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17 Days: They’re Not Me

like-a-prayerQuestion:

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.

“Jews-for-J”
from the “Ask the Rabbi” series
Aish.com

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
Chabad.org

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
Chabad.org

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”
Aish.com

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”
Aish.com

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.

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18 Days: The Christian in the Middle of the Room

elephant-in-the-living-roomThis week, we learned of 23,000 people in England and Wales classified as having “Mixed Religion.” This news comes from the United Kingdom’s Office on National Statistics, which just released new numbers on religious identity from the 2011 government census.

-Susan Katz Miller
“‘Mixed Religion’ as Identity: Who Are These People?”
Blog posted 12/13/2012 1:25 pm
huffingtonpost.com

OK, let’s stop right there. I “get” being part of an interfaith family since I’m a Christian and my wife is Jewish. However, I have one religious identity and my wife has a different religious (and cultural) identity. Our children don’t have two religious identities. Of course, our family’s religious identity “split” came rather late in the game. We all started out as atheists, all came to faith as Christians at one point (even though my wife and children are halachically Jewish), and then through a long, drawn out process, I self-identified as Christian while my wife and kids proceeded to move away from Christianity and identified as more traditionally Jewish (to varying degrees of religiosity all the way down to zero).

My wife and daughter seem to have the clearest Jewish identities, one son is halachically Jewish but otherwise secular, and the other self-identifies as Jewish but will at least discuss his views on Christianity with me.

But I don’t think, based on my personal experience, that you can be both Christian and Jewish in a religious sense. Oh sure, you can worship in both a church and a synagogue, but you are very unlikely to feel completely at home in both. You are more likely to primarily identify with one religious identity and form of worship and be “OK” with the other, usually for the sake of your spouse and possibly the kids.

To me “interfaith marriage” means two people who are married, each one with a different religious identity, and those identities co-exist side-by-side with each other. There could be some overlap and usually is (I tend to be more “OK” with the overlap than my wife is), but it’s not like you can have a person who is equal parts Christian and Jewish (or any one religion and the other…and no, I’ve not yet read the book or watched the film Life of Pi).

I know what you’re thinking.

Sid: You’re never gonna impress Ellie like that.
Manfred: I don’t want to impress her.
Sid: Then why are you trying so hard to convince her she’s a mammoth?
Manfred: Because that’s what she is! I don’t care if she thinks she’s a possum. You can’t be two things.
Sid: Au contraire, mon “fered”. Tell that to the bullfrog, the chickenhawk, and the turtledove.

-dialog from the film
Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006)

Well, maybe that’s not what you were thinking. You may be thinking more along the lines of Susan Katz Miller:

The discovery of a cohort of “Mixed Religion” adherents in the U.K. serves as a reminder that the demographic reality of religious double-belonging among adults can no longer be ignored. Most religious institutions continue to urge interfaith couples to pick one religion for children, to beware of confusion, to stop blurring boundaries. The reaction to dual-faith adherence is too often panic and disapproval, and the attempt to close borders. But for the individual, especially an individual like me who was born into a family with more than one religious heritage, crossing borders can be exhilarating and bring great joy. Our celebration of both faiths goes beyond Hanukkah and Christmas, beyond all the history of tragic conflict and religious violence, to a place where love prevails over dogma. In this spirit, and in the season of light in darkness, I send greetings across the Atlantic to those who celebrate Christmas and Yule, Hanukkah and Diwali, all of the above, or none of the above.

All of that sounds wonderful, but I still agree with Manny. You can’t be two things. You can be one thing and participate in other things, but that participation does not necessarily work its way into your permanent, defining identity as a spiritual, religious, and ethnic human being. My wife and daughter have been kindling the Chanukah lights every night this week but while I’ve been present (and after all, it is my home), that doesn’t make me co-Christian/Jewish.

Judaism very strongly discourages intermarriage and does not believe that a person can have dual religious identities the way some individuals have dual national citizenship.

Honestly, I don’t think this can work. On many levels, you cannot have both a christening and a Bris. Because as nice as it would be for intermarried parents to be able to “cover both bases,” not have to make any big decisions just yet, and provide something for all of the grandparents, having a child brought into the Church of Jesus as well made part of the covenant of the Jewish people is not being honest to either tradition.

As “exclusionary” as this sounds, this position is based on common sense, respect for the integrity of both Judaism and Christianity as religions with particular and distinct messages as well as what has been found through years of experience as being in the ultimate best interest of the child.

