Tag Archives: D Thomas Lancaster

Finding Freedom

CaptureTell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.

These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.Galatians 4:21-26

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.James 2:12-13

So what is it? Does the Law take away freedom or does the law give freedom? Are we even talking about the same Law; the Torah?

I’ve often suspected that Paul and James didn’t see eye-to-eye on many issues. Paul was operating for years at a time in the diaspora, bringing the Gentiles to faith in the Jewish Messiah and teaching them his ways and how to trust in God. There wasn’t a lot of oversight going on from the Jerusalem Counsel, so Paul could have gotten away with re-writing the Gospel message in his own image, diluting or even eliminating the law and replacing it a type of “grace” that is the antithesis of the law (though in reality, they are not mutually exclusive). It’s clear that James wouldn’t have agreed with that message.

However, if you read D. Thomas Lancaster’s new book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians, you’ll see that Paul and James were more alike than unalike (though I still suspect that they had their individual perspectives). For one thing, despite the common Christian tradition of interpreting Galatians 4:21-26 as “anti-Law” (and in the plain English text, it certainly seems that’s what Paul’s saying), the issues are more complex. Lancaster interprets them this way:

The passage contrasts two types of proselytes: the legal proselyte and the spiritual proselyte. The one becomes part of Abraham’s family by conventional conversion, the other through faith in Messiah, the promised seed of Abraham, in whom all nations find blessing. The passage does not contrast the Old Testament against the New Testament or the Old Covenant with the New Covenant. It does not equate Judaism and Torah with slavery, nor does it pit Christians against Jews.

It means that if you are a Jewish believer , you should be proud of being Jewish because you are a child of Abraham, legally, physically, and spiritually. It means that if you are a Gentile believer, you, too, are part of the people, a spiritual son of Abraham, and that is remarkable – miraculous even. You are a child of the promise that God made to Abraham so long ago.

I’ve already written a review of Lancaster’s book and I’m not going to “reinvent the wheel”, so to speak, but I’m presenting this “extra meditation” this afternoon, in response to the following:

No one can say he is free today because yesterday he was granted freedom.

Freedom is a source of endless energy.
Freedom is the power behind this entire universe.
Freedom is the force that brings existence out of the void.

You are free when you take part in that endlessness. When you never stand still. When you are forever escaping the confines of today to create a freer tomorrow.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Perpetual Freedom”
Chabad.org

As an Orthodox Jew, Rabbi Freeman isn’t considering that the Torah is somehow slavery or bondage, even for a single moment. So how are Christians to interpret his words of freedom as well as the apparent conflict between Paul and James, both observant and devout Jews, on how they view the Torah?

It is said that the world was created for the sake of Torah and that, without the Torah, the world could not have been made. The analogous teaching we have in Christianity is this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. –John 1:1-3

TeshuvahHere, we see a sort of “fusion” or co-identity, in some mystic sense, between the Torah and the Messiah, Son of the living God. Christians know that Jesus gives us freedom from the slavery of sin and Jews know that the Torah is the gateway to God’s endless energy, the power behind the universe, and the limitless, eternal source that creates existence out of nothingness. Through Torah, God does not enslave, but provides the means by which men may know God and understand our relationship to Him. If the same can be said of Jesus, then we can all understand from where our freedom comes.

While non-Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah are not obligated to the same “yoke of Torah” as the Jewish people (see Acts 15), we nonetheless are grafted into the root of the Tree of Life and like branches on the vine, we draw our nourishment and the ability to live a life of holiness from an identical source; God.

To do so requires more than just believing and more than just learning; we must do, we must behave, we must live out the values we understand from the Torah and how they were taught to us by the “living Torah”, the Moshiach, Jesus Christ. Part of that living is understanding where we came from, who we are, and our need to separate from sin and embrace holiness and peace. To gain freedom from sin, we must recognize the depth and despair of sin, which is what the Torah aptly defines, and only upon achieving that understanding, can we truly turn away from that sin and turn toward the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob:

The Ohr Hachaim HaKadosh, zt”l, writes that one can only do teshuvah if he first recognizes the gravity of his sin.

A certain person committed a sin. When Rav Mordechai Aryeh Halevi Horowitz, zt”l, gently nudged him to repent the sinner displayed his relaxed attitude towards teshuvah. “Why repent now? Soon enough it will be Elul, the season when the shofar is sounded to remind us to do teshuvah. Can’t my teshuvah wait until then?”

Rav Horowitz rejected this attitude out of hand. “As is well known, the main element in teshuvah is havdalah, separating between what is proper and what is not. It is only by determining which actions lead to darkness and which generate light that we act as is fitting. Even if a person with understanding falls to sin chas v’shalom, he knows to repent and change his ways. But many people wait until Elul to do teshuvah. After all, isn’t that when we are aroused to repentance by the shofar as the Rambam writes?

