Why Does the Supreme Court Get to Define Marriage?

I wasn’t going to write about the recent Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationally, but I read something on Facebook that changed my mind.

Actually, it was something I wrote in response to another person’s post, plus a few other comments I’ve seen crop up in the religious blogosphere that prompted this particular “meditation.”

What is marriage?

Oh gee, is that all. How do we define marriage?

Rather than go into a complex set of situational, societal, moral, and religious variables, let’s stick with whatever it is that gives SCOTUS the right to define same-sex marriage as a right.

After all, there seems to be some online conservative push back that wants “the State” to keep out of our marriages. What gives the State the right to poke their noses into the state of matrimony?

At the level of two individuals committing their lives to one another, the answer is “nothing.” Any two people can approach the clergy-person of their choice and ask to be married. The kicker comes in when you include a marriage license.

Why does something sanctioned by God need to be licensed by the State?

So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.

Matthew 19:6 (NASB)

Taking that quote in isolation, it seems to send a pretty clear message. The “institution” of marriage is sanctioned by God. Couples, in the context of the Bible in general and Matthew 19 specifically,  are made up of one man and one woman, are joined together by God and no person (or presumably human institution) should separate that union.

supreme court
The Supreme Court Justices

So if God joins two people together, why does anyone need a marriage license issued by the state where they are to be married?

So that the state, and the nation (and really, the world) will legally recognize that marriage.

Why do we need that?

Well, for tax reasons for one thing. Haven’t you made decisions about tax exemptions based on whether or not you’re married and how many kids you have?

What about making someone who was once a stranger legally into a family member. This has terrific advantages if you get into an accident and are hospitalized, since your legal spouse, but not someone you’re just living with, has rights as far as visiting you in such a medical setting.

And if, heaven forbid, the marriage doesn’t work out and you two don’t see eye-to-eye about things like alimony or child support payments, the fact that you were in a legal marital relationship allows the court to administer said-relationship’s dissolution and issue orders for the caretaking and well-being of the financially disadvantaged spouse (if necessary) and any dependent children.

If you remove the state from all that, then you may have a marriage sanctioned by God, but you’ll have a heck of a time managing or even acquiring anything close to the legal rights you have relative to each other as a married couple as well as those to your children (although, even if you aren’t married to your partner, if you have biologically created a child with that person, you automatically have parental rights to said-child under most circumstances).

gay marriageAnd so we come to the matter of opposite-sex marriage vs. same-sex marriage as a legal entity.

This really has nothing to do with how God sees things and what combination of human beings He sanctions to be joined within marriage. SCOTUS doesn’t get to say “boo” about what God desires and what He allows. A select group of five lawyers (the five Supreme Court Justices who voted to legalize marriage equality) are only empowered to decide how marriage is legally defined in the United States. It doesn’t determine how marriage is defined morally or religiously to the slightest degree.

So in reality, Gay and Lesbian couples could have gotten married in an emotional and relational sense (and even a religious sense given the number of liberal churches and synagogues available) for years or even decades (or longer) in this country (or anywhere).

It’s only the matter of the State (big “S”) granting gay couples the same legal rights that opposite-sex married couples often tend to take for granted that is the issue.

The United States of America has become the 21st nation on the planet to legalize same-sex marriage with no variation within its individual states, provinces, or territories. If we want to determine the social consequences of legalizing marriage equality, including the long-term results of same-sex parenting, we might want to see if any of those other nations can be compared to us.

I am more than aware there is what amounts to a collective panic attack within various religious spheres relative to “Sodom and Gomorrah” being legalized (and just exactly what the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was that deserved a divine death penalty isn’t, at least Rabbinically, as straightforward as you might have been led to believe).

I’m also aware that of all the things Paul the Apostle addressed in his epistles, he never directly complained that idolatry and homosexuality were sanctioned within the Roman Empire.

He did preach against sexual immorality among the body of believers, but he never tried to change the laws of the prevailing society and culture in which these disciples lived.

Of course, there was no such a thing as “loving same-sex couples” or “marriage equality” in the Empire. To the best of my understanding, a Roman citizen could have a same-sex slave or non-citizen as a sexual partner as long (forgive me for being blunt) as the citizen was the “penetrator” and never the “penetratee”. Turns out these “relationships” were more about dominance and power and less (if at all) about love and affection, at least as far as the historical record is concerned.

Apostle Paul preachingSo if the matter of homosexuality was ever on the Apostle’s radar, it was only in terms of those individuals making up the ekklesia of Messiah. For the Jewish members, it probably was already a well-known norm and Torah commandment. Paul most likely only had to deal with those non-Jews coming out of paganism whereby same-sex sex may have been involved as part of the local cultic temple practices or some such thing.

Given Paul’s example, do we need to start a revolution and overthrow our government in order to stop the national “sin” of marriage equality? Rome fell (and if homosexual practices were part of the Empire’s downfall, I have no way of telling), and no doubt at some point, so will the United States. I don’t think we can stop it.

As much as that might be a heartbreaker for you or for me, the only nation that really matters to God as far as being eternal is Israel.

SCOTUS has made a ruling involving the legal definition of marriage for our nation as related to the rights and responsibilities of married and divorced (or divorcing) couples in terms of each other and their children.

Anyone who desires to become legally married is really wanting to enter into a contractual relationship with another human being to gain certain financial advantages and other rights. In that sense, any two reasonable human beings should have that right, since it primarily is a right they acquire relative to each other and to the government (remember tax exemptions). It’s also a legal entity that is designed, however imperfectly, to protect children should one or both parents decide they don’t want to behave responsibly.

I am aware that are a lot of other collateral issues that legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide brings up, but I’m not going to address any of them. Plenty of other bloggers, news writers, and social and religious pundits can, will, and probably have already done so.