Religiously speaking, children need to know who they are. They need to have a solid, unambiguous faith identity which gives them a place in the world, a spiritual tradition through which to experience the important times of life and a community of meaning, not just to know about, but to be a part of and to feel at home in. This means that, when it comes to religion, one is better than none and better than two.

“Intermarriage and Dual Religion”
from the “Ask the Rabbi” series
Aish.com

elephant_in_the_room_talkIn any intermarriage that produces children, sooner or later those children are going to have to make a decision as to who they are. In my family’s case, the choices are Christian, Jewish, or non-religious (or other religious). Halachically of course, my children will always be Jewish, regardless of their religious choices. I should say, in their case, they also have the option of self-identifying as Messianic Jewish (and as far as I know, none of them have made this choice) which, from my perspective, would be a completely halachically Jewish religious lifestyle that accepts Jesus (Yeshua) as the Moshiach and which is not the same thing as being a “Jewish Christian” or a Christian of any type (see Rabbi Dr Michael Schiffman’s blog post Messianic Judaism and Christianity: Two Religions With The Same Messiah for details).

For the sake of clarity, I must say that my wife would be the first to disagree that Messianic Judaism is a true Judaism, as would most secular and religious Jews in the world. A recent article written by Jewish Journalist Sarah Posner called Kosher Jesus: Messianic Jews in the Holy Land very thoroughly describes the Jewish perspective on the Messianic Jewish movement.

While I certainly respect Susan Katz Miller as a writer and an interfaith parent, her perspective and mine are different. My family doesn’t choose to celebrate both Christmas and Chanukah. I’m perfectly happy not celebrating Christmas and feel a great sense of freedom in not having to feel bound to the stress, pressure, and expense of either a commercial or religious demonstration of the holiday (Chanukah is much more low-key and even for a goy like me, more spiritually meaningful).

I may be a Christian but I don’t do Easter and I don’t do Lent, and I don’t even think of Shavuot as Pentecost. There is no “mixing” of religious expressions in our home. There are mezuzot on virtually every entry way in my home and the bookshelves in the living room are lined with siddurim, Talmudic commentary, copies of the Chumash, Tanakh, and even The Jewish Book of Why (the “Christian” books including Christian Bibles are either on the bookshelves in the study or in my “book closet”).

Even our “interfaith home” isn’t equally interfaith as you can see. As far as reading material, wall art, decorations, and halachah are concerned, it is primarily Jewish (although the kitchen isn’t kashered in the slightest) with the Christian aspects tucked away here and there. I suppose that’s fair since I’m the only Christian in evidence around the place.

You can’t be two things. Two things can co-exist in an environment but as you see, even the environment isn’t equally supportive of those two things. It’s like on the starship Enterprise in the TV show Star Trek, the Original Series (1966-1969). The ship’s life support settings favored the majority population on board, which were human beings, and the minority species on the ship (Vulcans, for instance) just had to put up with it and could tailor the environmental settings in their personal quarters to more closely fit their requirements.

I hadn’t really given it much thought before this, but I think the “duality” of religious/ethnic/cultural expression in my home is part of why I started the “Days” series. Although no one in my family opposes my pursuing a Christian identity in the slightest, the fact that I am a minority in my own home is abundantly evident. There are conversations we have when I suddenly become very aware that I’m a Christian (alone) and they are Jewish (together). There are times when I realize that I cannot have a detailed conversation about my faith with anyone I live with or any of those people I love the most without potentially crossing some very serious barriers.

If I were a religious none, I’d still be “different” in my home, but I wouldn’t be so “religiously” different from my family (culturally and halachically I would always be different). Given the less-than-comfortable history between Christianity and Judaism, I might even have a somewhat less “problematic” relationship in the home. If I were “nothing in particular,” while I wouldn’t be able to relate to my family on a “Jewish” plane, I at least wouldn’t clash with them religiously and spiritually.

Could I give up my faith for my family? I’ve considered that question carefully and believe me, there’ve been days… But no, I couldn’t do that, even for them. The “best” I could do would be to go “underground,” so to speak, not reading the Bible at home (or at all), not going to church, not calling myself a “Christian” in their presence or in the presence of others (particularly “Jewish” others). My faith would necessarily have to become isolated from the world, locked in a container that holds only God and me.

Running out of timeRight now, my “Days” countdown is focused on whether or not I continue to go to church beyond December 31st but it could easily expand to include ceasing any personal religious expression. But then, that would put me right back at the point of pulling the plug on this blog and I’ve already decided not to do that.

