‘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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The basis of Jewish Renewal

Life can seem so ‘normal’, what is, is, and things that ‘are’ shouldn’t be questioned or examined. After all, that is the way things are. Traditions, routines, habits whether personal, national, secular or spiritual, all the accretions of what we ‘do’ represent the way things ‘are’. Thousands of years ago in the north of Israel life seemed ‘normal’, no one questioned what the status quo was, worship was what it was and everyone assumed that that was the way things were and should be. In the north the worship of the golden calves was ubiquitous, and apparently embraced eagerly by the 10 tribes living there. Even in the south, in the Temple itself, the corruption had not been stopped entirely. To say that the nation had a serious spiritual/religious problem was an understatement, yet a statement that few would have verbalised. Why? It is easy to be critical and hindsight is a wonderful thing. Yet the records in 2 Kings and elsewhere highlight one of the issues: we read ‘so-and-so did evil in the sight of the Lord, as had his father so-and-so’. Each new generation repeated what the previous one had learnt, been taught was normal and right. That is the way things are, that is what we do, steady as she goes. One thing was clear: Judaism, our national faith and belief structure and system needed radical renewal and revival. Our very ongoing existence as a physical, geopolitical nation depended on it.

Into the historical arena came a young king, Josiah. Enthroned at only 8 years old he was more reliant than many others upon the wiser heads around him. Yet he was stirred and moved by the condition of the Temple, the centre of Jewish worship and faith expression. It was as if he almost instinctively knew that if the heart was rotten the body would not function. And so with the zeal of G-d Josiah carried out the cleansing and repair of the Temple. That would in itself have been a huge achievement, and would almost certainly have had a large impact on the nation, but what actually determined the renewal and revival of faith in the Land was what happened next: The High Priest Hilkiah discovered, laying cast aside and unread, a copy of the Torah in the Temple precincts. As this was read to the king, he tore his clothes in a sign of mourning and deep spiritual pain; the conviction of G-d and awareness of personal and national sin lay upon his shoulders.

It was this one event that unlocked the restoration of our people under king Josiah. Because he drove through the changes needed to national religious practice and structure, tore down the offending places of worship and removed idolatry and pagan influences, effectively consecrating again the country to HaShem, it was possible for the judgement of G-d to be withheld. This was a return to Torah, a rediscovery of the covenant that established Israel in the first place, and this encounter with the revelation at Sinai profoundly impacted the nation. The people had had their heads turned by spiritual flights of fancy, superstition and dubious if not evil spiritual practices, all of which had led them away from the Lord and true worship. But now, the truth of G-d’s own words shone a light into everyone’s lives. The writer to our nation (Heb 4:12) informs us of the intrinsic power of the words spoken by G-d in this way: ‘the word of G-d is living and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword (…) discerning the thoughts and intents of the heart’. The rediscovery of the Torah was the revelatory, external impetus needed to break the cycle of generational error.

Revival and renewal is not possible if we only ever continue to do what has been handed down to us. What was innovative in one generation is tradition in the next and stultifying to new life in the one after. Judaism needs reviving to our nation and our people. The forms we have been taught that have kept us and defined us for 2000 years of diaspora will not work for us back in the Land again. For that we must return to Torah afresh, rediscover who and what we are, weep and repent as Josiah did and seek G-d’s face. If we are to see HIS renewal and revival, His salvation and restoration, then we must dig deep, bravely slaughter the ‘sacred cows’ and ask the difficult questions. The future of Judaism rests upon a return to HIS word and the worship commanded of us, worship in Spirit and truth, for such our Father in Heaven seeks to worship Him.

Chanukah

In Rabbi Dr Donniel Hartman’s article in the Jerusalem Post (Nov 22-28, p21) titled ‘The End of Hanukka’ he poses some excellent questions about the very meaning, purpose and intention of keeping, celebrating Chanukah. As the festival begins tonight and the Jewish world once more is drawn to the flame of our national survival over the millennia in the face of many attempts to terminate the Jewish hope and dream, we may marvel at our national, communal resilience, our ability to survive and live to see another day. Rabbi Hartman rightly draws out the heart’s yearning of this historic connection ‘lighting a candle is not a miracle of yesteryear but to declare a commitment to ensuring that to maintain a Jewish identity is a part of my being’. Who would deny the truth of that? Yet in the same article he assesses the current Jewish situation thus: ‘Jews today see themselves as citizens of both Athens and Jerusalem’. Over 2000 years have passed since the Hellenist dream to absorb and assimilate us was put into operation, yet have we learnt anything, nothing? What was the point of Chanukah, what was the real miracle? Are we really citizens of two kingdoms?

