Some time ago a friend of mine was ‘chewing the theological cud’ with me about the vision and meaning of Messianic Judaism and made a comment that surprised me but caused me to think too. His comment (paraphrased) ran something like this: ‘It was Luther who invented the ‘saved by faith’ doctrine, so why does Messianic Judaism (as a branch of Judaism considerably pre-dating Luther) insist on teaching something that only Protestantism or later Evangelicalism teaches?’ His concern was real; to do so would be to undermine the actual foundations of Judaism and replace them with something else alien to the Torah and Judaism.
The question quite legitimately throws up some real issues about the core teaching and identity of Messianic Jews and Judaism. And the answer, although simple and obvious, leads us to ponder a much deeper Jewish issue of our own time.
Messianic Judaism is far from being the iconoclastic form of Judaism that it is often portrayed as being. It stands often accused of betraying core Jewish ideals and teachings, yet Messianic Judaism is at its heart a call to renewal and restoration in Judaism. The clue is in the ‘re-‘, for we are about taking core Jewish ideas and teachings afresh from the source document and texts that have forever framed Judaism (Torah) and applying them anew through the redemptive actions of G-d through Yeshua Mashichaynu (the Jewish Messiah). Our call as Messianic Jews is to re-establish the Jewish spiritual home and see a return to themes and ideas, concepts actually inherent in Judaism but covered up by the dust of history and lost in the diaspora theological development of the last 2000 years. The ‘saved by faith’ comment is one such concept that was not invented by Luther, nor yet even discovered by him, but if anything was ‘rediscovered’. The first converts to ‘Judaism’ (I use the term in its wider popular usage), were Avraham and Sarah. They were not born Jewish yet were counted as belonging to G-d not by dint of birth, nor by the high level of their observance (Torah was yet over 400 years away), but because of their faith. As the Torah says (in an uncomfortable truth kind of way), the righteousness of G-d was counted or reckoned to Avraham because of his faith alone. No person can stand before G-d and survive unless our righteousness matches His, and the way to achieve this is laid out in the Torah for this to happen: by faith alone. Luther at best rediscovered this ancient truth and recognised the reality of it for himself and for a deeper return to a true walk with G-d. But it had been there all the time. And it was Jewish.
But it got me wondering about the deeper issue of our own time: what else is there that our people simply are not seeing because of the dust of history. Leaving aside the obvious for one moment, the identity of Messiah, there surely must be more in the Judaism/ Torah archaeological dig that will be unearthed. And it reminded me of an encounter that Yeshua had with a man called Nicodemus, a Jewish ‘ruler’ (possibly a Sanhedrin member?) of the first century. He came to Yeshua at night to conceal his embarrassment of having any association with Him, and is told that no person can see the Kingdom of G-d unless he or she is born again. Nicodemus’ reply as to ‘how can this be?’ drew a gentle (but humbling) rebuke from Yeshua: ‘you are a leading teacher in Israel and do not know these things?’. Indeed, there DOES appear to be more, much more that even the best of our Sages and rabbis have missed. And Yeshua names it in one: salvation, being born again. He effectively says this idea, the redemption, salvation motif is the central core idea in Judaism. Not for nothing was this concept the central stage event of Jewish history in the Exodus, even granting the Lord His epithet ‘the Lord your G-d who brought you out of Egypt’. But this salvation and redemptive act was not meant to be just physical but spiritual too. Just as Pharaoh had oppressed us, so too does sin and in some ways this has proven to be a much harder taskmaster than Pharaoh. In essence Yeshua says that Judaism and the Jewish people who live it out have at the core the message of deliverance and freedom from sin through atonement. It is our raison d’etre. Jews, Israel exists to shine a light of deliverance, salvation and redemption to a dark world. So that ALL who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.
There is much in the world right now that might lead one to conclude that it has collectively lost its senses. Be that as it may, this was only heightened by the recent decision by UNESCO to ratify a resolution generated by certain members of the UN that disavowed any historical Jewish connection with the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. According to the authors of the resolution its stated aim of the text was “the safeguarding of the cultural heritage of Palestine and the distinctive character of East Jerusalem” (see link below). The absurdity of the description and the falsity of its basic premise was ably summarised by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who said in a Facebook post that UNESCO had become a “theatre of the absurd” in taking “another delusional decision”. He continued “To say that Israel has no connection to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall is like saying that China has no connection to the Great Wall of China or that Egypt has no connection to the pyramids. By this absurd decision, UNESCO has lost what little legitimacy it had left.”
