Tag Archives: derek leman

Is There More Than One Right Way To Be An Observant Jew?

Shabbat Shalom, everyone. And I know that the Orthodox way has its charm, its appeal, but the cost of living like the old days in this postmodern world is very high. This article is about the real price of being Orthodox in Atlanta and completely following the traditions.

-Derek Leman
as quoted from Facebook

I don’t mean to be unkind to Derek, but my impression of the above-quoted comment is that keeping an Orthodox lifestyle is “quaint, ” impractical, and largely unnecessary for Jewish living. Maybe I’m getting Derek all wrong, but I think he’s missing the point.

But first things first. Derek is commenting on an article written by Asher Elbein for Tablet Magazine called Grappling With the Rising Cost of Being Orthodox.

Here’s a sample:

For Orthodox Jews everywhere, the cost of being observant has always been high; day schools, kosher food, and housing have always been expensive. But those costs have risen dramatically in recent years. And for residents of Toco Hills (a Modern Orthodox enclave near Atlanta, GA), where housing costs have climbed even as the recession has lowered people’s incomes and reduced their savings—and many breadwinners have lost their jobs—the costs have become a major burden. According to Rabbi Ilan Feldman, leader of Congregation Beth Jacob, a grand shul at the center of the community, 100 of the 600 families living here are on federal or local assistance, a number that has risen gradually but consistently since 2010.

The article highlights Tzivia Silverstein, an Orthodox Jew and an unemployed single mother.

Her mother is helping out, Silverstein says, and she’s getting some child support from her husband, but making ends meet is a continuous struggle. Most of her time is now spent looking for work, preferably something steady, like bagging or cashiering at a local grocery store. But finding a position that doesn’t require weekend time has been difficult. “That’s been a classic challenge of American Jewry, you know?” she said. “Do you work on Shabbat or not? You have trouble earning money because you can’t work on Saturday, and you have to take off for holidays.”

In the Facebook conversation regarding this article, Derek commented that Conservative Judaism “is a good middle ground,” but is this really such an easy choice, like choosing which food items to put on your plate at the local Golden Corral restaurant? Although Tzivia was born into a Reform home, many Jews are born and raised in Orthodox Judaism. It is, for them, more than a “lifestyle.” It’s a life.

The Orthodox Jewish community has a certain mystique.

Whether it’s because we look, act or believe differently, people are intrigued by stories about the Orthodox Jewish community. Media outlets often oblige but whenever I read these stories, they don’t quite resonate with me. They don’t look like the Orthodox community I know. So I’d like to share a few things that happened to me over the last year that give a more accurate insight into the real Orthodox Jewish community.

-Shimon Rosenberg
“The Orthodox Community I Know”

Even in other branches of Judaism, the Orthodox (and there’s more than one expression of Orthodox Judaism, from Modern to Chasidic) are looked at somewhat askance. They are seen as rigid, judgmental, archaic, and even uneducated. Many hold to a very literal understanding that the Earth is 5,774 years old (the current year on the Jewish religious calendar is 5774).

Orthodox JewsOn top of that, the Orthodox are considered the most “rule heavy” expression of Judaism and, as the Tablet Mag article attests, being Orthodox and strictly observant is very expensive.

Contrary to popular belief, not all Jews are wealthy or even comfortably middle-class. Some Jews, like Tzivia Silverstein, are barely making it. But what else is Orthodox Judaism? Let’s return to Shimon Rosenberg’s answers:

My wife and I have experienced fertility problems. We thankfully had been blessed with two children but as they grew older we had been trying for some time to have another child to no avail. One day I was speaking with my rabbi about our situation and I conveyed to him that my wife and I wanted to pursue fertility treatments but because of the steep cost, we were having second thoughts. A few days later my rabbi said that he spoke with an anonymous individual with means in the Jewish community who had agreed to sponsor fertility treatment for young Jewish couples if they could not afford it. He would not know who we were and we would not know who he was. He was motivated purely out of a sense of loyalty to the continuity of the Jewish People.

That’s the Orthodox community I know.

I’ll admit to experiencing a certain amount of dissonance between the Tablet Mag and Aish articles, since you’d think Rosenberg’s Orthodox Judaism would somehow step in and help out Silverstein to the degree that she could acquire a job with an adequate income and not struggle so hard to make ends meet.

I also experienced the same dissonance with how Sue Fishkoff described the Chabad in her book The Rebbe’s Army in relation to some of the experiences my wife has had with the local Chabad Rabbi and Rebbitzen (no, they’re not bad people, but they are human, not the morally and ethically superhuman people Fishkoff often described in her book).

But the costs involved in living Orthodox in Toco Hills continue to rise and there’s only so much help available for lower-income Jewish families:

Many Orthodox families, especially those on the lower end of the economic ladder, simply can’t keep up with the prices. So, they turn to underground charities like Yad L’Yad, an Atlanta-based organization that works exclusively with the area’s Jewish community. According to Esther Pranskey, the organization’s head, the number of recipient families more than doubled when the recession struck and has continued to rise steadily. More than 30 families—including the Silversteins—currently receive provisions of flour, rice, pickles, and other essentials. While basic, the deliveries help ease the pressure. The Silversteins rarely go out to eat, and their meals aren’t extravagant affairs, but they stay fed and they stay kosher.

shabbosBut as Rosenberg attests in his continuing chronicle of his daughter’s birth, there are other occasional helpers:

The excitement began early Friday morning and as the day progressed I started thinking about Shabbat. What would we eat? How would I recite Kiddush? Light candles? I remembered hearing about an organization called Bikkur Cholim which means “visiting the sick.” It’s a volunteer-driven charity that looks after the needs of people in hospital. I called them and within a couple of hours someone came to our hospital room with literally bags of food, grape juice for Kiddush, electric candles to serve as Shabbat candles, even spices for havdallah. The food is free and the person delivering it is a volunteer. In the few moments I had to speak with him I learned that he was just a regular guy — an accountant — who takes off Fridays from work to volunteer for Bikkur Cholim. I asked him why he does it and he replied simply that it’s what God wants of us.

That’s the Orthodox community I know.

The Tablet Mag article doesn’t exactly end on an up beat, but it does describe why being Orthodox isn’t just a casual choice:

“I know it’s not the smart thing to do,” Wittenberg said. “I’d love to sell my house and move out somewhere cheaper. There’s not a day goes by when my wife and I don’t talk about it. But I’m a baal teshuvah. I’m choosing to be observant. And if I’m going to struggle through this Torah, then my kids need to have friends. They need to be in the community.”

For Silverstein, it comes down to value instead of cost. In terms of personal and spiritual fulfillment, she says, the neighborhood pays for itself. As heavy as the expenses are, they are necessary sacrifices for belonging to the community. “I see maybe one movie a year,” she said. “I choose to put my kids through religious school instead of buying a nicer car. It’s astounding, the amount of money that other people have, to spend on things like renovating their house or buying a bigger TV. To me, my most important relationship is with God. The material world is a means to an end.”

I’d love to copy and paste all of Rosenberg’s write-up here but I’ll restrain myself to its ending as well:

After two weeks in the hospital, the doctors told us we could go home. In the end, they said they would monitor her condition, but over time it would likely go away on its own.

Our two kids at home were delighted at the return of their baby sister. They helped her and cared for her and nurtured her. As a parent, there’s no better feeling than seeing your children care for one another. Likewise, when God watched how my community took care of my family in our time of need, I think He too had that parental pleasure, so to speak.

I wish I could thank my community publicly for everything that they’ve done but I am writing this under a pseudonym to protect the privacy of my family. But I know that my community doesn’t want a public thank you. They were just doing what they do.

That is the Orthodox community I know.

Derek Leman
Derek Leman

Getting back to the Facebook commentary, why would being Orthodox seem to be such as casual selection (and I apologize if I’m mischaracterizing the motives or intent of Derek and the others dialoging in the thread)?

One person made the following comment:

I think Yeshua will be a conservative Jew. Orthodoxy is more interested in keeping Torah( or the rabbinical interpretation of Torah) with rigidity. Creating it to be a burden, and simple works that do not bring us closer to Hashem . Reform is too liberal, and mostly a social club than a house of worship. I believe all Jews want to serve Hashem,they just have different interpretations on how to do it. The MJ I attend leans towards the conservative tradition.

I suppose we all have our own theories on what sort of Judaism Yeshua (Jesus) will advocate and teach upon his return (although Christians probably don’t imagine he’ll practice Judaism at all), but we are operating in a vacuum. We don’t know that Messiah will formally support a currently existing branch of Judaism. But if you read Matthew 23:1-3 as I do, you see Jesus not only agreeing with the teachings of the Pharisees but stating that they had the right to issue binding halachah (legal rulings) for their community, which apparently included Yeshua’s disciples.

That would at least hint that in the future Messianic Age, he will support a more strictly observant lifestyle which probably will include a variety of traditions such as Netilat Yadayim (ritual hand washing). That’s a guess, but I hope it’s an educated guess.

