Friday, June 27, 2008

Mike: The Third Beatitude

"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." (Matthew 5:5) (NRSV)

Jesus seems to have drawn upon Psalm 37:11 to fashion the third beatitude. Psalm 37:11 reads: "But the meek shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity." (NRSV) Jesus substituted "earth" for "land," thus enlarging the scope of the promise. The Greek term used for "meek" is "praeis." The term appears to be an apt translation of the Hebrew term "anaw" (meek).

Psalm 37:11 helps us grasp what Jesus had in mind. In the Psalm, the meek are portrayed as those who are gentle or considerate. The meek are those who submit willingly to God. The Psalm contrasts such folk with "the wicked," those who resist or oppose God. The kind of meekness Jesus has in mind is manifested toward others and God.

Jesus described himself as "meek" (Matthew 11:29). It is also worth noting that Moses is called "meek' (Numbers 12:3). No leader or would-be leader in the larger Graeco-Roman world would have wished to be so described. In the emerging Roman empire, meekness was generally regarded as a weakness, not a virtue. I find it interesting that the greatest figures in our respective traditions share the distinction of being called "meek."

Jesus, of course, spoke the words in a particular context: the Roman occupation. Many thanks, Rami, for pointing this out. N. T. Wright, in addition to the two authors you have already mentioned, helps us think through the political implications of Jesus' teachings. In this case ("meekness"), Jesus calls for a non-violent response to oppression. He will address the matter more than once in the remainder of the Sermon on the Mount, insisting that meekness includes both our attitude and actions with regard to oppressors. Jesus brand of non-violence requires that we give up the option of hating one's enemies in favor of loving (agape) them, even as we turn the other cheek or willingly walk an extra mile.

What about "inherit the earth?" I suppose it is possible Jesus had a "new earth" in mind. Personally, I think the phrase should be read in the larger context of the meek and their willing submission to God's way or God's rule. Such submission requires that we die to possessiveness, in some way give up what hitherto we've believed to be our due. Strangely enough, when we do so, we find we can enjoy the earth, not because we own a piece of it but simply as our common dwelling place, a gift from God. Genuine possession does not involve ownership but instead gratitude, stewardship, and enjoyment.

Like all the beatitudes, the third one calls us to follow Jesus by opting out of the "game of life" as generally understood and buying in to a new way of life.

Rami: Response to Mike's 6/26 Post

I have no quarrel with any of this, Mike. One way to understand the different Judaisms under Roman occupation is to see them as different ways of dealing with that occupation.

The Sadducees, the wealthy and priestly classes, collaborated with Rome, both or personal gain and to keep the people from further persecution. The Romans murdered thousands of Jews, and violently repressed dissent of any kind. Crucifixion was commonplace, and was used to keep the people from resisting, so collaborating with Roman in order to minimize their violence made sense to many.

The Essenes were separatists who, as you say, awaited the coming War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness. This was, no doubt, the prototype of John of Atmos’ Book of Revelation.

The Zealots wanted war as well, but had no desire to wait for God to start it. They ambushed the Romans whenever possible, and saw themselves as freedom fighters while the Romans no doubt saw them as terrorists. The Jewish Wars of 66 to 70 and from 132 to 135 should the passion of the people for freedom and their inability to wrest it from Rome.

The Pharisees walked a middle way, collaborating when forced to do so, and creating a home-based Judaism alongside the Temple. Jesus, I believe, was a Pharisee, which is why much of the Gospel writers’ wrath is directed against Pharisees as a way of distinguishing Jesus from his colleagues.

Yet Jesus was unique as well, however. I believe he offered a fifth way to deal with Rome: nonviolent confrontation. He didn’t disengage from everyday life, nor did he collaborate with the occupiers or their minions. His teachings about turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, and giving even one’s underwear to the debtor courts are, when understood in the context of the time brilliant acts of nonviolence resistance. These texts aren’t part of our conversation, so I won’t go into them here, but I would suggest anyone interested in this aspect of Jesus should read Dominic Crossan and Walter Wink, especially Wink.

Jesus was also a globalist. Judaism was (and still is) a tribal religion. Of all the world’s religions only Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam see themselves as global faiths. Hinduism and Judaism, for example, are regional religions, spreading only because of the migration of their followers not because of any internal dynamic of their own.

Jesus saw spirituality beyond tribalism. I think this is clear in his conversation with the Samaritan woman who asks him which people, the Jews or the Samaritans worship, on the right mountain. Jesus replies that while the Jews have the right mountain a time is coming when mountains (and hence tribal divisions) won’t matter, and people will worship “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23). This and other statements turn the tribalism of Judaism on its head.

Jesus is no less radical today, though he was been domesticated by his followers who choose to worship him rather than follow him. People are no less tribal today than two thousand years ago. Today’s tribes are not necessarily rooted in geography, but also creed, denomination, class, race, and ethnicity. But the mentality is the same: us versus them, winners and losers, the saved and the damned.

The Jesus I love would have nothing to do with this. But then the Jesus I love died on the Cross.

Ready for the next beatitude?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 6/25 Post

We appear to be on the same (or, at least, a similar) page with regard to death of the old life, the new life, the necessity of genuine mourning, the paradigmatic passion of Christ, and participation in the life and work of God. In short, we continue to find considerable convergence in our applications of a given scripture passage, even though we approach it from different starting places.

That being said, I want to try to clarify my take on a few matters.

First, I (along with most modern commentators)do not think Jesus propounded a new idea via the beatitude. I apologize for giving such an impression. Isaiah 61 almost undoubtedly informed his understanding of himself and his mission. I have no doubt the other passages you mention did the same. We agree, I think, that Jesus was genuinely a first century Jew, who drew upon the traditions and teachings of his heritage to frame his message and work.

No doubt I need to clarify what I had in mind when I wrote of Jesus "turning normal expectations upside down." Start with the first century. First century Judaism, as I understand the matter, was far from monolithic with regard to concepts of the (or "a") Messiah's role or the desired results of a messiah's work. Jesus' understanding (label it the Isaiah option)had a long history and could be found among the population.

Other options existed as well. For example, the Zealots seem to have thought in term of a military/political messiah figure who would defeat the Romans and reestablish the old Davidic kingdom (at least as they imagined that kingdom to have been). The apostles sometimes seem to exemplify a vision of the Messiah that leaves little if any room for suffering, let alone death. The Essenes, insofar as I can tell, seem to have envisoned a great war in which the Children of Light joined with God to make God's enemies (and theirs) suffer! On and on it goes. It seems the more we learn about the first century Jewish world, the more complicated the picture becomes.

My point, then, is that Jesus' take certainly upended the expectations of a sizable percentage of first century Jewish listeners, not because it was exclusive to him but because they did not share (at first)his perspective. Obviously, when the beatitudes moved out into first century gentile cultures, they ran counter to normal expectations. As for our own time, it seems to me that the beatitudes, including the one in question, challenge typical American assumptions about happiness.

Historical matters aside, taken seriously the beatitude (and its companions)ought to frighten us a bit. They vie to replace our survival instinct with something quite different: willing reliance upon and identification with God and the the ways of God. Such a life makes little sense to most of the world at any time, which seldom takes seriously anything other than defensive or coercive power.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 6/25 Post

Before I take up the wonderful insights you offer, I want to place the second beatitude in its Jewish context. In a sense, there is nothing new in Jesus’ teaching. The first two beatitudes repeat the classic messianic mission set forth by the Prophet Isaiah, the mantle of which Jesus may be taking upon himself.

Isaiah tells us that “because HaShem has anointed me [that to say because God has made Isaiah a messiah, an anointed one], God has sent me to bring good news to the humbled, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release from bondage to those who are bound,… to comfort all who mourn,” (Isaiah 61:1-3).

Images of God comforting mourners is fairly common. We them, for example, in Isaiah 40:1; 57: 18; and 60:20. Then there is the notion that suffering, and the mourning it invites, is part of the redemptive process. Psalm 125:5 says, “They who sow in tears shall reap in joy.” And Psalm 94:12-13 says, “Happy is he whom You chasten, HaShem… that You may give him rest from the days of adversity.”

In other words, Torah makes it clear that suffering is often a gift from God, and that those who mourn are to be comforted. Again the Prophet Isaiah tells us that “sorrow and sighing shall fly away,” (Isaiah 51:2), and that God will comfort the people (Isaiah 66:13).