My recent “Days” blog posts have been on topics such as relationship (or lack thereof) and self-identity. An identity that includes faith and spirituality is composed of a life of decisions between options. Those decisions, and I write about them in abundance, are not easy, but they are decisions. There’s no way to fuse “left” and “right” or “up” and “down.” You can’t go in two opposite directions simultaneously.

Like Manny said, you can’t be two things. Ellie had to choose between being a possum and a mammoth. There wasn’t really a contest of course. She was unmistakably designed to be a mammoth and so physically, she made a lousy possum. She just needed another mammoth to show her who she was and how to live like a mammoth, even if they decided not to go with the herd…even if they decided just to be mammoths together.

Would that the choices were so obvious for me.

19 Days: Church in the Short Run

symmes_chapel_churchI have seen so much good come out of the church I am in. Depending on how far you want to stretch the idiom, I have seen “the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.”

Have people left? Yes. Have people gotten hurt? Yes. Welcome to communal life…

Several families come here now that used to be part of tiny Hebrew Roots congregations. No one has found that they had to compromise their level of observance to go to church here. We don’t even really stand out all that much. Anything we wanted to do – starting chavurot, starting Torah study groups, keeping Sabbath and dietary laws, whatever – we could do and still come here and live under the umbrella of Christianity. Sunday worship? Of course. Come on, Shacharis is every morning. It’s not like you can take a day off.

-Pastor Jacob Fronczak
“Why I Go to Church”
Hope Abbey

I decided that I needed to review Jacob’s blog post, almost a year old now, to help bolster my own commitment (which, if you read yesterday’s extra meditation, you know is flagging). It helped, but only a little. Jacob was already well-integrated into his church and into the church culture in general as he developed a “Hebraic awareness” (for lack of a better term). I still feel like a fish out of water, desperately searching for a pond, a tide pool, or even a wee bucket of the wet stuff to hop into for the sake of survival.

After originally reading Jacob’s blog post, I responded with one of my own called Why I Don’t Go To Church. Obviously, a few things have changed since I wrote it. Of course, when I wrote my blog post last January, one of my primary concerns about returning to the church was “supersessionism.”

I admit to living with a certain amount of apprehension that if I ever started attending a church again, someone, a Pastor or Bible Teacher or just one of the parishioners, would spout off something about the church replacing Jews. Then I’d feel my blood pressure rise along with my temper, and I’d either just walk out, or I tell that person what I thought of their ill-considered “theology” (and then walk out or be thrown out).

Not that it would really be their fault. After all, the church has been teaching supersessionism as Biblical “fact” ever since the days of the early Gentile “church fathers.” That still doesn’t make it right nor does it mean I have to tolerate a way of understanding the New Testament that requires Judaism and every living, breathing Jew (including my wife and three children) to be deleted from religious, spiritual, and historical significance, not to mention permanently removing them from God’s love and, in at least a historical sense, removing the Jews from their very lives.

But none of that has happened. I haven’t encountered a single statement denigrating Judaism or Jewish people. I think some people are a little fuzzy on whether or not there’ll be a third Temple, and one gentleman made some statements regarding the specific clothing worn by Orthodox Jews and praying at the Kotel as “putting God in a box,” but by and large, active anti-Jewish and anti-Israel attitudes never appeared.

Jacob mentioned some of the concerns people have had that have resulted in them leaving the church.

I understand that a lot of Hebrew Roots people have had bad experiences in church. I have had a lot of bad experiences in church. Yet I had most of them before I became a Hebrew Roots person. When you get into a community with other living breathing people you will eventually encounter conflict and you will have to learn to deal with it.

Have people left? Yes. Have people gotten hurt? Yes. Welcome to communal life…

I had some unpleasant experiences in the first church I attended as a Christian, but that was some time ago. There were also a lot of really nice folks who attended that church at that time. However, that church isn’t the church I attend now, so my past experiences really don’t apply. I’ve heard all kinds of stories about the “bad stuff” that’s happened to some people in some churches, but it really depends on the people and the churches involved and after all, as Jacob says, communal life isn’t always a bowl of cherries.

mens-service-jewish-synagogueThat goes for synagogue life, and life in just about any group of religious people or just people in general. Your religious tradition or whatever variant movement you are attached to probably won’t see much of a difference. The fellow I had coffee with last Sunday afternoon and his wife have been “burned” by “the church” before, but they’ve been attending a church in our community for the past four years with apparently good results. The people at their church seem to be everything I’d ever want in and expect out of Christians as far as generosity, kindness, and “tzedakah.” The church community can be very good.

