‘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?

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Rebellion

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

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

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

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

Why Pesach/ Passover is our national narrative.

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

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

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

Passover/ Pesach and the Jewish Vision

‘This shall be the beginning of the year to you’. So comments the Torah on the month of Nissan which contains the festival almost universally known whether Jewish or not: Passover. This is the festival that truly sets the pattern of Israel’s leitmotif and message to the nations: deliverance, redemption, freedom and salvation. Passover teaches us that even in the depths of despair, when it seems like there is no way out, that there is a G-d who hears the cries of the human heart and is moved to act. Jewish history with all its ups and downs, times of rejoicing and times of deep grief, has nevertheless been formed and framed by this festival. When our cause seemed lost beyond all human ability, when we were tempted to think that Heaven had gone quiet, then the One and only G-d reached down and saved us.

And there is something at the heart of our Passover Seder that represents this message like  nothing else. The humble matzah, the bread of affliction in its double role is the star of the Haggadah. ‘Double role?’ It is curious that at the end of the Magid section we are informed, when we ask the question ‘why matzah?’ that this was because we had no time to let our dough rise and we were in a rush to leave Egypt. All well and good, and for most people this is the reason for matzah. Yet in the Yachatz section earlier in the Seder we are informed that this matzah is the ‘bread of affliction or poverty’. Same matzah, different names and themes. In fact in the Haggadah we all say ‘This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate IN the Land of Egypt’ (capitals mine). IN, not ‘as we were leaving Egypt’. It turns out in fact that matzah was eaten in Egypt too by our ancestors as were slaves and all we were given to eat was this rough, dry, tasteless bread: the bread of slaves. It had , it seems, a double function, both reminding us of our time as slaves under harsh repression and oppression, yet also reminding us of the freedom that came as a result of G-d’s power revealed through Moshe to Pharaoh. Something so simple, uncomplicated and basic, the bread of Life coming to symbolise the depths and realities of our salvation. It stands for both the pain and subjugation of slavery and the essence of freedom from it. As Yeshua Mashichaynu took the matzah in His final Seder and identified it with His body He knew what message He wanted to convey: like the matzah He too took this double role of feeling the oppression of sin and its judgement while also being the very vehicle and mode by which we were set free. His body reminds us OF sin and its destructive corrosive force as harsh as any slavery, and OF redemption supernaturally wrought and rapidly implemented. He IS the pain and the freedom.

But our Jewish message doesn’t end there. Even after we have chanted ‘all who are hungry, let them come in and eat’ the final aspect of this message becomes clear. As the Egyptians that fateful night filled Jewish houses daubed with blood, they too came in to eat. As they joined with us it was their first step of acknowledging the One true G-d, the G-d of Israel. As He had revealed Himself through miracles and supernatural acts in Egypt during the previous year it had convinced many that the G-d of the Jews was indeed G-d. The symbolic act of crossing the threshold that final night in Egypt determined their future and identity. The Torah calls this the ‘mixed multitude’ that left Egypt, a multitude moulded into one nation, the Jewish nation at the foot of Sinai. Passover today reaches out with the same message: come and join us. If you are struggling with sin, dealing with situations caused by sin, then there IS  away out. The living G-d of Israel is tough not just on sin, but the causes of sin.

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.

So who is he?

One of the strong governmental aspects of Israel was that the Priesthood was separate from the King. Each had their own realm to operate in and with a clear delineation it reduced the possibility for abuse and despotic tendencies. To have such concepts operating at that time in history is in itself a testimony to the far-sighted and revelatory nature of Torah (as well as a deep understanding of human nature). Peculiar then, that the prophet Jeremiah (30:21ff) should mention a leader, indeed a prince of Israel who would seem to ‘overstep the mark’. This Prince, who is ‘one of us’ will ‘draw near’ and ‘approach’ the Lord, as one who has ‘pledged his heart’ or literally ‘has been surety for his heart’ (elsewhere translated as ‘boldness to approach’ and ‘engaged his heart to approach’ Soncino Commentary ‘Jeremiah’). This prince, not a priest, is described in priestly fashion as having the same (or more) level of intimacy  as the High Priest. Yet as a prince, a ‘secular’ authority, he was forbidden to draw that close. The Targumim discuss this and draw reference of course to Mashiach, the commentators adding that ‘this verse is of uncertain meaning’, given the potentially ‘dangerous’ content.

