Real Observance

I watch with curiosity the amount of interest my blog generates, and notice that when I write on issues regarding keeping Kosher, Gentiles in Messianic community, or conversion, I get ten times the readership that I get when I write on issues of ethical behavior, like honoring parents or acts of kindness. This tells me that people are more interested in issues that touch on their personal status in the Messianic Jewish world, or on particular religious requirements of that world. In a way this saddens me because issues of ethical behavior are where the rubber hits the road in Jewish life. Keeping Shabbat and Kashrut are great, and in fact, very important, but what good are they if I don’t honor my parents? How can I treat people like crap and claim to love God? Yeshua said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” We tend to go “yeah, yeah” when we hear instruction about loving one another, but I wonder how well we embrace the idea of loving one another.

It’s far easier to follow ritual regulations than it is to love other people. Ritual regulations are easy. We learn what to do and then do it.

Dealing with people is more complicated. Behavior is not just behavior, there are reasons to be taken into account. When there is more than one individual, there are different sides to a story. People need to be forgiven, challenged, understood and accepted.

When we have to deal with people, it’s harder if not sometimes impossible to measure the impact we have had. Human nature makes it difficult to gage our effect on humans, whose own interpretations of events change like the wind.

Another difficulty with dealing with people is that they are not always appreciative for our kindness. People take things for granted or do not always value things the same way we do, making our acts of kindness almost a thankless task. I once had someone who deeply offended me. I spent five years holding a grudge, and he sensed something wasn’t right because he kept asking me, year after year, if we were OK. After five years, I realized he was not that upset and it was only me who was suffering. I forgave him and let go of the anger and bitterness. I went to him and told him I forgive him and hold nothing against him. I expected him to be grateful for my forgiveness. Instead he said, “that’s good, but I didn’t do anything wrong.” I let it go, even though he didn’t appreciate what my forgiveness meant for me to give.

The question presents itself: Why bother dealing with ethical issues in a world where people don’t care much about them? In an existential world, where nothing really has meaning, it would not matter. If life were meaningless, there would be no value to ethical behavior. To be honest, from a practical viewpoint, the way ethical issues are ignored, existentialism is not out of the picture.

The existential view does not work for me, because I believe in God. I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and His existence and the values he gives in his Torah give value to my actions and to human ethical behavior. Because of the Torah, I know it is right and good to honor my parents and not put them out on an ice flow to die when they get old. Because of the Torah, I know that human life is more valuable than animal life, because mankind was created in the image of God, putting us above the level of other mammals. To kill another human, is to strike out against the image of God. In an existential world, killing a human should be no different from killing any mammal. Believing in God, informs my value system. God is not there for us to argue over minutia. His being there, should inform our ethics and values, and inspire us to embrace ethical behavior.

The sixth core value of Hashivenu says, “Because man is created in the image of God, the way we treat one another is a true reflection of how we value God. Therefore, true piety can not exist apart from human decency. Put another way, you can’t treat people like crap and say you love God. Ritual adherence is invalidated by bad behavior. Hating someone because their theology is different from yours doesn’t work in God’s value system. Yeshua’s teaching is clear. Love your enemies. But it’s easier to light Shabbat candles than love your enemies. Observing Kashrut is easier than loving our enemies. It’s hard to love people we don’t want to love. Yochanan wrote, “But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the sacrifice of Messiah Yeshua His Son cleanses us from all sin.”

Walking in the light means we will have fellowship, i.e. relationship, with one another; it is a sign of our being cleansed. Walking in the light is not about how ritualistic we are or about whether or not or how to pronounce Divine names. It is about how we treat one another.

