Saturday, May 31, 2008

Mike: Reply to Rami's 5/29 Post

The Tenth Commandment's focus on thoughts or feelings (and how could we actually distinquish sharply between the two in this matter)poses a significant challenge. As you note, how can one control one's thoughts?

Perhaps "control" is not the best term. Try substituting "discipline." Is it possible to discipline one's thoughts or feelings? Perhaps. Many of the classical spiritual disciplines are designed to reshape habits of the heart and mind, so that we might more nearly focus on God, the good or what have you. This being so, I wonder if the Tenth Commandment might intentionally break new ground, serving almost as a teaser, saying in effect: "Oh, we're far from done just yet. By the time you get to me, you're just getting started."

Both my children are bright. The tend to catch on to new things quickly. Still, when they were very young and I attempted to teach them how to relate well to others, I stressed actions. "Don't bite, hit, steal"--avoiding hurtful actions was the name of the game. As they grew, though, I shifted ground a bit. We could talk about the reasons behind our actions, why we do what we do. Guess what. Most of the time, we wound up talking about thoughts and feelings.

Of course, it's incredibly hard to discipline oneself. In fact, even the best among us falls far short of perfection. To quote Paul loosely, "We do not know sin until we hear 'you shall not covet.'"

To covet reduces us to a statement: "I want what he/she has, I must have it, I can not be happy without it." When we see this in another, or read it in cold print, we may be able to discern its essential silliness. It's another matter when we are the one consumed by the desire.

You're right, Rami. There is more to discuss. After all, Jesus talked a good deal about thoughts and feelings. Many Christians understand the Christian life primarily in terms of coming to grips with the inner self, so that both our actions and our interior life play out in the sight and under the grace of God. With reference to human society, the Tenth Commandment draws attention to a key contributing factor to human misery. All that--and we've not yet begun to discuss how to try to practice observing the commandment!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Rami's Reply to Mike's May 28 Post

I am always fascinated to learn about your own spiritual and mystical experiences. While we must be careful not to turn these private moments with God into grist for the daytime television mill, I think people benefit from hearing about such things. It helps them recognize similar moments in their own lives. Anyone, as you said, on to Commandment Ten.

The Tenth Commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his ass, nor anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:14), is different from all the rest.

In commandments One through Nine it is behavior that is prohibited; in this final commandment it is thoughts that are outlawed. How do you prohibit thoughts? There is lots we can say about this, but I don’t want to overwhelm you or our readers, so let me offer just one comment now, and others as our conversation on the Tenth Commandment unfolds.

Let me start with one of the most innovative commentators on this commandment, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, a leading Spanish Jewish scholar (1093-1167). I am paraphrasing, but here is his three–part understanding of how the Tenth Commandment works:

First, recognize that the Torah is talking about your neighbors, people with whom you share a common socio–economic status. You and your neighbor probably desire similar things, and if your neighbor has something you both desire, but that you do not as yet possess, it is both normal and natural for you to covet it. Yet the Torah prohibits this. Since the Torah would not focus on something as natural “keeping up with the Goldbergs,” something else must be at issue here.

Second, Ibn Ezra said, imagine you are not talking about your neighbor but about the king (Ibn Ezra wrote in the time of the Spanish Crown). The king owns things way beyond your wildest dreams, but because the king is so far above your “pay grade” you don’t really covet what he possesses. You might covet your neighbor’s ass, but owning the king’s herds never crosses your mind.

Third, he said, now remember that you and your neighbor are the Image and Likeness of God, and being the Image and Likeness of God is greater than being king! So if you would not covet what is the king’s, all the more you would not covet what is your neighbor’s if you really believed your neighbor to be the Image and Likeness of God. But you do covet that which belongs to your neighbor! That can only mean that either you have forgotten that your neighbor is the Image and Likeness or God, or you deny that your neighbor is the Image and Likeness of God. In either case coveting what belongs to your neighbor is a symptom of a sin, and not the sin itself; the sin is that by denying the Image and Likeness you are denying God as well!

Following the logic of Ibn Ezra we now see that the Final Commandment is the mirror image of the First. By coveting what belongs to your neighbor you deny the reality of God. By denying the reality of God you deny the First Commandment: I am YHVH your God.

The “cure” for covetousness is not to reign in your desires, but to regain your faith in the existence of God and humanity as the Image and Likeness of God.

I love the reasoning here. Another fine example of Yiddishe Kup, the Jewish mind at work.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Mike: Reply to Rami's 5/27 Post

I rather like Brother Lawrence's little book, which recounts a conversation with him. His secret lay in his ability to focus on one thing: being open to the experience of God's presence, even as he went about the simple tasks of his typical day, such as washing pots and pans.

That's the ticket, isn't it? Whether making use of spiritual practices, such as the ones you note, or going about our daily chores, the trick is to learn to see the divine in the mundane. For me it now comes most often as the result of a mental discipline, but it began long before I read or heard of spiritual exercises.

Actually, I don't think I started the matter. It came to me, mostly through books. Three examples must suffice. As a small boy, I remember reading the Norse story of the death of the gods. The battle itself did not intrigue me, but the resolve of the gods to fight though they knew they must die did. In fact, the story took me out of myself for a few moments, and I knew I stood in the presence of One greater than myself.

Another breakthrough came when I read The Lord of the Rings, while in the eighth grade. Gandalf's self-sacrifice on the bridge, when he fell into darkness along with his foe, the Balrog, broke through my deeply engrained reserve. For a few moments, I lay open, and One greater than myself touched my deepest heart.

In my freshman year of college, while sitting in a physics class and listening to a lecture, a sudden vision of the universe's integration struck me. I doubt the experience lasted more than three or four seconds, but for that instant I "saw" the big picture.

These, of course, are only examples gleaned from a larger group of experiences in my formative years. Later, I began to discipline myself to look at people, history, story, physics, the cosmos and the like with eyes wide open. Sometimes I experience something similar to what you describe, not often, but sometimes. I find the occasional experiences sufficient to sustain hope.

If you open the coffee house, perhaps you'll need a quiet (though scarcely silent) partner!

On to the Tenth Commandment!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Rami's Reply to Mike's May 26 Post

Your comments on the attempt to integrate the powerless into the community as equals highlights one of the reasons the Bible continues to have compelling relevance for me. I am not interested in salvation, and have no concern regarding the World to Come, but when I silence the Voice of Fear that so often drowns out the Voice of Love that is the heart of all authentic revelation regardless of the tradition through which it comes, I hear the still small voice of compassion that even my ego cannot erase.

Your comments on this world and the after–life were marvelous; I had no idea you were a Buddhist! Samsara, this world, is Nirvana, the world to come, if we are simply aware of it. We are always in the presence of God, or the Shekhinah as the rabbis called Her, but we are rarely aware of the fact. This is where spiritual practice comes in. I especially love Practicing the Presence of God by the 17th Century Carmelite monk, Brother Lawrence, and would like to hear your thoughts on the book. In fact I am curious as to how you practice the Presence in general.

Without going into great detail, I have stripped my own practice down to sitting in silence, and walking and chanting God’s Names. I chant the Thirteen Attributes of God found in Exodus 34:6–7, and several Names of the Presence Herself: Imma/Mother, Chochma/Wisdom, Sophia/Wisdom, Shekhinah/Divine Presence. These last names reflect the Jewish sense that God, while beyond any notion of gender, is often experienced in this world as Mother, or the Divine Feminine.

There is melody for these chants and I sing them as I walk through town and into the woods along the Greenway each morning. I find that the chanting of Names (these and others; the Catholic Hail Mary and the Moslem Ninety-Nine Names of God work for me, as do several Hindu and Buddhist mantra as well) is a simple and profound way of opening my eyes, ears, heart, and mind to the Presence of God in, with, and as all reality. In those rare moments when the “I” that chants realizes the “Thou” to Whom it sings, and both awake to the singular I Am that is all that is, there is a palpable a sense of love, wonder, joy, grace, peace, and compassion that lasts…well in my case for about three seconds. Still, it is a powerful three seconds.

You mentioned the Emerging or Emergent Church, and I am a fan of this effort, as well as the quest for the historical Jesus. I am drawn to Rabbi Jesus, my first century cousin who, continuing and deepening the work of his teacher Hillel, recast Judaism in the image of compassion, but I wonder if in addition to recognizing how each era fashions an image of Jesus that mirrors its own hopes, needs, and prejudices, we also need to continually reclaim the Cosmic Christ, the Christ beyond Christianity and theology; the Son who, like His older Sister Chochma in the eighth chapter of Proverbs, calls us to the love–feast of God free from institutions, clergy, and the struggles for power and ideological purity that these always carry with them.

If I were to get back into the religious community business I would open a coffee house rather than a synagogue. Our worship wouldbe modeled on the Hasidic farbregen, a of blend singing, dancing, silence, sipping coffee or tea (the Hasidim drank vodka), and sinking our teeth not only into cakes and cookies, but more importantly into the Wisdom that comes to us through all the great literatures of humankind.

I’m not sure there is more to say about this commandment. Indeed we may have left it behind a while ago. So, add what you will, and then let’s move on to number ten.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 5/26 Post

I ought to know better than to tangle that kind of bait in front of a world religions scholar! Borrowing forms, stories, language and the like, of course, is not in dispute. That happens. My point was that it would have a been a shame had they simply imitated (done nothing more, or become like) their own oppressors.

