Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Welcome to Mount and Mountain

This blog features a conversation between Rabbi Rami Shapiro and Dr. Mike Smith, a Christian pastor. Please feel free to add your comments to our conversation. However, it is our goal to turn this blog into a book, and to incorporate some of your posted comments as sidebars. By posting on this blog you are giving us explicit permission to use your comments in any form this book may take. Our goal is to post new material each Tuesday.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mike: Closing Comments

Do you remember the genesis of "Mount and Mountain?" We fell to talking about how we might partner to write about the Ten Commandments and The Sermon on the Mount. We knew, I think, what we did not want to attempt: yet another doctrinal study, diatribe, or something suitable only for academics. Instead, we wanted to practice and model a genuine conversation between two friends from quite different yet historically intertwined religious traditions.

At some point in the conversation, one of us mentioned reading the collected letters of a well known author from another era. Many of the letters featured the author's ongoing conversations with close friends. The conversations ranged over a host of topics. Each matter received serious treatment. Sometimes the author or his correspondent changed their minds in light of a given argument. More often, they simply enriched one another's thought and deepened their understanding and appreciation for one another.

We knew we had found our model. So began the exchange which became Mount and Mountain.

I've learned a few things along the way.

First, I believe you're correct. Trusted friends reading, wrestling with, and commenting on each other's sacred texts may prove to be the most fruitful model for interfaith conversation in the years to come. For one thing, friendship may enable us to hear some things we would rather not hear! Perhaps friendship should become the prerequiste to interfaith conversation.

Second, our two voices did emerge and take on consistency, even as we sought to remain open to one another's insights. We often discovered that we have much in common, especially with regard to the power of story, ethical and other practical applications of a given text, and recognition of the complexity of humans. Differences also emerged, ranging from the nature of God and the identity of Jesus, to how hard to press a metaphor.

Third, I suspect our respect for and knowledge of one another's traditions grew. The journey taught us, I think, that we need one another's perspective(s)if we are to find our way through our complicated lives and complex world.

Thank you, Rami, for investing so much of yourself in the conversation. No doubt, the two of us will continue the conversatin, albeit in other ways.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Rami: Closing Comments

At the heart of rabbinic Judaism is the notion that the reader co-creates the text with the author. While it may be that the Torah comes from God, its meaning comes from us. I am not inclined to take this literally. I don’t think God writes books. But as a metaphor it is a very powerful insight.

There are some texts that come from the highest levels of human spiritual consciousness, pointing (given the limitations of the author’s time, space, and cultural biases) directly to timeless principles that need to be applied in each generation. We have been dealing with two of these texts: the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. While each speaks in a specific language, Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, and to a specific people, the Jews, both boldly articulate some of the timeless principles by which all peoples in all times can live effectively with love, compassion, and justice.

What made this project so rich for me, Mike, was having the opportunity to hear these texts filtered through your heart and mind. If it is true that we co-create the texts we read by interpreting them in light of our own experience and knowledge (as well as our own ignorance and bias), then the pleasure I have found in reading these texts with you was in discovering your version of them.

But there is something else to be found in these blog posts, something that is far more important.

Interfaith dialogue is not new, but most of it takes place on the level of doctrine. Rarely do you find people of different faiths reading one another’s holy books together. Granted, the Ten Commandments are no less a part of Christianity than they are of Judaism, our traditions do understand them differently. And when it comes to the Sermon on the Mount, the rarity and import of our dialogue becomes all the more clear.

What I hope we have modeled here is a new avenue for interfaith conversation: trusted friends reading, wrestling with, and commenting on each other’s sacred texts. I would like to see this repeated over and over again with clergy and texts from as broad a religious spectrum as can be mustered.

When we started this project so many months ago I had no idea where it would take us, and I have been surprised by some of the avenues we have travelled together. I was also taken with how clearly our two voices emerged. There is a consistency in our respective approaches that reflects the fundamental differences between our traditions, and yet suggests that no one way is sufficient. We balanced one another, I think, and did so in ways that enriched my understanding of the text and our traditions.

