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’.

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.

A ‘failed’ redeemer?

The prophet Jeremiah, like most if not all the prophets sent by G-d over time, calls us to not only repent, but to actively seek the path of Jewish, national renewal. His call was as relevant then as today: each person must turn back to the Lord again, repent of sin committed and demonstrate such repentance with mitzvot, good deeds. But the call is to the nation too, to rebuild the national structures be they Government or society, culture, politics or national expressions of our Jewish faith. For Jeremiah the place to look for such renewal was clear: ‘Seek the old paths’ he said, ‘so you can walk in them’. Yet if we are honest we seem to have focussed instead on other sources for renewal, either a slavish adherence to modernity revealed through the unquestioning adoption of the progressive liberal spirit of our times, or sources of spirituality that many it seems are questioning the validity of today (http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/113949/limmud-has-opened-door-cults%E2%80%99-say-rabbis).

Modern is not always good. Two thousand years ago the Jewish Mashiach, Yeshua called His own people to repentance, just like the prophets before Him. Standing in the great tradition of Jewish renewal His desire was to see real change, real revival and a restoration of both Land and nation based on a heart change towards G-d. At no time during His three short years of ministry and preaching/teaching did He declare that He was establishing a new religion. Why would He? He was and is Mashiach, the very term only makes sense within the Jewish paradigm, the Torah image we work within. Today the call to seek the old paths is just as strong, and many who reject Yeshua will argue ‘been there, done that’. Yet if real renewal is to come we must rediscover NOT reinvent. Judaism is the revelation of G-d to us His people, and through us to the world. We simply need to rediscover that prophetic, yes even evangelistic dynamic again that has always been ours.

Yet some will still claim that Yeshua failed in His renewal. Verses from Torah can and will be marshalled to support every nuance of opinion, Jewish or otherwise, to support such views. But the issue can be laid to rest if we examine such claims of ‘failure’ from a different angle. Apparently Yeshua ‘failed’ because He didn’t remove the oppression of the Roman occupation from our shoulders and bring ‘peace’. Such ‘failure’ didn’t bring us the freedom that Mashiach clearly does and did promise to bring. But to see and understand history in such a way fails to grasp the nub of the real issues: the Romans were not the real problem. In fact to claim such a view is to completely misunderstand the very nature of the spiritual/moral/righteous reality in which we live. As we Jews have tended to do, we blame everything outside, external for our woes. This thinking leads us to believe that if only we can create a perfect external reality, then we shall be blessed. This concept of course lies at the very heart of modern humanist thinking. But it is error. That we were occupied by a foreign power should have (in the grand tradition of the prophets) alarmed us to a higher reality, that we were under discipline from HaShem. THAT thought should have driven us to repentance.

As Mashiach taught, the real problem is not what is externally affecting your life, be it a foreign occupying power or poverty or other social ills (as repugnant as those things are), but sin. In other words, what lies WITHIN you not without. Putting it bluntly, Mashiach taught that no change is possible unless the heart of mankind changes first. Because so many fail to understand that THIS issue alone (atonement for and subsequent release from sin) is the determining one for us, for Israel and ultimately for the whole world, they fail to realise that what appeared at face value to be a signal failure (Yeshua’s death) was actually the greatest triumph.

Yeshua only ‘failed’ in His task as prophet and redeemer, re-newer of Israel and Judaism, if you examine His life and death through the wrong prism. He was born Jewish, lived as a Jew and died Jewish. Failure to go back to the old paths and re-examine His teachings will lead to a lack of Jewish renewal in our day. The failure is not His, but it may be ours.

Chanukah

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.

Applying the right medicine

We live in an age where ‘management-speak’ rules the workplace and increasingly our own personal lives. And to be fair, not all of it is bad either. One of the tag-lines banded about so often is that we should all become self-reflective practitioners, to develop the ability to self-analyse and be self-critical with a view to self-improvement. Leaving aside for a moment the element of ‘self’ in all this which panders to our modern perception of the importance of our own individuality and self-worth (ego), the idea that we should take a sharply self-critical view of ourselves is in line with Torah thinking, and Yom Kippur was not that long ago that we should have already forgotten the positive impact of such deep inner reflection. The question however arises as to what to do when one has correctly assessed the real situation you find yourself in; what medicine or even antidote do you apply. What is the way ahead?

In the lest few weeks two very interesting articles have highlighted both the situation and the question. We ARE beginning to recognise that Judaism just can’t carry on like it is now, that we need renewal and reformation. I have quoted at some length from the article below with links for further reading:

The Pew report in the USA discusses the assimilatory tendencies in American Judaism, and the projected end of the community in that country: <The Pew report shows unequivocally that today’s American Jewry (..) derives its Jewish identity from factors completely devoid of any semblance of the source of Jewishness: Judaism.

