‘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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His hands alone.

At times it seems like the problems and issues facing us as Jews, our nation of Israel are so overwhelming that we might despair of ever seeing a way forward. The tragedy and sadness of the deaths of the three this last week have underlined our continued existential threat, not only in Diaspora but right inside our precious Land. As the debates rage about responses and solutions to this, the Jewish Chronicle (http://www.thejc.com/news/world-news/120090/whose-hands-hold-future 27.6.14) headlined two contrasting futures: one of continued hatred and the other of a possible hope. Or was it?

The hope outlined in the JC was the apparent good news of a new building in Berlin called the ‘House of One’, a building that contained a mosque, church and synagogue, combined in an architectural unity as if the bricks themselves were, are the message. The future? Have we not historically been the people of G-d, ‘living alone’? Indeed, it has been this very attribute that has allegedly caused some of the worst outbreaks of anti-Semitism in the past; We don’t fit in, have different customs and traditions. So is the future an ecumenical sunrise where all three monotheistic faiths merge into one? Or maybe all religions blending together into a homogeneous whole?  After all, according to some people all ‘ways’ lead to ‘god’. Judaism reborn as a hybrid universalism where the only rule is ‘be nice’?

Judaism needs renewal, our reborn nation demands it and our people expect it. The way ahead for this is to remind ourselves that we do not believe in god. We believe in the G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov, the G-d of Israel. His commandments are specific, clear and are, if taken in faith and trust through the salvation HE alone offers, transformational of the heart, mind and lifestyle. Our G-d is unlike any other deities, and we are forbidden to worship them. Our G-d is the One true G-d, He does not share His glory with any other, His teachings are unique for lifestyle, values, righteousness and the fruit thereof.

Surely the way ahead is to challenge the errors of the past, to return to paths forgotten, cleanse out the accumulated ‘clutter’ that has clouded vision and purpose, re-examine who and what we are and why we exist again. Embedding the differences in a pretend synonymity will only bring yet more confusion and disasters only paralleled by those brought on by the idolatrous syncretism of our ancient past. The journey from Balaam to Pinchas is tragically short.

Renewal and the future of Judaism is surely about rediscovering the command ‘to write these words on your heart’. Only by an internalising of Torah, a radical restructuring of our hearts and intents, can we ever hope to see the glorious Judaism outlined in the Torah itself. Avraham is our key: For by loving kindness are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of G-d (Bereshit -Genesis- 15:6 and letter to Jewish community in Ephesus ch 2).

 

 

 

Jewish nationalism.

As Avraham walked up and down the length of what would later become Israel, the Inheritance and Land of Promise, I wonder if he had any idea of just how ‘controversial’ such an action would later be considered. Where he walked, what he saw, it would eventually come to be the Land, the geo-political terrain that thousands of years later would still be at the centre of world politics. And this piece of real estate holds our attention as Jews, either for or against.. passions stir and our relationship today to this small, singularly Jewish nation and country still seems for so many to be uncertain. Shall we consider our nation as a secular democratic country amongst other Western nations and their traditions, or are is it a Zionist nation? Can we be patriotic, merely historic or even nationalistic about it? In an age where Nationalism as a positive cultural value-creator has become more associated with wars, genocides and even the Shoah, sliding down the societal options as a valid national expression, can we accept Jewish Nationalism?

Today Nationalism once more is on the rise across the globe, especially across the European Union, Russia and the Far East. The old Romantic notions and cultural paradigms of home and hearth, land and identity are resurgent. As if we haven’t learnt enough from history. The Jewish people have singularly learnt where Nationalism leads with its idolatrous glorification of one nation or people group over another. It leads to only one place: death. Usually of many tens of thousands if not millions. Given this historic background, should we even consider Jewish Nationalism? And yet…

If Nationalism has at its base the historic almost quasi religious identification of a people group with a piece of land, then surely Israel, of all nations CAN make a claim to a legitimate form of Nationalism. Our hearts ARE stirred by our Land; it was given to us by divine decree and we would remain in it as long as we observed the house rules. So it is no surprise then that this deep national stirring is taking form in Israel. Recently PM Netanyahu began a process that would define Israel in Basic Law as a Jewish State, and not just a national homeland for Jews. To define it such is to firmly put the flag of a nationalist identity into the foothills of Jerusalem. And why not? There will be resistance of course, not least from those who wish to see a two-state solution with its slow demographic death for Israel. The bigger and more pressing issue of course will be to define and create a working definition of the word ‘Jewish’. For Messianic Jews this is an exciting opportunity to see our national and spiritual homeland become a truly open country to ALL Jews regardless of religious persuasion. Avraham Avinu was not a 21st century Eastern European Askenazi Jewish man. Neither was he of the Orthodox persuasion. He had faith. With that faith he began a family (made up of ethnic Jews and converts) that created and inherited a national homeland. The rest is history. Israel will in time realise that the constituency of Messianic Jews scattered around the world are and will be one of the strongest supporters of our Land. If this ‘new Nationalism’ means anything then it must be inclusive. As Leat Collins in her editorial piece (Jerusalem Post 27.3.14, p5) said ‘The lesson that many in the West took from the Holocaust is that nationalism is bad; the message the Jews took from it is that nationalism is necessary’.