Of course modern Messianic Judaism, like all of the other more normative Judaisms, doesn’t represent a single, overarching identity or philosophy. Derek is affiliated with the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC) which he describes as “the oldest (and best) network of Messianic Jewish congregations in the U.S.” If you go to the Introduction page of the Standards section of the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council, which provides the oversight for the training and ordination of UMJC Rabbis such as Derek, you can find a PDF document called Standards of Observance which outlines in some detail the “worship, ethics, education, (and) halakhic standards” established by this body. Without going into exquisite detail, those standards seem largely to be Reform with some elements of Conservative Judaism.

I don’t doubt that those particular standards were selected with the majority Gentile attendance of UMJC synagogues in mind. Although I know more than a few non-Jewish people who have basically run out of their churches and into a Messianic Jewish lifestyle of one sort or another, almost all of them are not observing halachah to the level of an Orthodox Jew or anywhere near it.

Messianic Judaism is even now just beginning to emerge into its own as an authentically Jewish expression of Yeshua-faith, but it has a long way to go. As a relatively new branch of Judaism (I realize I’m going to receive a lot of “push back” by calling Messianic Judaism a Judaism at all), it’s still trying to “find its feet,” so to speak. UMJC is only one organization representing Messianic Judaism and its codified standards only apply to the affiliated Rabbis and synagogues under the UMJC banner. Other Messianic Jewish groups (as opposed to One Law/One Torah, Two House, Ephraimite, or Sacred Name groups) may follow different standards, either established by a different umbrella organization or at the level of the individual synagogue/congregation.

Even within those groups, Jewish individuals and families may hold to varying degrees of observance, some more stringent and some less than their faith communities. I’ve found that to be true of many of the Jewish families who attend the local Reform/Conservative shul. I’ve heard some people there comment that they think the Rabbi is “too religious”.

Modern IsraelI say all this not to be unkind to Derek, anyone who has conversed with him on Facebook, the UMJC in particular or Messianic Judaism in general. I am saying that religious Jews all over the world make decisions about what being observant means to them and what their duties to Hashem are in this world.

Both Wittenberg and Silverstein in the Tablet Mag article say they’ve made their choices and that being Orthodox, though sometimes a terrific financial struggle, is worth it to them. They seem to join with Rosenberg in saying that the community life of Orthodox Judaism is woven not just across the collective community, but in each of their individual lives, binding one Jew to another.

Even watching my Jewish wife, who has a fairly relaxed observance, particularly compared to Chabad, relate to other Jews and to the Jewish community (regardless of synagogue affiliation) testifies to this bond between Jews, a bond I can’t be a part of and admittedly don’t really understand. Although my wife wasn’t raised even as a secular/cultural Jew (long story), the “Jewish connection” seems to come from her very DNA and is firmly anchored to her soul. It just needed an expression which my wife has since discovered.

So while I can recognize, at least on the outside (far, far outside) looking in, that living as an Orthodox Jew can be a struggle, I can also see that it has many rewards. I certainly don’t see the justification in criticizing a Jewish person’s decision about how to be a Jew. I know if I tried that with my spouse, she’d promptly explain to me in no uncertain terms that she didn’t need my advice or permission on how to be Jewish (that happened exactly once and I’ll not cross that boundary again).

I apologize if I’ve ruffled feathers, but we must admit that in the present world, there seems to be more than one acceptable manner by which an observant Jew can live as a Jew. When Moshiach comes and teaches Torah, then we will know more.

In the meantime, we should not criticize the level of a Jewish person’s observance, especially if it’s more strict than our own (or rather than another Jew’s observance). The world, including the Christian world, has tried for thousands of years to destroy the Jewish people and Judaism using many and varied means. The current method of choice is assimilation by reducing the Jew’s observance and sense of Jewish identity to zero or close to it, thereby turning that Jewish person into a Gentile with Jewish genes.

I know no one has suggested this, but it’s the natural result of telling a Jew not to be so “religious.”

Utilize every opportunity to become aware of the Almighty’s kindness. This awareness will motivate you to emulate the Almighty and make the attribute of kindness an integral part of your personality.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin

Book Review: Divine Messiah

“We don’t need a Messiah actually,” she argued. I’ve had this conversation a number of times and on this occasion we were relaxing over coffee. “Everything you say Jesus does we say God does. God is our savior and the whole Messiah thing is not what you make it to be. God redeems, heals, raises the dead, is the king, brings the age to come, restores Israel, and gives knowledge in the future time to the Gentiles.”

-Derek Leman
“Chapter One: Seated at the Right Hand,” (loc 23)
Divine Messiah (Kindle Edition)

Note: Lacking page numbers, I’ll use the “location” (loc) notation in Kindle to describe approximately where in the book each quote is to be found. Also, be prepared. This is pretty long.

Most of my regular readers know or at least are aware of Derek Leman, who he is, what he believes, and what he teaches, but for those of you who surfed in to read yet another book review, on his author’s page at Amazon.com Derek says:

I am a rabbi, writer, and speaker focused on the Jewish context of faith in Jesus (Yeshua), on making the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) simple, and on the intersection of Judaism and Christianity. Linda and I have eight children who fill our lives with fun and friendship. We are a homeschooling family dedicated personally to the value of a faith-filled home. My special interests include the Hebrew Bible, the Gospels, the life and teachings of Yeshua, theology, Second Temple Jewish history, Abraham Joshua Heschel, the early midrashim of the land of Israel, mussar, mysticism, the Hebrew language, Isaiah, the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, science fiction, fantasy, Star Trek, and beer. Not necessarily in that order.

He has been heavily marketing his Divine Messiah eBook on his blog for months, the most recent effort (as I write this) being Preview: Divine Messiah.

In this short book (the print length is only 98 pages, so hardly the length of a chapter or two in most larger texts) which I downloaded onto my Kindle Fire for a nominal cost, Derek proposes to do what I would consider the impossible: to describe, from a Messianic Jewish point of view, the “mechanics” of Yeshua (Jesus) being co-equal to God the Father.

My personal opinion is that the Deity and Divinity of Yeshua remains a profound mystery that defies analysis and that can only be reasonably discussed in the realm of mysticism (I refer the reader to Messianic Luminary Paul Philip Levertoff’s classic Love and the Messianic Age along with its accompanying textual commentary, both published by First Fruits of Zion, for insights into Jewish mysticism within the Messianic perspective).

The purpose of my current review is to determine if Derek reasonably makes his case that Jesus Christ, that is Yeshua HaMashiach, is indeed God as God the Father is God, that he is worthy of worship and devotion as God, and that the early Messianic Jewish and Gentile disciples worshiped Jesus as God beginning in the early to mid-first century CE.

I will mention as a caveat that there is no one “Messianic Jewish perspective” on anything. Derek represents primarily his own point of view although I can only imagine he draws heavily from his affiliation with the scholarly and authoritative body Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council. He also draws a great deal from the work of Dr. Larry Hurtado, “New Testament scholar, historian of early Christianity and Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.” I should say that I am also a “fan” of Dr. Hurtado’s work and have received a number of personal insights from his recent and classical writings.

Derek wrote his book in six chapters and I’ll structure my review likewise, followed by a conclusions section.

Chapter One: Seated at the Right Hand

Derek starts out with the issue of what Yeshua brings to the table as Divine Messiah. Referencing the dialog I quoted above from his first chapter, traditional Jewish thought has no need for a Messiah who is also God. The God of the Hebrew scriptures is the God of Israel, the God who was, who is, and who forever shall be. Who is this “figure” who supposedly sits at God’s “right hand?”

Derek Leman
Derek Leman

The first chapter lays out all the questions. “Is Yeshua really needed, given that God is already in charge?” How can Messiah, a man, a human being, say that he is God? “Doesn’t God say, ‘I am not a man’?” And if Yeshua isn’t Divine, is “he nothing more than a doorway to the future world we will enjoy?” (a question that I recently explored)

Larry Hurtado, in a recent blog post, brings forth questions about what Jesus did or didn’t believe about himself and how his disciples and apostles perceived him, both before his crucifixion and after his resurrection. Derek seems to understand that Jesus knew exactly who he was and is by quoting the following:

But He kept silent and did not answer. Again the high priest was questioning Him, and saying to Him, “Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” And Jesus said, “I am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”

Mark 14:61-62 (NASB)

Derek then proceeds to a number of texts in the Hebrew Bible, principally Daniel 7, also referencing Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin’s commentary on the same scripture in his book The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, as well as historical notes from other noteworthy Jewish sources such as Rabbi Akiva, Don Issac Abravanel, and of course, the apostle Paul, in order to build a case for how Jewish thought at different points in history, considered God and his “chief agents” as well as how these agents were similar to and different from Yeshua.

