Tag Archives: isolation

Faith on a Desert Island

© Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

Every time I see something about being a Christian in community, or a Jew in community, or especially a non-Jew in (Messianic) Jewish community, I start thinking about those of us who, for one reason or another, aren’t in community.

Many years ago, I listened to a “Messianic Jewish luminary” denigrate Gentiles who were isolated from community, and he had a point. A lot of non-Jews who have left the traditional Church for one reason or another, possess rather “fringy” theologies, and often are considered “religious nuts”. These are the kinds of people who believe faith can cure any ill, and who wouldn’t take their kid to a doctor even if he were having a heart attack. People who think taking an aspirin is a mortal sin.

But there are plenty of reasons to be disenfranchised or unaffiliated besides being mentally ill or having cult leanings.

For anyone with a “Messianic” perspective, it may be a matter of not having an appropriate venue within driving distance. In my case, it’s a little more complicated, being a Gentile believer married to a (non-Messianic) Jew.

But the most common reason we experience is that we’ve been burned, not just by the Church, but by Messianic Judaism as well.

Not to overstate the point, but Gentiles in Messianic Jewish space have traditionally been a problem, and some of us, who don’t want to be a problem, solve it by simply not showing up.

So what happens then?

Over the past few months, I’ve been satisfying my more “creative writing” desires by becoming involved in “flash fiction challenges” of various sorts. The idea is that someone posts a photo online and authors use it as an inspiration to write a very short story, anything between about 100 and 250 words. We then share our work with one another and comment.

In response to one of those challenges, I wrote The Listener.

As I finished writing it and was editing, I realized the message I was communicating was literally true of me. Various difficulties in my personal life, as well as just plain “busyness,” had resulted in my leaving the vast majority of my “religious practice” behind.

The result, among other things, was a massive piling up of anxiety and hopelessness. If God lets little kids starve all over the world, why should He care if my grandchildren are having problems? What’s the use of praying? God either knows they’re hurting and will have compassion or He won’t.

As many pundits have previously warned me, it’s hard maintaining faith outside of community, and there’s the rub.

Technically, all I should need is God, but in the history of Judaism and Christianity, at least relative to the Bible, faith has always been communal. Okay, Paul spent plenty of time alone, but he always came back (at least until he was shipped off to Rome).

I’m alone because my attending Church or anything “church-like” (such as a Messianic community) hurts my wife.

I’m alone because I’ve been burned, and more than once.

I’m alone because even if there were an appropriate community, and even if my wife didn’t mind, I wouldn’t be able to keep my mouth shut, and 100% of the time, opening my mouth eventually ends up with me offending someone.

The religious blogosphere has been pretty peaceful lately, and I suspect that’s because the trolls and nudniks have moved on to something else, but real life is a wild west show.

We may wander away from each other, but while we can keep God at a distance, He’s always close enough to touch. He doesn’t fail. He doesn’t burn you.

Sure, He’s also incredibly hard to understand and, if you have trust issues, it’s still hard to believe everything will work out in the end, especially when kids all over the world are starved, beaten, raped, burned, and otherwise assaulted and abused on a daily basis.

I’ve got to get back. Not sure how, since a lot of my praxis is based on time I no longer have.

I feel more connected when I read/study the Bible. I feel more connected when I pray. I feel more connected when I take a deep breath and reach out to His Presence.

I feel more connected when I write here.

A lot of “religious people” can and probably will be critical of me. Fortunately, God isn’t a person. He’s always ready to welcome the prodigal son home.

Renewing the Lone Messianic Gentile

I came across a brief article on Rabbi Daniel Siegel’s blog called “When the Rebbe Asks: Renewing Ger Toshav,” which apparently is the topic of a soon to be published book. Actually, I found it posted on a closed Facebook group for “Messianic Gentiles”. This is the same group that has historically drawn a parallel between the Ger Toshav (“resident alien” in Jewish community) and the Messianic Gentile. I chronicled their perspective in a number of my blog posts including Not a Noahide (which I was subsequently reminded would better have been called “More than a Noahide”).

Although I no longer fret so much over issues of identity or praxis, there was something that caught my attention:

Reb Zalman favoured the renewal of the Ger Toshav as an alternative to a full conversion where it was clear that the person did not really want to become a fully practicing Jew. He wanted to see an alternative which honoured the person’s desire to be part of a local Jewish community at arm’s length.

This was a response to a problem noted in Judaism. When a Jew is married to a non-Jew, there traditionally has been two responses. The non-Jew converts to Judaism or the Jew ignores any Rabbinic direction and most likely falls away from Jewish community and practice.

