His hands alone.

At times it seems like the problems and issues facing us as Jews, our nation of Israel are so overwhelming that we might despair of ever seeing a way forward. The tragedy and sadness of the deaths of the three this last week have underlined our continued existential threat, not only in Diaspora but right inside our precious Land. As the debates rage about responses and solutions to this, the Jewish Chronicle (http://www.thejc.com/news/world-news/120090/whose-hands-hold-future 27.6.14) headlined two contrasting futures: one of continued hatred and the other of a possible hope. Or was it?

The hope outlined in the JC was the apparent good news of a new building in Berlin called the ‘House of One’, a building that contained a mosque, church and synagogue, combined in an architectural unity as if the bricks themselves were, are the message. The future? Have we not historically been the people of G-d, ‘living alone’? Indeed, it has been this very attribute that has allegedly caused some of the worst outbreaks of anti-Semitism in the past; We don’t fit in, have different customs and traditions. So is the future an ecumenical sunrise where all three monotheistic faiths merge into one? Or maybe all religions blending together into a homogeneous whole?  After all, according to some people all ‘ways’ lead to ‘god’. Judaism reborn as a hybrid universalism where the only rule is ‘be nice’?

Judaism needs renewal, our reborn nation demands it and our people expect it. The way ahead for this is to remind ourselves that we do not believe in god. We believe in the G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov, the G-d of Israel. His commandments are specific, clear and are, if taken in faith and trust through the salvation HE alone offers, transformational of the heart, mind and lifestyle. Our G-d is unlike any other deities, and we are forbidden to worship them. Our G-d is the One true G-d, He does not share His glory with any other, His teachings are unique for lifestyle, values, righteousness and the fruit thereof.

Surely the way ahead is to challenge the errors of the past, to return to paths forgotten, cleanse out the accumulated ‘clutter’ that has clouded vision and purpose, re-examine who and what we are and why we exist again. Embedding the differences in a pretend synonymity will only bring yet more confusion and disasters only paralleled by those brought on by the idolatrous syncretism of our ancient past. The journey from Balaam to Pinchas is tragically short.

Renewal and the future of Judaism is surely about rediscovering the command ‘to write these words on your heart’. Only by an internalising of Torah, a radical restructuring of our hearts and intents, can we ever hope to see the glorious Judaism outlined in the Torah itself. Avraham is our key: For by loving kindness are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of G-d (Bereshit -Genesis- 15:6 and letter to Jewish community in Ephesus ch 2).

 

 

 

Jewish nationalism.

As Avraham walked up and down the length of what would later become Israel, the Inheritance and Land of Promise, I wonder if he had any idea of just how ‘controversial’ such an action would later be considered. Where he walked, what he saw, it would eventually come to be the Land, the geo-political terrain that thousands of years later would still be at the centre of world politics. And this piece of real estate holds our attention as Jews, either for or against.. passions stir and our relationship today to this small, singularly Jewish nation and country still seems for so many to be uncertain. Shall we consider our nation as a secular democratic country amongst other Western nations and their traditions, or are is it a Zionist nation? Can we be patriotic, merely historic or even nationalistic about it? In an age where Nationalism as a positive cultural value-creator has become more associated with wars, genocides and even the Shoah, sliding down the societal options as a valid national expression, can we accept Jewish Nationalism?

Today Nationalism once more is on the rise across the globe, especially across the European Union, Russia and the Far East. The old Romantic notions and cultural paradigms of home and hearth, land and identity are resurgent. As if we haven’t learnt enough from history. The Jewish people have singularly learnt where Nationalism leads with its idolatrous glorification of one nation or people group over another. It leads to only one place: death. Usually of many tens of thousands if not millions. Given this historic background, should we even consider Jewish Nationalism? And yet…

