Why Torah?

One of the key requests to Pharaoh that Moshe was commanded to utter was that not only were we to be permitted to leave Egypt, but that the main purpose behind it was so that we could travel out three days into the wilderness and worship HaShem there. Such a celebration of deliverance and redemption, real physical and emotional freedom, would have been in itself a wonderful occasion of praise and worship, yet it was not to be the complete story. We thought we were to be the active party this time, we would sacrifice, sing and praise. What we discovered was that in fact our G-d had a gift for us too, He would continue to be an active party in this new national coalition. His revelation to us, given through the hand of Moshe, set out a blueprint of commandments and ordinances (Torah) that would shape us and form us into a nation. Whether as a marriage covenant or social contract, this would frame our existence for all time. And in principle we could leave it there, if it were not for the questions that arise about what Torah IS and its role and function in our lives that sporadically break through. According to tradition, Torah was offered to every other nation first before us, with each one declining the offer! Such myths nevertheless vocalise what we somehow instinctively know to be true: Torah is good, yet we fail to live up to its demands and high righteous standards. Why did the other nations refuse if it is really such a wonderful thing? Is it just a list of ‘things to do’, a glorious tick list of do and don’t do? If so, why don’t we? Why haven’t we? Such was our national, corporate and personal falling short that we were exiled from our Land for nearly 2000 years until 1948. Maybe this provides a clue as to why the other nations supposedly rejected this wonderful gift… or at least a gift that should be wonderful but we’ve struggled to accept.

In an interesting ‘spin’ on the role, place and function of Torah in the Jewish nation and people, Rav Shaul writes to the Jewish community in Galatia that ‘it was added because of transgressions (sins).’ Noteworthy that ‘it was added’ as an extra component to the people rather than something that was present at the outset with Avraham. Despite the working assumption that Torah has always been with us, at the very least we have to acknowledge that it was only codified at Sinai (and later). So why add Torah ‘because of’ sins? Maybe an imperfect example may shed some light on this. If every driver at all times drove selflessly, safely and with full due regard for the welfare and best of every other driver, road user and pedestrian, then we wouldn’t need speed limits or the Highway Code. We would simply KNOW what the best is at all times and do it. But we don’t. So the speed limit for example shows us what the higher end of a basic benchmark of good, safe driving is at that moment on that stretch of road. When we drive quicker than that we transgress. We become aware of what transgression (sin) is by falling short of the standard expected. By its breach we learn that we rebel against its standards. And that awareness should be a catalyst to action, an awareness of self, our inner natures and personalities, of our own selfish motivations that reject G-d’s ways in preference to our own. Yes, we think that we surely CAN be the measure of all things, despite our appalling lack of judgement and deficit of omniscience. Such a pitiful human condition is summarised by the prophets and others as the ‘imagination of men’s hearts’, and it has caused us dire problems.

Just how should we react, what action should we take in the challenge that Torah lays on us all? ‘Because of sins’ it was added, precisely to show us THAT we have sinned. Righteousness on display, God’s nature and character revealed, and our response and ability to match it weak and shallow. If nothing else our reaction should be to call on His name and reach out for His mercy. Which, if we go back to where we started, makes sense of why we had to go out into the wilderness for three days and worship Him, the G-d who had shown us unmerited mercy and saved us from Egypt and the tyranny of slavery. True worship only really begins when we have a sense of our own shortcomings and our NEED for His redemption and salvation. And once we receive it the worship really takes off. So Torah not only guides us but brings us to HaShem, to acknowledge our needs and our sins, and thus enables genuine worship to take place.

Advertisements

Where’s the blood?

To live in today’s Jewish world is to live a somewhat sanitised life; our modern thinking and attitudes shape our expectations and hopes. Yet it is a possibly brutal fact that Judaism is in reality, according to our original sources in Torah, a bloody and messy religion. We baulk nowadays at the thought of a Temple splashed daily with the blood of animals and their bodies going up in smoke before our eyes. No clean-fronted priests in clerical gear here, more like a schochet in full swing. The life is in the blood, and we are forbidden to ingest it. It belongs to G-d as the Giver and Taker of life.

And it is this core concept of Life that connects blood with not only the sacrifices but also the covenants given to us. As each successive covenant was literally ‘cut’, blood was present. Covenants designed to bring Life brought death as if Life was only possible by its very antithesis. From Noach through to Moshe, each covenant was hallmarked by the death of a living creature, as if the process of covenantally and incrementally bringing Life was so serious to G-d that any deviation from it would, could end up in death of one of the parties.