I just thought the little but important detail of what marriage is legally as separated from its relational, romantic, moral, and religious reality needed to be teased out and brought to the forefront for a little bit, just so we could take a look at what SCOTUS did in context.

Jay Michaelson
Jay Michaelson

I’ve reviewed such books as God and the Gay Christian and God Vs. Gay: The Religious Case for Equality, and while I had to agree, based on what I read, that the “anti-Gay” message of the Bible isn’t nearly as definitive as Evangelical Christianity seems to believe, I also found no presumption for God’s sanctioning the marriage of “loving same-sex couples” within either the covenant people of Israel or the ekklesia of Messiah (body of Christ).

If two secular same-sex people want to get married, legally, in any state of the union, there’s nothing to stop them, and in most circumstances I can imagine, it has very little to do with we religious folk on a day-to-day basis.

On the other hand, if two same-sex people claim to be Christian or Torah-observant Jews and desire to become legally and God-sanctioned married, I still think there’s a problem, at least based on how I read the Bible.

Married same-sex couples are not represented or even presupposed in the Bible. I won’t speak to all of those secular gays who are married or who are going to become married. There are plenty of other laws in the U.S. I chafe against for various reasons, and some of them have more to do with my life as a believer and just plain human being than marriage equality.

All I will say, is that if you are Christian or a (an Orthodox) religious Jew, you’re gay, and you want your religious institution to sanction your marriage (believing God is sanctioning it, too), then I just don’t see a Biblical case for it. That’s out of the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction. God will have to make that judgment.

Oh, and if you haven’t figured it out already, then prepare to be inundated with all things rainbow in celebration of the SCOTUS decision. And I promise you that those rainbows have absolutely nothing to do with God’s covenant promise to all living things never again to flood the Earth.

We Are Students of Abraham Communing with God

We find that G-d’s love for our father Avraham was mainly because “…he will command (yetzaveh) his children and his household.”[1] Yetzaveh here connotes “bring into a communion (with G-d).” All of Avraham’s towering avoda in the tests to which he was subjected,[2] cannot be compared to his commanding others and bringing them into communion, i.e. to his bringing merit to others.

“Today’s Day” for Sunday, Tammuz 8, 5703/1943
Compiled and arranged by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, in 5703 (1943) from the talks and letters of the sixth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory.

This is a follow up to yesterday’s morning meditation, and although it, and my previous missive, may seem a bit schmaltzy for some of you, I feel it’s necessary to add some spiritual “ascent” to counter balance some of the “descent” we’ve been discussing lately.

I know that the phrase from Genesis 18:19 where God references Abraham saying “so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice,” has been taken by some to mean that, as spiritual children of Abraham, we should be obligated to the Torah mitzvot in the same manner as the descendants of Abraham’s offspring Isaac and Jacob, that is, the Jewish people.

This would make things deceptively easy (not that they’d actually be easy) in terms of defining the role of the non-Jew within Messianic Jewish space. We’d just have the same role as the Jewish participants and thus we’d all be one big, happy family (not really, but that’s wish, anyway).

But the commentary about the aforementioned portion of scripture is very interesting. It states “…he will command (yetzaveh) his children and his household,” as meaning he [Abraham] will “bring [his children and his household] into a communion (with G-d).”

Except, because of our Abraham-like faith in Hashem through Yeshua, we can and are brought into communion with God. Having a halachic path identical to the Jewish people is completely unnecessary. How complicated does coming into communion with God have to be?

abrahams visitorsAlthough the Jewish Sages believe that Abraham kept all of the Torah mitzvot in the manner later commanded at Sinai, I don’t think we have to go that far in considering what Abraham may have taught, based on a reading of the plain meaning of the relevant texts.

At a very, very basic level, Abraham talked to God and God talked back. Their relationship was founded on Abraham’s unbounded trust in God, a trust that allowed Abraham to do the unthinkable; to trust God enough to place Isaac on the altar and risk losing his “child of promise.”

While I think most of us as parents have a terrifically difficult time imagining how Abraham was able to do this and what he was thinking (not to mention what Isaac was thinking when he allowed it) at the Akedah, we have to believe that Abraham trusted God and His promises enough to know that Isaac would not die or that, if he did, God would resurrect him.

After all, if Isaac was the sole source of Abraham’s future legacy, how could that be fulfilled if Isaac died, particularly by his father’s hand, before having children?

So to be in communion with God, to follow Abraham’s teachings may be as straightforward as continually talking with God and continually developing our trust in God so that we too may face our life difficulties with the same calm and grace as Avinu Avraham.

A lot of the issues we discuss among ourselves as “Messianics” have to do with how Jews and Gentiles are supposed to interact, particularly within a Jewish social and worship environment, but the question we seem to avoid is how are each of us as individuals (regardless of being Jewish or Gentile) supposed to relate to God?

Abraham and the starsIf following Abraham’s teaching for both his biological descendants and those of us who are counted as children of Abraham by our trust in God is the key, then the door we’re trying to open is the one that leads us into the presence of Hashem.

G‑d desires to have a presence in this world, and in each mitzvah we do, however it is done, He is there.

G‑d desires that His light shine in this world, and in every word of divine wisdom and every heartfelt prayer, His light shines.

G‑d desires yet more—that He be found here in all His essence, that which can neither be spoken nor kept silent, neither of heaven nor of earth, neither of being nor of not-being—that which transcends all of these and from which all extends.

And that is how He is found in a simple, physical deed that shines brightly with divine light.

Torat Menachem, vol. 34 (Likkutei Sichot, vol. 4), Parshat Korach; Maamar Hasam Ragleinu 5718.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Acts of Light”

Everything we do in the service of God brings a little bit more of His presence into our reality. That’s the meaning of Tikkun Olam or repairing the world.

