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October 22, 2014 / 28 Tishri, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘God’

Moses: the Heroic Model

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

“That very day the Lord spoke to Moses, ‘Go up this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, opposite Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel for a possession. And die on the mountain which you go up, and be gathered to your people …For you will see the land only from a distance; you will not enter the land I am giving to the people of Israel” (Deuteronomy 48-50, 52).

These words draw to a close the life of the greatest hero the Jewish people has ever known: Moses, the leader, the liberator, the lawgiver, the man who brought a group of slaves to freedom, turned a fractious collection of individuals into a nation, and so transformed them that they became the people of eternity.

It was Moses who mediated with God, performed signs and wonders, gave the people their laws, fought with them when they sinned, fought for them when praying for Divine forgiveness, gave his life to them and had his heart broken by them when they repeatedly failed to live up to his great expectations.

Each age has had its own image of Moses. For the more mystically inclined sages, Moses was the man who ascended to heaven at the time of the giving of the Torah, where he had to contend with the angels who opposed the idea that this precious gift be given to mere mortals. God told Moses to answer them, which he did decisively. “Do angels work that they need a day of rest? Do they have parents that they need to be commanded to honor them? Do they have an evil inclination that they need to be told, ‘Do not commit adultery?’ ” (Shabbat 88a). Moses the man out-argues the angels.

Other sages were more radical still. For them Moses was rabbeinu, “our rabbi” – not a king, a political or military leader, but a scholar and master of the law, a role that they invested with astonishing authority. They went so far as to say that when Moses prayed for God to forgive the people for the Golden Calf, God replied, “I cannot, for I have already vowed, ‘One who sacrifices to any God shall be destroyed’ (Exodus 22:19), and I cannot revoke My vow.” Moses replied, “Master of the universe, have You not taught me the laws of annulling vows? One may not annul his own vow, but a sage may do so.” Moses thereupon annulled God’s vow (Shemot Rabbah 43:4).

For Philo, the 1st century Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, Moses was a philosopher-king of the type depicted in Plato’s Republic. He governs the nation, organizes its laws, institutes its rites and conducts himself with dignity and honor; he is wise, stoical and self-controlled. This is, as it were, a Greek Moses, looking not unlike Michelangelo’s famous sculpture.

For Maimonides, Moses was radically different from all other prophets in four ways. First, others received their prophecies in dreams or visions, while Moses received his awake. Second, to the others God spoke in parables obliquely, but to Moses directly and lucidly. Third, the other prophets were terrified when God appeared to them but of Moses it says, “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face-to-face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11). Fourth, other prophets needed to undergo lengthy preparations to hear the Divine word; Moses spoke to God whenever he wanted or needed to. He was “always prepared, like one of the ministering angels” (Laws of the Foundations of Torah 7:6).

Yet what is so moving about the portrayal of Moses in the Torah is that he appears before us as quintessentially human. No religion has more deeply and systemically insisted on the absolute otherness of God and man, heaven and earth, the infinite and the finite. Other cultures have blurred the boundary, making some human beings seem godlike, perfect, infallible. There is such a tendency – marginal to be sure, but never entirely absent – within Jewish life itself: to see sages as saints, great scholars as angels, to gloss over their doubts and shortcomings and turn them into superhuman emblems of perfection. Tanach, however, is greater than that. It tells us that God, who is never less than God, never asks us to be more than simply human.

Moses is a human being. We see him despair and want to die. We see him lose his temper. We see him on the brink of losing his faith in the people he has been called on to lead. We see him beg to be allowed to cross the Jordan and enter the land he has spent his life as a leader traveling toward. Moses is the hero of those who wrestle with the world as it is and with people as they are, knowing that “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to stand aside from it.”

The Torah insists that “to this day no one knows where his grave is” (Deuteronomy 34:6), to avoid his grave being made a place of pilgrimage or worship. It is all too easy to turn human beings, after their death, into saints and demigods. That is precisely what the Torah opposes. “Every human being” writes Maimonides in his Laws of Repentance (5:2), “can be as righteous as Moses or as wicked as Jeroboam.”

