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The Question of Gentiles and Judaism

Dear Rabbi,

I have a question that has bothered me/intrigued me for years. What was Jesus’ true name? What was the name his mother called him? His disciples? The name that he told them that you can do all things “in my name.” I thought ya’ll may have something in your archives that would point to an answer.

Rabbi Rachael Bregman
“Rabbi, What’s Jesus’ Nickname?”

I was a little surprised to read such an article at My Jewish Learning, but I guess I shouldn’t be, since the “About Us” page for this site states:

MyJewishLearning.com is the leading transdenominational website of Jewish information and education. Offering articles and resources on all aspects of Judaism and Jewish life, the site is geared toward adults of all ages and backgrounds, from the casual reader looking for interesting insights, to non-Jews searching for a better understanding of Jewish culture, to experienced learners wishing to delve deeper into specific topic areas.

The word “transdenominational” suggests a somewhat more liberal perspective relative to Judaism and perhaps other religious streams. But it wasn’t just that Rabbi Bregman considered the question, but the answer she gave that interested me. Here’s part of it:

This is from a real email I received.

I am a rabbi in a small city on the coast of Georgia; as the only rabbi in a 75-or-so-mile radius, I get many emails and phone calls with all kinds of questions from folks in the Christian community. This one is a favorite for several reasons.

First of all, there is a place where Judaism and Christianity intersect, and that place is Jesus. I love how the writer is looking to me, the local go-to expert on all things Jewish, to help him navigate that intersection. For his sake and for ours, I wish there was an archive of Jewish stuff , where we could look there to not only help our Christian, Muslim and other-faith friends understand their religions better but to also gain deep insight into our own. I mean, a great way to understand the tensions around Jewish religious practice at the time of the Second Temple is to read the Gospels.

By the way, Bregman never gets around to attaching a Hebrew name to Jesus, but she did end her brief blog post with this:

I don’t know any other names for Jesus, or for Allah or Buddha or Brahman, or for God. But what I learned from this man’s email is that many of us are seeking that name, and by sharing the search with one another we enhance the journey for us all.

rabbi bregman
Rachael Bregman – Photo: jacksonville.com

I think what I was impressed with the most was that Bregman seemed completely unthreatened by the question and didn’t mind taking a stab at the answer that wasn’t in some way dismissive of the Christian questioner. Even in my own home, bringing up certain subjects with my Jewish wife (the Apostle Paul being one of them) is likely to be met with a rather icy response.

So I decided to find out what I could about Bregman.

Rachael Bregman knows she doesn’t fit most people’s concepts of a rabbi, at least as seen on TV.
“They’re always old men with earlocks. They’re called peyas,’’ she said of the strands of uncut hair in front of the ears. “That’s spelled p-e-y-a-s … maybe. I know how to spell it in Hebrew.”

Bregman is a 36-year-old divorcee who left Atlanta three weeks ago with her rambunctious 8-month-old dog Safi, a pit bull-ridgeback-Lab mix, at least those are the breeds Bregman thinks she has identified.

Bregman knows big-city life, having grown up in Boston and lived in Atlanta, but she was drawn to Brunswick by the size of Temple Beth Tefilloh, a Union of Reform Judaism congregation chartered 127 years ago.

-Terry Dickson, July 24, 2013
“Woman is Temple Beth Tefilloh’s first rabbi in 50 years”

She also has a Facebook page that’s pretty accessible as long as you’re logged in to Facebook.

I know some people, both Jewish and otherwise, who have issues with female Rabbis (or with female authority in general), Reform Judaism, and liberal political and social viewpoints, but at least she seems approachable, even if asking a Rabbi about Jesus’s name might be somewhat awkward.

Of course many of the comments on My Jewish Learning’s Facebook page were a little less than completely cordial:

Daniel C: I’ve been following MJL for quite awhile and this is the first I’ve seen posted on the matter. If they now have Messianic Jewish leanings then they’ve become a Christian organ and I will no longer be following them.

Carol C: Agreed. Jesus has nothing to do with Judaism. We do not study him or ever mention him in our learning. But since the inception of Christianity his followers have used his name to persecute and murder us. Can’t deny that.

D.E: My Jewish Learning is not a JEWISH resource but a trans-denominational collaboration of mostly misinformed christians and URJ adherents. That it exists does not make it authoritative.

Lori F: Has this become a “jews for jesus” site now?

interfaithAnd the beat goes on. Actually, these responses are pretty predictable, although nothing I read in the original article seemed to support the idea of a Jew having any sort of “approach” to Jesus.

A number of Christians and “Messianic” folks also commented in a more direct attempt to answer the question, but that didn’t go over well. One Jewish fellow even called “Messianic Judaism” an “oxymoron,” but I can’t locate the specific entry anymore.

In spite of recent comments from the Vatican and the suggestion of a partnership between Christianity and Orthodox Judaism, I still think we have a long way to go in having a more comfortable conversation take place between Gentile “Talmidei Yeshua” and Jewish people.

I certainly don’t blame any Jew for experiencing some sense of threat at the idea of a Christian “incursion” into Jewish historical, social, and religious space, but from my particular point of view, it is occasionally frustrating. However, even my highly unusual theological and doctrinal viewpoint won’t earn me any points within normative Judaism anymore than it does with my long-suffering wife.

Still, as a Gentile, once you’ve accepted a certain “Judaicly-aware” consciousness regarding the central message of the Bible, particularly the New Covenant, and how the nations of the world even have a place in a wholly Jewish document, it’s difficult to not want to build some sort of “interface.”