In that, anything we do to elevate ourselves spiritually, and that delivers charitable, righteous, and just acts to our fellow human beings, is part of bringing light into the world and are the behaviors that result from our communion with God.

We are students of Abraham it seems, Jew and Gentile alike. We all just have our own unique ways of acting out what we’ve learned.

Touching on the Keb’ Mo’ YouTube video of his chart “I’m Amazing” which I posted yesterday, I’m inserting this link to Rabbi Freeman’s short article You Are the World (and so am I).

I encourage you to read it all (it’s not very long), but he ends his missive by saying:

As another ancient Jewish teaching goes, “Every person has to say, ‘The whole world was created with me in mind.’” Meaning, for me to tip the scales. For me to make the entire world the way it was meant to be.

Because you are the world.

Inner lightWhether you understand it or not, you (and I) were created to fulfill a specific purpose in life (and maybe more than one). As you are doing it, you may not even be aware of what or how you are part of God’s plan in the world. You may only realize it in the world to come when it is revealed.

Half the time, I have no idea what God wants out of me, either.

That’s where trust in God, the kind of trust Abraham had at the Akedah, comes in. We have to believe and live out our trust that the universe and our individual lives are unfolding as God intends them to.

Good Shabbos.


1. Bereishit 18:19.

2. Pirkei Avot 5:3.

You’re Amazing

It can take a long time until something is invented. But once one person has already broken through the creative barrier, others can easily follow suit and produce the same results. For example, it took many years until someone invented the first railroad train. But after one person invented it, many others built similar railroad trains. It doesn’t take a genius to model the work of a genius!

The same principle applies to spiritual growth. There were people in previous generations who reached great heights. They were innovators in the field of Jewish metaphysics. Since we now have them as models, the knowledge of how to reach spiritual greatness is available to all of us.

Today, think of five great people you have met or read about. What qualities do you most respect in each one? As you reflect on these qualities, consider how you would apply these same attributes to yourself.

(see Rabbi Yeruchem Levovitz – Daas Chochmah Umussar, vol. 2, p.40)

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Duplicate Spiritual Greatness”
Daily Lift #385

I’ve been spending a lot of time writing about and discussing the meaning and nature of non-Jewish identity within Jewish space, particularly within Messianic Jewish space. While it’s been suggested that most or even all non-Messianic Jewish synagogues would at least feel comfortable with non-Jews as guests (assuming these guests were polite and respectful), someone mentioned in a comment on another one of my missives that Messianic Jewish synagogues in Israel might not be so cool with that idea.

If it’s true, I can understand why.

I’ve heard it said that when a Jew makes aliyah and returns home to the Holy Land, they do one of two things: either increase their level of religious observance or become totally non-observant. There’s a single reason for both.

In Israel, a Jew has nothing to prove. They are Jewish. Israel is the Jewish homeland. End of story.

Except perhaps for Messianic Jews. I’m just supposing, since I’ve never been to Israel and I’ve never been to a Messianic synagogue in the Land, but if a Jew ever needs to prove he or she is an observant Jew in Israel, it’s when they are also a disciple of Yeshua (Jesus).

For thousands of years, any Jew who has been such a disciple has voluntarily converted to Christianity or been forcibly coerced into doing so. Though one process or another, they surrendered their Jewish practices and their Jewish identity and effectively became, at best, a “Hebrew Christian,” and at worst, a “Goyishe Christian”.

synagogueWhile there have been other Jews who have remained observant and become Yeshua-disciples historically, the weight of the Church’s requirement (demand) for Jews to abandon their covenant relationship with God so they can accept the grace of Jesus Christ is heavy on their shoulders.

Association with (Gentile) Christians in Messianic synagogues could easily be seen as compromising the Jewish identity and affiliations for Messianic Jews in Israel.

Like I said, this is based on a number of assumptions on my part and I’m sure PL or someone else can correct the mistakes I’m most likely making.

But particularly in Israel and certainly every place else, if non-Jewish disciples with a Messianic Jewish “leaning” can’t depend upon any sort of Jewish role model in order to understand ourselves (which I suppose could be rather “crazy-making” since, for a multitude of reasons, you can’t mix the two identities), where do we go?

Rabbi Pliskin no doubt was writing to a Jewish audience in the above quoted “Daily Lift” but he makes a suggestion I think we can all use.

Today, think of five great people you have met or read about. What qualities do you most respect in each one? As you reflect on these qualities, consider how you would apply these same attributes to yourself.

Think of five spiritually elevated people, five tzadikim, Jewish or Gentile. Consider what qualities they possess(ed) that you admire. Then incorporate those qualities over time into yourself.

Seems simple enough.

I know what you’re thinking…well, a few of you, anyway. You’re thinking “I want to imitate Jesus.” That’s fine and well. No better role model available. But then, what attributes or qualities about the Master do you want to emulate?

Yes, Yeshua donned tzitzit and laid tefillin but he was and is Jewish, so unless you’re a Jew (and if you are, you already have a set of traditions available to you that define the mitzvot for observant Jews), let’s just set those behaviors aside for now.

What about Yeshua’s kindness, his compassion for others, his wisdom, his sense of justice, his expression of duty and servitude to his followers, and even to strangers?

Those are all fine qualities to imitate, and you don’t even have to be Jewish to incorporate them into your own behavior.

kindnessLike Yeshua, you can give to charity. You can pray. You can “preach the Word”. You can urge others to repentance. You can look forward to the coming of the Kingdom and teach others to do the same.

There’s a lot you can do to imitate the Master. He gave plenty of examples that are accessible to any one of us right now.

Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to Yeshua or even anyone you know about from the Bible. Pick anyone you can think of who you consider spiritually great, figure out why they had such greatness, choose some qualities they displayed, and then learn to integrate them into your own life.

Above, I said it seems simple enough, but it really isn’t. It’s not simple or easy at all.

In fact, it will take a lot of hard work.

But that’s OK because you’ve got the rest of your life to work on improving yourself. So do I.

There are two basic things you (and I) can do to start off with: when you consider yourself, think the best of yourself, and when you consider other people, think the best of them, too.

There’s a blues chart I heard the other day called “I’m Amazing” by Keb’ Mo’. I inserted a link to a YouTube video of his performance in one of my comments on a previous meditation, but I’m sure it’s going to get lost there.

So I’m posting it at the bottom of this blog post where it won’t get lost, at least not as easily. I think my way of lifting up our spirits where many of my blog posts lately have been bringing them down.

If you are (or I am) not sure where to go in your walk of faith and your life of devotion to God, and especially if you’re frustrated because that walk cannot be defined as “Jewish,” it doesn’t mean there aren’t Biblical and other holy examples available to you. I just outlined how you can imitate the most important and holy Jew who ever lived and who still lives, Yeshua, and you don’t even have to be Jewish (or Torah-compliant, Torah-observant, Torah-submissive, or whatever) to do it.

We’re all amazing. It’s OK for you to be amazing. It’s OK to realize everyone around you is amazing, too.

Why Do Christians Hate Judaism?

This is the decree of the Torah, which Hashem has commanded, saying…

Bamidbar/Numbers 19:2

Rashi explains that the unusual introduction of “this is the decree of the Torah” (rather than an introduction specific to the subject of parah adumah), is a response to Satan and the nations, who tauntingly ask, “What is the purpose of this commandment?,” to which the Torah answers that it is a decree from Hashem, and it is not for anyone to question it.

-from “A Torah Thought for the Day,” p.62
Sunday’s commentary on Parashas Chukas
A Daily Dose of Torah

I’m continuing to write on the general theme of the role of non-Jews in Messianic Jewish community, a study started in this blog post and most recently addressed in yesterday’s morning meditation.

Chana Sara in her blog post from a few years back asks Where Do I Fit? It’s certainly a question I keep asking myself, both in relation to my decision to study the Bible through the lens of Judaism and particularly Messianic Judaism, and the larger existential question of where do I fit in my relationship to God.

Once you accept that any sort of connection to God must go through Israel, the Jewish people, and especially through the exceedingly Jewish Messianic King, then you must come to the realization that in order to relate to God you must enter into a completely alien world, that is, alien for the non-Jew. You must enter a Jewish world or at least a worldview.

Even many secular Jews feel, when attempting to observe a mitzvah or when attending a synagogue prayer service, that they are also “strangers in a strange land.” True, they are Jews in the midst of Jewish community, but the traditions, the customs, the halachah, the Hebrew, if you haven’t been raised in an observant home nor had the benefit of a traditional Jewish education, can seem even to the ethnic Jew, like a trip down the rabbit hole to “wonderland.”

And most people become uncomfortable when faced with the unfamiliar and the unknown. People become defensive and even hostile when thrown abruptly into an alien environment. We prefer what we’re used to.

Chana Sara wrote in the aforementioned blog post:

As a ba’alat teshuva, I have a lot of questions when it comes to where I “fit” within Judaism. I was born into a conservative Judaism family, meaning that my mother can’t part from the egalitarian idea of the conservative movement, but keeps conservative standards of kosher and Shabbat.

As soon as I had my bat mitzvah I don’t remember going back to shul for any reason. Possibly the high holidays, but possibly not even then.

jewish women prayingThis is a commentary on a Jewish journey into Yiddishkeit, which is also a journey my wife embarked upon a number of years ago. I remember the struggles she faced in her first attempts to connect to Jewish community and Jewish observant praxis. How much more difficult is it for the non-Jew, with no direct connection to Jewish community and lifestyle, to face the challenge of entering the Jewish world in order to comprehend and obey the Jewish Messiah?

I understand that God is not just the God of Israel but also the God of the nations, but every shred of Biblical content that we have with us today was produced by Jews, and, for the most part, for Jews. Only certain sections of the Bible directly address the nations, and not all of those references relate to us kindly. Amalek comes to mind.

The commentary I quoted from at the top of the page, specifies those commandments in the Torah that have no discernible reason or purpose, but nevertheless must be followed because they are God’s will for the Jewish people. Rashi’s interpretation of the above-quoted verse from Numbers supposes that HaSatan, the adversary, and the Goyim, the Gentiles, would criticize the Israelites for observing such commands or would actually bring into question the Torah as the Word of God based on what appears to be a collection of meaningless decrees.

And therein lies the root of my question, “Why Do Christians Hate Judaism?” I know “hate” is a strong word and I use it in part for dramatic emphasis as opposed to literal meaning. Most Christians don’t actually hate the Jewish religion or form of worship, but they do believe that it is merely a religion of works which exists in opposition to Christ and the Christian doctrine of salvation by grace.

I also don’t mean to indicate that Christians hate the Jewish people or the state of Israel. Many Evangelical churches say they love the Jewish people, and no doubt, they are sincere. Of course, that love for Jews and national Israel is predicated on a very Christian understanding of the eschatological meaning of the existence of Jews and Israel relative to the second coming of Christ.

This brings us back to those Christians who have come to realize that what they’ve learned from the pulpit or in Sunday school isn’t, strictly speaking, the exact Gospel message Messiah and his apostles taught in the late Second Temple period. Once we have learned that the Church’s current theology and doctrine is all based on a two-thousand year old mistake and is the result of a violent divorce between the early Jewish and Gentile Yeshua disciples, then we’re faced with a horrible reality.

