Friday, February 1, 2013

Christian Jewish Spiritual Connections and Barriers

Photo by Doug Sewell


I was inspired and spiritually nourished this weekend at an Anabaptist conference/retreat. This is not a sentiment I would have dreamed, just a few ago, that I would ever write. In this post I reflect on the possibility of deep Christian-Jewish spiritual connection and conversation, my experience at the conference and how this relates to my own traditions particularly in the reading this week which includes the Ten Commandments. One obvious question relates to Christians beliefs about God and Jesus. I deliberately start with other matters, before addressing this.

The non-negotiable worth of every human being
At the conference the Multi-Faith panel was asked a question about condoning sin.  Dave Andrews, a Christian Panelist, told a story about traveling to Cambodia and seeing sex tourists there for the purpose of exploiting young local girls and his anger about this. He felt like taking an AK47 and shooting them all. When he arrived back in Australia a woman asked him to counsel her husband who was one of these sex tourists. For Dave this was a terrible predicament, how could he empathize with someone toward whom he felt disgust and outrage. Yet as a Christian he felt he must be there for this man. After much prayer and internal struggle to be true to the teachings of his faith and the example of Jesus he was able to care about him and hear his story. In the end this man who seemed repulsive told Dave his own story about how he was abused as a child, hates himself for what he was doing in Cambodia and was very eager for therapy to help him stop, which he went on to pursue.

This story has many levels and it is beyond the scope of this “blog post” to explore the terrible problem of sexual abuse itself and the proper responses to it. I was simply moved by Dave’s living out his Christian faith in his compassion for a person he found it very hard to look at, never mind love.

The idea of the worth of every person is not unique to one faith.  if I were faced with a dilemma with a bad person, my response to it would not be thinking about tax collectors and lepers; I think I would  instead draw on Beruria’s principle that “it is written may sins be destroyed [i]- rather than the sinner[ii]”. The context of Beruria’s statement was a problem with a group of thugs in her neighborhood which caused her husband, Rabbi Meir, a great deal of trouble. Rabbi Meir prayed that they should die. His wife Beruria persuaded him to differentiate between sins and sinners and pray for the elimination of the former. Her husband did pray for them, and they repented.

In our reading this week there is  further inspiration to be drawn from the order of the Ten Commandments which is seen as significant. Five commandments were on each of the two tablets, this means that number 1, “I am Y-K-V-K[iii] your God…” appears next to commandment #6, thou shalt not murder, because these two commandments are linked, to suggest that “spilling blood” is an offense against God himself just as smashing the statutes of a king or destroying his coins might be[iv]. This can be seen in the language of the Torah “One who spills blood…because in the image of God, He made man[v]”. Applied more broadly it is about the intrinsic non-negotiable value of every human being. Dave’s showing love to this man resonated for me because it echoed compassionate teachings in my own tradition but I was also moved by the power of his own beliefs and stories playing out in his heroic struggle.  

A Farbrengen with Christians
After the formal session I sat down at an outdoor table next to Dave Andrews. He is a man with a medium length white beard and very long hair, big glasses and a giant spirit. Slowly, we were joined by one man, then another, and another; eventually first one woman then a second also joined our previously all-male circle. The dynamic was similar to when an elder Chasid would sit down with a few others to tell stories and reflect, they would attract younger Chasidim around them to drink in the words and the spirit. There was usually some vodka on the table, which would be sipped with the word “Lchaim” to life and good wishes. This kind of gathering is what Chasidim call a Farbrengen. The difference was that this time the elder Chasid was not Jewish -  he described himself as a follower of Jesus.

Do Not “Murder”, killing on the other hand…
Dave wanted to know what the biggest dividing element between us was. It was a stream of consciousness kind of discussion rather than a formal debate or lecture. I reflected that the insistence on non-violence was a sticking point for me. The sixth commandment is often translated as “thou shalt not kill”. Yet the Hebrew words לֹא תִּרְצָח lo tirtzaḥ, are more accurately translated as thou shalt not murder.  In my tradition, despite the great value place on peace, violence is  sometimes justified in the pursuit of justice and its defense. While I appreciate the radical transformational potential of an insistence of the sacredness and dignity of all people, I struggle with the idea that the allied soldiers who defeated Hitler could be seen as sinful. It also condemns Israelis regardless of how they might fight, even in situations where they are found to be acting absolutely in self-defense.  Dave was particularly surprised by my answer. Was it not the idea of a man being God that would be the biggest problem?