The Jewish foundation Rock from which we are hewn, Avraham, received a covenant that was unconditional, prompted by his faith it was offered, given to Avraham as a gift, a Promise, an eternally unchanging inheritance. As the blood of the animals cut in two soaked into the ground that night, Heaven and Earth bore witness to its irrevocable solemnity. In Moshe, we received a covenant that was conditional, we could now choose our national outcomes: blessings or cursings. Again the blood splashed across us as we agreed to be bound by its stipulations, a framework of nationhood and people-hood, a marriage contract signed in blood.

And through these covenants and the contents contained therein, we heard the voice of the Lord calling to us, to know Him, walk with Him and experience the blessings of having a living relationship with the G-d of our Fathers who was and is alive. And despite our unfaithfulness it was given to a Prophet, Jeremiah, to declare that once more a covenant would be cut, this time it would create the scenario whereby all of us, everyone, could and would know Him. In chapter 31 the remarkable scenario is painted that even teaching will no longer be necessary because each will so know the Lord that in every situation we will instinctively know what He wants us to do, say or think. That our hearts would be so changed that righteousness would flow out of them by design, rather than the evil that had dogged our weary footsteps down the ages.

This covenant, the renewed covenant, a mixture of both that of Avraham and Moshe, would take the faith demonstrated by Avraham and the commandments given through Moshe to create this reality on the ground. And this covenant, let it be known, was a Jewish covenant; To the Houses of Judah and Israel. A final covenant to enter and agree to, to take upon ourselves as the pinnacle of historical, spiritual development; the solution to all our problems. ‘They shall all know me from the least to the greatest, says the Lord’. What we have always wanted as Jews, but were maybe after Sinai too scared or fearful to realise, could become true. We would know our G-d.

But… as much as we search for the mention of the blood to cut this covenant, the indication of death giving Life, the Prophet’s silence was and is deafening. Left hanging in an apparently blood-less anomaly, we are left to ponder just HOW this covenant can be ours. In due season our questions were to be answered. At the Seder meal of a small group of followers, Yeshua Mashichaynu declared the memorable words that forever satisfied the hungry and thirsty spirits of our people: ‘This is the blood of the Renewed Covenant’. Yes, His own blood, the giving of His own life for Life. Now we His people can know Him, walk with Him, know instinctively through circumcised hearts formed without human hand, what His will for us, the nation, our people is. No more recitation of Talmud or learning Torah by heart, because His Life will BE in our hearts.

Jewish atheism?

 

In a recent survey undertaken in the USA (Sept 2011) amongst religious groups, members of the Jewish community responded to the question about the importance of believing in G-d as a prerequisite to practising Judaism. According to the survey results, approximately half of the respondents felt that belief in G-d was not necessary in order to be a practising Jew. Yes, Jewish atheism. Daniel Septimus in his article on Jewishlearning.com (‘Must a Jew believe in God?’) attempts to explore the philosophical disconnect (as he sees it) in Rabbinic/Talmudic Judaism between belief IN and belief THAT, that an acceptance mental or otherwise of the theoretical requirement OF G-d does not equate to the actual existence. Such propositional sophistry may help to calm modern Jewish minds steeped in the scientific and naturalistic zeitgeist of our day, but it surely falls foul of the internal logic and dynamic of Torah itself. If the commandments are a fabrication of Moshe, maybe even the accumulated wisdom of the ages as he saw it, then such regulations and commands are relative to his age and time and may not be true today. It would be, after all, merely human. To have disobeyed such commandments then would incur no penalty, no judgements from a G-d now disavowed. As welcome as such a thought might be, and which may even explain the trajectory towards a communal victim mentality, the Torah is insistent in its denial. The prophet Jeremiah while announcing the plan of HaShem to discipline Israel and Judah, connects such judgements to a solitary act: ‘those who handle the Torah do not know me’ Jer 2:8. Such a statement destroys the mind-massaged myth of a sanitised atheism. It connects Torah to G-d and the ability to understand it to knowing HIM, not about Him or that He propositionally exists. To be a Jew and receive the revelation from G-d that is Torah is to fundamentally define our national, communal and faith borders. And it is this word revelation that sets up the framework within which we live and function as Jews. Torah is not the collective wisdom of mankind, it is the mainstay of a national covenant between a G-d who is alive and knowable. He is not a philosophy or a theoretical higher force or power; He is the G-d who brought us out of Egypt, demonstrating that by His physical interventions into the created universe He has Life, emotion, commitment, faithfulness, Love. The definitions of His existence are predicated on His actions: deliverance, redemption, release and salvation. G-d’s very existence is a core principle of Judaism according to the internal testimony. And having established this core fact Jeremiah reminds us that to KNOW Him is to understand Him, to understand His revelation at Sinai to us. Not knowing Him is the very beginning of our problems, yet thankfully as Jeremiah later concludes in chapter 31, there will come a time when ALL will know Him, all WILL know Him.

