It is no wonder that Americans grow ever more cynical regarding organized religion. I think few people are totally surprised by the recently exposed sexual abuses that have been going on within Catholic parishes, since the rumors have flown around for years. But I believe that which appalls most people is the high degree of cover-up that was perpetrated by those in high authority within the Church. But despite the recent falling from grace by Catholic clergy, we cannot place the entire responsibility of soiling the name of the Creator upon their collective backs. Decades cannot erase the memory of Jim Bakker and Jim Swaggart. And from Jim to Jim there was none like Jim Jones, who was willing to subsume the souls and eventually the lives of thousands to feed his hydra-like megalomania. In recent years the fall of Ted Haggard and the allegations of financial impropriety brought by the board of Oral Roberts University against some of its highest level administration serve as a reminder that the problems surrounding institutionalized religion are not all in the distant past.
Even the President had to distance himself when he was the Democratic Party nominee from his long time minister and religious mentor due to ostensibly racist public statements made by the latter. But our own Jewish religious leaders have not been immune from various moral miscues. It has taken more than a decade to reduce the collective humiliation felt by the Jewish community in Cherry Hill, NJ when rabbi was indicted for the homicide of his wife. Though it is not a criminal act, recent kol koreh (religious ruling) by the haredim have targeted those within their ranks who have embraced science and other secular pursuits to the extent that their careers, livelihoods and intact family relations have been threatened. These actions appear unjust and manipulative and have raised ire within that community, and disdain and mistrust in the wider Jewish community. Of course we are well aware of the unethical and sometimes violent tactics that the haredim have reputedly used against Messianic Jews in Eretz Yisrael.
But lest the cynics and the skeptics have their way, let’s remember that for every religious person that has been weighed and found morally wanting, there are many more whom humbly serve God to the best of their ability. And ironically, the accusation of hypocrisy that is often leveled against the religious would not be possible unless it were already presupposed that they establish and live by higher standards. This is the core value of today’s Torah portion, and is the reason why verse Vayikra 22:32-33 has been called “Israel’s Bible in little”. It contains both the solemn warning against Chillul HaShem, profanation of the Divine Name, and the positive injunction of Kiddush HaShem, the sanctification of God’s Name by each Jew with his life and if necessary with his death.
Throughout the history of our people Jewish martyrs have practiced Kiddush HaShem. Myriads of Jews walked to the gas chambers during the Shoah reciting the Shema, reminiscent of Rabbi Akiva’s heroic defiance of the Romans, blessing the Holy Name as he was flayed alive. And no greater act of Kiddush HaShem was performed than by the crucified Messiah who cried out in his final agony and resolution “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” How sharp is the contrast between these selfless acts and the self-promoting, self-aggrandizing claims of some religious hucksters who package God and sell His Holy Name like any other marketable commodity. A lifetime of experience reminds me that God’s highest values cannot be bartered through kitchy advertising slogans.
It is not enough to merely avoid using the name of God as commerce, we should in fact avoid even the appearances of wrong doing and be willing to forego our appropriate due if it will cause others to bless Hashem. Simeon ben Shitach was the Nasi of the Sanhedrin in the last century Before the Common Era. He lived in humble circumstances, supporting himself and his family by conducting a small business in linen goods. Once his pupils presented him with a donkey, which they had purchased from an Arab. On the neck of the animal they found a costly jewel, whereupon they joyously told their master that he might now cease toiling since the proceeds from the jewel would make him wealthy. According to Jewish Law he was not required to return the jewel since it came with the animal and it was purchased from a gentile. Simeon, however, replied that the Arab had sold them the ass only, and not the jewel; and he returned the gem to the Arab, who exclaimed, “Praised be the God of Simeon ben Shetach!”
When I was a boy my family would make an annual trip to the Lower East Side of New York, just prior to Labor Day. Although it was always interesting to take in the sights and sounds of an antiquated Jewish neighborhood still unadulterated by the pervasive influences of modernity, we weren’t there as mere tourists. My parents had a clear and focused goal, a shrewd and frugal acquisition of socks and underwear — enough to last an entire school year. Later we would enjoy pastrami and kishka at Katz’s Deli, but first we would endure the hunt for the “Holy Grail” of deals on Orchard Street. My parents always seemed to enjoy the challenge of these shopping sprees, but for me the narrow slanted sidewalks from which we were bustled into the busyness and clutter of the tiny shops, evoked considerable anxiety. The merchants were bombastic and persistent, and seemed to understand all too well the tactical advantage of keeping us on their turf. I was made extremely uncomfortable by their poor sense of boundaries, which suggested that all space was justifiably neutral if you happened to have “the best deal in New York.”
Years later I still bristle at the thought of being oversold, regardless of the product. No exceptions! This includes telemarketers who call during dinner, celeb-mail that promises the prize patrol will be knocking at my door, and misguided friends who invite me to multi-level marketing presentations under the guise of a dinner date. Oh yes… did I forget those over-wound, some times well meaning religious zealots, peddling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. My complaint and challenge to each of these approaches is the same. If the product is so marvelous put it in the marketplace where its merits will become obvious to all. In the world of vacuum cleaners and get rich quick schemes, talk is cheap. By perception, religious talk is cheaper still.