It has been a blessing and an honor to work on this with you, Mike. What’s next?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Rami: Response To Mike's 6/30 Post

God is a gardener? No way! Genesis 2:4-5, “When the LORD God made earth and heaven— when no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no earthling to till the earth.” So much for God the Gardener. God had to invent that job and then create humanity to do it. Enough levity, on the text.


I cannot read this parable of the builders without thinking that Jesus is retelling the teaching found in the prophet Ezekiel (13:10-16 NRSV):

“Because, in truth, because they have misled my people, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace; and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear whitewash on it. Say to those who smear whitewash on it that it shall fall. There will be a deluge of rain, great hailstones will fall, and a stormy wind will break out. When the wall falls, will it not be said to you, “Where is the whitewash you smeared on it?” Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: In my wrath I will make a stormy wind break out, and in my anger there shall be a deluge of rain, and hailstones in wrath to destroy it. I will break down the wall that you have smeared with whitewash, and bring it to the ground, so that its foundation will be laid bare; when it falls, you shall perish within it; and you shall know that I am the LORD. Thus I will spend my wrath upon the wall, and upon those who have smeared it with whitewash; and I will say to you, The wall is no more, nor those who smeared it— the prophets of Israel who prophesied concerning Jerusalem and saw visions of peace for it, when there was no peace, says the Lord GOD.”

The “whitewash” is a coating that gives the illusion of strength, like the houses of those who build on sand.

Jesus rabbinic contemporaries made the same point. In Avot de Rabbi Nathan Rabbi Elisha ben Avuyah says, “A man who does good deeds and diligently studies Torah is like a man building a house with a stone foundation and a shingled roof… When a flood comes the house does not move. But a man who studies and yet does evil, is like one who builds a house with shingles for a foundation and rock for a roof. Even a slight rain causes the house to collapse” (Avot de Rabbi Nathan, 24).

What interests me is that Jesus is, like the rabbis before and after him, preaching the gospel of the deed rather than the gospel of faith. It isn’t enough to hear the words of Jesus or even to believe them, one must live them, do them, for it is our action that is the rock while mere faith is sand. Luke makes the point even more clearly when his Jesus says anyone who hears his words and lives them is like the builder whose foundation is rock, but anyone who hears his words and does not live them is building a house on sand (Luke 6:47-49).

Most of us build on sand.

The closing part of the Sermon is challenging to me personally: “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” (Matthew 7:24-28, NRSV)
The first thing I notice here is that Matthew seems to have forgotten that Jesus withdrew from the crowd and spoke the Sermon to his inner circle: “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,” i.e. the disciples, not the crowd (Matthew 5:1-2).

If this is true, the crowd never heard the Sermon on the Mount, and this closing line is a later editorial gloss added to the text to highlight the idea (false in my opinion) that Jesus taught something drastically new. While Jesus puts his own unique spin on his teachings, he is still teaching Torah whether or not Jews and Christians want to admit it.

As to his manner of teaching, Jesus does violate a major tenet of Judaism: cite your source. While rabbis can be very innovative in their interpretations of scripture and law, we consider it an act of respect to honor those teachers who came before us by citing their teachings in their name. This continues today. We delight in showing the evolution of our thinking by quoting our teachers even when we know we are going to put a spin on the teaching that these teachers never imagined and with which they might not even agree.

So, yes, Jesus’ seeming lack of respect for his rabbis would shock people. It still bothers me today, which is why I spent much of our conversation citing sources that may have been in Jesus’ mind when he taught. I say his “seeming” lack of respect because it is hard for me to imagine him not citing sources. It was and is such a central part of rabbinic culture that I cannot help but believe that Jesus did honor his rabbis and that the Gospel writers simply chose not to include those references.

