Jewish atheism?

 

In a recent survey undertaken in the USA (Sept 2011) amongst religious groups, members of the Jewish community responded to the question about the importance of believing in G-d as a prerequisite to practising Judaism. According to the survey results, approximately half of the respondents felt that belief in G-d was not necessary in order to be a practising Jew. Yes, Jewish atheism. Daniel Septimus in his article on Jewishlearning.com (‘Must a Jew believe in God?’) attempts to explore the philosophical disconnect (as he sees it) in Rabbinic/Talmudic Judaism between belief IN and belief THAT, that an acceptance mental or otherwise of the theoretical requirement OF G-d does not equate to the actual existence. Such propositional sophistry may help to calm modern Jewish minds steeped in the scientific and naturalistic zeitgeist of our day, but it surely falls foul of the internal logic and dynamic of Torah itself. If the commandments are a fabrication of Moshe, maybe even the accumulated wisdom of the ages as he saw it, then such regulations and commands are relative to his age and time and may not be true today. It would be, after all, merely human. To have disobeyed such commandments then would incur no penalty, no judgements from a G-d now disavowed. As welcome as such a thought might be, and which may even explain the trajectory towards a communal victim mentality, the Torah is insistent in its denial. The prophet Jeremiah while announcing the plan of HaShem to discipline Israel and Judah, connects such judgements to a solitary act: ‘those who handle the Torah do not know me’ Jer 2:8. Such a statement destroys the mind-massaged myth of a sanitised atheism. It connects Torah to G-d and the ability to understand it to knowing HIM, not about Him or that He propositionally exists. To be a Jew and receive the revelation from G-d that is Torah is to fundamentally define our national, communal and faith borders. And it is this word revelation that sets up the framework within which we live and function as Jews. Torah is not the collective wisdom of mankind, it is the mainstay of a national covenant between a G-d who is alive and knowable. He is not a philosophy or a theoretical higher force or power; He is the G-d who brought us out of Egypt, demonstrating that by His physical interventions into the created universe He has Life, emotion, commitment, faithfulness, Love. The definitions of His existence are predicated on His actions: deliverance, redemption, release and salvation. G-d’s very existence is a core principle of Judaism according to the internal testimony. And having established this core fact Jeremiah reminds us that to KNOW Him is to understand Him, to understand His revelation at Sinai to us. Not knowing Him is the very beginning of our problems, yet thankfully as Jeremiah later concludes in chapter 31, there will come a time when ALL will know Him, all WILL know Him.

Jewish atheism? I think not. Yet according to Halacha mere birth from a Jewish mother will suffice to define your Jewishness. Of course we hope you will go on to be observant, but even if not, being Jewish is your inalienable right (unless you’re a Messianic Jew…). The Torah would teach otherwise. To be defined by a revelational covenant binds us as a people to all the implications of that reality too. Real Jewish renewal will surely begin once we turn back to G-d once more and admit to His presence in our history, nation and personal lives. To come to terms with Him again.

The Real Reason.

Moshe once famously said ‘Would G-d that all His people were Prophets, and He would put His Spirit on them’. Such noble sentiments have in fact focussed our attention towards an ideal situation whereby all Jewish people everywhere should be filled with His Spirit and be able to speak out, declare Words full of divine authority, knowing His will that deeply. Rav Shaul in dealing with the Jewish community in Corinth 2000 years ago expressed very similar sentiments and wishes. Yet as much as we may hear the shuffling feet today of queue-forming modern narcissists  at such a desire, I am certain in fact that few in ancient times would have jumped at the beckoning career opportunity of Prophet. We read that the individuals were ‘called’ and set apart for service, and that for good reason. Maligned, attacked and even for some, being put to death, would follow on from such a calling. Only those who spoke what the people wanted to hear could afford the luxury of career planning and personal development.

It is especially true when you consider what the Prophets had to say. Jeremiah lived at a time shortly before, and into the first exile, and he was charged with explaining ahead of time the reasons why this was about to happen. Such explanations are in fact warnings, even here the Lord was willing to see repentance and change to avert the almost inevitable. His words that the holy city would be a pile of ruins were bad enough to ears that were untrained in hearing anything other than the unalienable right to blessings as G-d’s own people and nation. But the reasons for this coming reality were truly shocking: ‘They have forsaken my Torah… not obeyed my voice nor walked according to it, but have walked in the imaginations of their own heart… (so) I will scatter them amongst the Gentiles (nations)’ (Jer 9). Jeremiah to be fair is only saying what Torah had always declared to us, if we sin the Land will vomit us out. Our perplexity however is  clear, what generation of Israel has ever self-declared disobedience? We don’t like admitting to it, it disturbs our bubble-wrap of self-delusion. Yet our expulsion proved Jeremiah to be right. As unpopular a message as it surely was, it was communicated from Heaven.