An additional problem is noted in terms of the standards for practice that Jewish community holds for the Jewish convert. Often, in the author’s opinion and referencing Reb Zalman, said-observance of the convert is more lax, certainly not up to the standard of the presiding Rabbinic court. One example of this mentioned in the article is:

Some years ago, Reb Zalman challenged what he saw as too much leniency in our conversion process, to the point where he said that if we did not put a tallit kattan on a Jew by choice as he (in this case) emerged from the mikveh, then we had done nothing.

It was suggested that at least some of the converts did not truly desire to follow all of the mitzvot and converted for the sake of their Jewish spouse.

IntermarriageSo is there an alternative?

There is.

Supporting the renewal of the Ger Toshav, a non-Jew who is already married to a Jew, who does not want to follow the mitzvot as a Jew, but who is in full support of their spouse’s involvement in Jewish community and praxis.

How does this apply to the aforementioned comparison between the Ger Toshav and the Messianic Gentile?

Well, in normative Jewish community, a Messianic Gentile would in no way be considered to map to a Ger Toshav. In fact, a union between a Jew and a Messianic Gentile would be viewed as an intermarriage between a Jew and a Christian, something not in any way seen as desirable in Jewish community.

In my own small experience in Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots groups, it is fairly common for Jews and non-Jews to be intermarried. In fact, again in my experience, the sort of Jews attracted to Messianic Judaism or Hebrew Roots are either secular Jews or Jews who have adopted Christian practice and identity, and yet who also have a desire to reconnect to being a Jew.

The participation for many intermarried couples in Messianic Judaism or Hebrew Roots then, could be seen as a sort of synthesis between Christian and Jewish values and lifestyle.

Of course, I can’t speak for every intermarried couple involved in those movements, but when I was associated with those communities, that was what I saw.

Turning to my own situation as a non-Jew married to a Jew, in my case, my spouse is affiliated with normative Jewish community, specifically the Chabad and the local combined Reform/Conservative shul. She in no way can be considered as having any sort of association with Yeshua-worshippers or Christians (which is what she considers me).

synagogueSo we come back to the definition of a Ger Toshav as a person who is part of a local Jewish community at arm’s length. Well, that’s not exactly me, since I’m not part of a Jewish community at all. In fact, I’m not currently part of any worship or faith community.

However, as quoted from the Preface of the Ger Toshav book (PDF), am I a member of this “community”?

There, almost the entire Jewish leadership was married to non-Jews whose spouses, in turn, were full contributors to the community’s life and supporters of their spouses’ involvement, yet choosing not to become Jews themselves.

Nope. That would imply that I’m involved in synagogue life with my wife and support her involvement from that platform.

However, combining “at arm’s length” with supporting my spouse’s involvement in Jewish life, I find a definition of myself, and by “arm’s length” I mean I stay away from her Jewish community completely.

This isn’t news to me. It’s just interesting to find this sort of thing recorded in modern Jewish literature.

In Messianic Judaism, you can probably find many non-Jews married to Jews who are part of Jewish community and support their spouse’s full observance of the mitzvot (keeping in mind that depending on which Messianic Jewish community you sample, the level of observance will vary).

As far as my wife’s level of observance, that’s entirely up to her. Frankly, I wish she were more observant, but as she once said to me (and rather pointedly at that), she doesn’t need my permission to be Jewish.

So I keep my nose out of her business in that arena. I also have surrendered anything that even resembles Jewish praxis since she would no doubt see it as “Evangelical Jewish Cosplay”. She even wonders why, outside the home, I still avoid bacon, shrimp, and other trief, which is just about my only remaining concession to my former lifestyle.

generic white guy
Image: Cafepress.com

I’m sure a number of my former associates would be aghast to read those words (or perhaps they wouldn’t), but in some sense they were also the prompt, or part of it anyway.

The missus is my main motivation for the decisions that I’ve made, but I’m also mindful that the Messianic Jewish community in all its forms and associations, continues to struggle with just how to implement Gentile involvement in their Jewish community, keeping in mind that at least in the western nations, most Messianic Jewish communities are made up of mostly non-Jews.

I know the ideal is to create Messianic Jewish community by Jews and for Jews, and I continue to support that ideal, but it is my belief that the dream will not be realized until Messiah returns and draws his people Israel to him.

So where does that lead us?