There are, thankfully, few within the Jewish world who would support such historical revisionism as is now accepted by the UN. The reasons for the outcry are, however, more nuanced. In a world where materialism and consumerism rule the conceptual roost it is fashionable, and has been for some considerable time, to see the world of faith a something purely ethereal and singularly spiritual by nature. This presentation of the Jewish faith merely sees faith wrapped up in joy, ecstasy or an emotional response to loving G-d. It is not even that unusual to hear the old ‘physical is bad, spirit is good’ dichotomy, taught by the ancient Greek philosophers. While it is true that the spiritual world underpins the physical, ignoring the physical is quite simply unjewish and unbiblical. In Judaism our faith is precisely rooted in the physical, the historical, the real world. G-d didn’t theoretically take us out of Egypt as a theological teaching tool, He actually DID take us out. Jewish faith is as much to do with dates and events as spirituality. We detect the Hand of G-d at work IN and THROUGH the physical real world around us. The reason why answered prayer is so powerful is because it shows that our G-d, while omnipotent, is not just so in theory: He can break through into this creational shell that is our temporary home. When He sent His salvation into human history He was born in a certain time in a certain place. Salvation has historicity.
To deny the physical reality of the spiritual is to follow through with the UNESCO resolution. Some may argue it makes no difference. It does. It is a crucial difference. Our G-d reigns not just on an ethereal plane but in reality in human lives, in time and place. Faith has a history, and it is important.
What the UN did with this resolution was not an action to side with an Islamist agenda regarding history. No, this was to take sides against the G-d of history who has left His fingerprints on the earth, in time. As such our response is not to become anti-Islamic but to recognise that we must work to become a stronger nation with all the historical ties to the Land legitimised in ways that only we can do as its inhabitants. A stronger national connection is the only answer to such historical revisionism. Ironically, by adopting this resolution, the UN has itself become an historic irrelevance, a footnote in man’s attempts to fight the G-d of Israel.
A few years ago on one of my regular visits to Germany I happened to be in the beautiful city of Wittenberg, the spiritual home of Martin Luther whose writings and protests at the theology of the Catholic Church played such a part in the so called, and aptly called, Protestant Reformation. Any visit to that city will inevitably involve a walk down the main street ending at the church where Luther’s 95 theses were nailed to the front door in dramatic style. This act reverberated through ecclesiastical history as loudly as, if not more so, the slamming of Helen Huntingdon’s bedroom door against her husband…
While Luther’s protest was ostensibly about the theology surrounding indulgences, we cannot overlook the background to the church and its very sad inherited history, nor dare we forget Luther’s own commentary to the said events. It was there that in 1305 a carved image of the ‘Judensau’ (Jewish pig) was fixed high on the building, an image of Jewish people suckling on the teats of a pig while yet another examines the rear end of the animal. In Luther’s discussion of this some 200 years later he describes how this represents the Jewish people seeking the source of the unutterable Name in Judaism. Such appalling and shocking words are rightly today rejected by many if not most Christians, yet represented at the time a considered and widely accepted Christian theological position. In the Jewish Chronicle (see link below) Max Privorozki, a local German-Jewish leader, comments “There is no doubt that the Judensau sculpture is unseemly, obscene, insulting, offensive, libellous, a portrayal of hate speech and anti-Semitism and that it defames Jewish people and their faith. However, it should be seen within the context of the time period in which it was made.” Indeed. That the sculpture still exists has provoked a backlash today with plans suggested to remove it. Yet Privorozki continues that the sculpture should not be removed, as it “represents a testimony of medieval thinking and Christian architectural tradition”.
Such defamation and persecution was not, and sadly today is still not, that unusual in the world. Anti-Semitism lives on as strongly today as it ever has, and the ancient Catholic tradition of interpreting the Scriptures in this anti-Judaic (read anti-Semitic) way has either by accident or with malice aforethought contributed to the fuel used to fan such fires. That Christians today should be repenting of such attitudes is an excellent first step, yet as Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, Chief Rabbi of Moscow and President of the Conference of European Rabbis, said: “Removing statues can be, on the one hand, symbolic. On the other hand, it might not be enough. The question is, to what extent the Protestant churches have gone through their history, liturgy, statements and religious texts to distance themselves from teachings which have elements of anti-Semitism.” Indeed again. It is simply too easy to argue that the Church of that time was misguided or not well enough informed, or even worse that such events were driven by those who were not ‘real’ Christians. None of the above is true and represents an escape clause and ‘get out of jail card’ for today’s believers who wish to distance themselves from anything too distasteful by today’s standards. The truth is that such events were driven by an integral and core theology that began in the late first to early second century, and was well under way by the fourth: Christian anti-Semitism. At times latent and better hidden, at others more open and hostile, the ‘necessary’ theological distancing of the nascent gentile body of believers spawned this institutional anti-Semitism, a sad and inevitable backlash against the ‘defeated’ nation of the Jewish people. The rest as they say is history. Rabbi Goldschmidt is totally correct in his view: repentance is fine, but a root and branch eradication of all early theology that was anti-Judaic MUST now happen too.
