Listen to Maimonides…

A text without a context is a pretext. Thus begins the argument about hermeneutics and textual interpretation when someone disagrees with us! The problem, of course, is more serious than the stock answer may suggest. There are genuine disagreements about what ‘the facts’ are in any given situation, and none more so than when it concerns such crucial issues as to the identity and person of the Mashiach, the Messiah predicted and prophesied in the Torah and Jewish literature. And in a world of ‘fake news’ and institutionalised gaslighting, the need for concrete facts and truth has never been more needed. Thus it is to Maimonides that we should turn, one of the ‘greats’ in Judaism whose words carry so much weight and whose wisdom has helped so many to understand the (Jewish) world.

One of his famous quotes reads: ‘Accept the truth from wherever it comes’. On the face of it this sounds like a very wise statement, and indeed it is. Truth is truth, and as they say, it will out. Yet the sad reality is that Rambam’s words have never truly been taken to heart. As the leader of a Messianic Jewish revival group in the first century, Yeshua declared that He is the way, the truth and the life. Seen objectively He is saying that through Him these ideas fully take flesh and are visible for all to see. If Judaism represents the truth (and it does), then Yeshua must therefore embody Judaism and its sacred principles and ideas in His every action, thought and word. Messianic Jews have no problem with this concept of course, but there remain many in other forms of Judaism for whom this reality is still afar off, and who fail to see Yeshua as a person of history in any other way than controversial.

However, if we take the statement ‘accept the truth from wherever it comes’ at face value, it is not enough to merely apply it to the teaching of Yeshua and hope it is accepted. The statement demands an examination of sources. All truth is examined for its veracity in the light of trustworthy communicators and reliable trusted sources. In other words, what is said (the text) is tested against multiple sources and responsible research (context). The single most important context that we can research for this is the nature and character of G-d as revealed in the Torah and Tanach. If the words and teachings of Yeshua match up with the revealed and researched nature and teachings of the Lord G-d of Israel, then we must de facto take them seriously and accept the truth of them, even if they come from places we may not like.

So what is the revealed nature and character of our G-d? That can be summarised in one sentence: I am the Lord your G-d who brought you up from the land of Egypt. G-d is the One who delivers, redeems, saves and sets free. It is His primary nature as revealed in the Torah. The question then remains for many of our brethren who reject Yeshua on the basis of historical animosity rather than research and examination of the sources, does Yeshua’s teaching in any way contravene the nature of salvation, redemption and deliverance we know to be true of G-d? Many Messianic Jews today are discovering that it does not. What do YOU think?

Accept the truth from wherever it comes.

Blowing away the dust of history (part six)

This last part of the Nicodemus series examines an element that was clearly missed in the first century and most certainly would have been met with a surprised response from the learned Nicodemus, despite his vast knowledge of Torah and Judaism. The difficulty as always is joining the dots to make sense, in a cohesive way, of what we are reading in the Scriptures.

This last area touches upon the nature and definition of righteousness, and more importantly HOW we achieve it. Judaism poses us with a dilemma: An infinite G-d who reveals His righteousness to mankind through the Torah, His absolute standards of holiness and consecration, and then apparently sets us up to fail. I say apparently, because there is not one person alive or dead who has ever kept the Torah and its standard of righteousness. King Shlomo put it this way in 1 kings 8:46 ‘there is no one who does not sin’. Rav Shaul put it in a similar fashion: ‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of G-d’. The definition of sin is breaking a commandment and you can therefore hear the desperate heart cry of the followers of Yeshua Mashichaynu in Matt 19:25 who asked ‘who then can be saved?’ Yeshua’s answer is interesting: ‘With man this is impossible, but with G-d all things are possible.’ In essence He is saying that man can never reach that level of righteousness needed to enter the Kingdom, to be a part of Israel now and in eternity. But G-d CAN make a way for this to happen.

To be fair to our brothers in the first century, the Prushim (Pharisees) have been given a very, and undeservedly, bad press. Yeshua’s castigation was not laid against them because they were not righteous, far from it, but because their righteousness was not enough! Matt 5:20 makes this clear; our righteousness as Jews must EXCEED that of this particular sub-group in Judaism of the first century. Nicodemus would, in all likelihood given his background, have fully identified with the level of righteousness demonstrated by this sect of Judaism, and more importantly their approach to achieving it. The question then becomes how to exceed this level of righteousness, given that these men had indeed a level of righteousness and were Torah observant? If they failed to meet the mark, still struggling with sin (and they did), then what hope does anyone have? Again, Yeshua’s words point the way ‘with G-d all things are possible’.

So how DO we achieve a level of righteousness that will allow us access to G-d’s presence? Thankfully the Lord has not left us to work this out for ourselves. One of His own names is Adonai Tzidkenu, the Lord our righteousness. Our G-d IS our righteousness and we have to have His righteousness given to us if we are ever to be righteous enough.  The next question then becomes, how do we receive such a righteousness? Do we have to earn it, pay for it, or just receive it? Is it dependent upon us at all? The answer is maybe surprising for those who have worked within the parameters of more recent forms of Judaism. The model of righteousness turns out to be Avraham avinu, who because of his faith, or better faithfulness in response, was given G-d’s righteousness, freely and undeservedly despite his own personal sin. G-d justified him because of his response towards what G-d was promising. If we can understand that this transactional act between G-d and man occurs through faith alone, then we can understand one of Rav Shaul’s most misquoted and misunderstood verses. In his letter to the Jewish community in Rome (3:21) he states that ‘now the righteousness of G-d apart from the Torah has been revealed’. Most read this as if the Torah was therefore abrogated. Not at all. It IS most definitely the righteous standard of G-d revealed. The problem is we can’t keep it. But by being credited with that righteousness, the very righteousness of G-d through faith instead of through obedience, it IS now possible to be righteous before G-d. This is what the verse means and is critical to understanding Rav Shaul. This is no abrogation of Torah but a strong affirmation of it. ‘Apart from’ does not mean ‘instead of’.

Only by being credited with G-d’s own righteousness do we stand a chance of ever standing in His presence, a core desire and aim of Judaism. The writer to the Hebrews puts it in a radical way: (a) boldness to enter the Holy of Holies. This is no sacrilegious or iconoclastic act, but an understanding that through faith salvation can come, and that through the sacrifice that He alone could bring for our sins: Yeshua. With faith making righteousness possible we can come fully into His presence and not fear death.

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.