“We find in the Mishnah in Chulin 26 that whenever the Shofar is sounded we do not say havdalah. Conversely, whenever we say havdalah we do not sound the shofar. Although on a simple level this is a sign for when they would blow the shofar to signify the onset of Shabbos or Yom Tov, this statement also teaches a lesson about teshuvah. When one feels justified waiting to do teshuvah until the shofar is sounded during Elul, this shows he lacks understanding. He does not comprehend the gravity of sins since this leads to havdalah, healthy separation between what is right and what is wrong. One who has fitting discrimination between good and bad doesn’t wait to hear the shofar to repent!”

Dam Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
“Time for Repentance”
Chullin 26

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. –1 John 1:8-9

Good Shabbos

Book Review: The Holy Epistle to the Galatians

Galatians by D.T. LancasterThe passage contrasts two types of proselytes: the legal proselyte and the spiritual proselyte. The one becomes part of Abraham’s family by conventional conversion, the other through faith in Messiah, the promised seed of Abraham, in whom all nations find blessing. The passage does not contrast the Old Testament against the New Testament or the Old Covenant with the New Covenant. It does not equate Judaism and Torah with slavery, nor does it pit Christians against Jews.

It means that if you are a Jewish believer , you should be proud of being Jewish because you are a child of Abraham, legally, physically, and spiritually. It means that if you are a Gentile believer, you, too, are part of the people, a spiritual son of Abraham, and that is remarkable – miraculous even. You are a child of the promise that God made to Abraham so long ago.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
The Holy Epistle to the Galatians
“Sermon Twenty-Two: Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, and Ishmael (Galatians 4:21-31)”
pp 227-8

This is just a sample of how Lancaster’s view of Paul’s epistle to the Galatians presents a fresh and startlingly different understanding of the apostle’s message to the Gentile believers. This book takes Paul’s letter, virtually line-by-line, and re-interprets it from what most Christians would see as a radically different perspective. The book’s subtitle, “Sermons on a Messianic Jewish Approach” reveals the specific lens by which Lancaster views the letter and the stance from which he presents his argument: that Paul was supporting the unique covenant identity for the Jewish believer and at the same time, was instructing the non-Jewish disciples that they could have the same access to God, though the Messiah, without converting to Judaism.

But let me back up a minute.

Lancaster’s book is based on a series of 26 lectures or sermons he delivered in 2008 to Beth Immanuel, his community of faith, in Hudson, Wisconsin. It’s not unusual for Lancaster, a long-time contributor of books and other educational text to First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ), to “mine” his previous works for the sake of a new publication (for instance, Toby Janicki’s book Tefillin used some of Lancaster’s previous writing as a basis). Since each chapter represents one sermon in a series, I got an “episodic” feel as I moved from chapter to chapter, particularly in the first part of the book. I was also pleased that Lancaster’s ability to create the illusion that the reader is in the situation being described, was present in his current book. As I read through the chapters, I felt as if I were listening to Paul in one of the churches of Galatia, struggling with the issues he was trying to communicate, and experiencing the conflict between his teaching and the “influencers”.

As I mentioned before, this isn’t your typical Christian commentary on the Book of Galatians. Lancaster, using his knowledge of the Greek language, history, and accessing authoritative scholarly sources, “refactors” Paul’s letter into an almost completely different form, reflecting the Messianic Jewish viewpoint on Paul in general as well as FFOZ’s perspective in particular. There were a number of times when Lancaster would present the traditional Christian interpretation of a set of verses and then say something like, “this interpretation isn’t acceptable in Messianic Judaism”. I kind of wish he didn’t say it that way.

Sure, the focus of this book is to illustrate how Messianic Judaism views Paul’s letter in a dramatically different way, through its own “looking glass”, in order to understand his message in a way that makes more sense to both Jewish and non-Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah, but unfortunately, it could also be seen by a Christian reader as Lancaster just making the text say what he wants it to say to match his theology. The real value that I find in this book, (and many of FFOZ’s other materials) is in how it peels away almost twenty centuries of unchanging, set-in-stone, Christian theology and lets the reader see credible (and even very likely) alternatives to what Paul could have been saying. Questioning assumptions and courageously challenging dogma is not a property exclusively possessed by Messianic Judaism, Christianity, or any other religious movement. These qualities should be used by all people of honesty and faith when reading and studying our holy writings. These qualities should transcend denomination, movement, and sect, and be embraced by anyone who truly is a disciple of the Master and who seeks the truth of God and human existence.