More recently, I’ve been vocal about the good the church does in the environment around us and in the entire world. It’s not so much the church that’s at issue, it’s just being “me” in church and trying to get used to the church venue and context.

I still feel purposeless, useless, and aimless at church. I don’t look forward to simply attending the service and then sitting in Sunday school for an hour before going back home. It’s not that I am concerned about “not getting fed,” which seems to be a complaint I’ve heard from other Christians about other churches over the years, it’s about lack of connectedness. I’ve gone back to church to try to fulfill a Biblical (Hebrews 10:25) or Christian expectation for community, it would be nice to actually have some “community.”

In his defense of the church, Jacob wrote:

God forbid that I should disparage the Internet as a means of communication; the irony would be a bit sickening. But realistically, all the activity out here is nothing – nothing! – compared to what is going on in real churches, with real people talking face to face. Real, honest dialogue with other people who bear God’s image and are trying just as hard as we are to understand and interpret the Bible.

The Internet is an amazing way to communicate information. However it is of extremely limited value in building relationships, real relationships with trust and accountability and blood and tears and the things that make us human. And it is in the context of these relationships that people change, minds change, spiritual growth happens.

Apparently, that is yet to come and the potential for that sort of relationship and dialogue is just about the only thing that’s keeping me where I am for the moment. I keep expecting someone to kick me out because I don’t celebrate Christmas (and fortunately, no one has asked what I’m doing for Christmas yet) or because I’m not doing something besides occupying space (make a suggestion…I’ll probably do it). I also keep wondering what will happen if they don’t.

Maybe, as my friend says, in a year, things will be different, perhaps even dramatically different and in a positive way. I hope so. In the short run, it’s hard to look forward to church each Sunday. It isn’t bad. But it could be a lot better.

20 Days: Nosce te ipsum

jewish-t-shirtA convert who converted while among the gentiles.

-Shabbos 68b

Our Gemara introduces the concept of a convert who became Jewish on his own accord, without being informed of the mitzvah of Shabbos. We must understand, though, in what way can we consider this person to be a Jew, and responsible to bring a sin-offering for his unintentional violation of Shabbos, when he has no knowledge of mitzvos? How is this conversion valid?

Reb Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin points out that we see from here that one’s basic identity as a Jew comes from his being known as “a Jew”. The verse (Yeshayahu 44:5) states: “This one will say I belong to Hashem…and he will refer to himself as Yisroel”. The very connotation of being called a Jew is tantamount to being associated with belonging to Hashem.

Accordingly, Reb Tzadok notes that if one is forced to accept Islam, he must resist to the supreme degree of יהרג ואל יעבור Even though we might not consider Islam as being avoda zara, being that their basic belief is monotheistic, nevertheless the very fact that the Jew is being coerced to abandon his identity as being called a Jew is enough of a reason to resist, even if the consequences are severe (see Radva”z, Vol. 4 #92). Even in earlier generations, when a Jew would compromise his mitzvah observance, he nevertheless maintained his distinctive identity as being Jewish.

The verse (Hoshea 4:17) describes this condition, as we find, “Even as Ephraim is bound up…and he follows idols, let him alone.” From here we learn that because they remained bound up with the nation, and they did not assimilate with the surrounding nations, this saved them despite the fact that they were involved with idols.

Daf Yomi Digest
Distinctive Insight
“What is a Jew?”
Commentary on Shabbos 68b

I’m not writing this to try to answer the question “What is a Jew” but to illustrate how difficult it is to even address such a question from a Christian point of view. As I make my attempt to “assimilate” back into a more traditional Christian context, I discover that I may never understand the answer to questions like the one posed regarding Shabbos 68b. The discussion of Jewish identity involves the concept of a Jew who is Tinok SheNishbeh (Hebrew: תינוק שנשבה, literally, “captured infant”) which, according to Wikipedia, “is a Talmudical term that refers to a Jewish individual who sins inadvertently as a result of having been raised without an appreciation for the thought and practices of Judaism. Its status is widely applied in contemporary Orthodox Judaism to unaffiliated Jews today.

This naturally leads me to thinking about the Chabad and their primary mission to attract “unaffiliated Jews” and make them more familiar with Jewish thought and practices. Whatever else you may think of the Chabad (and like any other community, they have their faults, some of them significant), they are “out there,” extending themselves, reaching out to Jews who might otherwise completely assimilate and disappear into the surrounding Gentile culture and environment.