For those non-Jews out there who adhere to the values and practices of being involved in Messianic Jewish or Hebrew Roots communities and who are not intermarried, not a lot. I’m sure your congregation has standards of behavior and practice for the non-Jews among them, so like any member of a congregation, you adhere to those standards or find someplace else to worship.

For non-Jews married to Jews and part of the previously referenced communities, it is likely you and your spouse share the same values and beliefs, and so there is little or no dissonance between you. Only in Messianic Jewish groups with a Jewish praxis approaching Conservative or Orthodox would there be any noticeable distinction between the observance of the Jewish and non-Jewish spouse (again, this is my opinion, your mileage may vary).

For you non-Jews who have community within a Christian setting and your beliefs are not widely accepted by your peers, you have a tough road to travel. I tried that for two years and ultimately got nowhere, though I learned a lot along the way.

If you are married to a more traditionally Christian partner, then what you experience may be similar to my own marital situation. You may share the vast majority of your lives with each other but there will always be a line neither of you may cross. The most important part of you becomes isolated from your marriage.

Image: mirror.co.uk

It’s a very dicey place to live. I know. I live there.

With neither support at home or community, you depend on the Holy Spirit alone to get to through each day while maintaining a relationship with God. If you’re married to a normative Christian, renouncing a Messianic perspective and taking up the mantle of traditional Christianity becomes the temptation.

For folks like me, it’s renouncing Yeshua entirely. Even if I did that, I doubt the missus would accept my adopting the Ger Toshav identity, so I’d still be alone in belief or disbelief as the case may be.

Assuming Hashem has control of all things, I wonder why He would sanction this perpetual walk along a sheer cliff. Or perhaps like the question, “why do bad things happen to good people,” it’s simply a matter of living in a broken world fallen far from God. These events occur because the King has yet to assume his throne in Jerusalem and take up his reign.

So like the rest of humanity living precariously and dancing madly on the edge of a razor blade, I and those like me just have to keep hanging in there.

The Life and Times of the Modern “Messianic Gentile”

It is imperative that every Jew know that he is an emissary of the Master of all, charged with the mission – wherever he may be of bringing into reality G‑d’s will and intention in creating the universe, namely, to illuminate the world with the light of Torah and avoda. This is done through performing practical mitzvot and implanting in oneself fine character traits.

Hayom Yom: 7 Adar I
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; free translation by Yitschak Meir Kagan

According to the great medieval Jewish philosopher and legal authority Moses Maimonides, teaching non-Jews to follow the Noahide laws is incumbent on all Jews, a commandment in and of itself. However, most rabbinic authorities rejected Maimonides’ view, and the dominant halakhic (Jewish law) attitude had been that Jews are not required to spread Noahide teachings to non-Jews.

“The Modern Noahide Movement”
by Michael Kress

This blog post was born out of my reading of another “My Jewish Learning” article called The Do’s and Don’ts of Talking to Converts written by Aliza Hausman. I started thinking that if there are “guidelines” for born Jews relating to “Jews by choice,” maybe there are also “guidelines” for Jews relating to Noahides (how that relates to my primary audience will become apparent, so keep reading).

The only reason I’m pursuing this is that there could be some application to the body of (Messianic) Jews relating to (Messianic) Gentiles within their midst.

I put “Messianic” in brackets in the paragraph above because I think the matter has more to do with Jewish and Gentile relationships in general than the peculiarities of that relationship within a Messianic context.

But before I get to that, I want to quote from the Hausman article. Oh, but before even that…

Aliza Hausman is a Latina Orthodox Jewish convert, freelance writer, blogger and educator. Currently working on a memoir, she lives in New York with her husband.

Now to the quote:

There are things I still can’t believe people have said to me. Fresh out of the mikvah, I heard, “But you’re not really Jewish. I mean I’m still more Jewish than you, right?” Oy vey. In the end, all converts want to be accepted as good Jews. We want to fit in. Possibly the reason Jewish tradition goes out of its way to tell you to be kind to us is that there are so many ways you can make us feel left out.

mikvahIf a non-Jew converts to Judaism, one mechanism to helping them “fit in” is for them to follow Jewish halachah, just like the other Jews in their community. But for Gentiles in Jewish community, it isn’t that simple…

…or is it?

Meet Jim Long. A documentary filmmaker with striking blue eyes, Long recites blessings in Hebrew before eating, peppers his conversation with Hebrew phrases–a “b’ezrat Hashem” (with God’s help) here, a “baruch Hashem” (praise God) there–and keeps a household that is, to the untrained eye, traditionally Orthodox. Only Long is not actually Jewish, nor does he have any plans to convert.

