Tag Archives: Jesus

Should Non-Jews Study the Torah?

“Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”

Acts 15:19-21 (NASB)

So, should non-Jews who are “Judaicly aware” and seek to honor the centrality of Israel and the primacy of the Jewish people in Messiah study the Torah?

For most of you, the answer probably seems like a no-brainer. After all, the Torah, at least in one sense, is the first five books of the Bible, and Christians study the Bible every day.

On the other hand, should we study the Bible using Jewish, including Messianic Jewish, published materials?

Again, that might seem like a ridiculous question to most of you. After all, there are Messianic Jewish publishing groups that produce a vast amount of Torah study materials aimed right at the non-Jew. At least some of these works are designed to reach traditional Christians in their churches and illuminate them regarding the aforementioned centrality of Israel, and how King Messiah will come first to redeem Israel (and not “the Church”) and through Israel and the Jewish people, the people of the nations of the world.

But then we enter the “blurry” area of the status of a non-Jew within Jewish religious and community space through the use of Jewish produced (though some of it is written by non-Jews working for Jewish publishers) educational materials.

Let me get something out of the way first. I frequently read and quote from articles at Aish.com and Chabad.org and both of these websites provide information that is exclusively written by and for Jews.

Nevertheless, I find the insights provided by both these organizations to be helpful from time to time, but again, I am not unmindful of the fact that they are not intended to be consumed by a non-Jewish audience, namely me.

So let us return to the above-quoted passage from Acts 15 with which I began this missive. It’s part of the larger “Jerusalem letter,” the legal edict issued by the Council of Leaders and Elders of the Jewish Messianic sect once known as “the Way”. It was meant to be a formal and binding decision of the status of Gentiles within Jewish communal and covenantal space, outlining, albeit briefly and with little detail, a Gentile’s responsibilities within that context.

Over two-and-a-half years ago, I covered the content and my understanding of this legal decision in my multi-part series Return to Jerusalem (you can start at part 1 and click through to part 6 for the details).

Rolling the Torah ScrollOf specific interest for this “meditation” is the rather mysterious meaning of verse 21, which I touched upon in Part 5 of the “Jerusalem” series:

“For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”

Acts 15:21

Although generally the Hebrew Roots movement interprets this single verse to mean that Gentiles should study the Torah and obey all of the mitzvot in the manner of the Jews, it’s not that easy to derive a definite and concrete interpretation from a single sentence.

Let’s consider not the Gentile God-fearers of that day who already were spending much time hearing Torah read and taught in their local synagogues, but the person who is a pagan Greek and who has just heard the good news of redemption though the Jewish Messiah. Many would have absolutely no background or appropriate context to even begin to fathom the teachings of Rav Yeshua or the Jewish apostles and disciples. They’d be clueless.

After all, it was in Lystra, where the population was largely ignorant of Jewish teachings, that Paul was considered to be Hermes and Barnabas Zeus because they did miracles. To counter this, Paul quickly gave the crowd a crash-course in ethical monotheism (see Acts 14:8-18), hoping to get them to see the light, so to speak.

To even begin to understand anything about what Paul was preaching, it was first necessary to have some sort of background in Judaism and the Torah. In fact, we see this example in the proselytes and Gentile God-fearers who heard Paul’s teachings on Messiah in the synagogue at Pisidan Antioch (see Acts 13:13-43).

Further, rather than just take Paul or any other Jewish teacher at his or her word, a knowledge of the scriptures was not only necessary, but vital. The Bereans (Acts 17:10-15) are the classic model of this principle. Of course, verse 10 does say that Paul and Silas went into “the synagogue of the Jews,” however verse 12 states “…many of them [Jews] believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men,” so it appears these prominent Greek women and men were at the synagogue, either studying the scriptures or listening to the Jewish Bereans do so, and thus benefiting from the study of Torah, including coming to faith because of these scriptural proofs.

But as I said above, Christians study the Bible every day, and yet (in my opinion) they do not always employ the correct hermeneutics that would render an interpretation of scripture largely consistent with what Paul intended to teach (or as close as we can get to it some two-thousand years later).

That’s why, like the Greeks in the Berean synagogue, it is not only helpful but necessary to study Torah with more knowledgable teachers who are familiar with a (again, my opinion) Messianic Jewish view of the Bible.

pathsBut Messianic Judaism isn’t a single entity. There are many different streams, and I’m not even including Hebrew Roots when I say this.

In the past, I’ve referenced quite a number of resources that the “Judaicly aware” Gentile may access including the MessianicGentiles.com website, so all you really have to do is search my blog and or click the link I just provided in order to get started.

But what about a non-Jew who has been studying from that perspective for a number of years and wants to dig a little deeper? After all, when an Orthodox Jew speaks of “studying Torah,” he or she is actually meaning “studying Talmud.” Is it permissible for a Gentile to study Talmud? While it’s not illegal, immoral, or even fattening, is there a benefit for us to study Talmud, especially when the sages wrote against Yeshua being Messiah and in some cases, wrote against Yeshua-believers?

The prohibitions against a Gentile studying Talmud (Torah) are from more traditional Jewish sources and not necessarily from any of the Messianic Jewish groups. Still, I found an interesting discussion on the topic in a closed group on Facebook (I can’t post a link both because you have to be invited to join and I don’t have the permission of the participants to do so).

Unless you are already a qualified scholar and have studied Talmud previously with a qualified scholar, you are going to get a very limited understanding from Talmud. Also, unless the tractates being read are speaking to the non-Jew, it’s again a matter of reading material written by Jews for Jews. In other words, even if you are at the educational level to comprehend what you are reading (which usually also requires fluency in Hebrew), the Talmud, for the most part, has nothing to do with you.

Of course, you could say that about the vast majority of the Bible, since most of it was written by Jews for Jews, but going back to the examples I’ve already presented from Luke’s “Acts of the Apostles,” we see that some form of study of the Jewish scriptures is absolutely necessary in order to understand the teachings of Rav Yeshua and of the Apostle Paul and how they apply to we non-Jewish disciples.

So although in-depth study of Talmud for the Gentile may be somewhat up in the air depending on education, circumstances, and communal context, more general study of all of the Jewish scriptures (and even the Apostolic Scriptures should be considered Jewish scriptures, although they include significant mention of Gentile initiates and disciples) seems not only warranted, but absolutely required.

