Converts make a healthy tree.

In last week’s Jewish Chronicle the columnist Ben Judah (p42)dared to state an uncomfortable, nay even in some quarters downright inconvenient, truth: Judaism has always been, and was designed to be from the outset, an outreach and converting religion. As the column author points out, some of our most longstanding ‘greats’, the best Jewish leaders, commentators and scholars have all been converts. Avraham avinu was himself a convert from idolatry, his conversion through the demonstration of his faith, made him the first ‘Jew’ from whom and through whom we are all descendants by birth or faith. The list continues unabated through the Torah, the souls Avraham ‘gained’ at Haran, Calev, Rachav, the Egyptians and many other nationalities who made up the mixed multitude leaving Egypt, Ruth etc etc. That Yonah the Jewish prophet should be sent to the gentiles to preach repentance may shock the spiritually faint-hearted, yet it is undeniably true; the big fish making sure that Yonah could not avoid his divine calling and task. Our very calling as a nation is to shine the light of the Lord out into this ever-increasingly dark world of sin and corruption. Such a message is even literally ‘built in’ to the synagogue buildings we inhabit: the building according to halacha must have windows to enable the internally held Light to pour out into the world.

And as we know, moths are drawn to the light, and gentiles are drawn to the Light. As much as our relationship with the world around us has informed and formed our desire to reach out over the ages (our times of persecution negatively impacting on our zeal to include), nevertheless the indisputable truth is that Judaism as a faith sees itself as a welcoming home for all and any who wish to dwell with the G-d of Israel and know the Jewish Mashiach (Messiah). In the first century as the many thousands of gentile converts were embracing Judaism through the teachings of Yeshua Mashichaynu, receiving the salvation offered through the nature and character of the G-d of Israel as seen in Yeshua’s own sacrificial death, we read how Rav Shaul developed a drash on the Olive Tree metaphor to illustrate the relationship and pattern that he saw being established in Israel. Far from being a negative appendage to Judaism, he recognised by his ‘Tree’ illustration that gentile converts ADDED to Israel, bringing a fresh perspective and view on the treasures of the Torah. With this fresh vibrancy came a renewing and revitalising of our people. And with it came a warning that these new members should NOT boast against the branches that supported and welcomed them… tragically a warning that went unheeded to the shame of history.

Judaism is convert-friendly by nature, as Ben Judah correctly states. Messianic Judaism is and should be convert-friendly by default design. So it was with great sadness that I read this last week of an international Messianic organisation who have now, apparently, decided that the default position should be to marginalise such a theological and fundamentally pro-human position. Indeed, the thoughts contained in this blog as I have expressed them elsewhere, have been described as ‘not mainstream’ by those who see themselves as part of this Messianic revival. Be that as it may, conversion is one of the core beliefs of Judaism and we shall over time see this as one of the largest conceptual leaps undertaken by Messianic Judaism to be seen as not just Messianic, but as a JUDAISM.

Blowing away the dust of history (part five)

Over the last few weeks we’ve been putting together a thread of answers to the potential issue of what Nicodemus might have not understood in the Judaism of his day, that earned him the gentle rebuke by Yeshua. As for so many of us, whether we believe in Yeshua or not as Jews, there will always be things that we simply do not see and comprehend, due to our human weakness and spiritual blindness. Last time we examined the role and place of sacrifice in Judaism and concluded that it was central to everything that Judaism should be. With the destruction of the Temple a key element of Judaism, its atonement function for us as a nation and for all the nations, vanished. We saw how for Messianic Jews that key substitutionary action was taken over by Yeshua and embedded in His own vicarious sacrifice, a final sin offering that actually met the righteous demands of G-d and equalled our own sin.

There is another area attached to sacrifice that cannot be overlooked either, and one that does not have a high profile in modern forms of Judaism outside of Messianic Judaism. This second area is the actual place for sacrifice. The Mishkan, and later Temple, stood at the heart of Jewish practice and belief, and not just for the sacrifices as important as they are/were. The original command was to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, in the centre of the community travelling through the desert. He filled this place with His Spirit, His Presence and it was seen visibly and tangibly with a column of fire and cloud. As G-d moved, like a Father taking His child’s hand, so we moved. So what does this tell us now, and maybe for Nicodemus, about a key point missed? In Shemot (Exodus) 33:12-14 Moshe pleads with G-d to go with them. Moshe is aware that this crucial element is vital to Israel’s success. Without ‘G-d with us’ we are lost as a people and nation. But actually G-d’s own desire in this was much closer to the spiritual reality. In Shemot 25:8, and 29:45-46 we read that It was always G-d’s desire to dwell in our midst, or amongst us. HIS desire to be with us predates ours to be with Him. This is something much closer. The Mishkan and later Temple structure enabled the very visible presence of G-d to be right at the heart of our community and people, and sacrifice made that possible. G-d physically and visibly dwelt in the Mishkan and first Temple; He truly was in our midst. The offering of sacrifices and the manifestation of His Presence are linked; when the sacrifice offered is accepted His Presence goes with you/ us as a nation. So we find that Temple and sacrifice are the key to having G-d with us as He desires, a concept central to Judaism: His presence bringing salvation, deliverance and redemption.

