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(Reflection given on June 19, 2016, at East Barnard Church. Texts were Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Marge Piercy’s poem, “Kaddish.” At the beginning of the service we learned to sing the Shema.)

When you hear “love your neighbor,” what’s the first thing that pops into your mind? Growing up in the church, I was taught the importance of loving my neighbor, and my parents gave me an idea of some practical ways I could carry that out, but overall I got the feeling it was something I was supposed to feel rather than do. Loving people was a vague sense of benevolence, a feeling that became more difficult to sustain as I got older and learned more about the ways people can hurt each other.

This is a common failing of Christian teaching, especially white Protestant Christianity: too often we reduce love to a feeling and divorce it from action. I remember a woman at my former church saying, with some frustration, “Preachers always say love your neighbor, but they never tell you how to do it!”

This is not a problem for Judaism. We Christians tend to think in terms of ten commandments, which is understandable, given that the Ten Commandments are at the heart of the Hebrew Bible’s teaching on how to behave. However, there are actually no fewer than 613 commandments (in Hebrew, mitzvot) scattered through the first five books of the Bible. Christian theology has tended to denigrate this tradition, often fueled by Paul and his dualistic talk about grace vs. law.

So first off, I want to talk about what we tend to call “law,” which is a mistranslation of the word “Torah.” Torah can refer to the first five books of the Bible—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—which contain the story of the creation of the world and its people, God’s liberation of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, and God’s covenant with Israel. Torah can also mean the instructions God gives Israel for its day-to-day behavior. Christians tend to call them laws, but Torah really literally means “teaching” or “instruction.” And this distinction is important: laws are rules imposed from without, whereas teaching or instruction has a connotation of guidance that needs to be internalized, guidance that informs the heart of what a community is. Laws are imposed to keep things running smoothly, whereas instruction speaks also to the values and identity of a community.

Instruction is a deep theme of Exodus through Deuteronomy: over and over, the people of Israel are told to remember and not forget, to keep telling the story of being enslaved in Egypt, of God liberating them to become a holy community and a blessing to the world. Israel is told to instruct their children in the narrative of how they came to be free, to instruct their children about the values they must embrace. You tell the story and retell the story because everything in your life is connected to that story.

In his book Not in God’s Name, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks states that, of the 613 commandments, or mitzvot, in the Hebrew Bible, the three most important are: “You will love the Lord your God,” “You will love your neighbor as yourself,” and “You will love the stranger.” Jesus, who we should always remember was a faithful Jew, summed up the Torah by saying that on these commandments hang all the law and the prophets. That is, the rest of the Bible is commentary meant to flesh out these three basic commandments.

So, how do you love? Here are some of the ways: No murder. No adultery. No coveting or stealing anything belonging to your neighbor. Leave some of your crops unharvested, so that those who are needy among you may take and not be hungry. No charging exorbitant interest rates, or trapping the poor in debt for their whole lives. Pay your employees on time. Give everyone in your household, even servants and animals, a day of Sabbath rest. Respect the elders. No corruption. . . . The nice thing about having 613 mitzvot is that you’re really well instructed in how to love your neighbor and the strangers in your midst. Having 613 mitzvot reminds you that love is not a feeling, it is what you do, with your body, to all the other bodies you come in contact with.

Torah even speaks to loving one’s enemies, as in Exodus 23:4-5: “When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back. When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free.” In other words, you may not refrain from helping someone because you hate them or they hate you. You may not take your hatred out on innocents. In their interpretation, the early rabbis who commented on the Torah and composed the text known as the Talmud went even farther: Noting that a similar text in Deuteronomy speaks of helping your brother’s donkey, the rabbis debated which commandment you should obey first if both your brother and an enemy have donkey problems at the same time. They concluded that you should first help your enemy, as an exercise in “overcoming estrangement, distance, and ill-will” (Sacks). Meaning, breaking down barriers and divisions is more important than helping family, whom you’re inclined to help anyway.

Of course, there are a lot of problematic commandments, too. Rules about rape that are decidedly unfeminist; rules about death sentences that are barbaric by modern standards; rules about sexuality that apparently forbid homosexuality. Just to take that last one for a moment: it is essential to remember that homosexuality and bisexuality as orientations did not exist in the ancient world (though there are undoubtedly times and places where it was not stigmatized, or at least not as stigmatized as in other times and places). In the ancient imperial cultures that often dominated Israel and Judah, sex between men was rape and it was an act of war, used to “unman” defeated men by making them feminine, i.e, powerless and passive. There was no such thing as sex between two loving, consenting men or women; such a thing was unthinkable. So the whole issue of what the Bible says about homosexuality is moot; the biblical writers didn’t even know that a man and a woman could have an egalitarian relationship, much less two men or two women.