My point is simply this: Jesus is drawing upon well-known and well-accepted doctrine in this beatitude, and I don’t see where he “turns normal expectations upside down,” as you put it. On the contrary, Jesus isn’t saying anything new, but rather laying claim to something very old. He is identifying himself with the messiah idea of Isaiah. His Jewish listeners may be startled that he is claiming the messianic mantle, but there is nothing about that mantle that is knew to them.

But, because you assume that Jesus is teaching something new, you raise some very interesting points that my more Jewish reading might have missed. So let me comment on your teaching.

Jesus is calling us to a new life, and following him requires the death of the old life. I believe this is what all great wisdom teachers teach. The egoic life is a block to the greater life of the soul, that level of consciousness that knows all life to be a part of the One Life that is God. We have to let the old life die, and do so respectfully, which means with authentic mourning.

If our mourning is not true, our transformation is false as well, and no real joy or comfort will arise from it. And because this new life is not ego-centric but world-centric the pain of the world becomes our pain. We become compassionate, literally sharing (com) the suffering (passion) of the world. The Passion of Christ is paradigmatic of the passion through which each of us is to pass as we move from ego-centric to world-centric to God-centric consciousness.

I think what you are saying is that when we become part of the Greatest of These (God) we cannot help feel for and act on behalf of the “least of these,” to borrow from Matthew 25:40.

I especially like your closing idea that both takes us back to Isaiah and puts forth the way of the Kingdom of Heaven. When we fully participate in the Life of God, that is when we realize that we are manifestations of God, the way God is alive in our time and place, we take on the work of God: “to bring good news to the humbled, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release from bondage to those who are bound,… to comfort all who mourn,” (Isaiah 61:1-3).

What began as the work of the Messiah becomes the work of each one of us. While faith may be the way to the Kingdom of God, action (deeds) is the way of that Kingdom.

Mike: The Second Beatitude

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." (Matt. 5:4) (NRSV)

The beatitudes turn normal expectations upside down. Where's the blessing or happiness in mourning? The longer I ponder the beatitude, the more I find the following elements in play.

The Pain and Promise of Awakening--Jesus called would-be followers to die to the life they had known and awaken into a new kind of life. Dying to any kind of life is not easy. It hurts. Just as importantly, when we wake to the new life, we may well mourn our past sin, misperceptions, and even wasted time. Yet all such mourning, though necessary, is a prelude to joy, the kind of joy that comes from knowing you're fully alive as never before, alive to God, others and even self.

Enhanced Sensitivity to the Pain of the World--The new life, though, comes with a price: vastly increasing and growing sensitivity to the pain of the world. The old life is self-centered, the new life is centered in God. Only, much to our surprise, we soon find that being centered in God forces us to look outward and see all others are immediate family. This can be frightening to introverts, to those who have lived in insular communities, and to those who hitherto have been able to treat others as objects. Now when others hurt from hunger, catastrophes, illness, or human meanness, we hurt with them. We mourn our past isolation a bit. Even more, we mourn the plight of those we now know to be brothers and sisters.

The Promise of Participation in the Life of God--Jesus promises "comfort." His version of "comfort," though, may sound a bit strange. He offers the comfort of participating in the life of God, that is of joining God in the work of releasing the captives, helping the blind to see, and the like. Comfort comes as we find (or rediscover)our place alongside God, take up the kind of tasks for which he created us, and invest ourselves in fashioning a life and a society in which self-giving love is the lead virtue.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 6/23 Post

I mentioned that one way I understand “poor in spirit” is “empty of breath,” referring to meditation techniques that lead us out of the false and limiting notion that we are apart from God, and reawaken us to the reality that we are part of God. So the poor in spirit are blessed or, if the original Aramaic was based on the Hebrew ashrei, happy because they have overcome the state of achad, uniqueness in the sense of being a part from God, and returned to the greater wisdom of shalem, Divine Wholeness.

As you said, knowledge of first century Jewish meditation techniques is not widely known, and what we do is sketchy. The mysticism of the time is called Ma’asei Merkavah (Account of the Chariot), and practitioners were called Yordei Merkavah, Riders (literally, Descenders” of the Chariot. One aim of Merkavah mysticism was to induce the vision of God’s Chariot given to Ezekiel (1:4-26). How one did this is not at all clear. One method seems to use the mantra-like repetition of a sacred Name of God or Hebrew phrase. Another is a yogic-like inversion posture that places your head below your knees and uses the rush of blood to the head to alter consciousness. Another, which is derived from Ezekiel himself, is water gazing.

Ezekiel opens his book saying, “In the thirteen year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God,” (Ezekiel 1:1). The rabbis understood this to mean that Ezekiel, unlike the other exiles who saw nothing, was practicing water gazing, allowing his eyes to rest softly on the flow the water and the sunlight dancing on its surface, and in so doing to enter into a trance state where the limited mind (mochin d'katnut) dissolves into the larger mind (mochin d'gadlut) that knows itself to be part of God.

We all know something of this trance whenever we sit and watch a body of flowing water, whether it be a river, a sea, or an ocean. I become similarly entranced even when sitting by a small brook or stream. Maybe it is because we are made mostly of water ourselves that water is a powerful tool for expanding consciousness. In any case, these states are always accompanied by and deepened by a slowing of the breath. Jesus, if he is referring to his inner circle, and if those in that circle practice such techniques (which I realize requires a lot of speculation), is saying to them, "There is an intrinsic blessedness, happiness, and joy that comes from practicing poverty of the breath and thereby shifting your awareness from ego to soul, and remembering your connection with God."

What is discovered through these practices is not new. You are not connecting to God, but realizing you are never disconnected from God. The rabbis found confirmation of this in the name of the river into which Ezekiel gazed. Chebar is Hebrew for “already” (kvar), suggesting to the mystics that what we see in meditation is what is already and always present. The notion that Yordei Merkavah, those who descend to the Chariot in fact experience their awakening as a descent rather than an ascent suggests that they realized that Heaven was not a place “up there,” but rather a state of awareness “in here,” meaning in the human mind. Does this shed light on Jesus’ notion that the Kindgom of Heaven is within us?

Bruce Chilton, author of Rabbi Jesus, makes a big deal of Jesus connection with Merkavah mystics, and I would suggest that book to anyone who wishes to explore this more fully.

On to Beatitude number two?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 6/15 Post

With apologies for the delayed response (caused by a responsiblity laden conference in another city), let's return to the first beatitude.

Start by revisiting the matter of spiritual poverty. Such poverty may be experienced by persons of any station or circumstance. Spiritual poverty does not require or imply that we denigrate ourselves but instead that we accept ourselves as created beings, specifically women and men created in the image of God. As such, we have considerable potential, but still our reach is limited, finite. The Eden story, in part, is about our tendency to refuse to live within our God-given natures, to long to become God unto ourselves, and to take actions toward that end. To put it another way, we tend toward spiritual pride and the supposed blessing it promises. Jesus counters with a call to embrace the blessing of spiritual poverty: the ability to take joy in exercising our actual gifts and potentials and in appropriate humility before God.

The first beatitude calls us to a way of life which may relieve us of an unnatural strain. Consider our fingers. They, along with the thumb, are well formed for grasping and manipulating any number of items. So long as we use our fingers for such purposes, they serve us well. In fact, we're hardly aware of them. Call this the way of spiritual poverty or humility.

Suppose, though, that we bought into the idea that we ought to be able to bend our fingers backwards until they touched our wrist. Go farther and imagine we fall into a state of mind in which we cannot be happy unless we find a way to bring this about. Much wasted time, cracked and broken bones, pain and misdirected longing would ensue! We would make ourselves (and probably others) miserable. Call this the way of spiritual pride.

Appropriate spiritual poverty is crucial to the health of a faith community. When the faith community embraces its God-given nature (worship, service, humility, etc.), it may experience a kind of joy. A faith community which falls to pride, to the wish to be something it was not created to be, forsakes genuine joy for a false promise or hope. For example, each time a Christian church embraces the business model as its measure of success, it sets itself to experience pain and disappointment, for all institutions ultimately experience decline. On the other hand, a faith community which embraces the way of Jesus, the way of self-giving love, always has reason for joy. Even the "death" of such a community may have meaning.

Of course, there's more to the matter than personal joy or even the faith community's well being.

When we relax into appropriate spiritual poverty, we may become free to step outside whatever economic system may dominate our era. This frees us up to use the resources we possess in ministry to the poor and to seek reform or replacement of any economic system that oppresses the poor. I'm not sure that all of us are "made" in such ways as to be equally effective at both tasks, but I am convinced that the faith community is called to combine the endeavors.