Moses does not exist in Judaism as an object of worship but as a role model for each of us to aspire to. He is the eternal symbol of a human being made great by what he strove for, not by what he actually achieved. The titles conferred by him in the Torah, “the man Moses,” “God’s servant,” “a man of God,” are all the more impressive for their modesty. Moses continues to inspire.

# # #

On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King delivered a sermon in a church in Memphis, Tennessee. At the end of his address, he turned to the last day of Moses’s life, when the man who had led his people to freedom was taken by God to a mountaintop from which he could see in the distance the land he was not destined to enter. That, said King, was how he felt that night:

“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

That night was the last of his life. The next day he was assassinated. At the end, the still young Christian preacher – he was not yet forty – who had led the civil rights movement in the United States, identified not with a Christian figure but with Moses.

In the end the power of Moses’s story is precisely that it affirms our mortality. There are many explanations of why Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. I have argued that it was simply because “each generation has its leaders” (Avodah Zarah 5a) and the person who has the ability to lead a people out of slavery is not necessarily the one who has the requisite skills to lead the next generation into its own and very different challenges. There is no one ideal form of leadership that is right for all times and situations.

Franz Kafka gave voice to a different and no less compelling truth:

“He is on the track of Canaan all his life; it is incredible that he should see the land only when on the verge of death. This dying vision of it can only be intended to illustrate how incomplete a moment is human life; incomplete because a life like this could last forever and still be nothing but a moment. Moses fails to enter Canaan not because his life was too short but because it is a human life.”

What then does the story of Moses tell us? That it is right to fight for justice even against regimes that seem indestructible. That God is with us when we take our stand against oppression. That we must have faith in those we lead, and when we cease to have faith in them we can no longer lead them. That change, though slow, is real, and that people are transformed by high ideals even though it may take centuries.

In one of its most powerful statements about Moses, the Torah states that he was “a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were undimmed and his strength unabated” (Deuteronomy 34:8). I used to think that these were merely two sequential phrases, until I realized that the first was the explanation for the second. Why was Moses’s strength unabated? Because his eyes were undimmed, because he never lost the ideals of his youth. Though he sometimes lost faith in himself and his ability to lead, he never lost faith in the cause: in God, service, freedom, the right, the good and the holy. His words at the end of his life were as impassioned as they had been at the beginning.

That is Moses, the man who refused to “go gently into that dark night,” the eternal symbol of how a human being, without ever ceasing to be human, can become a giant of the moral life. That is the greatness and the humility of aspiring to be “a servant of God.”

 

Can One Be a Shomer Torah u’Mitzvos and Accept Bible Criticism?

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

Another voice has entered the online discussion about Bible Criticism and orthodox Judaism. Professor Jacob L. Wright is an orthodox Jew who has studied, taught, and written extensively on Bible Criticism.

He made waves Pesach time when he published a provocative article on the Huffington Post where he talked about “The Myth of Moses.” In his article he explained that his view of the Bible is that it is a composite work with each layer added for a specific reason. In the Moses story, there was a need to justify the existence of an Egyptian prince named Moses who saved the Israelites and establish him as a bona fide Israelite. So the Bible tells the story of a boy who was cast off by his mother into the Nile. This story has very obscure references as the names of the major players in the story are not mentioned. Later, the story was viewed as salacious so new details were added as a prologue to the story.

If it weren’t the Bible and I weren’t orthodox, this would be a great theory to explain anomalies in the text. But it is the Bible and I am orthodox so it hardly sits well with me when the Bible is explained away as myth.

Professor Wright was interview by Professor Alan Brill on his Kavvanah website. The interview is worth your time and consideration if you don’t mind reading what is widely considered to be absolute kefira.

The first important thing in the interview is the introduction where Brill outlines the current status of Biblical Criticism. It’s required reading so I copy it in full here:

As background, the problems of the Bible go back to the tenth and eleventh century Islamic critiques of the Bible by Ibn Hazm and others. Second, modern figures such as Spinoza and Jean Astruc sought to understand the Bible as a human book using the same tools that we use to understand Greek and Roman books. And in the 19th century, Wellhausen popularized a theory that the Pentateuch had four authors. But the important part of his theory was that the ritual and priestly material was a priestly Pharisaic digression from the original pure faith of the prophets necessitating Christianity for a restoration. Hence, Solomon Schechter called it higher anti-Semitism, David Zvi Hoffman showed that Leviticus is not in contradiction to the rest of the story, Kaufman showed that the prophets assumed the priestly material, and Cassuto showed based on Sumerian and Akkadian sources that the divisions fail.