In today’s morning meditation, I addressed the issue of Christian evangelism and how the church, in spite of the many faults we may find in it, is doing all of the “heavy lifting” in terms of reaching out to the would around it and introducing that world to the teachings and grace of Jesus Christ. One of the comments I received is that “spreading the Good News” isn’t really what Jesus had in mind, but rather making disciples of the nations, which is a more involved, intricate, and in-depth process and relationship.

And I agree.

public-menorah-lightingUnfortunately, Christianity and Judaism tend to collide rather disastrously relative to these two imperatives. I liked Tsvi Sadan’s “solution” to this problem as he presented it in his article “You Have Not Obeyed Me in Proclaiming Liberty” (written for Messiah Journal) by using the concept of keruv to bring the Jewish people closer…

…to God and to one another, first and foremost through familiarity with their own religion and tradition…the Jewish people, as taught by Jesus, cannot comprehend his message apart from Moses (John 5:46)…Keruv is all about reassuring the Jewish people that Jesus came to reinforce the hope for Jews as a people under a unique covenant.”

As I learned recently, it may take me a good deal longer than I originally anticipated to make even the tiniest headway into the church. If I’m to make a go of it, I may have to dedicate myself to the “long haul” of “going to church” at the cost of just about everything else. How am I to begin to “understand church” and yet remain on my current educational trajectory relative to Jewish learning and education (such as it is since I’m pretty much self-taught)?

There’s this idea in some churches as well as within Judaism that requires one to acquire a “mentor.” I’ve previously mentioned how difficult it is just to find someone to talk to in the church beyond the simple “hi” and “bye.” Acquiring a mentor seems like an insurmountable task. And yet acquiring a mentor within a church context means necessarily setting aside any learning one might consider “Jewish.” Can I travel in two (apparently) opposite directions at the same time?

I ask that question with a certain sense of irony. Although my Jewish family is anything but strictly observant, my wife and daughter have been diligent to light the Chanukah candles, say the blessings, and to at least play some Chanukah music on each night. It reminds me of how we used to light the Shabbos candles, pray the prayers and sing songs of joy, welcoming the “Queen” into our home. It’s the most “Jewish” experience I’ve had in our house for a long, long time. Man, did that feel good.

And yet here I am, boarding a ship, and sailing the seas toward a “Christian” destination.

I know that my friend Boaz Michael has told me on more than one occasion that the Torah is taught in the church, and we can learn its lessons if only we are open to it. I guess he should know since he and his wife Tikvah attend a church in a small town in Missouri every Sunday that Boaz isn’t traveling.

And yet he and his family still keep Shabbos, keep kosher, and observe the other mitzvot.

But (as far as I know) they’re not intermarried and I’m not Jewish so I have to go somewhere and do something.

Frankly, as much as synagogue life would be alien to me at this point, I’d still rather go to shul with my wife on Shabbos than to church alone on Sunday if I felt I had a choice. But I won’t embarrass my wife by suggesting that she try to find a way to introduce me to her Jewish friends under those circumstances.

lost-in-an-angry-seaThe rationale of returning to church, at least in part, is defined by Boaz’s soon to be released book, Tent of David: Healing the Vision of the Messianic Gentile. I’ve been speaking of “mission work” for the past few days. According to Boaz and relative to his new book…

Mission is broader than theology and stronger than a personal identity. Mission allows one to stay focused on the goal while facing challenges, needing to be flexible, and always showing love. A deep and shared sense of mission and kingdom identity allows one to be shaped by their spiritual growth, gifts, desires, etc. yet stay focused on the greater goal.

I don’t know that I have a “mission” or even a purpose in going to church, particularly since at this church, the Pastor seems sufficiently aware of the Christian’s need to support the Jewish people. But here I am because I feel like I shouldn’t be alone and that I might actually have something to share belong a daily blog posting.

I feel like a person in a lifeboat somewhere out in the ocean. The waves lift me up and the waves dip me back down. I have higher days and lower days (today being “lower”). Do I want to invest a year just to explore the possibility that I might fit into a church and that I might have something to offer besides a few dollars in the donation plate and adding my body heat to a chair in the sanctuary?

Well, in spite of what I want, is it worthwhile? Is it what God wants? How do I know what God wants? I know what “feels” better to me and what doesn’t, but that’s hardly a litmus test that yields reliable results. 20 days and counting. The clock is ticking.

21 Days: An Island Within an Island

waiting-in-the-antechamberAnother church report. I have to admit, this morning (as I write this), I dreaded going to church. I was afraid of what I’d find when I got there. Well, not during services since they’re rather predictable, but Sunday school. But first things first. The sermon was on Acts 8:1-8.

