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.