Well, Wellhausen was writing a century ago, with the aforementioned defenses all formulated in a post WWI climate. For at least forty years the field was already given to authors such as Gunkel who assumes the Bible is legend, the way Gilgamesh is legend. And Martin Noth who assumed most of the narrative was formulated originally as oral traditions- read here. Questions of redaction were not tied to Wellhausen, or even literary documents, but to oral traditions.

What do historians currently think about the context of the Bible? They assume that it was written between 720 BCE and 587 BCE, between the destruction of the Northern Kingdom and the destruction of Jerusalem, with some editing until the end of Ezra’s life circa 440 BCE. (Minimalists make it more recent and Evangelicals defend the chronological dates.) They work from parallels to Assyrian texts, the nature of script, linguistics, and reconstructed context of author. Little of this has anything to do with literary doublets. If you want to reject historical criticism, then start learning ancient linguistics and texts contemporary to the Bible. No harmonization of passages changes this dating nor does anything from Cassutto or Hoffman affect it. (However, Prof. Josh Berman is seeking to shift the discussion from Assyrians to the Hittites in 1300 BCE, an effort that may be accepted by the Orthodox but does not promise to have much of an impact on the experts. But it is better than refuting Kugel, who is not a historian of ancient Israel or source critic so the critique does not help.)

This past May there was a major conference at Hebrew University on“Convergence and Divergence in Pentateuchal Theory;” if you are interested in these topics, then that was the place to be. The conference opened up with a clear statement that there are three approaches: a Documentary approach (not based on Wellhausen but on Noth and others) where there are separate documents; a Supplementary approach,where a single document get more and more complex; and a Fragmentary approach, where we cannot separate out authors or layers anymore.

What’s Your Sin? Removing the Number One Stumbling Block in Your Life

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

With the High Holidays rapidly approaching, we begin to take stock of our lives. Here are five fundamental and common sins. Which one is your biggest stumbling block?

Wronging others. We may have wronged others emotionally or financially. We frequently excuse our behavior by saying, “I didn’t intend any harm. I was just…” But good intentions do not whitewash sinful acts.

Ask yourself, “Is there anyone I offended or whose feelings I have hurt? Have I caused someone distress? Have I made fun of someone (even good-naturedly)? Do I owe anyone money? Have I reneged on an agreement? Have I enriched myself at the expense of others?”

You may think, “I’ll straighten it out later. I’ll make good in the end.” But repentance is only possible while you are in this world. Nobody knows which day will be their last. Once a person’s body shuts down, so do the gates of repentance. Whatever you can correct, do so while you still can.

Action steps: Can you recall any time you hurt someone, perhaps a friend, neighbor, family member, fellow congregant or business associate? Even if you think you have both moved on since then, you still need to make amends and/or apologize.

Hating your fellow Jew. Perhaps you do not hate anybody, but how about intensely dislike? Are there people you cannot be with and feel distaste just looking at them?

We do not have to go out of our way to spend time with people we do not like; often, it is good to limit contact with those who push our buttons. But we are forbidden to harbor personal animosity toward our fellow Jew, as the Torah cautions us (Leviticus 19:17), “Do not hate your brother in your heart…”

Some people just rub us the wrong way. When we look at them, we think about their real or imagined faults. Instead, remind yourself that you do not know everything about them and judge them favorably. In addition, think about their good points. Everyone has good qualities and has done good deeds. Search for and admire the good in others.

Action steps: Make a list of those you dislike. Write down their admirable qualities and the good they have done. Next time you see them, bring to mind what you wrote and try to give them a genuine smile and greeting.

Being callous. Sometimes, our issue is not that we have wronged others, or that we hate them, it is that we ignore them. Often, we are so focused on our own lives that we do not pay enough attention to others. We may ignore the difficulties they have, perhaps in finding a job or a spouse, coping with illness or paying bills. Although we cannot help everyone, we still have to do whatever we can. Pirkei Avot reminds us, “It is not your responsibility to complete the work, yet you are not free to withdraw from it (2:21).”