So we’re back at what to do with a Gentile who finds it necessary to learn in a Messianic Jewish context? How is said-Gentile to be integrated, and more importantly, how does that Gentile not get swept up in Jewish practice and identity, but instead is able to establish and maintain an identity of their own, one that does not result in self-denigration or diminished esteem?

That is a question that has been under discussion for years, probably decades, and as far as I can tell, has no current, practical resolution. The emphasis in Messianic Judaism on Judaism, the centrality of Israel, and the primacy of the Jewish people in God’s redemptive plan is good and correct, but it contains the problem of what to actually do with the majority of the world’s population.

praying aloneWhich is why Gentiles need to find a way to study the Bible through a Messianic lens, so to speak, but also find a way to learn how and why we are important and loved by God, too.

I know this must seem like I’m beating the proverbial dead horse, but to the degree that non-Jews do sometimes feel alienated in Messianic Jewish space, to the degree that some factions of Messianic Judaism find it necessary to be a movement by and for Jews, and to the degree that some Gentiles become so confused between the goals of Judaism and the Messianic Kingdom that they choose to abandon Yeshua and convert to (usually Orthodox) Judaism to resolve their dissonance, I think the issue is significant.

Gentiles need to find a way to study the Bible in a manner honoring to the Jewish people and Israel and at the same time, one that renders a message of the value of non-Jews in God’s redemptive plan as well.

Ultimately, we can’t let a movement define who we are to God. We need to study the Bible and find out what we mean to God from Him…if we can.

Is There a Sukkah for Christians?

Then it will come about that any who are left of all the nations that went against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to celebrate the Feast of Booths. And it will be that whichever of the families of the earth does not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, there will be no rain on them. If the family of Egypt does not go up or enter, then no rain will fall on them; it will be the plague with which the Lord smites the nations who do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Booths. This will be the punishment of Egypt, and the punishment of all the nations who do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Booths.

Zechariah 14:16-19 (NASB)

That having been said, Sukkot is coming up, and you should probably give some consideration to how much you are willing to pursue practical enactments of the anticipated messianic era in which Zachariah envisioned the requirement for gentiles to celebrate Sukkot and the aspects of it that imply redemption for the nations. The above essay seems to indicate that you’ve pulled away too far, and perhaps that you’ve begun to acknowledge it.

-from ProclaimLiberty’s recent comment

I used to think that in Messianic Days, we so-called “Messianic Gentiles” would all have an open invitation to celebrate the Festival of Sukkot in Jerusalem, basking in the glory of our King and having a terrific time “partying”. However, a slightly more careful reading of the Zechariah passage illustrates that it’s actually a punishment for the people of the nations who all attacked Israel during that final war when God and Israel win.

If the nations that went up against Israel don’t send representatives to Jerusalem for Sukkot, they get no rain that year. It’s not a party, it’s a command performance, an admission of guilt, an act of contrition.

Nevertheless, PL’s above-quoted statement is a strong suggestion that it is appropriate for all we non-Jews to return to God on Sukkot, and I responded by crafting my own little missive stating that it’s a good time for me to return as well. But as I’m about to relate, the connection between Gentiles and Sukkot may not be what we’ve been told it is.

Now that Yom Kippur is over, I feel the beginning of Sukkot rapidly approaching. I am aware of how much stuff I’ll need to dig through in our storage room to get to our wee Sukkah kit, how I’ll need to drag is out of the garage and around the side of the house, so I can put it together on our back patio this coming weekend.

I build a sukkah each year primarily for one reason: my wife is Jewish and as the husband in the family, it’s my job to build stuff, in this case, a sukkah.

So aside from Gentiles being associated with Sukkot as a matter of consequence for having the audacity to go to war against God’s holy people and His most treasured nation, can I, as a non-Jew (albeit one married to a Jew) get anything out of Sukkot beyond the awareness that I’m a Gentile citizen of one of the nations that will (in all likelihood) attack Israel?

There are a plethora of online articles about Jewish observance of Sukkot (of course) such as The ABCs of Sukkot, Sukkot: Transforming Trash Into Love, A Sukkah Grows in Brooklyn, and Finding Shelter in a Transient World.

Except possibly for the last article in that list, none of them do me any good at all. They’re all written by and for Jews. Naturally, they have nothing to do with me or with any non-Jew.

That’s why I was surprised to find a Chabad article on the web called How a Gentile Celebrates Sukkot written by Rabbi Moshe Bogomilsky.

The Haftarah for the first day of Sukkot is the prophecy of Zecharya concerning the war of Gog and Magog, which will climax with the final redemption and acknowledgment by the nations that Hashem alone is the King, and that Israel is His people. This realization will be celebrated on Sukkot, for, according to the prophecy, the surviving nations will join the Jewish people every year in celebrating the Sukkot festival. In his prophecy Zecharya declares, “And if the family of Egypt will not ascend and will not come…They will suffer the plague with which Hashem will afflict the nations, because they will not have ascended to celebrate the festival of Sukkot. This will be the punishment of Egypt and the punishment of all the nations that will not ascend to celebrate the festival of Sukkot.”

As interesting as this may sound; it is difficult to imagine that in the future the nations of the world will be obligated to sit in a Sukkah and celebrate together with the Jews, and be punished for it if they don’t!

Sukkah in the rainBoth Rabbi Bogomilsky and Sara Debbie Gutfreund, who authored Finding Shelter in a Transient World, mention that, among other things, Sukkot is a time of unity and connection.

Ms. Gutfreund states:

Bring friends and family into your sukkah. Learn from others and share what you have learned. Build and nurture the connections that you have with others in your life. Feel the embrace of the chain of kindness that redeems so much darkness; be another link in that chain.

And Rabbi Bogomilsky tells us:

The common factor in these two mitzvot is achdut — unity.

That the mitzvah of sukkah represents unity is obvious from the fact that many families may eat together in the same sukkah. In fact, the Gemara (Sukkah 27b) says that, “re’uyim kol Yisrael leisheiv besukkah achat” — “All of Israel are fit to sit in one sukkah” — which means that unlike other mitzvot (e.g. four species) where each one must have his own object, one can build a sukkah and let everyone use it to properly fulfill the mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah. Thus, sukkah is a mitzvah through which Klal Yisrael becomes united.

