‘Who touched me?’

One could be forgiven, if an outsider, for being at time somewhat bemused or confused by us Jews. We seem at times to be a strange people with odd customs, and practices that have gone way beyond merely separating us from the nations around to what must appear surely as a somewhat esoteric existence. To be sure, we’re not all like this, yet a situation reported on last month (Oct 2014) and commented on frequently in the Jewish press (Jewish Chronicle 3.10.14) highlights what for many must seem obscurantist and ‘extreme’. An El Al flight was prevented from taking off from New York to Tel Aviv because a number of Charedi men refused to sit next to women. As expected, this caused a division along the traditional lines of those arguing for halacha in favour of gender segregation due to ritual purity issues, and those arguing against due to their perception of this as sexism and yet more proof if they needed it that the feminist battle must continue. Yet each side, it seems to me, is making basic errors in the perception and evaluation of what was happening that day (let alone the other non-Jewish passengers’ evaluation of this, who sat delayed on the runway…).

Miriam Shaviv, writing in the Jewish Chronicle (3.10.14), joins her voice to the growing number highlighting the emerging ‘talibanisation’ of some forms of Orthodox, rabbinic Judaism. As a critique there is some merit in it, and we should all be concerned when Life, and our testimony as a nation called of G-d to demonstrate that Life, becomes obscured due to our own practices and traditions. Jewish renewal is needed precisely because of such things. Jewish renewal begins with the radical call of Moshe as he stood in the gates of the camp and declared to the people ‘whoever is for the Lord, come to me!’. Renewal, rededication, as Moshe knew so well, begins with a return to the Lord, and that means too, a return to HIS Word, the Torah. This return will not suffice if we ‘merely’ re-read the Torah, nor ‘only’ attempt to bring it up to date with modern society. This renewal, as espoused by Messianic Judaism, demands a return to both text AND the Lord. Only as these two are combined will we see the true intent, the ‘heartbeat’ of Torah emerge.

So how do we respond to what happened that day, and what has happened often in such similar cases in buses etc in Israel? What does true Jewish renewal say to this? Firstly we uphold the rights of women to not be treated with such disdain. Whatever else may be true in this, to denigrate the image of G-d in women by such demeaning behaviour is to diminish G-d. The ritual side of the equation is more challenging still.

The ritual categories of clean and unclean exists to demonstrate the basic division of that which is holy, dedicated to the service of the Lord, and that which is unholy, or dedicated to use outside the Temple precincts. This fundamental divide is not about sin, or sinfulness (although sin causes ritual impurity too). It is about to whom you are dedicated and for whose service you are set apart for. If we can renew this category of understanding a resolution is possible. The answer, and renewal of our thinking on this, comes from practical examples given to us by Yeshua Mashichaynu. As a rabbi and pious man, who by all accounts both of His friends and enemies, lived a fully righteous and Torah compliant life, He taught and lived by example. His was the reputation that He was a friend of ‘tax collectors and sinners’, a man known to be unafraid of social controversy and halachic innovation. He understood the focus, the intent of Torah, its transformational power to touch the excluded and marginalised and bring restoration to their lives. He was not afraid of those who for religious reasons sought to portray Him as unclean by association, nor did He use the concept of uncleanness to enforce gender marginalisation. In fact, the concept reaches yet further out. As Yeshua was walking one day a woman who had suffered haemorrhaging for some twelve years reached out to touch the tzitziot of His garment. Reasoning to herself that if she could only touch the tzitziot of a righteous man then healing would be hers, she dared to TOUCH this righteous man. Yeshua’s response is telling in the extreme. Instead of chastising her for touching Him, a righteous, pious man, He asks who touched Him because ‘power went out from Him.’ It was this righteous power that healed this faith filled woman, a woman who in fact understood far more about Torah than, dare we say, some do in our rabbinic communities today. Yeshua was not filled with self-righteous indignation that He had been touched, come into contact with a woman, and an unclean one at that. He recognised what transaction had taken place, a transfer of ‘cleanness’ to someone unclean.

The reality of this casual encounter shatters our perceptions and establishes a clear line of Torah’s thinking. That power flows OUT from righteousness, and not the other way round (righteousness being harmed by uncleanness) demonstrates that the fundamental principle of Judaism is to redeem, reach out and bring transformation to things yet unholy but waiting to be made holy. That although the Temple and the Lord’s presence may be Jerusalem bound, at some point in the future it will fill the whole earth and His reign will be complete. Judaism’s mission is to take what is unclean and make it clean, make it dedicated for HIS service. The power of righteousness overcomes uncleanness.

