Friday, December 31, 2010

Knowledge in Parsha Va'era

Excerpts from a drash on parsha Va'era which I wrote for this week's edition of The Set Table.

Our parasha opens with the famous four-fold expression of redemption that God vows to Moses:
I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments; and I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God . . .
(Exodus 6:6–7a)
After these four promises from God comes a fifth:
. . . and I will bring you in unto the land concerning which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
(Exodus 6:8) 
What is it that bridges God’s four-fold redemption of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to God’s bringing the Israelites into the land?  The answer is given in the intervening verse:
and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.
(Exodus 6:7b, emphasis mine)
This emphasis on da‘at, knowledge of God, is characteristic of the first half of Exodus, in which Israel comes to know God through his miraculous deliverance. In particular, this verse highlights that Israel’s future entrance into the land must be preceded by their coming to know that the Lord is God.

. . .

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe taught:
These verses cite five expressions of redemption. The first four relate to the Egyptian exile and the three exiles following thereafter, including the present one. The fifth—“I shall bring you . . .”—relates to an additional level of ascent that will follow the initial redemption by Moshiach
(Living With Moshiach, p. 51)
If the fifth message of redemption (“I shall bring you into the land . . .”) is a reference to the Messianic redemption, then it follows that entrance into the Messianic Age must be preceded by Israel coming to know God in the fullest sense. Of this Jeremiah writes, “no man shall teach his neighbor . . . for they all will know me” (Jeremiah 31:34).

Read the whole thing at  Shabbat shalom, readers!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Check out Shalom Talk!

Have you heard Shalom Talk?

It's a radio show / podcast of weekly "conversations for change" between Messianic Jewish rabbi, scholar, and thinker Stuart Dauermann and various fascinating guests.

So far Dr. Dauermann has interviewed Bible scholars (Mark Nanos--a must-hear if you like Pauline studies!), musician/composers (Yehuda Solomon of Moshav Band, composer Michael Silversher), anthropologists (Dr. Bruce Stokes), at least one president of a Messianic Jewish synagogue (Diane Cohen--if you're a fan of Moshav Band, you'll definitely want to hear her story), Christian leaders (Fumio Taku), and rabbis of both the Yeshua-believing (Russ Resnick, Vladimir Pikman) and non-Yeshua-believing (David Zaslow) kind.

If you like quality Messianic Jewish media, you're definitely going to want to have Shalom Talk close to the top of your list.

Listeners will also note that the program is sponsored by Forever 21--their support of the kind of programming I like made me want to go there when I'm getting clothes or gifts! 

You can hear Shalom Talk via the web (Go to and click "Listen now" at 1PM PST / 4PM EST / you do the math if you're in between) or via podcast (my own preferred method, allowing me to listen to the program anytime I have a few spare minutes).  Click here for a link to the podcast and happy listening!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Toronto Post article on Messianic Jews and Christmas

The Toronto Post has a lengthy article on Messianic Jews featuring Emmanuel Messianic Jewish Congregation (founded in 1915!  website:  Here's an excerpt from author Alen Abel's conversation with Rabbi Barry Rubin:

In the rabbi’s study above the part-time prayer hall, we enjoy a lively conversation about the Nazarene and his disciples.
“Virgin birth?” he says. “That’s very Jewish. The first three matriarchs – Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel – were barren. God performed a miracle and ‘opened their wombs.’ One would expect the pattern to continue with the birth of a messiah, too.
“Christmas is a thoroughly Jewish holiday in essence. But like a lot of Christians, it has lost its Jewish roots. I honour the birth of the Messiah – that’s important. Isaiah predicted it. It’s foreshadowed in Genesis. It’s theologically essential, but Christmas isn’t.
“Look, I’m an American. The American Christmas is fun, it’s beautiful. The decorations are pretty but they’re not Jewish, plus they’re not Scriptural.”
Rabbi Rubin says that his research leads him to conclude that the Son of God was born at harvest time, not the winter solstice.
“Why won’t you say the name ‘Jesus’? “ I ask.
“We’re trying to overcome two thousand years of anti-Jewish actions by Jesus’s followers,” he replies. “We’re trying to make a point. When he was a child, his mother would have called him Yeshua. She wouldn’t have yelled ‘Jesus! Time to come in for dinner!’ “
Read the rest at

Monday, November 29, 2010

What is the mitzvah of Chanukah?

Here's a quiz from Jewish Treats:
Art by Randi Waxman of
If you think her work is as beautiful as I do,
please consider making a purchase!
(Prices very reasonable.)
What is the primary mitzvah of Chanukah?

a) Eating latkes (potato pancakes)
b) Giving Chanukah gifts or gelt (money)
c) Publicizing the miracle of the oil that lasted 8 days
d) Playing Dreidel
Get the answer here.

This Chanukah, remember the miracles God performed for our ancestors.  And don't forget to say the shehekiyanu prayer on the first night thanking God for bringing you to this season!

May your Chanukah be a time of personal rededication, joy, and light.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Shalom Sesame is back!

Announcing [drumroll]... the return of Shalom Sesame!

That's right (in case you hadn't heard): Shalom Sesame is back!

Folks in the blogosphere---including me---are pretty excited about this.  I have the best memories of watching episodes of Shalom Sesame (in Hebrew, Rechov Sumsum) in grade school.  Yitzhak Perlman, Jeremy Miller, Bert and Ernie (speaking Hebrew), Kermit haTzfardea.  And who can forget Moishe Oofnik?

Here's a quote about the new DVD series (released this year, just in time for Chanukah!) from
The new series follows our familiar friend Grover to Israel, where he joins the cast of Rechov Sumsum, as well as Jewish celebrities like Jake & Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ben Stiller, Natalie Portman and Matisyahu, in learning about Jewish and Israeli culture.
 Sounds like something you don't want to miss.  Here's a teaser from the new series, as well as a few favorites from the original:

Monday, November 22, 2010

Messianic Judaism in this month's Sh'ma

Have you heard of Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility?  It's a great monthly publication featuring a variety of Jewish voices on one unified theme.

The theme of this month's edition of Sh'ma is sound in Jewish life, and it contains a casual mention of Messianic Judaism on the front page.  From "Funny, You Don't Sound Jewish: Three Stories about Sound":
A few years ago, I was interviewing a Christian songwriter who told me that he had been commissioned to write a song for a Messianic Jewish congregation. He expressed curiosity as to why the congregation’s rabbi seemed to prefer songs in a minor key. I laughed and tried to explain how the terms “lament” and “mourning” (which, for the record, I don’t even believe to be inherent to Jewish prayer) have been woven throughout Jewish liturgy. A preference for the minor keys still seems synonymous with “Jewish music,” despite the fact that Jews have written songs as varied as “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” “Bei Mir Bist Du Sheyn” and “I Wanna Rock and Roll All Night (and Party Every Day).”
The author goes on to say that what makes a song Jewish is not "a Jewish songwriter, [minor scales], a clarinet, or a fiddler.  Nevertheless, there is something we can hear as Jewish music."

