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A Discussion of Messianic Judaism, the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm, and Related Leadership Issues from the Preoccupied Mind of Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Being Ethically Prophetic

(The following is a sermon preached on Shabbat Tsav/Hagadol, April 8, 2006, at Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue, Beverly Hills, CA. It concerns certain ethical imperatives we often ignore, but which Hashem emphasizes).

4 Then the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem shall be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of yore and in the years of old. 5 But [first] I will step forward to contend against you, and I will act as a relentless accuser against those who have no fear of Me: Who practice sorcery, who commit adultery, who swear falsely, who cheat laborers of their hire, and who subvert [the cause of] the widow, orphan, and stranger, said the Lord of Hosts.

I remember a joke of Steve Martin’s which a friend of mine related to me. Martin said, “I believe in eight of the ten commandments.” My friend laughed about this as he told me, saying, “You end up wondering, which two did he leave out?”

Come to think of it, all of us have our favorite lists of sins—the sins we consider to be big ones, and the sins we consider to be little ones. In Jewish tradition, there is much discussion about this, and even Yeshua was asked by someone, Teacher? Which is the greatest commandment in the Torah?” This question, in Jewish terms, inquired as to which commandment or commandments constituted the foundation for all the others.

In today’s Haftarah, there is a list of seven sins, some of which we are apt to consider “hot,” grievous and fundamental sins, and some which we are apt to consider “cold,” less grievous and less fundamental sins.

1) Those who practice sorcery

2) Those who commit adultery

3) Those who swear falsely [taking God’s name in an oath which is deceptive]

4) Those who cheat laborers of their hire

5) Those who subvert the cause of the widow

6) Those who subvert the cause of the orphan

7) Those who subvert the cause of the stranger

Recently, we have been hearing about the issues involving undocumented aliens. Now I am not going to preach on this subject, nor tell you how to vote or what action to take. Instead, I simply want to address one question. On the basis of this text from Malachi, and many others like it from both Testaments, should issues of justice and rights due to laborers, and to the socially displaced [widows, orphans, outsiders], play a significant role in our individual and communal lives? In the words of the prophet Micah, does God still care that we “seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God?”

Before answering that question, recognize as well that God speaks of Himself in our Malachi reading as judging his people by these standards, of being a “swift witness” against them. These are legal words, these are words of the Divine court, these are words of indictment.

The questions before us today are threefold.

Does God still care about these things?

Do we have adequate reason to suppose that some of these things are important and other less so?

Why not just ignore this stuff?

The only other proviso I would add in here is to say that it is clear that the standard of judgment is the Law of God, the Torah. This is why the text says in v. 7, “Since the days of your forefathers you have veered away from My laws and you nave not observed them, Return to Me and I will return to you.” And this is at almost the very end of the chapter we read. “Remember the Torah of Moses My servant, which I commanded Him for all of Israel—its decrees and its statutes” [3:22].

I have begun reading in a book by Mary Alice Mulligan and Rufus Burrow, Jr., titled, “Daring to Speak in God’s Name: Ethical Prophecy in Ministry,” which addresses issues such as those being raised in today’s text.

The authors suggest that the burden of the prophets on the question of ethics is best summarized in the words of the Prophet Micah, who asked “What does the Lord require of you, but to seek justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Indeed, these three characteristics when working in harmony, with none omitted, seem to direct us in how to stay on the pathways of holiness. We must seek justice, but that justice must be tempered by mercy, if we would walk humbly with our God. But also, if we would walk humbly with our God, we must never simply love mercy while forsaking justice. All three—seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God must go together.

One chapter of this book is devoted to Abraham Joshua Heschel, whom the authors offer as a contemporary example of one who dared to speak and act in God’s name—in a manner which embodied seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God, speaking out against any and all oppression and injustice toward the needy and the marginalized. This is what the authors call “ethical prophecy.”

Mulligan and Burrow, and I believe the Prophets of the Bible as well as Abraham Joshua Heschel, call us all to a stance where we are always prepared to declare and to embody God’s compassionate care for all, especially the weak, defenseless, the marginalized and the victimized. Ethically prophetic people live convinced of the divine expectation that we respond in merciful action to injustices we see around us.