Just take 10 (9)?

Most people of the world living in developed nations are aware of the need to live with and under a system of Law that governs almost every area of our lives, national and personal. A lack of such Law and the ensuing corruption that inevitably surrounds such a situation is definitely seen as a negative, making day to day living difficult and unpredictable. Most people also will be able to tell you of 10 ‘laws’ that are enshrined into historical consciousness almost everywhere: the 10 Commandments. Leaving aside the question of terminology (commandments or word/ teachings/sayings) it is a fact that just about every law system in the world has its origin in the concept of a national Law code pioneered by Israel, or rather, by the G-d of Israel. The ‘Decalogue’ has inspired a sense of justice and righteousness wherever it has been allowed to flourish and be taken seriously. As a cultural and social heritage from Israel to the world it ranks very highly.

And this is the point. These ideas, concepts and ‘laws’ are not neutral. They had a time and a place in history, given to a people group in a specific location, designed to allow a functioning, real time, physical manifestation of the Kingdom of G-d on earth. The commandments form a living national signpost to reveal who the one true G-d is. And of course they represent just the beginnings of the revealed commandments given. Yet strangely the first 10 of the commandments have taken on a peculiarly universalistic role that is not reflected by the Torah itself. There is no ‘line break’ after them, the commandments and teachings of the Lord G-d continue throughout the rest of the Tanach. This artificial and abrupt  disconnect after the 10, driven by later theological developments alien to Judaism, downplays the actual strongly particularistic elements of the Sinai Covenant. Even the later rabbis, keen to provide some comfort to the nations vis-a-vis their relationship to the G-d of Israel, offered the so-called Noahide Commandments, not the Decalogue.

The first set of commandments begins with the particularistic statement that we should remember who it was who brought us out of Egypt. Conveniently forgotten by other faith groups as the first commandment, it nevertheless makes it clear that living under THIS system of Law is for those who ‘were brought out of Egypt’. Each Seder night we re-enact this departure to connect with our shared history; you have to be a part of the group, the nation, the people to actually understand and accept the teachings (commandments) that were given to US as a result of our redemption and deliverance. Salvation brings obligations.

The problem is that having universalised some of the Jewish faith, many are happy to leave the rest particular. This is not Judaism, and nowhere does Judaism foresee a time when aspects of it will be taken and some discarded as unworthy of application. What Judaism DOES foresee is a time when the wider universal outreach beyond the mere physical borders of the Land will gather in those from the nations who choose to align themselves with the G-d of Israel and the Jewish Mashiach Yeshua and then live accordingly. As Rav Shaul makes clear, G-d is the G-d of all, regardless of ethnic or national background, but He has chosen to make His message particularist to those who follow Him. Messianic Judaism is, if taken seriously, the developed universal form of Judaism that preaches inclusion and outreach, the particular with universal application. But it should be noted that it is Jews, living a form of Judaism that this happens, not by creating a different faith or religion. Nowhere do we see Judaism teaching or advocating the creation of a different faith expression to fulfil this inclusivist prophetic principle. A universalistic, disembodied set of principles may appeal to some who wish to distance themselves from Judaism, but it is not the Jewish way. The invitation to join us stands.

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.

Returning Judaism to Israel

Laura Janner-Klausner (Rabbi to the Movement for Reform Judaism) is right to be in combative mood. Her essay in the UK Jewish newspaper (Jewish Chronicle 31st May 2013 http://www.thejc.com/comment-and-debate/comment/108101/wall-%EF%AC%81ght-return-judaism-israel) demands a response and challenges all Jews to reconsider the place of prayer and gender in Judaism, and above all, how truly to cause a spiritual revival in our people and institutions in Israel. We have today a retaining wall that was part of the foundation of the Second Temple (not a place of prayer in the original design). Otherwise known as the Kotel it nevertheless forms one of the more ‘sacred’ spots in modern Jerusalem, and a place of automatic pilgrimage for any Jewish person wanting to connect with G-d. Yet at precisely this space gender divides. The law in Israel is clear (as taken from the WOW website http://womenofthewall.org.il/): “No religious ceremony shall be in held in the women’s section of the Western Wall.”
This includes holding or reading a Torah, blowing the shofar (ram’s horn) or wearing tallitot (prayer shawls).