The reason why the Gospel writers would make this choice is not hard to fathom. To them Jesus was not speaking for an ancient tradition but for God, perhaps as God. God is the source of these teachings, and since God is speaking them there is no reason to cite sources. If they were to include the early teachings from which Jesus shaped his own message this would tie Jesus too strongly to Judaism and make the emergence of a largely non-Jewish church all the more difficult. Once again, politics shapes religion.

• • •

I like way you sum up your take on the Sermon, Mike. You seem to suggest it is, in today’s world no less than the world of Jesus’ time, counter-cultural. I heartily agree. What would it be like if people built their homes on rock and actually lived the Sermon, rather than build on the sands of power, politics, and the theological veneer that seeks to pass these off as religion?

Prophetic religion should always be counter-cultural when the culture is rooted in exploitation, greed, ignorance, anger, and violence. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all started out as counter-cultural revolutions and each ended up as the bearers of culture and excusers of the violence to which their respective cultures fell prey.

I may have mentioned this earlier, but I once watched Larry King interview a panel of Evangelical Pastors on the eve of the second Iraq War. He asked them how they reconciled Jesus’ “Blessed are the peacemakers” with President Bush’s doctrine of pre-emptive war. One of the women on the panel answered him saying, “Our soldiers are the peacemakers. As soon as they kill all our enemies there will be peace.” Couple this with the recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll that found that 60% of Evangelical Christians supported torture of terror suspects while only 40% of the unchurched did so, and we have to wonder if Christianity is still counter-cultural.

As always, Mike, you are clear and insightful: it does take a leap of faith to embrace and live the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. The leap is not so much the belief in the divinity of Jesus, but in the possibility of mere humans being capable of living the life he prescribed for us. With the rise of fundamentalism in all three Abrahamic religions I am doubtful that any of us have this faith.

On the contrary, our faith is in the very things Jesus rejected, the very things that are bringing us and our civilization to the brink of disaster. We need to do more than hear the Sermon. We need to live it.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Mike: Matthew 7:24-28

Aside from your (occasional) penchant to try and treat a metaphor as a subject for scientific inquiry, I think your "improvisational jazz" suggestion is useful. It certainly provides a metaphor of life and creation as experienced in any given moment. When my sense of humor kicks in, I sometimes imagine an encounter with God when all history has played out. He greets us and agrees to take a few questions. When we mention the various music metaphors, God exclaims: "Music! What music? Me, I'm a gardener!"

We've arrived at the final paragraph of the Sermon on the Mount. It reads: "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on the that house, but it did not fall. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell--and great was the fall." Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. (Matthew 7:24-28, NRSV)

A childhood chorus first imprinted the story on my mind. Repeating lines about the falling rain and the rising flood, coupled with appropriate body movements, led to a conclusion in which the wise man's house stood but the foolish man's house "came tumbling down." We were easily entertained in that era!

In the context of The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus' words constitute both warning and invitation. Listening to, digesting, attempting to structure life in accordance with his words matters. Many Christians over the centuries have taken the injunction to imply that the Sermon on the Mount is the literary core of Christianity. Those who do so, tend to read the remainder of the gospels and the rest of the New Testament in light of The Sermon on the Mount. In short, the sermon becomes a "canon within the canon."

It's worth recalling how counter-intuitive the sermon feels to most of us. In an era when many, perhaps most, believe safety is found in violence, even pre-emptive violence, the sermon speaks of loving an enemy, of doing unto others as we would have do unto us, and the like. At almost any point in the sermon, we find ourselves confronted by an alternative vision of personal and community life. Frankly, I find it requires a bit of a leap of faith to attempt to embrace and practice the sermon's core teachings.

With regard to the parable itself, it assumes a setting in which heavy rain and floods are rare enough to enourage short-cuts or complacency. The parable's images are heavy-handed, designed to contrast the stark difference between foolishness and wisdom. As I have noted before, it seems to me he draws upon the tradition of the two ways, in this case clothing it in talk of two ways of selecting a home site.