But there are limits, sometimes rather severe ones. Having acknowledged to the Jewish people, including those within Messianic Judaism that what’s yours is yours, whether within Jewish community or standing outside of it, we non-Jewish yet “Judaicly-aware” Talmidei Yeshua struggle to find a place where we belong.

I sometimes suspect that’s why many/most/all of the non-Jews associated with the ancient Jewish community of Yeshua followers in the early decades and centuries of the common era finally broke away from their mentors and teachers in what I’ve previously termed a rather ugly divorce, in order to create a brand new religious entity (Christianity) where the Gentile might feel more at home.

That “solution” has worked out, albeit in a very uneasy (gross understatement) manner, for nearly twenty centuries now, but for a few of us on the fringes of both Christianity and Judaism, that’s not good enough anymore.

NoahOf course, normative Judaism’s response to someone like me is to give up Christianity in any form and become a Noahide or “righteous Gentile”. Judaism maintains that the rest of the world doesn’t need to convert in order to be “saved,” so it doesn’t actively seek converts. In fact, it tends to discourage conversion for a variety of reasons.

But according to this JTA news story published a few days ago, a group called the National Center to Encourage Judaism is attempting to break through that “taboo”.

Maybe it’s the centuries of living under Christian and Muslim rule. Maybe it’s the history of forced conversion. Maybe it’s that there’s no religion requirement for the Jewish afterlife.

Whatever the reasons, Jews have traditionally been uncomfortable proselytizing.

But a Maryland foundation is flouting the taboo by funding outreach programs to non-Jews in an effort to bring them into the fold.

I read an article years or even a decade or so ago (so I can’t remember the source) suggesting that Jews attempt to convert Gentiles to Judaism as a matter of Jewish survival, since except among Orthodox Jewish communities, Jewish families are in a decline.

But again, this effort is not without its Jewish critics:

Eli W: If these people weren’t so ignorant of Jewish law they would realize that soliciting converts if prohibited and that the conversion process they’re advocating wouldn’t result in valid conversions anyway.

Of course if these people weren’t so ignorant of Jewish law the attrition rate from their movements wouldn’t be so shockingly high and there would be no need for conversions to replenish dwindling numbers.

So maybe a proper Jewish education for Jews might be a better idea than trying to recruit non-Jews?

Mark J: when was it ruled that soliciting converts is prohibited? Before or after Moshe Rabenyu married his shiksa? The ban on soliciting conversions was made under duress as was the end of polygamy and I am sure many other rulings by ersatz rabbis who ruled out of fear of gentiles…

Eli W: Did you ever hear of work called the Shulchan Aruch? That and predecessor works like the Tur and Maimonides Mishna Torah have defined normative Jewish law for centuries. They preceded the crackpot websites that seem to be your source for Jewish law.

Photo: OU.org

Dave M: Eli, you are very right on may of your comments. Except, my friend, many many groups are doing kiruv work eg. Chabad, Aish etc. but still the total result has been sadly very little. I am not sayng to stop. I am just saying let’s just ALSO put the information out there on the internet ie. information about Judaism in terms a non-Jew who knows nothing about Judaism can understand. Let’s spread the light of Torah around the world by talking about Judaism not by hiding it under a bushel basket.

There are voices that potentially could be involved in this debate that I’ve left out, mainly because I didn’t stumble across any convenient articles about them. Certainly Evangelical Christianity would have an opinion about Jews proselytizing Christians. Imagine an individual Jew or Jewish family going door to door in a largely Gentile/Christian neighborhood passing out booklets citing the social and spiritual advantages of becoming a Jews.

I don’t see that happening and I do believe that the Church would probably push back pretty hard if it ever did (also keep in mind that occasionally, converts to Judaism become vulnerable to abuse within Jewish community).

Then, of course, there’s what people in the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots movements would have to say about it. Periodically, non-Jews involved in either movement decide to shoot out the other side and convert to (usually Orthodox) Judaism, mistaking becoming a Jew as the primary means of having a relationship with God.

In many ways, it would be so much easier to accept that Jews are Jews and Christians are Christians and that they are separate communities with nothing in common. If Christians would just mind their/our own business and keep their/our noses out of Jewish community, everyone would be happy.

So being “Judaicly-aware” and a self-described “Talmid Yeshua” is a somewhat risky venture. Many non-Jews have felt the necessity to convert to (non-Messianic) Judaism because of such an awareness, remain Gentile and claim the Torah as belonging to them anyway, or gone the two-house, “I’m a member of a lost tribe” route, essentially saying that they’re already Jewish and thus the Torah is theirs, too.

I have another solution. How about learning to be comfortable in your own skin?

That doesn’t mean you, as a Gentile, have to learn to be comfortable in a church. I tried that for a couple of years and it didn’t work out.

So, you either live near enough to a religious community that is accepting of Jews and non-Jews who are “Talmidei Yeshua,” or you just admit to yourself that you are who you are and that you don’t fit into someone’s pre-conceived identity category.

That has the disadvantage of meaning that you, more often than not, will have no community to which you relate, unless you can find one online. However, it has the advantage of meaning you don’t have to constantly argue with people, since you aren’t claiming anything that belongs to any other person or group.

Up to JerusalemThe double-edged sword is building an identity for yourself that’s consistent with what the Bible says about righteous people of the nations who become disciples of Rav Yeshua. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that’s not such an easy thing to do. On the other hand, at least you have the freedom to create yourself.

