True Dwellings of the Holy
Tower of Babel
The Kokomo Congregation, continued
What passes for religion isn’t doing fantastically well these days. Fewer and fewer people are “churched,” in any sense. But - another force is rising.
You don’t have to be a prophet to see it. It seems to be coming up more and more, in brief exchanges between person and person.
When the old gods weaken, when you become averse to serving them as they would be served, when you know that you can’t count on them to reliably define good for you, what do you do? You still have to orient yourself towards something. So, suppose you’re “post-religious.” One moral principle that comes readily to mind, that’s commonsense and natural, is that:
Acting courteous, kind and patient with other people – being nice, basically – is good.
From a conversation two weeks ago: A fellow who drives every day was musing to a truck driver, “Driving doesn’t seem to be the cutthroat thing it used to be. It's weird. People let you pass, or get in front of them. Sometimes they even wave at you, in a friendly way. Sometimes they even smile.” The truck driver answered, “I agree.”
The first man went on, “I’m even doing it myself. We’re acting easier with each other. More patient, more forgiving. It’s so odd. It’s a big change, a big increase in courtesy and helpfulness. I don’t know where it comes from but it’s here.” The truck driver answered, “I agree.” And there we are, listening, and thinking to myself, “Me too.”
If you haven’t noticed this phenomenon already – particularly if you’re not out and about a lot – this probably doesn’t sound very believable. Rabbi Michael Katz, for instance, weighing in on this from Miami, dryly notes, “Quite obviously they have never tried driving in Miami.”) But even when our roads are more congested, even when politics are more bitter, still we're seeing nicer drivers. So there you go.
Then the three of us there got to talking, saying, roughly: it’s a new thing but I’ve seen it, for sure. In driving and in many different prosaic daily contexts.
We thought of this upon seeing a short poem that weekend. It’s “Small Kindnesses,” by Danusha Laméres, “the poet laureate of Santa Cruz."
It talks about “small exchanges”: of strangers saying “bless you” when you sneeze, pulling their legs away to help you pass by, showing courtesy while driving, the phenomenon of smiling at a stranger and getting a smile back, etc. She asks, could these be “true dwellings of the holy”? Such everyday exchanges are, perhaps, “fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here, have my seat,” “Go ahead – you first,” “I like your hat.””
Not to get carried away: niceness is not necessarily goodness. Courtesy and refined manners are not everything. But they bend or lean towards holiness. Indeed, the imperative to be nice follows from Torah Revelation and very basic principles of Torah. In fact, you can’t strictly segregate it from such fundamental Commandments as love thy neighbor, love the stranger, do what is just and right, “be a blessing,” love loving-kindness, etc. Niceness – courtesy – is also logically implied by the ancient pre-Torah universal revelation, that every person is a reflection of God.
People can fake niceness. Still, when you’re in some exchange with someone who is known to you to reflect God, it’s a self-evident imperative to show that person courtesy, niceness and good manners.
One thing we’re not claiming is that this phenomenon we’re alleging, of increasing courtesy and good manners, necessarily stems from true regard for sacred principles. It might – if it exists – just be some kind of new cultural development, a copycat thing, completely unrelated to them. But neither does it contradict or nullify those Torah principles. And that… that is a huge step away from the tyranny of false religions.
We obviously can’t guarantee that these fleeting moments of niceness are true dwellings or temples of holiness, but we still hope they're a harbinger, an early sign, of the Messianic golden age, the next stage in human history that we long for. May it come soon, in our time, today!
Tower of Babel (Genesis Eleven)
In the Torah portion that Israel, and related peoples, study this week, about Noah and the great Flood, comes the story, or homily, of the Tower of Babel. It’s in the portion of Genesis, chapter eleven, that’s read on the first Shabbot after the autumn holidays – from Rosh HaShanah through Sukkoth - in the new month of Cheshvan.
Following the teaching of ancient rabbis, we look at the reporting here this way, as clearly establishing the following: that the Divine blast that confounded the human race by turning us into myriad different nations of different languages, constituted a loving blessing, not a curse.
This comes out vividly in the Torah text's Hebrew, in the black letters, in the distribution of Divine names. It is not the King, the Father, overwhelming humanity as a punisher, but HaShem, with love and warmth. If it were punishment the Torah definitely wouldn’t identify God as HaShem but as Elo[k]im.
(Pursuant to Israel’s pious convention, that name, referring to “the Powers,” or “High Ones,” is deliberately misspelled with a ‘k’ instead of ‘h’, between brackets.)
We can’t know all God’s reasons for this – one, no doubt, is to get people spread out over the planet, instead of concentrating in one place – but a very big lesson to take away from here is that God loves and admires work. The King of the Universe wants human beings to apply ourselves, to perform tasks and do things. Constructing the tower in Godless ways for Godless purposes obviously isn’t praiseworthy, but the Father of Creation, blessed be He and blessed be His Name, particularly savors and appreciates it when human beings work well together and construct great things and get along together well.
The Kokomo Congregation, continued
Some questions about the Kokomo congregation came up from the last issue. We’ll try to answer some below.