The Sermon on the Mount closes with a summary statement of the crowd's reaction to the entire speech. Christian scholars have invested a great deal of ink and paper in the attempt to understand the text's contrast between the scribes and Jesus approach to teaching. More often than not, they suggest the "scribes" tended to teach on the basis of an inherited tradition, relying on the authority of those cited. The same scholars suggest that Jesus, in contrast, spoke as one with a word from God, whether in a sense similar to that of earlier prophets or as the Messiah. Frankly, I doubt we can discern the gospel writer's intent at this historical distance, other than to say he believed Jesus taught with a authority his listeners found novel.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Rami: Response To Mike's 6/22 Post

You are right, Mike—metaphors are always risky. Especially when shared between friends who delight in tweaking each other’s metaphors. So, with all due respect, let the tweaking begin.

First, I love the symphonic metaphor. Second, I agree that there are various movements that flow through the piece to create dramatic point-counter point essential to the quality of the music.

I’m not so sure about the conductor. Who would this be? God, I assume, is the composer, and while the composer could also be the conductor, I assume that since you didn’t say that, you didn’t mean that. So maybe Jesus is the conductor. But Jesus, having left the symphony in the hands of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, makes for a poor conductor. So perhaps it is the Spirit who conducts.

Even if we could agree on who the conductor is, we still have the problem of the orchestra rebelling against the conductor’s direction. A good symphony follows the conductor’s lead. If they don’t, the orchestra devolves into chaos and the conductor is out of a job.

Maybe the problem is solved if we shift from symphonic music to improvisational jazz. As I understand it, jazz has a core theme off of which jazz musicians improvise riffs. The riffs cannot ignore the theme, but they may oppose it and offer contrast to it. Such music is often highly discordant, and that would make the metaphor all the more apt. It is also created on the spot. In this metaphor there is no conductor, and God the Composer only sets the theme and waits to see where the musicians will take it. Maybe this is why God refers to himself in Exodus as Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, I will be what I will be. Even God is surprised by where the music goes.

What I like most about the music metaphor (regardless of musical style) is the need for rests and the goal-lessness of play. Music without the silence of the rests is just noise. Organized religion (as opposed to mysticism) makes little room for silence, the deep silence that frees us from the fixed notations of theology and ritual. The music metaphor would allow us to honor the silence more.

As for the sheer joy of playing, unlike most things we humans do in life, getting to the end of a piece of music is never the goal. The play is the goal; the journey is the thing. Otherwise the best symphonies would be those that played the fastest, and the greatest composers would only write endings.

Mike: Response to Rami's 6/10 Post

I agree with all you say about the ambiguity of goodness, the ways in which we justify evil by appealing to a greater good, our tendency to develop narrow definitionsl of human community, and our bent toward selfishness. I even agree with your take on the golden rule.

Metaphors are always risky, but here's one I find useful. Think of the human story as a piece of music. All of the horrible themes we've identified comprise a major movement within the piece. At times the movement dominates, sometimes it recedes into the background, but it is always there. Still, it is not the only movement. There is another one, a second one, and it plays the great themes of an all-inclusive humanity, humility, sacrifice and deeply shared interests. The two movements play, contend, rise and fall--but they go on playing. Some of us hear one movement more clearly than the other; some of us hear only one theme. We often think we've mastered the music, though truth to tell no one ever really does. Still the music plays on, and neither theme is eliminated. my view there is a Conductor who never ceases to try to bring the second movement to the forefront. This may well be the core difference between us. I don't know. In any case, though, I believe the Conductor is involved, though he operates within the limits set by the role he has assumed.

I choose to pay attention to the second movement, to allow its cadences and runs and pace and tone to become the music which is my life. I may well mishear a note, sing along off key, get out of beat--but so long as the second movement plays and so long as I try to listen, I ulitimately will be drawn back into the movement.

So I dare to sing or play or simply beat time to the second movement. So long as the second movement plays, I will not lose hope.