Lastly, let us not forget that with the destruction of the Temple in 70CE we might think that this central plank had been removed. Not so. The concept of course is larger than merely that Yeshua’s sacrifice now stands in the place of the animal sacrifices offered on the altar. In fact, as the Messianic Writings show, the believers who now accept Yeshua become the living Temple themselves, carrying within themselves the results of the daily offerings of Yeshua’s sacrifice. Just as the moveable Mishkan trekked through the desert ‘advertising’ the Presence and reality of the living G-d of Israel, so too do we today in our daily walks of life. Messianic Judaism is the final form of Judaism that reflects the glory of Adonai. We carry this treasure in earthen vessels dedicated to His service.

Blowing away the dust of history (part four)

Over the last few weeks we’ve been considering the encounter between Nicodemus and Yeshua. Yeshua’s gentle rebuke that, as a learned and pious man in Israel, he should have been aware of the deeper themes Yeshua was talking about, led us to conclude that there may well have been other areas clearly spoken to in the Torah, yet still under-developed or widely downplayed (if not ignored totally) in other forms of Judaism. Today I want to focus on one area that due to the destruction of the Temple in 70CE has been severely marginalised and ‘respun’: sacrifice.
There are two levels to this: the actual acts of sacrifice and the place where it happens. Firstly, you can’t fail to notice that sacrifice is central to Judaism. Once a few basic, ‘trend-setting’ commandments have been given on Sinai, we’re taken directly to the commandments to build the Mishkan, or Tabernacle. That construction has only one purpose, sacrifice, and it stood at the centre of the camp. Sadly, more modern non-Messianic Jewish forms of Judaism have belittled this fact theologically due to the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent impossibility of physically bringing sacrifices any more. But you can’t avoid the conclusion that Judaism functions on sacrifice. It does so precisely because Judaism is a restoration, deliverance and redemption faith. Judaism is G-d’s solution, His plan to reverse the sin problem created in the Garden and restore everything to the original default position. Atonement is the the moment when the sacrifice is accepted by G-d as a death equivalent to the death WE deserve due to our sins thus restoring the relationship between G-d and man. Interestingly, by commanding us to offer a sin sacrifice the Torah ASSUMES the sinfulness of all people (all humanity has fallen short of His glory and perfection) and our need for atonement.

But as we develop and track this idea of sacrifice through the Scriptures we see a potential problem: in the Garden the Lord said that if we ate of the tree (sinful rebellion), WE would die. Later again, the Torah is clear, the ‘soul that sins shall surely die’. WE should die for our sins, yet the Lord’s answer in the Mishkan was for animals to die. As glorious an idea as it is, substitution only works on equivalence, and the death of an animal will never be the equal to our sins. Fairness and equality is the basis of all justice and righteous judgement, and humans are not animals. Humans sin, animals do not. The writer to the Hebrews by the way recognises this dilemma in commenting that the cycle of animal sacrifices must continue forever because they are not adequate to deal with sins completely. They may provide a temporary ‘cover’ for our sins, but they can never completely remove them nor fully expiate them due to this fundamental issue of lack of equivalence. Only the death of a ‘human’ would remove the sting of the judgement of G-d (death) for our sins. But a sinful human could never do it as they too would need a sacrifice for their own sins, thus disqualifying themselves from paying the price for others’ sins. So what can be done? We need a human who has not sinned, one of us, yet perfect, by whose death we could truly be set free. We need G-d’s salvation and as He is perfect (the only One) in principle He must offer Himself to do this saving. In Judaism this logical step to the end conclusion is there, and if you have eyes to see it it is obvious, but sadly not for Nicodemus and not for so many of our people today.

