So the texts…

The answer to the question ‘what is Judaism?’ is almost as tantalisingly elusive as the answer to ‘who is a Jew?’ Answers to these questions tend to be polemical in nature, highly tendentious and specific community-bound. So, like many people I was overjoyed to see the release of Prof. Martin Goodman’s new book on the subject ‘A History of Judaism’. It’s not that such a topic hasn’t been attempted before, but Prof. Goodman* brings to it a wealth of first century knowledge and understanding, the Roman Sitz im Leben, that opens up windows of clarity in an otherwise now distant, murky historical-religious world.

It is one of Prof. Goodman’s candid assertions however that catches the eye.  He writes ‘the Judaism of today bears little resemblance to the religion ascribed to Moses in the Bible from which it purports to derive’. I doubt that anyone from a Jewish background will be shocked to read this, yet for many this may be a deep revelation. On the face of it, why should the two be even close, after all, we have lived for the last 2000 years out of the Land and Judaism is, if nothing else, deeply bound up with living in the Land. It’s no wonder the meanderings of theological history have taken us to ‘strange places’. Prof Goodman acknowledges the ‘secret’ that in fact so many know about but often fail to communicate because the implications just might be too challenging: what counts today as Judaism is in fact Rabbinic Judaism, a Judaism created to survive the crushing defeat by Rome and the need to centralise Jewish authority in a diaspora world. And to be fair, we should praise our rabbis and sages of old whose spiritual creativity and survivalist instincts helped form a Judaism that would survive a disconnect from our ancestral Home. Yet I hesitate to call this ‘rabbinic’ Judaism because, as Goodman posits, it is the TEXTS that have framed our experiences. It would be safer to describe this form as ‘Talmudic Judaism’. I doubt there would be many dissenters for this, as it is a fundamentally fair description of the reality on the ground, at least of its origin.

Judaism today represents the sum of this inherited textual contouring. So the texts, so the life. One example of course can be seen in the reasonably recent festival of Rosh Hashanah where in the tractate of the same name in the Talmud the celebration was ‘fleshed out’ with additional expectations and commandments, including the later acceptance of the name change from Yom Teruah to Rosh Hashanah (a designation the Torah itself is silent on). In fact there is only one Mitzvah on that day according to the Torah text, and that is to hear (not blow) the shofar. This is not to say that the additions in the Talmud are necessarily wrong or unhelpful, but it illustrates how texts frame your Judaism. The same of course is true of Messianic Judaism. The ‘Messianic Writings’ (NT) form the basis from which we draw our lifestyle and practices, beliefs and Jewish identity today. The teachings of Yeshua, the Jewish Messiah, should be the authoritative source to which we go. His teachings are drawn directly from Torah (not just purported to do so) and are still recognisable as such, even today. They represent a Jewish faith that is vibrant and flexible, able to handle the diaspora AND, more crucially, life back in the Land. So the text, so the life. Messianic Judaism needs to insist on this radical source re-orientation if it is to become not just an inevitable subset of current Orthodoxy, but take its place as a contender for the title of ‘Judaism’, an answer to the ages old question.

*Prof Goodman is Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford University.


An Israel ruled by the Rabbis?

I have just finished binge-watching a recent BBC series ‘Gunpowder’ relating the events from the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament. Its graphic violence reflected the horrific and very public displays of violence meted out to dissenters and ‘heretics’. It’s theme though would not leave me alone as it seemed so modern… Surely the world has moved on from such ‘religious’ barbarism? Or? Sadly modern and even recent history demonstrates the fact that such religiously motivated violent acts carried out by both perpetrators and as punishments have not stopped. But as always it got me thinking. That time period in history was dominated by a religious hegemony that was framed by a deep conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism. It was taken as read that society was religious by nature, the question was merely to which religious tradition you showed allegiance. The problems of course arose if you lived contrary to the religious culture in which you per chance lived. The results of that were not just Guy Fawkes but the Inquisition and of course the historical outrage of the Crusades. In more modern times we’ve seen the same dynamic operate in non-religious terms through the lens of fascism and communism, and of course let’s not forget the latest iteration of this violent spirit in ISIS and its disgusting rule in areas of the Middle East.
But for me it begs a much bigger question. All of the above have been human attempts to run the/a Kingdom of G-d on earth from a geographical location, be it Rome, Mecca or even Moscow. All have singularly failed. Yet occasionally even today we hear occasionally how through ‘Kingdom theology’ Christians can take over the world by populating key positions at work or in Government, and even within Judaism we know that there is a sentiment that would love to see a rabbinic hegemony in Israel that would see a form of Judaism – Orthodoxy – running not only the nation but its proxy communities around the world too. A Judaism and a nation run by Rabbis. On paper this an apparent theocracy would seem to be a perfect iteration of the desires of many Jewish people. It begs the question however if it would work? Even with the brief view of history above one would have to say its chances of success are slim indeed. And the reason why is that every culture that has gone down this road eventually has had to deal with the issue of non-compliance by its subjects. And that inevitably leads to violent suppression as the apparently only answer (back to the Catholics in Britain in the 1600s and the gulags of Stalin again..). Would Israel be any different, or would it too become a Jewish Iran? Would we also fall into the trap of forcing people to obey, to acquiesce to a system that despite our best intentions would not be a true theocracy? The indications, based on evidence from Israel in some Orthodox areas, are not good.
We are surely faced with the utter human inadequacy to run any faith nation or quasi-religious (political) belief driven nation or people. Sin and personal ambition, ‘empire-building’, greed and corporate corruption all get in the way of delivering a system that works adequately, and I have no doubt it would be the same in Israel too. Any system run by man will fail due to sin. Interestingly enough however, Judaism has never sanctioned conversion by force, never yet demanded allegiance from those who wish not to show it. Some may argue that Israel has historically never really had opportunity to show this dimension, yet the truth remains, in Judaism freedom to choose is accorded a high place. Even though we are commanded to obey G-d, we can still refuse. We will certainly draw the consequences from our actions but we CAN refuse. Israel’s calling is to bear truth as a light and not a sword. The difference is vital. We are to attract followers not coerce. Our lives as Jews should reflect a fundamental difference to those of others in the world, showing that there IS another way.
Ultimately where this takes us is to the logical conclusion that any theocracy in Israel (which IS the final form of Judaism) will need to be run by Mashiach alone. G-d with us, Immanuel. Only then will such a system of rulership have the needed blend of love, mercy justice and righteousness needed for it to function truly. Our human systems have failed us. It is time for Mashiach to come.