Tag Archives: mishnah

Six Distinct Genders in Judaism?

This blog post has strange origins.

A few days back, I posted a story on Facebook called Germany becomes first country in Europe to recognise “third gender” officially. I did so mainly to illustrate how I see Europe becoming increasingly “inclusive” (progressive, leftist) and how, once Trump leaves office and the Democratic backlash occurs, the future political and social administration will attempt to push America in the same direction.

pink
Found at Pink News

I got one response from a progressive perspective, which wasn’t unexpected, and then someone else posted:

Well, the sages of the Mishnah recognized four a very long time ago.

What?

The source, who I won’t name, is someone who probably should know, so I looked it up.

According to Sojourn Blog which seems to be a liberal non-profit focused on LGBTQ inclusiveness, their article More Than Just Male and Female: The Six Genders in Classical Judaism describes these six distinct genders, a list I reproduce below:

  1. Zachar/זָכָר: This term is derived from the word for a pointy sword and refers to a phallus. It is usually translated as “male” in English.
  2. Nekeivah/נְקֵבָה: This term is derived from the word for a crevice and probably refers to a vaginal opening. It is usually translated as “female” in English.
  3. Androgynos/אַנְדְּרוֹגִינוֹס: A person who has both “male” and “female” sexual characteristics. 149 references in Mishna and Talmud (1st-8th Centuries CE); 350 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes (2nd -16th Centuries CE).
  4. Tumtum/ טֻומְטוּם A person whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured. 181 references in Mishna and Talmud; 335 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes.
  5. Ay’lonit/איילונית: A person who is identified as “female” at birth but develops “male” characteristics at puberty and is infertile. 80 references in Mishna and Talmud; 40 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes.
  6. Saris/סריס: A person who is identified as “male” at birth but develops “female” characteristics as puberty and/or is lacking a penis. A saris can be “naturally” a saris (saris hamah), or become one through human intervention (saris adam). 156 references in mishna and Talmud; 379 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes.

I looked for other sources and the next one I found was The Jewniverse which seems just as specialized, and their article The 6 Genders of the Talmud was quite brief.

It was pretty much the same for Sefaria.org and ReformJudaism.org. The progressive leftist side of Judaism was very vocal about this, which I absolutely had never heard about before. I guess it was not something that came up much when I had a more active involvement in Messianic Judaism or Hebrew Roots. I did manage to find something called Mystical Aspects of Femininity at Chabad.org and I know that I saw another article somewhat referencing four genders, but that doesn’t particularly map to my (admittedly limited) understanding of Chabadniks. I hadn’t planned to write on this but then, also on Facebook, I saw a story from the Jerusalem Post called Transgender Woman Who Left Hasidic Community to Speak at Yale.

In this case, 26-year-old Abby Stein, who had been born a boy in the Williamsburg section of Broooklyn, New York and who was ordained as a Rabbi at age 19, ultimately left her community and made the transition from male to female.

Her story however, does not mention how it is typical for Hasidics to accept multiple gender identities and in fact, she lost most of her family and friends when she left and then came out.

According to that article:

But, although she was born with a boy’s body, Stein can’t remember a time when she didn’t feel that she was a girl, living in a sect where boys and girls weren’t even allowed to play together and where “it’s almost impossible to be accepting, to be tolerant of gay or trans people.”

I know if I were to present this to a traditional Christian audience, they’d simply discount the Mishnah and the Sages as authoritative, state that there is no support for more than two genders in the Bible, and that would be that.

Abby Stein
Abby Stein (photo credit: OVRIM (OWN WORK)/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

However, in at least some circles of Messianic Judaism, the authority of the Mishnahic Sages is well accepted.

So where do we go from here?

From other quotes found in the Jerusalem Post story:

In her section of Williamsburg, “there was no access to TV, music, magazines … Broadway shows” and only Orthodox Jewish newspapers, Stein said. She spoke Yiddish and Hebrew, but didn’t learn English until she was 20. “It’s all you know. Everything you know is in that community. … They are the most gender-segregated society in the U.S. … First cousins, boys and girls, don’t socialize with each other.”

Her father, Rabbi Mendel Stein, told her he would no longer be able to speak to her. Just two of her eight sisters and four brothers do now.

Seemingly, as far as the Hasidic community goes, there is no room for more than two genders and both are, as much as possible separated from one another.

I’m posting this to gather opinions. I really don’t know what to think. My own understanding of the Bible tends toward defining two and only two sexes and genders and, quite frankly, I don’t think that the Jewish Sages always have all the answers.

It’s also possible that Judaism’s understanding of “gender fluidity” is based on physical characteristics rather than “identifying as,” but I can’t say that with any degree of certainty.

I realize this is a highly controvertial topic, but then again, on our anti-religion, anti-faith, pro-atheist, pro-secular morality, a blog such as mine is controvertial by definition.

Comments?

Advertisements

When Israel Asked for a King

“When Jacob came to Egypt, … your fathers cried out to the Lord, and the Lord sent Moses and Aaron, who brought your fathers out of Egypt and settled them in this place. But they forgot the Lord their God; so He delivered them into the hands of the Philistines, and into the hands of the king of Moab; and these made war upon them. They cried to the Lord, ‘We are guilty, for we have forsaken the Lord and worshiped the Baalim and the Ashtaroth. Oh, deliver us from our enemies and we will serve You.’ And the Lord sent Jerubbaal and Bedan and Jephthah and Samuel, and delivered you from the enemies around you; and you dwelt in security. But when you saw that Nahash king of the Ammonites was advancing against you, you said to me, ‘No, we must have a king reigning over us’ — though the Lord your God is your King.

“Well, the Lord has set a king over you! Here is the king that you have chosen, that you have asked for.

“If you will revere the Lord, worship Him, and obey Him, and will not flout the Lord’s command, if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the Lord your God, [well and good]. But if you do not obey the Lord and you flout the Lord’s command, the hand of the Lord will strike you as it did your fathers.

