36 Days: Backing Away from the High Dive

For the most part they were willing to support the state and to partake of the cultural bounty of the Hellenistic world, but they were unwilling to surrender their identity. They wished to “belong” but at the same time to remain distinct.

Shaye J.D. Cohen
Chapter 2: Jews and Gentiles
Social: Jews and Gentiles, pg 37
from the book
From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, 2nd Ed

This statement of Cohen’s describing the early diaspora Jews who were living in Greek society also reminds me of some halachically, ethnically, and cultural Jews who have come to faith in Yeshua (Jesus) as Messiah and who “belong” to the “body of believers,” “but at the same time (wish) to remain distinct” as Jews. Not an easy task, considering how both mainstream Christianity and the Christian Hebrew Roots offshoot movement want to “equalize” the Jews by making them like the rest of the Gentile community (in the former case, by making all Jews give up their Jewish religious and cultural practices, and in the latter case, by requiring all Gentiles take up Jewish religious and cultural practices).

But that’s not the main thing I want to talk about right now.

I had a most interesting dream last night. It went something like this:

I was sitting in a chair in some sort of waiting area at church with a bunch of other people. I think we were waiting to get into the Sanctuary so services could begin. I was looking through a notebook where I was trying to sort out some sort of theological puzzle. I had lots of notes written in pencil from the day before. I thought I had pretty well figured out what the answer was, but a fellow who knew what I was working on said I got it all wrong. I tried to explain my point of view, but I couldn’t find the right words.

As we were talking, another man approached me. I was still sitting down and had to look up at him. He wanted to invite me to a different Sunday school class than the one I had been attending and asked if I had a “Jesus of Nazareth Bible,” whatever that is. I looked in my right hand and was embarrassed to discover that I was holding the Jewish New Testament Commentary by David H. Stern, which I knew would never be accepted in a traditional Christian Bible study (and I thought I had given up Stern’s works many years ago).

The book was filled with a lot of loose pieces of paper that contained many of my notes. I guess it was good enough for him (though he seemed displeased), because the man told me to stand up and follow him. I looked down and discovered I was barefoot. By my feet were a pair of socks and the sandals I use to put something on my feet when I want to step out on my back patio for a few minutes (not exactly appropriate for church).

That’s when I woke up. My daughter has to be at work at 5 a.m. on Sundays, so I have to get up fairly early to drive her there.

That’s also when I knew I wouldn’t go to church today. It’s been a really active holiday week and weekend and I feel like I need just a little bit of space for a while.

But I can’t go back to sleep and I’m too tired to do much else, so I decided to write. I haven’t actually written anything for days since my family has been visiting, so I feel a little like an animal that has spent too much time in a cramped kennel. The gate has been opened and I’m able to run around in the park again. Feels good, but I wish my brain wasn’t full of cotton candy and iron filings.

In order to maintain their distinctiveness and identity, most Jews of the ancient world sought to separate themselves from their gentile neighbors. In the cities of the East, they formed their own autonomous ethnic communities, each with its own officers, institutions, and regulations. Some cities, notably Alexandria and Rome, had neighborhoods inhabited mostly by Jews. (These were not “ghettos” but “ethnic neighborhoods.”) Following the lead of Ezra, the Jews of the Second Temple period grew more and more intolerant of marriages with foreigners.

-Cohen, “Social: Jews and Gentiles”

I’ve written before that I’ve suspected the schism between Christianity and Judaism occurred fairly early, perhaps within a hundred years or less of the beginning of Paul’s “mission to the Gentiles.” But my opinion has been rudely ridiculed by members of the Hebrew Roots movement who are heavily invested in the notion that early Gentile and Jewish “Christians” were completely equal and uniform members of a single religious movement following Jesus of Nazareth, with the Gentiles adopting all of the Jewish cultural and religious practices.