I think you readers who are involved in music in your communities will appreciate this article, as well as many others in this issue.  I particularly liked the very first story in the article linked above, about speaking Hebrew in your own dialect rather than trying to sound like someone else.  I have found Sh'ma to be a great read...and right now you can subscribe digitally for free.  Have at it, spark gatherers!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Quote of the Day: R' Isaac Lichtenstein on the Talmud

The latest issue of FFOZ's Messiah Journal contains a number of must-read articles, including biographies of Franz Delitzsch and Messianic luminary R' Isaac Lichtenstein.  The following quote is from "The Talmud on Trial," Lichtenstein's response to an anti-Talmud book published in his day called Netivot Olam ("The Old Paths").  Here's a brief excerpt from Lichtenstein's response:
Allow me to take this opportunity to demosntrate that the Talmud often agrees with the Gospels. Just as in all the main points of ethics there is agreement, so also both the Talmud and Gospels condemn pride, arrogance, and presumption. Consider the following concluding argument from the Talmud in regards to the above-cited quotation:
Whoever humbles himself, he will be lifted up by the Holy One, blessed be he; but whoever lifts himself up arrogantly in pride, he will be abased by the Holy One, blessed be he. Whoever covets positions of honor, from him honor retreats. Whoever shuns a position of honor, a position of honor pursues that one. Whoever tries to go against the“spirit of the times” (Zeitgeist), the current of time will oppose him; he will be pulverized by the flywheel of time. But whoever takes into account present-day conditions will find that time actually, regularly assists him and proves to be to his advantage. (b.Eruvin 13b)
This is the first time that Lichtenstein's "The Talmud on Trial" has been published in English.  Pick up a copy of the latest issue of Messiah Journal to read the whole thing!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Guest post: on Parashat Vayishlach

This guest post was excerpted from a drash written by none other than my wife!  Enjoy!

In last week's parsha, we read about how Ya'akov went out from his parent's house and settled in Haran to work for Lavan.  As he set out on his journey, he encountered God at the place he called Beit-El (house of God).  At that time, the Lord promised Ya'akov that He would give him the land in which he was lying and that his descendants would be "as numerous as the grains of dust on the earth." (Genesis 28:14)  This encounter prepared Ya'akov for the challenges that lay in the journey ahead.   While working for Lavan, Ya'akov's character is tested and shaped in order to prepare him to return to the land of promise. After twenty years of service, Ya'akov left the land of Haran to journey back to the land of his ancestors.  God used this time outside of the land of promise to mold Ya'akov.
This is where this week's parsha begins.  Ya'akov sends messengers ahead of him to meet Esav in order to offer gifts of peace.  While he is preparing to meet his brother, Ya'akov cries out in distress to the God of his fathers and appeals to the Lord based on the promises that He gave Ya'akov at Beit-El.  

Ya'akov and his family continue their journey and cross the Yabok River. While Ya'akov is alone, a Man wrestles with him until daybreak.  This is a second encounter from the Lord.  Determined once again to receive a blessing, Ya'akov says that he will not let the Man go until he blesses him.  Then, the Man asks an interesting question: "What is your name?" (Genesis 32:28) "Heel grabber - The one who supplants," says Ya'akov.  Whether this Man is God or an emissary of God, he makes an incredible pronouncement that changes Ya'akov and his descendants.  "From now on, you will no longer be called Ya'akov, but Isra'el; because you have shown your strength  to both God and men and have prevailed." (Genesis 32:29)  "Striven with God", "Persevered with God", and "Wrestled with God" are different translations of this name. Ya'akov leaves this encounter changed in two ways: his hip is dislocated and his name is changed.

The challenging experiences in Haran and his encounters with God transform Ya'akov.  The Ramban suggests that Ya'akov's new name means opposite of his old one:  "Thus the name Ya’akov, an expression of guile or of deviousness, was changed to Isra'el [from the word sar (prince)] and they called him Yeshurun from the expression wholehearted ‘v’yashar’ (and upright)."  Ya'akov moves from obtaining blessing through trickery to persevering with God to receive His blessing and promises.  
If Isra'el means "He wrestles with God" then what does that mean for Israel's future?  Ya'akov as a Patriarch foreshadows the life of Israel.  He sets the pattern for the future experiences of his descendants.   The children of Isra'el continue to have trials outside of the promised land.  Starting with his son, Yosef experiences tribulations in Egypt when he is sold into slavery by his brothers.  He serves as a slave and is thrown into prison, but the Lord is El Shaddai to Yosef and shows him favor.  God uses these challenging experiences to transform Yosef as well. 
Next, Moshe and the children of Israel are enslaved in the land of Egypt.  They cry out to the Lord, and He brings them out of Egypt to journey into the land that He promised their forefathers.  Due to their disobedience, they experience trials for forty years in the wilderness and are not allowed into the promised land.  These challenges mold and shape them.  Only then are they able to enter into the land that God promised.

Later, the northern and southern kingdoms are exiled under the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities.  Likewise, in the second exile period, the Israelites experience hardships and persecution outside of the land of Israel.  History shows that the children of Israel must wrestle with God and be changed by His encounters in order to experience the fullness of His promises.

When Ya'akov's name is changed to Isra'el, it foreshadows that the children of Isra'el will persevere with God and be changed by Him in order to receive His promises and blessings. Let's review God's promise to Ya'akov:
"I am Hashem, the God of Avraham your father and the God of Yitz'chak.  The land on which you are lying I will give to you and to your descendants.  Your descendants will be as numerous as the grains of dust on the earth.  You will expand to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south.  By you and your descendants all of the families of the earth will be blessed.  Look, I am with you.  I will guard you wherever you go, and I will bring you back into this land, because I won't leave you until I have done what I have promised you." (Genesis 28:13-15)
Throughout history, the children of Israel have exemplified the meaning of their name.  They have striven with God and have faced challenges, but we know that God's role as Consummator shows that His promises to Avraham, Yitz'chak, and Isra'el continue to be fulfilled.  Derek Leman writes that Isra'el has another meaning that speaks about God's role in the encounter with Ya'akov.  He says that Isra'el can also mean "God perseveres."  While the children of Israel wrestle with God and strive to be obedient to the Lord, God also perseveres with Israel and does not give up on them.  Our haftorah portion reveals this about the Lord when He says, "But I am the Lord your God from the land of Egypt: I will yet again make you to dwell in tents, as in the days of he appointed season." (Hosea 12:10)
God still has a plan and a promise for His children Israel.  He continues to bless Israel and through them bless all of the families of the earth.   

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

What is Grassroots?

"Grassroots is not a conference."