1 Samuel 12:8-15 (JPS Tanakh)

A few days ago, I was studying Torah Portion Chukat on Shabbat. After finishing with the parashah, I turned in my Chumash to the Haftarah for Chukat, or so I thought. But instead of reading Judges 11:1-33, I inadvertently turned to the Haftarah for Torah Portion Korach, last week’s reading. You’d think I would have noticed reading the same Haftarah twice in a row but somehow I didn’t. I remarked to myself how interesting it was that we see the rise of the first (human) King over Israel in the Haftarah, and the fall of her greatest prophet and leader in the Torah reading.

Moses took the rod from before the Lord, as He had commanded him. Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.

But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” Those are the Waters of Meribah—meaning that the Israelites quarrelled with the Lord—through which He affirmed His sanctity.

Numbers 20:9-13 (JPS Tanakh)

King SaulOf course the connection I made between the two events was the result of a mistake, but it got me to thinking. Although God was to always be King of Israel, He did create a provision, should Israel “reject” Him as King, to place a human being, an Israelite, on the throne of the nation.

If, after you have entered the land that the Lord your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Lord your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman.

Deuteronomy 17:14-15 (JPS Tanakh)

But think about it. If Israel had been completely obedient to God in all things, they would never have asked for a man to be set over them as King and God would always have been (and would always be) King of Israel, making it the only fully functional theocracy ever to exist.

But without Saul being set over Israel as King, there would have been no King David, King Solomon, or a dynasty of Kings of the tribe of Judah and of David’s house.

And there would be no King Messiah.

Of course, if Israel had been obedient in all things, I suppose there’d be no need for a Messiah to return the exiled Jews to their Land, to rebuild the Temple, to restore the nation, and to defeat Israel’s enemies, since Israel would never have fallen and God would have always granted her great success, and she would have truly been a light to the nations.

But then what would have happened to Christianity? The Church wouldn’t exist at all. What would have happened to the Gentiles? Without Jesus, how could we be saved?

Interesting question.

I suppose this is where you get to say that God knew Israel would fall and fail and that the world would need a Savior, but what about free will? I mean, free will at least gave Israel a chance at succeeding. They made choices, and they certainly could have chosen to continually accept God as King.

But Christianity doesn’t believe in free will, at least the Calvinists don’t, so Calvinists would say that God programmed everything into the universe before He created it, thus mankind’s destiny was sealed before the creation of Adam and Havah (Eve) and before she ever gave birth to the first human to actually be born of woman.

lightBut in Orthodox Judaism, free will is accepted as the norm, and that humanity has free will in no way abrogates God’s absolute sovereignty over the universe.

So in Judaism, it was quite possible that Israel could have chosen continually to have God as King and not to demand a human King.

But as I asked before, if Israel had been obedient and remained obedient in not requiring a human being to be set as King over them, we would have no line of Israelite Kings, no King of the tribe of Judah and the house of David, which the Bible says the Messiah must come from.

There would have been (and would not be) no Messiah, at least in the body of Jesus Christ as lived, died, and lived in the first century CE. So what would have happened to us, to the Gentiles, if Israel never sinned?

Probably all of those New Covenant prophesies I’ve been talking about the past couple of weeks, such as the following.

Thus says the Lord,
“Preserve justice and do righteousness,
For My salvation is about to come
And My righteousness to be revealed.
“How blessed is the man who does this,
And the son of man who takes hold of it;
Who keeps from profaning the sabbath,
And keeps his hand from doing any evil.”
Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from His people.”
Nor let the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord,

“To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths,
And choose what pleases Me,
And hold fast My covenant,
To them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial,
And a name better than that of sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off.
“Also the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
To minister to Him, and to love the name of the Lord,
To be His servants, every one who keeps from profaning the Sabbath and holds fast My covenant;
Even those I will bring to My holy mountain
And make them joyful in My house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.” The Lord God, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares, “Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered.”

Isaiah 56:1-8 (NASB)

“For I know their works and their thoughts; the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and see My glory. I will set a sign among them and will send survivors from them to the nations: Tarshish, Put, Lud, Meshech, Tubal and Javan, to the distant coastlands that have neither heard My fame nor seen My glory. And they will declare My glory among the nations. Then they shall bring all your brethren from all the nations as a grain offering to the Lord, on horses, in chariots, in litters, on mules and on camels, to My holy mountain Jerusalem,” says the Lord, “just as the sons of Israel bring their grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the Lord. I will also take some of them for priests and for Levites,” says the Lord.

Isaiah 66:18-21 (NASB)

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘It will yet be that peoples will come, even the inhabitants of many cities. The inhabitants of one will go to another, saying, “Let us go at once to entreat the favor of the Lord, and to seek the Lord of hosts; I will also go.” So many peoples and mighty nations will come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favor of the Lord.’ Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘In those days ten men from all the nations will grasp the garment of a Jew, saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”’”

Zechariah 8:20-23 (NASB)

These are only a few examples of the aforementioned prophecies, but you get the idea. There’s no reason why they couldn’t have applied to the nations of the world coming alongside Israel without the existence of Messiah. We Gentiles would simply do what Israel did, worship Hashem, God of Heaven, praying directly to Him.

Up to JerusalemThe present and the future era of peace would look a lot more like how my friend Gene Shlomovich describes it.

Why is this important? Why am I (seemingly) playing a useless game of “what if”? Events occurred as they occurred, not as I’m supposing them to be. Israel did ask for a man to be placed over them as King, there was a King David who created, by the blessings of God, the Davidic dynasty of Kings of the tribe of Judah, and from whom Messiah, the righteous branch, has emerged.

Thus Christianity was created, separated from Judaism at an “early age,” and took off on a totally divergent course from its original path, the Jewish path.

I’ll give you another “what if”.

Yerushalayim, Yerushalayim, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How many times I have desired to gather your sons like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were unwilling! Listen: your house will be abandoned for you, desolate. For I say to you, from now on you will not see me until you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of HaShem!”

Matthew 23:37-39 (DHE Gospels)

A few years back, a fellow I admire and respect told me that up until the moment when Yeshua (Jesus) said these words, if Israel had repented of her sins, Yeshua would have initiated the Messianic Age right then and there, leading Heavens armies to defeat the Roman occupation and fulfilling all of the New Covenant prophecies, establishing the final Davidic Kingdom in the first century.

