from "Halacha is Not Enough"
at the Lev Echad blog.
I have a deep appreciation for the Jewish teachings and often find more wisdom and inspiration in them than in the standard Christian commentaries. I also sometimes find remarkable parallels between the wisdom of the Jewish sages and the teachings of Jesus. Consider this:
Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you - be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.Jesus was teaching toward the end of the Second Temple Era, within mere decades of the Temple's destruction and the mass exile of the Jewish people from what was then Roman Judea. It's not surprising that he should teach on the very topic that we see in Bava Metzia 30b. And when Jesus was supposedly "making all foods clean" (Mark 7:1-13), he was actually teaching again on the tyranny of the "letter of the law". He was teaching how we must live out the morality that the Torah represents, rather than blindly serving words and letters on paper.
“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone. -Luke 11:39-42
The writer of the blog I quoted above cites a modern example of this:
I know a man who helped bring a secular Jewish woman back to the faith. When they bumped into each other some time later, she told him that she was no longer ritually observant. Surprised, he asked her what had happened. She explained that shortly after becoming Orthodox, she was attending synagogue on Shabbat with her young child, who happens to be mentally handicapped. After the services were over, she walked outside with her son in her arms. A rabbi who passed by told her that there was no eruv in the neighborhood and that she could not lift her child. She was deeply offended by his lack of sensitivity. Was the rabbi halachically right in his observation? Yes. But was he morally right in his conduct? Absolutely not.This "letter of the law" without a lived moral expression may be what Peter was trying to say here:
Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? -Acts 15:10
Christianity often has the opposite problem in that the church tends to enjoy a "freedom from the law" by allowing a rather liberal interpretation of the Bible and holding to very few (if any) behavioral standards of morality or ethics. Being "covered by the blood of Jesus" tends to be an excuse for Christians to sin now and repent later. Of course, that's not what Paul taught:
The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? -Romans 5:20-6:2You'd think that Christianity would know better (and a lot of churches do) than to play fast and loose with grace. It seems though, that you can find two different kinds of churches out there (besides the occasional ones that are fairly well balanced): the "loose grace" churches and those that have their own version of a strict "halacha". Churches such as the Westboro Baptist Church go about displaying their bizarre and extreme "standards" that have no association whatsoever with morality and Godliness, but there are congregations not registering quite as high on the radar, yet still holding an unhealthy amount of control over their parishioners and insisting on a strict "halacha" of their own.
There was a man in his 60s in the class I just finished teaching who was raised a Catholic. He had always been taught that God was a harsh and strict taskmaster who punished every little infraction or sin. He left the Catholic church decades ago and refused to have anything to do with religion. His wife coaxed him into attending some of my classes and just last week, he said he appreciated what I taught (not that I'm such a great teacher) because I showed him a God who truly cares for people and who wants the best for us; a God who is like a just but patient father (Numbers 14:18, Psalm 86:15, Psalm 103:8) and who is compassionate to His children.
The Christian church in all its expressions is sometimes full of inconsistencies. Judaism in all of its expressions is sometimes full of inconsistencies. That's because human beings in all our expressions, varieties, and incarnations are inconsistent. God is not inconsistent.
Yet the Word of God and the will of God is filtered through human interpretations and human frailty. The Rabbi who said that the mother couldn't carry her handicapped child on Shabbat because "there was no eruv in the neighborhood" wasn't being evil and in fact, he believed he was saying the right thing. According to halacha, he was, but according to the moral will of God, he was absolutely wrong.
Who is God? What does He want? The answer seems like it should be simple. It seems like all the answers should be in the Bible. I wish it was that simple, but if it was, we wouldn't struggle all our lives to try to find the answers to all of our questions. Yet, in some sense, the core of who and what God is and what He wants out of us is staring right at us:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.Asher, who wrote the Lev Echad blog article I've been referencing, ends his blog post with a quote from the book This is My God (First Edition, 1959) and it seems appropriate that I should do the same:
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. -Micah 6:8
"The sensible thing is to use hard thinking to find the right way to live and then to live that way, whether many other people do or few do. If a Jew concludes to enter upon his heritage and make it part of his life, he does an obviously reasonable thing. The chances are that–at least today–he will seem a mighty freakish non-conformist in some neighborhoods; but that is changing too, and anyway, what does it matter? What matters is living with dignity, with decency, and without fear, in the way that best honors one's intelligence and one's birth."Update: I just finished reading Kenneth Seeskin's Maimonides: A Guide for Today's Perplexed and the following quote from his book seems to dovetail nicely into today's topic:
On the surface, a person obsessed with ritual may seem to take a demanding approach to religion; but ritual, too, can be a shortcut, a mechanical way of courting favor with God. For some people, it is easier to participate in highly regimented activities than to engage in reflection and study, easier to cook milk and meat in separate pots than to consider alternative accounts of creation. If a person lacks the aptitude for philosophy, Maimonides sees nothing wrong in obeying the commandments and living a traditional Jewish life; the problem arises when we look on such a person as an ideal, suggesting that nothing further needs to be attempted.
The road is long and often, we travel in the dark.