When we hear about a difficulty or tragedy, often our reaction is, “What a pity. Thank God I’m not affected.” And we go on with business as usual. But we are affected: Our brothers and sisters are struggling. We have to ask ourselves, “How can I help? What can I do?” If you cannot provide physical, financial or emotional assistance, do not minimize the importance of including them in your prayers.

Action steps: Devote a portion of your time and resources to helping others. At least each week, preferably daily, do an act of kindness. When you meet someone, show an interest in that individual and see if you can be of assistance.

Neglecting our relationship with God. Sometimes, people get so busy with daily life they forget about their Creator. God created us to have a relationship with Him. Each day we do not develop this relationship is a day lost forever.

Action steps: Every day, connect with God by: Praying to Him, performing a mitzvah mindfully, sensing His presence, thanking Him for one of His blessings and thinking about how He guides every aspect of your life for your highest good.

An essential part of having a relationship with God is not disrespecting Him. For example, we must ensure that we do not talk during davening or leave the synagogue while the haftarah is being read.

Exacting Vengeance on the Gentiles?

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

Once again we are treated to the sight of very religious looking Jews acting like a street gang. A statue of a cross with a figure of Jesus on it was defaced by a group of Breslover Chasidim in Uman. The cross was recently erected opposite the grave of the founder of this Chasidus, Rav Nachman of Breslov – located in the Ukrainian city of Uman. From JTA:

“To exact vengeance on the gentiles,” reads the message, which was scrawled across the torso of a figure of Jesus. A further inscription on Jesus’ leg reads, “Stop desecrating the name of God.”

This kind of thing would not surprise me if it were being done by extremists from a community that embraces an isolationist lifestyle. But although they are hardcore Chasidim who dress and look much the same as Satmar Chasidim – Breslovers do a lot of outreach. I would expect them to know how to behave in a more civilized manner. They must have had a socialization process that taught them that or they could not do outreach. And yet here they have acted in a completely uncivilized way.

So it comes as a bit of a surprise that a Christian symbol near their venerated Rebbe’s grave site was desecrated with graffiti. I guess their socialization process goes just so far. A statue of Jesus so close to their Rebbe’s grave site was too much to handle.

I don’t know why the Ukrainian Government chose that site for its statue. I don’t think it was a wise decision. But at the same time, I don’t think it was necessarily meant to ‘stick it’ to the Breslovers either. It was probably just not a well thought out plan.

I can understand why these Chasidim felt outrage. They consider the Breslover Rebbe’s gravesite to be so holy that make annual pilgrimages to it. Tens of thousands of Jews (mostly Breslover Chasidim) from all over the world visit it during Rosh Hashanah – one of the holiest times of the year. It is almost as though they were making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem’s Holy Temple. Seeing the sight of Jesus on a cross must have made them feel like they were seeing Avodah Zara in the Beis HaMikdash.

The outrage is understandable. But their expression of it is inexcusable. It is the kind of behavior that can bring tragedy upon the Jewish people. Uman is not Jerusalem. R. Nachman’s gravesite is not the Beis HaMikdash. The citizens of Uman are their hosts. Breslovers are guests. And the guests have just defaced the image of the god their hosts worship.

The more responsible Breslover leadership has apologized. Sort of. From JTA:

“We respect other religions, and don’t wish to damage symbols of other religions. But, unfortunately, not all of our coreligionists understand this. They could break or destroy the cross. That would lead to a genuine war between hasidim and Christians. We cannot allow that, so we request that the cross be moved to a different location,” said Shimon Busquila, a representative of the Rabbi Nachman International Fund…

It may have been a legitimate request. But it was made too late. If made at all it should have been made politely before the statue was vandalized. Nonetheless the deputy mayor of Uman agreed with it.

On the other hand the citizens of Uman were so outraged by the vandalism – that they will have no part of moving the statue. They promised retaliation against Rav Nachman’s grave if it is moved. I can’t say that I blame them.

I think the point to be made here is contained in the response made by Shimon Busquila: ‘…not all of our coreligionists understand this’.