Seen this way, every woman on any El Al flight would be REQUESTING to sit next to a pious Jewish man, after all, who knows that some of that goodness might rub off?

Advertisements

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.

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.

Comfort my people – Shabbat Nachamu

Having now come out the other side of Tisha b’av we are on the count down to Rosh Hashanah, which this year is early (at least feels early in accordance with the Gregorian calendar!). After mourning for the loss of our Temple and focal point of worship and sacrifice Isaiah picks up on the fact that we need to be comforted by G-d, that despite all our sins and transgressions and the punishments meted out to us down the ages, we are never to forget that God loves us, nurtures us and chastises to bring positive change in us, not merely to show Himself as just.

Yet maybe that is not the whole story. I like Rabbi Shlomo Riskin; I don’t always agree with his theology but his heart for Jewish study and integrity are clear. In his incisive piece this week in the Jerusalem Post (www.jpost.com) on the weekly Shabbat portion he concludes with an incident where a young Yeshiva student repeatedly has his milk stolen or ‘appropriated’ by other Yeshiva students until he labels the milk as halav akum, questionable gentile milk. The milk then remains untouched. Such ‘box ticking’ of apparent righteousness that undermines not just the spirit of Torah and Judaism but actual greater commandments should not (and Rabbi Riskin and I both agree on this one) be seen in Judaism as anything like normative practice. So how do we connect this to ‘Comfort my people’?

If the form of Judaism that creates such behaviour in the Yeshivot has misunderstood the very essence of Judaism and Jewish life (and I would argue that it has), then what other models are available that give us righteousness from HaShem and point to His comfort? I believe that we have missed something critical in our Jewish thinking: G-d understands how difficult it is to ACTUALLY live a righteous life in Him. Although we are to draw down HIS righteousness, we still are obliged to live out that in every day life. G-d understands the struggles and despair, while also rejoicing in the victories too! His comfort seen in this light is not so much aimed at consoling us after being told off and disciplined, but rather a Father sitting us on His lap (I speak with the words of men) showing us compassion in our weakness (in comparison to HIS strength).

Two men from our historical past illustrate this so well: Caleb who according to the Torah ‘had another spirit in him’ and consequently ‘truly followed G-d’, and King David, who despite his gross sin was ‘a man after my own (G-d’s) heart’. Neither man was perfect, both sinned and ‘got it wrong’, yet with the compassion of G-d seeing that each one had a spirit to truly understand what the essence of Torah, righteousness actually is, they pleased G-d and moved Him to understand them. Neither man was a ‘box ticker’. Neither man believed that life could be constrained by human conceptual constructs, even if drawn down from Torah. Both knew that G-d and His Torah righteousness had to be understood, its essence lived and breathed as something alive, as relational and real.

If we as Israel could live out that righteousness before this world, just imagine the impact we would have! Be comforted, our G-d knows us and understands us; He is compassionate.

Conversion – a dirty word?

Mention the word conversion and it can be a conversation stopper. Just hearing the word for most of us makes us feel as if we are the targets of that conversion, after all, down the bloody ages of our history we have experienced enough ‘encouragement’ to convert. Who needs it, who wants it? In any case, aren’t we all happy as we are and follow our western liberal tolerant line of live and let live? Yet such a reaction merely reveals our defensive and jaundiced view of the world and our calling and place within it. Conversion is a good word, because we are meant to be the people, the nation that reaches out TO other nations and peoples to convert and come and join us! This was after all our national task and responsibility, to be a light to the nations; what we have is good, positive and can help. What we have we are meant to share and not keep hold of.

It is good to see that some in the community are raising the profile of these issues. Ben Rich in the Jewish Chronicle 24.5.13 (http://www.thejc.com/comment-and-debate/comment/107901/we-dont-marry-out-we-are-made) boldly lifted his head over the parapet and stated what we actually all know to be true: the pattern of conversion laid out by the Moabite woman Ruth stands as a reminder of what our true place is in this world. Despite the attempts by her mother-in-law to dissuade Ruth from returning to Israel with her, something of that light had had a profound impact upon her and she insisted on joining the family. Her faith carried her into the family, the people of G-d and so she became part of the national narrative that is Israel, the Jewish people.