That's just one of the catchphrases I heard two weekends ago at Congregation Sha'arei Shalom in North Carolina, where over 80 100 (!) young Messianics gathered for a weekend of prayer, worship, fellowship, and discussion.  It meant that Grassroots doesn't offer famous speakers, well-known musical artists, or an extensive schedule filled with breakout sessions or activities.  But what Grassroots does offer is lots of space for relationship-building.

How did Grassroots start?  Sometime in the early/mid-2000's, four young Messianic believers met each other for the first time in Israel.  Two grew up in one large Messianic Jewish organization, and two in another.  After introducing themselves and beginning to talk, they quickly became astonished by how much they had in common.  "How do I not know you?" they started asking.

They realized that there was a whole parallel universe of fellow Messianic Jewish believers they didn't know, simply because they were part of a different organization.  This realization helped plant the seed for Grassroots, a movement for unity among Messianic believers in the U.S. and abroad.

This year was the sixth fifth Grassroots (and the second one I've attended).  Both years I heard the organizers tell everyone, "We honestly don't know what to expect"---while simultaneously encouraging everyone to be free and true to their identity in Messiah.

Each Grassroots takes on a distinctive flavor from the community which hosts it.  This year one young leader likened it to honey: did you know that one way to lessen your allergies is to have some of the local honey?  That's because the pollen residuals in the honey can soften the affects of the allergies.  Similarly, this young leader said, by being together and sharing the best of what we have to offer, we can lessen our "allergic reactions" to each other.  This was followed by another buzzword for the weekend, "cross-pollination"---which, as you can imagine, sent giggles through the mostly under-30 audience (especially as it was followed by an unintentional reference to "the future of the Messianic movement").

One thing that Grassroots does promote is honest dialogue.  One year, a dozen or so people who grew up in the UMJC sat down with a dozen MJAA people and basically said, "Here's what we (learned to) think about you."  The conversation led to a lot of repentance--changing minds and hearts about our fellow believers.

If you search for Grassroots online, you won't find a conference website or schedule.  There's no invitation committee or outreach wing; information about it spreads through word of mouth.  What makes Grassroots so disorganized ("We're not an organization!" was another catchphrase) is also what can make it spread. Grassroots is us.  If you want to see unity happen among Messianics, then start making it happen.  If there's another Messianic congregation in town, get together with them for Shabbat dinner and discussion or for prayer and worship.  Invite each other to things.  Think locally.  As one of my favorite captains from childhood once said, "The power is yours!"

(Some "local honey" from the worship team at Sha'arei Shalom in NC.)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Quote of the Day: Parsha Toldot and Divine Election

On this week's parsha, Toldot, Rabbi Russ Resnik writes the following thought on divine election:
The Messianic Jewish community is entrusted with a message to the rest of our Jewish people, and to the world beyond, that we describe as good news—the besorah, or gospel, of the life, death and resurrection of Yeshua. But, of course, this message is not often perceived as good news, no matter how well we express it. The besorah is hard for many
to receive, and one reason for this shows up in this week’s parasha, the scandalous idea of divine election. We proclaim a God who chooses according to his own purposes, not according to human priorities and values. That truth offends many, but also gives us hope that the besorah will in the end prevail among our people.
Read the full drash on the UMJC website.

Though Rabbi Russ doesn't mention recent events, you might consider this drash in light of the recent anti-Israel statements of by the Middle East Synod.  (Be sure to click that link to get a Hebrew Catholic perspective on the synod.)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Did the church really try to change the Sabbath?

Over at Messianic Jewish Musings, Derek Leman writes in defense of Sunday worship and asks Christians with a consciousness of the Jewish roots of Christianity to eliminate "Sunday churches" as a derogatory term.  (He suggests "Supersessionist churches" or perhaps "shallow churches," depending on what your gripe is.)

His post got me thinking.  One comment I hear occasionally is that the Church changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday.  Typically the person saying this means the Roman Catholic or Constantinian church.  Their intent is to criticize the church for departing from its Jewish roots in (supposed) Sabbath-keeping.  I think Derek presents a solid case for Sunday worship being an early tradition among the Yeshua-followers.

However, I wonder about the accuracy of that statement I hear: "the Catholic Church changed the Sabbath" or "the Constantinian Church tried to change the Sabbath."  I think these statements are inaccurate or misleading.  I'd like to know whether I'm right!

Consider the following:
  • As far as I know, "changing the date of the Sabbath" wasn't on the agenda at any of the historic church councils.  "We worship on Sunday, not on Saturday" might have been, but not "We are changing the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday."
  • While in English we call the seventh day "Saturday," in Spanish it is called "Sabado"--suggesting that perhaps in Spanish-speaking cultures, the Sabbath was always understood to be on Saturday or "Sabado," even if the the primary Christian worship service was on Sunday.
  • I tried Googling for "When was Sunday first called the Sabbath?"  The following quote seemed to pop up in several places across the 'net:
When was Sunday first called the "Sabbath"?
For many centuries, Christians were clear to distinguish between the Sabbath and Sunday (the Lord's Day), then ...
[Heinrich] Bullinger had a high view of the law, and differed from Calvin regarding the Sabbath. For Bullinger, Sunday was to be observed the same way in principle that the Sabbath was, with Sunday actually becoming the Sabbath for the Christian. Calvin, on the other hand, held that Sunday is not the Sabbath. The Puritans would follow Bullinger on this point.
Leonard Pine for Web Site/Journals/3-2 20Aug-1996/Pine - Heinrich Bullinger.pdf  (broken link!)
This seems to have happened about 1540 A.D., and was the start of the widespread naming of Sunday as the "Sabbath" in Christianity.
Anyone have more facts?  When did Christians begin referring to Sunday as "the Sabbath"?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Quote of the Day: One Amazing Woman

A prominent character in last week's parsha Lekh L'kha is Hagar.
(No, not that one.)

(Wrong again.)

Of course I'm referring to the Egyptian woman named Hagar, who was the slave-woman of Abram and Sarai.
(That's better.)

When we read this parsha, we naturally focus on Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac their son of promise.  But is it possible that we allow Hagar to get a bad rap?  Blogger Yael thinks so.  She highlights: 
Hagar is the only woman other than Eve who is spoken of as having seed, otherwise seed is a uniquely male thing.  I have also already mention about Hagar being the first woman in Torah to address God, but what I had not noticed is that she is the only person in Torah to name God!  Can you imagine?  A slave girl, not Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, nor Moses named God! 
 Read the whole article at Yael's Jewish World...then feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Guest Post: How should we be observant?

Another guest post from Jonathan R.  At first I was thinking to call it "How observant should we be?" but I think the title above is perhaps more reflective of what J is saying.  Enjoy, and Shabbat shalom!

Recently, Yahnatan came across this blog post which talks about how observant this particular family is willing to become and the reasons why.

Per our usual online habit he sent it to me with one word: "Thoughts?"