But according to Cohen, particularly the Jews in the diaspora (where Paul was doing much of his work bringing the good news of the Messiah to the Gentiles) were still strongly driven to maintain their ethnic, cultural, and national identity as Jews. Thus, even the Jews who were involved in that early sect of Judaism called “the Way” were unlikely to surrender their unique identity to a non-Jewish population. In fact, the problem of how to integrate the non-Jewish people groups into a Jewish movement must have seemed an almost insurmountable task, both for the leaders of the Way (the Jerusalem Council) and for the Gentiles who were attracted to this form of Judaism. This is probably why the Acts 15 letter limited the requirements of Gentile disciples to just a few of the mitzvot.

The response of the Gentiles receiving the letter confirms that they neither needed or wanted to actually convert to Judaism (although there was an effort among other Jews to convert Gentiles to Judaism) and were overjoyed to become disciples of “the Christ” without having to be Jewish.

So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words.

Acts 15:30-32 (ESV)

Cohen comments that Judaism wasn’t something that was thought to be easily accessed, and that even the Gentiles respected its exclusiveness:

Even those Greeks and Romans who despised Judaism respected its exclusiveness as an ancestral usage that the Jews themselves were not free to change.

Immediately following the above-quoted sentence, Cohen makes a statement that seems to also confirm those Christians (non-Jewish followers of the Way) who adopted some of the Jewish practices were treated remarkably different by the Roman authorities than their Jewish counterparts.

The Christians, too, were accused of atheism, and since they could not defend their refusal by appeal to ancestral custom, they were persecuted.

I want to write more about what all this means in terms of Jewish and Christian relationships today, especially relative to Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots, but my main emphasis for this “meditation” is my own issues in “integration,” specifically into the church.

While my parents were visiting for Thanksgiving, my mother and I talked about this issue (she’s been trying to encourage me in going to church). She mentioned that she had been born and raised in a Lutheran family and for most of her life, she didn’t really think much about what that meant. She worshiped as a Lutheran because that’s what she had always done. She married and raised two sons as a devout Lutheran, but even after we grew up and left home, and even after she and my Dad retired and relocated to Utah, she still didn’t think much about what being a Lutheran meant.

Then, when my Dad and Mom moved to Kanab and they had to look for a church (not too many Lutherans in that part of Southwestern Utah), she got involved in different groups and started to study the Bible and consider what her faith meant, particularly in the area of religious community. The same thing happened as they got older and moved from Kanab to St. George. Mom and Dad had to visit a number of churches and attend just about every service and activity the church had to begin to discover if they “fit in.” In part, through that process, their faith and understanding grew. To become part of something, you have to dive in all the way and only when you’re drowning in it, do you find out if you are part of it and it is part of you.

Unlike the Jewish people of ancient or modern times, I don’t have a distinct cultural, ethnic, and faith identity that defines who I am in terms of God. But church is a culture and an identity and to belong to church, that’s an identity I have to adopt. To adopt it, I have to be part of it in every sense of the word, not just popping in for a few hours on Sunday morning.

Frankly, I hate the idea, primarily because I hate having to change my behavior patterns that much. Like most people, I’m a creature of habit. I go to work at the same time each morning and I come home at the same time each evening. I have my routine and my comfortable activities. Being part of a community, especially if you’re trying to “break in,” means changing all that; it means change.

I hate change.

But what happens if I don’t change?

Spiritual slumps are a natural part of spiritual growth. There is a cycle that people go through when at times they feel closer to God and at times more distant. In the words of the Kabbalists, it is “two steps forward and one step back.” So although you feel you are slipping, know that this is a natural process. The main thing is to look at your overall progress (over months or years) and be able to see how far you’ve come!

This is actually God’s ingenious way of motivating us further. The sages compare this to teaching a baby how to walk. When the parent is holding on, the baby shrieks with delight and is under the illusion that he knows how to walk. Yet suddenly, when the parent lets go, the child panics, wobbles and may even fall.

At such times when we feel spiritually “down,” that is often because God is letting go, giving us the great gift of independence. In some ways, these are the times when we can actually grow the most. For if we can move ourselves just a little bit forward, we truly acquire a level of sanctity that is ours forever.

Here is a practical tool to help pull you out of the doldrums. The Sefer HaChinuch speaks about a great principle in spiritual growth: “The external awakens the internal.” This means that although we may not experience immediate feelings of closeness to God, eventually, by continuing to conduct ourselves in such a manner, this physical behavior will have an impact on our spiritual selves and will help us succeed. (A similar idea is discussed by psychologists who say: “Smile and you will feel happy.”)