In an ekklesia that is wholly Jewish and that can be only understood and communicated with through a wholly Jewish process, a process alien to anything we were formerly taught as Christians in our churches, who are we, what do we do, and where do we go to pursue our faith given this totally Jewish contextual reality?

unworthyDo you see where this might cause some anxiety or even a crisis of faith among the devout Gentiles when facing a life within Jewish community and educational space?

Do you see why Christianity was invented in the first place, as an alternative to this crisis, as a means to take control over worship of God and devotion to Christ by redefining it as Gentile and not Jewish?

Although my father’s recent illness is the primary reason I chose to abandon plans to be in Israel right now, another reason was the idea that, as a Gentile (and a flawed, imperfect human being) who is oriented toward but can never be a part of Israel, who am I to set foot in the Holy Land?

However, there are other responses to this crisis. There are some Christians who have walked away from the Church but who still do not feel comfortable surrendering their identity to Jewish interpretation. They have invented a world of their own which states that while they are not ethnically Jewish, nevertheless, they are Israel as much as the Jewish people are, and thus they are as obligated to the Torah of Moses as any observant Jew.

But there’s a caveat.

They still reject Judaism, or at least Judaism as it has evolved over the past nearly twenty centuries. They reject, for the most part, that entity we know as Rabbinic Judaism, the “traditions of the elders,” the so-called “made up” laws that add on to or perhaps even defy the plain meaning of the written Torah.

Now here’s the trick.

If we Messianic Gentiles accept Messianic Judaism as a Judaism, and accept the validity of the teachings of the Jewish Sages, teachings which, for the most part, have nothing to do with us, then what does that mean for us? For understandable reasons, as much as Christianity has rejected Judaism, Judaism has rejected Christianity. They aren’t on speaking terms and can barely stand being in the same room with each other.

JerusalemOnce we Gentile believers come to a Messianic Jewish understanding of the Bible, the Messiah, and God, once we see how much God loves Israel, how special Israel is to God, and how we people of the nations are only saved through Israel and not because the nations have any sort of direct covenant connection with God, what is our most likely initial response?

The Torah states, “And Korach, the son of Yitzhor, the son of Kehas, the son of Levy, took …” Why does the Torah take the time to tell us his lineage?

Rashi, the great French commentator, explains that the key reason for Korach’s rebellion was his envy of his cousin, Elizaphan the son of Uziel, who was appointed prince of the tribe of Levy. Moshe’s father was the first of four brothers and his sons were the leader of the Jewish people and the High Priest; Korach figured that since he himself was the firstborn of the second son, that he should have been appointed the Prince of the Tribe of Levy.

Envy is destructive. It prevents a person from enjoying life. If ones focus is on other’s success and possessions, it will cause pain and lead to highly counterproductive behavior. No wonder that Pirkei Avos, Ethics of the Fathers 4:28, lists envy as one of three things which destroy a person (the other two are lust and desire for honor).

To overcome envy, focus on what you have and what you can accomplish in this world. The ultimate that anyone can have in this world is happiness. The secret to happiness is focusing on what you have. And if you are happy, you won’t envy others!

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
based on his commentary on Parashas Korach in
Growth Through Torah
as found at Aish.com

Especially in our modern western egalitarian culture, the idea that any one group might be special and especially privileged is abhorrent to most of us. When encountering certain Biblical realities, we attempt to refactor them by applying our modern worldview, thus reinterpreting the Bible beyond all reasonable credibility. We make statements to the Jewish people in Messiah that are the moral equivalent of the politically correct comment to check your privilege:

“Check Your Privilege” is an online expression used mainly by social justice bloggers to remind others that the body and life they are born into comes with specific privileges that do not apply to all arguments or situations. The phrase also suggests that when considering another person’s plight, one must acknowledge one’s own inherent privileges and put them aside in order to gain a better understanding of his or her situation.

Rabbi M.M Schneerson, the Rebbe

While the concept of “check your privilege” is, in my opinion, somewhat questionable, or at least has the potential to be grossly misused, applying it to the relationship between Messianic Gentiles and Messianic Jews (or any group of Jews) is Biblically unsustainable.

So where does that leave us?

I don’t have an answer, at least not a whole one. I do have a clue, also written by Chana Sara in her recent blog post My Experience with the Rebbe:

But he was more than just a rebel. He was a person with a fervor for life, for Yiddishkeit and for people. Everyone was important, Jew or non-Jew, male or female, child or adult. Every person was important and he wanted to do good for all mankind. The U.S. has dedicated Education and Sharing Day as a tribute to the Rebbe and steps he took toward the betterment of education for all U.S. children. He stressed the importance of the Noahide laws. He wanted to make sure that all of mankind was healthy and well and ready to take on the world in the way Hashem desires them to. He was really into everyone being the best that they can be and being able to help them realize their potential. The world isn’t finished being built, and the Rebbe wanted to make sure we were aware of that and are putting on our best faces to be able to finish making this world a dira b’tachtonim, a dwelling place for Hashem.

While there are voices within Messianic Judaism who advocate for a strict bilateral relationship between Jews and Gentiles, it is also part of the process of tikkun olam for Jewish and non-Jewish scholars and teachers within Messianic Judaism to make their lessons available to the Messianic Goyim so that we may learn and understand the teachings of the Master within his own context and turn our praxis and our devotion to God accordingly.

While there are plenty of resources available including those authored by Christian Pastors writing from within a Messianic context, as far as my experience goes, there are still no real answers.

If we acknowledge that Christian tradition does not adequately or accurately reflect the Jewish context of the Bible, and if we admit that Jewish praxis is not Gentile praxis in any form, including one that adopts the appearance of Judaism while rejecting the last eighteen hundred years or so of Jewish teaching and writing, what do we have left?

