You’re not a Jew unless……

I was shocked, but maybe I shouldn’t have been. I was not shocked for myself as my spiritual skin has grown too thick for that, but for the sheer audacity of hearing someone make a claim that so palpably couldn’t be and wasn’t true. I was told by a representative of an organisation that works with farmers on the ‘West Bank’ that ‘unless I had been to the West Bank I was not a Jew’. Not a ‘real’ one at least… After all, a ‘real’ Jew would have connections with the soil, the ‘earth’ of Ha’aretz, the ‘Biblical’ heartland of our inheritance. Leaving aside for one moment the obvious romanticism of such a statement, a romanticism that motivates many to behave in interesting ways in Israel, it did make me consider just what categories we do use to ‘sub-group’ each other. I suppose we could go on and add many more categories to the above one: you’re not a Jew unless you visit Jerusalem, place a prayer into the Western Wall, eat kosher (according to this or that community’s ruling), wear clothing from a this or that historic time period in Eastern Europe, adhere to various modesty standards, light the Shabbat candles in a certain way, stand (or sit) for Shema and so on. The list is truly inexhaustible. And we as Jews are very good at self-defining according to multiple and complicated variations on a theme.

Of course, there is one category that we CAN use to help clarify an otherwise muddled situation. Instead of applying our own human definitions according to our own likes and dislikes, personal preferences and tastes, maybe we should listen to what G-d Himself says about this. In a startling, yet not unsurprising statement, Rav Shaul declares that ‘not all Israel is Israel’. Not unsurprising because this would not have caused an eyebrow to be raised when it was written nearly 2000 years ago. Everyone was attempting to define the almost impossible, answer the elusive question that has dogged Jewish minds for what seems an eternity: ‘who is a Jew’? In the context of election and promise that is the backbone of Israeli, Jewish history, Rav Shaul summarises that a Jew is one ‘who is a Jew inwardly’. Far from declaring that the external forms of righteousness and mitzvot are meaningless, he radically draws our attention back to what actually counts: the inner world of Jewish values and a changed heart. It is not enough, nor acceptable, to have an external form of Judaism alone, nor even in the above context to have Jewish soil under your fingernails if at the same time life-giving and life-changing Jewish values are absent from your instinctive, motivational, and internal life. To have a circumcised heart, to believe in and accept the Jewish Mashiach Yeshua, IS the most Jewish thing in the world to do and be: a Jew inwardly.

Judaism is not a philosophy.

According to the dictionary, philosophy is defined as: the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct. In other descriptions it is defined as a system of thought, or a created systematised paradigm of meaning attached to otherwise random events and situations. In other words, it is a human invention of creating meaning from apparent chaos, a way of looking at the world. Judaism fails this definition as a revelation from G-d, an absolute, a ‘given’, a revealed truth that is fundamentally not created nor invented by mankind. To be sure, there are Jewish philosophers (who can be failed to be moved by Abraham Heschel in his towering philosophical work ‘G-d in search of man’), and there are philosophies OF Judaism, drawn from its ethos and spirit. But fundamentally Judaism in its essence is not a philosophy.

The trap however is easy to fall into. Mankind constantly strives to better itself, to create ever better societal and cultural models of values and frameworks, be they political or moral. The more recent fad of the fashionable ‘self-help’ manuals is illustrative of not only the disillusionment of the corporate value system to be replaced by the individual, personal meaning-giving ‘lifestyle’, but also of the drive in us all to ‘understand’, to fill the G-d-shaped vacuum of life. It is easy to see Judaism in this way. Many celebrities (and others) do exactly this, for example chasing Kabbalah for its esoteric enlightenment and cognitive, quasi spiritual high that fixes the momentary need in a me-first generation. An easy trap, yes, and one that sadly even the esteemed departing Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks failed to avoid just last week when he commented to a group of freshly ordained rabbis at the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London ‘Never forget, if you lift (Torah) high it will lift you high’ (JC 12th July 2013, p12).

Seen this way, Torah is reduced to another of the ‘self-help’ manuals of our time. Follow the way of life laid out in this text and you will have success. These words, sadly, could be said of any text of our time written by any of the current plethora of modern ‘gurus’ trying to help mankind. Surely we should and must understand that Torah, in itself, has no power to change us or give us success in life. While some will undoubtedly argue (rightly) that the words contained therein are living and powerful, they are only this because of…. the fact that there is a living, speaking, powerful G-d behind them who continues to speak and change lives today. Words are cheap and plentiful, the question is who speaks them. If our G-d speaks then lives can be changed. It is this encounter with the G-d who IS, who is alive, that fundamentally can, will and must change things, lives, situations, not a reading however close of a text or philosophy. Beliefs, practices, theology and philosophy will shape and form your life and maybe even give it some substance, but only G-d can change it.

Judaism is not a philosophy. If it is, we reduce it to the mundane and human. It is not a ‘success manual’. It is the way of righteousness to all who would believe and embrace the encounter with the G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov who is alive.