If you are a Talmid Yeshua and are in a church (and you’re open with your opinions and beliefs), you are liable to butt heads with clergy and worshippers. The same if you are in a normative synagogue. So you either keep your mouth shut (easier for some people more than others), find a more compatible community, or believe that God accepts you as you are, even if most people don’t.

From Judaism’s point of view, anytime a non-Jew expresses an interest in Judaism the question is, “What do we do with these Gentiles?” Certainly the Apostle Paul (Rav Shaul) faced that question on many occasions. It’s the whole point of the events Luke recorded in Acts 15 relative to the legal proceeding establishing Gentile status in ancient Jewish community, and the resultant “Jerusalem letter.”

As you’ve read above, these aren’t issues contained only within Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots. They’re spilling over into many other Jewish venues as well. They probably always have. And normative Judaism doesn’t seem to have any better answer to this question than the rest of us do, and we have the rather gruesome history of how the Church has treated the Jewish people and Judaism to thank for it.

I know that there are all kinds of religious pundits in a wide variety of camps who think they have the definitive answer. I think it’s much more interesting to explore the question and to keep creating a better “me,” whoever that happens to be and whatever that means to God.

Review of Loving God When You Don’t Love the Church, Part Seven (The Final Review)

When He made the world, He made two ways to repair each thing: With harshness or with compassion. With a slap or with a caress. With darkness or with light.

“And G‑d looked at the light and saw that it was good.” Darkness and harsh words may be necessary. But He never called them good.

Even if you could correct another person with harsh words, the One Above receives no pleasure from it. When He sees his creatures heal one another with caring and with kindness, that is when He shines His smile upon us.

—cited from Kedushas Levi on Shabbos Vayechi, 5751
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on the Letters and Talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M.M. Schneerson

Continued from Part Six of this review.

Since the overall theme of Pastor Chris Jackson’s book (not to mention one of Boaz Michael’s books) is healing, I thought the above-quoted statement of Rabbi Freeman’s was an appropriate way to start out this final review.

Beginning with Chapter 18: The 21st Century Christian, Pastor Jackson writes:

Do what the occasion requires! This statement comes from the Bible, from the passage when the prophet Samuel gave this command to the newly anointed King Saul (see 1 Samuel 10:7).

The occasion of the 21st century requires a specific response. It requires a specific breed of Christians. The day and age in which we live requires a specific type of church.

The good news is that God has known all along what the specific challenges of each era would be, and He has strategically placed believers in those eras to respond to them.

Jackson also briefly cited Esther 4:14 and other sources, all to say that each of us, you and me, were born and live in this time for a very specific purpose.

That purpose, Jackson says, is to summon revival, which he discussed in a previous chapter. Quoting Romans 8:19-22, Jackson says creation is longing and groaning as if in childbirth.

Of course he means all this starts with the American church and ripples outward, which is Biblically unsustainable. However, it’s his “hook” to engage his reader, to engage us (or them). What he misses (and how would he ever see it?) is that our purpose as believing Gentiles is to encourage Jewish return to Torah observance, to making Aliyah, all in preparation for the return of Messiah and the rise of Israel to the head of the nations.

We can’t simply coexist with the ideologies of our day. We can’t peacefully allow our nation to be overrun and destroyed by demonic strategies.

See what I mean? Oh, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t pray for our country. We are encouraged to do so in the Bible. But America is not the center of all things. We haven’t replaced Israel. New York, Los Angeles, or Seattle haven’t replaced Jerusalem as the city where the Almighty has placed His Name.

But then Jackson asks an interesting question:

What are some of the specific messages that you were meant to carry?

The response I have in my notes is You have no idea.
The other question, which comes at the end of this chapter is:

Do you believe that God has strategically placed you in this hour of church history?

church-and-crossI don’t know that I’m even part of “church history” or “the Church,” at least as Jackson defines those terms. We search all our lives in an attempt to find purpose and meaning in the world and in God’s plan of redemption. Who is to say for what reason you or I exist at this moment in time?

Moving on to Chapter 19: The 21st Century Church, Jackson continues:

I would like to include a chapter here that slightly detours from specifically discussing you and me as individual believers and instead focuses briefly on the bigger picture of the Church. As we move past the hurts we received in church and resolve to take our place again in God’s plan for His Body, it’s important to recognize what that plan is so we can identify what our role in it might be.

Staying with his focus on the American church, Jackson believes that Christianity has a highly critical role in the history of America right now. Quoting Pastor Jack Hayford of The Church On The Way in Van Nuys, California, Jackson writes:

I perceive “an hour” has arrived. It is an hour of citywide impacting that is beginning to occur in New Testament ways, because New Testament vitality and spiritual penetration is taking place.

I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean, even in the larger context of the original quote. Sometimes, Christian Pastors word things rather oddly, at least from my point of view.

Somehow to Jackson, it means “The church is not irrelevant!” I suppose a lot of atheists would disagree with him, especially given certain events that have saturated mainstream media lately.

In order to describe the church the 21st century needs, he goes through a list of churches we read about in the Apostolic Scriptures, such as those congregations as Ephesus, Colossae, Thessalonica, and Antioch. He also mentioned “other New Testament churches, like the one at Jerusalem.” Really, I was astonished (and so would be James and the Council of Apostles and Elders) that he conceives of the faithful first century Jewish disciples in the Holy City as “a church.” Many of the original communities Paul established in the galut were more synagogues, particularly the ekklesia in Antioch, but modern Christians can’t help revising history to make them “churches.”