And Saul approved of his execution.

And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.

Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city.

And so begins the great persecution of the church and the spreading of the Good News outside of Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria and eventually to the rest of the world. Pastor used these verses as a platform to encourage his audience (the people in church listening to the sermon) to preach the Good News ourselves in our environment. Since he had previously been a missionary and is the son of missionaries, he also suggested we shouldn’t consider a foreign mission trip outside of the realm of possibility for us.

I found out something interesting, at least I think I did. Pastor made it a point to say that there wasn’t a priority necessarily for the Good News to first be preached in Jerusalem, then in Judea, then in Samaria, and then in the diaspora, but rather those who were scattered preached the Gospel wherever they went. I guess a lot of Christians look at this passage and figure that you are first to preach the Gospel in your own community, which somehow translates into having no desire to go to foreign places and do God’s work there. Pastor emphasized that there are many spiritual problems in the U.S. and a great need for the Word to be spread here, but we have lots and lots of churches. There are places where there is no access to the Word of God whatsoever and those are the places that need evangelists and missionaries.

Listening to Pastor, I realized that I didn’t know how some Christians looked at the Bible at all and what they thought it was supposed to be telling them. I had no idea that this part of Acts could be interpreted relative to whether or not it encourages Christians to do missionary work.

Of course, I also encountered a significant bias toward missionary work in foreign lands, both in terms of preaching the Word and helping with physical needs, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just the emphasis of the Pastor and of the church (they use a significant portion of their resources to support missionaries).

The theme continued in Sunday school. A couple who were visiting the class had spent decades as missionaries in the Congo. Interestingly, the wife had grown up there (her parents were also missionaries) and her husband had spent the last 25 years or so with her in the Congo. They told us that whatever we do or don’t see on the news isn’t like what is actually happening. Another fellow, who had just returned from Turkey (not as a missionary..his job just takes him there) said he had met a “war photographer” on the return flight who showed him his work. The photographer said that 95% of this photos would never make it into the media because Americans don’t want to know what’s really happening in the world (I tend to believe that’s the perception of a censored and biased press, but he’s probably right). There’s a lot of persecution of Christian missionaries in Muslim countries that the Western press never, ever talks about, even though there’s amble information and evidence, such as the photos in that war photographer’s camera.

walking-alone-on-frozen-lake1I was listening to all of this as an outside observer. I really didn’t have anything to contribute to the conversation and at those moments when I was tempted, I wrote in my notes “bite your tongue.” I know that missionaries living and working in the “foreign mission field” really do live in a different world from mine, but just being in that class felt like a different world too. I was sitting in class reflecting on my experience of being at church and realized that people were starting to get used to me being around. I knew that when I realized that fewer people were greeting me. A few people said “hi” but it wasn’t with the same frequency and intensity. I guess they’re probably saying, “the ball is in your court.” In other words, what am I going to do to become a member of this community?

I have no idea.

As I was going out the door to go to church, my wife said, “Have fun.” I wasn’t anticipating having fun and when she asked me why I was going, I blurted out something about a sense of obligation…that I had a responsibility to be “in community.” I go to church because I feel obligated to go, not because I get a lot of “pizzazz” out of it. I suppose I shouldn’t expect a lot of pizzazz. I managed to get through singing the Christmas hymns and listened to Pastor’s sermon which often is the highlight of my church experience. What’s “fun” or “pizzazz” got to do with it?

Charlie, the leader of the class I attend, announced that he would be leaving class at the end of December. I guess he doesn’t feel well, but I’d have to be able to read between the lines to understand more. He asked for people to volunteer to take over leading the class and if no one did, the class would disband. So one of my very tenuous holds in church, this class, is probably going “bye-bye.” There are a number of other adult classes being offered so I suppose I could attend one of them, but do I want to and what would be the point?

A Russian congregation had been using the church building for their services on Sunday afternoons but Charlie mentioned that they had disbanded last week. There are about thirty or so Russian-type congregations in the Boise area and I used to know some of the folks involved (they occasionally attended the One Law group where I used to worship). Charlie mentioned that whatever bond had held the Russians together (and they had been persecuted for their faith in their own land) had dissolved and it made me realize that “bonding” to the people at this church is a real struggle. In listening to different people in the class talk, I found out that many of these people had known each other for decades, sometimes back into childhood, and that many had an unbroken Christian faith also going back that far.