For the longest time, I didn’t believe him. I couldn’t imagine how the coming of the Messianic Kingdom nearly two-thousand years ago would work without the Gospel message first being spread throughout the nations of the world, allowing the Gentiles to repent and be saved.

Then, when I was studying on Shabbat, it hit me. There’s nothing in the Bible, the Tanakh (Old Testament) that presupposes Messiah must come once and then come again. That’s why we don’t see a stronger picture of the Messiah in the Torah and the Prophets (although he is certainly there). That’s why it isn’t abundantly obvious to all Jewish people who study the Torah and the Prophets that Jesus is the Messiah and that the Messiah must come twice.

That’s why it isn’t spelled out in the Old Testament that we must believe in the Messiah for our salvation.

This brings disturbing notions into the light, such as the idea that history is variable and could describe any number of different courses and still fulfill the plan of God for Creation. It also means we have a great deal more to do with what happens to us, not just as individuals, but as an entire species, than we’ve been led to believe in Christian theology and doctrine.

ancient_jerusalemI’ve heard it said that if all of Israel, each and every Jew, were to perfectly observe even a single Shabbat together, then the Messiah would come. Of course, I’ve also heard it said that Messiah will not come until Israel and mankind have reached the fullness of rebellion against God, but is it too much to believe that either situation could be true?

Regardless of the different roads through time I’ve suggested, the destination is the same. God will redeem His people, restore His nation Israel, and elevate Israel as sovereign over all of the other (Gentile) nations of the world. That part is a given.

This is the Torah, if a person dies in a tent…

Numbers 19:14

In old age, we continue to seek wisdom and comfort in study. I fondly remember visiting Dr. Louis Finkelstein, the Seminary’s fourth chancellor, in his final years. By then he had long been confined to his apartment by Parkinson’s. Each time, I found him sitting at his dining room table with a folio volume of Talmud open before him. He often quipped that he was grateful to God for letting him go from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. And when he died in his nineties, it was mainly because his infirmities had finally severed him from the elixir of his life. I loved his ever-radiant eyes. He personified for me the conviction of the Mishnah that as students of Torah age, their minds do not unravel. A life of the mind sustains our engagement and growth.

-Ismar Schorsch
“Torah Study — The Bedrock of Judaism,” pg 548, June 30, 2001
Commentary on Torah Portion Chukat
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

The Sages (Brochos 63b) state that the Torah only lasts with those who die over it. This seems very puzzling since the Torah is for living, as it states (Vayikra 18:5), “And you shall live with them (the commandments).”

When doctors told Rabbi Akiva Eger that he might not live much longer if he continued his intensive study of Torah, he replied, “If I study Torah, I may not live much longer; if I discontinue my studies of Torah, I certainly will not live much longer. Doubt must not prevail against certainty!” (Jewish Leaders, p. 111)

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Always find time to study Torah,” pp 343, 344
Commentary on Torah Portion Chukat
Growth Through Torah

I think this is one of the blessings of studying the Torah (the whole Bible, really) from my current perspective: being granted the ability to see God peeking out from behind the pages, peering through the spaces between the letters, and carefully revealing little bits and pieces not only of what could have been, but what actually will be.

I’ve asked before when Jesus returns, will we go to church as a way of really asking, when Jesus returns will there even be a church?

My answer, both then and now is “no.” “The Church” as it conceives of itself, especially in Evangelicalism, will not exist because it imagines itself as an entity directly in opposition to prophesy. All New Covenant prophesies describe Israel as the center of God’s vision and purpose in the final age, not a collection of (mostly) Gentiles ruling over the world, or worse, a bunch of (mostly) Gentile “floaty ghosts” (to paraphrase D. Thomas Lancaster) playing harps in an endless worship service in Heaven.

Of all the different ways Israel could have selected to respond to God, they all have a single result. God will restore Israel and consequently, the people of the nations (i.e. Gentile Christians) will come alongside Israel in obedience to God, in response to Israel’s King Messiah, and pay homage as vassal nations to the Sovereign Lord who will sit enthroned in Jerusalem.

The RabbiSelfishly, I look forward to that day, whether I see it in my mortal lifetime or in the resurrection, because I long for the days when a simple Gentile believer like me will have the opportunity to study Mishnah without it raising eyebrows (I wouldn’t even know how to go about it right now), when all of God’s servants will be able to find our lives in a “folio volume of Talmud open” before us. May that day come when King Messiah brings restoration and peace to Israel, and through his nation, peace for us all.

Book Review: Mishnah and the Words of Jesus

Midrash is the art of keeping an ancient text alive. The Rabbis were masters of drawing water from stone, of transforming the most mundane passages of Torah into luminous nuggets of spirituality.

-Ismar Schorsch
“Accountability,” pg 330, March 8, 2003
Commentary on Torah Portion Pekudei
from his book Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

Probably anyone who has ever focused on the teachings of Jesus is aware that he was a product of the religious milieu that emerged in the 1st century of the present era.

-Roy B. Blizzard
“Chapter 3: A Good Eye”
Mishnah and the Words of Jesus (Kindle Edition)

I sometimes complain that certain teachers and scholars in the realm of Messianic Judaism periodically “flirt” with taking some of the various texts compiled in the Talmud and anachronistically applying them, some composed many centuries after the Apostolic Era, to the letters of Paul and the teachings of Jesus. If we were to assume that the author of, for example, the Zohar (which is not part of the Talmud) spoke in the same voice as Jesus and the apostles and applied no other methods of examining how this could be reasonably and rationally accomplished, then we would be making a terrible mistake. I don’t say this is done routinely, but in reading or listening to lessons such as D. Thomas Lancaster’s sermon series Holy Epistle to the Hebrews (which he has been conducting for well over a year and the series shows no signs of abating), we must be cautious to make sure that when we apply midrashic methods of studying the New Testament epistles, we are not projecting the later voices of the Rabbis backward in time, making the writer of Hebrews speak lessons that he (or she) would not have known or intended.

