Tag Archives: redemption

Donkeys, Tongs, and the Coming of the Messiah

The talking donkey most familiar to Americans these days is the cartoon character “Donkey” from the hit movie Shrek (2001). But Donkey’s predecessor, Francis the talking mule, debuted in a 1946 World War II novel, and then seven follow-up films in the 1950s; and the unbeatable original is a whole lot older still — Balaam’s donkey of Numbers 22.

All three donkeys are noticeably smarter than the people who own them, and maybe that’s the point. A donkey is a jackass, after all, the archetypically stupid beast of burden; granting them intelligence is a favorite artistic strategy

The Rabbis, who think Balaam’s donkey was real, trace its origin to creation itself, when God fashioned a variety of things that history would someday require but put them aside until they were needed. One such item was Balaam’s donkey. Another was the first set of tongs

Yes, tongs!

A quintessential breakthrough in human material culture is metallurgy: first iron, and then the process of heating it above 800 degrees centigrade to “steel” it for tasks where ordinary iron breaks. But to manipulate iron, you need tongs, and in order to make the tongs, you first need other tongs! It follows, then, that alongside Balaam’s donkey, God must also have fashioned a set of primeval tongs, which humans eventually discovered and used to make all the other tongs.

Long before metallurgy, there was fire itself, of course, so another rabbinic tale traces that also to God. This story accents Adam, the human being who discovered it; celebrated its heat and light; thanked God for it; and used it ever after

To tongs and fire as benchmarks in human progress, we should add writing, the means of transmitting knowledge through the generations. Rabbinic tradition ascribes the discovery of writing to Enoch, a descendent of Adam. Legend pictures God allowing Enoch to live among the angels, so that he might attain their mastery of the natural universe, and write it down for humans to learn

The important lesson here is that all these tales picture God as welcoming human discovery — unlike Zeus of Greek mythology, from whom Prometheus, like some primeval industrial spy, has to steal these very secrets (metallurgy, fire and script) and give them to mortals: an act for which he is punished by being shackled to a crag, where every day, an eagle rips open his flesh to devour his liver. The God of the Rabbis, by contrast, willingly creates everything we need – writing, fire, tongs, and even (for a single cameo appearance) a talking donkey: and then glories in our discovering them.

Civilization requires regularized breakthrough inventions, but do we invent them despite creation or does the very plan of creation favor our inventiveness? Judaism’s answer is the latter: the cosmos and we are in sync. God welcomes curiosity. God wants us to uncover the world’s secrets

Judaism views the universe as massive beyond imagination, but created with order and logic – just awaiting human discovery. To be a Jew is to value the art of exploring the unknown. Adam stops to investigate fire; Enoch writes notes on what the angels know; some unknown blacksmith figured out how to use tongs; and Balaam marvels at, and listens to, a talking jackass.

God supplies the world with whatever we might need; we dedicate ourselves to finding it. That, the Rabbis say, is what God wants: we are in league with God in manufacturing progress.

Progress is slow, however, measured only in eons, so we must commit ourselves to this business called life, for the long haul. Only eventually will we, conceivably, discover miraculous solutions for such problems as intractable disease, endemic poverty, ecological disaster and war.

We call that eventuality the messianic age, which tradition describes as a messiah arriving on yet one more donkey. That too, perhaps, is a holdover from creation, deposited in the wings of history and awaiting its turn on the world stage. Stay tuned. Who knows

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Why Faith Matters

Abraham’s centrality for Western civilization has been debated ever since the earliest Christians described him as the paradigmatic “man of faith.” Salvation, they concluded, arises through “faith” (what we believe) not through “works” (what we do). The Rabbis, by contrast, emphasized works over faith.

But Abraham as a paragon of faith is part of Jewish tradition too. Only through faith in a God who summons him does Abraham leaves home and family altogether. Rav Soloveitchik has provided an entire treatise entitled ”The Lonely Man of Faith.” Faith matters in Judaism.

How could it not — faith is inherent to being human! It takes faith to imagine that anything we do at all has importance in the long run. We have little or no control over our personal fate; we cannot predict what will happen to those we love; when we die, we take nothing with us; and, frankly, how much do we remember about even our grandparents, not to mention their grandparents? The entropy of time washes memories away.

It is also not clear that what we do has any long-term impact on history, which we wish we could control but, obviously, cannot. It takes faith to act as if life is worthwhile despite regular personal setbacks and in the face of traumatic global events we never expected and have trouble controlling now that they are here.

Soloveitchik traces the human experience of faith to the Bible’s very beginning. He links the Bible’s two separate accounts of creation (Genesis 1:1-2:4; and 2:5-2:24) to parallel aspects of human nature. The first story addresses the need to be creative. “Fill the earth and master it,” God says (1:28) — in other words, “Be productive; do something.” The second narrative, however, focuses on God’s giving us “the breath of life” (2:7). Its concern is life itself: not what we fill our lives with doing but what the point of all that “doing” really is. This deeper question addresses what we mean by redemption, or (as Christians prefer saying) salvation. Story One highlights accomplishment; Story Two underscores redemption.