Putting all this together, we see a hint of a common connection between Jews and non-Jews all sharing the Sukkot celebration together, sharing meals in Sukkot in Jerusalem, and maybe all over the Land of Israel, symbolizing God’s and Israel’s forgiveness of the people of the nations for our sins against them, and a forging of a bond of togetherness under the reign of King Messiah.

But in the paragraphs from which I’ve quoted so far, they are talking exclusively about Sukkot and the Jewish people. What about the Gentiles?

Rabbi Bogomilsky answers that question.

Zecharya’s reference to the sukkah is an allegory. He does not mean that in Messianic times the gentile will be obligated to eat in the sukkah together with the Jew, and be punished if he does not fulfill the mitzvah. He means that the gentile world will be expected to practice the lesson conveyed by the mitzvot of the festival of Sukkot. They must forsake their striving for selfish gain and replace it with a sense of responsibility and sharing of privileges with all of humanity. Hence, Zecharya’s words, “Lo ya’alu lachog et chag haSukkot” — “They have refused to go up to celebrate the festival of Sukkot” — can be explained to mean that they have refused to elevate themselves spiritually and realize the message that Sukkot teaches humanity.

Oh. Well so much for the idea of togetherness, forgiveness, and unity in Messiah. R. Bogomilsky ends his article on an uplifting note, but it rings hollow after his previous block of text:

Let us hope and pray that, speedily in our times, we merit the revelation of Mashiach and the rebuilding of the “sukkah of David” which has fallen — the Beit Hamikdash — (see Amos, 9:10, Sanhedrin 96b), and then all of mankind will enjoy the ultimate of harmony, peace, and tranquility.

According to this source, there will be harmony and peace between Gentile and Jew, enjoyed by all humanity, but as I wrote the better part of two months ago, that peace, for the Jew, will be in their nation, in Israel, and the people of the nations will enjoy that peace in each of their (our) nations.

No vacations for Gentiles to Jerusalem during Sukkot.

I suppose this is more in line with the traditional Christian view of whether or not believers should celebrate Jewish holidays:

4th century theologian John Chrysostom said, “The festivals of the pitiful and miserable Jews are soon to march upon us one after the other and in quick succession: the feast of Trumpets, the feast of Tabernacles, the fasts. There are many in our ranks who say they think as we do. Yet some of these are going to watch the festivals and others will join the Jews in keeping their feasts and observing their fasts. I wish to drive this perverse custom from the Church right now.”

Such a strong expression of this view, especially if associated with Anti-Judaism, is not common in the contemporary church. However, it is an exaggeration to claim that Christians in general tend to adopt and adapt Jewish festivals.

-from “Criticism of Christian Observance of Jewish Holidays”
Wikipedia

sukkot jerusalem
Sukkot in Jerusalem

To be fair, there are Christian rebuttals to that criticism:

The Book of Zechariah chapter 14 verse 16 speaks of Gentile nations remaining after the “Lord is king over all the earth”: “And it shall come to pass, that every one that is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall even go up from year to year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the feast of tabernacles.” In both Jewish and Christian eschatology, this scripture refers to a time when the Messiah will come to physically rule in Jerusalem. This reference gives confirmation that future Gentiles are required by the Lord to keep at least an additional feast to Passover and Pentecost: the Feast of Tabernacles.

Christian scholars such as Chuck Missler, Mark Davidson, Steve Cioccolanti and Perry Stone argue that the first four feasts have been fulfilled by Christ’s first coming, therefore the final three feasts will also be fulfilled around the time of Christ’s second coming. The Biblical holidays find their meaning in Messiah, and either commemorates what He has done or what He will do. They are therefore eternal holidays for believers.

You can see why I generally don’t turn to Christian sources regarding Gentile participation in Messianic Times.

I can’t speak to the validity of the information offered by the website for an organization called Light to the Nations, but according to a 1999 article hosted there called Sukkot: A Unique Connection to the Gentiles written by Rabbi Chaim Richman (presumably, the article’s author and the Rabbi Richman associated with the Temple Institute are the same person)…

This Friday evening, we begin to observe the Festival of Sukkot. Of all the sacred seasons that G-d commanded Israel to observe, this festival, also known as the Festival of Tabernacles has the strongest implications for the nations of the world. Even today, vast numbers of Gentiles identify with the holiday of Sukkot, and converge on Jerusalem just to be in the holy city at this time of year. It is as if their heartstrings are pulled by some invisible magnet, the source of which they know not. Some force draws them to connect between Sukkot and the location of the Holy Temple.

In the Written Torah and the Oral Tradition

This is well understood, for it is a connection emphasized by both the written Scriptures and the Oral Tradition. The relationship between the nations and the holiday of Sukkot dates back to ancient times, and arcs through our own period as well…to form a bridge into that future, rectified world that we all yearn and long for, Jew and Gentile alike…the day when “the L-rd and His name will be One” (Zechariah 14:9).

The Sacrifice of Seventy Bulls

During Sukkot in the time of the Holy Temple, a unique sacrifice was offered on the altar…with a unique intention.

In chapter 29 of the book of Numbers, the Bible outlines the sacrifices that are to be offered over the span of the holiday. Counting the number of bulls that are offered over the seven-day period, we find that the total number was seventy. And in chapter 10 of the book of Genesis, there are seventy nations mentioned. These are the primordial nations, sometimes referred to as the “seventy languages,” which represent all humanity. The Talmud (BT Sukkah 55:B) teaches that the seventy bulls that were offered in the Holy Temple served as atonement for the seventy nations of the world. Truly, as the rabbis observed, “if the nations of the world had only known how much they needed the Temple, they would have surrounded it with armed fortresses to protect it” (Bamidbar Rabbah 1, 3).

Here we can already sense that inherent within the very nature of the holiday, an inexorable bond-as expressed through its sacrificial requirements-links it to the earth’s peoples. Sukkot was mandated by the Creator Himself to be a holiday for all the world.

Rabbi Chaim Richman
Rabbi Chaim Richman

Rabbi Richman does go on to quote from relevant portions of Zechariah, but he stops short of stating that Gentiles would actually be involved in celebrating Sukkot with Jews in Jerusalem. “Jerusalem will dwell in security,” but it doesn’t seem that Jewish sources expect Gentiles to dwell or even sojourn with the Jewish people in Jerusalem on Sukkot, in spite of the fact that in the modern world, many, many Christians visit the Holy City during the holiday of the Festival of Booths.