They, as you demonstrate, did not do so. Instead, the Hebrews did something creative with it. From my perspective, the Ninth Commandment is an example of that creativity: it provided protection for the accused, said protection including the weight of divine sanction. Viewed in this fashion, the Ninth Commandment becomes a piece of a larger way of life in which slaves, the poor, and the powerless potentially enjoy the same legal status and protections as the powerful. From there, it's not too far a conceptual leap to begin to say that God takes the part of the underdogs of society (again, some of the prophets come to mind). That was a revolutionary idea (and still is, more often than we care to admit).

I'm intrigued by your brief discussion of "this world" versus "after-life" centeredness. Christianity is not monolithic, never has been to be truthful. In any given era, large numbers of Christians function out of a concern for the after-life. Even in those cases, though, one finds a considerable emphasis on spiritual growth. When we unpack the written documents, we often find that "spiritual growth" implies learning to live in the present moment as if already in the presence of God (the classic definition of Heaven). Good works, prayer, embracing joy, putting work and play and family into proper relationship, and a host of "worldly matters" assume great importance. One does not so much die and hope to go to Heaven as one learns to follow the way of Christ and thus enter into "eternal life" in the present life.

That being said, Christianity often veers in the direction you indicated. A number of casuative factors come into play. A few examples include sermons consistently focused on the potential terrors of the afterlife, human despair in the face of war and plague and the like, and the effects of mass-conversions oriented revivalism. Sooner or later, though, the system somehow self-corrects. In the past half century or so, for example, an increased appreciation of the Hebrew prophets coupled with a renewed sense of the "this world_emphasis" of Jesus has helped. The "emerging church" movement, in some measure, represents a recovery of this aspect of Jesus' intentions. You'll find the same kind of thing happening in many mainline denominations.

Personally, I find both emphases helpful. My strongest inclination is to deal with this life, to affirm it as a gift from God, and to seek to use it well (in accordance with the way of God). I also draw a kind of strength from the hope of a life beyond this life (from my perspective, resurrection and a new creation). It's not so much a hope for continued existence as it is a hope that evil shall not have the final word, whether with regard to the individual or the creation itself. To put it another way, I see my redemption and any redemptive act I may do as a minor foreshadow of a greater, conclusive redemption wrought by God.

That's probably more response than anyone needs or wants. I'll be interested in your comments, and I'll also look forward to seeing what else you pull from the Ninth Commandment.

Rami's Reply to Mike's May 25 Post

While I appreciate the exercise of taking the Torah at face value, your suggestion that it would be “ironic and sad beyond words” if the Hebrews imitated the laws of their oppressors is itself ironic, for that may well be exactly what they did.

The Ten Commandments seem to borrow heavily from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Papyrus of Ani (written around 1800 BCE), which, in Chapter 125, offers a list of things a person must swear he or she did not do in order to enter the afterlife. The list includes “I did not engage in illicit sex, I did not murder, I did not rob, I did not lie, I did not curse God, I did not bear false witness, and I did not abandon my parents.” Given the centrality of the Book of the Dead in Egyptian culture, and the fact that the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt for centuries, it is only natural that they would borrow from the Egyptians. The same thing happened with African slaves and Christianity in this country.

Borrowing from the dominant culture isn’t a problem for me, and I can, to stick with your suggestion that we imagine the story as the Torah tells it, imagine God deliberately using the language, concepts, and forms familiar to the Hebrews when giving them the Ten Commandments. Indeed this might be hinted at in the opening word of the Decalogue, Anokhi (I) which is not Hebrew at all, but Egyptian.

The more interesting question for me is this: Even with the borrowing, how do the Ten Commandments distinguish themselves from the Papyrus Ani? Two things come to mind immediately. First the Ten Commandments are said to come from God whereas the Papyrus Ani makes them a human confession before God. Second, the Ten Commandments contain no reference to an afterlife, whereas the Egyptian Book of the Dead is all about the afterlife and Chapter 125 is about how to gain entrance to it.

Despite (or maybe because of) living in a society obsessed with death and the afterlife, the Hebrews create a totally this–worldly religion, offering their Ten Commandments not as a means of gaining entry into heaven, but as a means of creating a just and compassionate society on earth. Compare the private death and secret burial of Moses (Deuteronomy 4:6) with the embalming and entombment of the Pharaohs in the pyramids. This break with the dominant culture of death and afterlife is far more impressive to me than the natural borrowing from the Book of the Dead.

In fact, the more I think about this, the more impressive and important it seems to be. How did these people break free from the Egyptian culture of death? How did it not infect them? How is it that they didn’t introduce a serious afterlife scenario into Judaism until the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE? If we want to point to something of the God who says, “Choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19) in the Torah and in Judaism, the this-worldly focus of the ancient Hebrews and their Jewish descendents may well be it.

I say this with some hesitation, however, because I find so much of Christianity diverging from Judaism and embracing the Egyptian obsession with death and the afterlife. This, to me is the real irony and the real sadness.

My reading of Jesus is so life affirming and this–worldly: the Kingdom of God is within you [or among you] (Luke 17:20-21), and yet my experience of so many forms of Christianity is all about getting out of this world in into the next. I hope I am missing something here, and would love to get your insight into this.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 5/23 Post

I grant you the Ninth Commandment clearly applies to the court room setting. The examples you cite once again underscore the rabbis' concern for the protection of the accused, as well as their determination to safeguard justice. Insofar as I can tell, a number of the "minor prophets" shared these concerns.

The commandment, though, predates both the rabbis and the prophets. The biblical text sets the giving of the commandments, including the Ninth Commandment, in the Exodus journey. Regardless of what one may believe about historical accuracy, we are free to try to imagine how the commandment might have been heard in such a setting.

Perhaps, for example, it was heard in contrast to Egyptian practice of the period. Frankly, I don't know if we know a great deal about ancient Egyptian law and justice. On the other hand, we may reasonably assume that slaves were often subject to injustice. I rather doubt the Egyptian overlords of the Hebrews needed more than one witness to pass judgment on a Israelite (take, for example, the story of Joseph's imprionsment).

Imagine the Hebrews wandering through the wilderness. For the first time in generations, they must try to fashion a society, and the model most near to hand is that of Egypt. Would it not be ironic and sad beyond words if the liberated ones wound up imitating their oppressors? So...perhaps the ninth commandment might be heard to say: "You shall not mimic the Egyptians and their brand of justice but shall instead adhere to a higher standard."

On a different note, I'm struck by an implication of the commandment: truth is required, if justice is to be done. Frankly, our modern civil and criminal justice system often seems more concerned with achieving convictions, acquitals, or deals than with arriving at the truth of a matter. The justice system, it seems, is in danger of being taken over by the business model and its bottom line mentality.

Finally, the commandment also carries personal implications. Again, try to imagine former slaves attempting to build a society. Questions of a justice system aside, bearing false witness against another would soon have led to quarreling and even blood feuds, tearing apart the group in short order. It's hard to bind yourself to your neighbor when your neighbor is libeling you!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Rami: First Thoughts on the Ninth Commandment

The simple meaning of the Ninth Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:13) deals with swearing falsely in a courtroom. While it has other implications as well, let me start with this.

I mentioned earlier that the Ten Commandments don’t cover all contingencies, only those that undermine the very existence of society. This is clear with the Ninth Commandment. We learn in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 56a) about the Seven Laws of Noah that God imposes on all humankind. The seventh of these Seven requires the establishment of just courts. A legal system that is fair and honest is essential to a just society. So the rabbis spend a lot of time expounding the courtroom aspect of this Commandment. Here are two examples:

First, even if you are convinced that a crime did take place, but did not witness it yourself, you are prohibited from testifying that it did in fact happen. This is true even if you were told something is true by an unimpeachable source, but did not witness the matter for yourself, you are still prohibited from testifying that it did in fact happen.

The rabbis even prohibit what is a staple of TV crime drama: bluffing. Let’s say there is only one eye witness to a crime, but you accompany the eye witness to court giving the impression that there are two such witnesses. Seeing the two witnesses and fearing conviction, the accused suddenly confesses to the crime and begs for leniency. While this may work on “Law & Order,” it is not allowed under Jewish law (Shavuot 31a).

In the Mechilta, an ancient rabbinic commentary on the Book of Exodus, the rabbis link the Ninth Commandment with the Fourth Commandment dealing with Shabbat. Since keeping the Sabbath witnesses to the truth of God as Creator (in the Exodus version of the Commandments) and Liberator (in the Deuteronomy version), one who lies in court may come to deny the existence of God and stop keeping the Sabbath, and in this way bear false witness regarding God.

I like this idea. To quote Mahatma Gandhi, “My life is my message.” How you live attests to what you believe. This has always struck me as the best way to proselytize.

I attended a seminar once on how Christians can best proselytize Jews. We were taught to listen for openings in conversations. For example, if the Jewish person says, “Sometimes I feel so lost,” we are to counter with, “Christ came specifically for the lost sheep of Israel. Let me tell you about Him.” I never found this very compelling, and I said so during the seminar.

The teacher asked, “Well, then, what would move you to consider Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” I said, “If I saw someone living a truly Christian life, a life devoted to loving God and loving one’s neighbor without pride or prejudice, then I would be impressed. If I saw someone actually caring for the “least of these” as Jesus put it (Matthew 25:40), I would be drawn to ask this person his secret, and then he could tell me about Jesus. Nothing else would work for me.”

Of course I neglected to say that I know many wise and compassionate Christians who do live as Jesus intended, and still I am not compelled to convert, but I didn’t want to be a total thorn the presenter’s side.