I would by no means demean the pursuit of truth, but one only need turn on the television, or at times open the front door, to realize how readily available and attainable the so called fundamental concepts of the universe are said to be. They come on bumper stickers, tee shirts, baseball caps, 3×5 cards, 4×8 pamphlets, billboards, placards and affordable jewelry. They are delivered over the Internet, placed in the local newspaper, left behind at phone booths, placed under your windshield wiper, spray painted on railroad trestles and shouted out at concerts.
Irreconcilable, it would appear, is the distance between the greatest sacrificial act the world has ever known and the banality of some evangelistic programming. Lost in the world of religious ballyhoo are the words, “Be holy because I the Lord your God am holy” (Vayikra 19:2) which are at the core of last week’s parasha, and form the prelude to this week’s. These words of course appear in natural juxtaposition to the commandments, therefore daring to suggest that more be expected from the fraternity of God than the mindless recitation of slogans and endless recruitment for the primary purpose of group affirmation and acceptance.
Would it be advisable then for the Messianic Jewish community to be silent, and to withdraw into a collective shell of self-absorption? Some would argue that this is already happening and, to a certain extent, I do not believe they are altogether incorrect. The question, though, is where do we find the appropriate posture between timid introversion and adolescent vitriol. The answer, I would imagine, is not really one of posture but rather of attitude. Do we imagine that we are somehow better than others with whom we share local real estate? As we seek to understand our identities in Messiah do we see ourselves gratefully disengaged from societal ills? Or are we willing to live in the creative tension as “new creations in Messiah”, and as human beings who share with all people a common experience in all of its joys, sorrows, pains, hopes and delights? What particularly do we make of the Jewish people? If the Jewish people are truly our people and not merely an abstract theological construct, we should be able to affirm and appreciate the collective wisdom, worthy values, hopes and aspirations of both the historical synagogue and the rest of the present day Jewish community, despite our differences.
The Jewish value of Tikkun Olam suggests that each of us share in the responsibility toward the restoration of the world. This divine-human partnership is not alien to the apostolic writings, but must be regarded in dialectic tension with God’s ultimate sovereignty. It is in the midst of this tension that Peter can suggest that we in some mysterious way accelerate the commencement of the messianic age. It is best understood in confluence with the Jewish value of Chai, or life. If we hold to the notion that God’s work of creation is magnificent, though tainted by the persistence of evil, life as we know it is can still be deemed glorious. Paul compares this dichotomy to the mixed agony and ecstasy of a woman’s labor in childbirth—and what mother would forsake the exhilarating experience of being a co-progenitor with the Creator of All, even to alleviate the excruciating pain and exertion associated with delivery. Neither should we sidestep our opportunity to bring hope into the world by demanding adherence to a few hackneyed presentations of doctrinal formulations. After all, Yeshua opposed on every turn narrow-minded ideologues that placed their own particular understandings high and above the needs of those about them.
Since Yeshua commanded us to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” it is incumbent upon us to enter into deeper relationships with others in our community, even if they are not in agreement with our particular doctrinal assertions. This is not to suggest that we in any way compromise our most highly valued principles, but rather that we inculcate that which we hold to be God’s highest values and the basis of our hope through normal engagement and consistent actions. By entering into a culture-engaging faith, we may affirm God’s creative power as expressed in such human endeavors as art, literature, drama and music, and we recognize intelligence as a God- given agency for the discernment and discovery of truth. If we are going to make a qualitative difference in the world about us, redemptive activity in the broader community is essential. Involvement in the spheres of medicine, the arts, politics, humanitarian endeavors, and all such society building efforts by extension would appear to be a divine mandate. Feeding the poor, reaching out to the helpless, the homeless, the emotionally needy and weary, stand tall amongst the prophetic pronouncements of the scripture.
Of course we should never ignore the present day reality of the Spirit and God’s supernatural disclosure in our world. Responsible and culturally relevant exercise of the gifts as well as prayer are the legacy of Messiah’s body, but they were never meant to excuse or dissuade us from personal and meaningful involvement in the lives of others. James would assert that prayer and assistance are complimentary. For the hope-drained, both are chicken soup for the soul.
Chaim Potok, the popular and spiritual Jewish novelist, illustrates this attitude toward outreach, when he tells of his own decision to write professionally. Apparently his mother wished him to become a doctor. The prospect of her gifted son being a starving artist did not match her own aspirations for him. During each semester break from school she would plead with him to give up his dream of writing, asserting that if he became a doctor he would not only make a handsome living, but would also save people from the grips of death. Following graduation, Mrs. Potok made her final appeal to, “Make lots of money and help people not to die.” Chaim responded, “I don’t want to stop people from dying, I want to teach them how to live.” His intentions produced Kiddush Hashem since his desire and his actions were to serve God’s highest purposes.
Life everlasting rings hollow if it is merely an ephemeral concept divorced from life, as we know it. But if the Olam HaBa (age to come) informs the Olam HaZeh (the present age), eternal life truly begins anew each day – and we become agents of God’s redemptive work, putting a heavenly spin on what might be construed as otherwise unpromising news from a world often mired in hopelessness.
Abraham Joshua Heschel lived a life of Kiddush Hashem, and his words, though right sized and humble should be an encouragement to us. “Great is the challenge that we face every moment, sublime the occasion, every occasion. Here we are contemporaries of God, some of His power at our disposal.”