On the other hand, there is a way we can justify viewing Hebrews, or Paul’s epistles, or the Gospels, through a “midrashic lens,” or perhaps better said, a “mishnahic lens,” so to speak, and I think that’s the point of Dr. Blizzard’s book Mishnah and the Words of Jesus. Instead of starting in the future and working his way into the past, Blizzard begins with the scholars and sages contemporary to Jesus or appearing just before and after him historically, and then works his way forward. Blizzard suggests, and I agree with him, that the teachings of Jesus were understood as completely consistent with the way the various Rabbinic branches of the normative Judaisms of his day were teaching.

Continuing in Chapter 3, Dr. Blizzard writes:

In the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew 5 and following, Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” Where did Jesus get that idea? Who are the meek? What does it mean to be meek? If we did not know that Jesus was a rabbi, speaking Hebrew, using rabbinic methods in his teaching, hinting back at something that has already been said or written, and that his listeners basically have all of this material memorized, we would not understand. (emph. mine)

And as I’ve said before I think most of us in the Church don’t understand. Instead of reading the teachings of the Master with an eye on these first century Jewish “rabbinic methods of teaching,” Christianity in all of its various flavors, imposes its own interpretive traditions on the text, forcing anachronistically, meanings onto and into the words of Jesus, Peter, Paul and the other New Testament teachers, that were formulated (at best) decades after the end of the Apostolic Era, but more than likely many, many centuries after, and these traditional interpretations are wholly detached from anything that would have occurred in the thoughts of Jesus and the apostles.

In Chapter 2: “Teaching, Tithing and Silence,” Blizzard states:

Perhaps we would all do well to heed Gamaliel’s injunction to provide ourselves with a teacher in he matter of tithing to relieve ourselves not just of doubt, but of the erroneous teaching that has been prevalent in the Church for over a thousand years. (emph. mine)

Hillel and ShammaiIn this instance, Dr. Blizzard is referencing associations between the teachings of Jesus as related to the Mishnah, specifically the sages Shammai, Hillel, and Gamaliel, as related to passages in Torah that speak of generosity and compassion toward the poor, which modern Judaism refers to as tzedakah or charity, but with the underlying meaning of justice and righteousness. However, I think Blizzard’s words can be applied to a much wider scope and indeed, to many of the common teachings of the Church about the meaning of the Bible, particularly in terms of the continuance of Torah in the lives of the Jewish people, the continuance of the Jewish people in God’s love and plans for the present and future, and the continuance of Judaism as a valid lifestyle by the Jewish people of devotion to and worship of the God of Israel.

If, on the other hand, the Church could see the strong parallels between the teachings of Jesus, his contemporaries, and those Rabbis who closely followed him in history, such as Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who was present at the fall of Jerusalem and is considered single-handedly responsible for formulating “the direction that Judaism would take” after the destruction of Herod’s Temple and the great exile of the Jewish people into the diaspora, then perhaps we could initiate a desperately needed corrective action in the Christian Church and in Christian hearts.

Blizzard emphasizes this in the following quote from Chapter 4: “The Will of the Father.”

How important it is that we study rabbinical literature, the sayings of the rabbis. The way in which they teach, the word pictures they paint, the images upon which they draw, because it gives us an understanding of the words of Jesus, the ideas, the concepts upon which he is drawing. In many instances, without a knowledge of this background, because of the images, the idioms, the metaphors, etc., so widely used by the sages and rabbis, we are unable to understand the depth, the meaning, of the words of Jesus.

It’s not only ironic but profoundly sad that most churches reject the very lessons and teachings that would enable the clergy and laity to understand Jesus Christ the most. By rejecting the teachings of the Mishnah which sit at the very heart of the various ancient and modern streams of Judaism, Christianity rejects the very heart of the meaning of the teachings of her Savior.

Chapter 4 of Blizzard’s brief but powerful book is a tour de force of comparisons between the specific teachings of Jesus and quotes from the different rabbis recording in the Mishnah. There are too many of them for me to record here, but fortunately, Blizzard’s book is quite affordable (especially the Kindle version, which can be downloaded in seconds), so I heartily recommend you purchase a copy and read it for yourself.

Not only is the Mishnah very Pharisaic, it is also very Pauline which, of course, is to be expected in view of the fact that Paul refers to himself as “a Pharisee of Pharisees.”

Blizzard shifts his focus at this point, from comparing the teachings of Jesus to the Mishnaic rabbis to making comparisons between the Mishnah and the Pharisaic Apostle Paul. Blizzard further states:

I want to emphasize that the ideas reflected here in the Chapters of the Fathers can be found in the teachings of all the New Testament writers, which, again, is just what we should expect. Why? Because they are all Jews. They all came from the same background, the same religious and spiritual heritage.

The Rebbe and the ChildBlizzard introduced the first chapter of this book, “Tzedakah and Righteousness,” by saying he intended to compare the teachings of Jesus to “the words of the rabbis prior to, and contemporary with, and following Jesus, recorded for us in the Mishnah, Order Nezikin, Tractate Avot…” and then he said something that especially attracted my attention:

In the teachings of Jesus, there is one underlying and overriding theme, a theme on which Jesus constantly dwells, a theme that serves as the foundation upon which biblical faith is built. If one looks at the Bible as a whole, if one includes additionally all Jewish literature that is extant, the Oral Law, the Written Law, the commentaries, and search for one, single, overriding theme that is the foundational theme of biblical faith, one would have to conclude that that foundational theme is summed up in the Hebrew word tzedakah… (emph. mine)

Blizzard follows the thread of tzedakah, which as I said, in Judaism is associated with charity, righteousness, and justice, through the teachings of Jesus, the rabbis of the Mishnah, and across the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings to paint an overarching landscape of God’s message to human beings.

This is a concept I harp on with some regularity; that we must engage the Bible as a single document that is inexorably interconnected, rather than “cherry pick” various verses and passages of scripture willy-nilly as they seem to map to our preconceived theologies and doctrines, and then string them together to create the illusion that the entire theme of the Bible is represented by those few bits and pieces we’ve jumbled into our religious collage. I think by now, most Christians realize that you can prove just about anything if you connect the dots between carefully selected words and phrases in the Bible. But that doesn’t mean the Bible as a cohesive unit really says what you are making it say.