I suspect that the vast majority of people who call themselves religious are living lives that say something else; they are bearing false witness to the True God, or bearing true witness to a false god. So this commandment has resonance far beyond the obvious.

Rami: Last Thoughts on the Eighth Commandment

Yes, we are both people of faith, meaning that we each have faith that we are right and the other is wrong, and lack incontrovertible proof to secure our argument. That’s what makes this so much fun.

I don’t think either one of us, however, is really uncomfortable with competing faith claims. In fact, knowing you as I do, it is our differences that make our conversations so enjoyable. I would also say that you are humble enough and brave enough to recognize that not knowing is the key to faith. At least speaking for myself, I revel in the philosophical freefall of not knowing. And I think you do as well. Violence is never an issue for people who love to dialogue. We don’t need to convince one another of who is “really” right and who is “really” wrong (although we both know that I am really right, but, hey, I want to be humble, too). I find little value in talking to someone who believes exactly as I do, or who parrots back to me what I am saying. I learn from you because you differ from me.

Case in point, I know next to nothing about Tolkien, and was very interested in what you had to say about him. I would only add that when it comes to story the commandment should read, “You shall not plagiarize.”

I’m only half joking.

Paraphrasing the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, “There is enough room in this world for everyone. The reason we feel so crowded is that we are trying to stand in someone else’s place.” Each of us has our own story, but somehow we come to believe that our story isn’t as good as some other story, so we abandon our story for that other one. But the fit is awkward at best, and in so doing we are stealing from God’s infinite diversity. As Eli Weisel once said, “God made humanity because God loves stories.”

To bring this back to the Eighth Commandment, when we live someone else’s story we rob the world of our own. This was brought home to me ten or fifteen years ago. I was attending a Jewish educators’ conference, and a middle-aged woman approached me for advice. She told me that she was the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, and that her parents lost all of their family in the Nazi slaughter. When she was born her father was convinced she was the reincarnation of his sister. The woman was named after her deceased aunt, and forced to live her aunt’s story as best her father could remember it.

As you can imagine, she was miserable. She wanted to discover who she was, but didn’t want to dishonor her parents and violate the Fifth Commandment.

I asked her how old she was, and she told me she was almost 49. “This is wonderful,” I said, “you’re entering your personal Jubilee Year, from 49 to 50. Torah says that all debts are forgiven during the Jubilee Year, so for 49 years you honored your parents and your father’s memory of his sister, but now that debt to the past is forgiven. Use the next year and to begin to discover your true self, and continue that process for the next 49 years.” She was genuinely relived, though what she actually did, I don’t know.

The 17th century Hasidic rabbi, Susya of Hanipol said, “When I die and stand before the Heavenly Judge I will not be asked why I was not like Abraham or Moses? To such a question, I could provide a very convincing answer. No, when I die I will be asked only one question, the answer to which will determine whether or not I take my place in the World to Come, ‘Why was I not Susya?’ And to this I will have nothing to say at all.”
We should each live in a way that allows to die knowing we lived true to our authentic story.

I get the sense we have done enough damage to the Eighth Commandment, so let me end this post here, and follow it with my initial thoughts on the Ninth Commandment, You shall not bear false witness.

Mike: Response to Rami's 5/23 Post

We differ, as we know well by now, over the ultimate source of the commandments. I do not believe we placed the words of the commandments in the mouth of God but, instead, that God inspired the words. Insofar as I can discern, both of our positions on the matter are beyond conventional proof. In fact, both assumptions might be labeled faith statements.

All faith statements, including yours I think, place us in the often uncomfortable position of dealing with competing faith claims. I see no way to eliminate the situation. What we do with it is another matter. We need not resort to violence, either to persuade others to accept our particular claims or to prevent others from embracing positions other than our own. Our personal and collective egos find this hard, but enough historical examples exist to prove it possible.

With reference to "responsiblity," I believe myself responsible to the One in Whom the commandments find their origins, to the One behind them, so to speak. In effect, the commandments are not only good for forming us into persons who worship God and build healthy community. A lifetime of putting them into practice may so condition us that we catch at least a glimpse of the living God and experience what life is like in God's presence. Even if such a thing does not occur, though, observing the commandments remains good for us and all those whom our conduct may affect.

As for "story," Tolkien's concept of sub-creator suffices. The Creator God spins the primary story, but as one created in the image of God I may take the stuff of God's story and fashion my own. I cannot create the basic stuff of life, let alone life itself, but I can arrange and rearrange the ingredients. Indeed, I am responsible for doing so. By grace, God takes my efforts and weaves them into the greater story he is writing.

All of which, believe it or not, brings me back to "You shall not steal" and the previous postings. Given my perspective, it would be stealing to pretend I create anything per se. Everything is a gift from God. I may, though, become better skilled as a sub-creator, and humble enough to take joy in the role.

Rami's Reply to Mike 5/23

This was very interesting, Mike, especially your idea of responsibility. I suspect many if not most of our readers will read your comments and think in terms of our responsibility toward the commandments: to keep or not to keep, that is the question. But I would like to suggest a deeper and more horrible responsibility: not responsibility to the commandments but responsibility for the commandments.

If, as I maintain, the Bible is a human document, then it is we humans who invented the Ten Commandments. It is we who said there is one God whose essence is found in the liberation of slaves. It is we who said that this God cannot be imaged, even as we imagined it so! It is we who said don’t murder, lie, steal, etc. But on what basis did we say these things? Were they just good ideas? And who is to define “good” for us?

So we placed these ideas in the mouth of God. Doing so was the ancient equivalent to Papal Infallibility. But if you aren’t Catholic, Papal Infallibility is meaningless. Similarly, if you believe that God gave the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, then the ten commandments God gave are inviolable. But if you don’t believe that they are not really commands at all. It all depends on the story in which the commands are embedded, and the willingness of people to believe the story. It is the story, and not the commands themselves, that has the power. But only if we choose to give it power.

Even if we claim that God gave the Ten Commandments, our claim is rooted solely in our faith in the story that says so, which is little more than an assertion of one idea in the face of alternatives. A Jew might assert that God wrote the Hebrew Bible but not the New Testament. A Christian might assert that God inspired both, but not the Qur’an. A Moslem might assert God dictated the Qur’an but not the Vedas of the Hindus—and none of us have any proof of our assertions whatsoever. We simply assert, and sometimes insist, and, when we can get away with it, kill those who resist our assertions. But the simple, awesome, and horrible truth is that we invented all of it! We just cannot stand this idea, so we run from it and do our best to close our ears to anyone who tries to tell us differently.

This, of course, leads to the comment about story posted by Aaron. I love the idea of "owning your story." The elements of the story are givens, but how you arrange them and the meanings you derive from them is yours. Since you own your story, you can change it. I would argue that is what psychotherapy is all about. We can't change the elements of the story, but we can change the story we create from them and the meanings we derive from the story. The task of the therapist is to help you reinvent your story.

My question is this: Can we drop the story altogether? I think that there are moments when the story drops away and we are radically, awesomely, fearsomely, free. My own experience is that that this freedom is spontaneous and temporary; an act of fierce grace from outside my egoic mind.

I would suggest that if therapy is about learning how to create more healthy, fearless, loving stories; spirituality is about how to live, if only for a moment, without story altogether. I have had glimpses of this story–free liberation, and, while I believe it leaves on naturally just, kind, and humble, it doesn't allow for the creation of an ethical system. And since I cannot maintain that story–free life, I do seek out ethical systems and the stories that sustain them.

I, too, need to hang my ethics on Something greater, so, with equal lack of proof, I assert that there have been and continue to be spiritual geniuses among us who experience the absolute story–free nonduality of all life, and then translate that experience into a story that supports a personal and communal code of conduct designed to help us become more just, kind, and humble. The teachings of these rare geniuses are what Thomas Jefferson called the diamonds of wisdom buried in the dung of scriptural tribalism, xenophobia, misogyny, politics and power plays. Our job as clergy is to liberate the diamonds from the dung, and align our lives and the lives of our communities with their wisdom.

The first step toward doing so is to recognize our responsibility for wisdom. There is no escaping it: we are the creators of our own story and the ethics they compel.

Mike: Response to Rami's 5/20 Post

The story of the classroom podiums at Hebrew Union College is a classic. Certainly, humility requires us to acknowledge those (at least, all those we can identify)who have contributed to the development of our lives. We agree on this point.

I find Aaron's second contribution intriguing as well: that the story we shape and tell about our own lives belongs to us. While I had not thought about the matter in quite that way, I believe I agree.

All of which leads me to a term: "responsibility." All of the commandments assume and/or require acceptance of personal responsiblity. In this case, I am responsible for my behavior with regard to theft, including such positive actions as acknowledging sources and debts. I'm struck by the commandment's starkness, by it's "no excuses accepted" tone.

Taken seriously, the commandment pushes us to develop into a kind of person seldom encountered in "real life." Once again the matter of personal and community formation rears its head. The more I ponder the commandments, the more clearly I see that God envisions fashioning his people into a genuinely alternative community.

Other biblical stories, such as Jonah, stress the potentially redemptive role of such a community in the world at large. The new community does not exist solely for its own sake, but for the sake of the rest of the world.

Think, for example, of the potential impact of a community that consistently strives not to steal from others. Suppose the Christian community (to pick on my own tradition) simply refused to use more than its share of the world's energy, water, land, and food resources. We probably would throw the economy into a tailspin, at least for a time. More to the point, we might free up resources for the poor. In addition, I suspect we would be taken more seriously by the world at large, both as a threat to vested interests and as a kind of good news to the poor.