That this is needed was amply demonstrated by the reaction from one man who upon seeing us in Wittenberg crossed the road to speak to us and confront us with the Judensau to our faces. It wasn’t pleasant, yet affirmed that the spirit of anti-Semitism is still feeding off the sculpture and its history. By all means remove the image, but remove everything else too.
In the Internet age that we currently live in it is vital to be not only wary of anything that we read, anything that comes up as the top link for X or Y or anything that we find in our research, but also fundamentally we need to know the sources of any information offered to us. In the egalitarian Internet of all equal voices the messages can so easily be consumed by the media and leave us feeling lost and bewildered. In the garden of knowledge the fruit of wisdom is not easily picked. It is why the prophet, speaking the words of G-d relating to Himself, said ‘Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters’. It is why Yeshua Mashichaynu at Simchat Torah said ‘if anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink’. G-d has always been our first source and inspiration for truth and understanding. In the spectrum of ‘sources’ in our age there is only One Source we need to hear.
Which is why when we move to consider our Judaism it is vital to know what sources we draw from. Judaism as the ‘religion’ given to the Israelites at Sinai, the national covenant of the Jewish people who had descended from Avraham, has as its source G-d Himself. It was given to us, a revelation, and not discovered by mankind. Judaism thus categorised by source should be ‘Judaism from Heaven’, or maybe ‘Heavenly Judaism’. All the more interesting then that as Jews we have applied many other modifiers than this to our Judaism to describe how we have adapted, or denominated this original form of Judaism into each subset. In the last 2000 years we have made use of these many modifiers to build the categories of rabbinic, orthodox, reform, liberal, masorti, modern orthodox, conservative, charedi, chasidic etc etc. Each one tells a story of sources and their impact upon the resultant form of Judaism.
This is highlighted in a recent article (see link below) in the Jewish Chronicle. As the article clearly and rightly explains, Rosh Hashanah has only one specific command attached to it: to hear the shofar blast. It is one command that is relatively easy to fulfil. That the festival nevertheless has been renamed away from Yom Teruah to Rosh Hashanah, and the numerous other commandments detailed in a dedicated tractate in the Mishnah introduced, shows us not that any of these per se are wrong, but rather that this is the expression of a form of Judaism (rabbinic) that has as its source the rabbis and sages of ancient times. Now, as someone who has read and loved these rabbis and their writings, I can accept and acknowledge their deep commitment to Judaism and its continuation. But that is not the issue. The issue here is sources.
In rabbinic Judaism the sources, and authoritative texts include not only Torah but Talmud and the many other later writings. Tradition plays a large role in the generational transfer of faith. None of this is in itself necessarily bad, but the original concept of source in Judaism is G-d Himself, and not man’s traditions, however good and noble they may be. In Messianic Judaism the source is G-d Himself, through Yeshua our Mashiach (Messiah). Our source texts are the accounts of the teachings of the Mashiach in the first century and the letters written by the first generation of hearers and followers of Yeshua. For us Messianic Jews these texts are as authoritative as the Talmud is for rabbinic Jews. And just as the Talmud and the later rabbinic writings play a role in defining rabbinic Judaism today (Orthodoxy), so too the Messianic Writings define our Judaism too. Our prophetic task as Messianic Jews right now is to redefine Judaism around the teachings of Mashiach (rather like many Lubavitch do with the teachings of one of their former leaders, subsequently declared by many to be Messiah). This is nothing other than a radical shift of sources, finding the One original source again that alone can define what Judaism and should be: G-d.
At the opening of the African-American Museum this last week in the USA, Will Smith stood up to deliver his dedicatory speech and quoted Martin Luther King: “change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but it comes through continuous struggle.” Anyone who has attempted to change the status quo of anything, whether political, cultural or religious can testify to the veracity of such thoughts. The CEO of Indiegogo recently put it this way: “The world loves to say ‘no’. It likes the status quo, it doesn’t like change (…) your job is to keep saying ‘yes’.”
In Judaism right now there are many it seems who are screaming ‘yes’. Many who are demanding change from the roots up and are beginning to do something about it. Rabbi Cardozo (whose blog appears on the Times of Israel website) describes such Jewish faith start-ups as ‘disruptive Judaism’ because they are increasingly putting pressure on the establishment, and rapidly so. The spectrum of disrupters runs from the Women of the Wall to the Beit Moshe movement and the ordination this last week of the first batch of rabbis from the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem (see link below). While we in Messianic Judaism would not necessarily agree with all the components of such ’emergent’ forms of Judaism, the fact is that Messianic Judaism DOES belong to the disruptive spectrum of Judaism. One of the newly ordained Rabbis put their vision as follows: “At Bina, a big part of what we try to do is to ‘redeem’ Judaism, reclaim ownership of Judaism, reclaim terms and language and concepts, but while reinterpreting and redefining, also finding new meanings.” There is very little in such a statement that we would disagree with, although our conclusions will surely differ.