A mystery and no answers.

In previous comments on other blog posts I’ve written on this topic, it has been suggested that Gentile identity within Jewish space will have to evolve over a long period of time, decades if not centuries (barring the timing of King Messiah’s return, of course).

But courageous Jewish leaders such as the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of righteous memory, indeed, had a heart not just for the Jewish people but for all people. Although his special mission and devotion was for Yiddishkeit, he understood that Messiah’s coming would herald the redemption of all of humanity in an unparalleled era of peace.

That’s the heritage of not just Israel but of all mankind, of you and me, all of us.

rebbe yahrzeit
People visit the grave site of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson

The twenty-first yahrzeit of the Rebbe has just passed and perhaps, if I may be so bold, in his merit, we can remind ourselves that somewhere, somehow, the people of the nations have a place in God’s redemptive plan, too. However, that plan and how we figure into it, isn’t very clear when viewed through a Jewish lens, since that lens was designed to reveal God’s relationship with the Jewish people and with Israel.

But it is the only lens we have that most accurately reveals the true reality of God’s message to the world, one that doesn’t diminish or destroy Jewish people, the nation of Israel, or the traditions, writings, and praxis of Judaism.

However uncomfortable or disorienting it may be to live life as a Gentile poised on the edge of our understanding of the God of Israel, the Jewish Messiah, and the Jewish scriptures, our best response should never be envy, supersessionism, or disdain. Instead, let us don the garments of humility, wonder, and awe, and then begin walking our path, one that is uncharted and unknown, toward the undiscovered country of who we are, which isn’t really defined by Judaism or even Christianity but rather by God.

I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. In the daytime (for there will be no night there) its gates will never be closed; and they will bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it; and nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. There will no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and His bond-servants will serve Him; they will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. And there will no longer be any night; and they will not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God will illumine them; and they will reign forever and ever.

-Revelation 21:22-22:5 (NASB)

Notice that it’s not just Israel who exists in the presence of God and of the Lamb. The nations are there…we are there, too, and we will be healed.

The tzadik is one with G-d.

We recognize him because within each of us is also a tzadik who is one with G-d.

Inside each of us is a spark of Moses.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
From the wisdom of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory

Within each of us is a spark of the Messiah. Have faith and courage.

Up to Jerusalem

The Blossoming Staff

Speak to the Children of Israel and take from them one staff for each father’s house…twelve staffs; each man’s name you shall inscribe on his staff. And the name of Aharon you shall inscribe on the staff of Levi…It shall be that man whom I shall choose — his staff will blossom.

Bamidbar/Numbers 17:17-18;20

Ramban (earlier, 17:6) explains that although the Jews were convinced that Aharon was chosen by Hashem to be the Kohen Gadol, they still questioned and protested the removal of the rights of the firstborn to do the avodah, which was given over to the entire tribe of Levi. Levi was split into two branches — Kohenim and Leviim, who together performed all the services of the Mikdash. The rest of the Jews wanted all the tribes to have at least some representation in the Beis HaMikdash. In answer to this request, Hashem showed them the miracle of Aharon’s staff. The staff belonged to the entire tribe of Levi, and its blossoming indicated that specifically the tribe of Levi had been chosen by Hashem to displace the firstborn of His servants.

There is possibly Rashi’s intent as well in verse 18, when he comments “for there shall be one staff.” That is, Hashem was saying: Although I divided them into two families — the family of Kohanim and the family of Leviim, nonetheless it is a single tribe.

-from “A Torah Thought for the Day,” p.32
Thursday’s commentary on Parashas Korach
A Daily Dose of Torah

This is sort of a part 2 of my blog post Are Messianic Gentiles Korach in that it addresses a similar theme: how roles can be different among diverse populations and yet all of the different groups are contained in a single body.

I wish there was an “almond staff test” for Jews and non-Jews in Messianic Judaism or the wider world of Hebrew Roots. I wish there was a visible, physical way to demonstrate to anyone who may doubt, that there is a fundamental difference between the duties and responsibilities of the Jewish people and those assigned to what I call “Messianic Gentiles,” or those non-Jews somehow associated with Messianic Judaism within the much wider body of the ekklesia of Messiah.

aaron's staffIt would make things so simple. See! There’s the Jewish staff sprouting blossoms. None of the Gentile staffs blossomed. So God is showing us all the He has assigned specific duties and responsibilities to the Jews that we Gentiles cannot share.

If you’re at all egalitarian, that may rub you the wrong way. After all, doesn’t this mean God isn’t playing fair with most of the human race? Isn’t He giving all the “cool stuff” to the Jews and saying the Gentiles can’t have any of it?

According to the midrash I quoted above, most of the Children of Israel, or at least the firstborn of the tribes, may have felt the same way. Why should the Kohanim and the Leviim have all the fun in the services in the Mikdash? Aren’t the firstborn of all the tribes just as worthy, just as much children of Hashem?

God settled the matter. God doesn’t have to be egalitarian. God is God. Deal with it.

Although we mentioned a difference between the gifts that the Kohanim receive and those of the Leviim (see “A Torah Thought for the Day”), there is a common denominator when it comes to their obligation to feel and express gratitude and appreciation to Hashem, Who graciously gave them these appointments and rewards.

-from “A Mussar Thought for the Day,” p.45
Friday’s commentary on Parashas Korach
A Daily Dose of Torah

But even as God differentiates, He also unites, providing a common denominator, so to speak, between the two diverse groups within the ekklesia of Messiah.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.