Of course, following such a path requires us to lay aside our "normal" tendency to defend and protect "our way of life." Such a way of life, though, increasingly threatens the life of the planet and human life. It is becoming the way of death. The ancient wisdom embodied in the commandment turns out to be the kind of wisdom we need now.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Rami's Reply to Mike 5/20

I agree we tend to complicate things needlessly. I also agree that the commandment against stealing can be applied to the other commandments as well. Indeed, if we are going to say that we shouldn’t take that which does not belong to us, we should also ask, “What does belong to us?”

The earth doesn’t belong to me, but I to the earth. My body doesn’t belong to me: indeed there may be no “me” separate from the body. Even my thoughts and feelings aren’t really mine either. Most of “my” thoughts and feelings arise seemingly of their own accord and I just notice them and then have to deal with them.

Along the same lines, everything I know I learned from someone else. I am obliged to say I have never had an original thought, though this fact does not preclude others—Isaiah, Buddha, St. Paul, and Einstein to name but four— from having them.

It is this aspect of “You shall not steal” that leads to the rabbinic mandate to honor your teachers by citing your sources. We see this all the time in the rabbinic literature where one rabbi speaks in the name of his teacher, often taking the older teaching in a new direction but never forgetting that his wisdom rests on that of his teachers.

This is the back story to Mark 7:28-29, “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” Jesus spoke without reference to his teachers, whereas the scribes and Pharisees would always speak in the name of their teachers or the older prophets.

This has always troubled me. I have been told that Jesus spoke this way because his teachings were new, but as a student of first century Judaism and having taught university courses in the historical Jesus, it is clear that while teachings about Jesus were new (though even here there seems to be parallels with if not borrowing from the religions of Greece and even Babylon), the teachings of Jesus were, by and large, not new. Jesus stood largely within Hillel’s liberal wing of Pharisaic Judaism.

I understand that the Gospel writers sought to separate Jesus from his rabbis and Judaism, and I have no problem believing that they simply left out Jesus’ references to his teachers in order to strengthen their argument that Jesus was something new. But in my own mind, I still imagine him building his teaching on the foundation of his rabbis and honoring them by name as he did so.

This tradition of honoring our teachers takes a delightful twist at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where the classroom podiums from which professors taught bore the names of those professors who taught there before them. The seminary was only a bit over one hundred years old, so there were not that many names, and one hundred years in a 4000 year–old tradition is nothing, but I found it moving nonetheless.

Decades later when I received the title “rebbe” from my Rebbe, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, he recited the names of his rabbinic lineage beginning with the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the founder of Hasidic Judaism. The recitation followed the metaphor of a chain with each name being a new link. Reb Zalman added his name to the chain and then, in a moment that reduced me to tears, added mine as well.

None of us lives or thinks in isolation. We are all part of a lineage rooted in God. To take anything without permission, to use anything without giving thanks, is to violate the deepest meaning of the Eighth Commandment. When we truly understand the meaning of “You shall not steal” we realize that all we have—indeed all we are— is a gift from God. Humility, it seems to me, is the gift this Commandment brings.

Mike: Response to Rami's 5/18 Post

Thanks for outlining some of the ways rabbis dealt with the commandment. Apparently, your ancestors share a trait with some of mine: looking for patterns where no pattern may exist. To be fair, this seems to be a human trait. We're pattern makers and seekers. It's a useful thing, most of the time. The flip side is that it may lead us to erect elaborate constructs where none is needed

"You shall not steal." The best place to start is to take the commandment at face value. Don't take something that belongs to someone else. This is the most intergenerational of commandments, the one most readily understood regardless of one's age.

It's concrete. Don't take Susie's blanket, Mom's wallet, chewing gum from a store shelf. You can see that which tempts you! Others can as well. In fact, all the senses may become involved: sight, taste, touch, smell, hearing. The prohibitions against idolatry, adultery, and even murder require, for most of us, a leap of imagination when first heard. "Don't steal," though can be brought to life with something as simple as a purloined comb.

Our comprehension of the commandmant's range of application ought to expand over time. Stealing another's time, work, rightful place in a relationship, resources or opportunities--the commandment grows as we grow. The commandment casts light on its fellow commandments. For example, idolatry might be considered a form of stealing from God. Murder is the ultimate act of theft against another human being, and so on.

Well...I'm writing on a public computer, and the line of would-be users is long! More later.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Rami On the Eighth Commandment

I love your rewriting of the Seventh Commandment. In fact, I would suggest that we end our discussion of the Ten Commandments with each of us offering our own rewrites. But we have a bit more to discuss before we get to that point. So on to the Eighth Commandment: “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:13).

This seems simple enough. Don’t steal. Got it. Now on to Number Nine. Unfortunately, when it comes to my rabbinic ancestors nothing is ever simple. Two things bothered my predecessors:

First, if the Eighth Commandment is just about stealing as ordinarily defined, why would God repeat Himself in Leviticus 19:11, “You shall not steal, you shall not deny falsely, and you shall not lie to one another”? Second, why list stealing in the same Ten Commandment verse as the prohibitions against murder and adultery? Murder and adultery are capital offenses carrying with them the death penalty. Stealing however is a much lower order of crime. And yet, there it is right alongside these two capital offences. This must mean something; if we could only uncover the inner logic of the verse....

Let’s look for the logic in Leviticus. The rabbis argued that linking stealing with denying falsely and lying makes perfect sense because people who steal will also deny that they did so, and then lie, even in court, in order to cover it up. So there is an intrinsic logic to God’s linking stealing, denying falsely, and lying in Leviticus. If there is logic in Leviticus there must be logic in Exodus, but what could it be? There can be only one answer: the Ten Commandments doesn’t mean “stealing” at all!

Since murder and adultery, the two crimes linked to stealing in Exodus 20:13, are capital offences, stealing, too, must be a capital offence. The only category of theft that carries the death penalty, however, is kidnapping. Hence, the Eighth Commandment should read, “You shall not kidnap” (Sanhedrin 86a). You can see how the Jewish mind, what we call Yiddishe kup (literally "Jewish head"), works: by taking matters literally we are forced to take them metaphorically. For us there is no distinction between the literal reading of the text and its metaphoric reading; the literal is the metaphoric. This allows us a lot of freedom in interpreting (or in many cases reinventing) it.

For the early rabbis kidnapping referred not to the crime of holding a person for ransom, though that was not unknown, but to the crime of stealing a person and forcing him or her into slavery. It is actually slavery that the Eighth Commandment opposes! Too bad this rabbinic insight never made it into the King James Bible; we might have avoided centuries of oppression and a bloody Civil War.

Ancient rabbinic exegesis aside, and in now way discounting the link between stealing and kidnapping, most rabbis hold to the simpler view that the Eighth Commandment deals with thefts of all kinds: both theft of property, and theft of one's good name, self-esteem, etc.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 5/16 Post

Before responding to your take on sexuality, I need to say a word about "Fall."

Christians typically think of the human condition as one of fallenness. We differ considerably over the degree of fallenness. The options range from "the image of God within us is marred" to the total depravity of humankind. Some Christians would agree with you that fallenness is psychological rather than ontological, though such distinctions get a bit fuzzy when dealing with something as complicated as a human being. Most, though, think fallenness is a real element of human life, both for individuals and for the human community. From this perspective, we do not so much imagine ourselves alienated from God as attempt to deal with the reality of alienation.

That being said, you and I agree about the necessity of "working with brokenness and the shadow-side of humanity and our institutions" being "vital to a truly redemptive, healing and transformative spirituality." So...on to sexuality!

While you recognize the universe as "God's body,"..."an extension of the Creator just as sunlight is an extension of the sun," I see the universe as God's creation. We've covered much of this ground in earlier posts, of course, so I'll not backtrack. For Christians such as myself, the universe in all its complexity, simplicity and discreet parts is sacred in that it is God's work. To put it another way, creation is sacramental--through it God may touch us and we may touch God. This includes other individuals, so that "every encounter," indeed, is sacred.

Our capacity to love each other, to break through to deep and genuine intimacy, to feel at one with another is a gift from God. Sexual love, like any sensual experience, may be a means to this end, and ideally it should always be so. When we experience "at oneness" with another, we may at least sense that love is the unifying power of all God's creation.

Westerners, I think, do not so much reject Hebraic sensuality and embrace Neo-Platonic asceticism, as fall for simple materialism, which ultimately leads us to treat both the universe at large and other persons in impersonal ways.

Taking a cue from you, I might recast the Seventh Commandment as follows: "You shall pursue the fullest possible union with your wife or husband, and through such union learn to enjoy union with God."

Friday, May 16, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike 5/16 Post

This was very interesting, Mike, and I learned a lot from it. I’m especially taken with your notion, which you have shared before, that “God works with such fragile and flawed vessels” as us humans and our institutions.

Mainstream Judaism never imagined a Fall (we speak of the Expulsion from Eden rather than the Fall), and for us the universe is, as Genesis says, tov, intrinsically holy and perfectible. Our experience of things, however, is broken. We imagine ourselves to be alien, sinful, cut off from God and creation. We then project this brokenness onto others and on to nature itself. While I think it is a psychological rather than ontological brokenness, working with brokenness and the shadow-side of humanity and our institutions (what Paul calls the Powers perhaps) is vital to a truly redemptive, healing, and transformative spirituality. And part of that healing involves a re-imagining of sexuality, so let’s move on to that.

