and to read from the Law and the Prophets and perhaps to discuss its meaning.” That’s not “normal” in most churches today, but according to the Bible, it’s not exactly forbidden, either. I think this type of worship is at the heart of what the Hebrew/Jewish Roots movement is supposed to be all about.

But the goal isn’t for Gentile Christians to become “Jewish” or even to go out of their way to “act Jewish.” For that matter, the goal isn’t really for Jews to “act Jewish,” recalling the intent and purpose of Rabbi Cardozo’s blog post. The goal is to be who we are in our relationship with God and to seek His face always.

If your “stuff” is getting in the way of that or in the way of your relationships with the wider body of believers, including the church, then it’s time to reconsider what your goals are and who your Master is. It’s time to restore bonds between the different little “bodies” of Messiah that have been running around on this world, all proclaiming that they hold exclusive truth. Efforts are being made. Barriers are being lowered. Books like Tent of David are being written which embrace this vision of healing the shredded and fragmented body of Messiah. And amazingly, Boaz Michael and Toby Janicki from the Messianic Jewish educational ministry First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) are being interviewed on Christian television (two-hour long video).

The world is changing. God is bringing us together. But that will only happen if the different parts of Messiah body know who we are and what we’re supposed to be doing, each of us with our special gifts and unique identities. Bring peace and unity. The barriers will fall. The fallen sukkah will be restored.

Throwing Stones

jacobs-wellDo not throw a stone into the well from which you drank.

-Bava Kama 92b

The Talmud states that this folk saying is related to the Torah commandment, “Do not reject an Egyptian, because you were a dweller in his land” (Deuteronomy 23:8). Since Egypt hosted the Israelites, we, their descendants, must acknowledge our gratitude.

The brief period of tranquility that our ancestors enjoyed in Egypt was followed by decades of ruthless enslavement and brutal oppression. Thousands of newborn Israelite children were murdered. This unspeakable horror more than obscured any favorable treatment they had received earlier, and our natural inclination is to despise the Egyptians with a passion.

The Torah tells us to take a different path. Although we celebrate, every Passover, our liberation from this tyrannical enslavement and commemorate the triumph over our oppressors, we have no right to deny that we did receive some benefit from them. Even though a denial of gratitude might appear well justified in this particular case, it might impact upon us in such a manner that we might also deny gratitude when it is fully deserved.

If people cast stones into the well from which they drank, the well will not be hurt in the least, because it is an inanimate and insensitive object. The act, however, might impact negatively upon those who do it: they might subsequently behave with a lack of gratitude to people as well.

Today I shall…

…try to remember to be considerate of anyone who has any time been of help to me, even though his later actions might have been hostile.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Adar 10”

Over the past week or two in my blogs, I’ve had encounters with a few people who you could consider hostile or at least ill-mannered. This, in spite of what I’ve been trying to accomplish by refraining from participating in so many other online encounters. As Rabbi Zelig Pliskin says, “Why don’t people like to remain silent when others insult them? Because they’re afraid that others might think they’re weak and unable to answer back.” But as he also says, “The truth is, it takes much greater strength to remain silent when someone insults you. Revenge, on the other hand, is a sign of weakness. A revenger lacks the necessary strength of character to forgive.”

I strive to learn how to be better at forgiving, even when others may not realize they have caused harm or offense (and it’s not like I’m blameless, either).

Then I encountered Rabbi Twerski’s commentary for yesterday and it occurred to me that many of us have been “throwing stones in the well from which we drank.”

Yesterday, both Derek Leman and I wrote about the vital importance of Jewish Torah observance, particularly for those Jews who have become followers and disciples of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. In some manner or fashion across the long centuries after the destruction of Herod’s Temple, we in the church have been throwing pebbles, and rocks, and boulders, and monolithic asteroid-sized chunks of granite into “the well from which we have all drank.”

We’ve been making a mockery of what Paul was trying to tell us.

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

Ephesians 2:11-22 (ESV)

tearing-down-the-wallI know I’m going to be accused of misusing this part of scripture, which is often used to confirm the destruction of the Law and the elimination of any unique Jewish identity in the body of the Messiah, but it all hinges on what sort of “dividing wall of hostility” was brought down and what exactly was the “law of commandments expressed in ordinances” that was abolished. It makes a lot of Christians (including those in the usual variants of the Hebrew Roots movement) feel “hunky dory” to believe that it was the uniqueness of Judaism that Jesus “nailed to the cross” along with his battered, bloody body. Even those Christians who agree that the Law is intact and it was only Judaism that died, agree to the elimination of what it is to be Jewish by redefining the sign commandments of the Torah as not Jewish any longer but belonging to anyone and everyone who claims them.