Oh, there’s more:

To Noahides, these seven laws are but a starting point, the foundation on which they’ve built a lifestyle of obligations and voluntary observances. The result is a life every bit as rigorous and all-encompassing as Orthodox Judaism, which guides and structures all aspects of their existence. While others drawn so intensely to Judaism would likely convert, these non-Jews have chosen to remain outside the fold, believing that life as a Noahide is an end in itself, a way to be partners–if not quite equals to the Chosen People–in the divine plan for the world.

Did you catch the key phrase? Let me quote it again.

…these seven laws are but a starting point, the foundation on which they’ve built a lifestyle of obligations and voluntary observances. The result is a life every bit as rigorous and all-encompassing as Orthodox Judaism, which guides and structures all aspects of their existence.

That sounds like it’s saying that it can be acceptable within Jewish community for Noahides to go above and beyond the seven Noahide laws and voluntarily add various observances to their day-to-day existence, resulting in “a life every bit as rigorous and all-encompassing as Orthodox Judaism.”

That’s saying quite a bit, and I don’t think a lot of Jews within Messianic Judaism would feel comfortable if their non-Jewish counterparts started living a life “as rigorous and all-encompassing as” an Orthodox Jew.

Kress echoes other articles I’ve referenced saying that many or most Noahides come from Christianity. He also mentioned that the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, believed it was incumbent upon every Jew to spread the word about the seven Noahide laws or “Sheva Mitzvot” to the non-Jewish world. He thought what would hasten the coming of Messiah was having both Jews and non-Jews doing God’s will.

He may have been alone in that thought as it remains controversial and, to the best of my knowledge, most branches of Judaism adhere to the halachah that Jews have no such obligation to non-Jews.

Who am IOf course, that hasn’t stopped the small but growing population of Noahides, but there is one glaring problem:

Despite the passion of committed Noahides, embracing seven laws of basic morality does not a lifestyle make. In some key ways, the Noahide movement is defined more by what it’s not than what it is: Not Jewish, not Christian, without a central organization, and with no clear consensus even on what the faith entails. Even the laws themselves–six out of the seven–are prohibitions. There’s little or no active spiritual life, no prescribed ritual and liturgical life for Noahides. There is, to borrow a phrase, “no there there.”

For many committed Noahides, that’s the biggest challenge the movement faces. Once they’ve given up their prior religious lives, immersed themselves in Jewish learning, perhaps even succeeded in hooking up with a local Jewish community, many Noahides speak of a lingering hole, the lack of an active and defined spiritual and ritual life.

This is exactly my point.

This is exactly the point for any “Messianic Gentile” or “Talmid Yeshua”. Like the Noahide, we do not have a lifestyle that is inherent to our faith. Like the Noahide, we’re not Jewish but we also aren’t traditionally Christian either, though we retain our devotion to Rav Yeshua (Jesus).

Like the Noahide, we have “little or no active spiritual life, no prescribed ritual and liturgical life,” unless we borrow it from Jewish praxis, but that comes with a lot of trap doors.

This is probably why so many in the Hebrew Roots movement are adamant that they are “obligated” to the 613 mitzvot of the Jewish people. They desperately want something that defines them relative to their faith, and they see those of us who believe the “one Law fits all” view is Biblically unsustainable as at least being in error if not actually hostile to the Torah.

I don’t think this is a new problem. In the Nanos and Zetterholm volume Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle, one or more of the articles it contains stated that the late First Century CE non-Jewish disciples of Rav Yeshua likely suffered from a similar lack of definition.

If that’s correct, then one of the possible motivations for later groups of these ancient non-Jewish Yeshua disciples to split from the Yeshua-believing Jewish movement and manufacture the brand new Gentile-driven religion of Christianity, was the strong desire to be defined by their faith. They had no place in Judaism, so they created a place in a different religion.

Unfortunately, this was maladaptive and ended up being a total disaster as far as Jewish/Gentile relations are concerned. Worse, the Gentiles kicked the Jews out of their own party, so to speak, by radically redefining the Jewish Messiah as the Gentile Christian Savior, and astonishingly requiring Jews to stop being Jewish in order to become devotees of their own King.

judeo-christianReturning to the present, how do modern Noahides solve this dilemma? I quoted part of the answer above.