Derek’s conclusion here is that no other figure of honor or representing God was treated in the same manner as Jesus:

They saw the Glory of God reflected in the face of Yeshua the Messiah. They saw Yeshua enthroned at God’s right hand and heavenly beings prostrate before both of them. They saw something new, far beyond the other kinds of divine agents in the Hebrew Bible and in Jewish literature of various types.

-Leman, loc 150

While this may seem apparent to most Christians, we don’t often attempt to struggle with comprehending the following:

The belief in Yeshua as Divine Messiah is, in the words of Larry Hurtado “a mutation or variant form of exclusivist monotheism.”

-ibid, loc 161

Chapter Two: God’s Nature in the Hebrew Bible

Having set the stage, Derek next takes a look at the traditional Jewish view of God in the Tanakh (Old Testament), although it should be noted that there is no single, overarching Jewish “opinion” on the nature of God.

The Hebrew Bible is not the record of a God who can be fathomed. His appearance to people is always a surprise. He can appear in ways deceptively small, a bush in the desert. He reveals himself as eternal, with foreknowledge and an unchanging nature, yet acting in human history, regretting things, and at least in appearance moving with events as a participant in them.

-ibid, loc 201

Additionally, and this seems to be the capstone of the chapter:

Monotheism may not be as simple as it seems.

-ibid, loc 210

Standing before GodAs you might expect, the Hebrew Bible declares God a complete and indivisible unity without differentiation. Derek proposes however, based on the Hebrew Scriptures that “God’s nature is differentiated in the Bible (in that) he is at the same time in more than one place and fulfilling multiple roles.” (loc 245)

One vital piece of information Derek confirms is:

The Divine Messiah realization was not disclosed in the Hebrew Bible, but only afterward.

-ibid, loc 257

This may be rather shocking to most Evangelical Christians who cite various proof texts from the Old Testament which they believe establishes Jesus as Messiah as well as Jesus as God. And yet, a careful reading of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings does not lead us to obviously conclude that the Messiah must be God. Apart from the aforementioned Daniel 7, we don’t have any evidence that the Bible presupposed Messiah as God prior to the New Testament.

However, God does appear “differentiated” relative to the various manifestations we see described, such as “Spirit,” “Glory,” and other “forms,” and it’s Derek’s contention that “the Spirit of God” describes something personal about God as opposed to poetic language or even a circumlocution for God’s power such as “the Hand of God.”

God’s Spirit does things requiring active verbs. God’s Spirit was brooding.

-ibid, loc 290


God does not directly enter the world but sends aspects of his being which are mysteriously undefined.

-ibid, loc 323

Humanity can hardly grasp even imagining the totality of an infinite God. We can’t even grasp the vastness of God’s creation, the universe which is inconceivably large and yet which must be finite. So then, God in all His infinity does not intersect with our universe but rather “aspects” of God that can be witnessed and can interact with our environment and with ourselves. Hence the various “forms” of God we see evidenced in the writings of the Tanakh.

At one point, I believe Derek gets a little premature in saying:

God is not a man, but he is not averse to appearing as one.

-ibid, loc 356

It can be argued that none of the “man-like” supernatural figures appearing in the Tanakh, including Jacob’s “wrestling partner” (Genesis 32:24-32) are not God but angelic representatives or agents, so we may never see God incarnated as a man in the Hebrew texts. Exactly who or what walked with Adam in the Garden (Genesis 3:8), I have no idea, but God did not have to appear human.

Derek does follow-up by stating:

…it should be clear by now that the appearances of God are extraordinarily incomprehensible.

-ibid, loc 411

Throne of GodThe one appearance that is most challenging is the “enigmatic person” who appears with the “Ancient of Days” in Daniel 7 (it always comes back to Daniel 7 it seems) including the mention of a figure “like the son of man” (Daniel 7:13). Derek argues against the modern Jewish interpretation of the “son of man” as national or corporate Israel and gives evidence for a specific individual who is both martyr and ruler, this being “one more example of a seeming paradox.” (in Judaism, paradox and dynamic tension between apparently opposing ideas is sometimes embraced rather than avoided as Christianity does)

Derek even suggests that Trinitarianism (God, Messiah, and Spirit) is supported in the Hebrew Bible, but is far less specific than Christianity’s view of the nature of God.

Chapter Three: Jewish Precursors, Parallels, and Providence

Derek continues to address the nature of God starting out with the two views: God as Force vs. God as Distant. God as Force is seen as the prime actor within our universe but not transcending our universe…personal, active, but wholly embedded in Creation. God as Distant is ultimately transcendent and who set all into motion but then ignores the universe as we might ignore a clock once we set it to the correct time. God is impersonal, the subject of philosophical study, but supremely unapproachable and incomprehensible.

And yet the God of the Bible is both, although His transcendent qualities are obviously more difficult to document. His interaction with our world, as mentioned above, is not through direct contact but accomplished by aspects or agents, and although angelic beings and unique individuals such as Enoch were highly elevated and exalted, “Judaism was not going so far as to say that God became an actual human…” (loc 563)

And again, as mentioned before, Derek tells his audience:

Let me be clear from the beginning (note: though we’re about a third of the way through his book at this point) there was not in normative Judaism the idea exactly like the “binitarian monotheism” of the early Jewish believers.

-ibid, loc 574

Caveat stated, moving forward in history into the time of the New Testament, Derek offers a tour of the “chief agent figures in second temple Judaism.”  He explains how the various streams of normative Judaism of that era were reacting to Gentile influences by creating a number of supernatural “divine agents”. Moving still forward in time, Derek then comments on “Rabbinic thought after the first century.”

Did the rabbis have any comparable inspiration to offer regarding God being present in the world of their time? They certainly did and with great beauty they talked about the Word (Memra, Dibbur, Davar), the Shechinah (Presence), and the Spirit. What they did not do — though some have misinterpreted their words as if the divinity of Yeshua is paralleled in rabbinic sayings about Messiah or the Word — is describe any separate entity equal to God.

-ibid, loc 705

Christianity as well as Messianic Judaism, has been accused repeatedly by more normative branches of modern Judaism as well as “anti-missionary” organizations, of deliberately (or sometimes just naively) misusing rabbinic literature as evidence of “Jewish” support for Yeshua as Messiah as well as a “Divine Messiah”. I appreciate Derek’s integrity here in refuting this practice, and twisting the teachings of the rabbinic sages to say what the authors never intended merely cheapens our efforts to be a witness of Yeshua as Messiah.

That said, I do think it’s true that the later rabbis may have interpreted sections of the Bible to deliberately create distance between Jewish and Christian perspectives.

…that in early rabbinic works references to the Holy Spirit were restrained. The Shechinah was used instead, so as not to seem in agreement with Christians…

-ibid, loc 751

Larry Hurtado
Larry Hurtado

Derek returns to the first century Biblical narrative and particularly to Paul and how his letters seem to manage the “Divine Messiah realization.” Agreeing with Hurtado, Derek proposes an early worship of Messiah as God but does say that such a “realization was thought blasphemy when it first appeared” as implied in the story of Paul.

Again citing Hurtado, Derek states that Paul actually inherited the concept of “Messiah as Divine” from the earlier Judean Yeshua-believers, rather than, as many critics claim, “reinventing” Yeshua the itinerant rabbi from the Galilee as a Deity.

Chapter Four: The Early Believers’ Devotion to the Divine Messiah

In the early half of the first century, it happened so suddenly that there are no records of the way the innovation came about. The early community of Yeshua-followers started believing and practicing something beyond any previous concept.

-ibid, loc 860

Hurtado’s 2005 book How on Earth Did Jesus Become God: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus covers this territory more thoroughly and is the source of much of Derek’s material. Interestingly enough, Derek also leverages Bart Ehrman’s newly published book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. I say “interestingly” because Ehrman is both a New Testament scholar and an agnostic, and because Hurtado recently reviewed the same book by Ehrman, providing additional dimension to Derek’s research.

Key support for Derek’s assertion of a Divine Messiah who was worshipped early in the existence of the Yeshua-believing Jewish/Gentile ekklesia is a comparison between Isaiah 45 and the “hymn” of Philippians 2 as well as the “Shema” of 1 Corinthians 8. He also comments on the arguments of Chris Tilling regarding the Corinthian letter and what Tilling calls “relational monotheism.”

In other words, Paul is willing to see Yeshua in the Shema, regards Yeshua as worthy of equal relational faith as God, and sees the one God as the Father and the one Lord as Yeshua.

-ibid, loc 967

I have to admit at this point, it’s difficult for me to sort out how “God is One” and yet to have God the Father and Jesus the Lord so differentiated and yet both being God. I think this is what happens by necessity when anyone actually attempts to analyze or map out the “nuts and bolts” of trinitarian thought.