My first thought was another blog post that I read recently: A La Carte Observance.
Towards the end of the post (which you should read in its entirety), Rabbi Schiffman touches on the issue of Kashrut (keeping kosher):
"When I am home, I maintain one level of Kashrut, and when I am outside the home, I maintain a different level. On the surface this looks like what so many people I knew growing up did; having a kosher home but going out for roast pork at Chinese restaurants, or for shellfish if you live in Maryland. That’s not really what I do. I will avoid forbidden animals when out in public, but maintain a higher standard in my home, since my home reflects my most deeply held values. It means I can eat beef or chicken in restaurants or in people’s homes even if the meat was not from a kosher butcher. It means I place table fellowship with people more important than food.* Some people will find fault with this approach, but I’m not doing it to please them, impress them, or antagonize them. " (* emphasis mine)
This, to me, is the heart of our observance. The love of people should guide us not to separate ourselves from other peoples' journeys. To put it differently, our love for God and His law should guide us to interact and interface with people. Ultimately, I believe this puts us in a position to converse with and (perhaps, G-d willing) to instruct those who we would otherwise have shut out due to our practice.
Could I make the arguement that our following G-d's instruction to the best of our ability IS a sign of love for mankind and that to "compromise" would be to show disregard for mankind? Probably. Historically, I just don't see it working though. Those who shut themselves off to the many will only ever find a few.
Lest you read me wrong, I am not advocating that we throw Torah practice out the window so that we can embrace "the people of the world" and therefore repeat the mistake of Esau (Genesis 25: 29-34). G-d forbid! What I AM advocating is a deliberate, pragmatic engagement of our practice and how it can further or limit the Light we are here to represent.

Are we looking to make people come after us? Or are we about going and seeking after them? The parable of the good shepherd comes to mind.

To sum it up: Yeshua said that the Sabbath was made for man (Mark 2:27). Not the other way around. Doesn't this apply to the whole of Torah as well?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Got mussar?

Several other bloggers have already mentioned Riverton Mussar (, but I'll add my name to the list of people who are excited about participating.

Shimon the Rock wrote this exhortation to 1st-century Yeshua-followers:
Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy ha'satan prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.
 In our walk with God today, we find our experience to be the same.  Many of our most common failures occur when we're caught unexpectedly by a temptation or a difficult situation, and we respond badly. 

Part of our problem is that we simply don't expect to be tempted.  Then when the trial comes, it catches us off guard, and we fall.
This is where mussar comes in. As a spiritual discipline, mussar helps believers cultivate both self-control and awareness--so when you find yourself facing one of the tests that will inevitably come each and every day, you're not caught off guard, but rather prepared.

What are you waiting for--check it out!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Guest post: On the Yamim Noraim

The following is the first guest post for the days of awe by my best friend Jonathan Roush.  I hope to feature guest posts from him more often in the future...if we're lucky!

Right now the Jewish world is observing Yamim Noraim, "The Days of Awe". This is a time of personal introspection about our behaviour in the last year. We are supposed to recount and remember our sins towards God, to each other and to the world around us.
I've been actively trying to do this and it weighs heavily on my heart. Not in a negative way. I think that feeling the weight of our shortcomings is important to our growth as people.  It's not fun though.

How may times have I spoken negatively about people I know? People I don't know? How many have I judged in my heart?  How many laughs have I had at others expense instead of reaching out a hand of kindness to them? I can't even begin to count...
The ultimate goal of this "remembrance of sin" is that we reconcile ourselves with God, each other and the world around us. We ask forgiveness and take steps towards altering our behaviour. I don't know if this works...but I do know that it sure is nice to deal with some of these things proactively and then to be able to look forward with a clean slate as it were. It's like putting down a heavy bag.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Not our sinfulness, but God's holiness

Last spring, the UMJC website featured a drash on parashat Acharei Mot by Noel Rabinowitz which was all about Yom Kippur.  Since it's that time of the year, I thought I'd repost some excerpts here on the Gathering Sparks blog:
I knew very little about Yom Kippur growing up. Of course, when I became a new believer in Yeshua people assumed I knew a lot about the subject. I began to receive invitations from my Christian friends to speak about the holiday. Never being one to allow ignorance of a topic to stand in my way, I was more than happy to take them up on the offer!  After skimming through some Christian commentaries on the Leviticus, I was more than confidant that I understood the subject.  The focus on my devotional was, more or less, always the same-I'm a dirty rotten sinner and I need a sacrifice to atone for our sins.


The purpose of this [Day of Atonement] ceremony-to state the obvious, was to make atonement for the people of Israel so that they could remain in fellowship with the Lord for another year. A holy God cannot remain in fellowship with an unclean and sinful people.  When I taught about Yom Kippur my focus was just that - the sacrifice wiped away sin so God forgave the Israelites. And that's what we tend to focus on - I'm a sinner. Woe is me! Coming to terms with my own sinfulness, made me feel deeply spiritual.  In the back of my mind, I was certain God was deeply impressed. Well, I was wrong. The focus of Yom Kippur is not my sinfulness, but rather God's holiness.


How was an unclean person restored to fellowship? Here is how it worked: When a person became unclean or had sinned, their uncleanness or sin polluted and contaminated God's dwelling place.  In effect, human beings are like little factories whose smoke stacks pump out all kinds of pollution. That pollution drifts through the atmosphere until it reaches the Tabernacle and covers it.  Sin and uncleanness symbolically pollute and contaminate God's dwelling place.  If that situation is not remedied, God's wrath will break out against all those who have defiled his dwelling place.


The Day of Atonement should definitely remind us that we are a sinful people in desperate and constant need of God's forgiveness. That's a good thing. However, if all we do is focus on ourselves and our sins-we're still coming up a bit short. We still don't understand the full significance of this holiday. The focus of Yom Kipper is not our sinfulness, but rather God's holiness.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Repent, for the kingdom is at hand!

אֶקְרָא וּבְשִׁמְךָ בְּאֱמֶת, אֶתְעוֺרֵר לְהַחֲזִיק בָּך

I will call upon thy name in truth; I will rouse myself to take hold of thee.
Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, "If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed."
Yeshua turned and saw her. "Take heart, daughter," he said, "your faith has healed you." And the woman was healed from that moment.
Matthew 9:20-22

In this high holy day season, may we all merit to see ourselves as this woman, humbly reaching out to take hold of the Lord. Ketiva v'chatima tovah--may you be written and inscribed for good in the book of life.
Shanah tovah!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Parsha Shoftim and Israel's King

Last year I heard an amazing drash on this week's parsha--Shoftim--from Pardes Institute's R' Meir Schweiger.

The monarch of Israel leads the people out to war and gathers them to build the Temple...but might there be something more to his role?  And what does this have to do with Messiah?

Have a listen to find out...