I was just as surprised that he cited Numbers 23 and Balaam’s words “How shall I curse whom God has not cursed,” applying them to the Church when clearly Balaam was describing Israel. Has Jackson replaced Israel with the Church? It would seem so.

I know he’s trying to build up his Christian readers and building up the Christian Church in order to convince his audience that it is an institution of destiny and that to be part of that destiny, they must return to their congregations, but in order to do so, he has to bend the meaning of scripture beyond any reasonable bounds.

Throughout the rest of the chapter, Jackson reinvents the “Church” at Antioch to look more like a 21st century Evangelical church. This serves his own perspective and probably the majority of his readers, but I don’t think it serves the Bible or God’s true intent in his redemptive plan for Israel and then the world.

Moving on to Chapter 20: The Life of a Puzzle Piece, we read:

Did you know that you and I are living inside a puzzle box?

jigsaw puzzle boxYes, I’ve always suspected as much. Actually, Jackson means a jigsaw puzzle box, with each of us representing one of the pieces. We all have to fit together (he cites 1 Corinthians 1:10 here) in order to see the big picture.

Jackson relates what he calls “The Parable of the Puzzle Piece” to get his point across. From the point of view of the individual puzzle piece, we can’t see the big picture. The puzzle is actually the body of Christ or the unified Christian Church. If we aren’t part of the entire puzzle, then life has no meaning and makes no sense.

Well, that’s not entirely true, since plenty of atheists find meaning, purpose, and direction in life, and there are Christians who aren’t actively part of a local church that have other means of fellowship, and of course, as Jackson says, rely on their relationship with Jesus to help make sense of their lives.

However, returning to the puzzle piece metaphor, he states that although an individual piece can’t see the big picture, it is absolutely essential in order to complete the big picture. If you’ve ever assembled a jigsaw puzzle only to discover that one or more pieces are missing, it can really be annoying.

This is Jackson’s way of saying that each and every individual Christian is important and matters to God. Just like he said earlier that each Christian should be considered God’s favorite.

But each piece only contains a fraction of the whole and will never “fulfill its destiny” if it isn’t correctly put together with the rest of the pieces.

It’s pretty obvious where Jackson is going with all this, but at one point he adds:

Sometimes it takes several attempts for the piece to find its fit.

In other words, if your first church experience doesn’t work out, try, try again. Cute.

Oh, and a puzzle piece usually fits only in one single spot. Trying to fit a puzzle piece in a gap where it doesn’t fit won’t work out well and the piece will end of being mangled if forced.

Be patient, he says. Your place might not become available until other puzzle pieces are put together.

Although he doesn’t quote 1 Corinthians 12, he does say “Don’t get jealous of any other pieces–we’re all equally important.” Equally important but not identical. Each piece is uniquely shaped and will only fit in one location within the puzzle. This might be a message describing the differing roles of Jews and Gentiles in the Messianic movement.

One of his end of chapter questions is:

Do you know that you are crucial for God’s big picture plan?

Even accepting this, as Jackson said before, the individual puzzle piece can’t see the big picture and therefore is unlikely to know where it fits or what it contributes.

Chapter 21: Old People starts out:

Recently, a number of young adults in our church hosted a very special banquet to honor the senior citizens in our congregation. We wanted to treat them to a night of honor and esteem that would send a clear message that we loved and needed them in our church.

This reminded me of the following commandment from the Torah:

‘You shall rise up before the grayheaded and honor the aged, and you shall revere your God; I am the Lord.’

Leviticus 19:32 (NASB)

older jewish man prayingBut Jackson was simply leveraging the concept of “the wisdom of the aged” to what he imagines an older might say to a younger one. Advice like “I’m not better than you” and “It’s all about relationship” (his favorite theme). The advice is largely just restating points he made earlier in his book about being transparent, Christianity’s evangelical mission, and “God will come through.”

Chapter 22: The Abundant Life begins:

I think the book of Ecclesiastes is probably one of the most overlooked and underrated books of the Bible…

Well, in the traditional church, that’s probably true.

On the other hand, Jackson also says:

…and then moving on to something easier, like the book of Psalms or the gospel of John…

The Gospel of John may seem deceptively easy, but being that it’s the most mystic of the four gospels, I’d have to say that anyone thinking it’s “easy” hasn’t read it in sufficient depth.

Going back to Ecclesiastes, Jackson attempts to distill some Christian principles from Solomon’s wisdom such as “The perspective that this life is only a pilgrimage–a journey toward eternity” and “Enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures.”

The bottom line of this next-to-the-last-chapter of Jackson’s book is in one of his end of chapter questions:

Do you ever consider the fact that this life here on earth is merely the dress rehearsal for your eternal life in heaven with Jesus? How does this change your attitude and perspective?

I assume this is meant to put a life in church community into some sort of positive context with the realization that our earthly life is a test. How we perform on the test determines how or if we share a life “in heaven with Jesus.”

I tend to prefer a more Jewish interpretation of being alive, that what we do is important, not primarily because we will merit a place in the world to come, but because what we do summons or inhibits the return of Messiah. Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World) matters because the world matters to God. In fact, it’s to our world that Messiah will return, and it is here, not in Heaven, where we will reside in the Messianic Kingdom.

Last chapter, Chapter 23: Sleeping With Bathsheba…Again.

So, now what? We’ve looked at the good, the bad, and the ugly of church life, and we’ve recognized that, for all of its very human shortcomings, the Church is still the Bride and the Body of Christ. He is still committed as ever to building it into a force that will overthrow hell in every region of society.

