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.
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.
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.