That’s one of the reasons I’ve found it difficult to “bond” with religious people in general…my being a “Johnny-come-lately” as far as my faith. In some ways, sitting there in that Sunday school class, I felt like I had just become a Christian and outside of that knowledge, was completely disconnected from whatever else it means to be a Christian. I also discovered that those people feel disconnected and isolated too, but in this case, it’s because of “rampant sin in the world” that the world “dresses up” sin to look acceptable, and the world wants the rest of us to accept it, too (they were probably talking about recent changes in the laws in some states allowing gay marriages).

A life of faith is isolating and in visiting this church it’s like I’m an island visiting a somewhat larger island. While I feel I’ve reasonably resolved my personal uncertainty about remaining online, at least here in the blogosphere, remaining at church past my deadline is still a big, fat question mark. The people and groups in the church who feel alienated from the larger culture have each other in their community, but I’m a stranger in their very strange land. You can’t get to know people at church between the service, the singing, the prayers, the sermon, the Sunday school class discussion, but I don’t know how to form connections to take it to a more meaningful level.

alone-at-churchIt wouldn’t be any different in other church and it wouldn’t be any different in a synagogue or other social setting. When my wife and I first started a church experience many years ago, we already knew some of the other families attending, so we had a way “in.” I don’t know how to do that here and I don’t know that I should. On the other hand, I’m afraid of simply giving up too soon, especially if (and I know this will sound “churchy”) God has some sort of plan for me to continue here.

I feel like a person who has been handed an anonymous note telling him to enter a room and introduce himself to the stranger he discovers inside. There’s no context, no reason, no apparent purpose to the encounter and only a minimal and mysterious set of instructions that act as guide.

Will there be church after the next three weeks? I don’t know. If there is, then I can’t imagine what I’ll be doing there. If it’s where God wants me to be, then I guess I’ll go to services, go to Sunday school, and remain a tiny island visiting a larger island for about three hours every Sunday. I’ll follow the instructions on the note, enter the room, introduce myself to the person I find inside, and then we can both wonder what we’re supposed to do next.

Reality Check: After writing all of the above, I had coffee on Sunday afternoon with a friend who has been at his current church for four years. He’s been a believer for most of his life (we’re about the same age) and he’s been through many different churches and movements over the course of a life of faith. He told me it will take at least a year for me to feel any sort of integration into church at all. A year?

28 Days: Trying to Get Used to Church

mfbc

Boy, you miss one day of church and you certainly hear about it.

I say that tongue-in-cheek, but I was surprised to find that people actually noticed I wasn’t in church last week. It caught me a bit off guard.

Today (as I write this), we had a guest speaker who delivered the “sermon,” the combined adult Sunday school class teaching and, if I’d have stayed, more teaching during and after a pot luck lunch (I knew nothing about this which is what I get for missing a week of church): James W. Rickard. I guess he does the taxes for a lot of the Pastors across the Northwest. Since my wife is so good managing finances, nothing he said came as a huge shock (credit card debt is bad) but I stayed for the “Sunday school” portion of his talk, just to see what he’d say.

This meant that Pastor didn’t give his sermon on Acts this week and of course, we didn’t meet in Charlie’s class to discuss Pastor’s sermon. And I had my brand new, ESV Study Bible with me and everything (because the battery in my Kindle Fire went toes up…replacement Kindle Fire will be shipped out soon).

Doug, the Music Director, who is over-the-top cheery and expressive at 9:30 in the morning, pointed out that the Christmas decorations are up in the church (I honestly hadn’t noticed until that moment) and one of the hymns he lead us in this morning (again, as I write this) was “Joy to the World.” Yes, I sang my first Christmas Carole in many, many years in church this morning. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Still, I haven’t gotten to the point where I have to tell anyone at church that I don’t celebrate Christmas, so we’ll see how that goes.

I don’t really have a focus for today’s “morning meditation” slash “report on church.” I was just thinking though that it didn’t feel quite so strange this time. Almost exactly in between the end of service and the beginning of Jim Rickard’s class, my wife phoned me. She thought I was home and wanted me to look at the shopping list she’d left behind. I mentioned that I was in church (and listening to my voice say that out loud was an interesting experience). She quickly apologized and told me to have fun.

Did I have fun?

Not exactly.

I did sign up to participate in the church’s “challenge” to read the Bible through in one year or less (not like I haven’t done that before). That’s actually not much of a chore since I read the traditional Torah and haftarah readings each week, plus the traditional Psalm, a portion of the Gospel, and several of the Proverbs each Shabbat. I’ll just add a little more each day.