That is exactly the problem. Why don’t they understand this? It is not enough for a leader to simply say that some of their co-religionists do not understand the consequences of being uncivilized – thereby damaging the property of their hosts.  Especially their religious symbols. No matter how upsetting it is to them.

The Chasidim who did this are taught to hate non Jewish religious symbols much more than they are taught to behave in civilized ways when encountering them. So when they get upset at the sight of one of those hated symbols, they react in ways that bring ill repute upon – and ill will against – our people. They do so without thinking or perhaps even caring about the consequences.

Temptations, Tests, and the Search for Spiritual Courage

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

I was recently walking down the street when I smelled one of the most amazing unkosher cuisines I could ever remember smelling. As I stared at my food enemy, I had a thought which I imagine most religious Jews have at one point or another. I wondered: Was God testing me with this great smell? Was this amazing scent a way to bring my downfall?

Pondering this trivial “test” led to a greater philosophical and theological question: What is the religious nature of temptations and tests?

The Torah says, “Remember the entire path along which the Lord your God led you these forty years in the desert, He sent hardships to test you.” (Deut. 8:2). We read that G-d has Bnei Yisrael wander in the desert for 40 years as a test.

What is this about? To place a nation (man, woman, and child) through such transient and confused misery for decades as a test? I also often wonder if the Jewish people are being tested today, with our own state in Israel and unprecedented wealth and influence in the US. What will we do with the great blessings we’ve been granted? What does this idea mean that G-d tests us as individuals and as a nation?

It must be more than schar v’onesh (that God is merely keeping our score card) or that G-d is merely flexing power in the world.

I also can’t relate to the cynical answer found in the book of Job, where God tests Job because of a disagreement with Satan. My belief in a benevolent and personal G-d precludes the possibility of random tests.

Still within distance of smelling my temptation of the day, I began to ponder answers:

For years, the most compelling answer to me has been that it is through the struggle of these challenges that we truly grow. These temptations are ways of teaching people about G-d and the incredible human capacity for compassion and spiritual depth. The Ramban argues that this was exactly the purpose of the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac) for Avraham.

Alternatively, perhaps there is a utilitarian approach that more people can learn from a test than the one having to undergo the discomfort of the test. The Rambam and Radak argue that the purpose of the test at the Akeidah was not for Avraham to learn but for the future adherents of the Abrahamic faith to learn. This sets a gold standard for others to try to follow.

Rav Kook goes even further, arguing that Avraham was being tested in order to “prove” to the pagan religions that monotheism can match the religious passion of pagan worship through the act of inward sacrifice, without the need for savage and barbaric sacrifices. One is being tested in order to teach others through its example.

Another utilitarian approach is that tests can provide opportunities for others to do mitzvot to help when we are struggling. It is for the moral good of the community at large.

These explanations may be true and all of them are worth thinking about but Rav Tzadok teaches that just as a person needs to believe in G-d so too one needs to believe in oneself. These days many of us (including myself) are struggling less with why we are tested by G-d and more with how we can overcome our obstacles and challenges to live a happier, more meaningful, more successful life. Do we believe in our own capacity to overcome in the face of adversity?

One tool that we can all consider experimenting with: The Gemara says that the Torah is the seasoning for the yetzer hara (personal evil inclination). The Maggid of Mezritch offers a beautiful interpretation that since the yetzer hara is the main dish and the Torah is the seasoning, we must serve God with the full ecstasy of the yetzer hara. The purpose is not to destroy or subdue the yetzer hara but rather to spice it up – to access its energy and channel it towards good.

This is to say that when we experience struggle we should use that temptation and channel that new energy towards good rather than attempt to dismiss or remove the temptation. This is why the Midrash explains that without the yetzer hara there would be no business or procreation. In a complex way, we need our desire for self-advancement to further societal goals.

Religious Right and ACLU Protest Judge’s No Messiah Ruling

Monday, August 19th, 2013

It began when Jaleesa, 22, took the father of her baby, Jawaan P. McCullough, 40, to family court in Tennessee, to establish paternity and to set child support. Oh, and the baby’s name was Messiah, according to the LA Times.