I am not a feminist, nor do I think that any ‘ism’ should be allowed to dictate what the Torah says; it has enough internal power of its own for those who have ears to hear it. But to even begin to classify the above debate in gender and feminist terms is to surely miss the point. Rabbi Janner-Klausner titled her essay ‘Wall fight is to return Judaism to Israel’. THAT is the point. Jewish women should surely be allowed to worship the G-d of our Fathers as anyone else can, and here we see the real issue: what is the actual purpose and point of the Temple at all? And more critically, just who CAN or SHOULD worship there? Only as this issue is settled will Judaism, the real Judaism ever come back to life again and be returned to Israel.

Let the Prophet Isaiah speak: ‘For my house shall be called a house of prayer FOR ALL NATIONS’ (emphasis mine), Is 56:7. King Shlomo also was well aware of this and in his inauguration speech in 1 Kings 8 outlines those who may ‘spread their hands towards this Temple’. And yes, after detailing those in the Jewish community who should come, he goes on to speak of those ‘not of your people but has come from afar’. In the first century the Mashiach (Messiah) used these verses to accuse those who ran the Temple of hindering those who would come, thus undermining one of the key elements of Israel’s light to the nations: sacrifice.

From Torah it is clear that isolating gender as an issue of worship in the Temple is to be way off the mark. We should be encouraging those from the nations to draw close, make the spiritual journey to join us and worship the only G-d in the Temple. This isn’t about gender, it is about being the chosen people of G-d. Inclusion is the word that should define worship in Judaism. If, according to Isaiah, even the eunuchs have access, then surely women do too, and thus ALL those who would choose to follow the G-d of Israel and His Messiah.

Thus Judaism will be returned to Israel, not just through the women, but through all those who are called to join us.

How to thrive as a Jew.

The Mashiach, the Jewish Messiah said ‘I have come to bring you Life, Life in all its fullness’. Who doesn’t want Life? Who would be so foolish to turn down such an offer? But this isn’t just any life, this is Life offered by the living G-d of Israel, His Life that when appropriated courses through our spiritual veins causing our lives, physical and spiritual to flourish and bloom. In it we discover our reason to live and purpose to exist at all. No one would disagree that we need that Life. Laying hold of it, appropriating it and even defining it however are more complicated challenges. Because one thing is true today: in our Jewish communities wherever we are we need more of the Life of G-d in our midst. This is not a Life that can be created artificially by emotion, deeper thinking or even by establishing more programmes for children, teenagers, young mums or trips for pensioners, as good as all those are. Being busier and more engaged creates more heat but not necessarily more Light. In a thought-provoking article in the Jewish Chronicle (UK 31.5.13) Simon Rocker in his essay on Judaism dares to ask the question ‘Can Jewish life thrive if God is on the sidelines?’ http://www.thejc.com/judaism/judaism-features/108142/can-jewish-life-flourish-if-god-sidelines He notes that many Jews are merely following tradition, religious ritual, without believing in its divine origins. Judaism it seems is becoming increasingly a cultural club, a social unit which derives its validity and legitimacy from history alone, a vague sense of ancestry and ethnic descent rather than a definite calling into existence as a nation, a people by a G-d who planned for our geopolitical and theocratic space in time. Rocker, quoting Rabbi David Goldberg, highlights the absence of something that should surely worry us as Jews: “What had largely gone was the concept of a personal G-d who intervened in history and gave the commandments.”

So can Judaism and Jewish life thrive without G-d? Maybe we should be encouraging more observance of the mitzvot, will more observance mean more of G-d? I suggest that Torah has a different route in mind. The highest commandment is to love the Lord our G-d with all our hearts, minds and strength. Notable by its absence is the command to love Judaism, rather we are to love the Giver of Judaism, the Giver not the gift. Our faith as Jews centres around the G-d who gives revelation to us, to deny Him as first source is to effectively deny Judaism and condemn Jewish existence to a cultural backwater equal to other cultures. To love G-d first means we have to know whom we love. We cannot love an idea, a concept, a philosophy, nor can we love an impersonal force, demi-urge or absent clockmaker. To love is to know. To know is to have the basis of relationship. And the Prophet Jeremiah sums all this up thus; “they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest” Jer 31:34. To know G-d and have a personal relationship with Him is the pinnacle of Jewish existence and Life in all its fullness.

So, can Jewish life thrive without G-d? No. Judaism is about G-d, who He is and our relationship with Him. That this relationship forms culture is obvious, but to live with the end-product rather than the first source is to rob Jewish life of its power and transformational aspects.