My Rebbe, (spiritual teacher) Rabbi Zalman Shachter–Shalomi defines sacred sexuality as “recovering our authentic being, which knows bliss beyond mere pleasurable sensations. It is a special form of communication, even communion, that fills us with awe and stillness.”

The first step toward reclaiming this “awe and stillness” is to recognize the universe as God’s body. Creation is an extension of the Creator just as sunlight is an extension of the sun. Seeing the universe as God manifest in time and place, and discovering that our role in creation is to be that aspect of nature that knows life to be divine, is vital to sacred sexuality. Once this is understood, and so far it is only the mystic geniuses of our various religious traditions who seem to get this, every encounter is sacred. The touch, taste, sounds, etc. of lovers and life itself are all part of a sacred sexuality.

I’m not talking about genital sexuality exclusively. The genital reductionism that marks the pseudo–sexual revolution of secular society (say that five times fast) makes sacred sexuality impossible. I’m talking about a sexuality that Sigmund Freud called "polymorphously perverse" (Introductory Lectures 15.209), where your whole body and being is alive to the bliss of life. Again to quote Reb Zalman, “Love is so universal in the world that it even underlies the physical forces of nature. What is gravity but the loving force of attraction between two bodies in space? How marvelous, how basic love is in the universe!”

With the exception of Shir haShirim (Song of Songs), the Torah’s near obsession with sex has nothing to do with the sacred and everything to do with power: men owned and controlled women. But this is genital politics and not sacred sexuality where “sexual love can be a hidden window onto the spiritual reality. At the height of passion or in the fullness of love, we might suddenly feel transported to a different plane of existence where all of our sensations, experiences, and thoughts occur against the peaceful backdrop of an overriding sense of at-oneness.” (Reb Zalman)

When the world is seen as God’s Body the ecstatic glimpse into greater levels of reality is possible through all kinds of sensual encounters: smelling a rose, feeling the bark of a tree, petting a cat, listening to the ocean lap the shore, eating a peanut butter sandwich, etc.

How does this connect to the Bible? I suggest we look to Shir HaShirm, the Song of Songs.

When the rabbis sought to fix the biblical canon, among the books they intended to leave out was the Song of Songs. Rabbi Akiva, perhaps the greatest sage of his day, argued that if the Hebrew Bible is holy, the Song of Songs is the “holy of holies.” Indeed, he argued, the entire Way of God could be derived from the Song of Songs alone. Why? Because it is a celebration of love, sensuality, sexuality and union with God through love of another.

The lovers in the Song are poetic expressions of that level of divine intimacy through this–worldly meeting that Martin Buber called “I and Thou.” When someone is seen as Thou, he or she is seen as a manifestation of God. And the only way a person can see a Thou is if she looks through the eyes of an I, a Self¬–realized or God–realized human being. When I meets Thou, it is God meeting God.

Too often we Westerners, rejecting our Hebraic sensuality for Neo–Platonic asceticism, deny the most precious gift of God’s love: His Body as the world. It seems to me that Christianity, as the religion of Incarnation, could be (I would even say should be) the vehicle for bringing the gift of the ecstatic communion with God’s Body to humanity.

Christianity hasn’t done this because it insists that only Jesus is the Incarnated God, where I would say that Jesus is paradigmatic of one who realizes that the universe itself is God incarnate.

Anyway, I’m rambling. I only mean to use the negative “You shall not commit adultery” as a pointer to the positive, a true sexual revolution rooted in Shir haShirim and the communion of I and Thou as the key to living the Kingdom of God on, in, and through the Body of God, life herself.

Mike: Response to Rami's Two 5/15 Posts

If possible, I want to respond to your two posts via one entry. As I see it, you raise the following matters: the legal/political context of John 8:1-12, canonization, and celibacy.

(1) Christian scholars are familiar with the way the Roman government reserved capital punishment for itself. With reference to the story in John 8:1-12, this reinforces the strange nature of the entire event. It was "out of order" in almost every way possible. To my mind, this strengthens the case for the event being a planned political/religious test of Jesus, an attempt either to co-opt or discredit him.

(2) "Biblical inerrancy" is a relatively modern concept, a by-product of the Enlightenment rather than a historic Christian affirmation. Interestingly enough, it developed in roughly the same time period as the idea of papal infallibility. The ancient church, insofar as I can tell, took a different approach to the scriptures. For the sake of brevity, I'll illustrate the ancient approach by outlining the canonization process.

Most, perhaps all, of the writings that would become the New Testament were produced during the first century in the decades following the ministry of Jesus. None of these documents were regarded as scripture. Instead they, and other documents as well, were circulated among the churches. As the years passed, some documents came to be read over and over again, to be found to have lasting value so to speak. Various church leaders began to compose lists of the writings that were used by the vast majority of the churches.

Eventually, the church leadership gathered and debated which of the writings ought to be regarded by all the churches as scripture, that is as works useful and holy in the same sense as the Hebrew Bible. Three criteria applied. Is the work the product of an apostle or someone closely associated with an apostle? Has the church universal long found the work good for worship and instruction? Does the work in some sense contain the gospel? To put it another way, they sought some historical connection to Jesus, took the church's experience seriously, and asked one key theological question. At the end of the process, the gathered church made a decision to recognize what we know the New Testament as the "canon" of Christian scripture.

For the most part, Christians regard the process as closed. The New Testament, regardless of how various parts originated or found their way into the text, is the church's book--good enough for the purpose for which it was given, namely to instruct us for "salvation" and all that may entail.

The canonization process, in some ways, mirrors the human/divine nature of all of scripture. It certainly ought to remind us that the Bible is not God or a "fourth person in the Divine One." The Bible, instead, is a tool designed to do one thing well: draw us to God, draw us back when we wander, draw us to one another in community. Given this perspective, the legitimacy of any given text in the canon is not called into question by lower or higher "criticism."

(3) Celibacy is an apt topic within a wider discussion of sexuality. Very few Christians in any era have taken Matthew 19:12 literally. I certainly do not. At the same time, the words of Jesus forced the early church to break with normative Judaism and accept actual eunuchs, and others who were mutilated or injured or ill, as full-fledged members of the Christian family. As far as I can determine, such things did not exclude a person from membership or leadership in the ancient church. It's one of the few instances in which the ancient church ran ahead of its surrounding culture.

Protestants and the Orthodox tradition disagree with Roman Catholics over celibacy with regard to clergy. Yet all three traditions, I think, admit that celibacy may be a calling, a part of one's vocation. Celibacy has often been driven by a sort of dualism, but at its best it serves a better purpose: freeing one to devote one's energy solely to prayer, worship, study and ministry to others.

As for misogyny, it's certainly been part of the scene. All the other human sins we might name have been as well! And all such sins affect, distort and diminish the church. Yet...there's always a "yet"...I believe God works with such fragile and flawed vessels as individuals and groups and even institutions. For example, Kathleen Norris, without denying any of the negatives, has found that many monks believe and act as if women are "made in the image of God" and are good. History provides many stories of celibates who learned to practice hospitality, friendship, and self-sacrificial service. In short, from a Christian perspective, I do not think celibacy is to be sought, but God may offer the gift. In that case, it should be accepted, as we would (hopefully) accept any other gift offered by God.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Rami: On to Celibacy

As I mentioned earlier, our conversation about adultery has broadened into a more general discussion of sexuality, and I want to ask you about the concept of celibacy. Jesus says, "For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this let him receive it" (Matthew 19:12). I am one who cannot receive it.

A eunuch is a castrated male. The word comes from the Greek meaning “bedroom guards” so it is clear these men were castrated by the fathers or husbands of the women whose bedrooms they were guarding. Judaism, however, prohibits castration of both men and animals. Leviticus 21:20 even prohibits men with crushed or mutilated testicles from entering the assembly of the Lord, and Leviticus 22:24 prohibits castrating animals and the use of castrated animals in Temple sacrifice. So what are we to make of Jesus’ celebration of castration?

I have been told that I am taking the text too literally, and Jesus is really referring to celibacy. But this, too, is troubling from a Jewish point of view. Every time God established a covenant in the Torah— with Adam (Genesis 1:28), with Noah (Genesis 9:1), with Jacob (Genesis 35:10-12), and with Moses (Leviticus 26:9)— God called them to be “fruitful and multiply.” From the Jewish point of view celibacy violates God’s plan.

There is, however, the exception of the apocalyptic Jewish sect of the Essenes. Philo, the Jewish philosopher, and Josephus, the Jewish historian, mention celibacy as an Essene practice. Philo writes, “[Essenes] repudiate marriage; and at the same time they practice continence in an eminent degree...” (Hypothetica 11:14).

And Josephus writes, “These Essenes reject pleasures as an evil, but esteem continence, and the conquest over our passions, to be virtue. They neglect wedlock... They do not absolutely deny the fitness of marriage, and the succession of mankind thereby continued; but they guard against the lascivious behavior of women, and are persuaded that none of them preserve their fidelity to one man.” (Jewish War 2.8.2)

The Essenes expected the End of Days was at hand, and for that reason they had no need to be fruitful and multiply. And they believed that woman were by nature promiscuous, which would make it all the more difficult for men to abstain from sex if marriage were allowed. Do you think it was Jesus’ apocalyptic tendencies that had him celebrate celibacy (while in no way denigrating women)?