There is a story about a great rabbi, a sage, who was told by a voice from heaven, that he would spend eternity in the world to come with Itzik the saloon keeper. The rabbi, who had devoted his life to Torah and teaching was puzzled that he would be next to a saloon keeper in the world to come, so he went to the saloon to talk with him. Itzik was not a particularly religious man. He worked hard and eeked out a living. The rabbi told Itzik about his message and asked why they might be together in the world to come. Itzik had no idea. While they were talking, a widow and her children came to the door and he gave her money for food. Later, a poor man came to the door and Itzik let him sleep in his back room. Itzik returned to the rabbi and apologized for the interruptions. The rabbi got up and said it was not a problem. He said he would be honored to spend eternity in the world to come with Itzik.


16 thoughts on “Real Observance

  1. Michael,

    This arrived in my email box just as I was writing something similar – that G-d cares more about how to treat each other than He does about ritual observance. YOU, my friend, are a wonderful example of how G-d wants us to treat each other. You are kind and gentle, you care for your parents and have made caring for poor elderly survivors your life’s work. I am proud to call you my friend.


  2. Maybe the top statement is not as much about status for status’ sake, but about identity – ie. knowing that one is on the right path, that one is valued, and one has a significant place. When we a confident in that, then we see how our actions fit in and make a difference. If someone doesn’t think that my spirituality and relationship with G-d is more significant then 6 don’ts and 1 do that is set up to prosecute my don’ts, then why would positive acts in my relationship with other people make much difference? And if G-d doesn’t care about whether or not I remember his creation of the world on his set apart day or on any other humanly created one, then why should a human care about whether I show up when they’ve set aside time to visit, or any time that I want? And if my soul isn’t bent for Torah, then what good am I for showing the love of Hashem to other people?

    • Amy, I didn’t say those things, you did. With ethical, moral behavior, all observance has great meaning. Without it, it is empty. Not once did I put down Torah observance in any way. You want to celebrate the beauty of Torah and thats fine, but if it doesn’t change your life, and the way you treat people, you might as well be looking at a nice painting. Its pretty but you are the same. Torah was meant to be life changing, and life giving. It is shown in how you treat others.

  3. Michael,

    Another very good blog writing. Torah is the guide by which we live and is to be the guide on how we treat each other. Without Torah we would not have the laws we have today for what Torah forbids is what societies prior to Torah did. We wouldn’t even dream of sacrificing our children (literally sacrificing) to a god, but many of the cultures of that time did it. Without Torah we wouldn’t have a guide on how to treat people. Most of all, without Torah there wouldn’t be Yeshua – for sin is failing to follow Torah and without Torah how would we know what is sin and without sin there would be no need for a Messiah.

    Too often in the believing communities people are treated shabbily under the guise of godliness. We gossip about others, we look on others with disdain, we trash others, and we “kill our wounded” instead of healing them. Ethical behavior is as important as Torah obedience yet without Torah we wouldn’t know ethical behavior. The Pharisees had the observance part down pat, but the behavior part was lacking- observance came over doing what was right as evidenced by Yeshua’s healing on the Sabbath. Observance and obedience are very important but if we don’t treat each other well and act as children of G-d it is lost.

    Keep up the great blog writings.

  4. Dr. Schiffman, I’ve been running a Messianic blog for about 6 or 7 years now, and I can confirm the same phenomenon. In my experience, it’s controversy that draws the crowd. Sad reality.

    Hardcore rap music is popular because of controversial lyrics, likewise Messianic blog posts are popular when they address some controversial theology. πŸ˜€

    For what it’s worth, I unsubscribed from your blog a few weeks ago because I so vehemently disagreed with some of your controversial positions, hahah. But reading this post, I see we are not all that far apart. Subscribed (again). πŸ™‚

    Take care. Have a peaceful shabbat.

  5. Hello Dr. Schiffman!

    Perhaps people respond to your blogs about Kashrut and circumcision more because they are points that can be argued, where as the blogs about ethics can’t be argued as well. I believe that most people, if they are honest with themselves, realize that they should be treating others better than they currently do.
    Thanks for writing the blogs. I’m really enjoying them even when I don’t respond to them. πŸ™‚ Love ya!