Blowing away the dust of history (part three)

We’ve been considering over the last few weeks various answers to the question of what else Nicodemus, a learned and studied Torah scholar of his day, some 2000 years ago, didn’t know. Yeshua’s gentle rebuke that what He was describing should have been common knowledge for anyone who knew the Torah, set up a dynamic that reverberates to this day. Having considered the idea that salvation is a Jewish idea and that there is no discrepancy between G-d being our salvation and Yeshua performing that role, we need to ask what the next area might be. What else is there in Judaism that is missed and currently not highlighted?
In Bereshit (Genesis) 15:6. we read that an odd transaction takes place between the Lord and Avraham whereby the righteousness of G-d Himself is imputed, or given, to Avraham. Now, instead of his own standing before G-d, he has a righteousness unmerited and simply allocated to him. What is it that triggers this transaction? Avraham’s faith. We know that without faith it is impossible to please G-d, for the simple reason as we see here with Avraham, that it is faith that enables us to stand as righteous before G-d at all. If we have HIS righteousness, then we can easily stand in His presence. Without it we fall short of His righteous standards, His glory. As a holy G-d He can tolerate no unholiness in His presence, so attaining His righteousness becomes an urgent issue for us as Jews.
 
The exercise of faith then SHOULD be solidly axiomatic to Judaism, after all, Avraham is our father and it is to him we look as the instigator and initiator of our Jewish faith. He is the ground-zero Jewish person and progenitor of our people and faith. Without him there would have been no Moshe (Moses), no King David and no Messiah. Israel’s history begins with this man in a real way, and the covenant that the Lord cuts with him that connects Avraham to everything that has happened since, the Land, the nation, begins with faith. But it might be a surprise to note that it is not just generic faith talked about here. Many people have ‘faith’ in crystals, horoscopes etc. None of these expressions are equal to the faith that Avraham demonstrated. What is it that marks out the faith of Avraham from other forms of generic faith in ‘god’ or even those who sincerely believe that G-d is?
 
According to the text, Avraham’s faith response was predicated on G-d’s promise and Word. This was not just faith but targeted faith. It was different say from faith that says ‘I can cross the road at green’, this was faith with a purpose: the full outworking of the promises of G-d to us His people and consequently to the nations too in salvation. And what is the target of that faith? Again, according to Torah the promise and response was given when the Lord predicted that a son (and by definition his offspring) would be born to Avraham who would inherit everything that the Lord covenanted. Avraham’s faith was operative as he accepted that the Lord would bring him a son, offspring, despite his age and Sarah’s infertile condition. His confidence was in G-d to honour the covenant, despite apparent human impossibility. That confidence was focussed not unsurprisingly in the son to be born, which makes the binding of Yitzchak all the more poignant and emotional.
 
Equally unsurprisingly Rav Shaul detects this focus and expands the concept of targeted faith to Yeshua. In his letter to the Jewish community in Rome he states that this righteousness comes ‘through faith in Yeshua, to all and on all who believe’ He repeats the same message in his letter to the community in Galatia too. A close examination therefore of the text reveals that faith alone is not enough, it is faith IN the One who the Lord ultimately promised, the son who would be born through whom and in whom all the promises of G-d are yes and amen.

What do you mean?

The famed Chinese anti-blessing runs ‘May you be blessed to live in interesting times’ and it’s been uttered very frequently recently. For us in the Jewish community there are barely any times which are not interesting in one way or another, yet this current season is proving a challenge. One illustration of this was the conference originally pencilled in to be held at the University of Southampton at which the very right to Israel’s existence was to be debated and discussed. Thankfully the university realised that this was not a freedom of speech issue but an anti-Semitic abuse of freedom and cancelled it. Sadly it has reappeared now at an Irish university.
 
What shocks me though is not that this is debated, although that is bad enough, but the implications this throws up. It is often argued that what Israel is doing to the Arabs who live in certain areas of Israel are going to be ‘ethnically cleansed’ and removed from ancestral homelands. That this could even remotely be true is so laughable as to not merit a response here, but it is the language that shocks. If it is an act of ethnic cleansing to remove Arabs, then it surely is the same to remove Jewish people from said territories too. Indeed, a call to remove Israel from the map as has been often suggested by Arab, Muslim powers in the ME is often heard. Yet apparently this would NOT constitute an act of ethnic cleansing!
 