(And I must say at this point that a great deal of what we also call “Torah” is perfectly accessible to Jews and Christians alike).

I’m sure that when non-Jews claim Jewish sign commandments as their very own, it must feel “hostile” to the Jewish people who would prefer to keep their identities intact.

Back in Acts 15 the problem faced by the Council of Apostles was how to establish and implement “Gentile inclusion” into the body of the Jewish Messiah. For most of the history of the church, the problem reversed itself and was considered how do we establish and implement “Jewish inclusion” into the Christian church? In the latter case, it was by requiring the Jews surrender every last vestige of what it is to be a Jew. However James and the Council made no such requirement of the Gentiles in the former situation, though to be sure, the Gentile disciples had to give something up. But it wasn’t their identity as such, otherwise there would be no “Gentiles called by the Messiah’s name,” only Jews. The Gentiles were included, and ancient “Christianity” became one of the most inclusive religious movements on the planet, because one did not have to covert to Judaism and accept the obligation of the total yoke of Torah in order to join.

But as I’ve said in many conversations recently, I don’t think the relationship between the Jewish and Gentile disciples in those early days ever reached any sort of stability. There wasn’t time. Events such as the Jewish exile from Israel and the Bar Koshba revolt came and went too quickly on the stage of time, and once played out, the result was a separation between the Jews, and the Gentiles who wrested observance and worship of the Moshiach from the Jewish people for nearly twenty centuries.

But all that is beginning to change. What stands in the way is that across all of the long years, the “dividing wall of hostility” has been rebuilt with a vengeance and it is tall and thick and wide and hard. The people on both sides of the wall have built it up and the people on both sides of the wall have been heavily invested in keeping it standing. Good fences make good neighbors as Robert Frost once wrote.

Rabbi Twerski is determined to “remember to be considerate of anyone who has any time been of help to me, even though his later actions might have been hostile.” That certainly describes what we Christians should say of Israel who gave us the Messiah but later was hostile to us because we tried to sell them a “Goyishe King.”

But I’d like to reverse that saying for us. The Master said “salvation comes from the Jews,” (John 4:22) and that statement is the crystallization of Israel’s mission to be a light to the world (Isaiah 49:6). Without Israel and without Israel’s first-born son, Yeshua HaMoshiach, Jesus the Christ, none of us could be saved. But since the time when salvation entered into the world in the body of a man and as the flesh and blood expression of the Divine, much enmity has built up between Israel and the Christianity that resulted from her light. A few Christians and a few believing Jews are finally beginning to breach the wall of hostility and extend friendship and brotherhood to one another, as it was in days of old. I can’t speak for the Jews in Messiah, but as a Christian…

unityToday I shall…

…try to remember to set aside any hostility I may have expressed to either a Jewish person or a Christian because of the struggle in which we are engaged in removing the barriers between us, and realize that though we may not always see things in the same way, we are striving toward the same goal, achieving unity in the body of Messiah so that God may once again dwell among the peoples called by His Name.

Before embarking on a journey from your place of residence, arrange a Chassidic farbrengen and receive a parting blessing from your good friends, and as the familiar expression goes: Chassidim never say farewell, for they never depart from each other. Wherever they are, they are one family.

-“Today’s Day”
Monday, 10 Adar 1, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

Where your thoughts are, there you are, all of you.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“All of You”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

May we all work to bring unity and peace among ourselves as believers, and with all humanity, through the Master and Savior of the world, Christ Jesus our Lord.

The Divine Path to Taking Out the Garbage

shhhhOne who degrades another person is a fool, and a man of understanding will make himself deaf to his words.

Proverbs 11:12

When people feel good about themselves, they have no need to enhance their self-evaluation by berating others. Those who do so are exposing their own poor self-worth and to what extremes they will go in order to achieve any feeling of worth.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Shevet 13”

I don’t mind people disagreeing with me, but it’s when they do so behind my back that I take a certain amount of offense. When I read Rabbi Twerski’s commentary from which I just quoted, I had an ugly feeling I’d need it in a day or so. Although he is giving a lesson on gossip (lashon hara), I find that it applies to those who choose to call others out by name and denigrate them just because they can.

Rabbi Twerski is correct in saying that when someone employs such tactics, it reveals more about them than the person they’re attempting to malign. Nevertheless, I feel we are not to respond by using the same tactics (and so my critic will remain anonymous) and we must even do our best to forgive the victim.