I am intriqued by the practice you describe, the slowing or emptying of breath. While I am aware of such practices, I do not think any Christian commentator I've read notes the possibility of the practice among first century Jewish teachers. I would like to know more detail with regard to the first century setting.

You assume the beatitudes were addressed only or primarily to the inner circle. Perhaps this is so, but in any case they quickly found their way into broader circulation. It seems clear the early Christian community assumed they applied to all followers of Jesus. Certainly, this is my assumption.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Rami On the First Beatitude

Let me begin with some general comments on the language of this beatitude.

First, I love the little detail that Matthew supplies here: Jesus first seated himself and then his disciples came close to him. This is most likely a sign of respect. Rabbinic students stand in the presence of their teachers, sitting only when the master (“my master” being the true meaning of rabbi) sat.

As for the term ashrei (“blessed” or “happy”) a term that occurs forty-five times in the Hebrew Bible, twenty-six of these in the Book of Psalms, I agree with your notion that “genuine happiness is found in taking the right journey or embracing the right perspective.” The idea of “right perspective” parallels the Buddha’s teaching of Right View. When we see things as they are, interconnected and impermanent, we are free from selfish desires of control, and learn to engage life rather than master it; a practice that is a hallmark of the enlightened mind.

I wonder, however, about your notion that wisdom puts the lie to the serpent’s claim that eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil will make you like God (Genesis 3:5). In fact God confirms the serpent’s claim when God says of Adam after he has eaten from the Tree, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil,” (Genesis 3:22). The Hebrew is k’achad mimenu, “like one who is separate from among us.” The problem with Adam, and humanity as a whole, is that we feel separate from God. God banished Adam from the Garden to prevent him from eating from the Tree of Life and thus becoming permanently stuck in this sense of alienation. The Kingdom of Heaven, as I understand it, is revealed when we overcome our alienation and reclaim the unity that is God, woman, man, and nature.

The phrase Kingdom of Heaven (Aramaic Malchuta Dishemaya) is unique to Matthew, while Kingdom of God appears in all four Gospels. Since Matthew knows both terms we might say they are interchangeable. We might also wonder why only Matthew uses Kingdom of Heaven, and, since Matthew knows and employs both terms, whether or not distinguished one from the other in his own mind? We can’t know, of course, and our speculation would shed little light on the subject.

As for the textual differences between Matthew and Luke, I disagree with you that they are saying the same thing. In Luke Jesus is being mobbed by the crowd. Luke says, “Then he looked up at his disciples and said, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.’” (Luke 6:20) In the midst of a sea of poor folk, Jesus singles out his disciples as the blessed poor. Why? Because, unlike the crowd surrounding them, the poverty of the disciples was deliberately chosen. In choosing to follow Jesus they had abandoned their livelihoods. He is assuring them that they will be rewarded for this.

I read Luke 6:20 along with Psalm 41:1: “Happy are they who consider the poor,” that is happy are those who take the plight of the poor seriously and do what they can to alleviate it.

We can assume that Jesus’ disciples new the text of Psalm 41, so what were they to make of Jesus’ recasting of it? Can it be that Jesus, contra Psalm 41, is telling his disciples to ignore the needs of the poor? I doubt this. Rather he may be saying something like this, “You cannot be concerned with the poor unless you are free from the system that creates such poverty. So choose poverty and free yourselves from the system of oppression that impoverishes others, and in these ways position yourselves to be of service to the poor.”

What does it mean to be of service to the poor? In the short term it may be ministering to their suffering, but in the long term it means overthrowing the system of oppression that is the Kingdom of Caesar and establishing the system of justice and compassion that is the Kingdom of God.

With this in mind we should add Isaiah 61:1 to our reading of Luke as well: “The spirit of HaShem God is upon me, because HaShem has anointed me (mashiach/messiah means “the anointed one”); He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed….” The role of the anointed, what I called earlier a Lamed Vavnik, is to bring good news to the oppressed. What is this good news? That an unjust world will be made just, and with it the ending of poverty, oppression, and war.

In Matthew Jesus is not talking about financial poverty but spiritual poverty. I read Mathew 5:3 in light of Psalm 34:18, “HaShem saves those crushed in spirit.” This is something other that financial poverty. Even the wealthy can be crushed or poor in spirit, a fact that is no less true in our time then in Jesus’ time.

But what is poverty of the spirit? While in no way disagreeing with your take on humility, let me take a different slant. The word “spirit” (Ruach in Hebrew and Spiritus Latin) also means “breath.” A poverty of breath could refer to meditative practices known and practiced by the rabbinic mystics of Jesus’ time that slowed the breath as a means to shift consciousness from narrow mind (mochin d’katnut) to spacious mind (mochin d’gadlut), and in this way overcome the egoic sense of alienation (achad). Matthew’s Jesus may be saying to his inner circle: Happy are those who cultivate the emptying of the breath for in this way you will experience the unity that is the Kingdom of Heaven.

I find this compelling. Jesus is offering a political agenda (reading Luke in the light of Psalm 41) focused on the ending of poverty, and a spiritual practice (reading Matthew in the light of Psalm 34) for those of the inner circle who wish to reenter the Garden of Eden by overcoming the ego’s sense of separation from God and Creation.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Mike: The First Beatitude

"When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:1-3, NRSV)

So opens Matthew's account. Note that Luke's version is a bit different: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." (Luke 6:20, NRSV). A generation of commentators sometimes found the differences important. They argued that Luke's simpler account was probably older and often drew a contrast between what they thought to be Luke's focus on the economically poor versus Matthew's "spiritualization" of poverty. I tend to agree with more recent commentators who argue both Matthew and Luke have something similar in mind: those who have learned to place their hope in God rather than economics or self-righteousness.

While some in the first century may have seen poverty as blessed, most did not. In fact, many viewed wealth as a sign of God's favor and poverty as punishment from God. Jesus' statment, therefore, runs counter to at least one significant strand of popular first century piety. Certainly, the beatitude challenges our own culture's myth that wealth equals blessing.

"Kingdom of Heaven" and "Kingdom of God" should be regarded as interchangeable. Both refer to the active "rule of God." Christian theological language was fluid throughout the first century, and we ought not demand excessive precision.

"Blessed" (makarioi)is an interesting term. Our term "beatitudes" actually comes from the Latin. The Greek term, though, means "fortunate," "happy," and the like.

"Happy" is a fine translation, but it may miscommunicate Jesus' intent. We tend to think of happiness as a feeling. Jesus, I think, had something else in mind. Let's assume he thought in terms of the Hebrew Bible. If I understand correctly, ashrei is a Hebrew term that may be translated as "blessed" or "fortunate." We find it used, I believe, in Proverbs 3:13: "Blessed is the man who finds wisdom." The section goes on to say of wisdom (verse 17), "...her ways are pleasant ways." The key idea is that a person is blessed or fortunate if he finds and follows the way of wisdom. Genuine happiness is found in taking the right journey or embracing the right perspective.

The first beatitude teaches that real happiness lies in recognizing and embracing our poverty, our need of God. When our eyes are opened, we see the futility of clinging to the lie of self-sufficiency and are freed to accept the help which comes only from God. The old Edenic lie ("you shall be as god" unto yourself, and this will make you complete) dies, to be replaced by an acceptance of our finitude and God's grace. To put it another way, profound humility before God turns out to be key to joy.

I want to explore possible implications for personal and community life, but I'll save such things for the next post.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 6/12 Post

Sometimes I think I critique what you say only to get you say more. I love your idea that the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount “call us to our senses, to open our eyes to the truth about ourselves.”

It is a great turn of phrase, especially when used in the context of contemporary religion. I often get the feeling that biblical Judaism at its best is all about returning to our senses; returning to the physical reality around and within us, and seeing that it is good. Our culture is far to Gnostic in the sense that it pits the physical against the spiritual, denigrating the former and elevating the latter so high as to be largely irrelevant to our lives. This is why the Song of Songs is so important both to the Canon and to our culture. It’s unbridled passion, sensuality, sexuality, and love between two people redeems both the Gnostic anti-body tendencies and the xenophobic violence that plagues so much of the Bible and western civilization.

When we return to our senses we realize that we are one with each other in a greater Wholeness. When we return to our senses we stand in what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called Radical Amazement at the wonder of life. When we return to our senses we fall in love with the world and with one another, and can learn war no more.

