Dear Rev. Know-it-all,
You talk about your friend, Rabbi Lefkowitz a lot. Does he really exist or is he just a fig newton of your imagination?
Harold “Hal” U. Sinayshun
There really is a Rabbi Lefkowitz. You couldn’t make him up no matter how hard you tried. I met the rabbi years ago when I worked in a very tough part of town. He and his small congregation were trying to revive a synagogue just a couple blocks north of the church where I was pastor. Every Friday night the rabbi and his sons would walk past the church on their way to Friday evening services. I am very German-American (I did one of those gene tests. It turns out that I am completely German except for 3% Neanderthal and one three-hundredth East Asian. I am not making this up. However, I was raised in a home that though Catholic, was very aware about things Jewish because of my father’s work, so every Friday I would exchange a Shabbat shalom with the Rabbi to which he would respond “Gut shabbas, Father.” So began a friendship.
The first time I was invited to the Rabbi’s home for Sabbath Eve dinner was the clincher. It was a Friday night in Lent. Out came the gefiltefisch, a sort of aquatic spam. No problem. Out came the Noodle Kugele. No problem. Out came the turkey. Problem.
I told the Rabbi’s wife, I can’t eat turkey. It’s Friday in Lent.
She said, "But it’s shabbas!"
I said, for you its shabbas. For me it’s Friday in Lent.
She said surely the Lord would send you a nashoma (an extra spirit) to do the fasting for you so you could eat turkey on shabbas.
I said, I don’t think the Lord is going to send a gentile an extra nashoma so he can eat turkey on a Friday in Lent.
She shrugged and went in and got more noodle kugele. Al the while the rabbi sat smiling at the far end of the table to see if my Catholicism would be strong enough to resist that force of nature which is the Jewish mother trying to feed someone. When I was able to resist the irresistible force, he decided I meant business, and sometime later he said that he liked me because I was orthodox. Not Jewish, but at least orthodox.
The rabbi is ultra-orthodox, a Lubavitcher Hasid, and a friend and disciple of the late Rebbe Menachem Schneerson. Most people would think such a friendship a bit unlikely, but a true disciple of the late Rebbe would not. The longing for heaven, the hope of messiah and a sense of orthodoxy are matter enough for friendship.
One day the rabbi and I were discussing the nature of orthodoxy and it occurred to us that not many people, even those who claim to be orthodox, understand the nature of orthodoxy. They mistake narrow mindedness, ideological rigidity and personal intolerance for orthodoxy. It occurred to us that orthodoxy, at least in the Judeo/Christian sense, is the belief that Heaven has spoken, thus the duty of the believer is to hear as clearly as possible and to obey as fully as possible.
True orthodoxy rests on the humble admission, that we will never, in this world, understand heaven fully, because we are fallible creatures. We will not hear with perfect clarity, nor will we be able to obey completely. Still, orthodoxy is a lifelong desire to hear and obey. It involves untiring study and unceasing prayer. Though orthodoxy pursues the things of heaven, it never declares that the believer has completed the course. Orthodoxy is a life of constant learning and constant repentance. Orthodoxy is the most flexible and humble position one can take, because it admits the perfection righteousness only of God, and never arrogates perfection to the believer.
Religious liberalism is quite the opposite. By its very nature liberalism must be content with self. We use the word “liberal” without understanding it. It derives from the Latin word “liber’” a free man. The liberal movement in Christianity started with Friedrich Schleiermacher around 1800. He was a German pastor and theologian who tried to reconcile the critique of the Enlightenment with Protestantism. In short, Protestantism depends on the principle of “sola scriptura,” or “bible alone.” When the thinkers of the Enlightenment pointed out the inconsistencies and textual problems of scripture, Protestantism was shaken to its core. Thinkers like Schleiermacher said even if you take the scriptures from me, you can’t take away my personal experience.
Liberalism, in general, is a belief that the freedom of the individual is a paramount good and that the opinion of the individual is sufficient truth for that person. In religious terms liberalism holds that the truth of scriptures matter much less than what scripture means to me. This fits nicely with a modern attitude toward truth. In our times, one might hear a person say, “That may be your truth, but it isn’t my truth.” For the liberal truth has no meaning beyond the experience of the person. The truly orthodox person believes that absolute truth exists, though I might lay hold of it only imperfectly. The liberal believes that the truth does not exist independently and externally. It is my truth and I can own it. This is only problematic when your truth gets in the way of my truth.
The French Revolution was the great liberal upheaval in whose aftershock we all try to live. The great motto “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality” echoed over the battlefields of Europe. “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality” would do away with the tyrants of the old order. It would end the unjust rule of the aristocrats and throw off the shackles of religion. It would allow common men and women to work out their own destinies in freedom. It didn’t work out very well, no matter how good the slogan sounds. Liberty and equality are enemies.
Children on the playground know this. If two children at play both have 20 marbles, they might seem equal at first, but if one child is just plain better at shooting marbles, he will have all the other child’s marbles by the time recess is over. If on the other hand, the rules say that when I win your marbles I must give them back so that we will both always have 20 each, I will soon be at the other end of the playground playing tag.
If I am guaranteed equality, liberty must suffer. If I am guaranteed liberty, equality will be its first casualty. This is exactly what happened. The king lost his head to Robespierre who in turn lost his head to the committee of security, the successor government of which was edged out by Napoleon and Europe has been at war ever since. Napoleon was a worse autocrat than any Bourbon king had ever been.
The revolution didn’t even work for an afternoon. The revolution in France marks it true beginning with the siege of the Bastille. The Bastille was an old fortress in the heart of Paris. Sure that the government was hoarding food, the Parisian mob decided to liberate the Bastille and its gunpowder stores on the morning of July 14, 1789. By 6PM the head of Bernard De Launy, the governor of the Bastille was firmly jammed on a pike, after the first beheading in what was to be a string of uncounted thousands. He was killed without trial without reason because his truth and the truth of the mob collided. So began the revolutionary upheaval that continues to this day. Modern liberalism believes that opinion, whether popular or individual, is as good as truth, because there is no truth beyond opinion. Liberty and equality are enemies. Fraternity is the casualty of their struggle. The only successful patron of the brotherhood of man has been and always will be the objective truth of the fatherhood of God. Without that you have nothing but good intentions that leave the weak at the mercy of the strong.
The assertion of true orthodoxy is that we bow before the truth. The assertion of liberalism is that the truth must bow before the self, whether that self is an individual or the angry mob to which that self belongs.