If Nationalism has at its base the historic almost quasi religious identification of a people group with a piece of land, then surely Israel, of all nations CAN make a claim to a legitimate form of Nationalism. Our hearts ARE stirred by our Land; it was given to us by divine decree and we would remain in it as long as we observed the house rules. So it is no surprise then that this deep national stirring is taking form in Israel. Recently PM Netanyahu began a process that would define Israel in Basic Law as a Jewish State, and not just a national homeland for Jews. To define it such is to firmly put the flag of a nationalist identity into the foothills of Jerusalem. And why not? There will be resistance of course, not least from those who wish to see a two-state solution with its slow demographic death for Israel. The bigger and more pressing issue of course will be to define and create a working definition of the word ‘Jewish’. For Messianic Jews this is an exciting opportunity to see our national and spiritual homeland become a truly open country to ALL Jews regardless of religious persuasion. Avraham Avinu was not a 21st century Eastern European Askenazi Jewish man. Neither was he of the Orthodox persuasion. He had faith. With that faith he began a family (made up of ethnic Jews and converts) that created and inherited a national homeland. The rest is history. Israel will in time realise that the constituency of Messianic Jews scattered around the world are and will be one of the strongest supporters of our Land. If this ‘new Nationalism’ means anything then it must be inclusive. As Leat Collins in her editorial piece (Jerusalem Post 27.3.14, p5) said ‘The lesson that many in the West took from the Holocaust is that nationalism is bad; the message the Jews took from it is that nationalism is necessary’.

Where’s the blood?

To live in today’s Jewish world is to live a somewhat sanitised life; our modern thinking and attitudes shape our expectations and hopes. Yet it is a possibly brutal fact that Judaism is in reality, according to our original sources in Torah, a bloody and messy religion. We baulk nowadays at the thought of a Temple splashed daily with the blood of animals and their bodies going up in smoke before our eyes. No clean-fronted priests in clerical gear here, more like a schochet in full swing. The life is in the blood, and we are forbidden to ingest it. It belongs to G-d as the Giver and Taker of life.

And it is this core concept of Life that connects blood with not only the sacrifices but also the covenants given to us. As each successive covenant was literally ‘cut’, blood was present. Covenants designed to bring Life brought death as if Life was only possible by its very antithesis. From Noach through to Moshe, each covenant was hallmarked by the death of a living creature, as if the process of covenantally and incrementally bringing Life was so serious to G-d that any deviation from it would, could end up in death of one of the parties.

The Jewish foundation Rock from which we are hewn, Avraham, received a covenant that was unconditional, prompted by his faith it was offered, given to Avraham as a gift, a Promise, an eternally unchanging inheritance. As the blood of the animals cut in two soaked into the ground that night, Heaven and Earth bore witness to its irrevocable solemnity. In Moshe, we received a covenant that was conditional, we could now choose our national outcomes: blessings or cursings. Again the blood splashed across us as we agreed to be bound by its stipulations, a framework of nationhood and people-hood, a marriage contract signed in blood.

And through these covenants and the contents contained therein, we heard the voice of the Lord calling to us, to know Him, walk with Him and experience the blessings of having a living relationship with the G-d of our Fathers who was and is alive. And despite our unfaithfulness it was given to a Prophet, Jeremiah, to declare that once more a covenant would be cut, this time it would create the scenario whereby all of us, everyone, could and would know Him. In chapter 31 the remarkable scenario is painted that even teaching will no longer be necessary because each will so know the Lord that in every situation we will instinctively know what He wants us to do, say or think. That our hearts would be so changed that righteousness would flow out of them by design, rather than the evil that had dogged our weary footsteps down the ages.

This covenant, the renewed covenant, a mixture of both that of Avraham and Moshe, would take the faith demonstrated by Avraham and the commandments given through Moshe to create this reality on the ground. And this covenant, let it be known, was a Jewish covenant; To the Houses of Judah and Israel. A final covenant to enter and agree to, to take upon ourselves as the pinnacle of historical, spiritual development; the solution to all our problems. ‘They shall all know me from the least to the greatest, says the Lord’. What we have always wanted as Jews, but were maybe after Sinai too scared or fearful to realise, could become true. We would know our G-d.