Derek calls one of the sections of this chapter “Careful but Confusing Language about Yeshua,” which says mouthfuls. Some of the doubt critics of Christianity have regarding the Deity of Jesus is that the Bible never comes out and says “Jesus is God.” It certainly would be helpful for those of us who don’t always want to be reading the Bible as a puzzle or a mystery story to be solved, if the New Testament writers would have been more explicit.

But they said “Yeshua is Lord” not “Yeshua is God,” so we’re left with something to interpret rather than a plain, peshat statement.

Derek again emphasizes that no other Biblical figure save God was accorded such devotion and worship, as evidenced by the early hymns about Jesus, prayer to God “through” Jesus, calling upon the name of Jesus, confessing Jesus, and so on.

They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!”

Acts 7:59 (NASB)

Even Derek admits that this verse may not be sufficient to support the idea that the early disciples prayed directly to Jesus (bypassing God the Father altogether), but then he goes on to present a larger body of evidence.

D. Thomas Lancaster
D. Thomas Lancaster

In one of my reviews (I don’t recall which one) of D. Thomas Lancaster’s The Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series, I mention that Lancaster says Yeshua’s statement in Mark 14:64 (which I mentioned above) is what got him killed. Derek mentions this again as the foundation of how later opponents to the concept of a Divine Messiah saw the actual worship of Yeshua as Lord (God) as blasphemy, leading to persecution of the Jewish Jesus-believing ekklesia by other branches of first century Judaism.

And yet, referencing Hurtado and Tilling, Derek believes the evidence of Yeshua-worshiping Jewish and Gentile believers is painted all over the New Testament writings.

Some have complained that Hurtado’s evidence that the early believers regarded Yeshua as divine is sparse, based on too few examples and that there is inadequate information about the causes of the new belief. Tilling says language about God-like relational aspects of Messiah with believers nullifies this objection.

-ibid, loc 1185

Further, according to Derek, Paul most often refers to “the Lord” when addressing Yeshua but in referencing God, he uses  “Father” or “Abba,” apprehending both as God but differentiated with different titles.

One traditional criticism, both in ancient and modern times, from normative Judaism is that “Christian devotion to Jesus is idolatry.” If you literally worship a common human being as a “god” then you do have problems, but all of Derek’s narrative has been illustrating that not only is Yeshua unique among humans and agents of God, but that he is specifically and uniquely an object of worship equal to God but not representing a separate “power” from God (no “two powers in Heaven”).

He presents his evidence (though exclusively from the New Testament) that worship of Jesus is directly opposed to worshiping idols or pagan (false) gods, and how worship activities such as “the cup of Yeshua” or “the Lord’s supper” were considered “as being as sacred as the Israelite sacrificial meals.” Of course, from a normative Jewish point of view, if you discount the New Testament as an authoritative source, this doesn’t behave much like evidence.

In the end, Derek’s concluding paragraph to this epic chapter addresses our confusion and our need for faith through the Spirit:

It is by the Spirit that we can say, “Yeshua is Lord.” In other words, there is a mystical communication to the soul which cannot be put into words.

-ibid, loc 1298

Chapter Five: Being Followers of a Divine Messiah

The last two chapters of the book are relatively brief and seem to be Derek’s summing up of what all this is supposed to mean to us today.

Fire on a mountain is one thing. A divine man is quite something else.

-ibid, loc 1336

That’s rather an understatement given the task of communicating a Divine Messiah to a disbelieving world or even those who doubt within the body of faith today, or as Derek also puts it, “Welcome to the mysteries of life and teaching of Yeshua.”

god-is-oneWe can’t just study the Bible and expect to learn and grow. “Knowing is experiential as well as intellectual.” Being a disciple of a living and Divine Master is just as much a matter of doing as thinking or feeling. We “behave” in our lives and toward Jesus as teacher, prophet, master and yes, God as Derek would have us believe and do. And yet he says again, “The nature of Messiah, a mystery we only begin to perceive…” (loc 1356) We learn, we know, we believe, and it is all still a profound mystery, which by its very definition, makes writing a book about said-mystery problematic at best and impossible at worst.

And yet, we have Yeshua himself speaking of returning in power and glory and:

“For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”

Mark 8:38 (NASB)

We have consequences for not having faith in the Divine Messiah when he returns.

Chapter Six: The Case in Short

This is Derek’s final conclusions of his evidentiary arguments for the Divine Messiah, the unsolvable mystery that has many clues. The clues are listed in bullet points within these last few (virtual) pages. His final words are:

The Messianic Jewish belief about God and Messiah is that God has taken an unprecedented new step in lifting up to himself all humanity. This idea is based on a real historical phenomenon that requires some sort of explanation. People could obviously quibble with us about this or that point. But the case has its own internal consistency and a compelling persuasiveness worth considering.

-Leman, loc 1559


Given the open ended nature of Turning Torah how is one to know which meaning is the right one? This is an excellent question, but not a Jewish one. For us there is no one right reading of Torah. There is only the next reading. Of course different Jews will have their preferences, claiming one reading to be superior to others, but this is personal bias rather than a system of right and wrong readings built into the process of Torah Turning.

-Rabbi Rami Shapiro
“Arguing for the Sake of Heaven”

In reading Rabbi Shapiro’s commentary, I thought of my own Why No One Comes to the Father Except Through the Son. The Torah, and by extension, the entire Bible, from a Jewish perspective, is not a fixed, inflexible, immutable document. According to R. Shapiro, “there is no one right reading of the Torah. There is only the next reading.”

And so it goes with how we read the story of Yeshua in the Gospels and other Apostolic Writings.

Christian literature is replete with apologetics in support of Jesus as Deity, as co-equal with God the Father and God the Spirit. It’s not as if what Derek Leman wrote was the first ever attempt at revealing Lord Jesus to the believing masses.

What was unique, at least relatively so, was making this effort from a Messianic Jewish perspective. I liken it to D. Thomas Lancaster’s presentation of the New Covenant and his interpretation of The Epistle to the Hebrews. This has long since been considered as “Christian” material, completely disconnected from any association with Judaism, reconsidered and reinterpreted from a Messianic Jewish framework.

If you weren’t convinced of a Divine Messiah before this, chances are you won’t be convinced by this book. However, if you are a Jew or Gentile worshiping and studying within a Messianic Jewish context, either individually or in community, I think Derek may have given more than a few of you something new to think about by writing this book.

Remember though that while I (and many others) consider Messianic Judaism to be a Judaism (and not a Christianity as such), it is hardly universally accepted as a Judaism, either by the Church or by the other branches of Judaism as Rabbi Shapiro aptly points out.

There is one limit, however, that is imposed from the outside: arguing for the sake of heaven cannot lead you out of the community. This is a sociological argument imposed by most rabbis. If, for example, a someone turns Torah and finds in God’s use of the plural “us” in “Let us create humanity in our image after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26) proof of the Christian Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, almost every rabbi would disavow such a reading. But there is no reason to do so other than the fact that it leads one out of Judaism and into Christianity.

The good Reform Rabbi’s commentary is written to address how Torah can be interpreted and reinterpreted to respond to the needs and even the desires of changing societal imperatives, and can accept many new things that would have been ignored or even shunned by the Rabbis of old, but the hard limit is an interpretation that takes the Jew outside of Jewish community so that even a religious and social liberal opinion as what R. Shapiro seems to represent draws an uncrossable line at a “Divine Messiah.”

praying-at-the-kotelThis is the bitter pill Messianic Judaism swallows in its desire to consider the other Judaisms us, not them. Here is where Derek Leman and the other Jews in Messiah walk a difficult line, embracing a vision of Messiah that has long been associated with Christianity while attempting to refactor it through the lens of Hebrew thinking, scripture, and commentary as wholly Jewish.

Repeatedly, Derek said that the evidence indicates Yeshua-worship in the first century CE was an entirely new and unanticipated concept and activity for any branch of Judaism. The Jewish disciples must have been startled at the sudden inception of a Divine Messiah. They scarcely could have believed in a Messiah that could actually be God. It must have been far easier for the Greeks to adopt this notion, and no wonder so many Jews could not accept it.

Christianity has long assumed that the Jewish “offense of the cross” was Jesus as God, but my studies have often shown me that it was Gentile inclusion in the ekklesia as equal co-participants that was the main reason so many other Jewish sects rejected “the Way.” Could another reason for the early rift between the Jesus-believing Jews and all of their brethren also have been the unprecedented worship of the God-Messiah?

Read Derek’s book and see where his arguments take you.

Kareth and Messianic Judaism

At the core of the pluralism issue is the debate over whether there’s “More than one way to be a good Jew.” Indeed, there have always been divergent streams of observance – like Chassidic, Sefardic vs. Ashkenazic, and even the Talmudic arguments between the Talmudic academies of Shammai and Hillel.

And yet, historic precedents show that there are limits to pluralism, beyond which a group is schismatic to the point where it is no longer considered Jewish. For example, everyone considers Jews for Jesus as outside of the legitimate Jewish sphere. The disagreement, then, lies in defining exactly what are the acceptable limits of divergence.