But after our 70 years in exile, in due season, G-d brought us back to the Land once more in His mercy. The times were filled with feverish activity of reconstruction both physical and spiritual. Ezra and Nehemiah devoted themselves to see a revived Judaism established, a form that would enable obedience and thus permanent residence in the Land. Yet only a few centuries would pass before once more we were wandering the earth. What went wrong? How could we have not learned our lessons from history? And it is these questions that should challenge us today as words of warning and encouragement to seek G-d while He may yet be found. For after 2000 years of exile we are once more back in the Land, and the questions have lost none of their prophetic impact. Once more we stand before the soul-searching question of how we are to walk before the Lord in a worthy, righteous way.

To Jeremiah once more we shall yield. It was he that stated in a response to the then yet future event ‘.. all the House of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart’ (Jer 9). It is this single line of testimony that convicts and provokes. The key to successfully walking with the Lord is to receive the heart circumcision spoken of by Moshe, to have an internal change of heart away from self to selflessness, away from ego to a G-d centred life, our very motivational human drives changed to be in line with His will. We need a Judaism today that is not powered by text whereby the definitions of holiness and righteousness are governed by dictionaries and thesauri, a hothouse of semantic niceties, but a Judaism that is filled with His Spirit, with Jewish people alive with circumcised hearts to obedience. The living G-d of Israel is seeking today those who will show by their quality of response, in Spirit and in truth, that obedience is possible. Only then will our Land not vomit us out once more.

O that ALL of His people would be filled with His Spirit.

The basis of Jewish Renewal

Life can seem so ‘normal’, what is, is, and things that ‘are’ shouldn’t be questioned or examined. After all, that is the way things are. Traditions, routines, habits whether personal, national, secular or spiritual, all the accretions of what we ‘do’ represent the way things ‘are’. Thousands of years ago in the north of Israel life seemed ‘normal’, no one questioned what the status quo was, worship was what it was and everyone assumed that that was the way things were and should be. In the north the worship of the golden calves was ubiquitous, and apparently embraced eagerly by the 10 tribes living there. Even in the south, in the Temple itself, the corruption had not been stopped entirely. To say that the nation had a serious spiritual/religious problem was an understatement, yet a statement that few would have verbalised. Why? It is easy to be critical and hindsight is a wonderful thing. Yet the records in 2 Kings and elsewhere highlight one of the issues: we read ‘so-and-so did evil in the sight of the Lord, as had his father so-and-so’. Each new generation repeated what the previous one had learnt, been taught was normal and right. That is the way things are, that is what we do, steady as she goes. One thing was clear: Judaism, our national faith and belief structure and system needed radical renewal and revival. Our very ongoing existence as a physical, geopolitical nation depended on it.

Into the historical arena came a young king, Josiah. Enthroned at only 8 years old he was more reliant than many others upon the wiser heads around him. Yet he was stirred and moved by the condition of the Temple, the centre of Jewish worship and faith expression. It was as if he almost instinctively knew that if the heart was rotten the body would not function. And so with the zeal of G-d Josiah carried out the cleansing and repair of the Temple. That would in itself have been a huge achievement, and would almost certainly have had a large impact on the nation, but what actually determined the renewal and revival of faith in the Land was what happened next: The High Priest Hilkiah discovered, laying cast aside and unread, a copy of the Torah in the Temple precincts. As this was read to the king, he tore his clothes in a sign of mourning and deep spiritual pain; the conviction of G-d and awareness of personal and national sin lay upon his shoulders.

It was this one event that unlocked the restoration of our people under king Josiah. Because he drove through the changes needed to national religious practice and structure, tore down the offending places of worship and removed idolatry and pagan influences, effectively consecrating again the country to HaShem, it was possible for the judgement of G-d to be withheld. This was a return to Torah, a rediscovery of the covenant that established Israel in the first place, and this encounter with the revelation at Sinai profoundly impacted the nation. The people had had their heads turned by spiritual flights of fancy, superstition and dubious if not evil spiritual practices, all of which had led them away from the Lord and true worship. But now, the truth of G-d’s own words shone a light into everyone’s lives. The writer to our nation (Heb 4:12) informs us of the intrinsic power of the words spoken by G-d in this way: ‘the word of G-d is living and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword (…) discerning the thoughts and intents of the heart’. The rediscovery of the Torah was the revelatory, external impetus needed to break the cycle of generational error.