What both the Pew survey, as well as common sense, confirms is that the only honest and sustainable justification to be Jewish is belief in the holiness of the Torah and the sanctity of the commandments therein. You either truly believe in divinity or you ascribe the holy texts to the lunatic ramblings of dessert wanderers, driven mad by infinite sand and desolate horizons. You simply can’t have it both ways.> http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/a-spiritual-genocide/

These are indeed noble sentiments addressing a real question, the loss of Jewish identity and how to get it back again. The author points correctly to where the solution is to be found: in rediscovering what Judaism is about. That is impossible without engaging with the G-d who gave us this revelation beyond worth.

Rabbi Naftali Brawer, a popular rabbi in the UK who heads the Spiritual Capital Foundation, wrote at length recently on the same topic and problem in the Jewish Chronicle 6.9.13 ‘Talking about G-d is the last taboo’, but addressing the need for renewal and its focus more directly: <If we are to advance a Judaism that is compelling and relevant to the majority of thinking Jewish adults today we need to move beyond the simplistic and uni-dimensional concept of God that is taught to children and to develop a theology that captures our experience of God in an increasingly complex world.

We need a theology that takes account of such issues as evolution, biblical criticism, feminism, universalism and pluralism. We need a theology that reflects the reality of the State of Israel and Jewish power rather than one that echoes Jewish victimhood. The cost of not continuously renewing our theology is to allow a growing rift to develop between God and our lived experience, rendering God irrelevant. Judaism gave the world the gift of monotheism. We owe it to ourselves and to the world to ensure that it remains more than a cultural artefact.

We need our rabbis, educators and thinkers to engage deeply in questions about God and His place in our world so as to shape a powerful, relevant and compelling God-Conscious Judaism for the 21st century.>  http://www.thejc.com/comment-and-debate/comment/111130/talking-about-god-last-taboo

His brave and determined words face up to the reality of our situation and reach forward for answers. His courage is to be applauded for dealing head on with the real issue for Jewish identity in a modern and post-modern world: We need to talk about G-d. To stop hiding in historical issues however severe and begin to positively map out the territory that is Jewish and Israeli.

But it surely must be even more than this too. To talk about G-d is to ask the timeless question ‘who is G-d?’ This is not to ask ‘who’ in the historical sense of the G-d of our Fathers, but who He is in terms of His nature, character, yes even ‘personality’. What can we expect of Him? The questions edge towards a more fundamental issue: to know who G-d is, is to know Him. Knowing is relational and not mental or academic. It is why He defines Himself as ‘I am the Lord your G-d who brought you out of Egypt’, historical acts and events DEFINE who G-d is. We know Him by His deeds. How many of us have that deep a relationship with G-d to recognise when He acts in our lives, and even more, would know it to be HIM because it fits our experiential and theological expectations. That G-d chooses to self-declare as the One who delivers, sets free and redeems from Egypt is crucial to our understanding of who He is. Our G-d brings freedom. It is also why in the first century that many of our people from all classes and strata of Jewish society accepted Yeshua as Mashiach because in and through Him they could see and experience the freedom, redemption and salvation promised in Judaism as a hallmark of G-d’s activity in the affairs of men. Such public demonstrations brought forth the response in the people ‘G-d has visited His people’ (Besorah according to Lukas).

So let’s talk about G-d. Let’s begin the discussion and debate before it is too late. Our Jewish identity hangs on us knowing who our G-d is, before we cease to care.

Where is sin?

Sin. The word that has become so unpopular and out of fashion in today’s world. In a post-modern world where absolutes have become absolutely rejected and Liberalism has eroded the validity of holding and (dare we say) expressing personal views, sin as a concept and reality  is ready it seems to be put in a display cabinet at the Museum of Religion. Yet sin, and more importantly, knowing its location, actually sits at the heart of Judaism. And if Judaism has a message for the nations today (and it does), then that message must include the notion of sin, both its causes and effects.

So why am I asking where it is? The ‘locational’ aspect of sin is vital if we are to understand the core fundamental meaning structure of Judaism. At the very beginning as Chava was tested by the fruit of the tree it would have been very easy for her, and us today, to conclude that the seat of sin, of evil in our world, is external to mankind. It is ‘out there’, in the tree. Sin is something to be defeated in the world, outside of ourselves. Whole political philosophies and the collection of the world’s ‘isms’ are based upon such concepts: change the world and you’ll change mankind. This thinking has infiltrated our own thoughts today and and can be regularly heard as we blame anything, anyone and everything for our actions: I did X because of my family background, because of what I ate, because my bad school experience, because I was/am poor etc. If only we could change the world, the external forces arrayed against us we could improve everything! But right now we are all victims and everyone, everything else is to blame but me.