-from “Ask the Rabbi”

I’m continuing my email conversation with my Jewish friend as I described in yesterday’s meditation, and this “Ask the Rabbi” column seemed to fit right in. As you just read, there are a whole bunch of divergent streams of Judaism, but how far can you diverge and still be Jewish? According to the Aish Rabbi, being “Jews for Jesus” is going too far.

I should say at this point that “Jews for Jesus” is how most Jews see Messianic Judaism, thus Messianic Judaism isn’t viewed as a “Judaism” at all. One problem is, as a private communication revealed to me just recently, even many staunch Jewish disciples of Messiah aren’t all that observant. For instance, one Messianic Jewish conference (I’m deliberately concealing identifying information for obvious reasons) was scheduled during a major Jewish fast day. At another conference, the conference leaders ate the local hotel (non-Kosher) fare, and the very few Jewish attendees who kept kosher were forced to have catered kosher meals brought in or to drive some distance to a kosher eating establishment. And driving on Shabbat for the Jewish conference organizers and attendees wasn’t considered a big deal at all.

Why do I say all this?

Historically, any Jewish group which denied the basic principles of Jewish tradition – Torah and mitzvah-observance – ultimately ceased to be part of the Jewish people. The Sadducees and the Karites, for instance, refused to accept certain parts of the Oral Law, and soon after broke away completely as part of the Jewish People. The Hellenists, secularists during the Second Temple period, also soon became regarded as no longer “Jewish.” Eventually, these groups vanished completely.

-the Aish Rabbi

One of the big issues that may inhibit halachically, culturally, and religiously observant Jews from recognizing Messianic Judaism as a Judaism is, based on the quote above, the lack of consistent Jewish observance in Messianic Judaism. Except for in a few small corners of the movement (at least from an Orthodox Jewish perspective), Messianic Judaism presents the appearance of being not a Judaism (there are many other issues, such as the deification of Jesus and the supposed worship of a man, but I’m choosing to focus on the matter of community and observance right now).

tallit-prayerIt’s a terrible thing for a Jew to be cut off from his or her people.

For those of you who don’t know, the concept of Kareth or “cutting off” is a consequence of a Jew committing certain offenses, such as having a forbidden sexual relationship or worshiping a deity other than Hashem (known as Avodah Zarah). Messianic author and teacher Derek Leman even wrote an article on the topic a few years back.

Should a Jew in Messianic Judaism feel cut off from larger Judaism? Is that a consequence of being a Messianic Jew? Not according to Rabbi Stuart Dauermann in his article “The Jewish People are Us – Not Them,” which he wrote for the Fall 2013 issue of Messiah Journal (and which I reviewed), however, R. Dauermann admits that this has been a consequence of Messianic Judaism historically due to its associations with Evangelical Christianity. Evangelicals believe that once a Jew becomes a disciple of Messiah through the Messianic movement (or by converting to Christianity), they have more in common with Gentile Christians than non-Messianic Jews.

That’s a terrible burden to lay on any Jew’s shoulders.

But does it really have to be that way? Has it always been that way?

Early Christians were the original “Jews for Jesus.” They accepted the Divine revelation of the Torah, but not the eternal, binding nature of the commandments. Initially, these Jews were reliable in their kashrut, and counted in a minyan. But the turning point came when Paul, realizing that Jews wouldn’t accept the concept of a dead Messiah, opened up membership to non-Jews. At that point, these “Jews” experienced a total severing of Jewish identity.

Now that’s a glaring assumption by the Aish Rabbi. Let’s look at that again:

But the turning point came when Paul, realizing that Jews wouldn’t accept the concept of a dead Messiah, opened up membership to non-Jews. At that point, these “Jews” experienced a total severing of Jewish identity.

Ending MacArthur seriesEvangelical Christianity believes that Paul broke with Jewish identity shortly after he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus (see Acts 9) and that the extinguishment of Jewish identity in Messiah was by design. The Aish Rabbi says Paul may not have originally intended to break with Judaism and tradition, but when he couldn’t convince other Jews to “worship a dead Messiah,” Paul switched the object of his proselytizing from Jewish to Gentile populations and cut loose anything Jewish from devotion to Jesus.

No wonder so many Jewish people really hate Paul.

As Paul and Barnabas were going out, the people urged them to speak about these things again the next sabbath. When the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who spoke to them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.

Acts 13:42-43 (NRSV)

I invite you to read the larger context which is captured in Acts 13:13-52, but basically, after Paul’s discourse in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch, on how Jesus was indeed the Messiah, his Jewish audience was extremely eager for him to return next Shabbat to say more. Apparently the issue of a “dead Messiah” wasn’t a problem. The problem was this:

The next sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy; and blaspheming, they contradicted what was spoken by Paul.

Acts 13:44-45 (NRSV)

A certain number of God-fearing Gentiles generally attended this synagogue on a regular basis, so the huge crowds of non-Jews who showed up for the subsequent Shabbat to hear Paul must have been the result of word getting out and large crowds of idol-worshiping pagan Gentiles entering the Jewish community space.

The Jewish PaulSo like I said, the “dead Messiah,” at least in this case, didn’t seem to be the problem, nor, as we know from many of Paul’s other letters as well as the record in Luke’s Acts, did Paul totally abandon his people or Jewish practice in order to invent a new, Law-free, religion exclusively for the Gentiles. As the Aish Rabbi himself stated, the early Jewish disciples ”accepted the Divine revelation of the Torah” and ”these Jews were reliable in their kashrut, and counted in a minyan.” I do not believe that ”these Jews” denied ”the eternal, binding nature of the commandments” nor that Paul taught Jews to neglect the Torah.

Paul said in his defense, “I have in no way committed an offense against the law of the Jews, or against the temple, or against the emperor.”

Acts 25:8 (NRSV)

Paul continued to deny that he had committed any offense against the Torah or against Roman law for the rest of his life and unless we want to believe he was just lying to try to save his skin (didn’t do him very much good if that was his ploy), then we have to consider that the Aish Rabbi, representing the general Jewish view of Paul, and Evangelical Christianity, are both wrong about the Apostle to the Gentiles.

So we have some history that tells us the very first Jews who belonged to the Messianic stream of Judaism called “the Way” continued to be observant Jews and continued to be considered Jewish by the other branches of Judaism in the late Second Temple period.

But why can’t we have that now? Why can’t Messianic Jews be considered Jewish, even within Messianic Judaism? Why should a Jew in Messianic Judaism be considered cut off from his or her people in larger Judaism?

The Aish Rabbi ends his article this way:

I can’t predict what will happen to the various streams within Judaism today, but I do believe that the best bet for a strong Jewish future is to remain loyal to our faith and traditions.

I promise that the Rabbi was not considering Messianic Judaism in this opinion but I believe we should. What that means, is the Jewish people in Messianic Judaism, in order to ensure a strong Jewish future, must too remain loyal to Jewish faith and traditions. That’s why I wrote the blog post The Necessity of Messianic Jewish Community. That’s exactly why Messianic Jewish community is necessary, important, vital, critical.

There’s a lot more I could say about this, but for the sake of length, I’ll back off for now. It will probably be fuel for another blog post fairly soon. I don’t see this issue going away.

synagogue_arkI know it’s odd for me, a non-Jewish person studying within the context of Messianic Judaism, to be so passionate about Jewish identity for Jews in Messiah. I suppose it all comes back to my own (Jewish) family who aren’t Messianic but who I believe really need to be even better at connecting with Jewish community. There’s a huge danger as each generation passes, of Jewish people simply fading away, not assimilating into Christianity necessarily, but just drifting into secular oblivion.

Within Messianic Judaism, many of the leading Jewish teachers and promoters are themselves intermarried, and if the mothers of their children aren’t Jewish, then neither are their offspring.  If, as I stated above, there is a “crisis” of minimal or inconsistent observance of the mitzvot which further weakens the Jewish nature of Messianic Judaism and thus any connection with larger Jewry, will Jews be found within Messianic Judaism in twenty or thirty years?

Precious Assumptions

If you believe certain words, you believe their hidden arguments. When you believe something is right or wrong, true or false, you believe the assumptions in the words which express the arguments. Such assumptions are often full of holes, but remain most precious to the convinced.

from The Panoplia Prophetica

Be warned…you can be immersed in the Babel Problem, which is the label we give to the omnipresent dangers of achieving wrong combinations from accurate information.

The Mentat Handbook

Both of the above-quoted paragraphs come from the original 1976 hardback edition of Frank Herbert’s novel Children of Dune (pages 250 and 259 respectively). I’ve been criticized before for quoting from this series, since Dune and the indigenous people, the “Freemen” are based on Arab tribal culture, which some consider offensive. I apologize if anyone is distracted or dismayed by my choice of literature, but I think these quotes say something very important.