From childhood on we are trained to value accomplishments but, eventually, accomplishments pale. That is the message of Ecclesiastes: “Utter futility! All is futile. What real value is there in all the gains we make beneath the sun?” If that sounds jaded, just consider how history is filled with accomplishments that do not matter anymore. We go to school to get a job, get a job to build a career, build a career to get ahead, get ahead to get further ahead, and so on. But to what end? “Accomplishment” is simply what we do; “redemption“ is the certain sense of why we do it. Redemption derives from faith in a transcendent purpose, a higher ideal to which we owe allegiance. Judaism calls that God.

We are back to asking whether we are saved by works or by faith — by accomplishments, that is, or by redemption. Accomplishments satisfy the human thirst for creativity, but will not suffice at moments when we are forced to wonder why creativity matters in the first place. Faith alone can tell us we amount to something, even when we feel like failures; when devastating illness interrupts our plans; and when we die so poor as to have little sense of material accomplishment or so young as to be unable even to conceive of a lifelong project, let alone to see it through. Only faith provides the redemptive certainty that we matter regardless of how our accomplishments turn out. And only faith can measure our accomplishments in the first place.

The Bible introduces Abraham as someone of no accomplishments at all; we get no biography of him whatsoever (the Rabbis have to make all that up). Abraham’s single claim to fame is that he responds to God’s call to undertake a journey in faith. He will face disappointment after disappointment; struggle with the land to which he is summoned; lose the battle to save Lot; banish his first son Ishmael; prematurely bury his beloved wife Sarah; and die virtually alone, far away from Isaac whom he once almost sacrificed. But his faith in a God whom he never sees will not flag.

Why are Jews so heavily invested in accomplishment, but not redemption or faith? Why are we so ready to dismiss the possibility of God, of being called, and of measuring ourselves without accomplishment as our center? The challenge is hardly to be like Abraham the great accomplisher. It is to face the possibility that we are called, like Abraham, to have faith in redemption, no matter what we manage to accomplish.

Verbal Stretching, Word Rustling, and the Fate of Religion

Words live in fields, where they stretch, grow, and expand with the reach of human inquisitiveness. Take “fishing,” a word some ancestor must have coined many eons back, upon successfully spearing a swimming thing in the water. When fishing became a leisure-time activity instead of a means to procure food, “goin’ fishing” came to mean the blissful inactivity of watching a fishing line bob in the water – fish or no fish on the other end.

The New York Times of June 5 testifies to the freedom with which “fishing” still circulates in its verbal field. A stock broker accused of insider trading proclaims his innocence by calling the investigation “a fishing expedition.” That’s a verbal and a metaphoric stretch, or, at least, it was once. Now it’s too commonplace to count; it is, if anything, a dead metaphor. So too is the idea of “stretch” in “metaphoric stretch,” but “stretch” is a good word, because calling the FBI’s actions “fishing” stretches linguistic use, and, therefore, the imagination, as well as the world itself. The world now comes with potential “catches”: the “little fish” who get thrown back into the street, and the “big fish” whom the little fish help the FBI to hook.

A second article describes the scam by which emails from seemingly reputable corporations, like our banks or employers, request personal information that can be manipulated for identity theft. It’s called “phishing,” another stretch of the imagination, not just conceptually this time, but visually too, because of the clever substitution of “ph” for “f” – like the rock group PHISH.  It turns out also that China has been phishing for American diplomats. This is not just a mass email going out randomly to millions. Its targeted nature earns it the name “spear phishing.” The high profile of the would-be targets may even make it a case of “whaling.”

Words and the world work in tandem. Simply by opening our senses to the changing world around us, we stretch it into more than what it was. Like an animal hide stretched out to dry, this expanding world requires pegs – verbal pegs — to stake out the new territory. It is easier to use old words than to make up new ones, because old ones come with meanings we can borrow. So metaphors become the very best pegs with which we stretch our consciousness of what the world is newly made of.

Words aren’t allowed to roam completely wild, however. Technical language is guarded by linguistic police who fence off the field where the words have grown up and demand they be used properly. Biologists, for example, mean something specific by a virus. Still, viruses attack computers and web messages can go viral; so even technical vocabulary can be hijacked for general use.

It’s a good sign when linguistic rustlers multiply; it means your words are prolific, doing well enough to be desired for the light they can shed on someone else’s corner of the universe. When linguistic rustlers no longer care enough to carry off stray words from their technical holding pens, the words in question may as well be dead.