I know. I could be accused of the same thing. After all, I have a point to prove just like everyone else. But although I think there’s a lot of truth in Blizzard’s belief that the Bible’s central theme is tzedakah, I have been trying to make the argument in my various blog posts, that the central theme is actually about God’s desire and His plan to unite all of humanity under a single King, and for God to dwell among His people without requiring that His Jewish people stop being Jewish or stop practicing Judaism in order to bring honor and glory to the Jewish Messiah and the God of Israel.

What is the central theme of the Bible according to the various streams of normative Christianity? Here’s a rather harsh sounding rebuke from Dr. Blizzard in Chapter One:

Jesus has become an idol, if you will, our focus of attention, our focus of worship, and it seems that very few think of God anymore. Seldom do we hear anyone speak of the glory of God, his grandeur and mercy, the holiness of God, and the other many attributes and characteristics of God.

I should mention at this point, that a good friend of mine, once a Jewish believer, has rejected Jesus as the Messiah, in part, because of what Dr. Blizzard said in the above-quoted paragraph. My friend spares no effort in explaining on his blog what he sees are the errors in Christianity.

Now before my Christian readers get really mad at Blizzard, he went on to say…

Please understand that I am not trying to lessen the importance of Jesus. What I am trying to do is emphasize that, in all the teachings of Jesus recorded for us in the gospels, his focus is not upon himself, what he is, what he is doing, or what he is to become. Additionally, Jesus has very little to say about God and, in particular, the Worship of God.

My point is that, in the teachings of Jesus, there is not all that much emphasis upward.

Blizzard then maps the teachings of Jesus and the sayings of the rabbis in the Mishnah, back to what he sees as the central emphasis of Jesus and of Judaism which is the care and concern for other human beings as the primary means of living our faith and worshiping God.

tzedakah-to-lifeIn addition to the focus on Jesus as Savior, the Church tends to focus on the concept of preaching the gospel, which translates into God’s personal plan of salvation for the elect. And that’s where it stops for a lot of churches. Fortunately, Blizzard’s rebuke of Christianity doesn’t include each and every church. Many churches, such as the one I currently attend, focus heavily on studying the Bible as a means of knowing how to serve God and other human beings, primarily through acts of charity and support of missionary efforts to some of the more desperately needy people groups on our planet.

In fact, one of the things some churches do really well are acts of tzedakah as well as something called Gemilut hasadim, which can be translated as acts of loving-kindness. Christians get the idea of grace from this Hebrew term. The difference is that tzedakah or acts of charity can be performed only on the poor, while gemilut hasadiam, which involves giving money or a personal service, can be done for anyone.

However, Blizzard’s distinctly “Jewish” presentation of these concepts alongside the teachings of Jesus and the Mishnah, provide an exceptionally fresh look at an essential something that often goes stale in many churches or in many individual Christian hearts. By linking something that the church actually does with how vital those actions are in ancient and modern Judaism, Blizzard successfully creates a link between what else is vital in Judaism, especially the Judaism of the time period around the Apostolic Era, and what the Church isn’t doing and isn’t teaching because these are things the Church has ultimately dismissed as having been “nailed to the cross” with Jesus.

Roy Blizzard’s book Mishnah and the Words of Jesus is a perfect example of why I find it absolutely necessary to access my faith in Christ by way of studying Judaism and, in my case, particularly Messianic Judaism. I’m certainly not Jewish, but it is quite possible and even desirable to be a Christian and to study Messianic Judaism in order to understand and then practice what I learn from the Bible.

Roy Blizzard
Dr. Roy B. Blizzard

There were quite a number of other gems in Blizzard’s book, but I should limit my review, not only for the sake of length, but to permit readers such as you to allow “Mishnah and the Words of Jesus” to unfold itself in your own experience.

However, I do want to say something else in wrapping up this blog post. It may sound like I’m distinctly “anti-Church” and interestingly enough, “anti-Christian,” even though I identify myself as a Christian, a disciple of Christ or Messiah. This isn’t actually true. While I point to the warts and moles I see on the Church and which, for the most part, the Church choses to ignore, I also see the beauty that has been maintained among those whose highest goal is to wholeheartedly serve Jesus Christ by serving humankind.

I’ve written God Was In Church Today and In Defense of the Church recently as much to remind myself as to remind everyone else that the Church is good. But in the words of Boaz Michael of First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ), “the Church needs to change.” Hopefully, scholars such as Dr. Roy Blizzard, Messianic Jews such as Boaz Michael, and even ordinary, everyday people like you and me, can contribute to that change for the sake of Israel and in the service of God.

One final thing. At the top of this blog post, I quoted Ismar Schorsch briefly commenting on Midrash. It is true that Midrash and Mishnah are not the same thing but they do have something in common. They both represent a way of thinking about God and a way of communicating about God as we study the Bible. You can study the Bible apart from any acceptance and understanding of the rabbinic sages and still learn a lot, but I believe you will not only miss a great deal of important detail in your study, but you’ll perpetuate a system of misunderstanding the Bible’s panoramic message, especially about God, Israel, the Jewish people, Judaism, and the role we non-Jews play as the crowning jewels of the nations. For the sake of Israel, and for the sake of the return of the Messianic King, we owe it to ourselves, to the Church, to Israel, and to God to learn all we can learn by setting aside our “institutionalized Christian learning,” and stepping outside the box, so to speak. If you’re not sure how to begin, Dr. Roy Blizzard’s Mishnah and the Words of Jesus is a good place to start.

Lech Lecha: Did You Hear the One About the Jewish Student and the Priest?

strangers-in-israelThe Lord said to Abram, Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”

Abram went forth as the Lord had commanded him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan. When they arrived in the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land as far as the site of Shechem, at the terebinth of Moreh. The Canaanites were then in the land.

Genesis 12:1-6 (JPS Tanakh)

Thus Abraham took his first steps on a journey that would result in the vast and astonishing progression of the Jewish people across the grand panorama of human history. Abraham the Hebrew “crossed over” not just a geographical boundary, but a spiritual one.

I’ve said on a number of occasions that I thought one of the missions of the Christian church was to provoke zealousness among the Jewish people, to inspire Jews to return to Torah, return to Judaism, return to being who God made them to be.