Comfort my people – Shabbat Nachamu

Having now come out the other side of Tisha b’av we are on the count down to Rosh Hashanah, which this year is early (at least feels early in accordance with the Gregorian calendar!). After mourning for the loss of our Temple and focal point of worship and sacrifice Isaiah picks up on the fact that we need to be comforted by G-d, that despite all our sins and transgressions and the punishments meted out to us down the ages, we are never to forget that God loves us, nurtures us and chastises to bring positive change in us, not merely to show Himself as just.

Yet maybe that is not the whole story. I like Rabbi Shlomo Riskin; I don’t always agree with his theology but his heart for Jewish study and integrity are clear. In his incisive piece this week in the Jerusalem Post (www.jpost.com) on the weekly Shabbat portion he concludes with an incident where a young Yeshiva student repeatedly has his milk stolen or ‘appropriated’ by other Yeshiva students until he labels the milk as halav akum, questionable gentile milk. The milk then remains untouched. Such ‘box ticking’ of apparent righteousness that undermines not just the spirit of Torah and Judaism but actual greater commandments should not (and Rabbi Riskin and I both agree on this one) be seen in Judaism as anything like normative practice. So how do we connect this to ‘Comfort my people’?

If the form of Judaism that creates such behaviour in the Yeshivot has misunderstood the very essence of Judaism and Jewish life (and I would argue that it has), then what other models are available that give us righteousness from HaShem and point to His comfort? I believe that we have missed something critical in our Jewish thinking: G-d understands how difficult it is to ACTUALLY live a righteous life in Him. Although we are to draw down HIS righteousness, we still are obliged to live out that in every day life. G-d understands the struggles and despair, while also rejoicing in the victories too! His comfort seen in this light is not so much aimed at consoling us after being told off and disciplined, but rather a Father sitting us on His lap (I speak with the words of men) showing us compassion in our weakness (in comparison to HIS strength).

Two men from our historical past illustrate this so well: Caleb who according to the Torah ‘had another spirit in him’ and consequently ‘truly followed G-d’, and King David, who despite his gross sin was ‘a man after my own (G-d’s) heart’. Neither man was perfect, both sinned and ‘got it wrong’, yet with the compassion of G-d seeing that each one had a spirit to truly understand what the essence of Torah, righteousness actually is, they pleased G-d and moved Him to understand them. Neither man was a ‘box ticker’. Neither man believed that life could be constrained by human conceptual constructs, even if drawn down from Torah. Both knew that G-d and His Torah righteousness had to be understood, its essence lived and breathed as something alive, as relational and real.

If we as Israel could live out that righteousness before this world, just imagine the impact we would have! Be comforted, our G-d knows us and understands us; He is compassionate.

Tisha b’av

All around the world, and up and down the Land of Israel this week on Tuesday we marked Tisha b’av, a serious and painful memorial of all the evil events that have befallen us over the millennia. We as Jews have had our fair share (some would say more than our fair share) of persecutions, attacks and dire existential moments. Difficult too to not fall into the trap of the ‘victim mentality’, it’s our lot in life, we are the lightening rod of abuse from a world openly in rebellion against G-d etc etc. The pain has shaped us and patterned our thinking, and yet… dare we even now have the courage to face reality?

In the first century one particular historical event fundamentally changed the course of Jewish history: the destruction of the Temple in 70CE. As this transformational moment is memorialised on Tisha b’av we are encouraged to consider why this happened. The Talmud teaches that the Temple was destroyed due to¬†sinat chinam or ‘unfounded hatred’. There may be some truth to that as amongst the many ‘Judaisms’ of the first century it is known that rivalry and mistrust was huge. Different visions of what Judaism was, is and how to live as a Jew competed with each other in the faith market place for supremacy.

However, the focus on the physical destruction of the Temple hides a reality that we must actually turn our attention to. The Temple, as beautiful as it was, was only stone and superbly crafted and expensively decorated masonry. It was what the Temple stood for that was more important. The Temple was the ‘home’ of the visible and manifest presence of our G-d in our midst. With the Temple gone, that focus went too. We have to therefore ask, what is it that drives G-d’s presence away? The answer according to Torah is sin. King David amongst his own repentances cried out to G-d to ‘not take His Holy Spirit from him’, Rav Shaul talks about ‘not quenching the Spirit’, again in the general context of our sinfulness. Sin drives G-d away. Without His presence the Temple would not survive. The irony of the situation and (by extrapolation to today) its modern counterpart is brought out by Rav Naphtali Yehudah Tzvi Berlin in his commentary on Bereshit. He describes the Jewish community in the first century as a ‘generation of superior Torah knowledge and observance’. Today we too live in a day when Jewish study is deep and widespread, ranging across many different denominations. Yet study didn’t prevent the sin of the first century and consequent destruction of the Temple, and sadly despite our knowledge of Torah today that too cannot and will not save us. What we need now is a renewal and revival of Judaism that will reach out to all Jews, and subsequently the nations too, that will bring our G-d back to His rightful place in our faith and Land. G-d’s presence MUST be returned to the heart of Judaism, to the core of our faith. Once our sin has been dealt with and we are cleaned/washed again as Ezekiel determines WILL happen, then we can expect our nation to light up this world and so bring an end to the attacks that seem to be our constant travelling companion.