Which brings us to the question of interpretation: There is no such thing as reading without interpretation. There is especially no possibility of reading ancient Scripture, which has its roots in cultures totally different from ours in time and place, without a long tradition of interpretation. There are three critical things for Christians to keep in mind when dealing with problematic Hebrew Bible texts:

First of all, every biblical text we have a problem with is part of the Christian Bible. We can’t dismiss such texts as Jewish because they are Christian texts, too.

Second, distinguishing between an “Old Testament God” and a “New Testament God” is meaningless. If you read it, you quickly realize that the Old Testament often depicts God forgiving, showing mercy, inviting and including foreigners as well as Israelites into the family of God. And the New Testament has some very problematic texts that speak of judgment, punishment, and hell.

Finally, we Christians must keep in mind that there is a rich interpretive tradition in Judaism that helps Jews—and Christians, if we’re willing to listen and learn—contextualize and understand problematic texts. The rabbinic interpretive tradition, starting with the Talmud, highlights the Bible’s ambiguities, gaps, and inconsistencies and uses them as a model for the constant interpretation and re-interpretation of Scripture. Remember last week when I spoke of the ideology of totalism, which flattens and ignores and marginalizes disagreements between people and groups? Well, the rabbinic interpretive tradition is about as anti-totalist as you can get. It often does not lead to a single, absolute solution to any problem, allowing for openness and continual re-interpretation. It often seems impressionistic by Western philosophical standards, drawing from this word here and inspired by that image there, bringing together texts from various times and sources and even genres. And finally, rabbinic interpretation resists totalizing by prioritizing real human beings and human concerns. When you read the disputes of the early rabbis in the Talmud, you realize that these are people for whom the text is incredibly holy, but it is ultimately still a servant of human life with each other and with God. And this is the principle that has led many Jewish sects to adapt and embrace change even as they hold fast to their tradition, to ordain women, for example, and to affirm the full humanity and inclusion of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people in all parts of Jewish life. You may have heard of the UCC church’s slogan “God Is Still Speaking.” Well, rabbinic interpretation is the original God Is Still Speaking campaign, giving authority to every generation to interpret Scripture and tradition anew.

This brings us back to where we started: to the Jewish principles of loving God, neighbor, and stranger, not necessarily in feeling, always, but in action. Judaism is embodied spirituality. It is a spiritual tradition that sees the divine in every corner of life: in what we eat, in how we administer justice in the courts, in how we run our businesses, in how we care for the needy among us.

Our second reading today, Marge Piercy’s “Kaddish,” gets at this at the most fundamental level. The Kaddish is a blessing of God that Jews pray in worship, and it is especially connected to Jewish practices of mourning the dead. The Kaddish is, in part, a doxology or a hymn of praise, which means that a Jewish mourner is instructed at a moment of great grief to remember and give thanks for God’s blessings. It is a bit like Christians singing “It is well with my soul” at funerals and vigils after great disasters, when you most feel that it is not well with your soul. Like the hymn, the Kaddish can be very hard to pray, but it ultimately connects us, even in our greatest despair, to the One who holds our life and our love and our connections to each other, now and for eternity. It is anti-despair. It suggests that there is a reality deeper and truer than any pain and separation we may experience in this life.

Marge Piercy’s poem engages in the long rabbinic tradition of re-interpreting and re-contextualizing Jewish tradition. In her hands the Kaddish becomes a hymn celebrating the body as God’s greatest gift, a hymn of thanks for bodies who have taught us and learned from us, bodies who have been fed, like us, by the body of our Mother Earth, bodies that don’t last forever but that are glorious even as they are temporal.

Christians in ages past often dismissed Judaism as a “religion of the body,” as if body were somehow in opposition to spirit. I contend that Christians should honor Judaism for that very reason, because we affirm the same God, the God who made our bodies and called them good. Jewish tradition shows our often too-spiritual church that love is a physical act, whether by sharing food, paying workers promptly, making love . . . or even helping your really annoying neighbor’s donkey.

“[B]lessed above all else is peace
which bears the fruits of knowledge
on strong branches, let’s say amein.

“Peace that bears joy into the world,
peace that enables love, peace over Israel
everywhere, blessed and holy is peace, let’s say amein.”

 

(Sources: Jonathan Sacks, Ira Stone, Marge Piercy, and Jay Michaelson)

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