Although I don’t believe God would allow it, there is a tremendous and ongoing concern, especially in America, that the Jewish population will continually assimilate, and ultimately vanish from our national landscape. And while many Christians believe that the only hope for the Jewish people is to convert to Christianity no matter what, there are some Jewish believers who insist that only when the Jewish people repent and return to Torah that the Messiah will finally return, and all of God’s promises to Israel and the people of the nations who are called by His Name (Amos 9:11-12) will finally come to pass.

In this week’s Torah portion, Avraham (Abraham) makes his way to the land of Israel and begins the journey of the Jewish people through history. Along that path we have seen nations rise and fall and have survived them, even through massive persecution. There were 2 million Jews during the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago. Demographers state that though there are approximately 14 million Jews identified worldwide, there are possibly 400 million halachic Jews (Jews whose mother’s were Jewish or converted according to Jewish law). Many Jews have fallen by the wayside of history. This week I share with you a story of one Jew who made his way back to identifying with the Almighty, the Jewish people and the Torah … albeit in a rather unusual way.

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Commentary on Torah Portion Lech Lecha
Aish.com

orthodox-talmud-studyRabbi Packouz goes on to tell the story of “Lance,” a young Jewish fellow who came from a family so assimilated that they sent him to a Catholic school to get the “best education.” One of Lance’s instructors, a Priest, found out that Lance was Jewish only by accident. Lance chose to write an essay about Rabbi Akiva for an assignment in the Priest’s class. Curious, the Priest asked Lance why he chose a great Jewish sage as the topic and Lance answered, “Because I’m Jewish.” This simple statement launched another journey into Judaism with some surprising twists:

The priest was surprised that he had a Jewish pupil and asked Lance if he had ever studied the Five Books of Moses with Rashi, the great commentator, or if he had ever learned the Mishna, part of the Talmud. When Lance told him “No,” the priest offered to teach him. For an hour a day after school, they learned together.

One day it occurred to Lance that Judaic studies were not the usual curriculum for the priesthood, so he asked his mentor, “How did you become so knowledgeable in Torah?”

The priest replied, “Before I entered the seminary, I traveled to Israel. While visiting the Western Wall a man asked me if I was Jewish. Curious as to why he asked, I answered ‘Yes.’ The man then asked me if I was interested in learning about my heritage. I figured it would be interesting, so I said, ‘Sure.’ He took me to a yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem and I was so impressed that I stayed for close to a year, never revealing that I wasn’t Jewish. I considered converting, but decided that it would be too difficult and too much of a shock to my family, so here I am.”

One Jewish young man who had grown up never knowing what it is to be Jewish and a Catholic priest who nearly converted to Judaism. What strange partners of God. A Priest encouraged his Jewish student, not to convert to Catholicism, but to become knowledgable in Torah and Mishnah. He encouraged “zealousness.”

Protestantism struggles with how to support the Jewish people but gets hung up on Jews who are not in the Church. They can’t always see that we can also “provoke zealousness” and that Messianic Judaism is the most likely vehicle for doing so. If Jesus is Jewish and the Messiah, then his Jewish followers will not abandon being Jewish and will not neglect Torah as his disciples.

Abraham took all that he had and, at the command of God, went to the Land of Promise in obedience. God put Lance and a Priest together and using a highly unlikely set of circumstances, sent one lost Jewish person on the correct path as well. According to Rabbi Packouz, Lance continued pursuing his Jewish studies and presumably became observant.

If you are a Christian, what does this tell you about what God wants you to do? If you are Jewish, where should you be going?

Good Shabbos.

Moshiach Rabbeinu

rabbeinu1Believe it or not, this week’s message was not inspired by the fact that the Catholic Church has chosen a new Pope; it just offers a convenient contrast. As you probably know, there is, in their beliefs, a doctrine of papal infallibility. When the Pope teaches the rules, he is always right.

It is natural to assume that Judaism has something similar. This is especially true, given the Torah’s demand that we listen to the Rabbis and Judges, and not deviate “right or left” [Deut. 17:11] from what they say.

-Rabbi Yaakov Menken
“Everyone Makes Mistakes”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayikra
Project Genesis

I’ve been hesitating about writing this particular “meditation” because it has the potential to be rather controversial. As part of my conversations with Pastor Randy, we’ve been discussing what is Torah? That’s an amazingly difficult question to answer. It’s not just the Five Books of Moses, and I believe that it should be at least the entire Tanakh (Old Testament). I believe a great deal of the New Testament and certainly the epistles of Paul should be considered midrash on Torah, specifically in relation to the teachings of Messiah.

As I’ve said before (and will say again when I publish “Four Questions, Part 4” tomorrow), Pastor Randy believes that the Torah is too difficult to observe perfectly and in fact, has always been too difficult to observe. This is pretty much what most of Christianity believes, and along with that, the church sees the primary purpose of Torah as always pointing to Jesus. Once Jesus came, the purpose of Torah expired and grace was substituted.

I don’t happen to believe this, and my understanding is that Jewish people, including those who are disciples of the Master, remain obligated to the Torah of Moses.

But I’m not here to talk about the Torah as such (I’ll do that tomorrow), but rather how it is applied through Rabbinic interpretation and authority. This is the really touchy part. As Rabbi Menken writes, there’s a tendency to view the sages in a manner similar to how Catholics view the Pope, as infallible and that all Rabbinic rulings are automatically correct. But is that really true? Rabbi Menken continues.

We see from this week’s reading, though, that this is definitely not the case. The Torah prescribes special atonement for when the High Priest, the King, or the Sanhedrin [Lev. 4: 13-21], the High Rabbinical Court, makes a mistake. In other words, the Torah highlights for us that it is possible for the Sanhedrin to be mistaken.

This is not about a small matter, either. The commentaries say that the mistake described here is one in which the Sanhedrin teaches that it is permitted to do something, and the Sanhedrin later realizes that the behavior is prohibited — so much so that a person committing the act deliberately would suffer the punishment of Kares, spiritual excision [the exact definition of this is disputed, but severe]. Even in matters of religious law, where the Sanhedrin’s supreme authority is undisputed — even there, they could make a mistake.

So why, then, does the Torah tell us to listen to them? They could, after all, be leading us in the wrong direction!