To fill the void–to transform this notion of Noahide law from a formless set of vague moral guidelines to a spiritually fulfilling lifestyle–Noahides have taken on themselves a host of what are known as “positive commandments,” the rituals and religious activities that infuse traditional Jews’ lives with structure, meaning, and spiritual foundation. These are not an inherent part of the Seven Mitzvot, but rather are voluntary observances to give their lives added spiritual meaning.

As a result, a committed Noahide lives a life of intense study of Jewish texts, not only on the Seven Laws themselves but also on all other aspects of a Jewish lifestyle, to discern which rituals a non-Jew may and may not perform. Theirs also is a life of prayer, which usually includes reading Psalms, composing original prayers, and reciting traditional Jewish liturgy, altered to remove or adapt all mentions of commandedness and chosenness, to make clear that it is only Jews, and not the Noahides, to whom those concepts apply.

They do just what has been suggested. They borrow from Jewish praxis, adapting ritual and custom for their own needs. There are two basic differences involved however. The first is that the practice is adapted from Jewish praxis rather than mirroring it identically. The second is the acknowledgment that said-observance is voluntary rather than obligatory.

Some hang a mezuzah on their doors, others don’t feel it’s appropriate. Ditto with tzitzit, the fringed undergarment worn by traditionally observant men. Shabbat looms large in the life of any traditional Jew, but all Noahides agree that they should not observe the Sabbath in the same strict way as Jews.

Since “observance” is voluntary, it makes sense that there would be variability of practice from one Noahide family to the next. Some might “keep” a form of Shabbos while others don’t. The same thing for mezuzah.

I was more than surprised to find a mention of tzitzit since I was unaware that any Noahide would elect to don a tallit katan.

I can see why some groups of Messianic Gentiles draw a comparison between themselves and Noahides. Not only are our struggles remarkably similar, but Noahides seem to have a leg up on how to successfully address said-struggles:

Many people are working to give structure and clarity to Noahide life. In other words, to give the movement its “there.” Chabad and other rabbis, together with Noahides, are creating a Noahide siddur (prayer book) to standardize prayers, and a liturgy of lifecycle rituals, such as funerals and baby-naming ceremonies. Also in the works is a Noahide Shulhan Arukh, a comprehensive book of law pertaining to non-Jews, which will spell out specifically how Noahides should live, which mitzvot are acceptable for them, and which aren’t. There are also numerous Noahide organizations popping up, aimed at uniting Noahides, providing support, and spreading their teachings.

I couldn’t help but notice that one such project to develop a Noahide Shulchan Aruch didn’t do so well. Perhaps Chabad will be more successful.

noahide guide We Messianic Gentiles, Talmidei Yeshua, or whatever you want to call us, could probably use the same siddurim and other supportive materials utilized by Noahides, with some adaptation to include our faith in Rav Yeshua who will return as King Messiah, but there’s something missing. I’ll pull it out of the paragraph I just quoted above:

There are also numerous Noahide organizations popping up, aimed at uniting Noahides, providing support, and spreading their teachings.

For Messianic Gentiles, not so much. They/we are too fragmented, our theology, doctrine, and praxis are too variable. Unlike Noahides who, at least in an ideal sense, have Chabad as a Jewish authority upon which to depend, Messianic Gentiles have no central Jewish organization that can help to unite us under a single standard collection of resources.

I suppose this could be a good reason why some Messianic Gentiles leave their faith and either join the ranks of Noahides or convert to Judaism.

Frankly, although people are free to make their own decisions, I don’t think either option is advisable and certainly not necessary. Neither is co-opting the Torah for Gentile use without so much as a by your leave to the Jewish people.

…the Jewish vision for the idealized, messianic future does not call for a world full of Jewish converts…

There are numerous mentions in both the Tanakh and Apostolic Scriptures saying the Messianic future will contain both Israel, that is, the Jewish people within their nation, and the people of the nations of the world, that is, the rest of us.

For prophesy to be fulfilled, there has to be “the rest of us,” there has to be a body of non-Jews who worship Hashem, the God of Israel, and who are devoted to Rav Yeshua as the coming King.

It’s incredibly easy for non-Jews to get lost in the world of Judaism and mistake it for the focus of our faith. I periodically quote my friend Tom who said, Don’t seek Christianity and Don’t seek Judaism, but rather, seek an encounter with the living God.”  Although ritual and custom help to define our lifestyle as Talmidei Yeshua, they are just the means by which we practice our faith, they are not the target. God is.

But like converts to Judaism and like Noahides, we just want to fit in and be accepted by our “parent” Jewish community (those of you who have one). However, the way to do that isn’t clearly understood, either by Jews or non-Jews in Messiah-faith. That means there is no one defined reality for our lived experience, at least in the realm of ritual and tradition.