This is the great truth of the incarnational teaching of Christianity (as I understand it, of course). This is the core truth, the real Good News that Christianity offers the world, and which the world so desperately needs: God becomes human to remind us that we humans are God; that Nature is God; and that the Universe is God. Jesus starts out as a baby, just like us. He burps, he pees, he poops, he laughs, he cries, he rejoices, and he knows fear just like us. There is nothing human that is alien to God. And hence there is nothing human that cannot be made holy.

When we come to our senses we come to God. And when we come to God, that is when we realize the nonduality if all things as God, we regain our sanity and engage the world and one another with justice, compassion, and humility. This is what Jesus comes to remind us. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ program for achieving Micah’s True Religion: Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).

So, if I am following your comments correctly, you seem to be saying that the Sermon is in fact a vehicle for personal transformation. I agree. And the more I measure myself against it, the more work I realize I have to do. And, if I am lucky, I will work so hard as to finally realize that work alone won’t do; I need something else. This is when Grace takes over.

There is a Hasidic story about the first angels to come to earth. They climb down the Ladder from Heaven and then when they seek to climb back up they find the Ladder has been removed. At first they cry out in despair, but after a while they begin to jump. Their hope is that if they jump hard enough and high enough they will make it back to Heaven. After a while, however, they begin to tire; and one after another the angels quit jumping, convinced that they cannot return home under their own power. All save one. One angel just keeps jumping. No matter how exhausted he becomes, no matter how weakly he leaps, he still jumps. And just when he realizes that he cannot leap even one last time, God reaches down and pulls him home.

And that is how it is with us. We have to exhaust what the Japanese Buddhists call jiriki, self–power, if we are finally to be surrendered to the Grace of tariki, other–power.

Of course it takes a lot of courage to keep jumping when everyone else has quit. That is why a fellowship of like–minded and like–willed seekers is, as you said, so helpful. I’m not sure I would agree that fellowship is the point; that sounds a bit too humanistic to me, but it is a wonderful part of the process. The point is exhaustion. And then, God willing, return.

On to the Beatitudes!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 6-11 Post

Before launching into the first Beatitude, I want to unpack my position on the Sermon on the Mount, mostly in response to your previous post.

I do not think God sets us up for failure via the Sermon on the Mount (or the Ten Commandments, for that matter). Instead, God uses the Sermon to call us to our senses, to open our eyes to the truth about ourselves. Only when we more nearly see our genuine condition may we start to live an authentic human life.

What might we come to see about ourselves? When we attempt to embody the Sermon, we quickly confront our finitude, the hard fact that we have limits. We get in touch with the complexity of our motivations. The more attention we pay to our external and internal selves, the more we discern how deeply self-centered or (at best) tribe-centered we are.

Strangely enough, though, we also discover how much we yearn to become the kind of person envisoned in the Sermon. It's as if something within us says, "Yes, now that you put it into words, that's what I've been searching for all my life. That's the 'me' I want to fashion." To put it another way, the Sermon on the Mountain may trigger a deep longing for an alternative life and an alternative community.

We find ourselves caught between a new and realistic self-assessment and an awakened longing. It seems to me we may react in one of three ways: despair, deceit, or realignment. By despair, I mean we may decide the entire agenda is hopeless or impractical. If so, we'll usually retreat into some form of self-defensiveness. Deceit is a bit more complicated. Knowing we cannot achieve perfection, we choose to try to fool others (and perhaps even God)into thinking we do so. We may even fool ourselves part of the time.

Realignment involves embracing our limits, which is to say accepting our finiteness. Within our limits we are called to pursue the way of God, which in my case involves the way of Jesus. Both pride and despair, though, are discarded. God expects us to walk the way of Jesus, but he does not expect us to do it perfectly. He loves it that we choose to walk with him, even as he loves us. To totter along the path turns out to be enough. If we learn to walk with more assurance, the experience may be enhanced, but to walk at all is sufficient.

Analogies cannot be pressed too hard, but I'll risk one. I have a friend who is a top-notch golfer. I play the game, but bogey golf is about all I can manage. Don't get me wrong, I work at the game. I try to refine my swing, hone my putting, improve my course management, and strengthen my ability to concentrate for the entire eighteen holes. Still, I'm limited. Some days I play better than usual, some days worse.

Now here's the funny thing. My friend wants to play golf with me, though I slow him down and will never come near his level of play. We enjoy one another's company. When I hit a bad shot, we may analyze it a little. More often, though, we simply move on to the next shot. I learn what I can from him, and I'm a better golfer for it. Mostly, though, we enjoy one another's company. Fellowship is the main thing. Any other benefit is a bonus.

I think the Sermon on the Mount is a means by which God invites us to try to walk with him. The journey builds fellowship, along the way we may learn some things and hone our skills at living more nearly in accord with God's intentions, yet fellowship remains the main thing.

This is a long post, so I'll stop. My next post will take us into the Beatitudes.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 6/10 Post

I appreciate the overview, and I can see why you prefer the fifth option, but I am troubled by something. Like the Apostle Paul, you seem to be saying that God and Jesus set humanity up to fail; and that if it were not for God’s Grace and Jesus’ redemptive death on the cross, humanity would be damned for all eternity for failing to do what in fact is beyond our capacity to do in the first place. As you said earlier, the game is rigged and the House always wins.

You and I differ greatly over our understanding of God, but to simply offer a counter–argument would be somewhat prosaic. What I would rather do is hear from you regarding why God, as you understand God, would do this.

Judaism offers a very different notion. The Seven Laws of Noah that the rabbis derived from Genesis are the basic ethical precepts by which God judges humanity. The 613 Laws of Torah form the system by which God judges the Jews. The Jews are chosen for this more extreme lifestyle, but there is never any idea that God is setting Jews or gentiles up to fail. God says, “Keep My laws and My statutes, which a person shall keep and live by them—I am HaShem,” (Leviticus 18:5). Even God assumes we can do what God commands.

While most rabbis would agree that no one ever lives these laws perfectly, Jews do not believe people are judged based on a notion of perfection. Regardless of your beliefs, as long as your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds you are assured a place in Heaven. Indeed we even have Yom Kippur, our annual Day of Atonement, when God forgives all sins arising from our imperfect doing of God's commandments. (Jews are obligated to seek forgiveness from the people they may have hurt during the weeks prior to Yom Kippur).

This is, of course, somewhat academic since I don’t believe in a law-giving God who judges or damns; nor do I believe in a literal Heaven. As for what I do believe, I am drawn to your first and second options.

Given my suggestion that Jesus was a Lamed Vavnik, a Tzadik Nistar, one of the thirty-six hidden righteous, his sermon on the mount could be, as your first option suggests, a standard of living restricted to Lamed Vavnikim (plural of Lamed Vav, Thirty-Sixers). But if this is so, it is of very limited value. I prefer to see the Sermon as your second category does, an agenda for social change rooted not in large social or political movements but in personal transformation. Jesus as a Lamed Vavnik is articulating an ideal toward which we can all strive, but which few us will ever master. Mastery is beside the point; it is the effort that matters for it is the effort itself that is transformative.

I am very excited to go deeply into this text with you, Mike. I have never had the opportunity to study it formally, and certainly not with someone who seeks to embody it. I look forward to going into this verse-by-verse.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Mike: Introduction to The Sermon on the Mount

We will use Matthew 5:1--7:29, the canonical account of the Sermon on the Mount, as our text. Rami and I, of course, are aware of long-standing discussions related to the text. For our purposes, however, it matters little whether the existing text reports a condensed version of an occasion or is an edited compilation of various sayings of Jesus. We are interested in exploring the sermon's possible meanings.

The Beatitudes describe those who follow the way of Jesus, while the saying about "salt and light" speaks to the nature of his followers' influence in broader society. The specific teachings which follow provide pointed,though not exhaustive, illustrations of how following Jesus might play out in daily life. The challenge and depth of the sayings will become evident as we deal with them.

Christians have long debated how to apply the sermon. At the risk of oversimplification, I tend to reduce the range of options to a handful.

(1) A considerable segment of Christianity tends to assume the sermon applies only to a special class of Christian, perhaps clergy or monks or such. Everyday Christians are not expected to live up to such a standard. This viewpoint has existed at least since the Middle Ages.

(2) At any given time, some Christians treat the sermon as Jesus' agenda for social change. For example, classic American liberal theology assumed the sermon described what society would be like once the kingdom of God came to maturity within history.