Rabbi Hartman is correct in asserting though that ‘the Maccabean victory was no (…) tipping point in history’. For a brief moment our light shone before internal power politics and international pressures began to dominate the national agenda again. Our Temple, so brilliantly restored with such bravery and zealous courage again fell into corruption and, as if we ever even needed reminding of this, failed also to be filled with the tangible presence of HaShem as in the past. A victory it was, but indeed no tipping point in history. Just over a century later our national decline was once more in full swing leading to the tragic events in 70CE as the heart was ripped from our nation and our ancient longing for a settled Homeland cruelly put on ice as Diaspora inevitably followed.

No, this was no tipping point. Nothing it seems had really changed at all and our national, personal inability to follow the commands of the Lord G-d were brought once more to the forefront of our consciousness. Patting ourselves on our backs to massage our damaged historical souls and spirits while claiming that identity is all, as if this was the driving force behind Chanukah is to miss the point. If we still haven’t realised that the same cultural assimilatory spirit behind Athens is still at work today in our post-modern society with its liberal values, then we still have lessons to learn. No, we cannot be sons and daughters of both Athens and Jerusalem.

So the point of Chanukah? Surely it is this: We must be citizens of one Kingdom alone. It was not the small army of dedicated soldiers who freed us from the might of the Greek armies and rededicated the Temple. It was the King behind the Kingdom. So as we light the candle tonight, let us remember that it is not ‘by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord’. Only because our G-d is faithful to the covenants He made will we, can we survive at all because He is merciful and will always bring our deliverance, our redemption to us in due season.

Things change.

If you are living in the UK you will not have failed to notice the recent highly acclaimed TV series penned and presented by Prof. Simon Schama as it dominated the documentary horizon. As excellent as the series was and is, it was his personal journey of discovery that was one of the most moving aspects of it. Not simply happy to reconnect and bask in the history of his people, he asked the difficult and challenging questions of a historian for whom platitudes are no more than a sanctimonious superficiality. And it was one question in particular that brought the whole series into focus. He asked ‘How could we be Jewish in a post-Temple Judaism?’ This stunningly lucid and provocative question eats away at the very fabric of historical Judaism in the last 2000 years of Diaspora and undermines the very foundation stones of a form of Judaism designed to SURVIVE the catastrophe of exile but not necessarily reflect the essence of Judaism.

Such an iconoclastic question needs to be asked in the current desire to see Judaism renewed and revived once more. The Prophets of old were not concerned to see Judaism morph into something ‘new’ but rather see the people drawn back to what Judaism had always taught and believed. Judaism, as defined by the Torah covenant given by G-d at Sinai, seems to be but an ancient memory in contrast to what Judaism has become today. The Judaism of the Torah is G-d focussed, determinedly pursuing His presence and passionately desiring to draw close to the G-d who brought us out of the house of bondage. It is Temple-centric, or in the early days, Tabernacle orientated. Even here we see the centrality of G-d’s living presence with us His people. The commandments were daily life-giving structures and a living reality from a G-d who loved us and whose love and care we knew.

Things change. Judaism (in the generic sense of that word) today is not what it was 4000 years ago, nor even 2000 years ago as we transitioned between Jewish religious forms necessitated by external factors. But the question remains, just how could/can Judaism survive in a post-Temple world? Its central place as a sacrificial icon and resting place of the Shekinah highlighted not only its importance practically but theologically too. Yet change Judaism did. As the Sages of Yavneh refashioned Judaism into a form where text and our interaction with it became the cut and thrust of daily Jewish life, a Judaism that needed no Temple, no immediate sense of the presence of G-d or core acceptance of the requirement for sacrifices was created. This form of Judaism, Talmudic or Rabbinic Judaism, was designed to exist in a post-Temple and post-Land world, a form structured to hold our identity even while the Sages bemoaned the fact that the ‘Shekinah had departed’. Text and tradition took the seat of authority and the rule of the rabbi began. In what was meant to be a religion, a faith, of immanence and the experience of the living G-d of Israel as our Fathers knew it to be, changed gradually into what we know it to be today.

Monolithic as (Rabbinic) Judaism appears today, there is no reason why history must define the future. It is time to face the reality that a Judaism created to function in exile away from the core tenets of Jewish faith and practice needs to be renewed and revived in line with our return to the Inheritance, the Land once more. And where should we look for guidance on what this renewal should look like? As surprising as it is to many, there were in fact two forms of Judaism that survived the first century. Rabbinic, Talmudic Judaism everyone has heard of, but the other form has lain hidden for 2000 years and only recently has appeared again: Messianic Judaism. Like Yosef hidden from his brothers, this form was whisked away into a foreign environment only to be revealed like Yosef at the right time. Messianic Judaism is the renewing and revived form of the Judaism of the Torah and answers the burning question of how we can survive in a post-Temple world.

Facing reality.