Do you think this kind of thinking influenced the Apostle Paul with he wrote, “To the unmarried and the widows it is better to remain single as I do. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (I Corinthians 7: 8-9)?

And what of the Essene “rejecting pleasures as an evil”? Again the Essenes were in no sense mainstream. Judaism sees pleasure and sexual pleasure in particular as a gift of God. We are even taught that when we die we are brought before God not to explain the evils we have done but to explain why we rejected any of the legitimate pleasures that God offered us while alive (Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12); including sexual pleasure.

So, assuming Jesus said what Matthew says he said, this is one example of Jesus making a clear break with the normative Judaism of his day. Because Jesus’ position is not normative in Judaism, the issue for us Jews is mute, but I don’t understand celibacy, and I cannot help wonder what impact it has had and continues to have on Christianity (in all its forms). What does it do to a faith when for centuries its spiritual formation was in the hands of celibate and often misogynist men?

Rami: Response to Mike 5/14

Let me quickly respond to the source issue regarding strangulation. According to David Daube in The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (1973, p.307), the Romans outlawed stoning by Jewish courts fearing that stoning drew crowds, and crowds often turned into anti-Roman mobs. Because of this the rabbis opted for strangulation, an act that could be performed more discretely. Seeing the creativity of the Jews in this regard, the Romans then outlawed capital punishment by Jewish courts altogether.

The Talmud goes into this at length, especially in tractate Sanhedrin (50a) where the rabbis argue that if a priest’s daughter commits adultery the punishment needs to be more severe than strangulation and opt for burning instead. This, however, is more an example of rabbis with too much time on their hands since the same tractate says ten pages earlier (41a) that the Jewish courts no longer have the legal authority to execute anyone (the Romans reserved this for themselves), and so adultery could only be punished by whipping.

I am very interested in the idea that even knowing that a text was added to a Gospel (in this case the story of the adulterous woman in the Gospel According to John) it can still be accepted as being the Word of God. This would, to my mind, invalidate the notion of biblical inerrancy. If you can’t trust this text to be gospel, how can you trust any text? And if the answer is that it fits, meaning that the message is in line with the Jesus of faith, then the arbiter of what is and what isn’t true is the reader rather than God. This makes us all part of the Jesus Seminar, voting our particular bias, and pretending that doing so somehow tells us something about the text. I have no problem with this. In fact that is what I think we all do, albeit unconsciously, but for many Christians I know removing even one block of text threatens to topple the whole tower of Bible (I couldn’t resist the pun).

What I am hearing in your comments, and what I expect we will explore at length when we take up the Sermon on the Mount is that by refusing to play the game of supporting or rejecting the status quo, Jesus is offering a third way (I will argue later it is really a fifth way) when it comes to dealing with Judaism and the Jewish realities of his day. I believe that this third or fifth way is vitally needed today, and I look forward to exploring it with you.

I am also intrigued that Jesus never forgives the woman, and only refuses to condemn her. He tells her to “go her way”— her way rather than his way— and “sin no more.” This is very Jewish. Each of us has our particular way to God, and following another’s path will get us nowhere. And the classic Jewish response to sin is teshuvah, literally turning as in “Turn from evil and do good” (Psalm 34:11) and “Cease to do evil, learn to do good” (Isaiah 1:16-17).

I like your interpretation of the story, Mike. I would say we are, each of us, the adulterous woman betraying God’s love for us. If we die in sin, we die cut off from God. If we live, we have a chance to live differently, to turn and repair (what we call tikkun) our relationship with God.

For clarity’s sake I am going to end this post here, and pick up the issue of celibacy in a separate post. You can comment on this one, or just let it be and move on to the next.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 5/13 Post

OK. Let's follow your agenda for a bit, starting with John 8:1-11

Who doesn't love the story? It appeals to us in a number of ways: the shift from condemnation to empathy-driven response; the confounding of wrong-headed religious authority by its challenger Jesus; the drama of the story itself; and the phrase that has become part of our culture ("Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.").

To the best of my knowledge, all major modern commentaries assume the story was added to John's Gospel. Many skip it altogether, others deal with it in footnotes or appendices, but all admit it does not quite fit John. At the same time, the story had become embedded in John long before the New Testament canon was debated and finalized. It is part of the canon, and most Christians treat it as such. That is, we assume it "belongs" in John and has something vital to say to us.

Rami, in glancing through several sources, I find few, if any, commentators allude in any way to the penalty of strangulation. Instead, they refer to Deuteronomy and assume stoning remained the penalty. Some say the Mishnah also teaches this was so. On the other hand, Christian commentators nearly always note several issues. For example, the "scribes and Pharisee" present no witnesses, as required by Mosiac law. In addition, the presumably guilty man is strangely absent. Finally, the accusers' words seem to imply that only the woman was to be held accountable.

Obviously, such matters do not square well with first century practice. I do not think the story teller (or inserter) cared much about such things. What is the story's point? Let's unpack the tale and see.

A crowd, led by "scribes and Pharisees," drags a woman "caught in adultery" before Jesus for judgment. As the the story makes clear, they don't particulary care about the woman or the case at hand. Their goal is to entrap Jesus, to force him to make a choice between their brand of religious-authority driven justice and some alternative. If Jesus opts to condone their perspective and actions, any threat he presents is defused. On the other hand, if Jesus dares denounce their position, he can more easily be branded dangerous and portrayed as "the enemy." This is classic, cut-throat politics, whether in the first or twenty-first century.

Jesus simply refuses to play the game. In the story, he bends down twice to write on the ground. Some modern commentators argue these actions had well understood implications in the first century world, at least in the Middle East. Writing on the ground would have been recognized as his refusal to engage the matter verbally (as they wanted) or on their terms.

The religious leaders decline to accept his response and press for a verbal response. They want to hear a declaration of judgment: "Stone her," or "Free her." Jesus confounds them all, when he looks up and says, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." He changes the grounds of the dispute from "who is to blame and how shall we punish her," to "who among you, indeed, dares claim to be without sin and entitled to pass such judgment?" Even the most respected among the scribes and Pharisees present cannot pass the test. Jesus then writes in the dirt again, signaling that he is finished with them. Recognizing either their own sin, or at least that this encounter is over, the crowd slowly departs.

Only the woman remains. To this point, no one has spoken a word to her. Her accusers treated her an a object, a tool in their hands to use against Jesus. Jesus speaks to her. Interestingly enough, he says nothing about her purported sin, about that which may or may not be part of her past. Instead, Jesus treats her as someone now freed from all accusation. He focuses on her potential future. In effect, he says, "You have the gift of a new start; make good use of it."

Now, as to your point about the church's tendency to side with the accusers, you're sadly correct. This may drive us to despair, if we believe in a one-time cure for "our bent to sinning." I (and most Christians, I think) do not harbor such optimism. In fact, many of us argue that when we read such stories we ought to place ourselves within them, not with Jesus but most often as among those opposed to Jesus. Only then might we really hear his words and be called back to our senses.

Even if we experience such a recall, we dare not assume we are "cured" of the human tendency to practice judgmentalism or use others to protect our own interests. We see the "cure" more nearly as a kind of life-long, daily treatment. Some respond to the treatment better than others, but anyone may be made better than would otherwise have been the case.

Tracking back to the seventh commandment, we might say Jesus taught us to take it seriously in our own lives yet never to use it as a means to hurt another,heighten our own stature in the community, or protect our theological turf.

This is a long post. I'll pause now and await your response or the next installment of the your promised agenda.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike 5/12

Hyperbole? Hyperbole! This is outrageous, sir, and I demand… Yes, in fact I love hyperbole. But, this terrible slander aside, I agree that the Bible at its best, which in all honesty means the Bible as I choose to understand it, is moving us into alignment with the te (way) of God: doing justly, loving compassion, and walking humbly.

There are a few other things I would like to raise here before we move on to the next commandment. The first is the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman presented in the Gospel According to John. The second is the role of celibacy in early Christianity and the Catholic Church. And the third is the possibility of articulating a sacred sexuality based on the Song of Songs. The latter two may seem far fetched, but I think this commandment opens the door to at least a cursory discussion of celibacy and sexuality.

I will offer each in a separate blog, inviting, as always, your thoughtful response. Here is the passage from John:

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8:2-11)

First, let me say I love this story: with this one text Jesus puts an end to the obsession with condemnation that marks so much religion in his time and ours. Second, let me admit that it poses problems for me as well. Chief among these is the fact that by the time of Jesus the law regarding adultery and capital punishment had already been changed from the biblical form mentioned in John. The Sadducees might have followed the older law, but not the Pharisees.

John tells us that the woman had been “caught” in the act of adultery. The story hinges on the fact that adultery is a capital offense, and we went into the details of convicting people of such offenses in our discussion of the commandment against murder. So, with those legal requirements in mind, let’s assume that the two witnesses who caught her followed the rabbinic law of Jesus’ day and interrupted the adulterous couple to explain to them that if they continue in their lovemaking they will be executed. And let’s imagine further that the lovers stopped, listened to what the witnesses had to say, verbally affirmed they knew what they were doing and what would happen to them after they did it, and then, in full view of the witnesses (how else could they witness the act?) the couple returned to their now public lovemaking. Even if all of this took place, there is still a problem: where is the woman’s lover? According to the law both of them must be executed. And, my final point, the means of execution in Jesus’ time was strangulation not stoning. So what gives?