The revelations Lancaster presents are too numerous to mention in this simple review (and I don’t want to give away too many “surprises”), but in reading this book, you will be introduced to a Paul and a Galatians letter that are completely new to you. This book offers a way of looking at Galatians, not as Paul’s anti-Jewish, anti-Torah rant, but as his answer to a complex dilemma facing the non-Jewish believers in the various churches in Galatia: does a “goy” have to convert to Judaism in order to be “saved”? The 21st century church would say emphatically “no” and in fact, would present the counter-argument that a Jewish believer would have to abandon Judaism and convert to Gentile Christianity in order to be a disciple of the Jewish Messiah. Conversely, Paul, at least as Lancaster understands him, would be appalled to hear that his letter had been so misappropriated by the modern church.

The book isn’t perfect. In general (and I agree with him), Lancaster uses various portions of Galatians to support his argument that Jewish believers (and non-Messianic Jews for that matter) were expected to obey the commands of God that He gave to the Children of Israel through Moses at Sinai, while at the same time, saying that the standard of non-Jewish “Torah” obedience to God was different…not non-existent, just different (see Galatians 5:13-26 for Paul’s interpretation of Gentile “Torah”). Unfortunately, there are any number of points in the book that, taken out of context, could be used to support the “One Law” argument (the position that states when a Gentile is “grafted in” to the Jewish root, they take on obligations to God absolutely identical to Jewish obligations). Other parts of the book make Lancaster’s position clearer, but I tended to stumble a few times when I encountered these ambiguous paragraphs.

Laying TefillinTo be fair, Lancaster is providing a detailed, in-depth analysis to a very difficult and wholly misunderstood piece of writing. Paul wasn’t easy to understand and trying to get into his head and into the culture and language in which he lived in the 1st century of the common era, let alone write an entire book about it, is a major undertaking. While I think the book succeeds overall, the reader is going to have to exercise a certain amount of patience and not jump to conclusions. Getting the entire message of Galatians means reading all of Lancaster’s book (I had to take copious notes) before coming to any sort of conclusion. Bringing an open mind as well as a notepad is also essential.

I don’t doubt that many of the people who read this book will either try to ignore it or start an argument about what it says. Lancaster completely disassembles the traditional Christian understanding of the letter and rebuilds it an atom at a time. That doesn’t make for comfortable reading if you’ve been taught for most of your life that the Torah is slavery for the Jews and grace is freedom for the Christians. For the One Law supporters in MJ, the book will also challenge many of their assumptions and at a few points, Lancaster even directly confronts the OL assumptions. Lancaster makes it clear in many of his comments that Paul never intended for the Gentile disciples to take on the entire “yoke of Torah” and that the “Torah” for the Gentiles was the “Torah of the Messiah”.

If you consider all that “the bad news”, I’ve also got “the good news”. The good news is that, if you set aside your preconceptions of what you think Galatians says, and by inference, many of the assumptions you have about what it means to be a Christian or to be “Messianic”, you’ll be able to read Lancaster’s book as an adventure in learning and an exploration of what it must have been like to be among the first Gentiles, having recently come out of pagan idolatry, entering a world and a relationship with God that had only previously been accessible to the Jewish people.

Who is Paul? Where did he get his “gospel”? Who did he see as his Master, Jesus or the Jerusalem Council? Who were the “influencers” who were disturbing the Gentile believers in Galatia? How did Paul see his fellow Jews and Jewish converts? What was Paul’s unique solution to the puzzle of integrating the people of the nations into the community of faith in the God of Israel?

The answers to those questions can be found in D. Thomas Lancaster’s new book, The Holy Epistle to the Galatians. Click the link to find out more. You may not believe it now, but there are answers in this book that you need to hear.

Besides the review you’ve just read, I’ve commented on different portions of Lancaster’s book in other recent blogs. They include Building Fellowship, Knowing, Intermediaries, and The Tefillin and the Shoemaker. These blog posts include mentions of Lancaster’s book within the context of other topics and resources, but taken together, I think this material provides a rich understanding of not only what the book says, but how it applies to a life of faith and to the wider contexts of Christianity and Judaism.

Enjoy.

The Tefillin and the Shoemaker

Praying with TefillinAnd they (Korach and his following) converged upon Moses and Aaron and said to them: “Enough! Every one of the congregation is holy, and G-d is amongst them. Why do you raise yourself above the congregation of G-d?”Numbers 16:3

There are those who maintain that they have no need of a mentor to guide them through life. They claim, as did Korach, that each and every individual can forge his relationship with G-d unaided. They argue that since the Jewish faith rejects the concept of an intermediary between man and G-d, they have no use for a rebbe or master.

