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.

Blowing away the dust of history (part two)

A couple of weeks ago we began to explore the encounter between Yeshua and an esteemed Torah scholar and community leader called Nicodemus. The encounter highlighted some conceptual and theological breakpoints between general Jewish understanding at the time and the focus that Yeshua brought to Judaism. If Nicodemus had so completely misunderstood the concept of salvation, earning him a gentle rebuke from Yeshua, what else had he or might he have had missed?
One of the clash points between Messianic Judaism and other forms of Judaism is the idea of salvation itself. Consistently throughout all the Torah, and in our wider Jewish consciousness, we know and read that G-d is our salvation, and only HE can offer it and fully provide for it. That is stated in many places in the Scriptures, for example, Is 43:11-14a, Is 49:26, and Is 60:16. G-d is our salvation.These, and many others, are the verses often quoted by some in other forms of Judaism who are antagonistic towards us as Messianic Jews. And in all honesty, you can’t argue with the verses, that is what they say. The implications given to the verses, however, is wrong. So how is it that in Messianic Judaism, and even for those very first Messianic Jews of the first century, we believe and teach that Yeshua is our salvation, and therefore by implication, Yeshua is, must be, G-d?
To answer this we need to unpack something called ‘Identity theology’. There is an example of this happening in the Besorah (Good News) recorded by Luke (Lk 7:11-17). There we read that after an encounter with Yeshua the people declared ‘G-d has visited his people’ (referring to Yeshua). The key question here is: How did they know? Yeshua didn’t tell them, yet the group there at that moment knew G-d had appeared in their midst. They knew because of what Yeshua DID, not what He preached, what He DID. He was able to revoke the power of death, reverse therefore the effects of sin on life and thus demonstrate Himself to be more powerful than sin and be able to overcome its consequences. Only G-d can do that. Freedom from sin, deliverance, redemption and salvation are events far more than theology, and G-d is known by His acts, actions and events. We ‘know’ G-d is able to set free because He did it and does it. So we know that He is by nature a G-d who releases people rather than brings them into bondage. It is why G-d consistently calls to mind the deliverance from Egypt as a key character statement of who He is. G-d IS salvation, and we see Him ACT in that way because it is His character, His identity. By saving, delivering and bringing us out of Egypt He is only being true to His nature and essence.
In he Second Isaiah section the prophet develops this ‘second’ Exodus motif in a deeper spiritual way, not merely physical this time but a deeper redemption. The passages culminate in the Suffering Servant by whose death this redemption is brought about. What is extraordinary about this is that this suffering servant pattern or template revealed by the prophet of humiliation and rejection followed by exaltation and acceptance becomes the definitive revelation of who G-d is. This singular act as it breaks into history is THE experience of G-d that ultimately defines Him. In the Messianic Writings we see the same conceptual understanding applied to Yeshua: He is the Saviour (the same term used in Tanach for G-d) who brings salvation (see Lk 2:11, 1 Jn 4:14). By His sacrificial death He fully develops the Jewish concept of deliverance and salvation, a release for freedom, free to live as G-d wants us to live. The links are clear; G-d IS salvation, it is His identity. He sends His salvation to us, His Son Yeshua, both are salvation, It’s not that His name just means it, He IS it. By Yeshua’s ACTIONS He proved that He is salvation and He is G-d. He overcame death and sin in His own body. Yes, all of this is in fact obvious from and in Judaism, although in other forms of Judaism this has been masked and concealed. Yeshua IS salvation, and thus Yeshua IS G-d. He is the embodiment, the physical shape of salvation, who Is G-d. Yeshua carries the identity of G-d in Himself. As Yeshua Himself said in Jn 5, He must do ‘the works the Father has given him to FINISH’. Yeshua’s works of salvation were not new in the first century, He had been doing them for a long time as the agent of salvation in history. But He did need to FINISH them, draw the idea of salvation to its conclusion. And that Yeshua did in His own death and resurrection, a sacrifice for sins that would truly set people free.
Blowing away the dust of history (part one)

Blowing away the dust of history (part one)

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.