Friday, July 30, 2010

"Orthodox Jews Are People Too"

"I climbed up the steps and onto the second floor. What I thought was going to be a meet-and-greet of Jewish students was actually a circle of observant Jews who all seemed to know each other. "
What follows is one Reform Jewish student's story of feeling like the odd one out at Columbia University annual Hillel Hannukah party. If you've ever felt like an outsider in Jewish space, you may appreciate what Carly learned!

Shabbat shalom, readers!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Rahab's Reversal

I've been reading Rabbi Russ Resnik's new book Divine Reversal in a study group at my congregation, so I'm particularly attuned to this theme of reversal in the Scriptures. Recently, Chaviva (from The Kvetching Editor) highlighted the theme of reversal in the story of Rahab in a shiur (lesson) she delivered on Shavuot:
As Phyllis Bird suggests, [Rahab's] story depends on a certain “reversal of expectations.” It is unlikely to expect a “shrewd and calculating operator” like a prostitute to save the spies and declare allegiance to G-d, but she does. The Rabbis, then, understood something profound about their choice as the ultimate righteous convert: “The harlot understands what the king of the city does not – that Israelite victory is imminent and inevitable.”
Long after Rahab, Yeshua spoke about the reversals that were happening in Israel in his day:

I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did.
As Yeshua-followers, we need to be attuned to the reversals happening around us, because there is where we find the God of Israel at work.  For an extended meditation on how the Messiah of Israel embodies this principle of divine reversal, I'd encourage you to pick up Divine Reversal.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Goy: memoir of a unique life

My local Gazette has featured some great articles of Jewish interest lately.  First it was Project Ezekiel, about a local who constructed images of lost Holocaust victims using their prisoner cards.  Now from this week's paper:
Spend just a few minutes talking with Silver Spring's Ranjit Chatterjee, and you'll realize he has little interest in the mundane. Read just a few pages of his new memoir, "Goy," and you'll learn what does interest him – adventure, family, philosophy and Jewish studies with a dash of linguistics on top.
The article tells the genesis of Chatterjee's interest in Jews and Judaism:
One story the author writes about is when his mother told him a disturbing Holocaust story. Ranjit was only about 6 years old, but his mother decided to tell him a horrific story about Nazis who buried Jewish people up to their waists and then sent in vicious dogs to attack their upper bodies. That was really the beginning, he says, of his interest in the plight of Jewish people.
Goy may not make it to the J-BOM book list, but if you read it, I'd be happy to post a guest book review here at the Gathering Sparks blog!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

David Rudolph on "Paul's Rule"

A paper by Messianic Jewish scholar David J. Rudolph, "Paul's 'Rule in All the Churches' (1 Cor. 7:17-24) and Torah-Defined Ecclesiological Variegation," was featured in the online journal Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations. The article is available for free download at (along with a number of other articles of interest). Here's a teaser:
In preparation for this conference, I asked a number of church leaders if they were familiar with Paul’s “rule in all the churches.” Notably, not a single leader who responded to my ad hoc survey was aware of such a rule. Based on this response and my general familiarity with ecclesial theology, I think it is likely that Paul’s “rule in all the churches” has become a “rule in few of the churches” today. While many would probably be content to see this state of affairs continue, especially those who do not like church rules, there remains the nagging question, “Should a teaching that Paul considered important enough to be a universal rule be almost universally neglected by contemporary Christians?”
The aim of this paper is to introduce Paul’s rule to those who are unfamiliar with it, and to make the case that Paul’s rule is a lynchpin that sustains the church as a body of Jews and Gentiles . . .
Read the rest here...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

J-BOM: let your yes be yes

From this month's J-BOM selection:
" 'Verbal fraud is worse than monetary fraud.' " The words came out in a rapid Sephardic Hebrew. "Is that statement familiar to you?"
"Shimon ben Yochai in Baba Metzia," I said, giving the Talmudic source of the quote he had used.
"You are David Malter's son, no doubt of that. You experienced both kinds of fraud last Sunday night, I understand. We'll discuss it on Sunday. Michael enjoyed sailing with you. Shabbat shalom. What?" He spoke away from the phone. "Yes." He came back on the phone. "Michael says to tell you Shabbat shalom for him."
His voice echoed inside my head for quite a while after I hung up the phone.
The Promise, p. 60 (Knopf, 1969)
I thought the statement from Shimon ben Yochai correlated well to one of the sayings of Yeshua:
Let your yes be yes and your no be no; anything more than that is from the evil one.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Noa at the Sixth and I

In May, my wife and I got a chance to see internationally renowned Israeli singer Noa perform at the 6th and I historic synagogue in downtown DC. Noa is a consummate performer, and it was such a pleasure to watch her sing and (at various times) play guitar, piano, and percussion. She was accompanied, as always, by her long-time musical collaborator, Gil Dor. Also joining her on this tour was Palestinian-Israeli singer Mira Awad. If you enjoy beautiful music, Hebrew lyrics, or skillful voice and guitar work, you owe it to yourself to pick up one of Noa's albums. (I suggest starting with this one.)

A funny thing happened to us at the concert that I had to blog about. We had purchased VIP tickets: for a mere $10 more we got to meet Noa in person before the show and sit in the front VIP section! After meeting Noa (and listening to Gil Dor talk about the European castle where they recorded their 1998 album "Calling"), we rushed upstairs to try to grab a good seat. The VIP section was already filling up--but amazingly the center row at the very front was still empty!

We briskly made our way down the aisle. When we got to the row, we noticed two white paper signs on the pew: one side said "VIP ticketholders only," and the other side said, "For the Israeli ambassador."

We seated ourselves right on top of the "VIP ticketholders only" sign and thanked God for such awesome seats. Then we amused ourselves by taking pictures of ourselves and of the ceiling dome (see above).

About five minutes to the start of the concert, we were getting really excited when a man in a black suit who had been hovering by the "Israeli ambassador" side of the pew came over to us. He said, "I'm really sorry to do this, but the ambassador is going to need to use this whole row. I'm going to have to ask you to move."

Feeling slightly crushed, we removed ourselves to the second row in one of the side sections (where thankfully we discovered that we still had a fantastic view). Sure enough, in a few minutes, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, walked in, accompanied by several friends or family members.

In a moment, Noa came out and put on an amazing show. Mira Awad is also a very talented singer: I never heard Arabic lyrics sung in the style of Leonard Cohen before--it was quite bewitching. At the end Mira joined Noa on stage to perform the songs they've collaborated on together, including their recent Eurovision hit "There Must Be Another Way."

All in all we had a great time. And our experience changing seats before the show reminded me of what Yeshua said in Luke 14:8-9:
When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, 'Give your place to this person,' and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place.
If we had to give up our seats, at least it was for the ambassador!