(3) Others maintain the sermon was meant to apply only within a very limited time frame. They may differ over the time frame in question. American dispensationalists, for example, traditionally argue the sermon applies only between the return of Christ and the end of world.

(4) A long-standing approach assumes the sermon's demands are really designed to expose our sin, shatter our pride, bring us to repentance, and draw us to rely on God's grace.

(5) Some Christians argue the sermon has no application in this age. Instead, it describes the life of the redeemed in heaven or in the new creation.

(5) Christians from a variety of theological stripes take the sermon's demands seriously, assume they can not be fully realized in this life, yet insist we must try. Such Christians assume they live under God's grace. Generally, they also assume the sermon is meant to apply to the community of God, though such ideals might positively affect the world at large as well. The sermon, thus, always informs the life of the Christian individual and the Christian community. This is my favored approach.

Rami, all of the above represents a drastic simplification of an extremely complicated picture. To borrow and modify your earlier illustration, wherever three Christians gather to discuss the Sermon on the Mount, there shall be five opinions. That being said, I think I've provided a platform from which to launch our conversation.

Rami: Introductory Thoughts on Jesus

I think that was an excellent summary. You are right to note that I would ask “which Jesus,” and your answer was quite adequate; especially when you add to the canonical Jesus the Jesus of Christian reflection, and the living Jesus revealed to you through the Holy Spirit.

To me this is code for “Jesus and I understand him.” If there was one way to understand the Gospels, if all reflecting Christians reflected in the same way, and if the Holy Spirit revealed the same Jesus to every Christian there wouldn’t be hundreds and hundreds of denominations of Christianity. So while I have no problem stating that your Jesus is an authentic Jesus, I also understand that your Jesus is YOUR Jesus, and that you do not and cannot speak for all Christians. Which, of course, is what makes this dialogue so fruitful—just two lovers of God trying to hear the Word and walk the Way.

As for me, I speak for no one but myself. When I think of Jesus, and I do so often, both as an adjunct professor of Western Religion who is called upon to teach classes on the Historical Jesus, and as a student of Wisdom which I think the historical Jesus embodies, I think of Jesus as a Lamed–Vavnik.

In Hebrew the two letters lamed and vav represent the number thirty-six. Jewish tradition holds that in every generation there are always thirty-six God-realized human beings on this planet who, in my words, recognize the interdependence of life, and the nonduality of God in, with, and as all things. Lamed–Vavniks live out that realization by applying justice, compassion, and humility to the ordinary circumstances of their everyday lives.

In addition, the number thirty-six is two times the number eighteen. Eighteen is represented in Hebrew by the letters chet and yud which spell the Hebrew word Chai, life. Lamed–Vavniks not only sustain their own lives but the life of the world; their righteous deeds tip humanity toward goodness, and thereby keep the world from imploding under the weight of human ignorance, anger, fear, violence, and greed.

Lamed–Vavniks are also called Tzadik Nistar, the Hidden Righteous, and rarely come to the attention of the public. They work quietly behind the scenes, just as Jesus attempted to do in many of stories told of him in the Gospels. But sometimes the hidden is revealed, and when a Lamed–Vavnik is forced into the public eye she or he is almost always seen as a danger to the powers that be. And this too is clear from the Gospels.

If I am correct, and Jesus was one of the thirty-six of his generation, the Sermon on the Mount may well represent one of the few clear articulations of the way of the Lamed–Vav. I realize the scholarly problems with the text. I understand that there is no compelling scientific proof that Jesus spoke these words, but like you, I am not overly concerned here with the historical Jesus. Of course we need to place the Sermon in its historical setting (or at least the historical setting assumed by Matthew, the only writer to record this talk by Jesus). And, of course, we need to reference life in First–century Roman occupied Jewish Palestine. And yes, I believe Jesus lived, taught, and was crucified by Rome, but this Jesus is less important to me that the mythic Jesus, the teacher of Wisdom, the Lamed–Vavnik, who, once forced into the public eye, did not shrink from speaking Truth to power.

The question I will ask of The Sermon on the Mount is not “Did Jesus actually preach these words?” but “What is the meaning of the words themselves; and how do they guide me in the way of justice, compassion, and humility that is the heart of the Lamed–Vavnik?”

I have much more to say about Jesus, and I will allow that to come out as we talk. So let’s begin.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 6/9 Post

Agreed. Let's begin by each of us offering a brief statement about our individual perspectives on Jesus. After we've done so, I'll prepare a separate post introducing the Sermon on the Mount, insofar as I am able.

Now for Jesus. As you can imagine, it's difficult for me to summarize my take on Jesus in a brief post, but I'll try to do so.

Jesus, ideally, is the center of my life. Traditionally, Christians speak of Jesus as "Lord," "Master," "Teacher," "Savior," and the like. The simplest way I know to capture the essence of all such terms is to picture Jesus as the one around whom I orient myself. You'll probably ask, "Which Jesus?" My response is the Jesus we find in the canonical gospels (in all his complexity and simplicity), the Jesus of Christian reflection, and the living Jesus I know through the Spirit of God. For me, this is what it means to be a disciple or follower of Jesus.

Of course, while doing so I try to take care not to fall into the trap of thinking I've got Jesus pegged. As Carlyle Marney put it, "I try to follow the light I've been given, and I hope for more light."

God and humanity intersect and become one in Jesus. How? I don't know. But I accept the Incarnation and Resurrection, and when I combine them with the life and teachings and manner of Jesus, I find I stand in the presence of someone far greater than myself (or any other). He knows me, and indeed knows the human condition, not in the abstract but as a full participant. Yet, he knows God in much the same way, as a full participant in the life of God. I, therefore, can use language such as "Son of God," "Son of Man," "God-Man," and the like--though, I try to be careful in doing so, since such terms are open to any number of interpretations.

I know Jesus as the one in whom we see what life is supposed to be like, both now and in the new creation. He is the one who knows what it means to love God, others and self as God intends. Self-giving love (agape)finds full expression in his life and death, and through his resurrection is validated as the ultimately unconquerable way of life.

Strangely, enough, if I am to engage Jesus with integrity, I must take seriously that he was a first century Jewish man. That's the aggravating aspect to Incarnation--it refuses to allow you to divorce discourse about the divine from the nitty-gritty of human life and history. The first century matters. I believe there is considerable continuity between Jesus the first century person and Jesus the Risen One. In fact, I best trust interpretations of Jesus' intent when they are tied strongly to his historical context.

Finally, I find I must treat Jesus as a living entity. Resurrection matters, too. This involves more than memories and influence. For me, it is an objective reality. Not that I claim to understand all that means; in fact, such a thing is quite beyond my grasp. But I try to operate as if Jesus is alive, well, "at the right hand of God," and taking a healthy interest in the world at large and even in me. This is why I may speak of "a living Lord," Jesus as our "friend," and the like.

All of the above, and considerably more we'll no doubt unearth, comes into play when I deal with the canonical scriptures and their account of Jesus.

Rami's Reply to Mike's June 8th Post

As hesitant as we were, I do think it was worth the effort to articulate our understanding of the Ten Commandments succinctly, especially after so many pages of dialogue regarding them.

Just a quick note about the Second Commandment. We both agree that it is so dangerous to believe your own theology, to mistake our partial insights for absolute truth. I think it is this shared notion that allows us to carry on this discussion. While each of us is convinced in the rightness of our positions, neither of us is convinced that we have a right to be convinced.

There is a humility about our respective positions that arises not from tentativeness about what we believe, but from a greater knowing that no map should ever be mistaken for the territory. Religion in our time would be a very different thing if this humility were more widely held.

OK, while we shall always reserve the right to go back and add to our prior discussions on the Ten Commandments, I think we are ready to move on the Sermon on the Mount. Just as I took the lead and set up each of the Ten Commandments, it is now your task to introduce to the Sermon as a whole and each verse or teaching as it comes up.

Just be gentle with me. While we both had to study the Hebrew Bible and the Ten Commandments in our respective seminaries, only you had to learn the Greek and study the New Testament. So please don’t assume any knowledge on my part. Especially when it comes to the various understandings of the Greek terms. For example, are there nuances in the Greek that the English words “blessed,” “meek,” “poor in spirit,” etc. just fail to capture? This will be standing question of mine as we go through the text.

So think of this as “The Sermon on the Mount for Dummies.” I’m the dummy. But if we have other Jewish readers, or even some less well religiously educated Christian or secular readers, this approach will be a help to all of us.