Galatians 3:28-28 (NASB)

For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace…

Ephesians 2:14-15

diversityJust as the Children of Israel are one people, they were also twelve different and unique tribes. Just as the tribe of Levi was one tribe, they were comprised of two different families, the Kohanim and the Leviim, and both of these groups had different rights and responsibilities in their service in the Mikdash. Even among the Leviim, there were clans that each had separate and non-transferable responsibilities and duties in the Mikdash.

Just as the ekkelesia of Messiah is one in faith and devotion, it is composed of two peoples, the Jewish people or Israel, and the Gentiles who have come to faith in Messiah, representing the nations.

Each group, although having a common denominator of being a “new man” metaphorically speaking, retains specific duties and responsibilities that cannot be transferred to the other group.

I know, it doesn’t follow the spirit of egalitarianism. It’s not “fair”.

But it is the Word of God.

The Mussar Thought for Friday states that we must respect those who have been privileged to achieve something special in their avodas Hashem that the rest of us have not, for this isn’t just an honor bestowed upon them, but a responsibility…one with consequences.

Someone who does not add to his service of Hashem when he is blessed with unique blessings, says Chovos HaLevavos, will eventually fail to fulfill even the basic obligations that are required of all [Jewish] people. In the end, he will throw off the yoke of Torah from himself completely.

I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts why I think it’s important to encourage greater Torah observance among the Jewish people, but here we see one of those reasons is that if the Jewish people do not perform the mitzvot, they are dismissing God’s blessings upon them and falling away from God and the Torah.

There are so many secular people who are ethnically and culturally Jewish but that’s about it.

jewish-assimilationEven among those Jews who are observant, that observance may only be partial. There are Jews who only attend Shabbat services sometimes and who, on other Sabbaths, will work. There are Jews who keep only “Leviticus 11 kosher” but who do not separate diary and meat. There are Jews who daven with a minyan on Shabbos but not during the rest of the week.

Their staff has blossomed indicating that Hashem has something special for them. But only they can pick up their own staff and walk on the path it illuminates for the Jews. It’s their staff, not ours. Even if some don’t pick it up, that doesn’t mean we Gentiles get to.

The firstborns among the Israelites do not serve in the Mikdash. The Leviim and even the other Kohanim do not enter the most Holy of Holy places on Yom Kippur, only the Kohen Gadol.

And the Gentiles do not observe the Torah mitzvot in the manner assigned only to the Jewish people.

That staff belongs to them, not us.

Book Review of Paul Within Judaism, “The Question of Politics: Paul as a Diaspora Jew under Roman Rule”

The measure of Paul’s Jewish identity remains a matter of considerable controversy in current scholarship. As Pamela Eisenbaum observes, the question has provoked anxiety among some scholars, and not surprisingly, since the study of Paul “continues to be the arena of discourse where Christians (and recently some Jews) work out their religious identity.” It is an indication of that anxiety that today, some thirty years since the announcement of a New Perspective on Paul, it remains profoundly difficult for many interpreters to escape the constraining categories of the older “Christianizing” view of the apostle.

-Neil Elliott
from the beginning of the essay
“The Question of Politics: Paul as a Diaspora Jew under Roman Rule”
Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (Kindle Edition)

This could be the introduction to any of the essays contained in the Nanos and Zetterholm volume or even the introduction of the volume itself.

I know using the term “Christianizing” when referring to the Church’s traditional understanding of Paul would seem puzzling if not insulting to most lay-Christians, Pastors, and even many New Testament scholars. After all, what is “unChristian” about the Apostle Paul who brought Christianity to the Roman Empire while showing the Jews the uselessness of living by the Law?

Well, that’s how some or most Christians might see it.

But I don’t think that many of these Christians would feel anxiety about the New Perspective so much as they would consider it misguided, misleading, or totally false…unless they entertained the thought, even for a few seconds, that Paul might be better understood within the context of the Judaisms as they existed in the late Second Temple period.

Who am IThen these Christians might actually break out in a cold sweat because, as Elliott suggests above, it is through Paul that we gain any understanding of our identity as believers at all. If Paul turns out to be totally different from who the Church has imagined him to be for most of the past two-thousand years, it means we have to totally reinvent ourselves.

Which is what a lot of us have been talking about lately.

One consequence is that significant political aspects of Paul’s context (and of our own) continue to be minimized or marginalized in interpretation.

According to the older, Christianizing view, we must understand Paul fundamentally as someone whose thought and experience–however these may have been formed by his background in Judaism–had been decisively reshaped by his encounter with the risen Christ…

It’s not that Paul’s encounter with Moshiach wasn’t a game changer. Certainly it was. But it might not have been the sort of game changer imagined by most Christians.

Elliott compares and contrasts two major themes in this essay: Paul as the Mystic/Visionary seeking apocalyptic revelation, and the New Covenant meaning of being sent to the Gentiles with the goal of turning large populations of Goyim to the God of Israel.

Consider Paul’s “Damascus experience” in Acts 9 as compared to 2 Corinthians 12:

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven. And I know how such a man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows—was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak. On behalf of such a man I will boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses. For if I do wish to boast I will not be foolish, for I will be speaking the truth; but I refrain from this, so that no one will credit me with more than he sees in me or hears from me.

2 Corinthians 12:2-6 (NASB)

The man Paul describes as being “caught up to the third heaven” is commonly believed to be Paul himself. He describes a highly mystical experience, something uncommon to most modern Christians, and something many modern Christians prefer not to dwell upon too much.

On the other hand, Paul’s “Damascus experience” is thought of primarily as Paul’s “conversion” to Christianity from Judaism and the mystic aspects aren’t given a second thought nor even a first one.

paul's visionBut what if we were to consider Paul a mystic who actually sought out such vision? What if his Damascus vision wasn’t his first?