In court it was revealed that the father had wanted to name the baby Jawaan P. McCullough Jr., but he no longer objected to calling the boy Messiah Deshawn. But the judge decided to change the baby’s name anyway.

“It is not in this child’s best interest to keep the first name ‘Messiah,’” Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew wrote in her decision. “‘Messiah’ means Savior, Deliverer, the One who will restore God’s Kingdom. ‘Messiah’ is a title that is held by only Jesus Christ.”

An entire Jewish family of Iraqi extract named Mashiach would argue differently, but you don’t get many Iraqi Jews in Tennessee. But even without that Iraqi-Jewish input, “Messiah” is an increasingly popular American baby name, according to the LA Times, as are the names Lord and King.

The name would impose an “undue burden on him that as a human being he cannot fulfill,” the judge wrote, although she really didn’t know just how spiritually gifted the baby Messiah was.

She also noted that in Cocke County, Tenn., where the new Messia resides, there is a “large Christian population” as evidenced by its “many churches of the Christian faith.”

“Therefore,” the judge concluded, “it is highly likely that he will offend many Cocke County citizens by calling himself ‘Messiah.’”

Maybe, maybe not – there’s a slew of Jesus’s out there and no one seems to mind, and then, come to think of it, using that same logic, the name David should also irk some people. So the ACLU of Tennessee got on the case, and, surprisingly, received many calls of support from the religious right, which typically threatens to blow up their offices over abortion cases.

“I got the classic call the other day,” Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, told the LA Times. “They said, ‘I really don’t like the ACLU, but I support what you are saying and doing about the baby Messiah.”

UC Davis constitutional law professor Carlton F.W. Larson said the judge’s “entire line of reasoning totally violates basic freedom of religious purposes. This kid can’t be a Messiah because the Messiah is Jesus Christ? Judges don’t get to make pronouncements on the bench about who is the Messiah and who is not.”

The ACLU’s Weinberg agreed: “The judge is crossing the line by interfering in a very private decision and is imposing her own religious faith on this family. The courtroom is not a place for promoting personal religious beliefs, and that’s exactly what the judge did when she changed the baby Messiah’s name to Martin.”

On the other hand, if a certain Miriam from Nazareth had gone ahead and changed her own child’s name to Martin, we’d all be spared a lot of embarrassment…

St. Peter and the Reform Movement

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

The three articles we ran at the end of last week regarding the notion that the Reform movement now ordains “rabbis” who are not Jewish resulted in a huge explosion of responses, and that’s always a good thing, even if in the process yours truly came across as a big meanie, a racist, an extremist, a divider, a hater, and someone who contradicts the very spirit of the month of Elul.

There is a midrash (homily) about Shimon Kefa, who was none other than Peter the Rock, the first Christian pope. Jewish sources have been doing battle over the veracity of this story since at least the time of Rashi and the Machzor Vitri (earliest cited Jewish prayer book), in the 11th and 12th centuries. There are at least four versions of the same midrash, which vary on specifics, but relate essentially the same story:

The Christians were persecuting Jews and encouraging Jews to join their fold, which they did in droves. The sages were distraught about this, until one of them, a sage by the name of Shimon Kefa (rock in Aramaic) volunteered to go as a Trojan horse into the Christians’ camp and change Christianity forever so it would not look Jewish.

He received the sages’ blessings and went to carry out his mission. In a major Christian enclave, he told the gathered that he is the messenger of Jesus. To prove this, he performed some of the miracles Jesus was famous for: healed a leper and resurrected a dead person. When they were convinced he was truly a messenger of their departed master, he started instructing them—and here each version differs on what he told them to do, except that they all emphasize not attacking Jews any more.

Other than persuading the Christians to leave the Jews alone, in several versions Shimon Kefa—Peter—tells them to move the day of rest to Sunday, to eat all the animals and all the blood they wish, and not to circumcise their sons. And so, in short order, the gap between Christianity and Judaism became so wide, no one in his right mind would suggest they’re the same religion.

What was is it about Christianity that so disturbed the sages? After all, Christians to this day embrace many of the Torah commandments and rely on Biblical verses for practically everything they do and say. Why couldn’t the sages say, well, it’s true that Christianity is not exactly Orthodox Judaism (a 19th century term which I doubt they were familiar with), but at least it keeps them away from paganism.