Bart Ehrman, in Misquoting Jesus, notes that this story does not appear in the earliest manuscripts of John and may have been a latter addition inserted by copyists who were not up on rabbinic jurisprudence in the time of Jesus. I suspect something along these lines is the case. The story is written in such a way as to highlight Jesus’ differences with the Pharisees, and to underscore the triumph of compassion over law.

Regardless of how the text got into the Gospel, if you take it as gospel, what do you make of it, and how do you handle the fact (a fact at least to me) that the Church seems to have sided with the faux-Pharisees of John rather than John's Jesus?

We desperately need Jesus in our time: a prophet of God who can force the country and the world to look at the evil it does while hiding behind the mask of law, and affirm the triumph of justice and compassion over legally mandated corruption and oppression. Yet the people who are the most Jesus-obsessed seem to align themselves with the stone-throwers rather than the John's Jesus. With no malice intended, and with only a deep sorrow in my heart, as one who loves Jesus and the Judaism he taught, Christianity, or more accurately the culturally dominant Christianity of so many conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, disappoints and frightens me terribly.

On to another aspect of this story. I am totally intrigued by the two mentions of Jesus writing something on the ground. Jesus wrote on the ground in response to the Pharisees’ challenge, “Now what do you say?” And returns to his writing after saying, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” No one bothers to read what Jesus wrote, and John doesn’t bother to tell us what he wrote, yet this is the only time in the Bible that Jesus writes anything! If this were still a Jewish text subject to the midrashic mind that revels in this kind of puzzle, there would be dozens of stories focusing on what Jesus wrote. As a Christian, the question may be mute, but as a Jew who sees Jesus as a Jew, it is compelling.

What are your thoughts on this story and the “missing writings of Jesus”? Actually, now that I think about it, a book purporting to reveal what Jesus wrote, and its relevance for our lives and salvation would be bigger than the Prayer of Jabez and the DaVinci Code combined. How’s that for hyperbole?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 5/11 Post

One of the things I enjoy about our conversation is how your mind pivots to point in unexpected directions. Polygomy was not on my radar!

Your summary of the relevant history is on target. I did not know the particulars of medieval Jewish regulations, but I am familiar with the Hebrew Bible's approach to the subject. "Regulation" captures it nicely. For the most part, starting with the Seventh Commandment and running through the passages you mention, regulation seems to have been designed to protect the woman or women involved. Perhaps the same was true of the medieval legislation, or was it developed primarily to reduce the chance of legal or mob persecution?

Getting back to the Bible, I have to wonder how many men in ancient Israel could afford the practice. Was monogomy more nearly the norm than polygomy? In either case, though, the commandment against adultery applied, thus restricting men's conduct more than was normal in the ancient world.

As I've noted in earlier entries, I think God starts where we are and tries to move us as far as possible toward his ideal. His work is formation work. As a result, I need not agree that "God favors polygamy." In fact, I think the practice belongs to an earlier era. I do believe, though, that God favors fidelity in marriage, both for the kinds of practical reasons either of us might list and because it's good training for a man or woman who would become faithful to God.

Both of us, I think, sometimes engage in a bit of hyperbole. For example, you write that our society practices serial monogamy. I would argue that a percentage of our society does so. Observation leads me to add, though, that some individuals seem never to practice monogomy of any kind. Remarkably, some portion of the population does. Monogomy, therefore, is possible, though individuals may (and do) find it very difficult for any number of reasons.

If monogomy is so hard, and in some ways runs counter to our biology, why would God require it? We've already alluded to the benefits to society and the possible benefits to women, at least in ancient times. I suggest the deeper reasons are that it is good for us in general and good for our relationship with God.

Growing in the ability to give another person exclusive devotion strengthens character, develops charity, and encourages a growing acknowledgment of one's own rough spots and foibles. All such developments are good for us.

Furthermore, such developments may lead us to better comprehend and accept the faithfulness of God and the challenge we present his faithfulness. That's good for us, too. Far from our being "a great catch," we come to see that the wonder is that God pursues and stays with us at all!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike 5/10

Your point that the Seventh Commandment is designed to protect community is well taken. As I think I said quite a while ago, I suspect, following Huston Smith, that all ten of the Ten Commandments point to those acts that, if committed, would lead to a breakdown of society. It is one thing to lie; it is another to do so in court. It is one thing to kill, it is another to murder, etc. People have to trust one another and the system if order is to prevail.

I agree regarding monogamy as well. While we uphold the ideal of life-long monogamy, as a society we practice serial monogamy. We marry for a while, then divorce, and then marry again. This provides us with legal cover for the biological imperative to have multiple partners.

You mention two ways people deal with this commandment: they either ignore it in favor of multiple partners or take it to mean that we ought to damn sex itself. There is a third alternative, God’s alternative you might say if you take the Bible as the literal Word of God, and that is polygamy. Taking multiple wives, and being bound to them legally, economically, morally, etc., is the way God handles the problem. Still sexist, of course, but God is hardly a feminist. Nowhere does the Hebrew Bible condemn polygamy. On the contrary, it regulates it.

Exodus 21:10 says, “If a man takes another wife he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife.” Deuteronomy 21:15-17 says that the first-born son of a polygamist family has the right of inheritance even if his father who favors another wife and her children despises his mother. And Deuteronomy 17:17 warns kings against taking too many wives.

And then there is the practice of Leverite marriage where the brother of a man who dies childless is obligated to marry his sister-in-law, even if he himself is already married, and have children with her, assuming the sister-in-law agrees (Deuteronomy 25: 5-10).

Of course we can argue there were valid socio-economic and culture reasons for all of this, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the Bible does not ban polygamy. In fact, polygamy isn’t banned in Judaism until the Herem (ban) of Rabbenu Gershom in the 11th century and that only applied to Ashkenazi or European Jews. Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews (Jews from Portugal, Spain, Arab countries, and Iran) never banned polygamy, though most dropped the practice as they emigrated to countries that outlawed it. Modern Israel limits the practice but makes room for polygamous families immigrating from countries where polygamy is legal.

My point is that this practice has a long history of legality. In the United States polygamy is in the news a lot lately, and people are officially offended by it. But the real offense, it seems to me, is child marriage and rape. To the extent that these are happening under the cover of polygamy is a crime, but consenting adults who wish to practice plural marriage—they may be on to something.

I want to come back to the holiness of sex later, but let me stop here and invite your comments.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Mike on the Seventh Commandment

Far from being overwhelmed by your post, I rather enjoyed the guided tour. My guess is the death penalty, which came to be attached to the commandment, drove the developments you outlined. Once again, the rabbis appear to have sought ways to reduce the chance the penalty might actually be applied. If so, I stand with them.

As you note, Jesus expanded the commandment's range to include all women. Later, though precisely when is hard to say, Christians took the matter one step farther by making the commandment's prohibition apply to women as well as men.

When I reflect on the Seventh Commandment, several things come to mind.

First, it was and is intended to protect community. Trust of any kind between adults is impossible, if one must always be on watch to make sure no one "steals" one's spouse!

Second, the commandment challenges our biology. For better or worse, we appear to be a species that values monogomy yet finds its consistent practice very difficult. Chalk it up to our fallenness or to evolution--either way, many humans have a wandering eye through much of life. Jesus ups the stakes considerably, when he insists that internal lust amounts to adultery as surely as the act itself.

We may react in at least two ways. A fair percentage of us ignore the commandment as unrealistic. The argument goes something like this: We have a biological drive to have multiple sexual partners over the course of a lifetime; therefore, we have little choice but to do so. In fact "the rules" (whether the commandment or some other stricture) ought to give way to our need. In my pastoral experience, those who take this course generally leave disaster in their wake.

At the opposite extreme are those who seek to honor the commandment by denying the essential goodness of the human sexual drive. Their line of reasoning might be described as follows: God has forbidden one way of satisfying our sexual impulse, therefore, the impulse itself must be a sin; sex must be restricted to procreation and the sexual impulse guarded against at all other times.

Neither approach takes God, community or the human condition seriously. Healthy boundaries are neccesary if one is to manage one's humanity, take part in developing community or learn to live in harmony with God. The Seventh Commandment is one such boundary condition.

Third, by implication the commandment places quite a burden on married persons. If a marriage is to be immunized against adultery, both partners must work at building a relationship deep and satisfying enough to bind themselves to one another. Listening, courtesy, kindness, giving one another room while never losing touch, shared tasks, clearing hurdles together, the worship of God and the like tend to build such a bond, given time. Surely somone who had never heard the commandment might react by saying, "Marriage may be the greatest relational challenge two humans can face."

Fourth, Christians have long associated fidelity in marriage and fidelity to God. Blame it on Hosea, if you will. The Christian point is that marriage (along with parenthood) provides an excellent, comprehensible way to begin to fathom the dynamics of the God/human relationship.

Finally, and by the way, the commandment implies strongly that we cannot easily separate individual morality (for lack of a better term) from matters of the family and the larger community. That's probably a rabbit we need not chase, but I could resist mentioning it!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Rami On the Seventh Commandment

The Seventh Commandment seems straightforward enough: “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:13). But nothing in Judaism is simple.

Technically the Seventh Commandment refers to a man having sexual intercourse with a married woman, an act that carries with it a death sentence for both of them: “If any man commit adultery with the wife of another and defile his neighbor's wife, let them be put to death both the adulterer and the adulteress" (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22).