But… as much as we search for the mention of the blood to cut this covenant, the indication of death giving Life, the Prophet’s silence was and is deafening. Left hanging in an apparently blood-less anomaly, we are left to ponder just HOW this covenant can be ours. In due season our questions were to be answered. At the Seder meal of a small group of followers, Yeshua Mashichaynu declared the memorable words that forever satisfied the hungry and thirsty spirits of our people: ‘This is the blood of the Renewed Covenant’. Yes, His own blood, the giving of His own life for Life. Now we His people can know Him, walk with Him, know instinctively through circumcised hearts formed without human hand, what His will for us, the nation, our people is. No more recitation of Talmud or learning Torah by heart, because His Life will BE in our hearts.

Rosh Hashanah

Have you noticed that we Jews do festivals very differently from those around us? We are barely a couple of days away from Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year and the mood is sombre and reflective. No fairly lights, no big parties planned other than gatherings for apple and honey. Our festivals are not hallmarked by wild celebrations or ribald revelry. For most of us in the community right now our thoughts are focussed on one thing alone: what will the final judgement of G-d be for me at Yom Kippur, for that is the inevitable conclusion of what begins at Rosh Hashanah. The scroll of Life will be opened, but will my name be in it? Hoping surely is not enough. Even given that for 10 days beginning on Thursday this week we will repent and seek forgiveness from those we have wronged, there remains a fear and unvoiced niggle in our minds and hearts that maybe we have overlooked something, maybe we have still not met G-d’s righteous standards. And we would be wise to listen to such inner whispers. As King Shlomo said, and reiterated by Rav Shaul, there is not one who has met His standards, all have fallen short of the glory of G-d.

The prophet Amos provides for us an answer in our dilemma (Amos 5): ‘Seek Me and live’ and ‘seek the Lord and live’. It is at such times as these of our High Holy Days that break into our daily routines and disturb them to the utmost that we NEED and should seek G-d. No ritual will be enough, no sacrifice we could ever bring would be sufficient to atone for what we have done. And in this regard it is interesting to connect our Haftorah portion (the binding of Isaac) with the start of the Days of Awe. Avraham avinu approached the impending and commanded sacrifice of his son with faith and confidence, the text making it clear that he expected to return from this event with his son alive. His faith was not unmerited, he did. He knew that G-d would provide the sacrifice, and at the last moment as his faith was tested to the limits, G-d DID provide one.

In our helpless and hopeless situation as Jews needing atonement, and the nations needing the same atonement for their sins too, we must seek God for His solution. Especially today where we do not have a functioning sacrificial system in Jerusalem any more, we need HIS solution that will and can be applied for all time more than ever. In Mashiach Yeshua we have one such answer, in His sacrifice we can have a boldness to approach G-d and know, not just hope, that our names are written in the scroll (book) of Life. Seek G-d, and the atonement He alone can provide, and you too will walk away alive. Seek G-d and live!

Reflected righteousness

Judaism poses us with a dilemma: An infinite G-d who reveals His righteousness to mankind through the Torah, His absolute standards of holiness and consecration, and then apparently sets us up to fail. As I mentioned before in a previous blog entry (I don’t desire sacrifice), the sacrificial system was only given because of our inability to keep Torah perfectly, and so we fail to actually lay hold of HIS righteousness, a righteousness which is vital to have in order to stand before Him justified and not die instantly. The protective layers of the Mishkan and later Temple were designed to keep apart a sinful and unrighteous man from a fully righteous G-d, who as the Torah says, does not desire the death of sinners. King Shlomo put it this way in 1 kings 8:46 ‘there is no one who does not sin’. Sin is breaking the commandment (to break one is to have broken them all, see also 1 Jn 3:4 ), and you can hear the desperate heart cry of the followers of Yeshua Mashichaynu in Matt 19:25 ‘who then can be saved?’ Yeshua’s answer is interesting: ‘With man this is impossible, but with G-d all things are possible.’ In essence He is saying that man can never reach that level of righteousness needed to enter the Kingdom, to be a part of Israel now and in eternity. But G-d CAN make a way for this to happen.