Jackson might almost be writing in a foreign language as far as I’m concerned. No, I understand what he’s saying, but it’s just such a different point of view on the purpose and glory of Messiah from the one I hold.

Jackson goes on to say that “we are the Church” and as such, we can’t remove ourselves from church, anymore than we could remove our heart or our lungs and remain alive. In this case, he means spiritual life, of course.

I’m like you-I’m finished with religion that helps only the ultra-disciplined but offers no life for hurting, desperate people.

I know he’s speaking to his target audience, but this is just another slam against ancient and modern Judaism…”religion but no life”. Jackson believes, based on the current “cultural maelstrom,” that we’re “entering the age of the Church,” that the Church is God’s instrument to bring a fallen world back from the brink of disaster. that there will be a great revival in this country (U.S.A), and that we all can be a part of it if we’re a part of the Church (meaning a part of a local church).

leaving churchJackson actually brings up a point (you probably know what it is based on the chapter’s title) that I sometimes think about. After David’s sin with Bathsheba, David remains married to her and indeed, she becomes the mother of Solomon, the heir to the Davidic throne and ancestor of Messiah.

If those events were to happen today, let’s say with a President instead of a King, most of us would be appalled and call for this President’s immediate impeachment and imprisonment.

But in this case, Jackson is talking about second chances:

Perhaps there’s a Bathsheba waiting for you. Perhaps there are relationships in your church that ended in pain, and you’ve vowed never to return to them.

In other words, reconsider your decision.

And that’s it. The end of the book. Since this is a pretty long blog post, I’ll save my final conclusions for another time.

The Hollow Man

clickedIt clicked when I saw this photo. I realized what’s been bothering me all along. I finally got why I was counting time down. Why I was waiting for it all to end. Why I didn’t believe my life in the community of faith was ever going to last. I realized I didn’t belong. I wasn’t part of the whole. No matter how hard I tried, I’d always be on the outside looking in.

Let me explain.

In reading the Rudolph and Willitts book Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations, I found a confirmation of what I believed about Jewish/Christian relations on so many levels. It all made so much sense. Chapters 17, 18, and 19, written by Craig Keener, William Campbell, and Scott Hafemann respectively, all spoke of Jewish and Gentile interdependence within the body of Messiah, specifically accessing Paul’s letter to the Romans. I’ll write about those chapters in more detail some other time, and I believe that there is an interdependence between believing Jews and Gentiles, but there’s a puzzle to solve, at least for me. The contributors to the Rudolph/Willitts book universally present the Messianic Jewish movement as one that is a home to believing Jews who are ethnically, culturally, religiously, and experientially Jewish. You cannot separate the lifestyle of being Jewish from the person who is Jewish, regardless if they have come to faith in Jesus as Messiah or not.

However, for the vast amount of Gentiles who are believers, their culture is the church. I know there are multiple expressions of the Christian church in our world, but they all have one thing in common. Their culture isn’t even remotely Jewish. Jewish religious and lived culture isn’t even remotely Christian. It’s like two different worlds that are trying to intersect and as interrelated as they are in Messiah, I’m not sure how they’re ever going to fit together.

And then there’s me.

No matter who you are as a believer, you “fit” somewhere. There are Gentiles, just tons and tons of them, who fit extremely well in the church. I’m anticipating seeing a lot of them tomorrow morning, Sunday morning at the church I attend. They are all very comfortable where they are. I’m the only one who sticks out like a sore thumb.

No, don’t tell me to go to a Jewish religious venue. None are accessible to me and even if they were, I don’t fit in there, either. Even if I fit in, that wouldn’t “fit in” with my wife. She’d feel extremely uncomfortable with my being a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. And that’s what I’d be. My past participation in pseudo-Jewish Hebrew Roots wouldn’t even come close to preparing me for an actual Jewish cultural encounter.

I like to think of myself as a person with a foot in each of two worlds but the fact is, I am only standing in between them. I’m not in contact with either one. I don’t belong in either one. That isn’t to say I don’t believe, but faith and religion and worship don’t exist in a vacuum, they exist in community, and I don’t belong in any of them.

It’s like someone tried to transplant a heart into my chest, but my body is rejecting it. It doesn’t belong. It’s alien. Without it, I’ll die (metaphorically speaking, of course), but I’m not being nourished by it, either.

A friend of mine once said, don’t seek Christianity and don’t seek Judaism, but rather, seek an encounter with God. But how do I meet God without a context and a culture? People can’t experience God in raw, unshielded contact. We need an interface, layers of abstraction so we can make sense of what’s happening to us, so we won’t be obliterated by connecting to God. For Jews, that interface is Judaism, cultural, Talmudic, tradition-based Judaism. For Christians, that’s the church and all the culture and traditions that are attached to the various “Christianities” in our world.

But I don’t connect to either one. I don’t belong. That’s the problem. I can read the Bible, but if I read it in a Jewish or Christian framework, it seems alien. Only just plain reading it makes any sort of sense to me, but then I’m limited to my own experience. To access the sages and the experts, I have to apply a context, which puts me in contact with denomination, with doctrine, with theology, with culture, and while that seems to work for everyone else, it doesn’t work for me because their doctrine, theology, culture, and context doesn’t belong to me and I don’t belong to them.

Classic approach-avoidance syndrome or as put more plainly, can’t live with it and can’t live without it.

That’s why doing my homework for Sunday school seems like an exercise in emptiness. It’s a culture that I don’t relate to, a perspective that seems hollow. If I’m ever going to experience God, it will be somewhere outside religion and culture, but that’s impossible for a human being. So where does that leave a “hollow man?”