While the Bible does not specify the means by which adulterers are put to death, the rabbis ruled it was to be death by strangulation. As with all capital crimes, to be convicted of adultery two witnesses who interrupt you and explain to you the grave consequences of your behavior must witness your transgression. If, after you and your partner both affirm that you understand the rules and the consequences for breaking them, you choose to persist in the crime, well its your hanging. Chances are, however, the moment has passed, and you go home to watch a ball game on television instead.

By the way, a married man having intercourse with an unmarried woman is not, according to the Torah, committing adultery. So, while his wife may wish to strangle him, the court does not. Obviously we are dealing with a society in which women were the property of their men, and the real crime here is against the husband whose wife has sex with another man.

Because some believe Judaism is all about actions rather than thoughts, it is sometimes said that Jesus expands the idea of adultery in a very unJewish way: “every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:28), but the ancient rabbis made a similar argument saying that a man who gazes lustfully upon a married woman is also an adulterer (Leviticus Rabbah 23:12). Jesus just expands the field to include all women, not just married ones.

When dealing with adultery, the Book of Numbers (5:12-31) introduces one of the oddest practices in biblical Judaism, sotah (“goes astray”). When a man suspects his wife of adultery she is given a choice. She can accept a divorce or drink “bitter waters” into which the Name of God has been dissolved. If she opts for the latter and is guilty of adultery, the water will kill her instantly. If she is innocent of the charge she will live.

Notice that it is up to the woman how to handle her situation. She is not required to admit her guilt or prove her innocence. In fact, her innocence is, in a sense, presumed, as the first words of the priest to the woman are, “"If no man has lain with you, if you have not gone astray in defilement while married to your husband, be immune to harm from this water of bitterness that induces the spell." (Numbers 5:19). The woman can simply say, “You know what? I don’t want to be married to some jerk who accuses me of cheating on him. I'll take the divorce.” Or she can drink the bitter waters and prove her innocence; in which case she is then stuck with her suspicion-prone mate.

Chances are the origins of Sotah go back to the Code of Hammurabi which states that a woman whose husband accuses her of adultery should, on her own volition and to protect the self-esteem of her husband, throw herself into a river. If she survives she is innocent. If she drowns she is guilty. Hammurabi and Numbers together probably motivated the good Puritans of Salem to take women accused of witchcraft, weigh them down with chains, and toss them into the river to see if they float. If they do, they are witches. If they don’t, they are not. Of course they are dead, but that seems to be a price men are willing to pay.

My people were not totally blind to the injustice of focusing only on the woman, however. According to the rabbis of the Talmud (Sotah 27b) the bitter waters works on both parties involved in an adulterous relationship. Although it is the woman who is under suspicion, and it is she who must drink the water, the magic works on her lover as well. If she is guilty, he dies instantly right along with her. But, if she is innocent, she is rewarded for her loyalty by becoming pregnant even if she is barren.

To illustrate this point, the rabbis say that Chana, wife of the prophet Samuel, was barren, and prayed constantly for God to give her a child. When God seems to ignore her and she remains childless, the rabbis say she threatened God telling Him that she would make Samuel suspicious that she was having an adulterous affair, drink the bitter waters and, because she was innocent, thereby force God to give her a child (Brachot 31b). God, like most men, gives in and Chana gets her baby.

Nachmanides, an early medieval rabbinic sage (1194-1270), points out that of all the commandments in the Torah, only this one requires the active intervention and participation of God. The water kills only by an act of divine intervention. There is no poison in the drink, only the Name of God. If the woman is guilty God intervenes and kills both her and her lover. And if she is innocent, she lives and He gives her a baby. It is also interesting that sotah is the only commandment requiring the desecration of God’s Name, a fact that argues for the importance of marital fidelity in Judaism.

I am sure you didn’t expect all this, and that you will masterfully get us back on track, but this is what rabbis do, and I felt compelled to do it.

Rami: A Brief Aside

Before moving on to the Seventh Commandment, but I want to briefly offer something to your personal practice of remembering that the people you meet are the image and likeness of God.

The Name of God, Y-H-V-H, when written vertically in Hebrew looks like a stick-figure drawing of a human being. It became a spiritual practice to visualize the Name of God as the physical body of any person you meet: the Yod is the head, the Hey is the shoulders and arms, the Vav is the torso, and the final Hey is the pelvis and legs. The limits of blogspot prevent me from actually drawing this here, but if we publish this blog someday, I can demonstrate it graphically.

Anyway, you might try this as an added dimension to what you already do.

On to Commandment Seven.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 5/7 Posting

I do not think I have much more to add at this point about euthanasia and abortion, unless we wish to take off on an extended excursus from the commandment itself. At the same time, I want to respond to a few of your points.

(1) We agree on the meaning of "judge not, lest you be judged." Judgmentalism is what Jesus had in mind. The tendency is deeply embedded both in individuals and institutions, though it may take on frightening proportions via the power of an institution.

(2) I also agree that Jesus is separate from the church. Because this is so, he challenges the church's self-serving ways (even as he does for the individual). Each small and large reform movement in the church hopes it springs from a fresh apprehension of Jesus' intent. No reform lasts forever. In fact, most lose steam after one generation or less and lapse into institution building. Still, there is a corrective element outside the church, and when all is said and done Jesus is that element.

(3) Strangely enough, Jesus is also within the church. He may be found in the scriptures, in traditions, and in the work of the Spirit. In my experience, he sometimes appears in the face or voice of another, especially in the "the least of these." Years ago I developed a self-discipline I try to practice when dealing with others. Silently throughout the encounter, I remind myself: "She (he), too, is a child of God, one made in the image of God. Act accordingly." I think this is similar to what you have in mind.

In any case, it works, when I allow it to do so. My attitude and actions are changed, so that I become less self-centered and more able to pay attention to the person before me, hopefully in a way that proves helpful. The discipline provokes a kind of reformation in me. My hunch is that the church would become and remain more nearly the movement of Jesus' intention if its leaders and members embraced a similar discipline.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Rami's Reply to Mike 5/6

Before we move on let me respond to the issue of judging and to the larger question you raised earlier about articulating an ethical position of our own.

I find Jesus’ teaching to “judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven (Luke 6:37) very important. We have an innate desire to judge others, and Jesus challenges us to overcome it. I am not sure this is possible or even wise. But if we make a distinction between judging and being judgmental then I think it is both.

I judge all the time, and right living requires that I do so. But I have to recognize that I often base my judgments on flimsy evidence and limited if not faulty data. So I have to be humble about the judgments I make, and to be willing to reconsider them when the facts warrant it. In this I avoid becoming rigid in my thinking, and judgmental in my personality.

This is where I would separate Jesus from the church, and almost every prophet from the institution that grows up around him or her. Institutions by their very nature, not only judge, but condemn; and in doing so they pervert the teachings of their founders. This is why the Hebrew prophets are forever attacking the Jewish establishment; and why I find it so difficult to align with any religious institution any longer. I was a congregational rabbi for over twenty years, and you have been a pastor even longer. My hat (yarmulke) is off to you. Now on to your point about articulating our own ethical stances.

I am always looking to identify some essential teaching from which to derive a viable global ethics. I suspect the Golden Rule is the most universal teaching humankind has ever articulated. To quote the rabbinic version, “Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you” (Shabbat 31a). This, its author Rabbi Hillel said, is the whole of Torah.

Not one to argue with Hillel, I would nevertheless suggest that there is an assumption even more basic that provides the foundation for his ethic: “Let us create humankind in our image after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). Or, as the modern Jewish sage, mystic, and activist Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, the human being is “a disclosure of the divine, and all men are one in God’s care for man. Many things on earth are precious, some are holy, humanity is the holy of holies… To meet a human being is an opportunity to sense the image of God, the presence of God.” This mystical core energizes Heschel’s and Hillel’s ethics. Each and every person is sacred.

If I begin with this premise, the irreducible sacredness of every human person, I must be against all human exploitation, oppression, injustice, war, murder, torture, and capital punishment. But what about abortion and euthanasia?

Regarding abortion the question is not “When does human life begin?” but “When does human personhood begin?” I take “human life” every time I cut my hair, as each follicle contains my DNA. No, the issue isn’t life but personhood, and the fact is we cannot say for certain when human personhood begins.
I am no more comfortable with assigning personhood to a zygote than I am withholding it from a baby until it has exited its mother’s body. The answer lies somewhere in between, but precisely where we don’t know. And because we don’t know we ought to be conservative in our thinking.

On the face of it I would argue that abortion after the first-trimester (or certainly the second), accept in the case of saving the life of the mother, is wrong. Prior to that the decision should be left up to the mother, her physician, and anyone else she chooses to consult.

Euthanasia is more challenging. If I focus on personhood, what do I do with someone in a vegetative state? Personhood is gone, so is euthanasia permissible? I would say “yes”. But do I have to be reduced to a vegetative state to be relieved of my suffering? What if I am dying and in terrible and unremitting pain? Can I not choose my own fate? Certainly I don’t want the state to decide for me, but what about deciding for myself? Or, if that is no longer possible, letting those who love me and would only act in accordance with my desire?

Here I would argue that the sacredness of human life includes respect for the choices a person makes regarding her or his own death. I would accept euthanasia and suicide as just, compassionate, and even holy decisions in certain cases. Denying me the freedom to end my life with dignity when that life is irreversibly fated for a protracted, painful, and ignoble death would be an insult to the divine image that manifests as me.

These are just preliminary thoughts, , and more than happy to reconsider all of it, though a detailed exploration of ethics will most likely take us far from our stated goal of dealing with the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount.