Truths You Can Use

Truths You Can Use

The Real Lesson of July 4th

interdependence

Independence is an American virtue. This country was built up by pioneers who left their familiar ways behind. They sought a new life free of the old dependencies. How do all the famous Western films end? With John Wayne riding off, alone, into the sunset.

Yet, independence is only half the story. Interdependence–shared sacrifice and responsibility–made America possible. George Washington would not have crossed the Delaware without his troops. The civil rights movement would not have succeeded if it were only about African Americans.

A saying printed on our currency captures this more complex truth: E Pluribus Unum, “Out of the many, one.” We are unique individuals who, together, form a stronger union.

The Smartest Man in the World Believed in Interdependence

When we acknowledge our interdependence, we recognize the influence others have on us. Albert Einstein captured this truth when he observed “A hundred times a day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of others, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have been received and am receiving.”

To picture this truth, imagine turning on a water faucet. It seems simple, but to get that glass of water, we waterdepend on plumbers, chemists, engineers, upon the manufacturers of pipes and spigots, and also on the people who build the reservoirs, water meters and generators.

One of the great achievements of the environmental movement is that it has helped make us more aware of the ethical and global implication of the work that goes into producing the food we eat, the coffee we drink and clothes we buy. We depend on others, and with that dependence comes a sense of responsibility.

As Einstein put it, “I must expert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have been received and am receiving.” Interdependence is built into creation, and recognizing it is critical to our survival.

Interdependence is Rooted in the Bible’s Creation Story

The Bible conveys this truth in the story of Adam and Eve. We have to be attuned to the original Hebrew to see it. When Adam awakens from his sleep and meets Eve he says, “This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh: She shall be called woman: isha for she was taken from man ish.” (Genesis 2:23)

This is the first time the Hebrew words ish and isha are used. Before this verse, we had only heard the words Adam and Eve. Even though we use them as proper names in English, Adam and Eve are not personal names in Hebrew. They are the equivalent of John and Jane Doe.

“I” Cannot Exist Without “You”

The words ish and isha are more specific and meaningful. They connote a human with personality, character and depth. They cannot be used until the world has more than one person.

The Bible conveys this in a very subtle way. Adam calls himself ish only after he calls Eve isha. He has to pronounce Eve’s proper name before he can say his own. Ish cannot exist with isha. We cannot exist without one another. Or, as Martin Buber put it, we have to say “Thou” before we can say “I.”

In Judaism, there is no such thing as the totally independent, unattached individual. We are born into, and we gain our character and sense of self from the people and community to which we attach our lives.

On this July 4th, let us celebrate this interdependence.

To get free weekly spiritual inspiration from Rabbi Moffic, click here. 

Are You Two-Faced?

are you two-faced

The Hebrew languages contains an array of hidden meanings and insights. Rabbi Daniel Lappin probed many of these in his book Hidden Treasure.

One of the most intriguing is the word for face, panim. It is in the plural form. The “im” ending in Hebrew is the equivalent of adding an “s” in English. Yet face is not a plural word. It is singular. We only have one face.

Or Do We? 

Perhaps the Hebrew pluralized form conveys something about human nature. Perhaps we can understand “face” as more than a physical attribute. It is our way of experiencing of the world.

We can both love and hate. We give and take. We smile and we frown. To be “two-faced”–or three-faced or four-faced–is not to be duplicitous. It is to be human. 

How God Made All of Us Two-Faced

A stunning exploration of this idea is found in the work of the most important Orthodox Jewish thinker of the twentieth century, Joseph Soloveitchik. Soloveitchik pointed out that the Bible contains two accounts of the creation of human beings.

In the first telling we read “God said, ‘Let us make man in our image and likeness. Let him dominate the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock animals, and all the earth, and every wild animal that walks the earth.’” (1:26)

This story highlights our dominance and majesty. We resemble God, and we dominate the natural world.

In Genesis chapter two, however, we read, “God formed man out of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils a breath of life. Man became a living creature… God took man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to till and to tend it.”  (2:7,15)

Here we find no reference to having been created in the image of God. We are not given dominion over the earth. Our primary task is “to till and tend it.”

Two Sides of One Truth

On the literal level, each of these cannot be true. On a spiritual and psychological level, however, they can be.

Each of us has a strong creative side, and a contemplative sacred side. Part of us wants  bigger, faster, stronger. The other part wants gentler, slower, more relaxing.

Part of us prepares endlessly for the future. The other savors the moment. Part of us wants control. The other part wants to be held in the hands of God. 

Soloveitchik’s insight is that the two creation stories in Genesis reflect two aspects of the same person. What seems like the creation of two separate being is really a story about the complexities of us all.

Our greatest challenge is to bring them into balance. Only then we can find harmony and happiness.

To get free weekly spiritual inspiration from Rabbi Moffic, click here. 

What Christians Should Know About the Jewish Background of Jesus

Friends, Following up on the popularity of this piece on how five rabbis understand Jesus, I’m including a snippet from a recent lecture I gave on the Jewish background of Jesus. The full lecture will soon be available on my website. I’d love to hear your thoughts, and let me know if I should add anything!

jews and jesus


 

5 Rabbis Explain Jesus

rabbi jesus

 

For every complex question, as H.L. Mencken once put, there is usually an answer that is “clear, simple and wrong.”

His observation rings true when it comes to a question I get at least once a week. What do Jews believe about Jesus?Jews as a group rarely agree on matters of Jewish belief. How could we agree on the essence of another?

Yet, we ignore the question at our own peril.

Learning About Jesus Means Learning About Judaism

What lies behind it is a yearning for a deeper faith and understanding between Christians and Jews. For Christians a better understanding of Judaism leads to a better understanding of Jesus. For Jews it leads to a deeper appreciation of the world’s largest faith.

While scholars and historians can give us a critical and detailed picture of the first-century Jewish life in which Jesus lived and taught, rabbis can give us a better picture of his spirituality. What made his message resonate for Jews of the time and ultimately lead to the birth of a new religion?

Fortunately, over the last 100 years many rabbis have explored this issue, and the number of relevant books keeps growing. Here are five intriguing points of view:

1. A Jewish National Hero: Orthodox Rabbi Shmuley Boteach emphasizes Jesus’ self-understanding and significance as a political leader of first-century Jews. As he writes, “The more we peel away the surface, the more we see the truth: Jesus, I will continue to show, was a great political leader who fought for the liberation of his people.”

“In this sense, he saw himself in the guise of Moses and David, both of whom, while supremely concerned with the spiritual welfare of the people, were first and last concerned with the political freedom of the Jewish nation.” In other words, for Jews of the time, Jesus’ was a political hero and not a spiritual one.

2. The Penultimate Messiah: Rabbi Byron Sherwin places Jesus in the theological category of a precursor to the ultimate messiah. He serves a similar role as John the Baptist does for Christianity.

As Professor Shaul Magid puts it, “Yitz Greenberg and Byron Sherwin base their writings on Jesus on a more nuanced view of ‘the messiah’ in Judaism that distinguishes between a penultimate and ultimate messianic figure, each serving a crucial role in the messianic process.”

In other words, Jesus emerged out the yearning of first-century Jews for a national and spiritual savior, and his spiritual significance will be fulfilled in the future messianic period.

For Christians this event will be the second coming. For Jews it will be the “first coming,” which had been foreshadowed by Jesus. (This terminology of “first coming” is my language, and is not used by Greenberg or Sherwin. For the sake of brevity, I am summarizing their arguments and leaving out significance nuance that would be appropriate in a scholarly forum. See Zev Garber, ed., The Jewish Jesus: Revelation, Reflection, Reclamation, 2011)

3. A Righteous Leader: Rabbis Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Daniel Matt place Jesus in the category of a Jewish Tzadik. A Tzadik is a person of unusual righteousness who serves as a bridge between his community and God. He is meant to exemplify Jewish virtue. He is “Torah incarnate,” but not God incarnate.

For Schachter-Shalomi and Matt, Jesus represented a more mystical pious Jewish outlook, in opposition to the legal doctrine and focus of the Pharisees. Jesus served the same function for first-century Judean Jews as the Hasidic movement would serve for eighteenth-century European Jews.

4. A Rabbi: The great nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American Rabbi Emil Hirsch wrote and spoke frequently about Jesus. He saw him as a champion of faith in human progress and a teacher of the Old Testament.

As Hirsch proclaimed from the pulpit, “He was of us; he is of us. We quote the rabbis of the Talmud; shall we then, not also quote the rabbi of Bethlehem? Shall not he in whom there burned, if it burned in any one, the spirit and the light of Judaism, be reclaimed by the synagogue?”

Hirsch’s point of view has been echoed in several contemporary books with the phrase “Rabbi Jesus” in their title.

5. An Ethical Exemplar: Emil Hirsch’s brother-in-law Kaufmann Kohler was also a prominent rabbi and scholar. He was president of the seminary for Reform Rabbis for 25 years.He wrote frequently about Jesus, and while he was critical of Jesus’ seeming dismissal of the law of the Old Testament, he highlighted his social message.

For Kohler, Jesus was a “helper of the poor” and a “sympathizing friend of the fallen.” He said Jesus learned these values at the synagogue and brought them to the forefront of first-century Jewish life.

As we can see, the Jewish understanding of Jesus is diverse. I have no doubt we will continue to uncover and learn more in the years ahead.

Rabbi Moffic’s newest book is Wisdom for People of All Faiths

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