Because it doesn’t. By placing man at the center of the story, even when it is a god who becomes man through congress with a mortal woman, Christianity is paganism 2.0, promoting the same self-centered ideas but using Biblical verses in the process.

I’m well aware of the scant few sources in the Talmud which defend Christianity as an essentially monotheistic religion which employs pagan concepts. I’m not a scholar and this is not a scholarly article, so I’ll cut to the chase: according to Jewish law, a Jew is not allowed inside a Christian church where Christian icons and symbols are on display (but we are permitted to enter a mosque and even pray—Jewish prayers—there).

Our modern poskim, most notably Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, have already prohibited Religious Jews to set foot in a Reform temple. Rabbi Feinstein rules that Conservative and Reform temples are the same as places of idol worship with respect to both of the following rabbinical notions (source: Institute for Dayanim):

1. Since praying together with a Conservative or Reform congregation is forbidden, the need to avoid the appearance of worshipping in a prohibited manner is applicable to these temples.

2. Similarly, the prohibition on being in the vicinity of a place designated for people with heretical beliefs applies equally to idol worshippers and to Jews who do not accept the fundamentals of Orthodox Judaism. (Orthodox Judaism itself has a broad spectrum of beliefs. For a working definition of Orthodox Judaism we can use the thirteen fundamentals of the Rambam [Maimonides]. All streams of Orthodoxy accept the thirteen fundamentals of Judaism of the Rambam as correct. Anyone deviating from those principles is considered a kofer-heretic).

(There are some who make a distinction between the Conservative and the Reform, in that while the Reform completely removed themselves from rabbinical halacha, the Conservative still consider halacha as their legally binding law, they just interpret it differently. Not my place to decide that one.)

Before we continue, I want you to understand that these supposedly harsh and firm demands, as presented by Maimonides, are broad enough to include a huge variety of Jewish congregations, all the way from ultra-Haredim in the neighborhood of Geula in Jerusalem, to the most left-wing shuls in hip America. They all manage to find themselves inside this tent, and quite comfortably and happily at that (OK, some not as happily as others, can’t win everything).

There is only one fundamental, unwavering rule at the core of all these varied congregations: we all connect to God through the commandments, and we all do this in line with rabbinical interpretation.

This is the core difference between the monotheistic and the pagan: in our tradition, we do the will of God, in theirs, it’s the god who does their will.

Their god provides the beauty of a great singer, the loving kindness of a great teacher, the spiritual wonder of the seeker, the helping hand to the needy, the diversity of all of mankind, the generosity of the human spirit – there are so many incredible things their god does for them. It’s truly lovely, and as a recent comment suggested on one of our articles: “Yori Yanover, listen to the singing one more time. Only THIS time, listen with your 2,000 year old ‘wandering Jew’ neshamah, and NOT with your intellect.”

And that is the essence of paganism. A Jewish relationship with God is anchored in a covenant, a legal document the essence of which we recite twice a day, every day, in the Sh’ma. We accept the yoke of mitzvot and in return we have a relationship with God, we get to be alive and to have national and personal continuity.

It’s wonderful when this relationship results in a lot of beauty and personal satisfaction – why the heck not. But it is there also when He in His wisdom kills us en masse, kills our babies, ravages our fields, inflicts cancer and boils on us – we still hold on to the covenant, and we work hard to love Him, especially when He in His wisdom makes it so difficult.

We don’t do this out of an emotional or spiritual yearning – those are wonderful aspects of our faith, but not the essence of our religion. We do this out of a commitment to the mitzvot as a clear expression of the Will of God. we don’t need to imagine what would God want of us – He came down on Mount Sinai and told us specifically, and empowered our sages to teach us the meaning of His words.

And so, we insist that Jews be made aware that only our places of prayer and study are sanctioned by our Jewish tradition, and that non-Orthodox places are not – despite all the sometimes incredible beauty emanating from them.

An ugly etrog is still an etrog, but a beautiful lemon is never an etrog.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/st-peter-and-the-reform-movement/2013/08/18/

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