And here’s the nub of the issue, we live in an age where words are increasingly having no meaning whatsoever. Words now mean what we want them to mean, and that within our own ever decreasing bubbles of self-perception and personal indulgence. As the concept of absolute truth has been assaulted, and thereby the connected idea that words do have a meaning beyond ourselves and our own personal dictionaries of reality, the ability to communicate real meaning has diminished. In fact we have dug our own post-modern graves and are wilfully throwing ourselves into them as it were the best idea since sliced bread. The problem is that when we hear a news report about terrorism, we simply do not know any more if this is true. Such wilful abrogation of facts to suit ideology is shaking the ability to communicate to its core. And we see it everywhere across the ME in particular.
 
We can see this trend in other areas too: today people talk about ‘god’ without any concern as to which one, drawing upon a cultural consensus that has long since disappeared. Today we DO need to ask ‘which one?’ Words and their associated meanings are being reformed and given new semantic fields before our eyes and the minds of a generation are being transformed (or dare I say prepared?) for what is coming next.
If we learn one thing from the narrative of the Tower of Babel in Torah, it is that as language becomes muddled it is impossible to communicate any more. As people we then become separated and divided, and that produces conflict. Instead of using language to spread peace and guide people to worship the One true G-d in love and gentleness, we find the inflammatory use of words designed to stir up hatred and fear. One of the greatest minds of the twentieth century, Winston Churchill, knew this concept only too well when he famously said ‘Jaw jaw not war war’.
 
Today’s ‘meaning-crisis’ is creating uncertainty everywhere. What is truth, who is speaking it? In a post-truth age where experts are challenged and prejudice and personal opinion is vaulted as objective truth, we desperately need to go back to the source of all objective truth: The G-d of Israel. If we do not, the cultural and religious implications are severe. Assured cultural, moral and religious self-destruction will follow if no one knows what we mean any more. May we listen to the One who only speaks truth, whose meaning is clear, whose objective reality is the only narrative.

The ‘New’ Judaism and Messianic Judaism.

At the risk of appearing monotonous, it is nevertheless important to highlight the ongoing challenges and above all CHANGES happening in the Jewish faith world. Barely a week now goes by without a different journal or a published article or a newspaper report in this or that Jewish newspaper trying to verbalise the huge currents of change sweeping through the Jewish world today. It would be wrong to under-estimate this, yet categorising it is also a challenge. As such, the article attached sheds a fair perspective on the situation. Tsvi Sadan says ‘The Jewish people have gone through three major catastrophes, out of which new forms of Judaism have emerged’. The first catastrophe referenced is the destruction of the first Temple and the consequent return to the Land under Ezra and Nehemiah. From them developed the basic form of what would later become known as the Oral Torah, the fences around the Torah to ensure that a second diaspora simply couldn’t happen. That it DID happen was the second catastrophe running from the destruction of the second Temple in 70CE through to the exile after the Bar Kochva revolt in 135CE. The form of Judaism that emerged from that event was created in Yavne and became the foundation for Rabbinic Judaism. Taking the lead from the Oral Torah, the additional element was chiefly the authority of the Rabbis rather than the priests and prophets. We must not forget however, that a further form of Judaism also survived the first century: Messianic Judaism. Although this later was subsumed into a direction not anticipated or expected by those first century Jewish men and women who passionately believed that Yeshua was and is the Messiah (Mashiach), its existence is often far too easily overlooked. The third catastrophe to hit us was the holocaust. Sadan’s thesis, which I accept, is that we can expect to see a new direction for Judaism emerge as we now blend the return to the ancestral Land with a need for a form of Judaism that not only meets the modern needs but also the deepest spiritual needs of mankind, not just of our nation. Rabbinic Judaism, for all its glory and beauty, was designed to be a diaspora Judaism, a Judaism for survival under Roman occupation in the first instance and widespread cultural exile later on. Today we are back in our Land again.

As the article illustrates, there are many groups today exploring what new directions Judaism could or should take. As Sadan states: ‘Today there are tens of thousands who were born into Orthodox families leaving the fold (…) some going through the motions without desire or faith (..) some have become atheists.’ Other secular Jewish people are exploring ways to reconnect with their backgrounds, a truly modern ’emergent’ Judaism in various forms. These two streams are breaking open the old accepted ways and are seeking a renewing.