Parenthetically, as we mentioned last month, not long ago we cried out, where are the Noahide churches? Why No Churches? November 2017.
And then, behold, we hear from someone in India, who virtually participates in this congregation that’s thriving down in - Indiana.
Is this a Noahide or a Jewish congregation?
They call themselves Jews. If Jewish Law has anything to say about it, they’re not. Nobody we know of there was born to a mother whose own mother was Jewish, nor, to the best of our knowledge – we could be wrong - has anyone there undertaken formal conversion under the auspices of pious Jewish scholars.
So they seem to be Noahides who call themselves Jews. They can do that. We live in a free country. But we do wish they’d call themselves something else.
Earlier - Covenant Connection, August 2016 - we’d suggested the name or title Ivri for Noahides who feel especially strongly attached to Hebrew ways, to Israel and Torah. “Abram the Ivri” is the subject of Genesis 14:13, for instance; He is Abram (later renamed Abraham) “from the other side.”
Or, perhaps, they could call themselves Nikra Jews, people “called” to be Jews. As in “called by the name of Israel,” in Isaiah 48:1.
You can lead a horse to water…. Only they can decide anything like this for these folks. They will call themselves whatever they like. They’re proceeding along their own path, wherever it may take them.
They assiduously keep many Torah precepts and principles, including tzitzit, tefillin, and most or all of the kosher food laws. Still, we can’t say we saw much evidence of certain key practices which we’ve come to regard as characteristically “Jewish” – such as an almost obsessive concentration on the young children, and prioritizing conversation with them above everything.
Of course we didn’t even get within shouting distance of meeting all the parents and all their children. But we left thinking that, however much these folks love their young ones, they don’t focus on them and converse with them like the Jews normally do with theirs.
This congregations aspires – they feel “called” (in Hebrew you’d say,“nikra”) – to the practice of Judaism; as they define Judaism.
Their observance certainly has a lot in common with Judaism as the Jews themselves define it. Their services are impressive, creative and unique. They use the Siddur, the Jewish prayerbook, pretty much the way we all do. And they read through the same Torah.
One fact that deserves emphasis, at this point: So far, at least, we have never seen any group of Noahides thrive after they accepted Jewish people – rabbis, usually, in our experience - as their leaders.
Question Two. Are they good or bad for the Jews?
Not having heard distinctly from the LORD about this and unblessed with prophetic insight as we are, the most one can do is make some observations.
They seem to have another “Name” for God than the Jews do. They speak of God being “Echad,” One, and often address Him with that Name. No problem there. But their Echad doesn’t seem to have the same personality that we here, and most of Israel, ascribe to HaShem. For instance, we don’t think of Him as being IN Creation but apart it from, different from it, while sustaining it and conscious of it. So - their cosmogony and metaphysics seemed… eccentric.
One big difference between their conceptions of God and mainstream Israel’s: we heard God spoken of as though He cared more for ritual compliance with His will than about such things as “social justice,” as they characterized it. We felt that they spoke of those things - like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, freeing the oppressed, etc. – as somewhat beside the point, God forbid.
Another point, which grated on us, and still does. Every free group or nation has the right to establish its own standards for membership. To deny that right to the Jewish people.... That doesn’t bode well. It doesn’t demonstrate much respect for Israel.
A related point. HaShem – God - as the Torah speaks of Him would never, ever cast off the Jewish People. You should see quite clearly, from the Torah’s explicit words and the clear thrust of its teaching, that HaShem, God of faithfulness, would never void His famous covenants and pledges. So then again, there’s an issue as to the Identity or Name of God. Hearing as we did hear there, that the Jewish People’s connection to God is “not genetic” – not familial, in other words; connecting through blood and culture, through Jewish families – we wondered:
a) What kind of God do they believe in Who would betray His promises that way?
b) How can they read the Torah that way?
c) What do they think “born Jews” are? Usurpers? Were Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Maimonides, etc., etc., “so-called Jews”? Are the Jews in the news in our own time, who are involved with and shaping so many things, all phony Jews?
d) How could any people smart enough and learned enough to leave Christianity behind, as they did, go and ignore so much evidence, historical, Biblical, and in the daily news, that the Jewish People are in fact the Jewish People - the world's nations’ big brother nation, a never-dying light – and not usurpers?
We think this must be some kind of residue left over from the Christianity from which they came.
To summarize our findings: we saw problems down in Kokomo. Issues. But we wouldn’t even bother writing about these hard-working, hard-praying people if we believed there wasn't hope for them, that they’ll never “come under the wings of the Divine Presence.” This congregation is a dynamic - in many ways magnetic, in some ways, spectacular - congregation.
We expect the issues that disturbed us to eventually get resolved with time and further study. The Kokomo congregation isn’t a big group but it has members worldwide. We saw tremendous promise in them. Obviously, despite our concerns, we believe that the group, or at least many of its members, will, sooner or later, make it.
By Michael Dallen
Let all who walk the earth recognize and know that You alone are the God over all the kingdoms of the earth.
1 Kings 8:60/Hebrew Prayerbook, morning prayer