They fail to understand that the entire Jewish people are a single entity, that every individual soul is, in truth, but a limb or organ of the soul of Israel. Just as each limb and organ of the human body has its function at which it excels, so, too, every soul has its role and mission, as well as its limitations. The ‘loftiest’ of souls is dependent upon the ‘lowliest’ for the attainment of the single, unified goal. And were any limb to strike out on its own, detaching itself from the ‘head’ which provides the entire body with vitality and direction – the results are self-understood.

Said Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok of Lubavitch: “When an individual adapts the attitude that he can do it all on his own, he reminds me of the story told about the peasant and the tefillin. Once, a Jew noticed a pair of tefillin in the house of a gentile peasant. Upon seeing a holy object in such a place he began to inquire about the tefillin, wishing to purchase them from the goy. The peasant, who had looted the tefillin in a recent pogrom, grew agitated and defensive. “What do you mean, where did I get them?” he blurted out. “Why, I made them myself! I myself am a shoemaker!”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
Once Upon a Chasid
“Jack of all Trades”
Chabad.org commentary on Torah Portion Korach

Paul explained that he received the gospel through a revelation of Yeshua the Messiah (Jesus Christ). He claimed that the gospel message he preached to the Galatians was not man’s gospel. It was not the normal gospel message. He received a different gospel. This is an important point – a critical point – for understanding Paul. The message of the gospel that Paul proclaimed was not precisely the same message of the gospel that the rest of the apostolic community proclaimed. In other places, Paul specifically refers to this unique gospel as “my gospel” (see Romans 2:15-16, Romans 16:25, and 2 Timothy 2:8-9).

-D. Thomas Lancaster
The Holy Epistle to the Galatians
“Sermon Three: Paul’s Gospel (Galatians 1:11-24)”
pp 35-6

But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!Galatians 1:8 (NASB)

Reading Rabbi Tauber’s commentary on the previous week’s Torah Portion Korach, I saw an inevitable collision with the above-quoted portion of Lancaster’s “Galatians” book. Although Korach and his co-conspirators claimed authority because all of Israel was holy to God, while Paul claimed authority based on his personal revelation from Jesus (see Acts 9:1-19 and Acts 26:15-18), they both set themselves (apparently) in opposition to the established authority representing God, Moses in the case of Korach, and the Jerusalem Council, in the case of Paul.

We know that Korach, Dathan, Abiram, and the 250 who were with them came to a bad end (Numbers 16:28-35) and their story is sometimes told in congregations as a cautionary tale not to go against the established leadership, but what about Paul? Does Paul’s receiving a personal revelation and mission from Jesus exempt him from respecting and obeying properly established authority? Lancaster says, “no”:

Despite the dismissive air, Paul submitted to their authority. He had already conceded that, if they had rejected his gospel of Gentile inclusion, he would have been running his race in vain. They had the power to utterly discredit the gospel message he had been presenting. Therefore, he certainly did respect their authority. But he seems less than reverently respectful in Galatians 2:5.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
The Holy Epistle to the Galatians
“Sermon Seven: Remember the Pour (Galatians 2:6-10)”
pg 71

While Paul could be opinionated and “outspoken”, he nevertheless realized that he was a man under not only the Master’s authority, but under the authorities established by God in Jerusalem, which included James, Peter, and John. But he had to approach these “pillars”, present his position based on the Master’s revelation to him, and hope they’d see things his way. Fortunately for Paul (and the Gentiles), they did. Otherwise Christianity, as we understand it, probably wouldn’t exist today. In that case, any person not born a Jew who wanted to enter into a full covenant relationship with God would have to convert to Judaism (for the sake of this blog, I will define Gentile Noahides -in contrast to Christians – as meriting a place in the world to come but not enjoying a full covenant relationship with God on par with the Jews).

The example of Paul presents a problem, though. His experience was entirely subjective. No one else saw or heard the details of his visions and so no one could verify independently, that he was telling the truth. In theory, he could have made the whole thing up in order to further some personal agenda he had in relation to Gentiles becoming “Messianic” disciples. If we accept the Biblical record on faith as well as reason, we accept that his visions were real and his authority was real.

But what about “authorities” today?

Most mainstream churches and synagogues are lead by a Pastor or Rabbi (respectively) who has received the education required to be ordained by their branch of faith and they have been appointed to a specific congregation upon the approval of that congregation’s board of directors. The board, and its various committees, have the authority to set the specific duties of the clergy, approve and renew their contractual relationship, and even fire the clergyperson if necessary. While the Pastor or Rabbi is the “face” and “voice” of the congregation in many ways, he or she can hardly act with total autonomy or impunity and are held accountable to the standards and authority of the congregation and their overseeing denomination or sect.

