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.

The ‘New’ Judaism and Messianic Judaism.

At the risk of appearing monotonous, it is nevertheless important to highlight the ongoing challenges and above all CHANGES happening in the Jewish faith world. Barely a week now goes by without a different journal or a published article or a newspaper report in this or that Jewish newspaper trying to verbalise the huge currents of change sweeping through the Jewish world today. It would be wrong to under-estimate this, yet categorising it is also a challenge. As such, the article attached sheds a fair perspective on the situation. Tsvi Sadan says ‘The Jewish people have gone through three major catastrophes, out of which new forms of Judaism have emerged’. The first catastrophe referenced is the destruction of the first Temple and the consequent return to the Land under Ezra and Nehemiah. From them developed the basic form of what would later become known as the Oral Torah, the fences around the Torah to ensure that a second diaspora simply couldn’t happen. That it DID happen was the second catastrophe running from the destruction of the second Temple in 70CE through to the exile after the Bar Kochva revolt in 135CE. The form of Judaism that emerged from that event was created in Yavne and became the foundation for Rabbinic Judaism. Taking the lead from the Oral Torah, the additional element was chiefly the authority of the Rabbis rather than the priests and prophets. We must not forget however, that a further form of Judaism also survived the first century: Messianic Judaism. Although this later was subsumed into a direction not anticipated or expected by those first century Jewish men and women who passionately believed that Yeshua was and is the Messiah (Mashiach), its existence is often far too easily overlooked. The third catastrophe to hit us was the holocaust. Sadan’s thesis, which I accept, is that we can expect to see a new direction for Judaism emerge as we now blend the return to the ancestral Land with a need for a form of Judaism that not only meets the modern needs but also the deepest spiritual needs of mankind, not just of our nation. Rabbinic Judaism, for all its glory and beauty, was designed to be a diaspora Judaism, a Judaism for survival under Roman occupation in the first instance and widespread cultural exile later on. Today we are back in our Land again.

As the article illustrates, there are many groups today exploring what new directions Judaism could or should take. As Sadan states: ‘Today there are tens of thousands who were born into Orthodox families leaving the fold (…) some going through the motions without desire or faith (..) some have become atheists.’ Other secular Jewish people are exploring ways to reconnect with their backgrounds, a truly modern ’emergent’ Judaism in various forms. These two streams are breaking open the old accepted ways and are seeking a renewing.

Given the compelling nature of this argument and the growing facts on the ground in Israel, we must not be surprised that it is at this time the Lord has re-established Messianic Judaism. Yes, a reformation of that ancient form of Judaism lived out in the first century, but also a form that is ready to be a living faith TODAY, not just a nod to the past. Our challenge is to form this Jewish faith in line with Yeshua’s teachings, developing halacha drawn from His examples and apply it in a thoroughly Jewish way to our lives and communities. Messianic Jewish communities the world over are living alternatives to other forms of Judaism that are no longer connecting with so many of our people. We, Jewish people, no longer want form but substance, and that is a faith in G-d founded upon the salvation work He undertook in Yeshua. Truly redeemed both physically and spiritually we stand as a testimony to the G-d of Israel and the narrative of history completed. After our third catastrophe, the emergence of Messianic Judaism is no coincidence. It is a Jewish revival movement that connects us with both Land and with our G-d, the One who has been faithful through all time to us.

Real Riches

A Rabbi’s thoughts….

Judaism has always been understood to be a religion of revelation and not discovery. What that means in practice is that the source of all our Jewish understanding, commandments and traditions is from Heaven. As G-d spoke, so we know. Had He not shown us the way of righteousness, truth, love and mercy, we simply would not have known, nor yet worked it out for ourselves. Another way of looking at it is that if Judaism was a man made invention, a human conceptualised faith system, then it certainly wouldn’t have been designed in the way it is. For one, in the first set of 10 ‘commandments’ there would be one approximating ‘Thou shalt eat X every day’ (replace the X with whatever food you enjoy) – at least if I had written them! That they, the commandments, have stood the test of time and have influenced the legal and cultural basis of so many nations and empires over time is yet one more testimony to the enduring ‘other-worldly’ nature of Judaism. Even the strongest of human empires and the values they represent eventually fall apart, yet the Kingdom of G-d endures, as do the people of G-d, the Jewish people.