Jewish atheism? I think not. Yet according to Halacha mere birth from a Jewish mother will suffice to define your Jewishness. Of course we hope you will go on to be observant, but even if not, being Jewish is your inalienable right (unless you’re a Messianic Jew…). The Torah would teach otherwise. To be defined by a revelational covenant binds us as a people to all the implications of that reality too. Real Jewish renewal will surely begin once we turn back to G-d once more and admit to His presence in our history, nation and personal lives. To come to terms with Him again.

The Real Reason.

Moshe once famously said ‘Would G-d that all His people were Prophets, and He would put His Spirit on them’. Such noble sentiments have in fact focussed our attention towards an ideal situation whereby all Jewish people everywhere should be filled with His Spirit and be able to speak out, declare Words full of divine authority, knowing His will that deeply. Rav Shaul in dealing with the Jewish community in Corinth 2000 years ago expressed very similar sentiments and wishes. Yet as much as we may hear the shuffling feet today of queue-forming modern narcissistsĀ  at such a desire, I am certain in fact that few in ancient times would have jumped at the beckoning career opportunity of Prophet. We read that the individuals were ‘called’ and set apart for service, and that for good reason. Maligned, attacked and even for some, being put to death, would follow on from such a calling. Only those who spoke what the people wanted to hear could afford the luxury of career planning and personal development.

It is especially true when you consider what the Prophets had to say. Jeremiah lived at a time shortly before, and into the first exile, and he was charged with explaining ahead of time the reasons why this was about to happen. Such explanations are in fact warnings, even here the Lord was willing to see repentance and change to avert the almost inevitable. His words that the holy city would be a pile of ruins were bad enough to ears that were untrained in hearing anything other than the unalienable right to blessings as G-d’s own people and nation. But the reasons for this coming reality were truly shocking: ‘They have forsaken my Torah… not obeyed my voice nor walked according to it, but have walked in the imaginations of their own heart… (so) I will scatter them amongst the Gentiles (nations)’ (Jer 9). Jeremiah to be fair is only saying what Torah had always declared to us, if we sin the Land will vomit us out. Our perplexity however isĀ  clear, what generation of Israel has ever self-declared disobedience? We don’t like admitting to it, it disturbs our bubble-wrap of self-delusion. Yet our expulsion proved Jeremiah to be right. As unpopular a message as it surely was, it was communicated from Heaven.

But after our 70 years in exile, in due season, G-d brought us back to the Land once more in His mercy. The times were filled with feverish activity of reconstruction both physical and spiritual. Ezra and Nehemiah devoted themselves to see a revived Judaism established, a form that would enable obedience and thus permanent residence in the Land. Yet only a few centuries would pass before once more we were wandering the earth. What went wrong? How could we have not learned our lessons from history? And it is these questions that should challenge us today as words of warning and encouragement to seek G-d while He may yet be found. For after 2000 years of exile we are once more back in the Land, and the questions have lost none of their prophetic impact. Once more we stand before the soul-searching question of how we are to walk before the Lord in a worthy, righteous way.

To Jeremiah once more we shall yield. It was he that stated in a response to the then yet future event ‘.. all the House of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart’ (Jer 9). It is this single line of testimony that convicts and provokes. The key to successfully walking with the Lord is to receive the heart circumcision spoken of by Moshe, to have an internal change of heart away from self to selflessness, away from ego to a G-d centred life, our very motivational human drives changed to be in line with His will. We need a Judaism today that is not powered by text whereby the definitions of holiness and righteousness are governed by dictionaries and thesauri, a hothouse of semantic niceties, but a Judaism that is filled with His Spirit, with Jewish people alive with circumcised hearts to obedience. The living G-d of Israel is seeking today those who will show by their quality of response, in Spirit and in truth, that obedience is possible. Only then will our Land not vomit us out once more.

O that ALL of His people would be filled with His Spirit.