Today’s kind of lesson makes some people uncomfortable. Thinking, “Well, Yeshua paid it all,” they imagine that because Messiah died for us, we are all off the hook. Such a view imagines that are really no demands upon us, and lessons like this which perhaps make us feel bad about ourselves, well, such lessons are suspect, because, after all, isn't it supposed to be about feeling good about ourselves? Even though I think all of us are more mature than that, still, many are apt to imagine that the Newer Covenant Scriptures cut us a big break in these matters, and leave things essentially up to us as a matter of personal discretion. But is that so?? Is the Newer Covenant more lenient and laissez-faire on the matter of being ethically prophetic?

Before returning to our list of seven sins, let’s first look for a moment at today’s Newer Covenant readings. The first few all come from the Letter of Ya’akov (James):

The religious observance that God the Father considers pure and faultless is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being contaminated by the world. [James 1:27]

1 My brothers, practice the faith of our Lord Yeshua, the glorious Messiah, without showing favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your synagogue wearing gold rings and fancy clothes, and also a poor man comes in dressed in rags. 3 If you show more respect to the man wearing the fancy clothes and say to him, “Have this good seat here,” while to the poor man you say, “You, stand over there,” or, “Sit down on the floor by my feet,” 4 then aren’t you creating distinctions among yourselves, and haven’t you made yourselves into judges with evil motives? 5 Listen, my dear brothers, hasn’t God chosen the poor of the world to be rich in faith and to receive the Kingdom which he promised to those who love him? 6 But you despise the poor! Aren’t the rich the ones who oppress you and drag you into court? 7 Aren’t they the ones who insult the good name of Him to whom you belong? [2:1-7]; 14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone claims to have faith but has no actions to prove it? Is such “faith” able to save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food, 16 and someone says to him, “Shalom! Keep warm and eat hearty!” without giving him what he needs, what good does it do? 17 Thus, faith by itself, unaccompanied by actions, is dead. [2:14-17]

1 Next, a word for the rich: weep and wail over the hardships coming upon you! 2 Your riches have rotted, and your clothes have become moth-eaten; 3 your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat up your flesh like fire! This is the acharit-hayamim, and you have been storing up wealth! 4 Listen! The wages you have fraudulently withheld from the workers who mowed your fields are calling out against you, and the outcries of those who harvested have reached the ears of ADONAI-Tzva’ot. 5 You have led a life of luxury and self-indulgence here on earth - in a time of slaughter, you have gone on eating to your heart’s content. 6 You have condemned, you have murdered the innocent; they have not withstood you. 7 So, brothers, be patient until the Lord returns. See how the farmer waits for the precious “fruit of the earth” - he is patient over it until it receives the fall and spring rains. i 8 You too, be patient; keep up your courage; for the Lord’s return is near. 9 Don’t grumble against one another, brothers, so that you won’t come under condemnation - look! the Judge is standing at the door! 10 As an example of suffering mistreatment and being patient, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of ADONAI. 11 Look, we regard those who persevered as blessed. You have heard of the perseverance of Iyov, and you know what the purpose of ADONAI was, that ADONAI is very compassionate and merciful.[5:1-11].

It is a abundantly clear, isn’t it, that the values found in our Haftarah, which are fundamental to the righteousness to which Torah calls us, are not reserved for the Tanach alone. Those who imagine that the Newer Covenant Scriptures afford us a place to hide from the uncomfortable imperatives of how we deal with the poor, victimized, powerless and marginalized, will find no hiding place in the Newer Covenant.

So, let’s return to our list of seven sins:

1) Those who practice sorcery

2) Those who commit adultery

3) Those who swear falsely [taking God’s name in an oath which is deceptive]

4) Those who cheat laborers of their hire

5) Those who subvert the cause of the widow

6) Those who subvert the cause of the orphan

7) Those who subvert the cause of the stranger

Does God still care about these things? Apparently he does.

Do we have adequate reason to suppose that some of these things are important and others less so? No rule of thumb is given which would let us off the hook in any manner.

Why not just ignore this stuff? We should not ignore this stuff because instruction in these matters is linked to hard and unambiguous teachings about God's judgment and our awesome accountability to Him.

