The Words of the Haines Family

Reflecting on the meaning of obedience

William Haines
June 6, 2011

Recently a memo signed by True Parents was issued which contained the following paragraph:

"First, all members are not to forget that they must obey absolutely all directions and commands of the True Parents, who are the only True Parents in the world for all perpetuity and eternity. This is the eternal tradition and faith of the Unification Church."

I was quite intrigued as this is something I have been thinking and writing about recently. The first sentence contains the word 'obey' and it is this word that I would like to explore in some detail. As it occurs many times in the Divine Principle it is important to try to understand what it means.

The English word 'obey' appeared in the late 13th century and comes from the Old French obeir which is in turn comes from the Latin oboedire which means, "pay attention to, give ear, obey." Oboedire literally means, "listen to" as it is a combination of the prefix ob meaning "to" as in "towards" and audire "listen or hear" which gives us words such as audience. That is the word's etymology and original meaning but what does it mean today?

One meaning recognized in the dictionary is "to give ear to" which of course refers to its original meaning. However other definitions include: to execute the commands of; to yield submission to; to comply with the orders of; to submit to the authority of; to be ruled by; to yield to the impulse, power, or operation of; to give obedience; to adapt, conform, adjust; to receive and be expected to follow directions or commands; to submit to, surrender to, give way to, succumb to, bow to, give in to, yield to, be ruled by, serve, defer to, cave in to; take orders from and 'do what you are told'. All, except the first, are far away from the original meaning. So how did the meaning change?

In the 14th century the word 'obedient' meant the "act or fact of obeying," coming as it did from Old French obeissance which derived from obeissant, which was the present participle of obeir. The meaning of the English word 'obedient' altered in the late 14th century to "bending or prostration of the body as a gesture of submission or respect" when it became confused with abaisance which is derived from abase. Abase is derived from the 14th century word abaishen which comes from the Old French abaissier which means to "diminish, make lower in value or status; to humble or belittle oneself; cause to feel shame; hurt the pride of." Thus the meaning of the word 'obey' changed significantly as it was confused with 'abase'.

So we have here two meanings for the words obey and obedience. The original one linked to listening to and the newer one by its confusion with abase and abasement meaning submission, bowing, yielding and executing commands. So where do we go from here?

The word obey also occurs in the Bible many times so it may be worthwhile examining what the word means in a Biblical context. Curiously there is no word in Hebrew that corresponds to the modern English word obey. This is something I discovered recently when reading a number of books and articles by the Professor Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the UK and Commonwealth:

"Judaism has many commands. You would have thought that a religion with 613 commands had a word that means 'obey'. The whole of Hebrew does not have a word that means 'obey'. What is the verb that the Bible uses instead of 'obey'? Lishmoa, shema. Shema means not 'to obey': it means 'to listen', 'to hear', 'to internalize', 'to understand', 'to respond'. There is no English word that means what the Hebrew word shema means.

The King James Bible invented a word for the purpose. They verb that they chose was 'to hearken'. But now, nobody hearkens any more so the English translators of the Bible don't know what to do with this verb. So they translated it as 'obey', but it absolutely does not mean obey because the Almighty never imposes himself on us. He asks us to be active shapers of His word through listening, interpreting, responding. And that is Shema."

And again:

"It is reasonable to assume that in the life of faith, obedience is the highest virtue. In Judaism it is not. One of the strangest features of biblical Hebrew is that – despite the fact that the Torah contains 613 commands – there is no word for 'obey.' Instead the verb the Torah uses is shema/lishmoa, 'to listen, hear, attend, understand, internalize, respond.' So distinctive is this word that, in effect, the King James Bible had to invent an English equivalent, the word 'hearken.' Nowadays the word has gone out of circulation, and there is no precise translation. Equally, modern Hebrew had to invent a word to mean pure, unquestioning obedience. It chose letzayet, not lishmoa which means something else – reflective response. In Judaism, G-d does not command blind obedience. Ein haKadosh Barukh Hub ba be-tirunyiah im beriyotav; 'G-d does not deal despotically with His creatures' (Avodah Zarah 3a). If He sought no more than mindless submission to the Divine will, He would have created robots, machines, or genetically programmed people who responded automatically to commands as dogs to Pavlov's bell. G-d wants us to be mature, deliberative, to do His will because we understand or because we trust Him when we do not understand. He seeks from us something other and greater than obedience, namely responsibility."