In another article, Rabbi Twersky quotes Ecclesiastes 7:9 in support of his dedication to…

…try to avoid erupting in anger when I feel offended and at least delay an angry response until I have more thoroughly evaluated the situation.

That’s not easy, since we are all human and, when slapped in the face, our first response is to want to slap back. I can understand that my critic may take this particular blog post as my taking a “shot at him,” but consider this.

May no person be made to suffer on my account.

-Siddur, Prayer on Retiring

Although the Torah does not require people to love their enemies, it does demand restraint, in the sense of not seeking revenge (Leviticus 19:18). The Talmud extends this concept to forbid not only the act of revenge, but even a prayer that God should punish our enemies. “If someone is punished on account of another person, the latter is not admitted to the Divine Presence, for as Solomon says in Proverbs (17:16), ‘For the righteous, too, punishment is not good’ “(Shabbos 149b).

When Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berdichev’s adversaries expelled his family from town during his absence, his colleagues asked Rabbi Wolf of Zhitomir to invoke the Divine wrath upon them for their heinous deed. “I cannot do anything,” Rabbi Wolf said, “because Rabbi Levi Yitzchok has anticipated us and is now standing before the open Ark, praying fervently that no harm come to them.”

Actions like this incident may appear to be the ultimate of magnanimity, but it is not necessarily so. To the contrary, they can also be understood as helping one’s own interests. If we pray that another person be punished for his or her misdeeds, we become vulnerable ourselves (see 3 Kislev), for the Divine sense of justice may then bring our own actions under greater scrutiny. After all, is it not reasonable to expect a high standard of personal conduct in someone who invokes harsh treatment of his neighbors?

Consequently, it is wiser to seek forgiveness for others and thereby merit forgiveness for ourselves than to pray for absolute justice and stern punishment for others’ misdeeds and thereby expose ourselves to be similarly judged.

Today I shall…

…try to avoid wishing harm to anyone, even to those who have greviously offended me.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Shevet 17”

Kind of reminds me of some lessons taught by other wise Jewish sages.

And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Luke 23:34 (ESV)

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:19-21 (ESV)

ForgivenessI suppose Paul, in quoting from Proverbs 25:22, might be the more appropriate scripture, since Jesus is asking God to forgive his executioners, and not just a few people (who in this case are a blogger and a few of his friends who cheer him on) who have “badmouthed” him. Nevertheless, we have a clear principle to not retaliate against someone, whether they’re another believer or not (though it’s sad when a believer should actually create such a situation in the first place).

I just read a blog post written by Rabbi Dr. Stuart Dauermann called Stumbling Towards Shalom. In part, this article says:

I remember years ago helping at a wedding of a friend. This bride, at her rehearsal, was standing on the platform when her bad knee (with an untended to bad ligament) went out of its socket. I still remember seeing that. It meant she had to hobble in order to meet her bridegroom.

Will the same be true for all of us, as we prepare to meet our Bridegroom? Will we be stumbling and falling because of matters untended to?

How are we doing? And what are the prospects for our movement if we do not do better than we are? The author of the letter to the Hebrews leaves us with a final word about our ligament of peace and how we are walking. . . or not walking well together:

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:12-14).

While Rabbi Dr. Dauermann is specifically addressing division and unity within the Messianic Jewish movement, I believe it is appropriate to apply his words to the wider context of Christianity and the body of both Jewish and Gentile believers.

The body of Messiah will never achieve its goals while we continue to take pot shots and cheap shots at each other in an attempt to add supports to our own flagging egos. The cause of Christ is not our cause or something we invented out of our own righteousness, it’s God’s. We can either choose to sanctify the Name or desecrate it with our words and deeds.

I used to think that all forgiveness first required repentance, and in terms of our relationship with God, I believe that’s true. And yet I want you to notice something.

Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Acts 9:3-9 (ESV)

In his conversation with Ananias (see Acts 9:15), the Lord calls Saul “a chosen instrument of mine,” and yet in the encounter between Messiah and Saul, at no time do we see that Saul ever repented or asked for forgiveness. Of course Luke may have simply omitted these overt statements assuming his readers would understand that such actions are implied. After all, Saul’s life does dramatically change almost immediately as he turns away from his former persecution of the Master and his servants and turns toward God. But there’s still a lesson here for me to learn.

clean-upI have no choice but to respond with a forgiving heart, even though it’s not in my human desire to do so. I have prayed for my adversary when he has asked it (in a general request on his blog and not to me specifically). I will continue to do so, for I desire no harm should come to any critic of mine or to their families. I recently said that we will all have to give an accounting to God as to how we lived our lives. I’m not suggesting that I am focused on my critic’s encounter with God but rather my own. If I don’t forgive, if I allow anger or the desire for retribution to rule me, when I am facing my God, what will I have to say about it?