All of this begs the question about whether or not it is appropriate for Gentiles, especially exclusively Gentile groups, to build a kosher (or even non-kosher) Sukkah and to celebrate Sukkot in a traditionally Jewish manner.

As I previously mentioned, even given all that I’ve said, at it’s most elementary level, I build a sukkah every year because my wife is Jewish and I’m her husband. Technically, at least according the Jewish sources I’ve cited, I do not now nor will I have in the future, any duty to actually eat, sleep, or otherwise spend any of my time inside the Sukkah for the full duration of the festival or any bit of it.

Additionally, traditional Christian sources would probably agree with that assessment as well, though for different reasons (“Jesus fulfilled,” and so on, and so forth).

What would seem to be incumbent upon the Gentile is to practice peace by “forsaking our striving for selfish gain and replacing it with a sense of responsibility and sharing of privileges with all of humanity.”

But we don’t have to build, eat, and dwell in a sukkah to do that.

However, I have been trying to write about how the believing Gentile, even one “stranded” on a metaphorical deserted island and isolated from Gentile and Jewish community, still has a relationship with God, a relationship that indeed is desired by God.

So let’s have a short look at the sorts of “shelter” Sara Debbie Gutfreund says a Jew can expect to find in a Sukkah.

  1. The shelter of faith
  2. The shelter of gratitude
  3. The shelter of connection
  4. The shelter of authenticity
  5. The shelter of prayer
  6. The shelter of awe

Let’s take the obviously easy points in the list first. I don’t think anyone, Christian or Jew, can say that it is inappropriate for the Gentile turning to God to experience faith, gratitude, and awe, and to respond with prayer.

If you deny the Gentile the ability to have faith in God, you deny God to the Gentile. And experiencing God to any degree should inspire awe in the spiritually aware person, Gentile as well as Jew. Naturally, realizing that God extended His plan for the redemption of Israel even to the nations of the world should be our inspiration for feeling grateful, and to humbly thank and praise Hashem in prayer.

What about connection?

For a Jew, unity and connection is all about being united and connected with other Jews. As we’ve seen above, that’s (apparently) never extended to Gentiles. Ms Gutfreund says that connection is created by bringing “family and friends” into your Sukkah, but presumably, she’s talking about Jewish family and friends (although with more liberal branches of Judaism and certainly if there are intermarried Jewish members of the family, then you might see Gentiles in some Sukkot).

So who do we get connected to? Even if we don’t build our own Sukkot, I suppose we can still unite with like-minded Gentiles at this time of year, celebrating, in our own fashion, our anticipation of the ultimate age of peace and tranquility.

For the Gentile on the metaphorical deserted island, alone with his/her Bible and prayers, there is still the ability to forge a connection with God. We can still invite Him into our house, even if that house is only our heart and being.

Authenticity? Ms. Gutfreund describes this as:

Close the gap between who you are and how you appear to the world around you. Don’t be afraid to change in order to be truly aligned with your authentic values. Use the space of the sukkah to open the space within that wants to be free.

That doesn’t sound specific to Sukkot necessarily. I think we have a standing directive to re-order our lives to be more in line with God, to draw closer to Him, to conform our lives to His desires increasingly across the passage of time.

I can’t tell you, as a non-Jewish disciple of Rav Yeshua (Jesus) whether you should or shouldn’t build a sukkah or to celebrate the Festival of Sukkot one way or another, or to just ignore it completely.

temple of messiahI can’t tell you in absolute terms if or how the people of the nations of the world will be involved in Sukkot in the Messianic Era. I can relate what I understand of the Jewish and Christian traditions on the matter, but I can’t tell you what God has in mind. For all I know (and in spite of Jewish and Christian traditional interpretations), God really will require Gentile representatives from each of the nations that went to war against Israel to go to Jerusalem, pay homage to King Messiah, and celebrate Sukkot by eating and drinking with Jewish people in Sukkot.

And for all I know, God wouldn’t mind Gentile families booking their vacations in Jerusalem during the Sukkot festival just because it would be an incredible way to experience our participation in the reign of peace and justice brought forth by Israel’s King and ours.

Lessons in Christian Repentance on Yom Kippur

Adam trudged past the gates of Eden, his head low, his feet heavy with remorse and pain.

Then he stopped, spun around and exclaimed, “Wait a minute! You had this all planned! You put that fruit there knowing I would eat from it! This is all a plot!”

There was no reply.

Without failure, we can never truly reach into the depths of our souls. Only once we have failed can we return and reach higher and higher without end.

Beyond Eden.

“Failure”
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

I previously said that in examining what the Bible says about how we non-Jews are to relate to God, I’d be staying mainly in the Apostolic Scriptures, since righteous Gentiles in the Tanakh (Old Testament) aren’t specifically oriented to Yeshua (Jesus).

However, since I’m writing this just before the start of Yom Kippur, and given that Adam, the first man, could not be considered Jewish but had a direct relationship with Hashem, I thought I’d write a little about how we Gentiles can fail and then return to God.

According to the above-quoted statement from Rabbi Freeman, God planned for Adam and Havah (Eve) to fail. Well, maybe He did and maybe He didn’t. However, if we believe God knows everything and is not bound by time or causality, then certainly before He “laid the foundations of the Earth,” He knew Adam and Havah would partake of the one thing in Eden that was forbidden to them.

So from Adam’s point of view, maybe it’s true that God “planned” for them to fail.

exileI can only imagine that, since they had nothing else to compare it to, Adam and Havah rather took their relationship and intimacy with God for granted…that is until it was severely damaged by their fall.

Is God as concerned about the sins of the Gentiles and their potential for repentance as He is for the Jews? A traditional Christian would automatically answer “yes,” but what would a Jew think? My opinion, based on a lot of years of study, tells me that most observant Jews would believe that God is more concerned about the spiritual state of the Jewish people than of Gentiles (and particularly Christians).

But is this true?

In an absolute sense, unless we can read God’s mind, so to speak, we can’t know.

However, we can take an educated guess and Yom Kippur sets the stage for this.