Here are some videos of Noa and Mira. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Quote of the Day

A provocative quote from New Testament scholar Michael F. Bird:
The Jerusalem council achieved a via media by finding in Scripture a justification for the inclusion of Gentiles within the church without requiring circumcision and placing upon Gentiles only the obligation to avoid idol food and sexual immorality. Yet the Jerusalem council also permitted the existence of two parallel theologies: one theology where the Gentiles were uncircumcised equals in a renewed Israel with holiness constituted by the Spirit and another theology where uncircumcised Gentiles were guests in an Israelite remnant that still defined holiness through Torah observance. The Jerusalem council’s decisions seem optimized in a setting where Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians remain in parallel rather than integrated, especially in relation to shared meals. The council did not stipulate the standard of law observance to be upheld for Eucharistic fellowship to ensue.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

J-BOM in July: Chaim Potok's The Promise

July's J-BOM selection is Chaim Potok's The Promise.

Chaim Potok is one of my favorite authors. I actually read this book for the first time last summer. So if you're looking for a book that grabs you right from the start--one of those books where you pick it up, get engrossed, and look down and you're on page 60 already--this is a good one to read.

It's also a perfect summer read--at least for me. During the course of the story, the main character, Reuven Malter, spends his year studying for his degree in philosophy as well as for his smicha (rabbinical ordination). In the summers he goes with his dad to a rented cottage in New York resort area called Peekskill (thirty miles outside NYC). Swimming, boating, and me, it sounds like heaven. Even though I spent my summer at work in the office, each time I picked up the book I felt like I was on a little mini-vacation.

So what is "the promise" referred to in the story's title? I realized that even though I've read it, I'm not sure I know the answer. (I might.) This time through the book I'll be looking closely for the answer to that question: what is the promise? I'll report back on the well as any other interesting details I find along the way.

Enjoy your reading!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Rabbi Derek Leman announces new book

Over at Messianic Jewish Musings, Derek Leman announces his new book, "Yeshua in Context," which will be coming out next month (followed by several other high-quality Messianic resources on Yeshua in the fall). Here's the table of contents:
The Table of Contents for Yeshua in Context
Ch 1 The Real Yeshua, Mark 1:1-20
Ch 2 The Unexpected Yeshua, Luke 4:14-30
Ch 3 The Heralding Yeshua, Mark 1:16-45
Ch 4 Yeshua as Exorcist, Mark 1:23-28; Luke 11:19-20; 13:32
Ch 5 Yeshua as Healer, Mark 5:21-43; Luke 7:22; 10:18
Ch 6 The Messianic Secret, Mark 8:22-35
Ch 7 The Temple Cleansing, John 2:13-22
Ch 8 The Handwashing Dispute, Mark 7:1-23
Ch 9 The Prodigal Story, Luke 15:11-32
Ch 10 Beatitudes of Hope, Matthew 5:1-12
Ch 11 Seeds and Fruit, Mark 4:1-20
Ch 12 The Wicked Tenants, Mark 12:1-12
Ch 13 Born from Above, John 3:1-21
Ch 14 Messiah’s Trial, Mark 14:53-65
Ch 15 Yeshua in Death, Mark 15:21-39
Ch 16 The Living and Present Lord, Luke 24:36-53
Ch 17 The True Vine, John 15:1-27
To get on the pre-order list, email Derek at (I already have!)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

J-BOM: the Empire in fresh perspective

In recent years, a number of New Testament scholars have highlighted the anti-imperial themes contained in the New Testament. Consider the following from a paper by N. T. Wright's entitled "Paul's Gospel and Caesar's Empire" (*Disclaimer: Though Wright places significant theological significance on the Jewish meanings inherent in the gospel message, nevertheless his supercessionist viewpoint comes through clearly in this paper. Be challenged by it, but don't take it as the only word on the matter.):
"Paul's declaration that the gospel of King Jesus reveals God's dikaiosyne [righteousness] must also be read, I suggest, as a deliberate laying down of a challenge to the imperial pretension. If it's justice you want, you will find it, not in the euangelion that announces Caesar as Lord, but in the euangelion of Jesus."
After being exposed to a little of this line of thing, it became relatively easy for me to picture Rome as the evil Empire!
Thus, I was particularly struck by the following passage from Milton Steinberg's As A Driven Leaf, in which the central character, Elisha ben Abuya, reflects on how the Roman Empire had changed his world...for the better!?!
Month after month for over a year he pored over records of the nations, Berossus on the Babylonians, Manetho on the Egyptians, Herodotus, Thucydides and numberless chroniclers of Greece and Rome. And the more he read, the more he was confirmed in that judgment of the role of the Empire at which he had first arrived in the chambers of Clarus. For until Rome had conquered the world the entire career of civilized man had been apparently nothing but a harrowing succession of wars. Armies had marched incessantly across all lands, murdering, burning, looting. Thousands of lives had been extinguished in each generation, millions had been subjected to bereavement, pain and misery, treasures on which hosts might have lived in luxury had been consumed--all to no point or purpose.
The motives of the Romans in subduing the peoples were by no means altruistic, and their treatment of the lands under their dominion had not always been beyond reproach, but the effects of the spread of their power could not be denied. Wherever they had gone they had brought back the Pax Romana. It was a precious boon which Italy had forced civilization, that of peace. And with it had come security for the individual and the opportunity to live out his life without hindrance in pursuit of the dreams of his heart. Of what account compared to this was the coerced surrender of their political independence by the nations, whether Gauls, Spaniards, Egyptians or Jews?
Reliving the unhappy past of humanity, Elisha reflected often that a rabbi-priest had once put it well, saying:
"Pray ye for the welfare of the Empire, for, had it not been for the awe of it, men would long since have swallowed one another alive."
Elisha is captivated by the human achievements seemingly made possible by the pax Romana.
But later on in the story, other characters remind Elisha of the signs of Rome's "justice"--people buying and selling other human beings as if they were stone carvings, and roads lined with the crosses of those who had been considered disloyal to Caesar. The Roman justice which so impressed Elisha with its impartiality later proves to be impotent to counteract the will and whim of Caesar himself, and ultimately it cruelly betrays Elisha and dashes his faith in "Roman justice."

In my opinion, it's easy to pick up this anti-Empire theme and run with it. In recent times, more than a few people have cast the Western World (or even the U.S.A.) as the Empire. (Scot McKnight explains here: "So what does 'empire mean'?")

Reflection and honest self-criticism are important. But I think the analogies of the U.S. to "Empire" are often made too lightly, emphasizing the injustices we're still struggling with yet ignoring the breakthroughs we've experienced. I think we ought to be suspicious of allowing our nation to be cast as the "evil empire" in our own thinking.

