Rebellion

Occasionally Torah seems to throw a stumbling stone before us, a verse or a commandment that for many of us we would wish was not there; one such is the son who is acting rebelliously is to be stoned. This son won’t listen to his father or mother, insisting on doing what he wants to do, resisting teaching, encouragement and exhortation to follow the right path. His rebellion leads to his death. We could describe him as willful, high-handed and stiff-necked. Unyielding in the face of good advice from those he should love the most, whose correction and discipline he ignores or rejects, he deliberatly acts in defiance. Recognise anything in this picture? Any parent of a teenaged (or frankly any aged) child will readily see the similarities. Yet I doubt that many will welcome the supposed treatment for such offenses.

The Sages, confronting the same ‘problem’ of people’s responses to such a seemingly harsh judgement, declared that this commandment only applied between the ages of 13 years and 13 years plus 3 months, and that only after excessive drinking etc. By making such a stringent context for the actual carrying out of the execution, the rabbis effectively declared the commandment void. While surely connecting with the compassionate and human side of Torah and the heart of G-d, such a ruling, setting aside a commandment, undermines something we are meant to learn about our Lord and Master. Each commandment informs, teaches and reveals something about the divine nature. By highlighting one aspect (mercy) the ‘declaring void’ undermines other aspects.

How are we to understand this? By side-stepping the commandment our traditions have weakened a key element in Judaism. As King Shlomo said ‘there is no one who does not sin’, echoed by Rav Shaul ‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of G-d’. The Torah is clear: the soul that sins shall surely die. Rebellion against G-d is sin. Did the son deserve to die? Yes. But here’s the issue.. when we consider the son, do we not recognise ourselves in him too? Have WE not rebelled against G-d? In fact, as Israel we are known as stiff-necked… we have a loving Father who corrects and disciplines all the while. But our desire to mitigate the punishment of the son reveals in us an inability to acknowledge that we too deserve to die for our sins. If we can excuse the son, then maybe we too can be excused. But Judaism doesn’t teach that G-d makes excuses for our sins; Judaism teaches that He redeems, pays the price for sin, demands sacrifices because of sin and thus restores the relationship between G-d and man.

In this month of Elul as we prepare for the High Holy Days, let us be reminded that we are all like this son, deserving of death for our sins, and that if our G-d had not made a way to finally and decidedly cancel out those sins through the sacrifical death of Yeshua, then we would all be lost.

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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).

 

 

 

Why Pesach/ Passover is our national narrative.

If we have eyes to see it and ears to hear it, Passover is core to our vision of seeing Judaism renewed and revived, the Life brought back to it again. To see this we need to ask the question ‘what was the point of Egypt?’ For our ‘mere’ survival as a nation? If so, we would not have needed the slavery element at all. The Sages have pondered this and the answers are illustrative of a core truth of the Exodus. These answers point to the heart of who our G-d is and what He does, namely: our G-d is the G-d of salvation. He IS redemption, deliverance, salvation and release, setting free IS what He does and everything can be seen in that light. If G-d is salvation, then all the rest is commentary. In fact we can even go so far as to say, as the commentator’s do, that Egypt was set up for us to become slaves SO THAT G-d could demonstrate His mighty power and ability to set us free and redeem us. As possibly controversial as that thought is, restoration IS nevertheless His nature and redemption His character. History has been the physical stage upon which He has been able to intervene with salvation, redemption in ways we can see and experience. Salvation is, at its true spiritual and physical heart, the resumption of (eternal) life, a life uninterrupted by sin as in the original Garden state where we would have lived forever in the presence of G-d. In fact we can say in Torah terms G-d IS salvation. So intrinsic are the two terms/words that they are in practical and theological terms the same. You can’t talk about G-d without talking about His salvation because He fundamentally saves people, from sin, from situations, from slavery. If we learnt one thing from the Pesach experience it was this: our G-d saves. Salvation is what and who He is.

