Here’s my latest contribution to RivertonMussar.org. Separation, or pure living, is a vital part of mussar, the Jewish pursuit of ethical transformation. But it’s suspect in today’s world because we disdain the holier-than-thou variety. Yeshua models a life of both separation and connection.
Separation begins within, as Messiah taught in one of his most famous—and challenging—sayings: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27–28). Likewise, Cheshbon HaNefesh instructs us, “Strengthen yourself so that you can stop lewd thoughts,” because defilement begins in the mind.
But how do we strengthen ourselves?
Messiah provides what looks like a rather tough regimen: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matt. 5:29–30). Apparently impure thoughts are not inevitable, but result from actions of eye and hand that we can reverse if we are willing to pay the price. Midrash Hagadol, commenting on Exodus 20:13, notes that the word for “commit adultery” in Hebrew has four letters, to warn us that adultery can be committed in four ways—by hand, foot, eye, and heart. Yeshua reminds us to go after the roots of sinful behavior in eye and heart, even those roots that might appear harmless, rather than waiting until they are expressed by hand and foot.
Can we deny that today’s visual bombardment of sexual imagery fuels adultery of the heart? Tearing out the eye today means turning off the TV, blocking the website, closing the book or magazine, ruthlessly if necessary. Film, in particular, often employs explicit sexual images within a compelling art form that draws us into it. But Messiah’s standards require us to forgo experiences that may have a positive side for the sake of wholeness before God.
Yeshua, doubtless, was true to his own instruction and practiced the purest variety of inner separation. Paradoxically, though, he drew frequent criticism for not maintaining outward separation. The religious experts complained, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2), and called him “a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matt. 11:19). Yeshua reminded them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matt. 9:12). Somehow he maintained his inner purity even while hanging out with the impure.
I remember a story from my pre-Messiah days when I dabbled in Zen. Two monks are traveling together when the path brings them to a swift river that they must ford. A young woman is standing on the path at the bank of the river, afraid to step into the water for fear that she’ll be swept away. One of the monks picks her up and carries her across to the other shore. She thanks him, turns off to a different path, and the two men continue on their way in silence. Hours later the other monk says to his companion, “I can’t believe that you touched that young woman. You actually picked her up and held her!” The first monk replies, “I put her down at the bank of the river, but you’ve been carrying her all these miles.”
As always, Yeshua is our example. He points to an inner purity that strengthens us for outward service. He is not afraid of messing up his inward discipline by giving a lift to those who need it—even the impure.