Sadly, not all religious groups and leaders operate on this principle. Paul’s “example” of receiving a personal revelation can be and has been terribly misused and misappropriated by many so-called “leaders” and “prophets” to set themselves up as the sole and individual authority over their congregations. If anyone complains about the “leader” and his or her lack of accountability to others, Paul’s example is cited and then the dissenters are accused of being like Korach and his band (implying that the dissenters will suffer a similar fate if they don’t withdraw their objections).

I know such a ploy may sound improbable and even silly to some of you reading this blog post, but the power of cult leaders over large groups of “believers” can be formidable to those who have made a commitment and who believe their “leader” is the “real meal deal”; the one and only person anointed by God to spread a special “message” to the “remnant” of the faithful.

I’m sure you are thinking about some of the infamous and extreme examples of what I’m describing, such as Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Marshall Applewhite, but there are probably thousands of other religious groups out there that operate below our radar, so to speak. Certainly a number of groups loosely affiliated with the Messianic Jewish (MJ) movement, function under the sole authority of the “Rabbi” in charge, acknowledging only his (in the vast majority of these cases, the leader is male) “right” to make decisions and pronouncements for the congregation, based on the leader’s self-described “anointing” from God.

(I want to make it clear at this point, that there are many MJ congregations that do operate on a board of directors model and that do receive authority from a central, overseeing organization which does provide a series of checks and balances for congregational leadership – I’m not painting “Messianic Judaism” as such with a single, broad brush – however, because “the movement” is largely unregulated, some people -usually not Jewish- just put on a kippah and a tallit, declare themselves a “Messianic Rabbi”, and proceed to gather a “flock”. Then they go about sharpening whatever theological ax they have to grind, which much of the time, has only a faint resemblance to anything Jewish).

Everything I’ve said up to this point certainly could make you doubtful or concerned if you find yourself in a “one-man show” type of congregation or even one where you might suspect (correctly or not) that the the congregation’s board is pretty much “rubber-stamping” the clergy’s decisions. On the other hand, we are taught to respect authority:

Rabbi Ishmael would say: Be yielding to a leader, affable to the black-haired, and receive every man with joy. -Pirkei Avot 3:12

It’s confusing. However, anyone, leader or otherwise, should recall this:

Rabbi Akavia the son of Mahalalel would say: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting. -Pirkei Avot 3:1

There is a Heavenly authority who holds us all accountable for what we say and do. Examples like Paul’s vision are extremely rare. They were extremely rare in Paul’s day and perhaps they may not even occur in the common era. Judaism has a long tradition of centralized authority but generally, that authority is not held by a single individual. The great sages often disagreed and it was through those debates and dialogues that justice and mercy was distilled throughout the centuries and applied to the devout in response to the unique needs of their communities and the time in which they lived.

Some respond to religious leadership concerns by refusing to affiliate with any faith group, but we all come under some sort of authority, including our employers, and local and national governments. Meeting with our congregations is how we prevent ourselves from entering into individual error (though I’m hardly one to talk at this point):

Rabbi Shimon would say: Three who eat at one table and do not speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten from the slaughter of the dead, as is stated, “Indeed, all tables are filled with vomit and filth, devoid of the Omnipresent.” But three who eat at one table and speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten at G-d’s table, as is stated, “And he said to me: `This is the table that is before G-d.’ ”

Rabbi Chanina the son of Chachina’i would say: One who stays awake at night, or travels alone on the road, and turns his heart to idleness, has forfeited his life. -Pirkei Avot 3:3-4

We are charged to test the validity of a leader as the Bereans tested the validity of Paul’s teachings (see Acts 17:10-12). We also know that valid and righteous leaders are established by God for the good of the world:

It was for this reason that actual peace in the world was brought about through Aharon, who descended to all creatures and elevated them to Torah.

-From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson
Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. VIII, pp. 103-107

The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace. –Psalm 29:11

Faith and history have established the relative authority of Korach and Paul and God’s justice and mercy was enacted in both lives in accordance with the actions of these men. Our lives are the same. We serve the same God. We all benefit from His providence. We are all accountable to His justice and we all rely on His mercy. We should not take the Name of God or His authority lightly. In the end, God prevails:

If you play for your own glory and not God’s you have no place here. -a Maggid

Rabbi Akivah would say: Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of G-d]; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to him that he was created in the image, as it is says, `”For in the image of G-d, He made man.” -Pirkei Avot 3:14

A man’s soul is the light of God. –Proverbs 20:27

Intermediaries

The Torah at SinaiAny belief that an intermediary between man and God could be used, whether necessary or even optional, has traditionally been considered heretical. Maimonides writes “God is the only one we may serve and praise….We may not act in this way toward anything beneath God, whether it be an angel, a star, or one of the elements…..There are no intermediaries between us and God. All our prayers should be directed towards God; nothing else should even be considered.”

