‘Acquire More Limitations’: Religion’s Great Truth and Devastating Mistake

A sign warning about personal holiness in the entrance to the Western Wall holy site.

I didn’t have to ‘land’ in Jerusalem to get the religious spirit of the Land I was headed to.  Accompanying me for the 14-hour flight to Jerusalem was a 60-something seat mate named Saul—a devout practicer of Orthodox Judaism. He, like me, was headed to the Holy Land for nourishment of his faith . . . though this was far from his first trip.  He had long been a resident of Jerusalem, though now he lived in the States.

Saul was vivacious and, dare I say, even evangelical about his Judaism–which did not make him a little compelling and curious to me.  Along with giving me a primer on Israel, Saul offered much more than a peek into today’s Orthodox Judaism.  As I had decided I was coming to the Holy Land as more of a learner than a missionary (this time), I have decided to mostly listen and absorb.  And Saul did not disappoint.  At one point, Saul mentioned what is the defining view of the Orthodox Jewish belief:  if God’s People would be holy enough, Messiah would come.  (I recall in my study of the Torah, a long-spoken-of tradition of the Mishnah that said that if every Jewish family practiced the Sabbath on the same day, the Messiah would come. These two ideas reveal a similar heartbeat in the Orthodox Jewish faith: Messiah hasn’t come because of lack of holiness in God’s Chosen People.)  

After fourteen hours on the plane and a steady stream of this belief, I asked Saul a question that ought to confound and perplex every Faithful Practicer of Judaism (along with anyone religious, Jewish or not):  “If everyone had somehow already become good, why on earth would the Messiah need to come to ‘save’ anyone?  A Messiah is a Savior.  Who needs saving if everyone’s moral . . . enough?”  It occurred to me that Saul’s assumption of religion amounted to having the cart before the horse.  Religion tries to put things backwards.  Who personally needs God if they’re already good enough? And what world needs God if everyone’s moral . . . enough?  In Saul’s case, he looked at me puzzled and moved on to other ideas since there wasn’t an answer for that question. (And, as I’ve very rarely found someone religiously Jewish to be not certain, I had hit religious pay dirt with Saul.)

This conversation with my new friend would only give me a quick introduction to what I would see on full display during my first full day in Jerusalem. I walked the entire circumference of the Old City on Day 1, but the one place I just couldn’t get enough of in the Old City was the Western Wall–the holiest of sites to the Jewish Faith until the Temple gets rebuilt. (The Western Wall—sometimes also referred to as the Wailing Wall—forms the westernmost wall of the Temple Mount where the Jewish Temple once sat before the Romans ripped it down and Islam later placed a mosque on top of.)  Here, many people come to pray, but the prominent worshipers are the Orthodox Jewish–and, most notably, the rabbis. (It would be even easier to pick one of them out by their garb than it would be me as a tourist.)

The Western Wall

I knew praying at the Western Wall would be one of my primary delights on this trip, but I wasn’t aware of something I would end up stumbling upon in my visit. There is a synagogue to the immediate left of what most would see as the termination at the northernmost end of the Western Wall. There, in that incredibly holy place, the rabbis and the intense Jewish worshipers come to make their daily prayers, recite the Torah, and read the Hebrew Scriptures aloud.

Synagogue on the Western Wall

Due to its architecture, the slightly-arching wall in that synagogue leads you to hear the profoundly beautiful cacophony of many prayers at once. It’s inspiring to my devout spirit, but also strikes my soul with a strangeness. No one welcomes you into the synagogue—as it’s a place that people move in and out of after they make their public prayers. No one makes eye contact with you. Well, they kind of do. Wary eyes are more common than one should feel comfortable with in a place where God’s Presence is being prayed for. There, you don’t get a feeling of disinterest from the religiously-overzealous, but of somewhere more between disapproval and disgust. This impression you experience extends to the street experience of the highly-religious, too: “We can tell you are looking on curiously to what’s going on here, but you are impure. Unworthy to be here. You are not counted among the Faithful.” On more than a few occasions, I would notice a rabbi passing a non-Orthodox person and turn their head wincingly away. (More than one rabbi turned away from me, too—disturbed by, in his estimation, my non-Faithful presence. Sinners are part of the problem—in their belief. And, believe me, I’m a sinner. Just not sure if I’m wincingly-level horrible . . . but I do my best.)

Why do I mention this? Well, let me bring you back to my conversation with Saul on the plane. Refreshingly, he did not share the same sense of disgust at talking to a non-Orthodox person—even if he believed the same thing as them: “The world is sinful . . . and, frankly, repulsive to God.” And, as I mentioned at the start, it’s this Human sinful repulsiveness, they assume, that keeps the Messiah away. Because those of Orthodox Jewish faith missed Jesus as the Messiah—He who was without sin and whose sacrificial death obliterated this Human problem with sin—they are certain that holiness is the only way to bring it about the arrival of Messiah.

Now, here’s how Saul worded it. “We must be holy. We must leave the stench of the world’s ways. For Messiah to finally come, we must ACQUIRE MORE LIMITATIONS.” Wow. We need to deny ourselves so that we get all God wants for us in this life. Saul was 100% right and fully wrong at the same time. But, the valuable and redemptive part of this kind of morality he was introducing struck me hard. If I am going to acquire anything as I grow in this life, it should be to need less. I need to acquire the need for less. I was blown away by the partial wisdom of my new friend, Saul . . . even if he believed it was the whole religious enchilada.

Small notes of prayer stuck into the Western Wall

But, the problem is that no one can ever limit themselves into perfection. So if human righteousness is the only thing that brings about the Messiah—as Judaism’s foundational belief holds—the most knee-buckling truth to render upon how Saul meant what he said was this: even if we could become perfect by wanting less of the material world, why then would we ever need the Messiah to come and change us with His salvation? He’d, what, save us from being too good? You catch me? As Messiah Jesus taught: “the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are LOST.” Our sense of humble lostness and a hope to see our Human brokenness healed is the thing that brings the Messiah to us—not a self-acquired righteousness.

But, I would like to take the shells of Saul’s amazing ideas and reorder his core thoughts back into a better sequence: When God’s love does find me and I let Him in, it should transform me and my worldview and my lifestyle. When God gets a hold of a sinner, He changes how that sinner sees the world. They begin to see God and the world in more “righteous” ways—like Saul so sweetly taught me (backwards in order as it may have been). Our greatest acquisition in life will be to become men and women who only covet the joy of God in others. We will need less and less artificial pleasures—as sin and the material world always offer but painfully under-deliver. The only indulgence we’ll need to allow for would be a coveting that others can have more and more of our generous God that they discover in us. The only way we begin to understand our need to acquire less is when we’ve, first, experienced all of the Messiah’s forgiveness.

And that’s been offered to each of us in Jesus if we (1) humbly ask for His grace and (2) stop trying to be good enough. The first places us only one simple decision away from God’s Kingdom. The latter is religiously futile. Jerusalem is proof perfect of this on global display.

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