I hate opinions,
but I love your law.
You are my hiding-place and my shield;
I hope in your word.
Go away from me, you evildoers,
that I may keep the commandments of my God.
Uphold me according to your promise, that I may live,
and let me not be put to shame in my hope.
Hold me up, that I may be safe
and have regard for your statutes continually.
You spurn all who go astray from your statutes;
for their cunning is in vain.
All the wicked of the earth you count as dross;
therefore I love your decrees.
My flesh trembles for fear of you,
and I am afraid of your judgments.
This section begins with four Hebrew words that capture the problem of epistemology: סעפים שנאתי ותורתך אהבתי (se’iphim saneti v’toratecha ahavti, “I hate opinions, but I love your Torah”). We want to arrive at the pure truth, but the closest we can get to it is our perpetually inadequate interpretations and opinions, and the tighter we hold to these, the less we can continue on our journey truthward.
Translations of this verse vary widely. In the lexicon סעפים (se’iphim) means “thoughts” in a figurative sense and “branches” of a tree in a literal sense. But in its uses, se’iphim seems to carry a connotation of contentiousness, i.e. not just thoughts, but schismatic thoughts that cause disagreements between people and divide them into separate branches on a tree. Hence I use the word “opinions” to translate. In any case, this verse is contrasting se’iphim in the sharpest possible terms with Torah, by making them the objects of hate and love respectively. What is the difference between se’iphim and Torah? It is the difference between our finite knowledge, which is organized like the branches of a tree into binary categories of black and white, either/or, etc, and the infinite knowledge within God’s Torah which has a perfect unity to it that is seamless but infinitely complex and perpetually evasive of our attempts to conquer it, in the same way that a ray of light is impossible to reach out and grab (see John 1:5).
All of the specifics of God’s law have a reason behind them that originates in the inaccessibly perfect logic of Torah. We only access Torah on a superficial level when we think of it as the rules we have to follow “because God said so.” God’s goal is for us to do far more than follow the law out of blind duty; He wants us to fall in love with the law, which means taking an interest in the deeper logic behind it. 2 Corinthians 3:6 says, “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life,” because if we hold too tightly to the letter of the law, then our zeal for discovering the spirit behind the law is choked to death. Usually we do this when observing the letter of the law fulfills some base objective that we have such as achieving political power or nursing our pride rather than instilling in us the joyful perception of God’s beauty that God wants His law to awaken in all of us.
All forms of fundamentalism and systematic theologies that consider themselves to be all-encompassing are dangerous to Christianity because they fetishize the letter and kill the spirit of God’s teachings, which results in a white-knuckled grip on se’iphim rather than open hands that receive the endless gifts of God’s Torah. If we try to bleach out all the mystery from God’s law, then we end up with a caricatured understanding of it, like Jesus’ Pharisaic opponents in the gospel stories. The way to become a Pharisee is to mistaken our finite se’iphim for God’s infinite Torah, which is precisely what millions of Christians are doing right now with their checklists that measure who’s in and who’s out, who’s orthodox and who’s a heretic, etc.
To love our se’iphim instead of God’s Torah is to worship an idol. To some degree, idolatry is unavoidable. What I mean by this is we are always going to perceive God in a finite approximation of who He really is. But we have fallen captive to idolatry when we defend our finite approximations of God against the deeper revelations that He gives us, instead of smashing our idols and reconfiguring our understanding of Him on a perpetual basis. The most mature theologian seeks to understand the Torah within the views of his/her fiercest theological opponents. That’s the best way to grow out of our caricatures of God. The nature of truth is such that even the most egregious of heretics are responding to some truth whose misinterpretation or overemphasis is the source of their heresy. This is by no means a relativistic view of truth. It simply requires a more exquisite level of discernment to separate the truth from the falsehood within each of our fallible se’iphim rather than clumsily dividing people into those who are right and those who are wrong.
So teach me, God, to despise the finiteness of my own opinions and yearn for the infinite purity of your Torah. I pray that my only allegiance would be to you, that I would be so fluid in my ties to every theory and ideology and assumption that your Holy Breath can blow me wherever it pleases.