A day or so ago, I read an article called Jonah and the Whale: Why the Book of Jonah is Read on Yom Kippur. The question is why is this particular book read on Yom Kippur, the most Holy Day of the Jewish year?

The Book of Jonah is read in the synagogue on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the sacred Day of Atonement. Why, of all books in the Bible, this book this most holy day?

The answer is clear. The major themes of the book are singularly appropriate to the occasion—sin and divine judgment, repentance and divine forgiveness.

What is remarkable is that the work is not at all about Israel. The sinners and penitents and the sympathetic characters are all pagans, while the anti-hero, the one who misunderstands the true nature of the one God, is none other than the Hebrew prophet. He is the one whom God must teach a lesson in compassion.

JonahIt’s actually an astonishing revelation when you think about it. Almost without exception, only Jews observe Yom Kippur in any fashion at all, and yet, we see in the reading of the Book of Jonah, that the main objects of God’s concern for repentance, redemption, and reconciliation are a large group of pagan Gentiles. Further, the only Jew involved is reluctant to be an agent of redemption for these Gentiles, so much so that he literally “jumps ship” in attempting to get away from his responsibilities.

The brief article goes on to say:

It is precisely these aspects of this sublime prophetic allegory, and in particular the subthemes of the book, that inform Yom Kippur. These motifs attracted the ancient Jewish sages and led them to select Jonah as one of the day’s two prophetic lectionaries (The other is Isaiah 57:14–58:4). Its universalistic outlook; its definition of sin as predominantly moral sin (The “evil” of Jonah 1:2 is defined as injustice in Jonah 3:8); its teaching of human responsibility and accountability; its apprehension that true repentance is determined by deeds and established by transformation of character (Jonah 3:10), not by the recitation of formulas, however fervent; its emphasis on the infinite preciousness of all living things in the sight of God (Jonah 4:10–11); and, finally, its understanding of God as “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness” (Jonah 4:2)—all these noble ideas of the Book of Jonah constitute the fundamentals of Judaism and the quintessence of Yom Kippur.

The “universalistic outlook” to how sin is defined as primarily moral, human responsibility and accountability to God, and how repentance is accessible to everyone through deeds and established by transformation of character.

So for the Gentile as well as the Jew, God is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness.”

While the essay’s author Nahum Sarna states that “these noble ideas of the Book of Jonah constitute the fundamentals of Judaism and the quintessence of Yom Kippur,” we also see (apparently) that these “noble ideas” are equally applied to Gentile repentance and reconciliation to God.

As I said some months ago, we aren’t so much chopped liver after all. Although God sent a Jewish prophet (yes, in the Bible, we do find a few non-Jewish prophets) to redeem Gentile Nineveh, God’s primary purpose was to redeem Gentile Nineveh.

And guess what? Everyone, from the King down to the lowliest commoner, mourned, fasted, and repented and were subsequently forgiven by God.

I was explaining to someone at work, a Christian (we were discussing Yom Kippur), how the process of repentance and forgiveness of willful sin was the same in the Tanakh (Old Testament) and in the days of the Temple as it is today. There was no sacrifice for willful sin. Psalm 51 teaches us that how we are to repent hasn’t changed over time.

praying aloneThe Book of Jonah teaches us that a Gentile is of just as much concern to God as a Jew and that He seeks repentance from all.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

John 3:16 (NASB)

The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:9 (NASB)

So non-Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah can take heart and realize we too have our hope in the God of Israel, because, no matter how special Israel is to God, all people, even the lowliest from the nations, are special to Him (though probably not in the same way as Israel) as well.

One of the unintentional messages I think some non-Jews think they hear from Messianic Judaism is that in Israel’s specialness to God, we non-Jews who are “Judaically aware” are pretty non-special as well. I think that’s why some Gentiles have chosen to leave Messianic Judaism and either transition to Hebrew Roots, which they may see as more egalitarian, or return to Church, which is very much a “pro-Gentile” environment.

It’s also probably one of the reasons some Gentiles who have been involved in Messianic Judaism, have rejected Messiah and converted to (usually) Orthodox Judaism.

Jonah's KikayonHowever, the non-Jewish believer, whether they are Judaically aware or not (although such awareness gives we Gentiles, in my opinion, a better and more accurate understanding of the Bible), even isolated from community on some metaphorical deserted island, can be comforted by the fact that God wants us to return to Him, too.

In creating the whole of existence, G‑d made forces that reveal Him and forces that oppose Him—He made light and He made darkness.

One who does good brings in more light. One who fails, feeds the darkness.

But the one who fails and then returns transcends that entire scheme. He reaches out directly to the Essential Creator. Beyond darkness and light.

And so, his darkness becomes light.

“Returning Light”
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

Returning to God in Time for Sukkot

If Yom Kippur can also be a time of repentance and mourning for non-Jewish disciples of Yeshua (Jesus), then I suppose I’m late.

On the other hand, as PL recently commented:

That having been said, Sukkot is coming up, and you should probably give some consideration to how much you are willing to pursue practical enactments of the anticipated messianic era in which Zachariah envisioned the requirement for gentiles to celebrate Sukkot and the aspects of it that imply redemption for the nations. The above essay seems to indicate that you’ve pulled away too far, and perhaps that you’ve begun to acknowledge it.

I heard somewhere (I can’t recall the source thanks to my leaky memory) that if Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur can mark a season of repentance and renewal for the Jewish people, then maybe Sukkot serves that purpose for the nations.

No, I’m not attempting to reintroduce myself into Jewish space, but I can’t ignore the (Biblical) fact that God also wants to include the Gentiles in the Kingdom of Heaven, that is, the Messianic Kingdom of redemption of the world. And while we are not nor shall we ever be Israel, there has to be a way to return to God that is appropriate for the non-Jew and that doesn’t involve directly (or maybe even indirectly, if such a thing is possible) using any form of Judaism as the Gentile’s conduit to repentance and reconciliation with God.

But where to begin?