One last suggestion: Perhaps it would be helpful if we each took some time to briefly articulate who Jesus is to us, sort of the way we each laid out our respective approaches to the Bible and the Ten Commandments.

Your call.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Mike's Interpretive Recasting of the Commandments

Like you, Rami, I hesitate to offer my own version of the Ten Commandments. Our hesitation may say something about the degree to which we reverence the commandments, regardless of our individual perspectives on their origin.

As I've already noted at other times, I assume the commandments find their origin in God. They are not only good for us as individuals but also provide the basics of a healthy community. This means I have less room than you to play with the core content of the commandments. On the other hand, the range of interpretation/application available to me is rather wide.

I choose not to recast the commandments as vows, though I find your model intellectually stimulating. Rather, I prefer to regard the commandments as the high bar set by God for all individuals and communities, goals that challenge us to become far better than we have been, yet goals that may ultimately drive us to rest in the grace of God and accept our legitimate limits, even as we go on trying.

That being said, my personal wording of the Ten Commandments (following the order we've been using) would go as follows.

1. Dare to acknowledge a particular God as your Lord and God: the One Who brought Israel out of Egypt and slavery. Remember, He is about the business of bringing you out of the narrow places, so don't be afraid to follow him into new insights, responsibilities and opportunities.

2. Never fall for the idea that you can capture God in a concept or an image--the moment you become aware you are doing so, stop it! Treat all concepts as partial and tentative, useful as tools but never settled or divine.

3. Never tie God's name to ungodly actions. Do not invoke God's name in the service of self-seeking, acquisition of power, feathering one's own nest, violence, or the other ills that plague humankind.

4. Observe the Sabbath, that you may learn to remember, know and rest in God.

5. Take care of your parents through acknowledgment, gentleness and self-sacrificial service.

6. Never murder. When in doubt about debated matters, refrain from taking a life.

7. Be true to your spouse. Be true in season and out, so that you may grow into the kind of person who loves steadfastly, even as does God.

8. Never steal. Start with particulars near to hand. Practice refraining from taking that which clearly belongs to your parents, siblings or friends. The practice will help to free you from the tyranny of things. Grow, so that in time you may learn to refrain from using more than your share of the community's or the world's resources.

9. Tell the truth. Do so humbly, knowing that your understanding of the truth may be flawed and need correction. Do so carefully, lest you hurt another needlessly. Tell yourself the truth about yourself, insofar as you can discern such truth, for that way lies freedom from lies and bondage. Listen to the truth about yourself, when another speaks it.

10. Turn aside the desire to possess stuff. Such desire poisons relationships, leads to over consumption, destroys the capacity to take joy in that which we are given, and leads to community-destroying violence.

To tell the truth, I would add an eleventh commandment. It goes as follows: "Practice the Commandments before the Lord your God as a child might play and work before his loving, trusted Parent; do not be afraid to try and fail, for His love for you is a steadfast love."

Friday, June 6, 2008

Rami's Version of the Ten Commandments

While I like your image of raising the bar, I am now hesitant to offer my own bar-lowering version of the Ten Commandments. Yet, I said we should do this, so here goes.

My version of the Ten Commandments is inspired by Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hahn. I like his focus on vows rather than commands. This reflects my personality: when someone commands something of me, my initial reaction is to resist either directly or, more often, passive aggressively. This is true even if the Commander is God.

Additionally there is the problem that God says lots of different and often contradictory things in lots of different and often mutually exclusive religions, and there is no objective way for me to discern which god is God and which religion is the one true religion. I am a Jew not because I know Judaism to be the one true faith, but because my grandparents believed it to be so. When it comes to deciding what is true in religion, I am forced back on my own devices. Since I make that decision anyway, I might as well be honest about it in these vows.

I am also drawn to the humanistic formulation of these vows. Rather than God commanding one thing or another, and my assuming it to be right because God commanded it; this formulation rests on my insight into the nature of human suffering, and it my understanding of that suffering that makes these vows compelling. Observation rather than faith is the determining factor here. And because we can all observe human nature for ourselves we can dialogue about these vows in a way that we cannot if we assume they come from God.

OK, enough hesitating; here they are: Rami's Ten Vows, or, in honor of our next text, Rami's Sermon on the Keyboard.

1. God is the Source and Substance of all Being and Becoming. Aware that the ego forever creates gods in its own image for its own profit, I vow to recognize all ideas about God as products of human culture, bound by history and circumstance, and forever incapable of defining and describing the Reality Beyond Naming.

2. God cannot be imagined and must not be imaged. Aware of the suffering caused by allegiance to dogma and creed, I vow never to make idols of ideas or to mistake any ism for the Is.

3. Do not misuse religion or spirituality by taking God in vain. Aware of the suffering caused by the misuse of God and religion in the quest of power, I vow never to mistake my path as the Path, my truth as the Truth, my idea of god as God.

4. Remember the Sabbath and set it apart. Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful living, I vow to cultivate the Sabbath as a weekly day of mindfulness, rest, and renewal.

5. Honor your father and your mother. Aware of the suffering caused by old age, illness, and death, I vow to care for my parents to the best of my ability, and to promote the honor and well-being of all elderly people.

6. Do not murder. Aware of the suffering caused by the wanton destruction of life, I vow to cultivate respect for and gentleness toward all life.

7. Do not engage in sexual misconduct. Aware of the suffering caused by sexual irresponsibility, I vow to uphold the holiness of sexuality by never degrading it, another, or myself through violence, ignorance, or deceit.

8. Do not steal. Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, injustice, theft, and oppression, I vow never to take what is not mine, to respect the property of others, to work for the just sharing of resources, and to cultivate generosity.

9. Do not lie. Aware of the suffering caused by hurtful speech, I vow to speak truthfully and with compassion, to avoid gossip and slander, and to refrain from uttering words that cause needless division or discord.

10. Do no covet. Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate ethical eating, drinking, and consuming, to live simply, to enjoy what I have before seeking to have more, and to labor for what I desire honestly and justly.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 6/5 Post

I'll certainly post my own interpretive renderings of the commandments, but first I want to respond to your post.

You're right. It would be sadistic to require something utterly beyond achievement, unless the requirement being imposed had another purpose. Let's play with that idea for a moment.

Our problem, I think, is that most humans set the bar rather low. We're content at the personal level to avoid "excessive" sin. We, in effect, rewrite the commandments to fit us.

"Don't have too many gods other than the one God. "Don't lie excessively." "Don't steal enough to really hurt anyone else." On and on it goes. Most humans and societies have little use for "perfection," either as a goal or in practice. It's as if we decided to take up running each day for our health. Only the first day, we find out how hard it is to run at all. Each day thereafter we run or walk a little less. Finally, we reach the point where do not run at all, though we keep our shoes and gear in a bag in the car.

The commandments, Jesus' injunction to be perfect as God is perfect, and the rest startle us. Someone dares try to raise the bar. Frankly, he or they set the bar too high. We can't make the jump. Trying to do so teaches this is so. We're not God, so we cannot be "perfect" as God is perfect.

So...the commandments and the injunction of Jesus (taken seriously) may force us to admit: "I'm only human." This, though, is not an admission of defeat but instead an acknowledgement of our true selves. We were never meant to be God. Humans were never created to be as God. We are made to be, well, human, the children of God. A great, self-imposed burden drops away. Strangely enough, acknowledging our legitimate limits frees us to rely upon God for help, to pursue perfection without becoming paralyzed by our failures, and to get on with our core vocation of caring for the world and others.

Well, enough. I'll look forward to reading your recasting of the commandments, and I'll follow up with my own as soon as possible.

Rami's Reply to Mike's June 4th Post

I think I overstated my position, and appreciate your reigning me in. I agree with you that it is sometimes worthwhile taking action even when logic tells you that you are doomed to fail. There is something heroic in this, and, as you pointed out, you may trigger powers beyond your ken that shift things in the long run. I didn’t mean to imply that one could know in advance that success was assured, but that in some sense success was possible.

This makes me of think of God’s teaching, Be holy for I, HaShem, your God am holy (Leviticus 19:2), and Jesus’ saying, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” (Matthew 5:48). If it is impossible for us to be holy and perfect that commanding this of us is sadistic. So, as difficult as it may be to achieve holiness and perfection, it must in some way be doable even if the act of doing it necessitates the death of the egoic self.