Both the Malachi Haftarah and the passages from Ya’akov/James make it clear that we will be judged by God by these very criteria.

Although this will sound strange to the ears of people who imagine that judgment is only a matter of faith, which in most people’s minds involves being judged by our religious convictions or opinions, the Newer Testament will not simply let us retreat to that position. No less an authority than Yeshua the Messiah settles this issue for us, in his Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, found in Mattityahu/Matthew 25. His words on these matters could not be more direct. And it is clear that for Yeshua, as for Ya’akov, Malachi, and Torah, these issues relate directly to our standing accountable before the throne of the Holy One.

31 When the Son of Man comes in his glory, accompanied by all the angels, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be assembled before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. 33 The `sheep' he will place at his right hand and the `goats' at his left. 34 "Then the King will say to those on his right, `Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take your inheritance, the Kingdom prepared for you from the founding of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you made me your guest, 36 I needed clothes and you provided them, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' 37 Then the people who have done what God wants will reply, `Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and make you our guest, or needing clothes and provide them? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison, and visit you?' 40 The King will say to them, `Yes! I tell you that whenever you did these things for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did them for me!' 41 "Then he will also speak to those on his left, saying, `Get away from me, you who are cursed! Go off into the fire prepared for the Adversary and his angels! 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 a stranger and you did not welcome me, needing clothes and you did not give them to me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44 Then they too will reply, `Lord, when did we see you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, needing clothes, sick or in prison, and not take care of you?' 45 And he will answer them, `Yes! I tell you that whenever you refused to do it for the least important of these people, you refused to do it for me!' 46 They will go off to eternal punishment, but those who have done what God wants will go to eternal life.

I suspect that this lesson has left all of us convinced that we have work to do, that we need a reshuffling of our priorities.

Heschel himself went through such a process. We close this lesson with a quotation from one of his essays, “The Reasons for My Involvement in the Peace Movement.” Notice what he says about how he moved beyond religious preoccupation to ethical involvement. Perhaps his process could become a template for your own.

For many years I lived by the conviction that my destiny is to serve in the realm of privacy, to be concerned with the ultimate issues and involved in attempting to clarify them in thought and word. Loneliness was both a burden and a blessing, and above all indispensable for achieving a kind of stillness in which perplexities could be faced without fear.

Three events changed my attitude. One was the countless onslaughts upon my inner life, depriving me of the ability to sustain inner stillness. The second efent was the discovery that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself. Even the high worth of reflection in the cultivation of inner truth cannot justify remaining calm in the face of cruelties that make the hope of effectiveness of pure intellectual endeavors seem grotesque. Isolationism is frequently an unconscious pretext for carelessness, whether among statesmen or among scholars.

The most wicked men must be regarded as great teachers, for they often set forth precisely an example of that which is unqualifiedly evil. Cain’s question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9) and his implied negative response must regarded among the great fundamental evil maxims of the world.

The third event that changed my attitude was my study of the prophets of ancient Israel, a study on which I worked for several years until its publication in 1962. From them I learned the niggardliness of our moral comprehension, the incapacity to sense the depth of misery caused by our own failures. It became clear to me that while our eyes are witness to the callousness and cruelty of man, our heart tries to obliterate the memories, to calm the nerves, and to silence our conscience.

There is immense silent agony in the world, and the task of man is to be a voice for the plundered poor, to prevent the desecration of the soul and the violation of our dream of honesty.

The easiest and most reflexive, natural way to avoid the possible discomfort and inconvenience of a message like this is to take exception to my couching the lesson in terms of the undocumented aliens issue or Heschel’s choice to involve himself in the Peace Movement during the 1970’s. One could easily say, “I don’t agree with these issues,” and then simply comfort oneself with one’s exceptions concerning the issues.

This will not do. There is really only one issue. “What does the Lord require of you, but to seek justice, to love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” That Scripture often couches this imperative in terms of our conduct toward the poor, the powerless, the marginalized and needy, cannot be avoided.

For this reason, I am seeking to develop a Committee of Conscience in our congregation, to be called “Kamocha” ["as yourself," from “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”]. This committee will keep before us all the imperative to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. This will result in various of us taking group action on various social issues. Not all of us will agree on all of the issues raised, nor the actions taken. That is all right. We are adults here, and we don’t have to agree on everything.