Back to Elisha: his wonderment at the contribution of Rome to human history deepens my understanding of what it meant to speak out against the Roman Empire in the time of Yeshua and his apostles. They weren't just daring to speak out against a clearly oppressive, evil power. They were also looking at what many saw as the most successful political venture yet and pointing out the ways that it still fell short of true peace and true justice, and that it required a level of allegiance that at times bordered on idolatry. Most importantly, they were preaching and living for the day when the God of Israel caused his kingdom to come fully on the earth, under the authority of his chosen regent, the Messiah, the Son of David.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Helsinki Conference on Jewish Believers in Jesus

Just in case you haven't seen it already, from MJTI, Derek Leman, Yinon, and others:
Jewish believers in Yeshua (Jesus) from England, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Russia, and the United States met in Helsinki, Finland, on June 14-15, 2010. As scholars belonging to Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, and Messianic communities, they began a conversation on Jewish continuity in the Body of Jesus the Messiah. They issued the following statement...
After reading the statement: what do you think? Do these men and women speak for you as well--would you sign your name to this statement? How can you be involved in helping facilitate further unity among Jewish believers in the body of Messiah worldwide?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

J-BOM: a Torah of lovingkindness

Rabbi Elazar quoted this verse: "She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the Torah of lovingkindness is on her tongue" (Proverbs 31:26). What is the intent of this verse? Is there a Torah of lovingkindness and a Torah which is not of lovingkindness? Torah which is studied on its own merit is a Torah of lovingkindness, whereas Torah which is studied for an ulterior motive is not a Torah of lovingkindness. And some say that Torah which is studied in order to teach is a Torah of lovingkindness, whereas Torah which is not studied in order to teach is a Torah which is not of lovingkindness.
Sukkah 49b (Siddur Sim Shalom)
I used to think I had this one in the bag--after all, one of the things I love about learning is sharing with others! But I came across a passage in this month's J-BOM selection As A Driven Leaf which made me think again. A renowned philosopher asks Elisha ben Abuya:
Can we withdraw into books and their abstrusities when men need insight into their souls, balms for their wounds, and healing of their sorrows? . . . if you and I were the gods, as Epicurus describes them, we might devote our lives to debating the question whether or not Platonic ideas exist eternally in realms beyond space and time. But we are flesh and blood. We dare not, for an intellectual luxury, forget our aches or those of our brothers.
Steinberg's words (through the mouth of this Greek philosopher) point to my own shortcomings: am I content to retreat to a book when I should be transforming what little knowledge I have into something helpful to someone else? Messianic Jewish blogger Benjamin E. frames the question in the form of a challenge in the latest post on his new blog Living Torah (which I highly recommend!):
It seems like higher education is not going to take care of this one for us. Don't get me wrong. I'm all for the higher education. In fact, It is vital that we be an educated community. I just want to suggest that it would behoove us to be about our Father's business and at some point that means stepping outside of our classrooms/meetings/conferences into the world...And we're not handing out those tracts again!
How does a Torah of lovingkindness translate into real life? What does rising to Benjamin's challenge look like?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Father's Day Tribute

From Jewish Treats' "The Importance of Dad":
Two peas in a pod.  (Notice the matching fluorescent hats and clip-on sunglasses!)Where does a child learn to be a mentsch (a good person)? From his/her parents! Indeed, in the Talmud (Sukkot 56b) it even notes that a child repeats in the streets what he/she hears at home.

According to the sages of the Talmud, after circumcision and Pidyon Haben (redemption of the first born son), a father’s primary responsibilities are to teach the child Torah, to find him/her a spouse, and to teach the child a trade (Kiddushin 29a). At the bare minimum, his fatherly obligations mean making certain that the basic necessities of child-rearing are attended to (by a third party if necessary). But, the best child-rearing includes dad sharing his time, knowledge and wisdom, and truly leaving a lasting and meaningful impression on his children.
Growing up in a Messianic Jewish synagogue and attending a Messianic Jewish day school gave me a love of Torah--which my dad nurtured through regular conversations about life, God, and Torah (a practice we continue to this day). I remember many times hearing my dad exhort me to be a mensch.

My dad was also definitely involved in welcoming my wife Kristen into our family and encouraging me to pursue the wonderful eshes hayil I've been blessed to find.

Finally, my dad always encouraged me to surpass him in the trade I choose to practice. When I chose to get an engineering degree, he was behind me all the way.

As far as the Talmud is concerned, my dad fulfilled his responsibilities to spades! And with the sages I heartily agree. Thanks, Dad.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Quote of the Day: Project Ezekiel

From the Montgomery County Gazette, 'Project Ezekiel' designed to recapture memories of lost souls:
"Dr. Nathan Moskowitz created images of his paternal uncle, Herman Moskovitc, a Holocaust victim who died at age 17, from his uncle's prisoner card after Moskowitz realized he had no photographs or images of him. Out of this experience came Project Ezekiel, which is designed to reconstruct the images of more than 200,000 Holocaust victims with prisoner cards."

"Moskowitz said the project name is based on the prophet Ezekiel, who had lived among Jewish exiles in Babylon after Babylon overtook Judah and Jerusalem, and had foreseen and witnessed the fall of Jerusalem and Israel. In one of his visions, God shows Ezekiel a valley of dry bones, representing all of Israel. God grows flesh and muscles on the bones and the bodies come to life, representing the resurrection of Israel."

"To me, this is a very fitting analogy," Moskowitz said. "That period of time with the prophecy and vision was very cataclysmic, as was the time of the Holocaust with a lot of dead bones and scattered ashes. Visually you take these dry bones, in this case the dry, decaying words [of the cards], paint skin and muscles onto the bones, and artistically breathe life into them."

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

J-BOM in June: As A Driven Leaf

The first selection for the J-BOM summer of fiction is Milton Steinberg's As A Driven Leaf. I have been devouring this book. Within a few hours of first picking it up I found myself more than 50 pages in--and loving it!

What was it like to live in Israel after the Temple was destroyed but before the Bar Kochba revolt? This is when As A Driven Leaf takes place. I immediately loved the way Steinberg brings the rabbis of that generation to life. I've written before about Pirkei Avot and how impressed I am by the depth of wisdom contained in the sayings of those rabbis. This appreciation is only enhanced by Steinberg's ability to imaginatively reconstruct the world of those sages, bringing them to life as characters, in some cases speaking the same words we now remember them for.

Speaking of this: Derek Leman mentioned how he enjoyed seeing parables from rabbinic literature show up in a fictional context. I especially enjoyed the scenes in the Sanhedrin where sages like R. Joshua, R. Eliezer, and R. Gamaliel debate over the very decisions that have come down to us from nearly two thousand years ago. And even the way the boy's circumcision is narrated in the very beginning reveals the tensions among the different personalities: Abuyah, Elisha's father, who is ambivalent and even hostile towards his own tradition; Amram, the boy's dutiful uncle, who disapproves of Abuyah's interest in Greek philosophy; the aristocratic Rabbi Eliezer with his "haughty face."

