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.

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.

You’re not a Jew unless……

I was shocked, but maybe I shouldn’t have been. I was not shocked for myself as my spiritual skin has grown too thick for that, but for the sheer audacity of hearing someone make a claim that so palpably couldn’t be and wasn’t true. I was told by a representative of an organisation that works with farmers on the ‘West Bank’ that ‘unless I had been to the West Bank I was not a Jew’. Not a ‘real’ one at least… After all, a ‘real’ Jew would have connections with the soil, the ‘earth’ of Ha’aretz, the ‘Biblical’ heartland of our inheritance. Leaving aside for one moment the obvious romanticism of such a statement, a romanticism that motivates many to behave in interesting ways in Israel, it did make me consider just what categories we do use to ‘sub-group’ each other. I suppose we could go on and add many more categories to the above one: you’re not a Jew unless you visit Jerusalem, place a prayer into the Western Wall, eat kosher (according to this or that community’s ruling), wear clothing from a this or that historic time period in Eastern Europe, adhere to various modesty standards, light the Shabbat candles in a certain way, stand (or sit) for Shema and so on. The list is truly inexhaustible. And we as Jews are very good at self-defining according to multiple and complicated variations on a theme.

Of course, there is one category that we CAN use to help clarify an otherwise muddled situation. Instead of applying our own human definitions according to our own likes and dislikes, personal preferences and tastes, maybe we should listen to what G-d Himself says about this. In a startling, yet not unsurprising statement, Rav Shaul declares that ‘not all Israel is Israel’. Not unsurprising because this would not have caused an eyebrow to be raised when it was written nearly 2000 years ago. Everyone was attempting to define the almost impossible, answer the elusive question that has dogged Jewish minds for what seems an eternity: ‘who is a Jew’? In the context of election and promise that is the backbone of Israeli, Jewish history, Rav Shaul summarises that a Jew is one ‘who is a Jew inwardly’. Far from declaring that the external forms of righteousness and mitzvot are meaningless, he radically draws our attention back to what actually counts: the inner world of Jewish values and a changed heart. It is not enough, nor acceptable, to have an external form of Judaism alone, nor even in the above context to have Jewish soil under your fingernails if at the same time life-giving and life-changing Jewish values are absent from your instinctive, motivational, and internal life. To have a circumcised heart, to believe in and accept the Jewish Mashiach Yeshua, IS the most Jewish thing in the world to do and be: a Jew inwardly.

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.

Zionism and Jewish renewal.

It’s taken as read, isn’t it, that as Jews we stand for and support our national homeland, the only place in the world where we can BE Jews, live as Jews and not fear showing anyone our identity. We are all Zionists now.

Zionism is our modern day cultural inheritance, a movement that drove the first pioneers to make such deep sacrifices and has cost the lives of countless of our soldiers and young people since the dream became a reality in the geopolitical world. Zionism, the hope of and for a nation, a place we can all finally say is home. But is that what Zionism is? If so, has Zionism lived up to expectation? What was the actual reason behind it? To ‘merely’ recreate a homeland and then sit back, satisfied that the ‘job was done’? What did we think we were building or recreating? What would be the foundation, the cultural and spiritual Erbgut upon which ‘new’ Israel would be built? And as we ponder now, after Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut, has the dream been realised?

Israel, our nation, has come of age. We have taken our place amongst the nations of the world, become even a leader amongst them in certain areas. Israel is known today for its technological advancement, GM crop sciences and software innovation. It also lays claim to having the ‘capital’ of the homosexual world, of having a social and economic underclass that needed to demonstrate in the streets last year for change, and a growing trend of migration to countries where it is ‘easier’ to live.

If Jewish renewal is to take place then we must begin to take a firm hand to the rudder of Zionism. If Zionism ‘merely’ means the ownership and habitation of the Land by Jewish communities, families and individuals then it should be consigned to history as a successful movement. Israel belongs to us again and this should be celebrated. If however, Zionism means more than that, then its aims, aspirations and goals need to be refined to ensure that the dream of the first pioneers continues to live on today. And what should that dream mean today?

At the recent World Zionist Conference in Chicago these questions were being hotly debated. On being asked what Zionism meant, one young person responded ‘ (it is) a commitment to building something special. It’s not just about supporting a Jewish state or even about loving the country, but a dedication to really turning it into a light to the nations’ (as quoted in IJP p21 Feb 22 2013).

If our definition of Zionism allows for our nation to do no wrong, then we shall fail to fully realise the depth of renewal which Zionism should embody. Returning to our Land was the first step, not the last. Physical residency is the start of a full spiritual return to Hashem, an initial creative event that triggers a brighter glow to our national light and calling. Zionism is a ‘job in hand’ not a job completed. Israel means something, Zionism means something, being Jewish means something, but these meanings only combine to form a vision of national spiritual renewal when we once more return to our G-d with repentance and humility. Israel, as the real, physical, tangible and visible manifestation of the Kingdom of G-d on earth, should reflect its Founder and Creator. Israel IS different.