But it’s nice to know we’re not alone.

Christmas at Arm’s Length

Interfaith and InclusiveAs always, as an interfaith community, our aim is not to meld, mash-up, mix, water-down or confuse our two religions. Instead, we strive to celebrate each holiday, whether Jewish or Christian, with full respect and all the trimmings. So how and why are these celebrations different from those you would find in any church or synagogue? Often, we begin and end a celebration by reciting our interfaith responsive reading, which is not a statement of creed, but a recognition that some of us are Jews, some of us are Christians, some of us have interfaith identities, and we are all equal members of this community. For me, simply knowing that we are an interfaith community changes my perception of any event: ancient rituals, songs and prayers, shimmer with the newness of radical inclusivity.

-Susan Katz Miller
“Lessons and Carols: Interfaith Community”
On Being Both

It’s Sunday morning as I write this and I’m avoiding church until January. Why? Because of Christmas.

Wait! Let me explain.

While Susan Katz Miller belongs to a community that can honor the different religious observances of its members, I’ve been attending a more traditional Baptist church. I remember hearing about how some of the church members participated in an anti-abortion rally at a new Planned Parenthood building some months back. Among the protesters were people from local Mormon and Catholic churches. My Pastor spoke of the event, but I don’t recall if it was from the pulpit or in a personal conversation with me. He said that a Catholic Priest was one of the speakers at the event and the Priest addressed the group with words something like, “We are all believers” or “We are all Christians.”

The point my Pastor had to make, representing the general perspective of our church, is that, because of the significant theological differences involved, he doesn’t consider Catholics and Mormons as “fellow believers” but rather, as those who are outside the Christian “camp.” Sure, they all came together at the event because of a common purpose, but the barriers constructed between those different faith communities, as far as he was concerned, were firm and inviolate.

I don’t say this to speak poorly about my Pastor or the church I attend. I consider him and the people I worship with to be truly devoted to God and desiring to serve Him in all that they do. However, there are distinct boundaries that contain the church and one may cross those barriers only at their own risk.

Almost a month ago, I called myself a Christian who studies Messianic Judaism. What that means in a nutshell, is that I am a non-Jewish believer in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, and that I choose to study the Bible within a framework that takes into account the Jewish environment, perspectives, customs, and culture in which the Bible was authored, using that as a lens in filtering my view of Jesus.

As you might imagine, that somewhat crosses one or more of the barriers that contains my church’s theology and doctrine. My periodic meetings and conversations with my Pastor attest to the differences between us, and we’ve been honest that we are both trying to convince the other of our individual points of view.

I must say, I’m learning a lot, not only about church history and the development of fundamentalism in Christianity, but about my own opinions and where they come from. You never learn more about what you believe and why than when you are required to defend it.

Children's Christmas PageantPastor and his wife are spending the rest of the month (or most of it) in Florida to celebrate Christmas with his family. It will certainly be warmer than the December I’ve been experiencing here in Idaho. But that leaves behind Christmas at the church and today (as I write this) there won’t even be Sunday School.

There will be the Children’s Christmas Pageant. The kids have been practicing for about a month and I’m sure they’re looking forward to their big moment.

But that was several days ago as you read this, even though as I am writing, it is still before dawn on Sunday morning.

My family and I left Christmas behind about ten years or so ago and we’ve never looked back. That’s pretty much a given for my wife and kids since they’re Jewish. My married son’s wife is very much into Christmas and while my son doesn’t resist her efforts to put up a tree, lights, and decorations, he doesn’t participate either. The rest of my family just tries to ignore the season, although one of my sister-in-laws has been sending email Christmas cards of a humorous nature to the missus.

I quoted Miller’s blog post because it is a portrait of not blending together different faith traditions into a mixing bowl, but rather, interfaith families choosing to honor each other’s traditions and celebrations without having to surrender anything about their own.

Another member of our community confessed to me this week that he had bought his wife a Christmas present for the first time, after decades of marriage. A most loving and supportive husband, as a Jew he just had not been able to transcend the bitter history of religious conflict and wrap his head around the idea of a Christmas gift. He credited our interfaith community with his shift in thinking, and his ability to finally arrive, bearing a gift from afar.

I never said it was easy, but apparently, it’s possible. It requires a certain amount of willingness and a great deal of courage to overcome the fears and inhibitions of a lifetime. I don’t have a community like that either in my family or corporately, and even if I had access to a corporate community, attendance would conflict with my home life. I’m not even sure how my family tolerates my attending an “ordinary” church.