Pesach and releasing from slavery dominates the thematic concepts of Torah, as we would expect. In the first of the commandments given at Sinai, right at the top spot, we read that ‘I am the Lord your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt’. This first commandment identifies G-d as the freer of slaves, it is almost as if all the other commandments that follow are predicated on this one idea: G-d sets free; we are not free to serve Him alone if we are still in bondage to this world, sin or the evil one. And we need to be free! In HIS deliverance and salvation we are set free to serve Him, redemption for a purpose, and salvation for a reason. And the larger theme of salvation and freedom continues through the commandments too: For instance Shabbat is the deliverance and freedom from the tyranny of time, the demands of this world. The 7 day week as a time slot and concept was given by G-d to frame work and rest, a concept unknown anywhere in the world at that time: it was revolutionary and a hallmark of salvation and redemption; time itself could be used by G-d to teach us what His nature and character is like: we are set free from the toil and curse of the ground we have battled with from the start due to our rebellion. On Shabbat our routine is suspended because G-d is our salvation.

Our task then is to start to see every command in this light. Salvation as a lifestyle and deliverance as a national testimony is not about ticking boxes or collecting mitzvah credit. The commands become a pathway TO freedom for those who see them as such. The Mitzvot should be recast in this salvic, freedom paradigm, just like Shabbat above. To obey the commands is to not just do but to release freedom into our lives. This is the context of the commandments in the first place, they were given with deliverance still fresh in our minds. These revelatory truths now given to us as a nation would frame our message of freedom from tyranny whether physical or spiritual (sin) to a lost and spiritually needy world. Renewing Judaism, each commandment, in the light of freedom and salvation will create a fresh impetus to Israel to BE the nation of freedom, free to be righteous, free to serve G-d. If you want to be free, then come to the G-d of the Jews!

Just take 10 (9)?

Most people of the world living in developed nations are aware of the need to live with and under a system of Law that governs almost every area of our lives, national and personal. A lack of such Law and the ensuing corruption that inevitably surrounds such a situation is definitely seen as a negative, making day to day living difficult and unpredictable. Most people also will be able to tell you of 10 ‘laws’ that are enshrined into historical consciousness almost everywhere: the 10 Commandments. Leaving aside the question of terminology (commandments or word/ teachings/sayings) it is a fact that just about every law system in the world has its origin in the concept of a national Law code pioneered by Israel, or rather, by the G-d of Israel. The ‘Decalogue’ has inspired a sense of justice and righteousness wherever it has been allowed to flourish and be taken seriously. As a cultural and social heritage from Israel to the world it ranks very highly.

And this is the point. These ideas, concepts and ‘laws’ are not neutral. They had a time and a place in history, given to a people group in a specific location, designed to allow a functioning, real time, physical manifestation of the Kingdom of G-d on earth. The commandments form a living national signpost to reveal who the one true G-d is. And of course they represent just the beginnings of the revealed commandments given. Yet strangely the first 10 of the commandments have taken on a peculiarly universalistic role that is not reflected by the Torah itself. There is no ‘line break’ after them, the commandments and teachings of the Lord G-d continue throughout the rest of the Tanach. This artificial and abrupt  disconnect after the 10, driven by later theological developments alien to Judaism, downplays the actual strongly particularistic elements of the Sinai Covenant. Even the later rabbis, keen to provide some comfort to the nations vis-a-vis their relationship to the G-d of Israel, offered the so-called Noahide Commandments, not the Decalogue.

The first set of commandments begins with the particularistic statement that we should remember who it was who brought us out of Egypt. Conveniently forgotten by other faith groups as the first commandment, it nevertheless makes it clear that living under THIS system of Law is for those who ‘were brought out of Egypt’. Each Seder night we re-enact this departure to connect with our shared history; you have to be a part of the group, the nation, the people to actually understand and accept the teachings (commandments) that were given to US as a result of our redemption and deliverance. Salvation brings obligations.