What this does however reveal is not only the thirst and hunger right now for a redefined Judaism, or should we say a new relationship with our Judaism, our shared Jewish heritage, amongst Israelis and the wider diaspora community, it also reveals the telling fact THAT such a change is possible and desirable. Indeed Judaism has never been static and unchanging, even if many have sought to portray it as such for the wrong reasons. Messianic Judaism is a ‘disruptive’ Judaism because it not only is willing to question but also because in Mashiach we have a perfect example of disruption. An ancient thread of Jewish experience and identity was the concept of G-d breaking into the human experiential realm, whether through our deliverance from Egypt or being led through the wilderness, or yet again with the tradition of the Bat Kol speaking and guiding Israel through the ages. His presence literally disrupted our lives and we knew that HE was the reason for our existence, continued and past. We have lost such a concept in today’s forms of Judaism. In Mashiach we can begin to win that back. As He taught and preached 2000 years ago the question on so many people’s lips was ‘in whose authority do you speak?’ They wanted to know who trained Him, what school of thought He adhered to, in which Rabbi’s name He ministered. Yeshua rejected such limitations and so often responded to such questions with ‘you have heard it said (by Rabbi so and so), but I say unto you..’ He spoke on His own authority, or directly related such authority back to His Father in heaven. Such a disruption in the religious thought-world continuum of course caused astonishment and some outrage, as it does today.
Messianic Judaism however is no new start-up. It is the return of an ancient form of Judaism practised by tens of thousands of Jewish people (if not more) in the first and early second century. It is disruptive and will cause ripples in the fabric of Judaism generally, and often-times we shall be told ‘no’. But the disruptive effect of Yeshua id an eternal ‘yes’ to any resistance As our people are reaching out for change in the status quo, in Mashiach we can give it to them.
Yirecho (Jericho) was a fortified city, the first one our people encountered for real when entering the Land. It stood as a representative fortress and bastion against the people of G-d and the truth they held in their lives, and in the Ark they carried before them. It was not that the shofar blasts caused the walls to tumble, nor yet the seven times walking around the perimeter, (although the links to the sheva b’rachot and the marriage to the Land are wonderful themes to consider). No, what caused the walls to fall was the power of covenantal faithfulness in the face of stubborn rejection. Had the inhabitants accepted the rule of G-d and ‘crossed over’ to join with the people of G-d, His nation, then Life would have been theirs too.
What do we learn from this? Like the city of Yirecho, we can all build high walls to stop the Lord from coming in and showing His faithfulness to us. It’s so often way more comfortable to hide behind these defences and think all is well, nothing can change and the status quo will be maintained. And it’s not just personal walls we hide behind. What intrigues me more in these days are the institutional and religious walls that so many are hiding behind. I suspect that it may (I hope I’m wrong!) take many more shofar blasts of truth and revelation yet before some of these walls begin to fall, yet we are nevertheless seeing in our day signs that change is coming to what most people would call Judaism. I say most people because the hegemony of some sections of the faith over school book photos and media domination obscures for many the actual vibrancy and fluidity of what Judaism is, and can be, all about today.
One such example again found a small space to shine this last week in the Jerusalem Post (http://www.jpost.com/…/New-Moishe-House-creates-pluralistic…). While there are many aspects to this movement that are open to question, this is not the point that needs to be made. The fact THAT this kind of spontaneous bursting out, away from traditional concepts of the Jewish faith, is happening at all is noteworthy. There is a growing hunger for real Jewish spiritual reality, not borrowing from other faiths (although sadly that is happening too) but a desire to know G-d, and yet not through the traditional channels. I will let a few quotes speak for themselves: “It’s a Jewish community, and when we have non-Jews come for Friday night dinner, it shows them the warm, open, embracing side of Judaism,” ……. “Moishe House deals with Judaism in a pluralistic way and, I think, is special and rare.” ….. “The idea of Moishe House is to make a connection to Judaism, and to make it fun” …..
“We create fun activities around the Jewish calendar. Moishe House allows you to do something positive and challenging in your life.”
The walls of our most ancient and glorious of faith have been a wonderful protection for us for over 2000 years, yet like all walls at some point the positive protective function begins to outweigh the need for renewal, and that can only happen when the gates are opened. Like the above movement, Messianic Judaism is exploring the borders and spiritual topography of a renewed form and structure of Judaism: a Judaism that is G-d centred, Messiah focussed and Spirit filled. Before the presence of the Ark of G-d the walls of that ancient city fell prostrate. G-d’s presence is able to bring down that which has served its purpose well but has now outlived its function, both personally and institutionally. HIS truth will prevail, and the exciting signs are that our people want that too!