So nowhere in the Bible does God command the Hebrews to obey him. Instead of "Obey O Israel" the most important Jewish prayer is "Shema Yisrael":

"Shema Yisrael does not mean 'Hear, O Israel'. It means something like: 'Listen. Concentrate. Give the word of G-d your most focused attention. Strive to understand. Engage all your faculties, intellectual and emotional. Make His will your own. For what He commands you to do is not irrational or arbitrary but for your welfare, the welfare of your people, and ultimately for the benefit of all humanity.' In Judaism faith is a form of listening: to the song creation sings to its Creator, and to the message history delivers to those who strive to understand it. That is what Moses says, time and again in Deuteronomy. Stop looking: listen. Stop speaking: listen. Create a silence in the soul. Still the clamor of instinct, desire, fear, anger. Strive to listen to the still, small voice beneath the noise. Then you will know that the universe is the work of the One beyond the furthest star yet closer to you than you are to yourself – and then you will love the Lord your G-d with all your heart, all your soul and all your might." (Jonathan Sacks)

So what are the implications of this? Ludwig Wittgenstein said, "The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for." So whatever Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, Moses and the Hebrews were doing it wasn't being obedient or disobedient because they did not conceptualize their thoughts and actions in those terms. Indeed the Biblical tradition is not based on obeying commands but on understanding. God didn't expect unquestioning obedience from Adam and Eve. He didn't say, "Do not eat the fruit." But, "Do not eat the fruit BECAUSE if you do you will die." Death is not a punishment for disobedience any more than breaking a leg is a punishment for falling down a flight of stairs. God was explaining to Adam and Eve how the world worked. He explained that death would be a consequence of eating the fruit and therefore they should not eat it. He wanted them to act out of understanding and therefore he treated them as responsible beings. Many of the Mosaic laws are also supported by reasons and an explanation of the consequences of following them or breaking them. As Sacks says, these laws are neither arbitrary not irrational but given for people's welfare.

Since the Divine Principle is grounded in the Biblical tradition I suggest that when the words 'obey' and 'obedient' occur they should be understood in the original Hebrew sense of 'listen, pay attention, think, understand, and act based on that understanding.' Thus we should form our conscience by studying and meditating on God's word and thus act accordingly. This means we should be responsible as we have the ability to respond to whatever it is that we encounter. Obedience in the original and Biblical sense doesn't mean following orders or doing as one is told. Just to follow orders is to be irresponsible as one is not doing something because one understands it or because one believes it is the right thing to do. One is just doing it. Like a robot.

The next sentence, which claims to proclaim the faith and tradition of the Unification Church, raises a number of questions. Is this the beginning of a creed? Are we trying to draw boundaries and thus barriers to determine who is in and who is outside our spiritual community? Are we basing these boundaries on belief rather than practice or sense of family and belonging? Are we following in the footsteps of the early Christian church? Ought we to be doing so? Is obedience to be the basis of the unification community? Is this statement that no one else can ever achieve the status of True Parents congruent with the Principle or Father's words in the past when he has challenged people to go beyond what he has done?

It would be interesting to examine the spirituality of obedience for a moment. The rabbis taught that Noah was very obedient (in the sense of following commands) because he did what ever God told him to do. God told him to build the Ark and he did so. Unquestioningly. God told him to enter the Ark and he did so. When the Ark had landed he waited until God told him to leave the Ark before he did so. However this attitude, that we call obedience, was not seen as a virtue because unlike Abraham he did not argued with God and plead with him to be merciful. Obedience you see is the virtue appropriate to a servant or slave but not a mature son or daughter. Obedience is the faith of the pre-Old Testament Age.

So what is to be done? Should the Divine Principle have a glossary so that when we see the word obedience we understand it in its original and Biblical sense? Or shall we adopt the corrupted meaning that will of course lead to the corruption of our spiritual community? Should our relationships be based principally on obedience or heart and love and responsibility? Perhaps we need to do some spiritual and linguistic archaeology to recover the heavenly tradition.

Also what is the normative standard by which to make such judgments? The Korean word that is translated as 'obey' does not contain the meanings of listen or understand. Should Korean or Hebrew be the standard for understanding the meaning of the word 'obey'? The Jewish people were directly prepared for 2000 years to receive the messiah. Had Jesus been accepted and protected and not killed by the Romans then Judaism would probably have been reformed and become the 'heavenly tradition'. Korea on the other hand did not have this kind of preparation and has only recently turned to Christianity and started to have its culture refined by the Biblical tradition. So I suggest we understand the word 'obey' in its original meaning as oboedire or better still the Hebrew shema and not in the corrupted and debased meaning it has today. The original meaning is also a far more Principled understanding as it is resonates with freedom and responsibility and many of the other themes that permeate the Principle.

William Haines

UTS Forum on "Society, Community and the Unification Tradition"
Bonsal 2011 

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