To be fair to our brothers in history, the Prushim (Pharisees) have been given a very, and undeservedly, bad press. Yeshua’s castigation was not laid against them because they were not righteous, but because the righteousness was not enough! Matt 5:20 makes this clear, our righteousness as Jews must EXCEED that of this particular sub-group in Judaism of the first century. The question is how, given that these men were indeed righteous and Torah observant? If they failed to meet the mark, still struggling with sin (and they did), then what hope does anyone have? Again, Yeshua’s words point the way ‘with G-d all things are possible’.

So how DO we achieve a level of righteousness that will allow us access to G-d’s presence? Thankfully the Lord has not left us to work this out for ourselves. One of His own names is Adonai Tzidkenu, the Lord our righteousness. Our G-d IS our righteousness and we have to have His righteousness given to us if we are ever to be righteous enough.  The next question then becomes, how do we receive such a righteousness? Do we have to earn it, pay for it, or just receive it? Is it dependent upon us at all? The answer is maybe surprising for those who have worked within the parameters of more recent forms of Judaism. The model of righteousness turns out to be Avraham avinu, who because of his faith, or better faithfulness in response, was given God’s righteousness, freely and undeservedly despite his own personal sin. G-d justified him because of his response towards what G-d was offering. In this way then the Prophet Joel fully understands the scope of this faith in that anyone can exhibit it, regardless of whether born Jewish or not: All who call on the name of the Lord can be saved.

Only by reflecting G-d’s own righteousness do we stand a chance of ever standing in His presence, a core desire and aim of Judaism. The writer to the Hebrews puts it in a radical way: (a) boldness to enter the Holy of Holies. This is no sacrilegious or iconoclastic act, but an understanding that through faith salvation can come, and that through the sacrifice that He alone could bring for our sins: Yeshua. With faith making righteousness possible we can come fully into His presence and not fear death.

I don’t desire sacrifice…

For 2000 years we have survived outside the Land; if our Father Avraham was a wandering Aramean then we have been a wandering people too. I say ‘survived’ because outside is not our home; at home we live, outside we survive. And our survival has been orchestrated in no small manner by our instinctive clinging to Torah and our traditions, wherever we have been driven we took our scrolls and books with us. Easy to conclude then that it is Torah that is the focus of our people, Torah that forms us and gives us community cohesion and vision; Torah IS Judaism. Yet the obvious may still deceive.

Just as a child being given an ‘airfix’ construction kit would be chided for venerating the instructions instead of using them to actually build what the directions command, have we missed the point with our Gift of Torah? Have we reached a position where we are exalting the Gift, the revelation rather than what the ‘instructions’ are all about? For it is the Torah itself that commands us to build a Mishkan, a moveable tent of sacrifice. We are commanded to construct something that takes a central position not just in the camp of the Israelites but in Jerusalem and in Jewish thinking and theology. Torah forces us to divert our gaze away from itself to the purpose of the commandments at all: sacrifice.

Why should the Mishkan and later Temple with all the sacrifices at its heart be so central to Judaism? Because fundamentally Judaism recognises that sin has corrupted the relationship between G-d and man. Sin cannot be just removed, a G-d of justice as our G-d is will always demand a price for rebellious and wilful disobedience. Just as punishment fits the crime, so sacrifice fits the sin.

Yet we read in 1 Samuel 15 ‘to obey is better than sacrifice’ and from Hosea 6 ‘for I desire faithfulness and not sacrifice’. We are commanded to bring sacrifice for our sins, yet what HaShem truly seeks is a people who will actually be obedient. A people who will not need sacrifice.

We build something that should not exist and should not be needed because there is not one who has not sinned. And a powerful circular display of our dire spiritual condition and penchant or inclination to sin is revealed in the internal logic of Torah itself: we are commanded to bring sacrifices for sin, so a sinless person would not need to do this. However, to not sacrifice would be to sin because it breaks a command to sacrifice! The conclusion is clear: no one is free of sin. Even the most observant amongst us will conclude that despite doing everything ‘by the book’ they are still sinners. Having ticked the ‘list of Mitzvot’ to the end, we are still found wanting.

G-d does not desire sacrifice, but we need it. His mercy and love continues forever, and ultimately He provides a sacrifice equal to our sins. Mercy and justice demand sacrifice; Judaism is about restoring the relationship with HaShem from which we have all fallen.