But that conclusion is one the Torah, and Judaism, rejects. When the judgement of G-d fell on the original situation with Chava and Adam, it was the humans who were condemned, not the fruit, the tree or anything else G-d had created. In fact, it was precisely because mankind did NOT take responsibility for the sin that judgement fell. We were judged because of our reactions to the ‘test’ placed before us; would we obey or rebel? Because we have free choice and a free will as part of the creational Image of G-d in all of us, it is our choices and decisions that are critical in any situation, not what is ‘out there’. Nothing can ‘force’ you to sin: we choose. That this is true is further substantiated in the next generations that follow, as G-d sadly regrets making mankind because ‘the intentions of his heart are evil all the time’. The wording is accurate ‘intentions of his HEART’. That is the seat of sin, of evil, it comes OUT OF man, not flows into him/her. It is how we react, choose and decide in each situation that determines sin and its effects in our lives and those of others. That we are predisposed to choose to rebel and sin is clear from human history.

If external things were the real problem and root of sin, then the only solution would be to destroy creation. But G-d made it good. Even at the time of Noach when this solution seemed to be the only one available, Noach nevertheless impressed G-d with his faith and ability to take a righteous stand amongst evil and sin. His faith; the faith of one man, stopped the destruction of the entire creation! It demonstrated once and for all that sin is not ‘out there’ but is in the heart, and if in the heart and nature of man, then it can be overcome too by faith (choosing what G-d wants) and the power of G-d. If we understand WHERE sin is, then we have a powerful redeeming message to preach and teach: change IS possible; salvation IS real.

In other forms of Judaism one can often hear about the innate ‘goodness’ of man. This flies in the face of the theoretical and real human situation as presented in the Torah. In fact, to take such a position undermines sacrifice itself which is a core component of Judaism. Sacrifice is for PEOPLE not for objects because that is where sin resides. The core idea of sacrifice proves this basic premise once and for all: sin is in the human heart, it is internal and not external, and that is where the changes need to happen, not on the outside.

Being in the world but not of the world is a foundational component of Judaism as outlined by Mashiach. We cannot flee this world, nor are we called to. Our mission as Jews is to redeem it with a message of hope that change IS possible and righteousness CAN stand through faith.

Jews for Judaism

Well, what else would we be for? Judaism is, after all, what Jews do, isn’t it? And of course it is this obvious response to the truism of the phrase that the so called ‘anti-missionary’ organisation thus named expects. I have no issue with Jews ‘doing’ Judaism, nor with an organisation that attempts to ensure that Jews continue to ‘do’ Judaism. Judaism is what has been given to the descendants of Avraham as the revelation on Sinai; our precious call and task (and consequent national spiritual responsibility) to inform the nations too of the righteous standards of the Creator G-d in whose image ALL humanity was and is made. When we see this, we can, and should, only conclude that Judaism IS good. It IS G-d’s good gift to us as His people.

So, how odd then that the word Judaism has become such a byword for something that is wrong, incomplete or old-fashioned. Worse, as David Nirenberg wrote recently in his Jewish Chronicle essay (‘Anti-Judaism – a prejudice far more deeply embedded than anti-Semitism’ http://www.thejc.com/node/111009), ‘Judaism’ has come to be a negative emotional, mental and cultural concept that people use to make sense of their world and the problems in it. It also explains the modern rise of anti-Judaism where anti-Semitism is too risky a cultural option. This cultural, spiritual framework, where ‘Judaism’ is seen as a problem, an unreformed (and unreformable?) relic of the past, can only produce a twisted view of a current reality.

This is certainly true today in the growing Messianic Jewish movement. There are some who insist on categorising this Jewish revival movement as just about anything other than Judaism. One senses the cultural and spiritual unease in words spoken and written. Unable to move beyond the narrow confines of a monolithically self-defined Judaism that has defended its borders well from all invaders, and to be fair kept us ethnically if not always spiritually protected down the millennia, many feel uneasy about reformatting the Jewish hard-drive. Yet Jewish renewal has been a constant friend of the Jewish nation and people down the centuries. We have survived because of innovation and the ability to take the living words of G-d and apply them flexibly, intuitively to each new generation.  To renew IS to act Jewishly. To have the courage to renew takes faith and a determination to see our people turned back to our G-d once more.

At the heart of the Jewish renewal called Messianic Judaism is the restoration of the Mashiach, Yeshua, the JEWISH Messiah who was born, lived and died a Jew. His followers, all Jews, continued this radical renewal of the Jewish faith, and yet, there will still be some who cannot get beyond the vague uneasy feeling that there is a problem with Judaism per se. There is not. It needs renewal in Mashiach and we continue to work and pray for that. Jews for Judaism? Absolutely.