157 days.

17 Days: They’re Not Me


I’ve been repeatedly approached by Jews for Jesus guys near the campus of UCLA. The pamphlet that they hand out alleges that “Messianic Jews” are Jews who believe that Jesus was the Messiah. That didn’t make sense to me. I would label a person “Christian” if they believed Jesus was the Messiah. But my friend claimed there are a great number of Jews who believe that Jesus was the Messiah – yet do not consider themselves Christians. I had never heard of this.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

No matter how disconnected a Jew may be from Judaism, he is still likely to be appalled by the idea of worshipping Jesus. And that poses a great problem for Christian missionaries seeking to convert Jews.

Given this, some missionaries got the idea to try a backdoor tactic. They invented “Jews for Jesus,” which uses a whole lexicon of Jewish-sounding buzz words in order to make Jesus more palatable to Jews.

For example, members of Jews for Jesus don’t go to church, they go to a “Messianic Synagogue.” Prayer is not held on Sunday, but on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. They say that by accepting JC, you’re not converting to Christianity, you’re instead becoming “a fulfilled Jew.” The New Testament is called “Brit Chadasha” (Hebrew for New Covenant). It’s not the cross, it’s “the tree.” Not baptism, but “the mikveh.” Not a communion wafer, but “matzah.” Congregants wear a tallit and kippah, and bring a Torah scroll out of the Holy Ark – just like every other synagogue. After all, they proudly proclaim, Jesus himself was a Jew!

These missionary campaigns are well-funded and relentless. Jews for Jesus has been spending millions of dollars in print and radio advertising, and has run a campaign of banner ads in New York City subways and on major web sites. If you see one of these ads, you should write a letter of protest to the host organization.

It is the responsibility of all Jews to take a stand. Comedienne Joan Rivers started screaming on the air after a commercial for Jews for Jesus aired on her radio show. The ad featured two Jewish men arguing over whether JC is the Jewish messiah, while the Jewish song “Hava Nagillah” played in the background. “Do not proselytize on my show,” Rivers ranted. “I was born a Jew and I plan to die a Jew. How dare you advertise on my show. I find this disgusting, I find this offensive, and I find this ridiculous!”

Jews for Jesus is a subversive organization. The missionaries’ approach to ensnare unsuspecting people includes quoting Torah verses out of context and gross mistranslations. These deceptions are most successful with Jews who have no knowledge of their own Jewish heritage. In Russia, for example, where Jewish education had been suppressed for 70 years, missionaries sponsor “Jewish revival meetings,” where a tallit-clad clergyman asks throngs of unsuspecting Russian Jews to “accept Jesus into your heart.” The sad thing is that tens of thousands of Jews (including an estimated 50,000 in Israel today) have fallen for this falsehood.

Ironically, Jews really could be called “Messianic Jews.” One of Maimonides’ classical “13 Principles of Faith” is: “I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he may delay, nevertheless I anticipate every day that he will come.” In a sense we are all “Messianic Jews” – expecting the Messiah to gather the Jews back to Israel, usher an era of world peace, and reestablish the Temple. Though Jesus achieved none of this.

There are two excellent organizations which counteracts missionary activities and have succeeded in attracting “converts” back to Judaism. You can find them online at www.jewsforjudaism.org and www.outreachjudaism.org.

from the “Ask the Rabbi” series

This is a very traditional Jewish response to any suggestion that it might be appropriate for a Jew to consider Jesus as the Messiah. It’s also typical that much of religious and secular Judaism confuses Jews for Jesus, which works to convert Jews to Christianity and then direct them to the church, and Messianic Judaism, which maintains that faith in Jesus as the Messiah is a valid expression of Judaism, much as the Chabad consider that the Rebbe will be reincarnated as Moshiach.

jewish_holocaust_childrenNevertheless, the Aish Rabbi has a point. For nearly 2,000 years, the Christian church and the world it has influenced has been working very hard to destroy Jews and Judaism, all for the glory of the Christian Jesus, trying to “save” the Jews from their “carnal religion.” If someone were trying to kill you or at least completely destroy your way of life and your unique personal and cultural identity, chances are you’d resist; you’d fight back.

So even if Messianic Judaism is a valid Judaism, and even if there is validity in considering Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, most Jews, including secular Jews who have no attachment to a Jewish religious expression, are going to act the way Joan Rivers reacted as described above.

But if I didn’t know some Jewish people who live as halalaic Jews and who are Messianic, people who are intelligent, faithful, and highly credible, I would have my doubts, too. But I also know a few of these intelligent, faithful, and highly credible Jews who have previously identified themselves as “Messianic” and who are now unsure of their faith in Messiah Yeshua. I know that my wife in particular has adopted the opinion of the Aish Rabbi regarding Messianics and believes only uneducated, secular Jews can be swayed by Christian missionaries to “fall for” Jews for Jesus/Messianic Judaism.

It’s part of what I was trying to say yesterday. It’s part of the reason why both Jews and Christians involved in the Messianic movement are forsaking Jesus and either (in the case of halalaic Jews such as my wife) adopting a traditionally Jewish cultural and religious lifestyle or (in the case of non-Jews) converting to some form of Judaism, usually Orthodox.

It removes the dissonance between attraction to a Jewish lifestyle and faith in Jesus by removing faith in Jesus. The alternative is to remove attraction to Judaism, which is disastrous for a Jew and sometimes troubling for the Judaically-aware Christian. But it does bring a sort of peace with those Jews who make a very convincing argument against “Messianic Judaism.”