If I remember correctly, what triggered all of this was the notion that the Tenth Commandment was the only one of the ten that deals with thought and desire rather than solely with behavior. Commenting on the same observation, the 19th century German rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch argues that the very thing that makes the tenth commandment unique among the Ten Commandments is the very thing that proves it is unmistakably the word of God. While any flesh and blood lawgiver would thing to prohibit blasphemy, murder, theft, and the like, Rabbi Hirsch argues, only God would think to command us to purify our thoughts.

Not everyone goes in this direction, of course. In Judaism, we find intellectual consensus to be suspect; there is always a contrarian view. Our pedagogical guideline is: three Jews, five opinions. So here it is:

The ancient rabbis noted that the Hebrew verb for “covet” can also mean “to scheme after.” They sight Exodus 34:24, “No man will covet your land when you go up to appear before YHVH, your God, three times a year.” At issue is the fear that when I leave my land to go to Jerusalem to worship God during the three annual pilgrimage festivals (Pesach, Sukkot, and Shavuot) some unscrupulous fellow might seek to steal it from me. Hence they read the Tenth Commandment as, “You shall not scheme to acquire your neighbor’s household: his wife, his servants, his oxen, his ass, or anything else belonging to your neighbor.”

This does away with our notion that the Commandments are seeking to regulate thought, and makes all ten of the Ten Commandments purely behavioral.

One last observation before we wrap up our discussion of the Ten Commandments. The Exodus version we have been using differs from the version in Deuteronomy in a way the rabbis found significant.

In the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments, the tenth commandment opens with, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house,” and then goes on to list what is associated with his house including his wife (Exodus 20:14). In the Deuteronomic version of the Ten Commandments, the list of things a person should not covet mentions his wife first, and then his house: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, you shall not covet your neighbor’s house, his field, his slave, his maid, his ox, his ass, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Deuteronomy 5:18). According to the rabbis, this separation means that the word house in the second clause actually refers to a physical structure and not to the household in general.

The difference they say is this: the Exodus version refers to the nomadic life of Israel where owning a house was unthinkable, while the Deuteronomy version addresses their life after settling in the Promised Land and building permanent homes of their own. God gave two versions for the two different situations in which the people would find themselves.

I think this may be it for the Ten Commandments. We said we would each posit our own version of the text ala The Message. I look forward to hearing yours.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's June 3rd Post

Thanks for helping our readers with regard to "the noble savage." The distinctions you draw are on target. In my post, though, I had in mind a popular notion that enjoyed considerable popularity during the colonial period and even throughout a good bit of the 19th century. So...our discussion has now identified three takes on "the noble savage."

I've always found Walter Wink's perspective on the powers persuasive and a fine lens through which to examine Paul's statements on the subject.

We may disagree on one matter. You state that if we are called to confront the powers, we must also have the capacity to do so successfully, else the entire thing is futile. If I'm overstating, feel free to correct me. From my perspective, and I think this would be true of Christian thinking as a whole, this is not necessarily the case.

I don't think it too difficult to conceive of situations in which we might well be called to go up against a power beyond our strength to overcome. In such instances, we would be responsible to go as far as our wisdom and endurance allowed. At some point, the greater power would break or defeat us. We might truly be said to have failed. Yet, it would be still right to try. My tradition teaches that such "failure" may actually lead to consequences that ultimately bring down the power in question, or at least set it back.

If you want an example of this kind of thinking, consider The Lord of the Rings (and, yes, you really need to read the book). Frodo, the hobbit, finally breaks under the pressure of the ring's power and his own suffering and so fails. His failed quest, though, has managed to bring the ring to the one spot where it might (just might) be unmade. At that point, things happen that are beyond his control or imagination, and his failure is redeemed by the destruction of the ring. The resurrection plays a similar role the story of Jesus.

Well, we've managed to take flight and range over a wide territory during our discussion of the commandment. Perhaps you can bring us back to earth!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Rami's Reply to Mike's June 3rd Post

I want to take a moment and make sure our readers make a distinction between the essentially colonial and racist notion of the Noble Savage and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712-1778) idea of “natural man” with which it is often confused.

Rousseau, unlike Lao Tzu, did not trust in the goodness of human nature. Whereas the Taoist “natural man” follows the watercourse way of humility, patience, and wei wu wei (non-coercive action), Rousseau’s “natural man” can be very violent and dangerous. Rousseau only argues that concepts such as sin, wickedness, and lawlessness cannot apply to “natural man” because such terms only makes sense in an artificial society based on the imposition of law. On the other hand, and more closely parallel to Lao Tzu, Rousseau does argue that humans are driven by amour de soi, a positive self-love which society corrupts into amour-propre, pride. Pride, he says, leads to comparison between people which both he and Lao Tzu say leads to fear as those with more work to keep the lesser down and those with less seek to bring down those with more.

I think the truth lies somewhere in between, though I would side with Lao Tzu, Rousseau, and from what you are saying, with Paul that there is something systemic to social constructs that leads us toward greed, violence, fear, etc. This, I take, to be what Paul means by “the powers.”

With regard to these “powers,” I am very attracted to the teachings of Dr. Walter Wink, Professor emeritus at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. In his book The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, he defines the powers as “the corporate personality or ethos of an institution or epoch” (p. 27); “the impersonal spiritual realities at the center of institutional life;” (p.28) and “the soul of systems” (p. 29). For him powers are the “ism” and “ologies” that shape our thinking and our lives. Some of these powers can be positive, but many are evil. He sees Jesus as calling us to confront the evil powers such as racism, sexism, materialism, consumerism, militarism, and the like.

Obviously if we are called to confront these powers we must have the capacity to do so successfully, otherwise the mission is futile and suicidal. Yet, as you said, the game is rigged. The House always wins, and the House is rarely on the side of the people. In Jesus’ day the House was Rome and the Temple aristocracy, and we know how that turned out. Even when Rome was rebranded as the Holy Roman Empire, and Judaism came under the sway of the far more liberal rabbis, the House was still plagued by “powers” that fed off of and into human evil. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam hold out the hope that in the end God will win—Mansion trumps House—but I am not so sure.

I do my best stand up to the powers, but I do so without St. Julian of Norwich’s conviction that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Mike: Response to Rami's 6/2 Post

Let's start with your discussion of Paul.

I find your comparison of Paul and Lao Tzu interesting, and I agree it represents two very different approaches. Lao Tzu's approach, as you describe it, reminds of the great American myth of the "noble savage." If you recall, this myth posited that natural man (or woman) was uncorrupted until forced into contact with modern society. You can find echoes of this idea in something as simple as Burrough's stories of Tarzan, especially the first in the series: Tarzan of the Apes.

Human experience teaches a different lesson: humanity is complex, a blend of the altruistic and nakedly self-interested. Insofar as I can tell, we have no reason to believe humans naturally practice selflessness, duty, compassion and simplicity to the exclusion of greed, violence, and the like.

Paul argues that we are law breakers. When we finally "see" the law, we become aware of our condition and our habitual practice of our sin. To put it another way, we see that we are sinners because, well, we sin.

I think you may misunderstand Paul at one point. You write: "...Paul seems to condemn the flesh and root evil in biology, his fellow rabbis, following the Torah, root evil not in the flesh but in the human imagination and therfore articulate a more psychological approach to good and evil." Paul uses the term "flesh" (sarx) to describe the totality of a human being: mind, body, spirit, imagination, or any other set of terms you may choose to use. Sin puts down roots in one's total being. Paul's understanding of good and evil is profoundly psychological. He can lament how he sees and even wills the good yet turns around only to find that he has done precisely the opposite. That's a fair description of the human situation!

It seems that Paul assumes Yetzer haTov and Yetzer haRah, but he also believes the fight is rigged in favor of Yetzer haRah. Paul takes seriously the fallenness of society and concludes we are corrupted by it long before we become responsible for our actions. He also assumes that "powers" are in play. Traditional Christian commentators describe those powers in terms of demonic forces; more contemporary scholars speak of the impersonal power of evil inherent in institutions and the like. Regardless of the particulars, Paul feels the deck is stacked against us when we are born and that the "house always wins." I find his viewpoint starkly realistic.

His hope lies with God, particularly God as he has experienced God in Jesus. Paul assigns both personal and cosmic signficance to Christ, but the point to be made here is that the apostle finds in Jesus a kind of new life, which can challenge the power of sin and even defeat it when all is said and done.