Revival and renewal is not possible if we only ever continue to do what has been handed down to us. What was innovative in one generation is tradition in the next and stultifying to new life in the one after. Judaism needs reviving to our nation and our people. The forms we have been taught that have kept us and defined us for 2000 years of diaspora will not work for us back in the Land again. For that we must return to Torah afresh, rediscover who and what we are, weep and repent as Josiah did and seek G-d’s face. If we are to see HIS renewal and revival, His salvation and restoration, then we must dig deep, bravely slaughter the ‘sacred cows’ and ask the difficult questions. The future of Judaism rests upon a return to HIS word and the worship commanded of us, worship in Spirit and truth, for such our Father in Heaven seeks to worship Him.

Things change.

If you are living in the UK you will not have failed to notice the recent highly acclaimed TV series penned and presented by Prof. Simon Schama as it dominated the documentary horizon. As excellent as the series was and is, it was his personal journey of discovery that was one of the most moving aspects of it. Not simply happy to reconnect and bask in the history of his people, he asked the difficult and challenging questions of a historian for whom platitudes are no more than a sanctimonious superficiality. And it was one question in particular that brought the whole series into focus. He asked ‘How could we be Jewish in a post-Temple Judaism?’ This stunningly lucid and provocative question eats away at the very fabric of historical Judaism in the last 2000 years of Diaspora and undermines the very foundation stones of a form of Judaism designed to SURVIVE the catastrophe of exile but not necessarily reflect the essence of Judaism.

Such an iconoclastic question needs to be asked in the current desire to see Judaism renewed and revived once more. The Prophets of old were not concerned to see Judaism morph into something ‘new’ but rather see the people drawn back to what Judaism had always taught and believed. Judaism, as defined by the Torah covenant given by G-d at Sinai, seems to be but an ancient memory in contrast to what Judaism has become today. The Judaism of the Torah is G-d focussed, determinedly pursuing His presence and passionately desiring to draw close to the G-d who brought us out of the house of bondage. It is Temple-centric, or in the early days, Tabernacle orientated. Even here we see the centrality of G-d’s living presence with us His people. The commandments were daily life-giving structures and a living reality from a G-d who loved us and whose love and care we knew.

Things change. Judaism (in the generic sense of that word) today is not what it was 4000 years ago, nor even 2000 years ago as we transitioned between Jewish religious forms necessitated by external factors. But the question remains, just how could/can Judaism survive in a post-Temple world? Its central place as a sacrificial icon and resting place of the Shekinah highlighted not only its importance practically but theologically too. Yet change Judaism did. As the Sages of Yavneh refashioned Judaism into a form where text and our interaction with it became the cut and thrust of daily Jewish life, a Judaism that needed no Temple, no immediate sense of the presence of G-d or core acceptance of the requirement for sacrifices was created. This form of Judaism, Talmudic or Rabbinic Judaism, was designed to exist in a post-Temple and post-Land world, a form structured to hold our identity even while the Sages bemoaned the fact that the ‘Shekinah had departed’. Text and tradition took the seat of authority and the rule of the rabbi began. In what was meant to be a religion, a faith, of immanence and the experience of the living G-d of Israel as our Fathers knew it to be, changed gradually into what we know it to be today.

Monolithic as (Rabbinic) Judaism appears today, there is no reason why history must define the future. It is time to face the reality that a Judaism created to function in exile away from the core tenets of Jewish faith and practice needs to be renewed and revived in line with our return to the Inheritance, the Land once more. And where should we look for guidance on what this renewal should look like? As surprising as it is to many, there were in fact two forms of Judaism that survived the first century. Rabbinic, Talmudic Judaism everyone has heard of, but the other form has lain hidden for 2000 years and only recently has appeared again: Messianic Judaism. Like Yosef hidden from his brothers, this form was whisked away into a foreign environment only to be revealed like Yosef at the right time. Messianic Judaism is the renewing and revived form of the Judaism of the Torah and answers the burning question of how we can survive in a post-Temple world.

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.

The positive commandment of Shabbat

The following document which can be downloaded here is an attempt at clarifying positions on and answering some of the questions about specific halachah in Messianic Judaism. Shabbat is a good place to start as it is the core time based command that almost singularly has defined us as Jews and frames our weekly existence. I hope you enjoy the article.

Keeping Shabbat

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.