-from Jewish Principles of Faith (Wikipedia)

It is a positive precept to pray every day to the blessed God for Scripture says, “and Him shall you serve” (D’varim 6:13); and through the Oral Tradition our Sages of blessed memory learned (Talmud Bavli, Ta’anith 2a) that this service means prayer. For Scripture states, “and to serve Him with all your heart” (D’varim 11:13): What is service with the heart? – prayer.

-from The Concise Book of Mitzvoth
Compiled by The Chafetz Chayim

I’m continuing to read D. Thomas Lancaster’s book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians and this part of his commentary about Galatians 3:17-20 struck me as interesting:

Paul said angels put the Torah in place by an intermediary, which is Moses. The martyr Stephen made a similar statement in Acts 7:33 where he spoke of “the law delivered by angels”.

As we see in the previous quotes, one of the principle beliefs in Judaism is that there is no intermediary between a Jew and His God (I recall hearing my Jewish host at a Passover seder declare this in a toast over twenty years ago). Yet clearly, Moses was an intermediary. For that matter, so was Aaron and every High Priest after him, who entered the most Holy Place once a year on Yom Kippur to offer atonement for the nation of Israel.

Christians like to say, at the death of Jesus, when the parokhet (veil) was ripped top to bottom, exposing the most Holy Place (Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:18), that we were given direct access to God through prayer and are now able to “boldly approach the Throne of God” without an intermediary. And yet, both Hebrews 5:1-10 and Hebrews 7 describe Jesus as our High Priest in the Heavenly Court, interceding on behalf of humanity. Paul even said that:

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. –Romans 8:26

I know Jews don’t pray to Moses or Aaron, but at least during the time of the Tabernacle and Temple, Jews did go through the priesthood to offer korban to God. And do all Christians pray to God or, believing in the Trinity, do some pray directly to Christ?

If God is One and key parts of theology say there is no intermediary between man and God, regardless if you are a Jew or a Christian, then how can we reconcile all of these intermediaries?

Knowing

ReachingNo longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’
because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” –Jeremiah 31:34

If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” –John 14:7

Just as wisdom is not something you can touch with your hands,
so G-dliness is not something you can grasp with your mind.
The mind cannot experience G-d.
G-d is not an idea.
G-d is real.
G-d is better found in inspired deeds than in inspiring thoughts.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Mental Limits”
Chabad.org

How do we “know” God? A Christian might answer that we know the Father through the revelation of His Son, and Jesus said this about himself. Yet, there’s a danger in “anthropomorphizing” the infinite, ever-present, all-powerful, ultimately creative God of the Cosmos, and reducing Him to an old man with long white hair, a bushy beard, and a comfortable lap. It’s like taking God and turning Him into your kindly grandfather who used to give you little treats when you were a child and let you stay up past your bedtime.

This isn’t to say I dispute the words of the Master, I only understand them as illustrating both what we can know about God from Jesus when he walked among men, and what we can’t know. We can’t know the infinite, but we can know how our lives intersect with the Holy through the teachings and example of the Master. Our duty then, is to spend the rest of our lives living out that understanding with “inspired deeds”, as Rabbi Freeman says, as our understanding grows and as it sometimes twists, bends, and warps.

Excuse me, what did I just say?

Isn’t God eternal? Isn’t God’s truth unchangeable? Well, “yes” and “no”.

OK, in an absolute sense, yes, God is God and God is unchangeable. Nothing we can do can alter the nature, character, and qualities of the Creator of the Universe (not that we can perceive the vast, vast majority of those qualities). But while God may be unchanging, human beings change all the time. What we understand changes all the time. If not, if we couldn’t go beyond the Sun circling the Earth and the Moon being made of green cheese, then modern Astronomy would be a lost cause.

I know, it’s not a surprise to understand that as children grow and as people age, they learn new information to replace old data, but it’s also true (at least potentially) of humanity over time. Believe it or not, at one point in history, things like microwave ovens, DVDs, iPads, and the Internet didn’t exist. Even bound books haven’t been available forever (never mind eBooks on Kindle). Gutenberg didn’t invent the printing press until around 1440 and the vacuum tube, which was used in early 20th century technologies such as radios, the first generation commercial computers, and televisions, first saw the light of day in 1904.

Why am I telling you all this? Because what we understand about a concept or a technology may be one thing at a certain point in time but later on, we may amend or change what we believe to accommodate new information, discoveries, and inventions.

This is also true of the Bible and thus what we know about God.