But having qualified the origins of Judaism, I want to add one caveat: what truth is to be had can be seen and valued precisely BECAUSE it is enduring and seen to have real value. It becomes tried and tested, eventually to the point whereby mankind can go on to make the somewhat audacious claim to have ‘discovered’ some eternal truth and reality, when in fact it has been as clear as the sun in the sky for an eternity past for those of faith. And it was one such claim, a ‘breakthrough’ moment for Prof Stephen Hawking this last week caught my eye. An eminent and influential man, his word carries weight. He is to be congratulated for his recent discovery of truth, and above all his willingness to publish it too. I quote from the article published on the website (31st July 2016) link below:

“In a Guardian essay, the world-renowned physicist made the case for a more comprehensive and generous definition of wealth “to include knowledge, natural resources and human capacity.” ……. “We will need to adapt, rethink, refocus and change some of our fundamental assumptions about what we mean by wealth, by possessions, by mine and yours. Just like children, we will have to learn to share.” …… He goes on to explain how he came to see money “as a means to an end” but never as an end in itself. It’s an attitude that is becoming more widespread, he wrote: “People are starting to question the value of pure wealth. Is knowledge or experience more important than money? Can possessions stand in the way of fulfilment? Can we truly own anything, or are we just transient custodians?”

I am genuinely glad that Prof Hawking has published this questioning and probing analysis of the current human condition and its fruitless pursuit of happiness through wealth creation. With humility of course we have to acknowledge that such thoughts pre-date his conclusions by many thousands of years. As Jews we have known for a very long time that wealth in itself does not and can not buy happiness. Such transient things can only enhance the mere brevity of human life in comparison with eternity, and only highlight the otherwise empty void in our spirits and souls. Wealth is good, but it isn’t G-d. This point exactly was made by Mashiach (Messiah) Yeshua 2000 years ago when he said ‘you cannot serve G-d and mammon’. Laying up treasures in Heaven, he concludes, was a much sounder investment. The reason? Because where our treasure is, there will be found your heart. If G-d is your treasure beyond all comparison, then that’s where your heart will reside. Real wealth depends on what we give, not what we collect. In German there is a saying that it is better to give with a warm hand than a cold one, a thought that Judaism itself could have penned. The joy of giving, knowing that blessings are shared and not stored, fills the eternal investment banks of Heaven.

So I am glad that Prof Hawking has seen the light. It is sad that it has taken so long, but maybe we as Jews should take heart too. Maybe the world does and will eventually begin to join the dots and begin to seek G-d and His revelation. Maybe they’ll be pleasantly surprised at what they’ll find.


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.


In Rabbi Dr Donniel Hartman’s article in the Jerusalem Post (Nov 22-28, p21) titled ‘The End of Hanukka’ he poses some excellent questions about the very meaning, purpose and intention of keeping, celebrating Chanukah. As the festival begins tonight and the Jewish world once more is drawn to the flame of our national survival over the millennia in the face of many attempts to terminate the Jewish hope and dream, we may marvel at our national, communal resilience, our ability to survive and live to see another day. Rabbi Hartman rightly draws out the heart’s yearning of this historic connection ‘lighting a candle is not a miracle of yesteryear but to declare a commitment to ensuring that to maintain a Jewish identity is a part of my being’. Who would deny the truth of that? Yet in the same article he assesses the current Jewish situation thus: ‘Jews today see themselves as citizens of both Athens and Jerusalem’. Over 2000 years have passed since the Hellenist dream to absorb and assimilate us was put into operation, yet have we learnt anything, nothing? What was the point of Chanukah, what was the real miracle? Are we really citizens of two kingdoms?

Rabbi Hartman is correct in asserting though that ‘the Maccabean victory was no (…) tipping point in history’. For a brief moment our light shone before internal power politics and international pressures began to dominate the national agenda again. Our Temple, so brilliantly restored with such bravery and zealous courage again fell into corruption and, as if we ever even needed reminding of this, failed also to be filled with the tangible presence of HaShem as in the past. A victory it was, but indeed no tipping point in history. Just over a century later our national decline was once more in full swing leading to the tragic events in 70CE as the heart was ripped from our nation and our ancient longing for a settled Homeland cruelly put on ice as Diaspora inevitably followed.

No, this was no tipping point. Nothing it seems had really changed at all and our national, personal inability to follow the commands of the Lord G-d were brought once more to the forefront of our consciousness. Patting ourselves on our backs to massage our damaged historical souls and spirits while claiming that identity is all, as if this was the driving force behind Chanukah is to miss the point. If we still haven’t realised that the same cultural assimilatory spirit behind Athens is still at work today in our post-modern society with its liberal values, then we still have lessons to learn. No, we cannot be sons and daughters of both Athens and Jerusalem.

So the point of Chanukah? Surely it is this: We must be citizens of one Kingdom alone. It was not the small army of dedicated soldiers who freed us from the might of the Greek armies and rededicated the Temple. It was the King behind the Kingdom. So as we light the candle tonight, let us remember that it is not ‘by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord’. Only because our G-d is faithful to the covenants He made will we, can we survive at all because He is merciful and will always bring our deliverance, our redemption to us in due season.

The positive commandment of Shabbat

The following document which can be downloaded here is an attempt at clarifying positions on and answering some of the questions about specific halachah in Messianic Judaism. Shabbat is a good place to start as it is the core time based command that almost singularly has defined us as Jews and frames our weekly existence. I hope you enjoy the article.

Keeping Shabbat

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.