I’ve chosen a path that I believe is right and that I believe is right for me. In doing so, I have to walk away from all other paths. I suppose, from an outside observer’s point of view, it must look like I’m trying to walk both sides of the street, Christianity and Judaism. This actually isn’t the case. My wife and any Jewish person I’ve ever encountered, consider me a Christian, and so I am. A Christian is simply a person (typically non-Jewish) who has faith that the Jesus Christ of the Bible is the promised Savior and Messiah and the one who will return as the King of Israel and the world.

The only difference, and it’s a big one, is that my perspective of how I perceive God, Messiah, the Bible, and everything all that means, is substantially different from most of the traditional Church (big “C”). Most religious communities permit little or no permeability of their distinctive boundaries and barriers that contain who they are and keep out everyone else. The price of admission is to adopt the theologies, doctrines, and dogmas within their specific container and disavow everything else.

But my container is somewhat unique. Oh sure, a lot of other people occupy my container (more or less) but my container is virtual. It exists “in the cloud,” so to speak. The people who share a large portion of my understanding exist all over the world, but few, if any, are right here in “River City.” And as I said, even if we did get together, it would violate certain family requirements for me to participate in any significant or regular way.

Blogging is about as close as it gets and even that’s dicey sometimes.

One of the requirements contained within the church I attend is Christmas. It’s the day the vast majority of Christians choose to honor the birth of Jesus, and a great deal of custom, tradition, and fanfare surround not only that day, but the entire month in which it occurs.

But it’s not “me.” I don’t resonate with Christmas as a Christian. Watching everyone at church get really excited about Christmas (my Pastor was listening to Christmas music in his office even before Thanksgiving) just accentuates my sense of alienation, my “not-belongingness.”

Helping the HomelessI don’t disdain those who choose to celebrate Christmas. In fact, some Christians use this time of year to exceptionally demonstrate their desire to serve God by behaving more “Christ-like” in giving to charity and showing kindness to others. If Christmas is their inspiration for doing good, who am I to argue?

Unlike Miller, I’m not “both,” I’m just “me,” whatever “me” is. Actually, I’m getting a better and clearer picture of what “me” is all the time. The mist is dissipating and the sun is beginning to shine on the path I have selected from all of the paths I’ve considered.

It’s just a path that doesn’t hold very many fellow travelers. And almost none of them celebrate Christmas. I’ll see what church is like after the lights and decorations have come down next month.

Addendum: I just wanted to add that some traditional Christians also don’t celebrate Christmas for a variety of reasons, I for one am not avoiding it out of some sense of paganoia (a term coined by First Fruits of Zion teacher and author Toby Janicki) or the irrational fear that celebrating Christmas automatically makes you an idol worshiper. It’s a matter of personal conviction and taking on board a more Judaic view of the Messiah. It’s as simple as that.

Walking East of Eden

walkingA person who has trust in G-d will be free from bothersome thoughts. He will not worry about what will be tomorrow if he has enough for today. He does not cause himself needless pain and discomfort by worrying that perhaps he will be lacking something in the future. A person who has trust in G-d feels no need to flatter other people. He will not veer from his principles for the hope of financial gain. Questions of how he will make a living do not bother him since he knows with clarity that it is impossible for him to have more or less than what the Almighty has decreed for him.

Even if there is a world crisis, he will not worry about his personal situation. He has trust that any misfortune which was not decreed upon him will not affect him. He walks in this world completely free from worries and sadness. He takes pleasure in what he has and feels no lack of possessions.

In short, if a person has trust in G-d, he has everything.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Today’s Daily Lift, #875”

In 1942, the first trainload of Jews in Holland were sent to concentration camps. A few years earlier, tens of thousands of Jews had fled from Germany to Holland, which maintained an open-door immigration policy. But soon after, the Nazis occupied Holland and proceeded to make it Judenrein (clean of Jews). Perhaps the most famous Dutch Jew was Anne Frank, a teenage girl whose diary has become the most widely-read account of life during the Holocaust. In 2005, Holland’s prime minister apologized for his country’s collaboration with the Nazis.

Day in Jewish History for Av 2

Does it seem odd that I post two such contradictory quotes side-by-side so to speak? That’s how they came to me yesterday (today, as I write this) by email from Aish. Thousands of Jews trusted in God. Thousands of Jews trusted in the Dutch to help them escape the Nazis. Things didn’t work out so well.

