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).

 

 

 

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!

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?

Why Torah?

One of the key requests to Pharaoh that Moshe was commanded to utter was that not only were we to be permitted to leave Egypt, but that the main purpose behind it was so that we could travel out three days into the wilderness and worship HaShem there. Such a celebration of deliverance and redemption, real physical and emotional freedom, would have been in itself a wonderful occasion of praise and worship, yet it was not to be the complete story. We thought we were to be the active party this time, we would sacrifice, sing and praise. What we discovered was that in fact our G-d had a gift for us too, He would continue to be an active party in this new national coalition. His revelation to us, given through the hand of Moshe, set out a blueprint of commandments and ordinances (Torah) that would shape us and form us into a nation. Whether as a marriage covenant or social contract, this would frame our existence for all time. And in principle we could leave it there, if it were not for the questions that arise about what Torah IS and its role and function in our lives that sporadically break through. According to tradition, Torah was offered to every other nation first before us, with each one declining the offer! Such myths nevertheless vocalise what we somehow instinctively know to be true: Torah is good, yet we fail to live up to its demands and high righteous standards. Why did the other nations refuse if it is really such a wonderful thing? Is it just a list of ‘things to do’, a glorious tick list of do and don’t do? If so, why don’t we? Why haven’t we? Such was our national, corporate and personal falling short that we were exiled from our Land for nearly 2000 years until 1948. Maybe this provides a clue as to why the other nations supposedly rejected this wonderful gift… or at least a gift that should be wonderful but we’ve struggled to accept.

In an interesting ‘spin’ on the role, place and function of Torah in the Jewish nation and people, Rav Shaul writes to the Jewish community in Galatia that ‘it was added because of transgressions (sins).’ Noteworthy that ‘it was added’ as an extra component to the people rather than something that was present at the outset with Avraham. Despite the working assumption that Torah has always been with us, at the very least we have to acknowledge that it was only codified at Sinai (and later). So why add Torah ‘because of’ sins? Maybe an imperfect example may shed some light on this. If every driver at all times drove selflessly, safely and with full due regard for the welfare and best of every other driver, road user and pedestrian, then we wouldn’t need speed limits or the Highway Code. We would simply KNOW what the best is at all times and do it. But we don’t. So the speed limit for example shows us what the higher end of a basic benchmark of good, safe driving is at that moment on that stretch of road. When we drive quicker than that we transgress. We become aware of what transgression (sin) is by falling short of the standard expected. By its breach we learn that we rebel against its standards. And that awareness should be a catalyst to action, an awareness of self, our inner natures and personalities, of our own selfish motivations that reject G-d’s ways in preference to our own. Yes, we think that we surely CAN be the measure of all things, despite our appalling lack of judgement and deficit of omniscience. Such a pitiful human condition is summarised by the prophets and others as the ‘imagination of men’s hearts’, and it has caused us dire problems.

Just how should we react, what action should we take in the challenge that Torah lays on us all? ‘Because of sins’ it was added, precisely to show us THAT we have sinned. Righteousness on display, God’s nature and character revealed, and our response and ability to match it weak and shallow. If nothing else our reaction should be to call on His name and reach out for His mercy. Which, if we go back to where we started, makes sense of why we had to go out into the wilderness for three days and worship Him, the G-d who had shown us unmerited mercy and saved us from Egypt and the tyranny of slavery. True worship only really begins when we have a sense of our own shortcomings and our NEED for His redemption and salvation. And once we receive it the worship really takes off. So Torah not only guides us but brings us to HaShem, to acknowledge our needs and our sins, and thus enables genuine worship to take place.

Jewish atheism?

 

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

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

The Real Reason.

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

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

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

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

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