But one thing we can and should agree upon. The only thing we may not do is nothing. God has not allowed us that alternative, has he?

Shabbat shalom.

At 4/12/2006 8:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Professor Dauermann,

Your quoting of R. Heschel helps make me feel somewhat "at home" visiting here. No doubt you understand the main reasons why I must qualify my words. I find myself taking time to think over many aspects of your writings, and we've discussed much my initial questions and comments. You have welcomed me and I would like to take this time to venture into another area that might best be characterized as style, but maybe not.

I have tried to put these words of you, spoken to your community, through a grid familiar to me. An observation or two follows.

As either a rabbi, a leader, a follower, or a listener, I find a statement such as "we are all adults here" to be somewhat risky. Instead of assuming that everyone knows that the address is meant to be taken as adult to adult, what does pointing out such a transaction mean? As the speaker, this might betray a latent attitude of superiority that would need to be checked. As a listener, there would have to be a presupposed dependency to accept such words without having triggering a gut reaction to being spoken in such a way. Of course I am somewhat an intruder and I was not present to get a sense of the tone; I may have seriously misjudged the feel of your words, but I think you know of what I am speaking.

The other point concerns invoking R. Heschel to promote an institutional development. Doesn't this miss the point altogether? Rather than institutionalize, and set up such a committee with an expectation of strife from the outset, why not catch the spirit of Heschel? Could you not have found one of many issues with which to model action? For example, presently various Jewish communities are joining with the church to speak out in response to the recently proposed immigration laws. Scores of undocumented workers are perishing in the desert in an attempt to come here. Why not meet up with other clergy to address this most serious issue, then announce to your group why this is a matter of justice and what you've done to "do justly?"

Chag Sameach.

At 4/12/2006 11:23 AM, Blogger Stuart Dauermann said...

Thank you for your response.

The comment, "We are all adults here" was meant to remind the congregation that we don't all have to agree, and that is alright to disagree and to learn to live with initiatives that may not be the way we ourselves would have done things. In my experience, there are some people with an overdeveloped capacity to be alarmed and to spread alarm when things are not done strictly according to their theologically shaped convictions. I want to create a community context where, within the limits of propriety, people are allowed to differ and to exercise initiative without being either patronized or sanctioned.

As for your suggestion about working with other Jewish community leaders on matters of common concern and then reporting to the congregation on the matter, this is an excellent idea. I sought to do this, by the way, concerning the Presybterian deccision to divest itself of invesments in companies doing business with Israel, but received no response from the two local rabbis I approached.

However, I could also have approached some people in the Church community as you suggest.

The decision to form a committee was intended to mobilize the congregation around the values I am advocating, yet wiithout making myself the hub of every wheel, I want to encourage my congregants toward actions, both personal and corporate, commensurate with our highest values.

At 4/13/2006 10:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just curious, what scripture are you quoting that has the nation of Israel doing what you are suggesting the US do? And for consistancy sake, would you encourage the current nation of Israel to adopt similiar laws? If not, why not?

At 4/14/2006 12:18 PM, Blogger Stuart Dauermann said...

I am quoting no Scripture in that regard. The "Scripture" of Jewish culture and performancee down through the ages is, however, enough. There is no people on earth with a more highly developed ethical tradition than the Jews.

The modern state of Israel is far from perfect, and it is a largely secular state. Still, I defy you to find one Israeli leader or spokesperson who demonstrates the kind of ethical nihilism with which Zacharias Moussaoui is now astounding the courtroom.

Perhaps I misread you here. Perhaps you are only defending the US and the war in Iraq. I understand your being defensive of the US. I am too. But even implied broad criticisms of the Jewish people or the Jewish state make me uneasy.

For anyone doubting the caliber of Jewish and Israeli ethics, I suggest you search on the Internet for the video or text of the recent debate between Syrian American Psychiatrist Wafa Sultan and some Imams, gathered together by Al Jazeera TV. She gave a better defense and tribute to Israeli ethics than I will ever be able to give. Find it. View it/Read it. Consider.


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