‘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.

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).

 

 

 

Judaism: Trust G-d

Are you needy? Never satisfied with what you’ve got? Dragged down by the constant advertising telling you what you ‘need’ and don’t have? If material satisfaction was the answer to all of humanity’s problems then surely by now, especially in the rich West, we should all be happy, content and spreading that wealth abroad to let others join us in our deep materialist satisfaction of human problem solving. But palpably this is not true.. and even if the theoretical elements were true, how would you ever know you’ve arrived? Just how much material gain IS satisfaction? So headlong in a fruitless and anxiety driven rush we lurch for the elixir of human striving, and in the process enslave countless millions to produce ‘things’ to satiate our lust for consumption. The Torah, in the sections detailing our walking in the wilderness, speaks to precisely this delusional hope in mankind. As we enter that wilderness the complaining starts; true, we didn’t want cars or TVs, just food (which might be understandable given the circumstances), yet the abundance of ‘blessing’ that the Lord gives in response to our whining illustrates an important point: He meets OUR perceived needs here, not what the true needs are.
This is precisely the human problem: we always want more. Greed, selfishness and personal gain at the expense of others drives us, our societies and cultures. As has often been commented upon, it lies at the very root of the system of Capitalism, and as the absolutely necessary philanthropic gloves come off, what is laid bare is ugly and crass. OUR needs, not what we truly need, sits at the heart of human discontentment. Instead of trusting G-d to provide, which is the basic Creational model set in motion at the beginning, we strive to provide what we feel we ‘need’, is our ‘right’ to have, possess and own. At whatever cost.
In Judaism we are taught to expect HIS provision every day, for what our daily needs truly are. He can be trusted and is faithful. That lesson we learnt in the wilderness and would be needed later as we experienced the fruit of our own labours in the Land: even what you have which is yours (or seems to be) is actually from HIM. IN this light we understand the prayer taught by Mashiach Yeshua ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. That is actually all we need.

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’.

Freedom?

Pesach (Passover) was not that long ago that we have forgotten the major themes that dominated that time: Freedom and deliverance from those who would and did oppress us. Pesach and freedom are semantically intertwined, you can’t have one without the other. Yet the nature of freedom is a challenge to understand. Freedom today is defined largely by a personal response and rejection of anything that would attempt to restrain or cramp individual style. This form of freedom rejects authority, preferring to replace the Torah’s view of a hierarchical form of authority based on experience, calling and training with an experiential almost emotionally charged form of self-determination. ‘Man is the centre of the universe and I am at the centre of mine’. But is this freedom? Is this what the Scriptures teach? One might even connect such forms of self determination with the very first act of sin and rebellion in Gan Eden when Chava decided using her own faculties of reason and analysis to rebel against G-d. In Jewish thinking collective leadership drawing down the wisdom of the ages and applying Torah in a ‘human’ way is the chosen structure of order in Jewish communal life. To function within a Jewish community is to recognise these G-dly forms of order, to recognise that the Mitzvot themselves demand a form of submission to G-d that involves a surrender of yourself to Him who alone has the right and power to organise, dare we say control, your life.
We don’t like relinquishing that power to run our lives. Such has always been humanity’s problem, let alone our Jewish problem. Yet relinquish it we must. Rav Shaul in his letter to the Jewish community in Rome (ch 6) describes a situation where we are removed from being servants or slaves to sin because of the freedom brought in our redemption through Yeshua. This parallels our freedom from Egypt. But Rav does not stop there. He continues to say that our new position is that we are slaves to righteousness. We are not ‘free’ in the modern sense of that word. We belong to G-d because He bought us, the slave price, and now we are His. He does indeed have the legal right and authority to tell us what to do, and that includes a voluntary submission to the structures embodied in the community to express His global will.
Modern man despises such ideas and sees in them another form of oppression, yet this is not the case. Why? Elsewhere in the Messianic Writings Rav Shaul commands men to not ‘lord it over others’ as the pagans (gentiles) do. What we discover through this is that the G-dly, Jewish, righteous way to function as ‘slaves to righteousness’ is to offer submission. It is never demanded, insisted upon or forced. All community leaders can do is to point the way to the real righteousness of G-d, and trust, hope, that people will follow. Such voluntary surrender to HaShem opens the door to see real righteousness in action, and we then discover that as much as we are still ‘slaves’, we are in fact part of the family.

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.