Wednesday, March 24, 2010
What do an Orthadox Jew and C.S. Lewis have in common?
"First of all," he said, "You did not come to Israel because you chose to. You came because you were invited. And the blessings you are going to receive will run so deep that you will not be able to explain it to anyone back home, and you will hardly be able to discuss it amongst yourselves."
The seven of us were sitting on stools in a gift shop, listening to Moshe. Moshe is an Orthodox Jew, psychologist, book author, scholar and business owner who regularly closes his doors and turns his gift shop into a discussion room. Moshe wears regular clothing and a kibba (that head cap thing); he's short and lively and laughs easily. He speaks perfect English, and he speaks it quickly. Clearly he has a lot more to say than he has business hours to say it, and roughly five minutes into his introduction, I felt a dull panic knowing that I wouldn't get to hear everything that I needed to hear from him.
The discussion: What do Orthodox Jews and Christians have in common? Where do we disagree? And is possible that we each get a better look at the big picture when we seek to understand one another?
Moshe turned out to be one of those blessings of Israel that we were all touched by and have hardly been able to discuss. I recorded most of the conversation and took notes in a fury, but the recording is faint, my notes are jumbled, and all that I'm left with is a deeper understanding. Here are some of the highlights that I've managed to process and reflect on:
- Christians and Jews share the same language but often have different definitions and meaning behind the language. He said that the average Jew does not know that Christians believe that Jesus was God. We must have looked a little dubious, (after all, Jesus' deity is central to our doctrine), but he repeated, "If you told an average Jew that Christians believe that Jesus was God, they would correct you and say, 'No, they believe he is the son of God.' To them that means that he was man, sent by God; a prophet."
Another misunderstanding: When Christians talk about the Law, they describe it as a burden that they are glad to be free of. Moshe explained, "The Jew has no context for that. What could be more wonderful than fulfilling the wishes of your beloved?" He gave an example of when his pregnant wife woke up late at night craving an orange, and they had no oranges in the house. Moshe drove all over town until he found a market that was open, and then he didn't just buy one orange. He bought so many oranges that they eventually had to throw some away. His beloved wanted an orange; he brought her a bushell of oranges. Nothing is more fulfilling to him than fulfilling her wishes, and that is how the Jew feels towards God and His law.
- The Jewish understanding of blood sacrifice is different than ours. To them, the sacrifice was never about covering our sins for God's sake. "Cover them how?" He asked. "As if anything is hidden from God? No, our sins do not separate God from man, they separate man from God." He explained that blood sacrifice was a gift from God to man that, in effect, covers our sins from ourselves so that we could return before the presence of God feeling made clean. (This reminded me of the story of Eden, when Adam and Eve hid from God. God wasn't suddenly blocked from Adam because of sin--he came looking for Adam just as he always did. Adam was the one hiding in shame, and because he was ashamed, God gave him clothing to wear.) Moshe explained how this meant that the Jews were never expecting a final blood sacrifice from their Messiah--for them it's about continual repenting and covering and entering.
- The Jewish doctrine of hell is drastically different than ours. Moshe said he doesn't believe that God is interested in eternal punishment, but in eternal instruction. (This reminded me of God's character in the Old Testament, which of course is His same character today.) He described two levels of hell. One sounded a lot like my understanding of purgatory: the lost person realizes his or her mistake ("And that realization burns like a fiery flame," Moshe added); then God takes the next step in instruction and redemption. Doug said, "It sounds like you're describing a God of second chances when it comes to salvation." Moshe responded, "I'm describing a God of third and fourth and fifth and eternal chances."
The second level of hell occurred when a person was truly lost. He didn't explain what 'truly lost' meant, but I suppose this would be a person who was not interested in God's second or third chances. At that point, he said that the person would simply, "Poof!" cease to exist. No hellfire, no flame, just total absense of being.
I jumped in. "What you're describing sounds a lot like C.S. Lewis's description of hell from The Problem of Pain," I said. "He believes that a soul cannot exist when separated from God, so eternal separation from God would mean ceasing to exist." Moshe nodded and said, "Yes, actually, Lewis' belief about hell is remarkably similar to the Jewish belief." (You gotta love an Orthadox Jew who can quote C.S. Lewis, which he did, several times.)
Moshe's understanding of hell ressonated so deeply with me that I could feel my eyes welling up throughtout that part of the conversation. I told Moshe, "The God you are describing--a God of eternal redemption over eternal punishment--is exactly the God who I know and love and follow. And the hell you are describing is the description that I've adopted in my heart, even though the Christian doctrine I've been taught doesn't support it."
- Finally, I asked Moshe what the Jews make of the ressurrection. His first point was that ressurrection does not indicate deity (as there are other examples of resurrection in the Bible). I asked him, "What does it mean to you that Jesus rose from the dead?" He said, "It means to me that something very big happened, and I don't understand it entirely." He didn't apologize for being vague, nor did he seem to be waving off my question.
"One of my favorite verses in your New Testament is in 1 Corithinans, when Paul speaks of seeing in part now, and later in full," Moshe said. "In other words, we are all going to be surprised. If you're not surprised, then you're not walking with God. Doctrine will never surprise you, but God will always surprise you."
If I hadn't chewed over that last part, I think I would have left the conversation today thinking that I was surprised by doctrine: the way our doctrines differered, where they collided, how they sometimes seemed like pieces to the same puzzle. But I think what surprised me the most was that in listening to an Orthadox Jew--really listening, and sometimes truly understanding--my faith in Jesus Christ deepened, and my view of the Father expanded magnificently. Doctrine can't do that. God did that in me.
"It's all about the Father, isn't it?" Moshe said, standing up from his stool to open the shop and greet his customers. "Everything that Jesus ever did was for the Father. He didn't come to bring glory to himself, but to show us the Father."