G-d with human names

It is very fashionable to talk about emerging spirituality in these modern times. You see congregations of all types, but increasingly Jewish and Christian, who feel the need to throw of the perceived (or otherwise) shackles of the past, to open up communities to more contact, to speak to a younger internet-savvy and media-rich generation for whom community increasingly means something very different. Such an approach to spirituality may appeal to many whereby doctrine and belief take a step back and lifestyle and life choices configure the format of our existences. Whatever ‘buzzwords’ we may want to attach to such expressions of modern faith, there is one concept that can struggle to gain the limelight it truly deserves: the G-d of Israel is not god. We do not worship a generic deity, god, who injects spirituality into our lives to ensure that the latest wellness mode of life is fully rounded and explored. That god is truly a ‘broad church’
 
We, as Jews, worship and believe in the G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov. That He adds this epithet tells us so much about who G-d is. He is not a distant deity, unknowable, ethereal, impossible to experience, utterly ‘other’ and therefore unrecognisable. Despite the fact that for many of our people this sadly IS the reality in their daily experience of G-d, the Torah does NOT see G-d in this way. That He has names of real individuals in history attached to Him and His name tells us that He is the G-d who has broken through into their lives in a real way. The three Patriarchs have their names attached because they personally knew Him and walked with Him in a way that demonstrated not only their active faith but HIS actual reality and presence. We know what G-d is like when we examine their lives. The interaction between G-d and man illustrates so much of who G-d is, He is literally revealed through real situations. ‘I am the Lord your G-d who brought you out of Egypt’ is not so much a historical event as a declaration of character. We know who He is, how He is by what we see and experience of Him. To know Him only by what the texts say is to have a very two-dimensional view of the living G-d of Israel.
 
In Judaism, and in Messianic Judaism par excellence, we see the gap between the ‘G-d idea’ and ‘G-d alive’ removed. He is not merely an idea, a theological concept, a necessary spiritual understanding for life. He lives and has revealed Himself often to us as a nation and through history. With Chanukah now on the horizon we are reminded that as He broke through INTO human reality in time and space we saw with our own eyes the nature and character of G-d Not surprisingly then do we see Yeshua during the season of Chanukah declare ‘I am the Light of the world’, a life lived through whom we could and still do see the reality of the presence of the G-d of Israel.

The Temple Mount is Jewish

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.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-37697108

The last Trump

While our thoughts and prayers go out to all those who are suffering in the recent earthquakes in Italy and New Zealand, there has been another ‘earthquake’ in the last week that has the potential to realign the geopolitical tectonic plates around the world: the election of president-elect Donald Trump to the White House. The unrest that this has stirred coupled with the fact that well over 70% of the Jewish community in the US didn’t back Mr Trump (source Jewish Chronicle, 11th Nov 2016) means that this ‘shock result’ can not be ignored, despite some residual reluctance to appear partisan. According to reports in the Jewish Chronicle this week some US Jewish commentators are lining up to attack Trump’s election to what is arguably the most powerful political position in the world. Dan Friedman’s comment is typical: ‘The Jewish community is united in its opposition to Trump (….) he is mostly anathema to the Jewish vote’. Apparently even our Prime Minister, Netanyahu, has been less than effusive in his congratulations.
 
What should our response be? In an early response to the events Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote to all his employees quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who said 50 years ago: “If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” As Jews this sentiment has deep historical resonance for us. There simply is not a good day to stop moving. To stop is to surrender, to give in to a force that may feel overwhelming but in reality will pass. Despite the right-wing rhetoric bordering on anti-Semitism coming out of the Trump support base, we cannot, and must not conclude that the game is up. Cook continued in his communication: ‘While there is discussion today about uncertainties ahead, you can be confident that Apple’s North Star hasn’t changed.” If the CEO of a multinational can make that claim, then how much more so the Jewish people, the nation G-d has called into existence through Avraham avinu. Our continued presence on this planet is a provocative challenge to a human history littered with countries and leaders whose sole ambition it was was to see us annihilated. Israel’s ‘North Star’ is our G-d, our Redeemer, the One who has become our salvation. THAT will never change.
 
In Israel one can often hear the phrase ‘yehiyeh tov’ – it will be well. Indeed it shall be. Such confidence is born out of the solid covenantal conviction that G-d has not, does not and will never leave us. To take on the Jewish people is to attempt the impossible: to defeat G-d. As was spoken through the Prophet Daniel, the Lord ‘removes kings and raises up kings’. Blessed be the name of the Lord. History with its empires and kingdoms has ebbed and flowed with time, some have been kind to us, some less so. But Israel continues. Our G-d IS a G-d of justice and righteousness, His verdict is just and we can trust Him to be so. Whatever may yet come our way, from history, and Scripture, we know one fact: G-d is in control. Lift up our eyes, for our redemption is near. All will be well.

Architectural Falsehoods

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.