That is the power of Torah commandments. Even if we may not feel like giving charity or praying at this particular moment, by having a “mitzvah” obligation to do so, we are in a framework to become inspired. At that point we can infuse that act of charity or prayer with all the meaning and lift it can provide. But if we’d wait until being inspired, we might be waiting a very long time.

“Spiritual Slump”
Ask the Rabbi

stop-timeThis metaphor doesn’t completely apply to me since I’m not Jewish and don’t have the same spiritual relationship to the Torah as a Jew. One of the things I regret about Christianity is that is eliminated the structure of the mitzvot for the “freedom” of grace. More’s the pity.

Part of me wants the next five weeks or so to zip by so that January 1st will roll around and I can completely and finally spiritually “slump,” thus avoiding change altogether. Then I just pull the plug on most of my Internet presence, step out of the blogosphere, and then what happens to me is between me and God, with no accountability to or commentary by other human beings (and no one in the family is going to care if I go to church or not apart from my Mom).

However, as I’ve been reminded, self-improvement seems to be an expectation of God.

The Chazon Ish (20th century Israel) described the level a person is potentially capable of attaining if he has a long term goal for self-improvement: “If a person constantly strives to improve his character traits, it is possible he will eventually reach a level that he no longer gets angry, will not feel hatred or resentment, will not take revenge nor bear a grudge, will not have ambitions of seeking honor, and will not desire mundane pleasures.”

Today, view every person you find difficult as your partner in character development. View every encounter as an opportunity to develop your positive qualities.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Our Potential for Self-Improvement”
Daily Lift #645

I keep wondering if Jewish philosophy can ever be applied to a Christian, but a recent blog post quoting Max Lucado reminded me why I prefer Jewish writings over Christian commentaries:

If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it.

If He had a wallet, your photo would be in it.

He sends you flowers every spring.

He sends you a sunrise every morning.

Face it, friend – He is crazy about you!

God didn’t promise days without pain, laughter without sorrow, sun without rain; but He did promise strength for the day, comfort for the tears, and light for the way.

I’m sure Lucado is a wonderful human being, but reading his stuff for more than a few seconds gives me the same type of headache I get between my eyes as the last time I swallowed a mouthful of cotton candy.

I’m taking the day off of church. I think I’ll even take a nap now since the sky is finally getting lighter and I woke up at around 3:30 a.m. (It’s coming up on eight as I write this)

I much prefer Jewish teachings and wisdom, but Judaism isn’t my identity. As a disciple of Jesus, I’m considered a Christian, but so far, the thought of jumping into the deep end of the “church swimming pool” doesn’t seem appealing. I’ll sleep on it, read the church bulletin online later on today, and see if there’s some sort of class or activity I can take a dip into later on in the week.


3 thoughts on “36 Days: Backing Away from the High Dive”

  1. You have inspired me to get out my Commentary by Stern. I always did want to read through the entire book, but never got around to it. Have you read the whole thing?

  2. Hi James, you wrote:
    “I’ve written before that I’ve suspected the schism between Christianity and Judaism occurred fairly early, perhaps within a hundred years or less of the beginning of Paul’s “mission to the Gentiles.” But my opinion has been rudely ridiculed by members of the Hebrew Roots movement who are heavily invested in the notion that early Gentile and Jewish “Christians” were completely equal and uniform members of a single religious movement following Jesus of Nazareth, with the Gentiles adopting all of the Jewish cultural and religious practices.”

    One of my favourite Bible teachers, David Pawson, believes that a division occurred during Pauls lifetime and that his letter to the Romans was written to address an early incarnation of “Replacement Theology”. He taught on this in Jerusalem in 2002:
    “Israel in the book of Romans”.
    He concentrates on chapters 9-11.

    If you have the time they are worth listening to.

  3. Thanks, Onesimus. I’ll need to make the time for that.

    Also, thanks for commenting, Yours truly. It’s been awhile since I’ve read Stern myself, but there are so many other resources to access that it’s tough to pass up a book I haven’t read yet for one I have.

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