Israeli First-fruits.

We live in an age in the West when equality is all. Everyone is equal on the sliding scale of humanity where differences are not categories of varying values but modal points on a spectrum. ‘I am here on this spectrum, and you are here’ we hear, but essentially we are the same. From a Jewish perspective such sentiments are revealed to be nothing other than wishful thinking and an aberration of post-modernist philosophy. Equality is not about being the same. The values and moral positions one takes do define your nature and character, be it on a personal or national level. All are created equal before G-d, inasmuch as we all carry His image, but the choices and decisions we make define how much of that image shines through.

And that sense of equality gets more complicated when we consider that G-d actually does choose, elects people and even a nation to be His. That He chooses at all seems quaint and bigoted, a hand-me-down from a bygone age. At worst it seems as if He is allocating a superior place to one nation above others. Yet Israel is the nation of the Chosen People, and however much we may wish to have that label removed, it will remain. It remains equally true however that we are chosen, and not superior.

This ‘chosen-ness’ reflects in reality a call to a purpose and function rather than any intrinsic value or negation of (true) fundamental human equality. Israel, the Jewish people, have a task which is ours to perform: to be a light to the nations. No other nation has ever been called or elected to do this. In fact the prophet Jeremiah saw it this way: Israel is the Lord’s hallowed portion, His first-fruits of the increase (Jer 2:3). And it is this first-fruits idea that suddenly brings this concept of being chosen into a fuller light. The first-fruits in Judaism, as an offering, guaranteed that the whole would/could be holy unto the Lord. All the crop was HIS, yet by tithing it, giving the first-fruit to Him, the whole crop was usable and potentially holy, it was ‘covered’ because of the first offering. If Israel is the first-fruits of the nations, then we by our existence ensure that there will be an in-gathering later from the nations of those who will know the Lord too. The ‘increase’ mentioned illustrates the growing size of the nation of Israel as those who join us come in. Seen this way, when the Mashiach -Yeshua- commands us to go out into all the world and make followers from the nations and teach them Torah, Judaism (what Yeshua taught), we are doing nothing other than our national calling and task; equal among equals, set apart for His holiness. Our election turns out to be a service unto the world.

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A ‘failed’ redeemer?

The prophet Jeremiah, like most if not all the prophets sent by G-d over time, calls us to not only repent, but to actively seek the path of Jewish, national renewal. His call was as relevant then as today: each person must turn back to the Lord again, repent of sin committed and demonstrate such repentance with mitzvot, good deeds. But the call is to the nation too, to rebuild the national structures be they Government or society, culture, politics or national expressions of our Jewish faith. For Jeremiah the place to look for such renewal was clear: ‘Seek the old paths’ he said, ‘so you can walk in them’. Yet if we are honest we seem to have focussed instead on other sources for renewal, either a slavish adherence to modernity revealed through the unquestioning adoption of the progressive liberal spirit of our times, or sources of spirituality that many it seems are questioning the validity of today (http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/113949/limmud-has-opened-door-cults%E2%80%99-say-rabbis).

Modern is not always good. Two thousand years ago the Jewish Mashiach, Yeshua called His own people to repentance, just like the prophets before Him. Standing in the great tradition of Jewish renewal His desire was to see real change, real revival and a restoration of both Land and nation based on a heart change towards G-d. At no time during His three short years of ministry and preaching/teaching did He declare that He was establishing a new religion. Why would He? He was and is Mashiach, the very term only makes sense within the Jewish paradigm, the Torah image we work within. Today the call to seek the old paths is just as strong, and many who reject Yeshua will argue ‘been there, done that’. Yet if real renewal is to come we must rediscover NOT reinvent. Judaism is the revelation of G-d to us His people, and through us to the world. We simply need to rediscover that prophetic, yes even evangelistic dynamic again that has always been ours.

Yet some will still claim that Yeshua failed in His renewal. Verses from Torah can and will be marshalled to support every nuance of opinion, Jewish or otherwise, to support such views. But the issue can be laid to rest if we examine such claims of ‘failure’ from a different angle. Apparently Yeshua ‘failed’ because He didn’t remove the oppression of the Roman occupation from our shoulders and bring ‘peace’. Such ‘failure’ didn’t bring us the freedom that Mashiach clearly does and did promise to bring. But to see and understand history in such a way fails to grasp the nub of the real issues: the Romans were not the real problem. In fact to claim such a view is to completely misunderstand the very nature of the spiritual/moral/righteous reality in which we live. As we Jews have tended to do, we blame everything outside, external for our woes. This thinking leads us to believe that if only we can create a perfect external reality, then we shall be blessed. This concept of course lies at the very heart of modern humanist thinking. But it is error. That we were occupied by a foreign power should have (in the grand tradition of the prophets) alarmed us to a higher reality, that we were under discipline from HaShem. THAT thought should have driven us to repentance.