For the past few days, I’ve been monitoring the conversation on Derek Leman’s recent blog post Responding (Belatedly) to Gene. This is a debate, primarily between Derek, a person who has converted specifically within the context of Messianic Judaism and subsequently was educated as a Rabbi, and Gene Shlomovich, a Jewish person who was previously Messianic but who exited the Messianic framework and is currently affiliated with normative Orthodox Judaism (I apologize if these descriptions are inaccurate and am quite willing to be corrected).

The discussion between them is whether or not Jesus is the Messiah, whether or not the Messiah must be God, and whether or not it is proper for people to worship the human Jesus as a God. It’s actually a lot more complicated, but I don’t want to replicate all of the details here.

There have been plenty of other people who have chimed in with their opinions in the comments section of Derek’s blog. I choose not to participate because I don’t think I can contribute anything within that particular context. One more voice, more or less, isn’t going to change the outcome.

At the start of his blog post, Derek did wisely state:

I do not expect logical arguments and text-based discussions will in and of themselves persuade me to abandon faith in the divinity of Messiah or Gene to take up faith again in Yeshua. Such a naive view of dialogue overlooks two things: the complexity of persons (we are not logic computers) and the nature of evidence (what we believe about almost any topic, like which brand of automobile is best, is rarely just logic).

In other words, don’t expect the final, definitive statement on this important matter to issue forth from this conversation. It won’t.

But it does get people to thinking. It got me to thinking but not necessarily about the specific topic at hand.

Actually, this thought occurred to me last Sunday at church. I don’t know what inspired it exactly. I think I was mentally comparing general revelation, that is the revealing of God in the nature of our created universe, and specific revelation, that is, the Bible.

I expect general and specific revelation to be complementary rather than competing. But when someone tells me that the universe is ten to twelve thousand years old max, and all of our scientific observations tell us that the universe is reliably estimated to be about 13 1/2 billion years old, that’s nowhere near any sort of agreement. And that puts the Bible (or certain interpretations of it) at odds with the observable universe, and all sort of Christian and Jewish rationalizations have to be created to explain away tons and tons of evidence that all point to an old universe and an old earth.

Most of those rationalizations make otherwise highly intelligent and educated people sound kind of dumb.

More than 1,700 years in advance, the author of the Zohar predicted a revolution of science and technology around the year 1840. There he describes the fountains of wisdom bursting forth from the ground and flooding the earth—all in preparation for an era when the world shall be filled with wisdom and knowledge of the Oneness of its Creator.

From this we know that the true purpose of all technology and modern science is neither convenience nor power, but a means to discover G‑dliness within the physical world.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Scientific Revolution”

Curious Tales of TalmudSome of my Christian acquaintances might have a problem with me quoting from Jewish sources, and the vast majority of them would have trouble with anything to do with the Zohar (and I don’t think the Zohar is nearly as old as advertised above). Nevertheless, Rabbi Freeman is saying something important. He’s saying that the observable universe reveals God, and that scientific pursuits fill the world with “wisdom and knowledge of the Oneness of its Creator.”

Some people relate to their religion as if it contains the complete totality of all knowledge of God and complete comprehension of everything in the Bible, and based on that, they believe their conclusions on complicated theological, doctrinal, social, political, and scientific issues are all correct 100% of the time. Other people relate to science and technology in exactly the same way. Both types of people are wrong.

Stars ejected by the black hole have a different composition from that of the newly discovered stars. The 20 new stars have the same makeup as normal disk stars do, so the team doesn’t think these newly discovered stars came from the galaxy’s core, halo or some other exotic place.

“None of these hypervelocity stars come from the center, which implies there is an unexpected new class of hypervelocity star — one with a different ejection mechanism.”

Precise calculations require measurements taken over decades, so some of the stars may not actually travel as fast as they appear to, Palladrino said. To minimize errors, the team performed several statistical tests.

“Although some of our candidates may be flukes, the majority are real,” she said.

What might have provided the needed galaxy-fleeing kick, however, is still a mystery.

-by Nola Taylor Redd, January 27, 2014
“Strange, Hypervelocity Stars Get Ejected from the Milky Way”

I love astronomy. The first time I was an undergrad, I took a few classes and fell in love. Unfortunately, my total ineptitude in math prevented me from pursuing astronomy as a degree and a career. But I still like to peruse the popular astronomy publications from time to time.

As you can see, the universe still has plenty of surprises available, and new observations can challenge the assumptions and hypotheses built on previous observations. Astronomy in particular, and all of the scientific disciplines in general, are undergoing a constant state of growth. This isn’t to say that science, which is just a formal method of observation, and scientists, who after all, are only human beings, are perfect and that bias, for a variety of reasons, is incapable of entering into perceptions and conclusions, but such conclusions cannot or at least on principle, should not be considered forever static, immutable, and settled for all time.

ReformationNow let’s turn to what we understand about the Bible. In Christianity, although continual research is being conducted into the New Testament as well as the rest of the scriptures, many believers, including clergy and even some scholars, behave as if all is said and done. Much of what the normative Protestant church believes today hasn’t changed much since the Reformation, and some of what we believe today, even though Protestants think they are wholly separated from Catholic influence, has actually been inherited, almost unchanged, from the very first days of the Eastern and Western (Roman) churches of the first few centuries of Christian history.

Since the Protestant Reformation (c. 1517), studies of Paul’s writings have been heavily influenced by Lutheran and Reformed views that are said to ascribe the negative attributes that they associated with sixteenth-century Roman Catholicism to first-century Judaism. These Lutheran and Reformed views on Paul’s Writings are called the “old perspective” by adherents of the “New Perspective on Paul”. Thus, the “new perspective” is an attempt to lift Paul’s letters out of the Lutheran/Reformed framework and interpret them based on what is said to be an understanding of first-century Judaism, taken on its own terms. (Within this article, “the old perspective” refers specifically to Reformed and Lutheran traditions, especially the views descended from John Calvin and Martin Luther, see also Law and Gospel.)

Paul, especially in his Epistle to the Romans, advocates justification through faith in Jesus Christ over justification through works of the Law. In the old perspective, Paul was understood to be arguing that Christians’ good works would not factor into their salvation, only their faith. According to the new perspective, Paul was questioning only observances such as circumcision and dietary laws, not good works in general.

“New Perspective on Paul”
-from Wikipedia

This “new perspective” isn’t popular among many Christian NT scholars precisely because it challenges the old assumptions, but it’s important to remember that the original assumptions that were the foundation of the development of early church theology, doctrine, and tradition, were motivated by a strong attempt to separate the Gentile church from Jews, Judaism, and Jewish origins. Those original assumptions, based on Supersessionism, also known as Replacement Theology or Fulfillment Theology, were completely anti-Semitic and derived less from an objective study of the canonized or soon to be canonized texts about the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, and more on a heavy bias toward burying any connection to the persecuted normative Judaism of that day, and establishing that God, through Jesus, killed dead the Torah, the Temple, the Priesthood, and replaced them with rituals, traditions, and doctrine that resembled the practices of the church’s Jewish forefathers not in the least.

Unfortunately, plenty of Jewish people have been buried in bloody graves as a direct result of the church’s requirement to demonize Jewish people and Judaism in order to establish and elevate the “Goyishe Christ.”

I think it’s time for a change. I think it’s time for some new observations. Who knows? Maybe like certain astronomers have recently reported relative to hypervelocity stars, we’ll also find something unexpected. Astronomers observe a universe that is all around us and that has been all around us for over 13 billion years. You’d think that even in the mere few centuries we’ve been seriously studying the stars, we’d pretty much know all that there is to know by now.

sky-above-you-god1Except the universe is vast and our first stumbling efforts into astronomy have been slowly improving over time. Our methods and techniques for observation and information gathering and processing are becoming more accurate, bringing into focus a greater understanding of the mysterious universe that people have been staring into since man and woman stood together in Eden. Thus we continually collect data about the observable universe and add to, amend, or outright change our knowledge based on each new finding in order to sharpen our vision.

But it’s difficult to do that in religion, at least for some folks, because we are really reluctant to let go of obsolete dogma. I recently quoted a portion of a sermon delivered by John MacArthur in which he said:

When Jesus came, everything changed, everything changed.… He didn’t just want to clean up the people’s attitudes as they gave their sacrifices, He obliterated the sacrificial system because He brought an end to Judaism with all its ceremonies, all its rituals, all its sacrifices, all of its external trappings, the Temple, the Holy of Holies, all of it.

I believe MacArthur to be sincere, well-educated, and very intelligent, but he is definitely “old school” and I suspect highly resistant to re-examining any of the evidence and conclusions regarding what Paul said, why he said it, and what it all really means (to the best of our ability to arrive at “really means”).

It would be the moral equivalent of MacArthur, if he were an astronomer, ignoring the pesky mystery of the “Strange, Hypervelocity Stars Get Ejected from the Milky Way” or somehow explaining that what we appear to plainly see in our observations must be wrong because it disagrees with established scientific “canon”.