Many of my critics who oppose my support of Messianic Judaism as a Judaism cite examples such as the Aish Rabbi and the anti-Messianic article written for the Atlantic, saying that it’s impossible for Messianic Judaism to be accepted as a Judaism. Paradoxically, these critics believe the valid alternative is to support a “One Law” theology that offers a manufactured “inclusiveness” of both Jews and Christians as members of the Mosaic covenant and equal citizens in Israel (thus “destroying” Israel and Jewish distinctiveness by making everybody Israel).

I can only imagine what the Aish Rabbi and Jewish reporter Sarah Posner would say to them and their suggestion. Probably nothing “inclusive.”

The sins of Israel in the time of the Greeks were: Fraternizing with the Greeks, studying their culture, profaning Shabbat and Holy Days, eating t’reifa and neglecting Jewish tahara. The punishment-tribulation was the spiritual destruction of the Sanctuary, death, and slavery in exile. Through teshuva and mesirat nefesh, that great, miraculous Divine salvation – the miracle of Chanuka – came about.

“Today’s Day”
Tuesday, Keslev 29, Fifth Day of Chanuka, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

Add to that the fact that the Bible isn’t the simple, straightforward document we have been taught it is…that it’s not something that God just dictated to dozens of people under His Divine influence, and that it forms a perfect, flawless, inspired “Word of God.” We have complete faith in God but we shouldn’t necessarily have complete faith in the Bible because the Bible is full of flaws, is internally inconsistent, and we don’t know who wrote all of the words, verses, chapters, and books it contains.

As you can see, religious and cultural identity, let alone a simple faith, is a lot more difficult to maintain once you start reading, studying, discussing, and thinking.

You can blunder around in the dark, carefully avoiding every pit. You can grope through the murky haze for the exit, stumbling and falling in the mud, then struggling back to your feet to try again.

Or you can turn on the light.

Without a doubt, inside your heart, the light switch awaits you. Even if the light it brings is ever so faint, even that will be enough. For the smallest flame can push away the darkness of an enormous cavern. And then you will make yet more light.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Stop Groping”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

I can see why some Jews who formally had faith in Yeshua (Jesus) as Messiah have abandoned that position. I can see why some Judaically-aware Christians have forsaken Jesus and converted to Judaism. It can be very confusing establishing a sense of identity and belonging. A Jew is always a Jew, regardless of belief, regardless of faith, regardless of what he or she understands about the origin of the Bible. A Christian is only a Christian because of what they (we) believe. Add doubt to that mix and Christian faith dissolves like an alka seltzer in a swimming pool.

jews_praying_togetherThat’s why community is important to faith. If the world is your community, almost the entire population is going to continually challenge what you believe as a Christian. If Jews are the majority population, it’s the same thing. To some degree, faith requires that you stop listening to the world around you except for your community of “like-minded believers.” You have to ignore the atheists and if you are specifically a Judaically-aware Christian, you have to ignore Jewish anti-missionaries who define Judaism as wholly inconsistent with Jesus in any form.

The irony, besides converting to Judaism, is that the only other place for the Christian to go is back to church. Well, that’s ironic for me, anyway.

“Quitters are losers!”

This is frequently true, but not always. Of course it’s a mistake to quit prematurely. But at times, quitters will be winners since they devote their newfound time, money, and energy on a project that seems more likely to succeed.

Weigh the entire picture to figure out your best course of action. But don’t let fear of quitting lead you in the wrong direction.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #668, Quitters can be Winners”

I can see why Pastors discourage the members of their churches from exploring Judaism. I can see why Rabbis are totally against Jews marrying non-Jews. The collision of worlds is just devastating. But when you’re intermarried, you have no choice but to be part of the mix. There is no place you can hide, no community that can shelter you. Each day is lived at the raw edge, running on a razor blade, trying to keep your balance, hoping you won’t fall, praying you can keep your balance.

sitting-on-a-razor-bladeBut each moment on the edge is cutting and there’s blood everywhere. Falling off seems like it would be so peaceful. But no one can help me with that kind of decision.

I am going in the way of all the land (all mankind), and you shall strengthen yourself and be a man.

I Kings 2:2

These were the last words of King David to his son and successor, Solomon. David is essentially saying, “I am no longer able to struggle. My strength is failing, and I must now go in the way of all humans. But you are young and vigorous. You must be strong and be a man.” Implied in this message is that Solomon was to be strong enough not to go in the way of all men, but to be his own man.

Being a non-conformist is not virtuous in itself. Behaving in a manner similar to others in our environment is not wrong, as long as we know that our behavior is right and proper. In this case, we are acting according to our conscience. What is wrong is when we abdicate our right to think, judge, and decide for ourselves. It is easy for us to allow ourselves to be dragged along by the opinions and decisions of others, and thereby fail to act according to our conscience.

The expression “I am going in the way of all mankind” does more than euphemize death; it actually defines spiritual death. It states that true life exists only when we actively determine our behavior. A totally passive existence, in which the body is active but the mind is not, may be considered life in a physical sense, but in a spiritual sense it is closer to death.

No wonder the Talmud states that “wrongdoers are considered dead even during their lifetime” (Berachos 18b). Failure to exercise our spiritual capacities and instead relegating the mind to a state of passivity, allowing our physical and social impulses to dominate our lives, is in reality death.

Today I shall…

try to engage my mind to reflect on what I do, and think things through for myself rather than submitting to a herd mentality.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Tevet 2”

If there is an answer for my life, it rests with God and hopefully, as Rabbi Twerski suggests, with me. No group, Christian or Jewish, has the answers I seek. They are within themselves and of themselves and united as completely compatible units inside their containers. They are not me, and I am not like anything I’m supposed to belong to, not the church, and not even my family.