Yesterday, I wrote about how God provides everything we need including sufficient answers to our difficult questions. That isn’t to say He provides all the answers and we continue to struggle all our lives to draw closer to our Creator and to understand our place in the universe.

I’ve been a life-long “fan” of the NASA space program. I remember growing up hearing about the Mercury and Gemini projects. I used to long for the days when we’d have orbiting space stations, Moon bases, and manned rockets going to Mars. None of that really happened but I still follow the adventure. I’ve been recently following the news about Voyager 1 and whether or not it has left the solar system. My childhood fascination with space contributed to my early interest in science fiction and today, I’m reliving some of that by re-reading Arthur C. Clarke’s classic Rendezvous with Rama.

Exploring the universe tends to make one feel very small. But I never feel smaller than when I am confronted with human anger, hostility, and cruelty.

starry_night_7daysWe are still in the three weeks of mourning which started on Tammuz 17 and Tisha B’Av (Av 9) is rapidly approaching.

While I strive to maintain faith and trust in God, there are days when I get worn down. It’s not that God isn’t trustworthy and it’s not that He won’t fulfill all His promises, it’s just whether or not I’ll be able to hang on to that faith and trust long enough to see it through.

Peter said to Him, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” And He said, “Come!” And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Matthew 14:28-31 (NASB)

I suppose Jesus has the right to criticize Peter and the rest of us for our lack of faith, for even when Messiah’s own faith was tested, he endured.

And He came out and proceeded as was His custom to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples also followed Him. When He arrived at the place, He said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and began to pray, saying, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.” Now an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him. And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.

Luke 22:39-44 (NASB)

I know that Jesus lived a human life and he suffered more than most. And yet, none of us are like Jesus, least of all me.

About a week ago, I posted another blog bringing into question the traditional Christian belief in the rapture. What will happen to the faithful should they suffer and not be rescued when they expect it?

It’s not my faith in God that’s being tested, it’s my faith in human beings. I know that God wants us to love one another even as we love Him (and even as He loves us), but He can never be faithless, cruel, mean, moody, disagreeable, hostile, frustrated, annoying, annoyed, and so on. Only we are like that and we are like that toward each other all the time.

No, this isn’t about being criticized on the Internet again. In fact, my little corner of the blogsophere has been pretty quiet these days. Not a lot of religious posturing is going on and it’s fairly easy to ignore what little is occurring.

And yet, the world of human beings keeps going on the same way it has since there have been human beings. It’s not just the petty slights of day-to-day living, but the whole panorama of human history that shows me human beings don’t change. In spite of the illusion of progressivism, the idea that we keep getting better and better as long as we keep becoming more and more socially and politically liberal, people die every day. There are wars every day. Women are assaulted, beaten, and raped every day. Human beings do cruel things every day, just like we always have.

No matter what I do, I’m not perfect even for one minute of any day, and no matter what I do, what mistakes I’ve made, how much I’ve tried to make amends, I’ll make another mistake, tomorrow, an hour from now, a minute from now.

alone-on-marsSometimes, looking back, I wonder if part of my interest in space exploration and science fiction is the desire to get away from it all. I think of the Mars One project actually working. What would it be like to stand on another planet, staring out into the distance, gazing into the vast desert of another world, one with very, very few human beings on it? What would it be like to be truly alone, where it’s quiet and peaceful and empty?

But all that is a fantasy, at least for me. I’m on Earth, where God has put all of us. I live in a broken world, and it spins and spins in a broken universe. And besides God, all we have is each other.

The souls are all one.
Only the bodies divide us.
Therefore, one who places the body before the spirit
can never experience true love or friendship.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“True Love”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

I don’t know if I buy that part about all souls being one but I do agree that we are divided. There’s a difference between studying, reading, and writing religion and the actual doing of religion. In my opinion, there’s a difference between wearing tzitzit or laying tefillin or lighting the Shabbos candles because they’re written down in a book and doing the same things because you are responding to God with devotion and love. There’s probably even a difference between giving to charity or donating to a food bank because you think you should do it and because you are acting out of compassion.

The one thing that shows everyone your true motivation is if you can take insults or abuse or worse and still remain loving toward other people and toward God in every word and deed.

We are divided. We are separated from God and from each other. We have been since before Adam and Eve walked east out of Eden. We’ve been walking away from paradise ever since, even as we keep trying to walk toward it.

Pessimism is a luxury that a Jew can never allow himself.

-Golda Meir

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?