Everyone has his share of “not good.” It’s impossible that a physical being should be devoid of faults. The point is not to flee or hide from them. Nor is it to resign yourself to it all. It is to face up to the fact that they are there, and to systematically chase them away.

Recognizing who you are and gradually cleaning up your act—it may look ugly, but it is a divine path.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Cleaning Up”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

It is better to forgive others, to let go of grudges and hurts and allow God to take care of such matters, than to have to explain to God why you bore a vengeful heart and intent toward someone He loves as much as He does you…and me. I admit by even writing this blog post that it still “smarts” to be taken to task, particularly when I am being honest, forthright, and transparent, but as Rabbi Freeman says, I’m striving to recognize the “ugly” in me and to take the “divine path” toward cleaning up my garbage.

I hope to meet the others I have contended with on that path as well someday.

“In youth we learn; in age we understand.”

-Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, Austrian writer

Take a Deep Breath

I am grateful that the secular spirit of the modern world has made the medieval option of fear of God’s punishment spiritually irrelevant. I felt dignified and challenged as a teacher of Torah in not having the support of God’s punitive powers as a fallback for awakening interest in Torah. In my experiences as a teacher, I never saw Judaism as necessarily weakened by the modern emphasis on the significance to or distaste for the terrifying descriptions of divine retribution awaiting the sinner found in the liturgy and rabbinic midrashim.

-Rabbi David Hartman
from the Postscript of his book
A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism

That isn’t exactly a statement that would be palatable to many traditional Jews and particularly fundamentalist Christians, who adhere to the words “the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) Nevertheless, I don’t think Rabbi Hartman absolutely has to be discussing the absence of divine judgment of humanity, but rather, our human response to God. One of the criticisms leveled against Christianity is our punitive nature, both toward the secular world and within our own. I’ve heard it said more than once that “the church is the only army that shoots its own wounded.” No wonder we don’t have a stellar reputation for love, compassion, and peace within the societies where we live.

Very recently, I’ve been expressing my recurring feelings of diminishment as a believer and frankly, as a human being. It seems that once you become a Christian, as far as other religions and the secular world are concerned, you surrender your passport to travel among your fellow human beings and within your society, and are relegated to a cage assigned to bigots, superstitious louts, and Bible-thumping thugs. If you actually express your faith in terms of compassion, charity, and love toward other people (and not just those who agree with you socially and politically), then repeatedly hearing what a fascist you are can be hard to take.

Time to take a deep breath.

I am deeply frightened by the growth of religious dogmatism and intolerance in many parts of the world, including Israel. I believe that a relationship to God based on fear of punishment, excessive repression, and fear of natural joy and spontaneity contributes to the growth of religious dogmatism and fanaticism.

-Rabbi Hartman

I’m frightened, too.

I’m frightened because one of the results of dogmatism is the destruction of the message of the Bible which promotes love of your fellow human being as the primary expression of love of God. How can the name of God be sanctified if hostility and extremism is overwhelming the voice of Jesus Christ? It’s not like the Messianic lesson doesn’t include moral and ethical components. Far from it. At the heart of the ancient Judaism in which Jesus taught, is the emphasis on the laws of ethical monotheism and the universal benefits that they yield when applied to human society. But as Paul famously said:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. –1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (ESV)

I get tired of fighting but what I’m trying to fight isn’t really all of the times atheists say, “I hate Christians” or all of the times Jewish people say, “Christianity is a pagan religion.” I get tired of fighting how badly Christianity has carried the message of Christ forward into the 21st century. I get tired of supersessionism in the church. I get tired of extremist exclusivism in Christianity which goes to the point of defining itself by what it’s against rather than by the nature and character of God’s grace and love.

I’m not suggesting that Christianity “liberalize” to the point of blending into secular culture, but there’s a difference between standing on a firm moral center and using it as a blunt instrument to commit violence against anyone who steps outside of your interpretation of “Biblical truth.”

I’m tired of being blamed for a system and a history I have no control of and do not participate in. I think it’s possible to do good and be a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, an atheist, and just about anyone else. My understanding of good is the teachings of the Jewish Jesus. Your mileage may vary.