  6. Your point on how we treat others is right on key, and should be a top priority focus, I appreciate your writing on this, but it is too generalized, and if details be told, it would also be controversial.

    I want to address your first paragraph on the examples you gave of controversial topics: on kosher, gentiles place, or conversion, here is my opinion:

    I think its a matter of the details, or as the saying goes, “the devil is in the details”.

    These topics are details, with each person’s interpretation defining what it means, which, either cause division or unity and sometimes both depending on the other persons interpretation… Versus, issues such as how we treat others is vague, which results in common ground… If we wrote blogs about generalized topics such as Love, Obey, Give, etc… without going into details, it would be a message of unity or commonality, because everyone then is left to define those terms based on their own perspective and not the blogger’s perspective…

    For example:
    If a blogger wrote a topic on “obeying God” in a very vague way, such as: “we should all obey God”, Christianity would say, “we agree”, and Messianic Judaism would say, “we agree”, but if you describe what it means to obey God in details, you will create a war or chasm!

    Another example:
    It is hypocritical(btw, not saying you did this, just making a point) to write a blog on how gentiles are not responsible to Torah(Kosher, Gentiles place, etc), and then turn around and say that Gentiles should keep the commandment to Honor Father and Mother… and expect a form of unity… This creates controversy…

    • I appreciate your observations. I intentionally keep many of my comments vague to leave room for people to interpret them, as they do anyway, according to their own situations. My goal is to make people think about these issues, not to tell them what to think. I don’t write to create controversy, just to express my thoughts. If they rub some people the wrong way, or steps on their theologies, perhaps it will stimulate thought in areas they never considered. I find I manage to create enough controversy without trying.

      • “I find I manage to create enough controversy without trying.”

        Lol, agreed, I mean that for everyone in this Messianic Blogosphere…

        There is so much hatred towards the various forms of Messianic denominations and their theologies or even personal theologies who claim Messianic Identity, that verbal grenade pens are already pulled, and waiting for the next ‘blog post’ to throw at. Which is obviously why your post is much needed and will probably need to be copied and pasted on more blog post in the future!

  7. Controversial stuff I think is generally good. People are drawn to it yes, but it stimulates their minds to think about things and argue them. Otherwise, they may be spending their time looking at other sites which may or may not be focused on things that are healthy.

    The more time I spend surfing these blogs for issues like this, the less time I am on, or other places that, while not bad, they are not furthering me spiritually.

  8. Just discovered this blog because of another site (Thanks Judah!)

    I must admit that I was initially drawn to the messianic congregations because, well, I love to debate. (read argue) I have attended many congregations and believe that to be the single strongest trait that messianics hold in common.

    Now that we have moved to a very remote area where there are no congregations within a couple of hours drive, we are in a conundrum because the only way to be in a congregation is to start one. And I have found that I do not like most messianics. Its kind of like the old addage:

    I do not want to be in a club that would have someone like me as a member.

    If it is a heart change that I need, then I need a better model. I have had conversations with many messianic leaders over the years and many have this same struggle. Most believers ignore the fact that Yeshua taught character above everything else. Maybe it is time that we spent more time focusing on the “goal” of the Torah instead of the actions.

    • Boaz Michael from First Fruits of Zion said something that goes with your “character above all else” bit. Boaz said, “Have high personal standards without condemnation.”

      That is, by all means, live according to God’s commandments best you can. When it comes to other people, be quick to forgive.

      Way too many people in the greater Messianic movement, especially in the independent Messianic movement, have high condemnation with varying personal standards. That needs to be fixed.

  9. Yes Judah, I like that quote. Boaz and his group have usually done a good job of staying above the fray, even if it was one that they created.

    As for me, I would rather judge a man by the strength of his character than by the color of his Tekhelet!

  10. Hey, what happened to my modicon after my joking about FFOZ! I really like them and was just poking fun at the controversy that one of their views created recently. Editor, please put a smiley face after the sentence so that I can at least still look passive/aggressive.

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