How to Get to Where We Belong

“You mean, Mr. Zacks, that there is this vast structure G-d has created of plants, animals, food chains, stars, and planets. And, that the only creature in all of creation that doesn’t understand how to fit in and live their life purposefully is the human?”

-Gordon Zacks quoting the Rebbe
“Where Change Begins”

In reading Mr. Zacks’ article about his encounters with the Rebbe, I was captured by the statement I quoted above because I couldn’t agree more. Out of everything in God’s creation, only man has no idea where he fits into that creation. Even those of us who are “religious” struggle, and argue and, as we’ve seen in recent events, occasionally conduct world-wide riots, all for the sake of who we think God is and our belief about what He wants.

I recently had an email conversation with a gentleman about, among other things, the differences between Christianity and Judaism. One key difference we noticed is the need, or lack thereof depending on your religious tradition, for absolute certainty. In Christianity, all questions must be answered, all puzzles must be solved. Everything is either black or white. Doubt and uncertainty are not to be tolerated. A bad answer (or God forbid, a wrong answer) is better than no answer at all. When a Christian asks you to describe the details of Heaven and you answer, “I don’t know for sure,” it tends to frustrate the Christian.

By comparison, the name “Israel” is the very heart of struggling with God over every question, every puzzle, every elusive detail, with no guarantee at all that there even is an answer, or at least not one that we could understand. It’s not only tolerable to live at a particular level of uncertainly, it’s practically required in Judaism. Every question has a dozen potential answers, every person has an opinion, ideas and concepts critical to faith in God are bandied about, but no one truly get’s upset, dismayed, or hurt over agreements, disagreements, (although, I have written recently about how such debates typically go wrong in the “Hebrew Roots” arena) and the “I don’t know” statement of another human being.

When the Rebbe was addressing Mr. Zacks, (and I encourage you to read the entire article) it seemed as if the Rebbe knew where man fit and lived purposefully in God’s creation. Further, he expected others, including Mr. Zacks, to know as well. Such late night meetings with the Rebbe typically lasted between 30 seconds and one minute. In his initial meeting with the Rebbe, Mr. Zacks had a conversation with him for about an hour and a half. In that time, one of the things the Rebbe said was this:

He quoted Kazantzakis’ book Zorba the Greek to me during our conversation. “Do you remember the young man talking with Zorba on the beach, when Zorba asks what the purpose of life is? The young fellow admits he doesn’t know. And Zorba comments, ‘Well, all those damned books you read–what good are they? Why do you read them?’ Zorba’s friend says he doesn’t know. Zorba can see his friend doesn’t have an answer to the most fundamental question. That’s the trouble with you. ‘A man’s head is like a grocer,’ Zorba says, ‘it keeps accounts…. The head’s a careful little shopkeeper; it never risks all it has, always keeps something in reserve. It never breaks the string.’ Wise men and grocers weigh everything. They can never cut the cord and be free. Your problem, Mr. Zacks, is that you are trying to find G-d’s map through your head. You are unlikely to find it that way. You have to experience before you can truly feel and then be free to learn. Let me send a teacher to live with you for a year and teach you how to be Jewish. You will unleash a whole new dimension to your life. If you really want to change the world, change yourself! It’s like dropping a stone into a pool of water and watching the concentric circles radiate to the shore. You will influence all the people around you, and they will influence others in turn. That’s how you bring about improvement in the world.”

(Now I feel as if I should read Zorba the Greek)

The Rebbe’s solution to what he saw as Mr. Zacks’ “problem,” was to ask Mr. Zacks to accept a teacher, sent by the Rebbe, into the Zacks home for a year to teach him how to live as a Jew, how to be a Jew.

Understanding who you are, where you fit in, and how to live purposefully in God’s universe isn’t something you just study and understand. Unlike what we are often taught in the church, it’s not just something you cognitively believe or feel emotions about as you sit in a pew or pray in the night. It is something you do, it is a continual experience of life and living and being a child of God, made in His image.

At the Rebbe’s initial request to place a teacher in the Zacks home, Mr. Zacks said, “Rebbe, I’m not ready to do that.” Although through a series of letters, the Rebbe continued to make his request over the years, I don’t believe Mr. Zacks ever took him up on the offer.

While the “solution” to our fitting in and leading purposeful lives as Christians probably isn’t having a Chabad Rabbi live in our homes for a year (or for that matter, a Baptist Pastor), we do need to not just believe in God, but experience what it is to live out God’s purpose for the world and His purpose for our lives. What that is for me as an individual, alas, remains something of a mystery, in spite of everything I just wrote. On the other hand, and I’ve said this many times before, on a very basic level, it’s not that hard to understand and do, either.

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? –Micah 6:8 (ESV)

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ –Matthew 25:34-40 (ESV)

As we begin a new year on the Jewish calendar with Yom Kippur still facing us, if you (or I) have no idea where God wants you to “fit in,” I suppose following the advice of the Master wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

“Don’t dream it, be it.”

-Richard O’Brien
from the song, “Don’t Dream It, Be It”
The Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack

Out of respect for the Jewish people and to honor Rosh Hashanah, which is considered a Shabbat and celebrated for two days starting today at sundown, my next “meditation” will be posted on Wednesday morning.

May you have a good and sweet year

שנה טובה ומתוקה

Shana Tova u’metuka