Actually, I did begin and then stopped. I thought about looking at the practices of Yeshua and how he related to the Father as well as what Paul taught the Gentiles of his day, thinking this could provide some sort of baseline for the 21st century non-Jewish disciple of Rav Yeshua.

followBut while more traditional Christians have no trouble conceptualizing how to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, the fact remains that the Master almost never interacted with non-Jews and when he did, he wasn’t always civil about it. Yeshua was (and is) a Jewish teacher who gathered a Jewish following in the first century of the common era, in the then Roman-occupied Holy Land. He came, at that place and time, for the lost sheep of Israel, not the lost sheep of the nations.

For the nations, Yeshua never came directly. For us, he sent Paul instead (Acts 9).

So what did Paul teach? The answer to that question would fill a book, probably many books, and many books have been written with Paul as their subject, some complementary (Christian) and some with disdain (Jewish). And almost certainly, the vast majority of those books got Paul and how he related to Jewish people, Judaism, and his Gentile pupils all wrong.

Probably one of the very few books that may have gotten Paul right, or at least come as close as we can given the Apostle lived and died nearly two-thousand years ago, was the Nanos and Zetterholm volume Paul Within Judaism (and I still owe Mark Nanos a book review on Amazon).

Don’t think that my returning here to write, even occasionally, means that I think myself worthy of being read. It absolutely doesn’t mean I think myself a teacher. But PL is right. In pulling away from the inevitable strife caused by the presence of a non-Jew (and particularly me) in Jewish space, specifically Messianic Jewish space, I’ve also pulled away from paying much attention to God.

In attempting to hack my 61-year-old body to perform younger at the gym and in more practical physical applications, I’ve used that effort to insulate me from “hacking” my relationship with God, particularly continual repentance and reconciliation.

At this late date in the Jewish High Holidays, there’s no way I can even beg the forgiveness of all those I’ve upset and offended online and in person, but I’ll take this opportunity to humble myself before all of you anyway.

I’m still covered in “filthy rags” as it were. Still in need of a lot of work. I’ve always known that, but the issues over a busted computer (long story) and various other stressors this weekend have brought that realization to the forefront.

I know now that as flawed and imperfect as I am, what kept me moving forward or at least prevented me from moving backward, was writing this blog. Even as I kept falling on my face time after time, each new blog post was my effort to pull myself back up and keep on running the race (with apologies to the writer of Hebrews 12:1-3).

unworthySo I’m telling you that I’m not a better person, at least not better than I was a month, two months, or six months ago. I’ve taken some steps to cull a few of the more negative influences I’ve encountered in the blogosphere and in social media, if for no other reason, than to reduce the level of conflict I experience, but I don’t think I’ve benefited significantly from that as yet.

So where does that leave me?

Non-Jewish disciples of Jesus find their home (this is a generalization, not an absolute statement) in more or less one of two places: Most of them find a home in some sort of Christian church. No surprise there. A significant minority find their home in either an expression of Messianic Judaism or in some version of Hebrew Roots.

None of that helps me.

What’s left?

Well, even if I found myself on a deserted island somewhere thousands of miles from anyone else, there would still be God.

Assuming in a communal and spiritual sense, that’s actually my situation, what’s to be done?

The answer returns me to the Apostle Paul and what he taught. If Jewish avenues of connection aren’t available to me in forging a relationship with God, then Paul certainly must have taught his Gentile students how they could turn to Hashem.

How did they?

Here’s what little I have so far. I put this together a few months ago:

What Did Paul Teach?

What we do/don’t do:

  • Gentiles weren’t to be circumcised.
  • Gentiles weren’t to convert to Judaism.
  • Cornelius prayed at the set times of prayer.
  • Cornelius gave charity to the Jewish people.
  • Paul preached that the Gentiles owed charity to the poor of Israel.
  • Pray for Jerusalem.
  • The Jewish PaulExamples 1 Cor 5:11 and 13. Purge evil from among you and no slander or backbiting.
  • Practice repairing the world a little every day.
  • Restore Jesus and Paul and their teachings to their original Jewish context.
  • Teach the centrality of Israel in the restoration of the world.

Who we are:

  • Gentiles can call Abraham their Father (Rom. 4:11).
  • [Many of the contributors of the Nanos/Zetterholm volume say that Gentile believers had an “anomalous identity” and “occupied a social and religious no-man’s land”. Gentile identity defies classification.]
  • Gentile believers are neither proselytes nor God-fearers.
  • Like converts, we make an exclusive commitment to the God of Israel, but unlike converts, we do not take on Jewish ancestral practices (kosher food, shabbat, circumcision, and so on).
  • While we retain our native ethnic identities, we no longer worship our native gods.
  • Paul saw us as part of Abraham’s seed (Gen. 17:4-5, Gal. 3:29, Rom. 4:13-18), and yet Israel is also Abraham’s seed.
  • Nanos says we are not guests nor proselytes but full members alongside the Jews (members in what…the Kingdom of Heaven probably).

All this is pretty disorganized and needs a lots of fleshing out.

While I’ve missed the boat as far as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are concerned, it’s still not too late to at least get back on the road in time for Sukkot (what most Christians think of as the “Festival of Booths”).

I apologize for involving Jewish online resources, but in a lot of cases, I have no choice since Paul operated on this calendar and, as PL pointed out in the above-quoted statement, even we Gentiles will be operating within such a calendar or observance in Messianic Days.

walking outPreviously, I’ve drawn some ire, both in blog comments and via email, by citing or quoting from specific Messianic Jewish resources that were written for a non-Jewish audience in mind, so I’m going to do my best to avoid mentioning them as I chronicle my journey of return.

That’s regrettable, since a lot of how I understand my relationship with God, Paul, Yeshua, and the centrality of Israel (and not the Church) in national Israel’s redemption and the redemption of the world through her, is from those resources.

But one of my goals for this blog (it always has been actually) is to not promote conflict. Sometimes the only way to avoid conflict is to avoid interacting with some people and groups who, unfortunately, I have a tendency to irritate and provoke (and I apologize and ask forgiveness of all those folks too, but even if they forgive me, repentance and forgiveness don’t automatically mean reconciliation…sometimes, you just can’t go home).

I don’t want “morning meditations” to be like so many other blogs in the online religious space that go out of their way to generate conflict, disagreement, and even raw hostility.

I’m not teaching, declaring, or demanding. I’m just sharing my personal and spiritual experiences (such as they are) day by day (or perhaps more periodically).