As Mashiach taught, the real problem is not what is externally affecting your life, be it a foreign occupying power or poverty or other social ills (as repugnant as those things are), but sin. In other words, what lies WITHIN you not without. Putting it bluntly, Mashiach taught that no change is possible unless the heart of mankind changes first. Because so many fail to understand that THIS issue alone (atonement for and subsequent release from sin) is the determining one for us, for Israel and ultimately for the whole world, they fail to realise that what appeared at face value to be a signal failure (Yeshua’s death) was actually the greatest triumph.

Yeshua only ‘failed’ in His task as prophet and redeemer, re-newer of Israel and Judaism, if you examine His life and death through the wrong prism. He was born Jewish, lived as a Jew and died Jewish. Failure to go back to the old paths and re-examine His teachings will lead to a lack of Jewish renewal in our day. The failure is not His, but it may be ours.

The basis of Jewish Renewal

Life can seem so ‘normal’, what is, is, and things that ‘are’ shouldn’t be questioned or examined. After all, that is the way things are. Traditions, routines, habits whether personal, national, secular or spiritual, all the accretions of what we ‘do’ represent the way things ‘are’. Thousands of years ago in the north of Israel life seemed ‘normal’, no one questioned what the status quo was, worship was what it was and everyone assumed that that was the way things were and should be. In the north the worship of the golden calves was ubiquitous, and apparently embraced eagerly by the 10 tribes living there. Even in the south, in the Temple itself, the corruption had not been stopped entirely. To say that the nation had a serious spiritual/religious problem was an understatement, yet a statement that few would have verbalised. Why? It is easy to be critical and hindsight is a wonderful thing. Yet the records in 2 Kings and elsewhere highlight one of the issues: we read ‘so-and-so did evil in the sight of the Lord, as had his father so-and-so’. Each new generation repeated what the previous one had learnt, been taught was normal and right. That is the way things are, that is what we do, steady as she goes. One thing was clear: Judaism, our national faith and belief structure and system needed radical renewal and revival. Our very ongoing existence as a physical, geopolitical nation depended on it.

Into the historical arena came a young king, Josiah. Enthroned at only 8 years old he was more reliant than many others upon the wiser heads around him. Yet he was stirred and moved by the condition of the Temple, the centre of Jewish worship and faith expression. It was as if he almost instinctively knew that if the heart was rotten the body would not function. And so with the zeal of G-d Josiah carried out the cleansing and repair of the Temple. That would in itself have been a huge achievement, and would almost certainly have had a large impact on the nation, but what actually determined the renewal and revival of faith in the Land was what happened next: The High Priest Hilkiah discovered, laying cast aside and unread, a copy of the Torah in the Temple precincts. As this was read to the king, he tore his clothes in a sign of mourning and deep spiritual pain; the conviction of G-d and awareness of personal and national sin lay upon his shoulders.

It was this one event that unlocked the restoration of our people under king Josiah. Because he drove through the changes needed to national religious practice and structure, tore down the offending places of worship and removed idolatry and pagan influences, effectively consecrating again the country to HaShem, it was possible for the judgement of G-d to be withheld. This was a return to Torah, a rediscovery of the covenant that established Israel in the first place, and this encounter with the revelation at Sinai profoundly impacted the nation. The people had had their heads turned by spiritual flights of fancy, superstition and dubious if not evil spiritual practices, all of which had led them away from the Lord and true worship. But now, the truth of G-d’s own words shone a light into everyone’s lives. The writer to our nation (Heb 4:12) informs us of the intrinsic power of the words spoken by G-d in this way: ‘the word of G-d is living and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword (…) discerning the thoughts and intents of the heart’. The rediscovery of the Torah was the revelatory, external impetus needed to break the cycle of generational error.