I’m currently reading the book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians by D. Thomas Lancaster. This isn’t another typical Christian commentary on what most believers consider Paul’s “anti-Torah”, “anti-Judaism” rant. Rather, it’s a fresh perspective on how to understand Paul as a Jewish man, declared the “Apostle to the Gentiles” by Jesus in a vision, and who through that incredible and unprecedented role, had to make some hard decisions about how to bring non-Jewish God-fearers and former pagans into the community of faith. One principle decision was the controversial choice of not demanding Gentile believers convert to Judaism in order to become disciples of the Jewish Messiah.

Much of what Lancaster states in his book (and I haven’t finished reading it yet) won’t be universally accepted by the church and perhaps just a decade or two ago, such a book might not have been published. However, it’s important to understand there’s a difference between God’s eternal, unchangeable knowledge and how human beings acquire new data and adjust our understanding based on that information.

About a month ago, I reviewed a scholarly article called Isaiah’s Exalted Servant in the Great Isaiah Scroll written by Steven P. Lancaster (D. T. Lancaster’s brother) and James M. Monson. Based on new information acquired through a study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, how we understand the prophet Isaiah’s description of the Messiah has been significantly changed (and please feel free to read that review by clicking on the link I just provided…it’s fascinating stuff). The information Lancaster and Monson provide in their conclusions almost literally re-writes the “suffering servant” Messiah to “the appointed one”. Who could have known about this, even five years ago?

AnointingI’m not trying to undo the ties of Christian faith and the scriptures upon which that faith is based, but I would like to suggest that those ties can be untangled. We labor, without realizing it, under the yoke of centuries-old assumptions, bad translations, and misinformation founded on prejudice. Some of that misinformation, as recently presented by Derek Leman on his blog, is how the church declares rather boldly, that a Jewish person who has come to faith in the Jewish Messiah, must surrender their entire Jewish identity. Galatians, and other sections of the New Testament, seem to give this impression, but we can also be courageous enough to go back to our time-honored texts and read them with a fresh eye, consider them in the original Greek language and “refactor” them in the Jewish/Hebraic mindset of the people who wrote them. We can challenge what we think we know and see if our knowledge stands up to the test.

I’ll leave you with a tangible example of how knowledge changing over time affects not only our day-to-day life, but how we comprehend God, our duties to Him, and our obligations to each other:

The Chazon Ish, zt”l, explains, “Rashi records when he is unsure, to teach that admission of uncertainty is also Torah. One should always be clear of what he knows and what he does not know.”

Rav Yosef Yitzchak Lerner, shlita, contacted Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, regarding a correction the latter had added to the “Lev Avraham.” In this work, Professor Avraham Avraham, shlita, brought the opinion of Rav Avraham ben HaRambam, zt”l, and Rav Sherirah Gaon, zt”l, as conclusive. Both luminaries hold that Chazal’s teachings regarding medicine are not Torah; they merely reflect medicine as understood in their time. If contemporary science disagrees the halacha follows the medical experts. Rav Shlomo Zalman maintained that since other authorities disagree, this opinion should be prefixed with “some say.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
“Admitted Ignorance”
Menachos 105

Some of the rulings of the honored sages were based on the best medical knowledge available to them in their day, but as we see, modern medicine has rendered many of their judgments out-of-date. Being open to new information about the Bible and how to read it, can help us understand that some traditional Christian interpretations of the Bible need to be updated as well. I read and review articles like Isaiah’s Exalted Servant in the Great Isaiah Scroll and books such as Lancaster’s Galatians for exactly that reason. Knowledge and faith is a garden which yields only the fruits of our labors. Like prayer, meeting God and understanding more about Him requires our time, effort, and an unquenchable need to learn.

Rabbi Chalafta the son of Dosa of the village of Chanania would say: Ten who sit together and occupy themselves with Torah, the Divine Presence rests amongst them –Pirkei Avot 3:6

“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” –Matthew 18:19-20

Building Fellowship

Galatians by D.T. Lancaster“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that [whether Jewish nor Gentile] a person is not justified by the works of the law [i.e., conversion, circumcision, etc.] but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we [the Jewish believers] also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. But if, in our endeavour to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners [by eating and fellowshipping with Gentiles], is Christ then a servant of sin? [In other words, does becoming a believer mean we forsake Torah? Is eating and fellowshipping with Gentiles really a sin against Torah?] Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. –Galatians 2:15-18

That is to say to Peter, “If you of all people, Peter, rebuild a sharp division between Jew and Gentile by removing yourself from table fellowship with Gentiles, you are rebuilding the barrier that you originally tore down. If you refuse to eat and worship with them, you rebuild the barrier that you originally tore down. You yourself were the first of the apostles to tear that separation down. If now you are putting it back up, then you are admitting that you were wrong in the first place, and you are proving yourself to have been living in sin and transgression.”