In fact, it is Elisha's relationships--with Joshua his revered mentor, Deborah his wife, Akiva his brilliant colleague and the two Simeons who together with Elisha composed The Four, Meir his beloved disciple and Beruriah Meir's wife, Shraga the Levite, and the others who oppose Elisha because of his father--these are what propel the story forward, and identifying with the characters is what drew me in.

Now I'm nearing the end of the story. Suffice it to say that Steinberg creates in Elisha a character whose struggle between faith/tradition and reason/experience is not only emblematic of the modern struggle between religion and science but also empathetic to the post-modern challenge of navigating one's way through both worlds without completely rejecting one or the other. Even if Steinberg's portrayal is a bit anachronistic, it's somehow encouraging to think of this as a millenias-old problem.

I'll save my recommendations for after I read the end of Steinberg's incredible story. But if you've ever felt challenged in your faith, you may relate to the tale of Elisha ben Abuya. Hopefully none of us will follow the same fate--excommunicated from our community and remembered forever as a heretic. But maybe there is a little heretic in all of us? The challenge each one of us faces is to find the way to live with as much faith--and as much truth--as possible.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

"I am the vine."

From this week's edition of The Set Table, the Chayyei Yeshua piece I wrote on John 15:1-17:

In scripture, the vineyard represents Israel (Isaiah 5:17, Mark 12:1–12). But in John 15:1–17, Yeshua seems to employ the vine image differently. We glean more insight from a parable of Ezekiel:
A great eagle . . .came to . . . a cedar [of Lebanon], . . . broke off its topmost shoot and carried it away . . . He planted it like a willow by abundant water, and it sprouted and became a low, spreading vine. (Ezekiel 17:3-6, excerpted.)
The parable goes on to pronounce judgment on the vine–that is, the king of Judah–for breaking the covenant. Then the Lord declares:
I myself will take a shoot from the very top of a cedar and plant it; I will break off a tender sprig from its topmost shoots and plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it; it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar. (17:22–23.)
Christopher M. Tuckett observes: “The context of Ezekiel 17 is itself all but explicitly ‘messianic’ in that it refers to the promised restoration of the Davidic monarchy in the form of king Jehoiachin” (“The Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Book of Ezekiel,” The Book of Ezekiel and Its Influence, p. 97). Thus, Yeshua’s claim “I am the true vine,” read together with Ezekiel 17, assumes messianic overtones, which are only heightened when we recognize that the vine of Ezekiel’s parable started out as a branch.

Yeshua goes on to invite each of his disciples into a personal, abiding relationship with him. In his book, The Hasidic Parable, Aryeh Wineman contrasts eighteenth-century Hasidism with “earlier stages of Jewish mysticism in which the mystic remained an isolated individual, not serving as a leader of center of any kind of human community”:
Gershom Scholem defines the innovation of eighteenth-century Hasidism whereby the mystic–who is turned inward and away from society–becomes at the same time the center of a community.
Likewise, Yeshua established himself as the center of his community and the source of its life and love. Paul Philip Levertoff calls this love “the realization of the highest ideal of Chasidism–i.e., achdut ‘unity,’ . . . a closeness of union approaching to identity (Acts 4:32).”

We naturally focus on the disciples’ need to abide in Yeshua. But this passage also reveals the amazing dependency of Yeshua on his followers: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you” (John 15:16). Just as Ezekiel prophesied that the vine “will produce branches and bear fruit,” so Yeshua reveals that he personally chose his disciples “to go and bear fruit—
fruit that will last.” How? “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you” (John 15:7). Praying the way Yeshua teaches means (a) remaining in him by obeying his commands and (b) having his words in us.

As our prayers turn toward the restoration of Israel, we do well to adopt the words of Psalm 80:14–19, which employs the same vine image in a prayer for (Messianic) redemption:
Return to us, O God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see! Watch over this vine, the root your right hand has planted, the branch/son you have raised up for yourself. Your vine is cut down; it is burned with fire; at your rebuke your people perish. Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself. Then we will not turn away from you; revive us, and we will call on your name. Restore us, O LORD God Almighty; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Why give tzedaka?

"God loves a cheerful giver!"

If you grew up in the church or in the Messianic world, you've most likely heard those words from Paul as part of an exhortation to make a financial contribution to some cause.

A recent article from Cross Currents discussed the motivations behind giving tzedaka within the Orthodox Jewish community:
“Judaism isn’t so concerned with personal reaction; altruism is not about one’s ego. Even if people believe that they will be rewarded in the Next World for good deeds, the emphasis is on action in this world, and on doing what’s right.”
As [Stephen Linenberger] conducted interviews with children, he found that Jewish children didn’t quite know how to answer the question, “How do you feel about the person you’re helping?” It’s not that they don’t feel empathy; it’s that doing “what’s right” (aka a Mitzvah) is independent of their personal feelings. As he put it:
They are action oriented. They take themselves out of the picture. It’s not about some primitive response to the person in need, and ego centered evaluation about whether I feel like helping. It’s about responding to a need. It’s almost as if, contrary to what the research has always supported, the disregard for empathy heightens altruism rather than suppresses it.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Guest post: Shabbat as "bride" and "queen"

A few weeks back, I posted some thoughts from Judith Shulevitz on "light Sabbath" vs. "dark Sabbath." Messianic blogger Paula from Grasping Mashiach made a great comment illustrating how Shulevitz's "light/dark Sabbath" is really a recapitulation of the teachings of the sages about Shabbat as bride/queen, which is itself based on the Torah's command to remember/observe (zachor/sh'mor):
The idea of Sabbath as light and dark reminds me of the rabbinic concepts of Shabbat as bride (Shabbat HaKallah) and queen (Shabbat HaMalchah), framed in more palatable and modern language. Samuel Dresner in his book “The Sabbath” explains bride as feelings of love and desire toward the Sabbath and queen as laws of observance regarding the Sabbath.

Chazal (Shevu’oth 20b) relate that remembering Shabbat and keeping Shabbat were given by HaShem in a single utterance (based on Exodus 20:8 in relation to Deuteronomy 5:12). Remembering is the bride, the light part of Sabbath, the longing for the experience of freedom, peace, and rest. Keeping is the queen, or the dark part of Sabbath, the laws and statues. But both remembering and keeping, bride and queen, light and dark are part of the same entity. As Dresner puts it;

"One can never truly know the inward feeling (bride) of Sabbath without the outward form (queen)."

Like a queen the Sabbath is a reigning monarch who arrives on the seventh day despite the will or liking of man. When a queen is in the palace everything must be in order and certain protocol followed, yet it is the protocol or “rules” that enable the experience of inner peace.

With this in mind I wonder if just a “little” darkness is the answer regarding Shabbat? Certainly, people have to start somewhere in observance, but inevitably it would seem that “remembering” and “keeping” or emotional desire and specific observance/discipline must have equal balance and weight in order to celebrate Shabbat to its full and intended extent.