Given the compelling nature of this argument and the growing facts on the ground in Israel, we must not be surprised that it is at this time the Lord has re-established Messianic Judaism. Yes, a reformation of that ancient form of Judaism lived out in the first century, but also a form that is ready to be a living faith TODAY, not just a nod to the past. Our challenge is to form this Jewish faith in line with Yeshua’s teachings, developing halacha drawn from His examples and apply it in a thoroughly Jewish way to our lives and communities. Messianic Jewish communities the world over are living alternatives to other forms of Judaism that are no longer connecting with so many of our people. We, Jewish people, no longer want form but substance, and that is a faith in G-d founded upon the salvation work He undertook in Yeshua. Truly redeemed both physically and spiritually we stand as a testimony to the G-d of Israel and the narrative of history completed. After our third catastrophe, the emergence of Messianic Judaism is no coincidence. It is a Jewish revival movement that connects us with both Land and with our G-d, the One who has been faithful through all time to us.

Blowing away the dust of history (part two)

A couple of weeks ago we began to explore the encounter between Yeshua and an esteemed Torah scholar and community leader called Nicodemus. The encounter highlighted some conceptual and theological breakpoints between general Jewish understanding at the time and the focus that Yeshua brought to Judaism. If Nicodemus had so completely misunderstood the concept of salvation, earning him a gentle rebuke from Yeshua, what else had he or might he have had missed?
One of the clash points between Messianic Judaism and other forms of Judaism is the idea of salvation itself. Consistently throughout all the Torah, and in our wider Jewish consciousness, we know and read that G-d is our salvation, and only HE can offer it and fully provide for it. That is stated in many places in the Scriptures, for example, Is 43:11-14a, Is 49:26, and Is 60:16. G-d is our salvation.These, and many others, are the verses often quoted by some in other forms of Judaism who are antagonistic towards us as Messianic Jews. And in all honesty, you can’t argue with the verses, that is what they say. The implications given to the verses, however, is wrong. So how is it that in Messianic Judaism, and even for those very first Messianic Jews of the first century, we believe and teach that Yeshua is our salvation, and therefore by implication, Yeshua is, must be, G-d?
To answer this we need to unpack something called ‘Identity theology’. There is an example of this happening in the Besorah (Good News) recorded by Luke (Lk 7:11-17). There we read that after an encounter with Yeshua the people declared ‘G-d has visited his people’ (referring to Yeshua). The key question here is: How did they know? Yeshua didn’t tell them, yet the group there at that moment knew G-d had appeared in their midst. They knew because of what Yeshua DID, not what He preached, what He DID. He was able to revoke the power of death, reverse therefore the effects of sin on life and thus demonstrate Himself to be more powerful than sin and be able to overcome its consequences. Only G-d can do that. Freedom from sin, deliverance, redemption and salvation are events far more than theology, and G-d is known by His acts, actions and events. We ‘know’ G-d is able to set free because He did it and does it. So we know that He is by nature a G-d who releases people rather than brings them into bondage. It is why G-d consistently calls to mind the deliverance from Egypt as a key character statement of who He is. G-d IS salvation, and we see Him ACT in that way because it is His character, His identity. By saving, delivering and bringing us out of Egypt He is only being true to His nature and essence.
In he Second Isaiah section the prophet develops this ‘second’ Exodus motif in a deeper spiritual way, not merely physical this time but a deeper redemption. The passages culminate in the Suffering Servant by whose death this redemption is brought about. What is extraordinary about this is that this suffering servant pattern or template revealed by the prophet of humiliation and rejection followed by exaltation and acceptance becomes the definitive revelation of who G-d is. This singular act as it breaks into history is THE experience of G-d that ultimately defines Him. In the Messianic Writings we see the same conceptual understanding applied to Yeshua: He is the Saviour (the same term used in Tanach for G-d) who brings salvation (see Lk 2:11, 1 Jn 4:14). By His sacrificial death He fully develops the Jewish concept of deliverance and salvation, a release for freedom, free to live as G-d wants us to live. The links are clear; G-d IS salvation, it is His identity. He sends His salvation to us, His Son Yeshua, both are salvation, It’s not that His name just means it, He IS it. By Yeshua’s ACTIONS He proved that He is salvation and He is G-d. He overcame death and sin in His own body. Yes, all of this is in fact obvious from and in Judaism, although in other forms of Judaism this has been masked and concealed. Yeshua IS salvation, and thus Yeshua IS G-d. He is the embodiment, the physical shape of salvation, who Is G-d. Yeshua carries the identity of G-d in Himself. As Yeshua Himself said in Jn 5, He must do ‘the works the Father has given him to FINISH’. Yeshua’s works of salvation were not new in the first century, He had been doing them for a long time as the agent of salvation in history. But He did need to FINISH them, draw the idea of salvation to its conclusion. And that Yeshua did in His own death and resurrection, a sacrifice for sins that would truly set people free.