Revival and renewal is not possible if we only ever continue to do what has been handed down to us. What was innovative in one generation is tradition in the next and stultifying to new life in the one after. Judaism needs reviving to our nation and our people. The forms we have been taught that have kept us and defined us for 2000 years of diaspora will not work for us back in the Land again. For that we must return to Torah afresh, rediscover who and what we are, weep and repent as Josiah did and seek G-d’s face. If we are to see HIS renewal and revival, His salvation and restoration, then we must dig deep, bravely slaughter the ‘sacred cows’ and ask the difficult questions. The future of Judaism rests upon a return to HIS word and the worship commanded of us, worship in Spirit and truth, for such our Father in Heaven seeks to worship Him.

Who is a Jew?

Who is a Jew? Anyone involved with Judaism or with Jewish people, our yearnings, politics, religious life or Homeland, will at some point stumble or trip up over this question. Like its parallel question of ‘what is Judaism?’ it looms large in any debate, any discussion about anything connected with us. And anyone and everyone who has attempted to crystallise the definitions will eventually tell you with a smile that it’s a work in hand. Almost everyone that is. For there are some who ‘know’. In fact the questions on an absolute scale are probably false to begin with and almost certainly mere flights of semantic fancy. Upon closer examination the questions are not ‘who is a Jew’ and ‘what is Judaism’ but ‘who has the right to define?’ Definitive answers stand not upon their intrinsic value or worth but upon the authority of the Gatekeepers who decide. It is the privilege of those in authority to make rulings and lay down definitions, to give clarity to the meanings of words. It is why we see most heat and light expended on ‘turf’ warfare, Jewish community pitted against rival community, the battle for the supremacy of ideas, philosophical core paradigms/values and religious inheritance. In layman’s terms it is possible for sausages to become unkosher just because they are on a train journey. So today when people talk about ‘Judaism’ they are inadvertently using a word loaded with the assumptions of generations of Gatekeepers. Whoever has the authority decides the answers.

And yet if only it were that simple.  Authority does not exist in a vacuum; it can only exist once validated, or to put it another way, there is no authority without legitimacy. Legitimacy too doesn’t exist without a source; the democratic legitimacy of elected Governments bears witness of this. The question we have to ask is what is the source of legitimacy for Jews, Judaism and the Gatekeepers thereof? Surely it is not the voices of the majority, that has never been our tradition. In Judaism the source is The Source: G-d Himself. It is His voice we listen to, His words that command our every breath and frame our very lives. All Jewish legitimacy and therefore authority must come from the One whose authority is eternal and absolute. To read the Tanach is to sense, know, see and feel the daily Jewish experiential world of the immanence of G-d, expecting Him to speak either through the Torah or directly through the Prophets. His presence was our existence, His nature and character our legitimacy.

And deep down we as Jews know this. At the end of the first century the last two forms of Judaism left standing, Pharisaic Judaism and Messianic Judaism, were defining precisely the legitimacy and therefore the derived authority to function and influence our people. As Pharisaic Judaism morphed into Rabbinic and Talmudic Judaism the question of legitimacy was answered with the formation of the Oral Torah, a meta-narrative that lent credibility to the authority taken. That G-d spoke at Sinai is self-evident from the Tanach. That He spoke a second Torah is much debated, even within the broad sweep of (the various forms of) Judaism. Within Messianic Judaism the answer to the question of legitimacy was soon given by the revelation of who Yeshua was and is. Not for nothing did the Prophet say the One to come would be ‘Immanuel’ G-d with us. Even during the life of Yeshua our people were heard to cry ‘G-d has visited His people’ as He ministered and taught. The legitimacy question was therefore answered in Yeshua Himself. G-d spoke again to His people. The derived authority then created the authoritative texts we now have and the explosion of a revived and dynamic form of Judaism across the known world of the time.

Tradition in itself is not a bad thing, but it is deeply inadequate as a basis of legitimacy and authority. It becomes a human construct, bending and yielding to human needs, society and culture. ‘Traditional’ Judaism stands today at a crossroads: Rabbinic, Talmudic Judaism was created as a response to a political situation on the ground in the early second century. It was designed, built and created to enable us to survive a diaspora, continue to exists as a people. In that it did a good job. But today we have our Land back again, the old forms of Judaism that kept us distinct amongst the gentiles are in need of reforming, and to do that we need legitimacy and authority from G-d Himself. The question is, to which form of Judaism will we look for such legitimacy? Rabbinic or Messianic Judaism? The answer must come urgently if we are to renew and revive the ancient paths once more.