The commentary concludes about this prince (quoting Pickering ‘Jeremiah’) that ‘G-d Himself, who has taken the ruler into closest relations is the guarantor of this ideal ruler’s character and excellence. Accordingly the answer to the question (‘for who is he?’) is none other than G-d.’ Only G-d can so intimately draw close to Himself as is inferred by this passage, only He can have such boldness to approach. The result of such a drawing close according to the passage will be that we shall finally and completely ‘become His people’ and ‘He will be our G-d’.

So who do you think He is?

You will seek me and find me.

The prophets of Israel had a demanding and often challenging job. The ones who were willing to compromise and predict a glorious future alone, merely by dint of national election and promise, had a much easier life. For them no death threats or an angry mob. But for the ones truly sent by the Lord and who were unwilling to massage the aching consciences of the populace with delusional balm, life was ‘complicated’. Yet in the middle of often stern warnings against idolatry and the exilic consequences, the voice of the Lord was to be heard offering hope and redemption. Never willing to see us ruined, dashed on the rocks of history and empires, our G-d held out a Hand of love and an invitation that under pressure we should not recoil from Him but seek Him. His promise to be found stands as one of the great promises of Scripture, IF we seek Him with all our hearts.

Odd then, that so many of our commentators and theologians down the ages have chosen to focus on the element of the suffering of the Jewish people either bringing us to the point of deserving redemption, or even that suffering in and of itself purges us of sin, so allowing us to enter His presence and ‘find’ Him. One might, in the light of fairly recent history, ask the question of just how much suffering we need to endure. But is this true? Does the Torah teach that the suffering of Israel atones for sin (and whose sin)? The statements of our rabbis in reality stand in direct opposition to what seems on the surface an open and shut case of the function of sacrifices in Torah: Lev 17:11 makes it absolutely clear that it is blood alone that can atone for sin, not suffering. And even if Isaiah 53 is taken to mean (as so many rabbis insist) that Israel is the suffering servant, such vicarious suffering is FOR others, never for your own sin. Even in the sacrificial set-up in the Temple, the animals didn’t die or ‘suffer’ for their own sins, only as replacements for others’ judgement and punishment. So such suffering, if true, would only be to impart redemption and forgiveness for others, presumably the nations, although of course no such developed theology exists within Judaism.

To claim that our suffering pays the price for, atones for our own sins flies in the face of sacrificial reality. Vicarious, substitutionary sacrifice however is a basis of freedom from sin. And as we know, the Torah is absolutely clear that G-d alone is our salvation so He must be able, willing and powerful enough to take upon Himself that role as the real vicarious sacrifice for our sins, shedding blood in the process. The true Servant of Isaiah 53 is not Israel but must take us back to the One who did suffer because of our sins: Yeshua Mashichaynu. No one can ‘earn’ or merit salvation, no matter how much suffering they go through. Despite what has been taught in other forms of Judaism the offer of redemption, forgiveness and salvation is based on G-d’s mercy alone and His ability to provide the sacrifice sufficient for our iniquities. We don’t ‘earn’ our G-d or His presence; He chose us although we are as corrupted as any other nation, people or human being. We certainly don’t deserve to inherit His salvation, redemption and forgiveness, if so, show me the one person who ever did.

Let us abandon the merit-driven theology that would seek to change the formula from the prophets to ”if you are righteous enough I will find you’ says the Lord”. We are told to seek HIM and we will find Him, if we seek with an undivided heart. What we will find is His mercy, His sacrifice waiting to be applied.