-from D. Thomas Lancaster’s book

The Holy Epistle to the Galatians

I received an advance copy of Lancaster’s book from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) yesterday and have since been eagerly devouring it. I’m not ready to write my full review, but Sermon 8: The Antioch Incident (the book is a compilation of 26 sermons, with each sermon organized as a chapter, given by Lancaster at Beth Immanuel Fellowship in 2008) brought up some interesting questions, and perhaps even a few answers.

For those of you who may not know, FFOZ is an educational ministry which produces informational materials, including books, audio lectures, and such, to both Jewish and non-Jewish believers in Jesus (Yeshua) in Messianic Judaism (MJ), although they have a wider audience in more traditional Christian (and perhaps more traditional Jewish) circles. One of the ongoing discussions in different branches of MJ is the relationship between Jewish and non-Jewish believers and the relationship those two groups have to the commandments of the Torah.

Without going into a lot of detail, some advocate for Gentiles in MJ to be obligated to the same 613 commandments that observant Jews are taught to obey, while others believe that Gentiles are only obligated to a small subset of those commandments (see Acts 15). The latter group believes that Gentiles who state that they are obligated to the full “yoke of Torah” obliterate Jewish covenant distinctiveness and “blend” Jews and Gentiles in Jesus into one, featureless mass. How Jewish and Gentile believers are supposed to interact given “distinctiveness boundaries”, including in matters of table fellowship, common observance of the Shabbat and the Festivals, has at times become hotly debated.

In reading Lancaster’s “Galatians”, we find this is not a new issue.

Lancaster (and FFOZ) support maintaining distinctions between Jewish Messianics and the Gentiles in MJ and Lancaster states:

We are one body, many parts. The foot is not the eye; the eye is not the foot. Oneness is not sameness. We can be one in the body but not have the same function or calling. Oneness is not sameness. There is one faith, one baptism, and one body, but that body has many parts.

D.T. LancasterLancaster is obviously referencing 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, but what is typically interpreted as a commentary on the struggles between different members of the Christian body sorting out the diversity of their spiritual gifts, Lancaster applies to the distinctions between Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ. I think his application is valid since it holds water in the Galatians context as Paul presents his argument, but that may come as a bit of a surprise if you do not believe that Jewish observance to the covenant of Moses was upheld by the early Jewish apostles for Jews and not for non-Jewish Christians. In other words, you may have a problem with Lancaster’s conclusions if you were taught that the law was done away with for Jews as well as for non-Jewish believers.

My primary interest in this subject, and in Lancaster’s book as a whole, is not from the perspective of Messianic Judaism. At this stage of my spiritual journey, I see myself as a Christian,married to a (non-believing) Jewish wife, who in immersing myself in Jewish Talmudic, mystic, and storytelling sources and traditions in order to better understand Christ who lived, died, and was resurrected a Jew and who taught, spoke, lived, and breathed in a completely Jewish manner and lifestyle. I don’t think you can understand who Jesus is unless you understand not only the Judaism of his day, but Judaism and Torah as they wind their way back to the beginning of Creation and forward to the current age.

This is the lens by which I look at the book and the pen by which I chronicle my thoughts, feelings, and the cries of my spirit.

I have friends who are Jewish believers in Christ and who are fully observant Jews, while I am a Gentile Christian. How are we to interact? Can we eat together? Can we pray together? In what manner may I observe the Shabbat, Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot? How may I fast and pray on Yom Kippur (and does this offend Jesus who died to remove my sins once and for all)?

These are the questions that underlie “The Antioch Incident” and the entire “Galatians” book. These are the questions that, if you don’t consider them important to you now as a Christian or believing Jew, you definitely will when the Messiah comes.

So what are the answers? I believe I know them and I try to live them out as best I can. Paul worked with great effort as the apostle to the Gentiles to create and support communities where believing Jews and non-Jews freely interacted. Here is how Peter responded to Paul:

After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? –Acts 15:7-10

Paul struggled with James, the Jerusalem Council, and other believing Jews as to whether or not Gentiles, once they came to faith in the Jewish Messiah, should be circumcised and convert to Judaism. Indeed, history records that some did, but Paul, who received his “Gospel” from the Messiah and Heaven and not from men, understood that it wasn’t necessary. Jesus is the gateway for the people of the world to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven and yet remain non-Jewish. All who are in the Messiah are One and God’s Name is One, but the members of the Messiah’s body, though one in baptism and spirit, are diverse in type and function. Just as my wife and I are different (being female and male, Jew and Christian) and yet “one flesh”, Jews and Gentiles in the Messiah are two and yet one.

I look forward to continuing this book and will post my full review when I finish.

Blessings.

Addendum: The full book review is now available.