That is an extraordinarily good question. It’s also the question that comes to the minds of just about all Christians, including many people in the Hebrew Roots movement who believe that the Bible contains everything necessary for a Jew to observe Torah without relying on external interpretation or additional instructions.

Based upon a proof from a Baraisa, the Gemara had concluded that a lechi post is not valid if it is not recognizable from the inside, although it is visible from the outside. Yet, the Gemara proceeds to inform us that the halachah is that such a lechi is valid. Immediately, the Gemara asks, “We have disproven the validity of such a lechi, and yet the halachah rules that it is valid?!”

The Gemara continues to resolve this halachic conclusion, based upon yet another Baraisa which validates such a lechi.

This give and take, where the Gemara proves one point of view, and then immediately concludes the halachah according to the opposite opinion is relatively uncommon. A computer check reveals that it appears only five times in Shas (here, Kesuvos 41b-twice, Bava Kamma 15b-twice, Bava Metzia 22b).

Daf Yomi Digest
Distinctive Insight
“It is disproved – but yet it is the Halachah!”
Eruvin 10

That didn’t help. I admit, the complexities of Talmud escape me most of the time and yet religious Judaism in all of its variants, depends on these rulings, laws, and judgments for so very much.

My question is basic. Is literally every single ruling, judgment, halachah, and word of every sage everywhere across time valid and binding in religious Judiasm, or is it possible that at some point, the sages have gone too far?

Kapparot is a custom in which the sins of a person are symbolically transferred to a fowl. It is practiced by some Jews shortly before Yom Kippur. First, selections from Isaiah 11:9, Psalms 107:10, 14, and 17-21, and Job 33:23-24 are recited; then a rooster (for a male) or a hen (for a female) is held above the person’s head and swung in a circle three times, while the following is spoken: “This is my exchange, my substitute, my atonement; this rooster (or hen) shall go to its death, but I shall go to a good, long life, and to peace.” The hope is that the fowl, which is then donated to the poor for food, will take on any misfortune that might otherwise occur to the one who has taken part in the ritual, in punishment for his or her sins.

-Richard Schwartz, Ph.D.
“The Custom of Kapparot in the Jewish Tradition”
JewishVirtualLibrary.org

Solomons-TempleThe Torah, particularly the book of Leviticus, provides an extremely detailed description of the various sacrifices to be given at the Temple in Holy Jerusalem, and under what circumstances a Jew must present said-sacrifices. To the best of my knowledge, none of them involve the use of a chicken as described by the modern rite of kapparot. Dr. Schwartz details some of the Jewish objections to this practice.

Some Jewish leaders felt that people would misunderstand the significance of the ritual. The belief that the ceremony of kapparot can transfer a person’s sins to a bird, and that his or her sins would then be completely eradicated, is contrary to Jewish teachings. For, if the ritual could remove a person’s sins, what would be the need for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement?

The Mishneh Brurah, an eminent contemporary commentary on Rabbi Joseph Caro’s classical codification of Jewish law, explains the significance of the ritual. Judaism stresses that a person can’t obtain purity from sin, and thus obtain higher levels of perfection, without repenting. Through God’s mercy, we are given the Divine gift of repentance, so that we might abandon our corrupt ways, thereby being spared from the death that we deserve for our violation of the Divine law. By substituting the death of a fowl, one will (hopefully) appreciate G-d’s mercy and be stirred to repentance. By no means, however, does the ritual and the slaughter of the bird eradicate one’s misdeeds, even though the bird is donated to the poor.

If a Jewish person is a disciple of the Master and has studied and accepted the teachings in the Apostolic Scriptures, he or she understands that this particular ritual is not meaningful or necessary. The sins of anyone, Jew or Gentile, who has accepted Jesus (Hebrew: Yeshua) as Savior, Lord, and Messiah, have been forgiven. He died, paying the price for our sin as the ultimate atonement, and when we repent (and we must repent) of our own sins, turning away from them, and turning to God, we are forgiven once and for all without the need for further sacrifices.

So how are we to reconcile the rulings of the sages in relation to the kapparot involving chickens during Yom Kippur and the reality of the Messiah? The better question is, how are Messianic Jews to reconcile this along with any other Jewish practices that seem to contradict the teachings and life of the Master?

The Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council has established official halachah for its member synagogues and individual members, but that’s hardly a universal standard. On the other hand, how halachah is applied across the rest of the religious Jewish landscape is not entirely consistent either. For example, we can point to the radically extreme differences between how the Haridim vs. Reform Judaism live out Jewish lives they believe are consistent with observing Torah.

It’s obvious that Messianic Judaism has to make a few “adjustments” to how some of the Rabbinic rulings are applied, but even given that, are we to understand that all of the remaining body of Mishnah is fully correct and fully valid? If we accept that the Torah doesn’t change (and there are those who debate even that), can we accept that Jewish interpretation is adaptive and evolutionary across time and culture? I had a recent Facebook conversation that included the following:

There are enduring realities in the Torah…the Shema is one…The pursuit of Justice is another…however there are changes in the way Torah is embraced…David recognizes that G-d wants a contrite and broken heart, not burnt offerings (Psalm 51) Micah gives the same notion (Micah 6)…so there is an evolutionary understanding of the nature and character of G-d that takes place…

David is specific…”burnt offerings you do not desire”…but a contrite broken heart….quite removed from the harsh Levitical code of bloody sacrifices…and those scriptures reflect evolving understanding of the nature and character of G-d…Jesus in the John 8 narrative lays aside the penalty that the Torah prescribes and challenges the lack of personal holiness/integrity of the woman’s accusers…

Part of the problem is that we can “interpret” the Bible to mean just about anything. If we give the Rabbinic sages (or anyone) carte blanche to establish binding interpretations and halachah for their specific streams of Judaism, are they always consistent with God’s intent for the Jewish observance of Torah?

There’s no way to know for sure. Well, there’s one.

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.