Of course, by today’s standards she would never be allowed in. She hadn’t done this programme, or that course, hadn’t learnt about this or that, let alone the speed of the conversion. How many of today’s rabbis would recognise the conversion undergone by Ruth? Few I suspect. Yet surely all our anguished hand-wringing about Ruth’s conversion merely reveals to us, or should reveal, that we are missing something. Ruth never learnt ABOUT Judaism, the Jewish people, our history or destiny in Avraham, she EXPERIENCED it and it convinced her that that was the truth, the ultimate reality, the spiritual key that unlocks the image of G-d in us all. As uncomfortable as it is, it was her faith in G-d, His ability to follow through on His promises and covenants -something she had seen for herself despite personal tragedy- that convinced her.

Jewish conversion is about faith, not learning. We can pump prospective converts full with head knowledge yet leave them unchanged internally, in the heart, Jewish according to the certificate but gentile still. Ritual does not change someone that radically, education fails to change the human heart. Conversion is not to a religion but to G-d, it is a fundamental change of master and not just an intellectual re-tread.

In fact, the Torah makes it clear exactly WHAT is needed in Devarim 10:16 ‘circumcise the foreskin of your heart’. Our very nature, the core of our beings, our human essence, our hearts have to be changed, dedicated to Him and not ourselves and our natural evil inclinations. And in response to the next obvious question of how, Moshe replies in Devarim 30:6 that ‘the Lord your G-d will circumcise your heart’. This level of heart surgery can only be done by G-d Himself. He will change us, He will convert, He will ensure that not only those joining us are changed and dedicated to Him, but also that we in the family too can be radically touched by faith and have hearts circumcised unto HIM alone.

This is the doorway of conversion ,and it is the way Ruth the Moabitess walked into the nation and our history. By her faith she sands as a reminder to all who would follow after the one true G-d, the G-d of Israel.

All who call on the Name of HaShem will be saved.

All is not well. Of course we all know that, from the inside of the Jewish community at least. Publicly we may not want to admit it, but even a brief glance through the pages of the Jewish Chronicle (the UK’s Jewish newspaper) or any other Jewish newspaper will reveal that there are tensions, insecurity and a sense of malaise that Judaism shouldn’t be as it is, or at least as it seems to be. Anecdotally we have all spoken with men and women departing from the traditional Jewish fold who are quick to say ‘I do believe in G-d, but not like ‘that” (the ‘that’ being whatever form of Judaism they have departed or are just departing from).

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, speaking from within the Orthodox community has been highlighting the challenges and problems facing us in her own writings. In one place she writes this:

‘Hashem is hiding’

The current low spiritual state of the Jewish People has caused G-d to hide His face from them, says Rebbetzin Jungreis, who says this concealment is meant to provoke the Jewish People to search for Him.

“In parshas Vayelech… Hashem tells Moshe Rabbeinu that in the future, there will come a generation who will forget Hashem, and terrible sufferings will come upon them. And finally they will say ‘you know why this is happening? Ein Eloka, G-d is not with us. G-d is not in our midst.’ And then it says … ” I will continue to hide My face.” Dichotomous. If we admit that G-d is not with us, then why is G-d hiding? … That puts the onus of responsibility upon G-d – it’s Your fault. You are not with us. We have to say ‘We are not with Hashem! We are not with our Torah! We are not with our Mitzvot! We are responsible.”‘Taken from: http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/128101

She is right. Yet some will continue to deceive themselves that everything is fine and ignore both her appeals for change and the voices of many others (including this blogger); this is how Judaism has been for centuries and we do not need change, nor do we need renewal. Some in the face of such calls will try ever harder to conform to our traditions and ways of the Fathers, work ever harder to reach out to our Jewish communities and individuals seeking to draw them closer to the Mitzvot. To be fair, Rebbetzin Jungreis is surely aiming her in-house criticism towards those of us who are not observant in the way she thinks we should be, yet I believe that this call deserves a much deeper analysis. Even within the ranks of the ‘observant’, are we really meeting HaShem’s righteous requirements? Even King Shlomo had to admit that ‘there is not one who has not sinned’ (1 Kings 8:46). Rav Shaul so many years later would have to admit the same thing when he said ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of G-d’. That these comments should come from the mouths of the ‘observant’ of their day (and they were), illustrates actually the depths of the call to return to HaShem that Rebbetzin is hinting at, and what we so clearly need. Let no man claim to be righteous before G-d, but seek His face for mercy and forgiveness, as the Prophet said ‘all who call on the Name of the Lord will be saved’. Judaism does not need a return to tradition or Mitzvot to have any future, it needs a return to HaShem, then all the rest will follow on from that.