In 1878 Naftali Herz Imber penned the now famous words to the Israeli National Anthem, Hatikvah. Called ‘The Hope’ it embodies the yearning for our Land and our return to it:

As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,

With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion,

Then our hope – the two-thousand-year-old hope – will not be lost:

To be a free people in our land,

The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

This Hope is not ‘merely’ about a return to the Land, but also to see a rebuilt and functioning Temple in the heart of Jerusalem, the Place where G-d has alone placed His Name. Such deep longing has driven the Jewish soul for 2000 years, but we weren’t alone in our yearnings. During the first Diaspora when for 70 years we lived and dreamt of a revived Land and Temple in Babylon, a certain young man called Daniel penned a similar prayer of hope and longing. His prayer is both revealing and instructive if we have eyes to see it, and should lead us to seek the real path of repentance in our days, as it was in Daniel’s time.

He begins with a deep confession to our national and corporate sins. There is no plea to the earlier merits of the Fathers to cover up our sins, or even balance them out in some form; No plea to a status based on the election and choice of G-d of Israel as if we could never become unclean, just a dawning realisation that we had fallen gravely short of His glory and standards of righteousness. Daniel faced reality, stared it in the eye and didn’t blink from the consequences. Again and again Daniel quotes from the Torah the cause and effect relationship between Israel and the Torah, our sins and the consequences of them. This was no fleeing from the reality of Diaspora, nor an angst-driven re-assessment of Israel as ‘merely’ the apparent victim of other states’ aggression.  Verses 10 and 11 of chapter 9 frame the reality perfectly:

<We have not obeyed the voice of Adonai our G-d, to walk in His Commandments which He set before us by His servants the prophets.

Yea, all Israel has transgressed Your Torah, and turned aside, that they might not obey Your voice. Therefore the curse has been poured out on us, and the oath that is written in the Torah of Moshe the servant of G-d, because we have sinned against Him.>

Facing the reality however means not just acknowledging guilt and seeking forgiveness. Daniel enshrines for us some deeper truths too about who our G-d is and why seeking His Face is never an empty act. He prays : O Lord, righteousness belongs to you. The understanding that any righteousness MUST come from HIM alone, and not from any fake self-delusional ideas that we can ever be that righteous in ourselves, sits at the heart of true repentance and ultimate forgiveness. Daniel reiterates a similar concept at the end of the prayer: Do not delay for your own sake my G-d. This has always been about who G-d is, how He deals with us and how He demonstrates His presence and redeeming power in the world. If we truly want to see a revival in our people unto the Lord and a spiritual transformation of our Land and nation, then we too must begin to pray this prayer.

Tisha b’av

All around the world, and up and down the Land of Israel this week on Tuesday we marked Tisha b’av, a serious and painful memorial of all the evil events that have befallen us over the millennia. We as Jews have had our fair share (some would say more than our fair share) of persecutions, attacks and dire existential moments. Difficult too to not fall into the trap of the ‘victim mentality’, it’s our lot in life, we are the lightening rod of abuse from a world openly in rebellion against G-d etc etc. The pain has shaped us and patterned our thinking, and yet… dare we even now have the courage to face reality?

In the first century one particular historical event fundamentally changed the course of Jewish history: the destruction of the Temple in 70CE. As this transformational moment is memorialised on Tisha b’av we are encouraged to consider why this happened. The Talmud teaches that the Temple was destroyed due to sinat chinam or ‘unfounded hatred’. There may be some truth to that as amongst the many ‘Judaisms’ of the first century it is known that rivalry and mistrust was huge. Different visions of what Judaism was, is and how to live as a Jew competed with each other in the faith market place for supremacy.

However, the focus on the physical destruction of the Temple hides a reality that we must actually turn our attention to. The Temple, as beautiful as it was, was only stone and superbly crafted and expensively decorated masonry. It was what the Temple stood for that was more important. The Temple was the ‘home’ of the visible and manifest presence of our G-d in our midst. With the Temple gone, that focus went too. We have to therefore ask, what is it that drives G-d’s presence away? The answer according to Torah is sin. King David amongst his own repentances cried out to G-d to ‘not take His Holy Spirit from him’, Rav Shaul talks about ‘not quenching the Spirit’, again in the general context of our sinfulness. Sin drives G-d away. Without His presence the Temple would not survive. The irony of the situation and (by extrapolation to today) its modern counterpart is brought out by Rav Naphtali Yehudah Tzvi Berlin in his commentary on Bereshit. He describes the Jewish community in the first century as a ‘generation of superior Torah knowledge and observance’. Today we too live in a day when Jewish study is deep and widespread, ranging across many different denominations. Yet study didn’t prevent the sin of the first century and consequent destruction of the Temple, and sadly despite our knowledge of Torah today that too cannot and will not save us. What we need now is a renewal and revival of Judaism that will reach out to all Jews, and subsequently the nations too, that will bring our G-d back to His rightful place in our faith and Land. G-d’s presence MUST be returned to the heart of Judaism, to the core of our faith. Once our sin has been dealt with and we are cleaned/washed again as Ezekiel determines WILL happen, then we can expect our nation to light up this world and so bring an end to the attacks that seem to be our constant travelling companion.