What did Paul teach his Gentile disciples and how can I apply (if it’s possible) that to my own life? What can I learn from those few other non-Jews, such as Cornelius, who worshiped God outside of Judaism and within their own non-Jewish households?

Since the Jewish Messiah and becoming his disciple (through the teachings of Paul) is at the core of this exploration, I don’t know that any examples of non-Jews we see in the Tanakh (what Christians call the Old Testament) are relevant or even appropriate.

NoahOne notable example might be Noah, since he preceded any notion of Judaism and was considered “a righteous man, blameless in his time,” and “Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9 NASB).

Noah prayed to God, God spoke with Noah, Noah obeyed God, and Noah sacrificed to God, so what he did (apart from building an Ark and gathering a bunch of animals together) isn’t entirely out of the ballpark.

But for the most part, I’ll be spending my time in the Apostolic Scriptures, hoping some vestige of these ancient trails can point me to my way home as well.

My Humble Teacher

Note: This is one of two blog posts I wrote several weeks ago, before the more recent “What’s Yours is Yours”. I’m posting it publically because nothing is of any use when hidden under a bowl, so to speak. It represents my thoughts at an earlier stage of my current process.

“The unique quality of Mashiach is that he will be humble. Though he will be the ultimate in greatness, for he will teach Torah to the Patriarchs and to Moshe Rabeinu (alav hashalom), still he will be the ultimate in humility and self-nullification, for he will also teach simple folk.”

-from “Today’s Day” for Monday, Menachem Av 1, Rosh Chodesh, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

In seeking to re-invent my understanding of who I am in Messiah and what that means, I decided to step (somewhat) outside the traditional role of the “Messianic Gentile” (poor choice of words, I know) and attempt, however feebly, to engage my identity in Messiah on its own terms.

Obviously, that doesn’t mean stepping completely outside a Jewish educational framework as you can plainly see (although I am more outside now then when I originally wrote these words), but what if I attempt to understand Rav Yeshua as we see him in the Gospel record, as my own teacher? Is such a thing reasonable, given that every lesson he ever taught was almost exclusively to Jews?

Then Yeshua spoke to the crowd of people and to his disciples, saying…

The scholars and the Prushim sit in the seat of Mosheh, so whatever they tell you, observe and do it. Only be careful not to do as their deeds, for they say things but they do not do them. They bind heavy loads and burdens on the shoulders of people, while they themselves are unwilling even to lift a finger. They do all of their deeds for them to be seen by sons of men. For they widen their tefillin and lengthen their tzitziyot. They love to be seated first at meals and to sit first in synagogues, for others to ask of their shalom in the markets, and for sons of men to call them “rabbi, rabbi”. But as for you, do not be called “rabbi,” for you have one teacher, the Mashiach, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone of you on earth “father,” for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Also, do not be called “teacher,” because your one teacher is the Mashiach. The greatest among you shall be to you as a servant. Everyone who lifts himself up will be brought low, but everyone who lowers himself will be lifted up. But how terrible for you, hypocritical scholars and Prushim! For you shut up the kingdom of Heaven from before men.

Matthew 23:1-13 (Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels)

There’s a lot packed in those few verses, but it seems that Rav Yeshua was at once acknowledging that the Prushim (Pharisees) were not only teaching correctly but had the authority to make binding halachic rulings for their followers, while at the same time were all too human and sometimes (or in some cases often) behaved differently than how they taught.

PhariseesThis isn’t unlike the very human teachers and authorities we have today. Some behave consistently with their teachings and others do not. I wonder if this is how we should view many Christian Pastors and scholars, who uphold the honor and glory of Messiah (Christ) while at the same time, making the human error of dismissing Israel, Judaism, and the Jewish people. Perhaps we should also consider the Rabbinic Sages similarly, since they uphold the centrality of Israel in God’s redemptive plan but (for most) remain unilluminated as to the revelation of Messiah.

How terrible for you, hypocritical scholars and Prushim! For you purify the cup and the bowl on the outside, while their insides are full of robbery and gluttony. Blind Parush! First purify the inside of the cup, so that the outside may also be purified!

-ibid, vv.25-26

I quote this not to indict the Pharisees but to indict me. Part of my absence from the religious blogosphere was and is an ongoing effort to purify the inside of my cup, so to speak, so that the cup, that is me, may be fully purified (although I can’t say if that purification will ever take place). How can we point fingers at “blind” teachers and scholars and while ignoring ourselves and our (my) own shortcomings? Isn’t that also hypocrisy?

For I say to you, from now on you will not see me until you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of HaShem!”

-ibid v.39

I know the Master’s words have a very specific meaning here, one directed at the Israelite generation to which he was speaking, but consider how many among the Gentiles, we Christians, have taken a rather lukewarm attitude toward Messiah, toward Christ. We put Christian doctrine or, in some cases, Jewish praxis in front of us as our highest priority, and neglect the one to whom we owe everything, for without him, we would have no reconciliation with God at all (Ephesians 2:13).

Is he not our worthy and humble teacher, who instructs not only the high, the mighty, the greatest among people, but also the downtrodden, the lowly, the unworthy?

While most Christians assume that just about everything the Master said has universal and timeless application, they would be surprised at just how much of his message is lost if we don’t consider the specific circumstances, context, and audience he was addressing. All that said, there are a few things that have more than one interpretation:

For one nation will rise against another nation, and one kingdom against another kingdom, and there will be famine, disease, and earthquakes here and there. But all these are only the beginning of birth pains.

Matthew 24:7-8

destruction of the templeBut every generation since the day the Master uttered these words has experienced wars, earthquakes, and famines. They must have all believed these were the “birth pains of Messiah,” the signs of his imminent return. Didn’t the devout of those generations repent believing Messiah’s return would happen at any moment? I know more than a few people who expect the Messiah’s return soon, based on the various social and political crises that are evident in our world, but the world has always had an abundance of social and political crises.

Maybe Messiah will return soon and maybe not, but the “timeless” nature of his warning is that each generation should behave as if Christ were coming back today. Too many parables have been told of those who waited until it was too late and didn’t heed the underlying notice that it isn’t just for Messiah’s sake we should be ready, but for our own.

Rabbi Eliezer said: “Repent one day before your death.” His disciples asked him, “Does then one know on what day he will die?”

“All the more reason he should repent today, lest he die tomorrow.”