What does all this mean for Derek and Gene’s discussion of the past few days, and how Christianity and Judaism have been banging heads over who and what Jesus is for many, many centuries?

As one of my quotes from Herbert’s aforementioned book states, we can still put together “wrong combinations from accurate information.” The universe is the universe and the Bible is the Bible. General and specific revelation are available to all of us and they’ve been available for a long time. The universe changes slowly and the Bible changes not at all, and yet we argue and argue and argue over what they both mean and how someone must be right and everyone else must be wrong.

According to the gospels, a veil was torn when Yeshua breathed His last upon the cross. Scripture says, “And the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” (Mark 15:38) The tearing of the veil is often wrongly understood as a sign that the old covenant, the Torah and the Temple system were all rendered defunct by the cross.

-from “Thought of the Week”
Commentary on Torah Portion Terumah
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”

John 14:6 (NASB)

We were studying the lives of King Saul and King David in Sunday school last week (“a man after God’s own heart”) and the teacher said something I found odd. He said the fact that God took His Spirit away from Saul did not necessarily mean Saul lost his salvation. It depended on how Saul was in relation to the Messiah; to Jesus.

MessiahI know that a lot of Christians have to retrofit John 14:6 into the ancient Hebrew Scriptures in order to make the Christian concept of “salvation” work, but it’s completely anachronistic. There is nothing wrong with Saul, David, or any of the other Hebrews or even Gentiles of those days being wholly devoted to the God of Israel and Him only.

Jesus did something new (though not what most Christians think) and revolutionary. First of all, he gave the entire world access to God without Gentiles having to enter into the Sinai covenant by converting to Judaism. I got what I’m about to say next from a comment made on my blog, but let’s think of Jesus as a doorway. When we open the door and walk through, what do we find inside but God. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” (emph. mine)

This doesn’t negate the vital role of Messiah and his mysterious and even mystic relationship to Hashem and God’s Spirit, all somehow Echad (and I don’t believe the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are just identical and interchangeable components like so many spark plugs), but it does maintain a continual Biblical focus on the God of Heaven from Genesis, through the apostolic period, and beyond.

The FFOZ commentary continues:

According to the gospels, a veil was torn when Yeshua breathed His last upon the cross. Scripture says, “And the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” (Mark 15:38) The tearing of the veil is often wrongly understood as a sign that the old covenant, the Torah and the Temple system were all rendered defunct by the cross.

In the book of Hebrews (10:19–20) we are told that the veil symbolized Messiah’s body. He is the veil. Just as the life was rent from His body, so too the curtain was rent with the result that we might have access to the most holy place through Him. This is not the same as abrogating the Temple worship system; rather, it is a vivid dramatization of what the death of Messiah accomplished: access to God.

Embroidered upon the veil were two cherubim. The cherubim invoke the imagery of the Garden of Eden and the way to the tree of life, as the Torah says in Genesis 3:24, “And at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life.” The cherubim on the veil stood sentry in front of the Holy of Holies like the two cherubim that guard the way to the tree of life (immortality) and the Garden of Eden (paradise). As the curtain was rent into two pieces, a way between the cherubim was created.

We learn something new every day. I just did.

I’m not going to debate a “right or wrong” relative to Derek and Gene. I am going to say that just because someone zealously maintains a firm conviction in something doesn’t necessarily make that “something” factual. There are many mysteries left in the universe and many mysteries left in the Bible and in God. I happen to believe the “New Perspective on Paul” as related to the “Messianic Jewish” approach (and I realize that there are a ton of variations within those two general categories of study and knowledge) is the right way to go to re-evaluate all of the old assumptions which were based on some pretty bad motivations.

Discussions such as the one between Derek and Gene are, in my opinion, necessary, as long as they can be conducted without personalizing conflict, because they act as a crucible in which we can burn away many of the flaws in our beliefs and at least allow ourselves to question the “assumptions (that) are often full of holes, but remain most precious to the convinced.”

“A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.”

-Jean de la Fontaine, French writer and poet

Why the Jews in Thessalonica Were Jealous of Paul

Apostle Paul preachingThink of Paul in a city like Pisidian Antioch or Thessalonica. He goes into the synagogue where he speaks to a mixed audience of Jews and Gentiles. What? Jews and Gentiles? You bet. The synagogues of the first century had something in common with modern Messianic Jewish congregations. (No, I don’t mean they played Paul Wilbur songs, I mean there was a significant Gentile presence in the Jewish service).

Paul spoke to the “men of Israel” (Jews) and “you who fear God” (Gentiles) and “sons of the family of Abraham” (converts to Judaism, a.k.a. proselytes, no longer counted as Gentiles). Typically the God-fearing Gentiles were so ready for a message that would bring them closer to God and Paul’s news was well-received as God hearing their prayers at last.

-Derek Leman
“Paul Was Too Jewish for the Synagogue, Part 1”

I don’t really need another blog to follow, but Derek does mention AncientBible.net on his own blog from time to time, so I peeked in. And, of course, the title of his blog post was too interesting to resist.

Then I started reading what he wrote and it reminded me of my own recent church experience:

So when the question about “the jealousy of the Jews” came up and teacher said this caused “the Jews” to reject Paul’s message about Christ, I piped up and said, “Not all the Jews.” And things went downhill from there.

Even accepting that it was the Jewish leadership of the synagogue and not every individual Jewish person in attendance, one woman in class said that the leadership represented the people, pretty much painting all “the Jews” with a broad brush. Actually, I was thinking of the synagogue in Berea but I figured that I’d missed my window of opportunity in explaining my point and wasn’t going to get another one…that is unless I wanted to start a riot.

I’m not worried that my exposure to traditional Christian doctrine at church is going to change or warp my current opinions, but it was nice to read Derek’s blog post and see that New Testament scholars are discussing these issues and coming to conclusions that are similar to my own.

The genesis of this post was an unexpected adventure at SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) in November in Baltimore. My young friend, David Matthews, and I were there catching all the papers we could in our main fields of interest (his = the Temple, mine = Isaiah). But we couldn’t resist a few “Paul and Judaism” sessions. And one of them was like a Rock Festival of Pure Pauline Goodness . . . an unbelievable chance to hear Paula Fredriksen, Mark Nanos, Magnus Zetterholm, and Pamela Eisenbaum all in one room. It was one of the larger session rooms at SBL, probably with room for 400 people, and it was standing room only.

I know you don’t have to be impressed and certainly I’d like to explore the materials of Fredriksen et al in more detail (although I am reading Nanos’ book The Mystery of Romans right now), but it’s nice to know that “little ol’ me” in Southwestern Idaho isn’t completely off base. It’s easy to get that feeling when you’re the only one in your church who has such “goofy ideas” as Paul being “too Jewish” for the diaspora synagogues.

What is the biggest difference between Paul’s approach with Gentiles and the liberal, laid-back approach of the synagogues? Paul demands that Gentiles who enter into the congregation of Messiah Yeshua should abandon all honor to the gods. These are the last days. The Name of God will be one and the Lord will be king over all the earth (Zech 14:9). The Gentiles will be called by his Name (Amos 9:12). It is time to go up to the mountain of the house of the Lord and learn his ways (Isa 2:2-4). The eschaton (next age) is about to come with Yeshua’s return as the Divine Messiah who brings it all to pass.

CohenI had actually read (I think in Cohen’s From the Maccabees to the Mishnah) that the Gentile God-fearers in the late Second Temple era synagogues may not have entirely abandoned their devotion to the other “gods” in Greek and Roman culture. It presents them in a different light and maybe not as divorced from their pagan worshipping peers as is otherwise believed.

But Paul’s gospel was a kind of conversion, not making Gentiles into Jews, but bringing Gentiles into the covenant promises of Abraham, as citizens of Greater Israel but not Israelites, branches grafted into the Israel tree. And these Gentiles did not have to have their foreskins cut off, but they had to do something much harder — reject the family and city gods and become non-Romans.

This gives new meaning to the words of the Master:

“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.

Matthew 10:34-36 (NASB)

Since Jesus’ audience at that moment was Jewish, it’s easy to get the impression that he was only saying that believing (in Messiah) Jews would be rejected by their unbelieving (but still faithful to God) Jewish relatives, but when applied to what Derek wrote, the meaning expands to the experience of diaspora Gentile believers as well.

You see, Paul was too Jewish for the synagogue. He turned the world upside down. And he scared the be-Jesus out of the synagogues. Their liberal status-quo with Gentile adherents to the God of Israel had been working. They were good neighbors with the Greco-Roman city. But this crazy, end-times zealot who demanded that Gentiles forsake the city gods and worship one Lord other than Caesar, well, he was going to get the Jews in trouble by making them seem like bad neighbors. And Jewish blood would be spilt. Couldn’t Paul just be a little less like a Pharisee with his zeal for Torah and prophets?