Why am I telling you all this and why should you care?

Consider this.

I bought a brand new Bible. I signed up for a church “activity.” People at church noticed that I had been absent last week. I can feel myself becoming more committed, bit by bit to going to this church. So far, my offerings when they pass around the plate (it still blows my mind that giving money is actually part of the religious service) have been cash, but I guess I should start making more formal arrangements if I’m going to continue attending. Am I starting to get used to the “church culture?”

Well, maybe a little bit. I’m choosing to redefine Christmas as a cultural event and a church tradition to make it easier to absorb when I attend services this month (though now that I think about it, I’m surprised Rickard didn’t mention Christmas and credit card debt in his teachings this morning…they seem like a natural fit).

kosher-foodsBut I still can’t get away from how much more integrated Judaism is (or can be) in terms of a relationship with God, as the Aish Ask the Rabbi column testifies in answering the question, “Why Keep Kosher?”

It is good that you are grappling with this and trying to acquire your Judaism as your own.

The ultimate answer to your question is “because God said so.” Beyond this, however, there are practical, observable benefits to keeping kosher today:

1) Spirituality: The Torah teaches that non-kosher food has a negative effect on a Jewish soul. The soul is like an antenna that picks up waves of spiritual energy. Eating non-kosher food damages the capacity of the soul to “connect spiritually.”

2) Self Growth: If you can be disciplined in what and when you eat, it follows that you can be disciplined in other areas of life as well. Kashrut requires that one must wait between milk and meat, and we may not eat certain animals or combinations of foods. (Even when you’re hungry!) All of this instills self-discipline, and enables us to elevate our spiritual side, by making conscious choices over animal urges.

3) Health Reasons: With its extra supervision, kosher food is perceived as being healthier and cleaner. After slaughter, animals are checked for abscesses in their lungs or other health problems. Blood – a medium for the growth of bacteria – is drained. Shellfish, mollusks, lobsters and crabs have spread typhoid and are a source for urticara (a neurotic skin affliction). Milk and meat digest at an unequal rate and are difficult for the body. And of course, pigs can carry trichinosis.

4) Moral Lessons: We are taught not to be cruel – even to animals. A mother and her young are forbidden to be slaughtered on the same day, and we “don’t boil a kid (goat) in its mother’s milk.” We must not remove the limb of an animal while it is still alive (a common practice, prior to refrigeration). When we slaughter an animal, it must be done with the least possible pain. And we are reminded not to be vicious, by the prohibition to eat vicious birds of prey.

5) Tradition: One of the keys to making a Jewish home “Jewish” is the observance of keeping kosher. When we keep kosher in the home, our attachment to Judaism and the sacrifices that we make become ingrained on our children’s minds forever. And with food so often the focus of social events, keeping kosher provides a built-in hedge against assimilation. For many, the bridge between past and future is the spiritual aroma of a kosher kitchen.

Ultimately, we cannot fathom the full depth of “Why keep kosher.” For as the saying goes, there is more to keeping kosher than meets the palate…

christian-coffee-cultureHere you have the Rabbi responding to a query delivered by a young Jewish fellow who had just left home and was struggling with how or if to create a Jewish home for himself. For Jews, being Jewish isn’t just something you do on one day a week, it’s what defines you in every aspect of your life, including eating. Technically, being Christian should also define you in every aspect of your life, but because being a Christian is a religious identity and does not also define a nation, a people group, and arguably, an ethnicity (that last one is complicated), it’s easier to compartmentalize the Christian part of a person’s life from everything else.

Actually, it was Rickard who said that Christians must not compartmentalize their (our) lives but that we must be Christians in every aspect of what we say, do, and think. Of course, Rickard was raised in a Christian home, “confessed Christ” when he was eight years old (I can only assume he reaffirmed his commitment as he got older and understood the adult ramifications of a Christian faith and life), was married as a Christian, established a Christian marriage, raised Christian children, and has Christian grandchildren. Sure, his focus in teaching was being Christian in terms of managing finances, but that covers a great deal of just plain living.

Although not nearly as formally defined as it is in Judaism, Protestantism does have its cultural and traditional aspects (and as I mentioned before, Christmas is a major cultural tradition in the church) and since I’m trying to make this commitment, I suppose I’d better “hunker down” and get comfortable (or as comfortable as I can be) with the idea.

However, I don’t think I’ll ever get comfortable with calling a voluntary financial gift to the Pastoral staff a “love offering.”

Yeah, I’m rambling. I guess as with everything else, the story is to be continued.