-Shabbat 153a

But one who waits until the time of the end will be saved. This good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed in all the earth as testimony to all the nations, and afterward the end will come.

Matthew 24:13-14

Clearly, the message of the Kingdom was meant not just for Israel, but for all nations. If we should repent expecting Messiah and then die before he comes, what is the harm? But if we fail to repent and he comes and we are not prepared and waiting for him, whose fault is that?

Verse 30 in the same chapter states “All the families of the earth will mourn,” not just Israel. Then Messiah will gather all the Jews from exile and return them to Israel. Shouldn’t we Gentiles mourn for not only how we rejected Hashem, but how we have treated his Holy Ones, the Jewish people, particularly in the name of Christ?

Therefore, stay alert, for you do not know the day or the hour.

Matthew 25:13

Again, that must have made it seem as if Yeshua were speaking of his imminent return, but, as I said above, what if each generation was meant to behave such?

jewish charity
Photo: Reuters

Compare Matthew 25:14-25, the parable of the entrusted servants to vv31-46, those who fed and comforted the Messiah (the weak, poor, and needy) and those who didn’t. This is what it is to be entrusted, great or small, by God with an investment. Use His gifts to help others, particularly the needy among Israel.

The answer, explains R’ Moshe, lies in the reason that one who fulfills a command is considered greater than one who acts voluntarily. On the face of it, this would seem to be somewhat counterintuitive. Seemingly, a volunteer should be deserving of greater reward than one who fulfills his duty. The truth, however, is that this is not so. One who has a duty to fulfill must face the yetzer hara, which stands in his way and tries to prevent him from doing what he must. When he succeeds in overcoming the yetzer hara, the person who has been commanded has earned the greater reward.

-from “A Mussar Thought for the Day,” p.121
The Shabbos commentary for Parashas Masei
A Daily Dose of Torah

If you are naturally generous in giving to charity, if it never occurs to you to gamble or consume alcohol excessively, you may seem especially pious and virtuous, but then again, these aren’t your “demons,” these aren’t the struggles you face in your walk of faith. So if you give generously and are typically a sober person, and this is easy for you, you have overcome nothing. However, to someone who has to fight to remember that they will not starve if they give their money to charity, to someone who battles substance abuse or gaming problems, to someone who has a temper always on the verse of going off half-cocked, if they too appear generous, sober, and kind, to do so, they have had to face many difficult obstacles and have overcome them only with hardship and strife.

In my recent readings, I’ve come across a small commentary on Psalm 49 which states that man has his sojourn on earth to enhance his spiritual development and prepare for his place in the World to Come. Similarly, the underlying meaning of Psalm 111 is, while man praises God for providing for his every need so that man can do God’s will, nevertheless, man still must choose which path to follow. That’s the nature of free will.

God provides to the just and unjust alike. The only difference is how each person decides to spend the gifts of God.

If you have done wrong in the past, do an equal amount of good in the present.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Commentary on Parashas Matos, p.369
Growth Through Torah

Chofetz Chayim
Chofetz Chayim

Citing Chofetz Chayim al Hatorah, Rabbi Pliskin teaches that even one who is guilty of many sins may still perform many mitzvot. From my point of view, it’s not just the change in behavior that’s important, although change is certainly required, but true repentance, turning away from sin and back to Hashem, is critical. It is from teshuvah and resolving to permanently change and become the person Hashem made you (and me) to be, that the mitzvot spring forth.

The Chidushai Harim commented that if a member of Klal Yisroel killed someone, even though it was unintentional he will feel extremely broken and guilty. He will be so shattered that he has no place in the world to go or to hide. Then the Almighty tells him, “I will give you a place.”

-ibid, Commentary on Parashas Masai, p.375

A person living with habitual sin and who is far from God for many years becomes numb to the experience, and while he may intellectually acknowledge the existence and even the righteousness of God, on an experiential level, this means little. But once such a person truly repents and turns to God, it is as if he is an unintentional murderer who has suddenly become aware of his crime. He is devastated, distraught, inconsolable. He feels he has no place in this world among good and noble human beings, nowhere he could go to redeem himself and to start a new life afresh.

But then God tells him that he does have a place in the world, one that God prepared just for him. It can be difficult to accept such a gift, for often God is more forgiving of us than we are of ourselves. But as Rabbi Pliskin teaches:

We need a balance. Lack of guilt is even a worse problem than too much guilt. But excessive guilt is also a problem. The ideal is to feel regret when you harm someone. But then do what you can to make amends and do tshuvah. When your repentance is sincere, you can feel joy that you are fulfilling a mitzvah.

I believe there are many things Rav Yeshua can teach us that have a wider application than when they were first spoken to their original audience in their linguistic, cultural, national, and ethnic context. I believe that the teacher of Israel can also be the teacher of all mankind. I believe the teacher to the Jewish people, from her lowliest shepherd to her mightiest kings, can also be my teacher.

While I think that, for the Gentile disciple of Yeshua, Judaism and particularly Messianic Judaism, provides the best educational venue for understanding and learning from Messiah, it does not necessarily follow that Jewish praxis must also be incumbent upon the non-Jew. To paraphrase a friend of mine:

Do not seek Christianity and do not seek Judaism. Seek an encounter with the living God.

pathI know I have no place in a church based on long and painful experience, but given more recent transactions, it may also be true that I can never formally belong to anything called “Judaism” either, Messianic of otherwise, at least in terms of corporate praxis. I don’t seem to fit in any established context or mould. But if God has extended the blessings of the Kingdom of Heaven, even to the Gentile (to me), then maybe that’s where I belong. It’s on that path I am now looking for the person I am supposed to be.

From my father’s sichot: When Mashiach will come (speedily in our time, amein), then we shall really long for the days of the exile. Then we will truly feel distress at our having neglected working at avoda; then will we indeed feel the deep pain caused by our lack of avoda. These days of exile are the days of avoda, to prepare ourselves for the coming of Mashiach, speedily in our time, amein.

-from “Today’s Day” for Wednesday Menachem Av 3 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

I’m going to be writing about this for a while (or not…I’m not as hopeful now as I once was). I hope you’ll come along as I sit at the feet of my humble teacher and glean from him those lessons I am able to follow (however short that journey may be).

Between superior and nothing, I exist.

-from Riverton Mussar

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.