The problem is that having universalised some of the Jewish faith, many are happy to leave the rest particular. This is not Judaism, and nowhere does Judaism foresee a time when aspects of it will be taken and some discarded as unworthy of application. What Judaism DOES foresee is a time when the wider universal outreach beyond the mere physical borders of the Land will gather in those from the nations who choose to align themselves with the G-d of Israel and the Jewish Mashiach Yeshua and then live accordingly. As Rav Shaul makes clear, G-d is the G-d of all, regardless of ethnic or national background, but He has chosen to make His message particularist to those who follow Him. Messianic Judaism is, if taken seriously, the developed universal form of Judaism that preaches inclusion and outreach, the particular with universal application. But it should be noted that it is Jews, living a form of Judaism that this happens, not by creating a different faith or religion. Nowhere do we see Judaism teaching or advocating the creation of a different faith expression to fulfil this inclusivist prophetic principle. A universalistic, disembodied set of principles may appeal to some who wish to distance themselves from Judaism, but it is not the Jewish way. The invitation to join us stands.

How to thrive as a Jew.

The Mashiach, the Jewish Messiah said ‘I have come to bring you Life, Life in all its fullness’. Who doesn’t want Life? Who would be so foolish to turn down such an offer? But this isn’t just any life, this is Life offered by the living G-d of Israel, His Life that when appropriated courses through our spiritual veins causing our lives, physical and spiritual to flourish and bloom. In it we discover our reason to live and purpose to exist at all. No one would disagree that we need that Life. Laying hold of it, appropriating it and even defining it however are more complicated challenges. Because one thing is true today: in our Jewish communities wherever we are we need more of the Life of G-d in our midst. This is not a Life that can be created artificially by emotion, deeper thinking or even by establishing more programmes for children, teenagers, young mums or trips for pensioners, as good as all those are. Being busier and more engaged creates more heat but not necessarily more Light. In a thought-provoking article in the Jewish Chronicle (UK 31.5.13) Simon Rocker in his essay on Judaism dares to ask the question ‘Can Jewish life thrive if God is on the sidelines?’ http://www.thejc.com/judaism/judaism-features/108142/can-jewish-life-flourish-if-god-sidelines He notes that many Jews are merely following tradition, religious ritual, without believing in its divine origins. Judaism it seems is becoming increasingly a cultural club, a social unit which derives its validity and legitimacy from history alone, a vague sense of ancestry and ethnic descent rather than a definite calling into existence as a nation, a people by a G-d who planned for our geopolitical and theocratic space in time. Rocker, quoting Rabbi David Goldberg, highlights the absence of something that should surely worry us as Jews: “What had largely gone was the concept of a personal G-d who intervened in history and gave the commandments.”

So can Judaism and Jewish life thrive without G-d? Maybe we should be encouraging more observance of the mitzvot, will more observance mean more of G-d? I suggest that Torah has a different route in mind. The highest commandment is to love the Lord our G-d with all our hearts, minds and strength. Notable by its absence is the command to love Judaism, rather we are to love the Giver of Judaism, the Giver not the gift. Our faith as Jews centres around the G-d who gives revelation to us, to deny Him as first source is to effectively deny Judaism and condemn Jewish existence to a cultural backwater equal to other cultures. To love G-d first means we have to know whom we love. We cannot love an idea, a concept, a philosophy, nor can we love an impersonal force, demi-urge or absent clockmaker. To love is to know. To know is to have the basis of relationship. And the Prophet Jeremiah sums all this up thus; “they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest” Jer 31:34. To know G-d and have a personal relationship with Him is the pinnacle of Jewish existence and Life in all its fullness.

So, can Jewish life thrive without G-d? No. Judaism is about G-d, who He is and our relationship with Him. That this relationship forms culture is obvious, but to live with the end-product rather than the first source is to rob Jewish life of its power and transformational aspects.