For myself, belief in the unity of God requires that one learn to appreciate the way every human being reflects the divine image. The unity of God is a challenge to find a shared moral and spiritual language between different faith communities. The declaration of Judaic faith, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” must lead a Jew to relate the profound sense of the particular and intimate relationship of Israel to God (“The Lord is our God”) to an appreciation of the way God is manifested in the variety of spiritual cultures existing throughout the world (“The Lord is One”). Whereas for Maimonides, correct reasoning provides the healing powers that make belief in the unity of God possible, from my perspective the power to appreciate the other, the overcoming of individual or communal narcissism, is essential if we are to act in a way that reflects belief in the unity of God.

-Rabbi Hartman

Obviously, Rabbi Hartman’s views do not represent all of religious Judaism and they certainly don’t represent most of Christianity, since exclusivism is a requirement for access to God on a covenantal level. For Jews, the covenant is Mosaic, although Gentiles may access through the Noahide laws. For Christianity, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) is an absolutism that locks out anyone who is not a Christian and, in many cases, not a member of a specific congregation or denomination. Even in Judaism, the debate rages on “who is a Jew” which, in its extreme form, is expressed in the contrast between the Haredi Jews and secular Jewish Israel.

Time to take another deep breath.

Let’s try to set all that aside just for a few minutes. I know that most religious people fear the term “unity” because they feel it must also mean “homogeneous,” the idea that in order to have unity, you must surrender all distinctions from the other groups around you, and particularly the dominant group (which, in most cases today, is atheist secular humanism). In other words, the fear is that to have unity, you must either stop being religious, or be religious in name only while really embracing and practicing the entire package of liberal progressive modernism.

But that’s not what I mean.

In Christianity, I understand two things. I understand that God is the God of the universe and not just the God of Christians, Jews, or Muslims. I also understand that every human individual, no matter who you are (yes, even atheists) was made in the image of God. Besides being generically human, we all have those two things in common (whether you choose to recognize that or not). If God is a complete unity of One, then according to Rabbi Hartman, He created humanity to reflect that “oneness,” that particular sort of “unity” whereby we share a common drive to serve Him.

If you’re an atheist, a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, or anyone else, and you have a need for justice and mercy in the world, we all have that in common because God desires justice and mercy. I don’t care if you recognize God as the source of those two qualities or not, the fact remains, in spite of our differences, that we have a common need to create justice and mercy.

We aren’t going to agree on a good many things. That much is certain. But if we find something we can agree upon, let’s say it’s feeding hungry people, is it only good if you do it but not if I do it? Really, do you have to be an atheist to do good? Do you have to be a Christian to do good? Do you have to be a ...fill in the blank here... to do good?

That’s the sort of crap that’s wearing me down. Well, it’s not all of it, but if I could crawl out from underneath societal condemnation long enough to share something good with you, and affirming that we have that much in common, I’d feel a lot more lively and optimistic.

Christians are accused, and sometimes rightly so (but only sometimes) of being bigots and exclusivists. But many other human groups are guilty of the same thing including (believe it or not) political and social progressives. Inclusiveness is supposed to “include” but it often excludes people like me for no other reason than the label “Christian” I have stamped on my forehead. If you want me to listen to you, get to know you, and not judge you on shallow and superficial appearances, then shouldn’t you practice what you “preach?”

I should, too.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9). Making peace doesn’t require compromising morals or ethics, but it does require doing good and putting aside prejudice and bigotry. If Christians and Jews weren’t capable of doing that, there would have been no civil rights movement in the 1960s. We can do it, we can all do it if we choose to. Or we can choose to continue to wage this senseless social battle of defining ourselves by who we’re against rather than what we can do for good.

That’s your choice and it’s mine.

No, I don’t think this is going to work. I don’t think one small human being writing on one small blog is going to change the world. Heck, I won’t even be able to change predominant social opinion on the Internet. But I can take the moral high road just to see what happens. I can promote good just because it’s the right thing to do. I can love God by loving my fellow human being.

And I can continue to remind myself that even if no one else gives a rip, that each and every step I take, every piece of trash I pick up, every person I smile at today just because I can, is noticed by God. Hopefully, some of it will do other people some good as well.

We live in a broken world. Many of us are broken people. Only by realizing that we are all broken together can we begin to heal. One day we will all realize that our healing comes from Heaven. I know many of you don’t believe me. Let’s try out a little cooperation and see how it works. For the rest of it, just wait and see.