Polytheism and the Jesus of Jarrod
Christian beliefs about the divinity of Jesus are a barrier for me. The idea of God incarnated as a human being does not sit well with my idea of what God is and I do not agree with it. Yet it is a known difference and one that for me is not a very important issue.

There is a Jewish authority that ruled that Christianity is not considered idol worship for a non-Jew because it recognises God. There are various teaching in Judaism that explore divine expression that go beyond the formula of the one invisible, indescribable, omnipresent, omnipotent creator God. We have Kabalistic teachings about divine expressions in human-like emotions such as  kindness or (the drive to) victory.  We are taught that the Shechinah spoke through the throat of Moses[vi]. The Soul that God blew into Adam is believed to be a part of God himself[vii]. For me the nature of God is mysterious. When I approach God in prayer, I am talking to the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” as they understood Him, but I am also talking to the God of my Fathers[viii]”), which to me includes God as understood by my German-culture-loving great grandfather Dr. Armin, my Slovak-shopkeeper-great- great grandfather Aaron, my Torah- focused-scholar grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Yehuda, my devout American mother and my  father ; all these differ. Mostly I try to pray according to “the mind of the young child[ix]”, suspending all speculation. 

My greater problem with idol worship is when it leads us away from God and his demands of us, quite the opposite of what I witnessed at the conference. I see in people like Dave and my friend Jarrod McKenna a different Jesus, a Rebbe-like figure who calls them to compassion and struggle.

The second commandment states: There should not be for you, other gods[x]...” In Hebrew the words Lo Yi-hih-yeh, that mean there should not be, is a singular form, yet the instruction is about many Gods so it should really say Lo Yi-Hih-Yu, (plural). This suggests that Idol worship draws the worshipper in, even if at first the intention was to have one idol, in the end s/he will worship many[xi]. This reminds me of the comment by a psychiatrist, obviously not very impressed with self-help books, that you will never find just one self-help book on someone’s shelf, there will always be many, presumably because they all hold out the false promise of some great relief to life’s challenges but in the end don’t satisfy the reader who goes on to seek a fix elsewhere. I am sure this is not the case for all readers of these books, but I think there is a common thread about seeking escape from the anxiety caused by uncertainty in something concrete that we can hold or read and feel like we have something to hold on to. Similarly, idol worship is worst when it leads us away from the challenge to which God calls us.

Supersession vs Neighbourliness and Collegiality
I asked participants at the conference whether they believed that Judaism had been superseded by Christianity, in the way that a 386 computer is essentially obsolete because we now have faster, better machines. There was some thoughtful discussion about this. I think the key was that they were most interested in the teachings of Jesus as one prophetic teacher and inspiring figure alongside Moses or others rather than the founder of a new religion or brand to compete with “Brand Judaism”. While we are all interested in truth, the focus is more on how we live truthfully than how to assert truth claims over other claims. Quite different to the sorting approach of sifting through falsehood to find the Truth that is reflected in our Torah reading where we read about Jethro exploring all known forms of worship known in his time to reject them all and convert to Judaism[xii]. More like an argument between fellow Chasidim about whose Rebbe is the true Messiah and which teachings are most worth following. Whatever the case might be about supersessionism elsewhere, on Sunday I felt completely at home, accepted as a fellow seeker of God’s way to peace and neighbourliness. Lchaim, to life.


[i] Psalm 104:35
[ii] Beruria was one of the great wise woman of Jewish tradition, she was the wife of Rabbi Meir, Talmud: Tractate Berachot, 10a
[iii] Because of the holiness of this name, the letter Hay, is pronounced as “K”. It is written properly in a Torah scroll or Chumash
[iv] Mechilta, cited in Torah Shlaima p.100
[v] Genesis 9:6
[vi] Tikunei Zohar 38
[vii] Tanya 1
[viii] The Amida prayer, blessing 1
[ix] Derech Mitzvosecha Mitzvat Tefilah
[x] Exodus 20:3
[xi] Ohr Hachayim
[xii] Mechilta

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