Admittedly, this is a bit of supposition on Elliott’s part, and even if you consider it a really big stretch, it does get us to think in previously unexplored directions.

Instead of Paul “jumping ship” from Judaism to Christianity, or making an abrupt departure from Judaism and creating a new religion based on these “radical interruptions,” what if his change from persecuting the Jewish disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) to actively making new disciples from the Goyim was all consistently part of how Paul understood being Jewish within Judaism in the First Century?

In contrast, Alan F. Segal understood Paul’s visionary experience of Christ in context of the apocalyptic-mystical tradition of early Judaism…

…Rather, here “Paul reveals modestly that he has had several ecstatic meetings with Christ over the previous fourteen years.” Participants in Jewish mysticism, “and perhaps apocalypticism as well, sought out visions and developed special practices to achieve them.”

Like I said, at least a bit of a stretch. But if it’s true, then it means that all of Paul’s experiences, before and after the Damascus Road encounter, were part of Paul’s lived existence as a Pharisaic Jew.

There’s more:

…that he perceived in heaven a divine figure at the right hand of the Ancient of Days (cf. Dan. 7:9-14), one such experience was the first in which that figure was perceptible to Paul as the crucified Jesus. Just here Segal provided us with a powerful explanation of the “apocalypse” of Christ on fundamentally Jewish terms.

But what about Paul and the crucifixion of Messiah? I’ve been told by a number of Jewish people that the death of Jesus on the cross automatically a “show stopper” because a Jew hung on a tree is cursed (Deuteronomy 21:23).

In no Jewish writing of the period, Paul included, do we find crucifixion itself taken to indicate a death cursed by God or by the Law. To the contrary, archaeological evidence shows that crucified Jews were buried and memorialized honorably. The notion that Paul (or any Jew) would have regarded a crucified Jew as “cursed” is historically improbable.

The Death of the MasterIt could even have been likely, given Elliott’s perspective, that a crucified Messiah may have fit very well within Paul’s apocalyptic viewpoint of Judaism in terms of the Gentile disciples and under the Rule of the Roman Empire.

But what about that?

…the original apostles so readily accepted these Gentiles because they saw in their response, as with their leader’s resurrection, yet one more sign that the Kingdom approached…


We must suppose that as a Jew, as an apocalyptist, and as a Pharisee, [Paul] assumed that God’s triumph over the Romans was inevitable, however indeterminate…

Paul the Mystic connected the dots to determine that his vision of a resurrected Messiah and his mission to turn the hearts of a multitude of Gentiles to Israel’s God was all part of the apocalyptic plan to restore Israel and elevate the Jewish nation to the head of the nations, defeating Israel’s enemies and placing them under Israelite dominion, with the knee of every Gentile bending to Hashem.

Elliott states that Paul (Saul) originally persecuted the communities of Yeshua disciples, not out of some fanatical zeal to impose the Torah of Moses over the Grace of Christ, but as a matter of national security. Groups of Jews running around declaring that their Messianic King had risen and would overthrow Roman tyranny, from Paul’s previous viewpoint, would only inspire greater persecution against Israel by Rome.

But then…

“The vision would have confirmed to [Paul] that what the apocalypses promised God would do someday, God had in fact begun to do now. The consequence would have been an abrupt about-face from persecuting assemblies, but this turn would have been motivated and remains completely explicable within categories supplied by the Jewish apocalypses.

As well as…

I suggest that there is nothing “essentially” Christian about a Pharisee experiencing a visionary ascent to heaven and seeing the resurrected Jesus there.

I’m choosing to review only a small portion of Elliott’s overall essay. It’s so densely packed with information that I’m concerned I’ve already done this scholar a disservice by attempting summarize such a complex set of factors.

Most of this seems highly speculative, especially since I haven’t included the references to all of Elliott’s source material, but this is one of the most compelling visions of Paul that I’ve read about. It seems to, in my way of thinking, explain both to Christians and to observant (and non-Messianic) Jews a rationale for why Paul said and did the things we read about in the Bible.

The Jewish PaulHe was always zealous for the Torah, zealous for the Temple, and zealous for Hashem. He persecuted “the Church,” that is, Jewish disciples of a sect in Judaism that claimed a resurrected Messiah King, not out of any belief that they were not Jewish or opposed Moses or the Temple, but because they represented a fundamental danger to the nation of Israel as well as the diaspora Jews by provoking Rome against them, much as we’ve seen how the Romans responded to other Jewish revolts. Paul, however misguided, persecuted the believing Jews as the defender of Israel and protector of the Jewish people.

As a apocalyptist and a mystic who constantly sought visions of the Heavenly realms, while his encounter with the risen Messiah on the road to Damascus in Acts 9 may have been a startling game changer, it also fit perfectly with Paul’s orientation within Jewish mysticism. Paul’s zeal was unquenched and merely redirected based on the revelation that this sect of “Messianics” weren’t delusional in believing Yeshua was the risen King. Paul saw the vision and heard the bat kol for himself. The Messiah was revealed and alive.

Now realizing that the Messiah was resurrected, and that he had directed Paul to fulfill the next step in bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven now by recruiting large numbers of Gentile disciples as Gentiles (rather than having them undergo the proselyte rite), the apostle attacked his current task as he had his previous one, with passion and devotion, never relenting in his service to God.

Everything Paul did as we see him recorded in the Apostolic Scriptures including his own epistles, was wholly and thoroughly consistent with his praxis within First Century Judaism. In a very real way, there was nothing “Christian” about it or him.

Only two essays left to review. I’ll post my next one soon.

"When you awake in the morning, learn something to inspire you and mediate upon it, then plunge forward full of light with which to illuminate the darkness." -Rabbi Tzvi Freeman


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