"You shall not covet" triggered one of several transformations that seem to have occured to Paul. In his case, it forced him to abandon what seems to have been excessive confidence in human nature (or, at least, himself) in favor of a more realistic assessment of human potential.

Rami's Reply to Mike's June 2nd Post

I would like to make three comments in response to your post, and then pick up on something you said earlier.

First, I think your point about never really living in full accord with these commandments is important. At the heart of all authentic spirituality must be a reality–based humility that recognizes our capacity for sin. The most dangerous person I can imagine is one who is “without sin.” Jesus and his mother being exceptions, of course.

Second, like you, the ancient rabbis made a distinction between the image of God and the likeness of God. God intends to create humanity in both the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26), but when the creation actually occurs we are made only in God’s image; likeness is left out (Genesis 1:27). The rabbis taught that this means we are born with the capacity for godliness, that is the image of God, but only our own will determines whether or not we actualize that capacity and thereby achieve the likeness of God.

Third, I agree with you that we must deal with the shadow-self. In fact, not dealing with it is one of the greatest failings of contemporary religion and new age spirituality. We imagine all is light and love, and that we are all light and love, but this is false and frightening. Our inability to accept our Yetzer haRah (capacity for evil in Jewish terms) or our Fallen Nature (in Christian terms) leads to the projection of sin and evil on to others. The more we imagine God is all love, the more we have to imagine a Devil who is all evil. The more we imagine that we are all love, the more we have to imagine an Other (be it Jews, African Americans, Asians, homosexuals, liberals, conservatives, etc) who is all evil. This is the madness of binary theology that results in the religiously sanctioned violence that floods our daily news.

We need a more sophisticated understanding of God and nature, human and otherwise, which brings me to your reference to Rabbi Saul/St. Paul.

Paul says, “While we were living in the flesh our sinful passions, aroused by Torah, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death… What then shall we say? That Torah is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for Torah, I should not have known sin. I should not have known what it is to covet if Torah had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from Torah sin is dead,” (Romans 7:5-8).

Compare Paul’s teaching to that of Lao Tzu, the founder of Chinese Taoism. In the 19th chapter of the Tao te Ching (the “bible” of Taoism) Lao Tzu writes,

Banish learning, discard knowledge, and people gain a hundredfold.
Banish benevolence, discard righteousness, and people return to duty and compassion. 

Banish skill, discard profit; and there would be no more thieves.
Yet such remedies treat only symptoms so they are inadequate. One more is needed:
Reveal your naked Self, embrace your original nature, and ego dwindles and desire fades.

Lao Tzu and Paul agree that law and sin go together. Where they disagree, and do so profoundly, over the implications of this connection. Lao Tzu says that law corrupts our true nature, and that if we would abandon law and take refuge in that true nature we would return to our natural state of selflessness, duty, compassion, and simplicity. Paul seems to make the opposite claim— that our true nature is itself corrupt:

“So Torah is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good… (Romans 7:12-13). We know that Torah is spiritual but I am carnal, sold under sin… for I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh” (Romans 7:17).

Paul, if I am understanding him correctly, says Torah isn’t sin, but the principles of Torah define sin and thereby make sin possible. This is true. If we didn’t define speed limits on our highways we wouldn’t have people arrested for speeding. The law creates the outlaw.

More profoundly, however, Paul is also claiming, contra Lao Tzu and Judaism, that human nature is fundamentally sinful. The Pharisaic system in which Rabbi Saul and I were raised, and which St. Paul rejects, takes a middle position between Lao Tzu’s faith in human nature and Paul’s fear of it.

Where Paul seems to condemn the flesh and root evil in biology, his fellow rabbis, following the Torah, root evil not in the flesh but in the human imagination (Genesis 6:5), and therefore articulate a more psychological approach to good and evil.

As I mentioned a few moments ago, people are created in the Image and Likeness of God. Because God has the capacity for good and evil (Isaiah 45:7), humans too have both capacities, what the rabbis call Yetzer haTov (the capacity for selflessness and good), and Yetzer haRah (the capacity for selfishness and evil). Both are necessary, and each must act to set limits on the other. An excess of either selflessness or selfishness can lead to societal breakdown. Society needs the creative interplay of egoism and altruism. The ideal, the rabbis taught, is to harness the egoic energy of Yetzer haRah to the altruistic energy of Yetzer haTov and in this way achieve true human fulfillment and holiness.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 6/1 Post

Perhaps the best response to the commandment involves a combination of our suggestions: discipline which results in reshaping habits of the heart/mind; shutting down covetous thoughts as soon as we detect them; defusing such thoughts by observing them in a detached manner. When it comes to handling dangerous matters, I tend to favor having more than one option.

I remember your fondness for Jean-Yve LeLoup's suggestion ("you can" rather than "you shall."). After reflection I find myself in disagreement, assuming I understand what is being said. I'm not at all certain that "we can" fully actualize any of the commandments. On the other hand, observing them as best we can will change us. In terms of the commandments, such a change involves becoming ever more devoted to God and more respectful of community-building boundaries.

Personally, I sometimes think of the commandments, including "You shall not covet," in mathematical terms, specifically infinity. We can never reach the end of the matter, but each improvement in its approximation is good in itself. Shifting to an analogy from physics, knowing we can not achieve the speed of the light does not negate the potential value of getting ever closer to it.

From my perspective, the commandments may also serve as needed reminders of our limits. The very fact that we cannot fully implement them introduces us to the complexity of our natures, including the tension between the image of God within us and what one might call our shadow side. The image of God within us is drawn to the commandments, wants to embrace and practice them, knows they represent in part what it means to be fully and healthly human. Something else in us, though, fears and hates the comandments. This shadow-self sees in them its potential demise, whether through elimination or transformation. And it fights back. With reference to the prohibition against coveting, it tries to dull our senses, so that fail we to notice our thoughts and feelings and the way they affect what we do. Sometimes it turns very bold and challenges the commandment itself, asserting, "Greed is good" (to borrow a line from a medicore movie).

When we pay attention to this kind of thing, we may get in touch with our own sinfulness, that is with the way we consistently fall "short of the mark." Such self-awareness may push us in any of several directions: trying harder, giving up, humble acceptance of our limits without ceasing to try, a growing awareness of God's grace which frees us to go on trying in the same sense as chldren undertake difficult tasks without fear their parent will cease to love them should they fail, and the like. Each of these possiblities, plus others we might imagine, requires more space than this post permits.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Rami's Reply to Mike's May 31 Post

So much to talk about!

I am intrigued by your suggestion that the Ten Commandments is a spiritual discipline leading to the most difficult command of all: You shall not covet. As I think I mentioned months ago, I am taken with Jeam–Yves LeLoup’s reading of the commandments as “you can” rather than “you shall.” Torah may be saying, “You can, with the proper discipline, live without coveting.” But can we?

I agree with you, Mike, that there is no real need to distinguish between thoughts and feelings. Both are activities of the mind largely beyond our control. While I can choose to think about something in particular for a while, most of the time I just notice what my mind is already thinking about. As elusive as thoughts are, feelings are even more so.

Yet when it comes to coveting, however, there may be some nuanced difference between thoughts and feelings that does matters. Coveting begins as a feeling, a desire: “I want.” But it only becomes true coveting when that feeling shifts into a thought: “And this is how I am going to get it.” The feeling I suspect is primary. Without the desire, thoughts on how to achieve that desire would fade away.

Can I discipline my mind to put an end to coveting? I doubt I can stop the feeling from arising, since that seems to happen just below my consciousness. I only know I am desirous of something after the feeling is full blown. But I can, once thoughts begin to coalesce around the feeling, shut them down. Or at least shift my thinking to something else. But even this might still be a subtle way of feeding desire.

What if, rather than discipline the mind and its endless effervescence of thoughts and feelings, we simply observed the process itself? This is what the Buddhists call mindfulness, and we Jews call hitbonenut, contemplation or, more literally, self–observation. It is possible to watch the madness of desire without being moved to act against it at all. By simply noting the activity of the mind you can allow the feelings to arise of their own accord and without moral import. By not judging or reacting to them in any way, they lack the necessary mental energy to become complex thoughts of coveting; indeed without added energy they just dissipate.

The Tibetan Buddhists call this sky mind. You are the sky and the clouds that form are the thoughts and feelings. They may be pleasant or stormy, but they are never the sky. As long as you identify with the sky rather than the clouds you need not control the weather, you need simply allow it to pass.

I’m going to stop here to invite your response, and offer a separate post to comment on your insight into Paul.