That seems to be the trouble with religion. Nobody wants to carry its words away captive any more. We still have echoes of when they did: “revelatory finds” once harked back to revelation from Sinai; “redemptive moments” recalled the parting of the Red Sea. But nowadays, the religious verbal police can relax: no one wants our words any more.

Words are also like currency. When no one wants them, their value goes down. Ours is an era of theological currency debasement. Take even the word “God.” People use it all the time, but, God knows, it doesn’t buy the serious attention it used to.

The easy theological answer is for religious personnel to hunker down in their theological verbal fields and continue making sentences to each other about things that no one else cares about. I imagine the alchemists did that at some point or other. Religion too can aspire to becoming alchemy. A better course is to head out into the world, riding our theological verbiage with wild abandon, and showing people how poetically our religious vocabulary can get at the very heart of things. We can even do a little rustling of our own, showing the theological implications of such secular words as “pattern,” “purpose” and “promise” (see “Ya Gotta Believe – Something [Part 2],” May 15, 2011).

The world will go on no matter what, stretched by whatever verbal pegs people find useful. Whether it gets stretched religiously depends on how well the keepers of religious language provide powerful religious metaphors to do the stretching. The alternative is to retire from the task and go fishing.

Ya Gotta Believe — Something (Part 2)

The most familiar statement of Jewish belief is the section of prayer we call the Sh’ma and its Blessings. The Sh’ma affirms the absolute oneness of God. But most major religions affirm monotheism, so accompanying the Sh’ma are three surrounding blessings that delineate the nature of this one God whom Jews affirm. We believe in a God who a) creates all things, b) reveals Torah to Israel, and c) promises redemption.

So far so good. But here’s the problem. The minute we make those statements, we are in danger of evoking an image of some old man who creates the universe the way Geppetto created Pinocchio; who dictated Torah to Moses the way Donald Trump instructs his executive assistant to “take a letter”; and a military genius who foiled the Egyptians at the Red Sea the way the Duke of Wellington beat Napoleon at Waterloo.

These are exactly the “humanized” versions of God that most moderns reject as childish. Is God some super combination of Geppetto, Trump and Wellington? Is creation like Pinocchio? The Torah like an executive memo? And the Red Sea like Waterloo?

Of course not. What we have is a liturgical set of metaphors for God, the rabbinic attempt to envision God in a way that would stretch people’s imagination. Ever since then, Jews have struggled with these metaphors, making them over into new ones of their own, if need be, so as to express the inexpressible essence of the Divine.

The best-known modern effort to do so avoids saying anything about God at all. Instead it names the processes in which God seems here to be engaged. God, we have been taught to say, is a God of creation, revelation, and redemption.

Again, so far so good. But literalists then try to translate process back into person. God, they conclude, is a creator, revealer and redeemer — which puts us back at square one, likening God to Geppetto, Trump and Wellington again. Besides, creation, revelation and redemption do not resonate for us the way they did for the nineteenth-century philosophers who came up with them. No one these days is likely to encounter a discussion on any one of them.

If we are to believe in anything sustainable, we require more up-to-date metaphors that capture best this three-fold insistence on creation, revelation and redemption; which are, therefore, equally true to the original intent of the prayers; but which speak to our time. I suggest a metaphor that combines time, space and history.

What astounds about the universe is the aesthetic and scientific miracle by which the finely-tuned network of natural law accords so beautifully with mathematics. For modern Jews, therefore, the doctrine of creation is best translated as the affirmation that the universe has pattern. It runs by an amazingly small set of universal laws that never ever fail.

Revelation describes our faith that this cosmic order is not without human purpose. We humans can matter in a grand scheme of which we know almost nothing but into which we have been thrust.

Redemption is the realization that over the long run, purpose within pattern gives us the right to hope.

Pattern, purpose and hope are the contemporary equivalents of creation, revelation and redemption. They sustain us on the tiny bridge of time called history.

If the age of the universe were a line in space equal to the distance from New York to Los Angeles, Jewish history since Abraham and Sarah would cover only ten feet, and human existence, prehistory and all, would encompass only part of a single span of the Golden Gate or George Washington Bridge. The Holocaust, therefore, in all its unspeakable horror, is insufficient to shatter optimism. The State of Israel is a similar, albeit positive, tiny step in time, an outpost of hope we must defend, but hardly a sign of imminent messianic victory, as some extremists imagine. Life is lived in the narrowness of bridge spans. Faith is the insistence that the bridge goes somewhere, connecting past and future in a present that has meaning.

For the bridge is not without direction. Creation pulses forward toward ever-increasing freedom. If God is the power behind universal pattern, the guarantor of purpose and the ground for hope, we can say, in short, that God (as it were) wants human freedom; has designed a universe that invites it; and summons Jews to champion it. The Jewish People’s moral purpose is to tell our story of servitude and freedom; to act it out in ritual that revives our vision and steels our nerve; and then, in all we do, to demonstrate our faith in freedom as the redemptive end of history.