Now let’s go back to the “problem text” I encountered last Sunday:

Now when they had traveled through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a large number of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women. But the Jews, becoming jealous and taking along some wicked men from the market place, formed a mob and set the city in an uproar; and attacking the house of Jason, they were seeking to bring them out to the people.

Acts 17:1-5 (NASB)

And now, filter that through the paragraph of Derek’s I quoted just above. What were “the Jews” becoming jealous of? Could it be that they were jealous, not just out of concern that too many pagan Gentiles were invading Jewish religious space, but because Paul and his radical teaching of Messiah which included a more strict and absolute rejection of the pagan gods in the diaspora, was rattling too many cages and upsetting the status quo?

When they did not find them, they began dragging Jason and some brethren before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have upset the world have come here also; and Jason has welcomed them, and they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” hey stirred up the crowd and the city authorities who heard these things. And when they had received a pledge from Jason and the others, they released them.

Acts 17:6-9 (NASB)

ThessalonicaViewing Acts 17 through the handy filter provided by Derek (and thanks to Paula Fredriksen, Mark Nanos, Magnus Zetterholm, Pamela Eisenbaum, and their presentation on Paul), the blurry, fuzziness of the image of the Jewish leadership of the synagogue in Thessalonica (that you see in Church teachings) and the motives for their jealousy comes into sharp focus.

Of course, this is just one short blog post and a very brief summary of what must have been a very rich and densely packed SBL conference session presented by some of the world’s most outstanding experts on Paul. How much can we read into it?

On the other hand, it’s also adding a link to an ever-strengthening chain of evidence that re-frames Paul as zealous for the Torah, zealous for the Messiah, and uncompromising in his devotion to God as a Jew. A man and a Jewish apostle who demanded no less of others what he expected from himself, especially in the rejection of any compromise with pagan gods and the lifestyle surrounding them.

No wonder Paul was always being beaten, jailed, and thrown out of town by both the Jewish and Roman establishments.

Looking forward to Part 2 of this series written by David Matthews.

Finishing Off Shabbat

extinguished_candleIn Judaism, Shabbos is a time to be especially careful not to become angry or to become involved in a quarrel. Quarrels spread like fire and destroy everything that is precious. The sanctity of Shabbos, if it is observed properly, enables people to feel a sense of unity. It promotes love and brotherhood. The sanctity of Shabbos can spread and enter the hearts of each individual and everyone can become as one.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“The Sanctity of Shabbos”

I’ve been trying to write a commentary for Torah Portion Re’eh (the reading for this coming Shabbat) but it’s not coming. I actually did write something, but I didn’t like it, so I deleted it (a rare thing for me). I know I’m forcing stuff into the text rather than just letting it flow. That’s not typical of how I write but then, it’s still Monday and maybe I’m just too far away from Shabbos mentally and spiritually.

Rabbi Pliskin says that we should not become angry or quarrel on Shabbos. It destroys peace. It’s destroys sanctity, not just the sanctity of the Shabbat, but the sanctity among God’s people (if we can call ourselves God’s people).

Here’s an example of Shabbos as described by Derek Leman in his blog post The Jewish Experience at UMJC 2013:

The highlight of the conference for me came in the Shabbat Shacharit service. While our crowd of 600 people that morning may not have been the largest crowd I have ever been in, it was the largest crowd of Jewishly knowledgeable and intensely spiritual people I have ever been in. I have worshipped in a stadium with 50,000 Christians before and found it to be powerful. But to be in ballroom meant for 474 people that has 600 Jews packed in with tallitot and kippot, all of whom know the calls and responses of the Hebrew liturgy, was something powerful on a level I can hardly explain.

Before reciting the Shema we sang a song about the Shema. It began with a haunting melody that we called out for several minutes just to the sound “oo.” Kavanah, they say, is the Hebrew word for inner intent, devotion and concentration upon an idea. I have never felt kavanah like that before.

When the Torah scrolls were being paraded around the ballroom, paraded throughout a dense crowd, standing room only, aisles packed, and being paraded slowly so all could touch their tallitot or books to it and bring the word to their lips, we recited the “Niggun Neshama,” by Neshama Carlebach. It must have taken at least ten minutes to complete the Torah parade, with the crowd facing it wherever it was in the room and a spirit of intensity of devotion on every face and joy that was overwhelming.

I truly experienced what God said about Shabbat, “It is a sign between you and me forever” (Exod 31:13).

I have to admit to being a little envious (sorry, Derek) at reading his description, but then again, even if I had the bucks to spend on going to a conference in Los Angeles, Derek did say it was “600 Jews packed in with tallitot and kippot,” so it’s not an experience that would be open to (Gentile) Christians.

no_kvetchingNo, I’m not kvetching. I understand and support worship venues that are specific to Jewish people in the Messiah. I realize I’m not part of the community of Messianic Jews (and I’ve calmed down since I wrote that last blog post). Last May, I expressed some concerns about worshiping in a Messianic Jewish context, based on my “transition” into a Christian religious space, but after about nine months in church, as much as I enjoy certain aspects of being in church, if I had my “druthers,” I’d probably worship at some place like Beth Immanuel.

But for lots and lots of reasons, I don’t have my “druthers” and probably never will. Frankly, I don’t think it’s about me getting my way. I think it’s about me being where I am and doing what God wants me to do. Anyway…

But as much as Derek enjoyed his time at the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC) conference, there are others who didn’t think it was so hot. I was going to quote from a certain Hebrew Roots blogger or one of the commenters on his blog as an example of their criticism, but after reading through the material, I just didn’t have the heart. It’s not Shabbos, but really, the words have been put online once. I don’t need to repeat them. Suffice it to say, there are those who find that the UMJC is disingenuous, or non-Biblical, or too Talmudic, or not enough apostolic scriptures, or whatever.

I’ve complained about religious people on more than one occasion. Really, it takes a lot of effort sometimes to remain religious, at least publicly, given the way some people express themselves, supposedly for the sake of Heaven.

From there they sailed to Antioch, from which they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had accomplished.

Acts 14:26 (NASB)

Last Sunday, my Pastor preached on Acts 14:21-28 in his sermon, “What Makes a Good Missionary (Part 3)?” I’ll write more about it on Thursday, but as part of his description of the end of “Paul’s first missionary journey,” he said that Paul and Barnabas reported back to their “home church” at Syrian Antioch (I’m more inclined to believe it was a synagogue that included Jewish and non-Jewish disciples of Messiah) about everything they had accomplished. Reminded me of this:

The essence of Shabbos is peace of mind. Our attitude on Shabbos should be as if all the work we need to do has already been completed. If you need to travel or do any kind of work, on Shabbos you should try to feel as if you have reached your destination and every single job you have to take care of has already been completed.

All the laws of Shabbos serve as a recipe for attaining peace of mind. Not only are we to refrain from doing any form of work, but we are enjoined not to even discuss anything that has a connection with work.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Let Shabbos Finish Your Work”

Absence of quarreling and peace of mind at the week’s work having been accomplished. Sounds good, but my view of the world of which I’m a part doesn’t provide for peace.

Derek ended his blog post this way:

I am encouraged. I am strengthened. I pray you, Jewish or non-Jewish reader, find your heart warmed as well. May God, as Solomon prayed, hear in heaven and forgive the sins of our people and bring them again to the land which was given to the Jewish people as an inheritance.

up_to_jerusalemThe Jewish people have a right to pray for the God of Israel to forgive their sins and to return them to their Land which was given to them as an eternal inheritance. If we Gentile believers can’t be a part of the solution, then we should at least get out of their way (and out of God’s way…not that we could ever inhibit His will). My generation used to have a saying: “If you aren’t part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem.”

We Gentile believers, whether we call ourselves “Christians,” “Hebrew Roots,” or anything else, need or consider our position and make a few adjustments. The fact that we are disciples of the Jewish Messiah does not give us vast authority to run roughshod over those people who were uniquely chosen by God at Sinai. If there was no Israel, there would be no method of attaching a Gentile through covenant to God. We vilify the Jewish people at our own peril. We should be wise. A blessing and a curse lay before us as well.

I’ve been writing about the Shabbat which I currently have no way to enjoy. I suppose that’s my fault for a lot of reasons, but it is no longer in my control. However there is an eternal Shabbat promised to all the faithful, if we can just maintain our strength until it comes. But in denigrating the Jewish people including Jews in Messiah (no, we don’t have to agree with all Messianic Jewish organizations about everything) are we unknowingly throwing away our place within that Shabbat? Are we in the process of finishing our work as the crown jewels of the nations or are we simply ending our opportunity for the final Shabbat rest because of our hostility and disrespect?

Sorry for another in a long line of “why can’t we play nice together” blog posts. I really wish the lot of us would take the advice of Thumper’s father (brief video) and just hush up and worry about perfecting our own spirituality. Let other people including Derek Leman and the various attendees of the UMJC conference attend to their own relationship with the Almighty.