Matthew 23:1-4 (ESV)

phariseesEven as Jesus confirmed that the scribes and Pharisees did indeed have the authority to create binding halachah upon the Jewish people of his day (see the paper Matthew 23:2–4: Does Jesus Recognize the Authority of the Pharisses and Does He Endorse their Halakhah? (PDF) by Noel S. Rabbinowitz, JETS 46/3 (September 2003) 423-47 for details), he also criticized them for failing to follow their own rules. However, he didn’t agree with each and every one of their rulings.

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.

Mark 3:1-5 (ESV)

Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

Mark 7:1-8 (ESV)

So what does all this mean?

  • There are some modern Jewish rituals and customs that contradict the reality of the risen Messiah.
  • Jewish ritual and tradition is not applied with universal consistency across all religious Jewish communities and across time.
  • Historically, Jesus affirmed the right of the ancient Pharisees and scribes to establish binding halachah for Jews.
  • Historically, Jesus refuted some of the halakhic rulings by the Pharisees and scribes and offered correction and criticism when necessary.
  • At least one modern Messianic Jewish body has offered an adaptation to Jewish halachah that is more consistent with the reality of the risen Messiah.

Oh. We know one more thing:

The nations will send their emissaries to the King Messiah, and the King Messiah will teach the world how to live in peace, and how to want to live in peace. Then, everyone in the world will enjoy eternal peace, for as long as this world will last. The great Rabbi, Rav Shlomoh Freifeld, of blessed memory, said in a talk he once gave that I attended that the Messiah will be a great teacher.

-from “What is the Messiah Supposed to Do”
BeingJewish.com

He will restore the religious court system of Israel and establish Jewish law as the law of the land (Jeremiah 33:15).

-from “Mashiach: The Messiah”
Judaism 101

It is my understanding that one of the things many Jewish people believe the Messiah will do is to teach Torah, to teach the correct interpretation of Torah and how it is to be lived out. According to BeingJewish.com, as we saw above, he will even teach the Gentiles peace.

So what am I getting at?

This is Rabbi Menken’s solution to understanding the puzzle.

One answer has to do with the power of unity. Different customs and practices are wonderful, but there has to be underlying agreement on “the basics.” One of the problems with calling different Chassidic groups “sects” is that a sect is “a dissenting or schismatic religious body.” Chassidic groups may be led by different Rebbes, but they don’t rewrite the rules. The disagreements of today are disagreements about shapes of branches on individual trees within a massive, unified forest.

And there is another answer, which requires still more humility. It is all well and good to say that everyone is fallible — but who is more likely to be making a mistake? The Torah gives leadership to people who dedicate themselves completely to Torah study, to learning the Torah’s “way of thinking.” Such people are inherently less biased by the latest news reports and the wise opinions of the chattering class, as we are. We recognize that it is much less likely that they will make a mistake, and that is why we trust their guidance.

torah-tree-of-lifeIs there a “unified forest” of Torah? I think there must be, otherwise there is nothing for Jews to observe except traditions (the shapes of branches on the individual trees); there is no root, no foundation, no sense of an absolute God who has core standards that are as unchanging as He is. Beyond a certain point, we can’t simply re-invent the Bible to fit our modern sensibilities so that they agree with whatever “politically correct” causes that may be popular this week, this month, or this year. If we did, our faith (and our God) would be no more consistent or eternal than the shifting viewpoints of a political party or social agenda.

Rabbi Maurice Lamm says in “What is Torah” published at Aish.com:

In fact, far from being enslaved by the law, Jews were enamored of it. We cannot take our leave of the subject of Torah without expressing this most characteristic sentiment of Jewish literature – the love of Torah.

You may ask: can a people “love” a law? Yet, that is the exquisite paradox inherent in the concept of Torah – it is respected and studied and feared, while it is loved and embraced and kissed. All at once. There is no good in this world – no ideal, no blessing, no perfection, no glory – unless it is associated with the law.

To Jews, the Torah is “light”; it is the “glory of the sons of man”; it is the energizing sap of life for “the dry bones” (Ezekiel 37:4) which symbolize the “people in whom there is not the sap of the commandment.”

To Jews, the law is mayim chayim, refreshing, life-restoring, living waters to Jews; the sweetness of honey and milk, the joy and strength of wine, and the healing power of oil. It is an “elixir of life” that brings healing to all.

In Acts 15, Peter called the Law a burden but in Acts 21, Paul defended his observance of the Law. We also see in that same chapter that many of the Jews in Messiah were zealous for the Law.

And God, through Moses, said this about the Torah.

“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”

Deuteronomy 30:11-14

I think that for the Jewish people, there is an “ideal” Torah, a Torah that God intends for His people Israel. As we’ve seen in the record of the Bible, all things being equal, human beings will mess up a free lunch. We take everything God gives us and turn it on its side, we fold, spindle, or mutilate it, drag it through the mud, drag it through our biases, prejudices, and personalities, drag it through our theologies, our doctrines, our translations, and eventually on the other side, we come out with some approximation of what God wants us to say, do, and be.

How close are all of our approximations to the desires of God, how near is our fidelity to the original? Opinions vary widely. It’s not that we are dishonest and it’s not that we don’t want to do His will as opposed to our will (most of the time, anyway), but we are human beings. Everything we are as flawed, mortal beings gets in the way of everything He is as a perfect, immortal God.

That’s where Messiah comes in. Being human and divine, he can provide (and has provided) the correct “interface” for us. He is a teacher. When he comes, whatever we’ve gotten wrong, he’ll help us understand correctly.

If there’s an answer to how the Law is infinitely accessible, and a delight, and a light, and to be loved by those who have received it from Him, that answer comes on the clouds with Messiah. God is a teacher.

Love and Commentary

praying_jewFrom where do we learn from the Torah that changing one’s clothes is a sign of respect?

-Shabbos 114a

The verse from Yeshaya 58:13 was already expounded to teach, among other things, that one’s Shabbos clothes should not be like one’s weekday garments (113a). Nevertheless, Rabbi Yochanan is quoted trying to show that this concept is indicated not only from a verse in the prophets, but that it is also rooted in the Torah. Ben Ish Chai explains that based upon this verse from the Torah, there is a practical difference which can be derived regarding the need to wear special clothing on Shabbos.

Daf Yomi Digest
Distinctive Insight
“Suiting up for Shabbos”
Commentary on Shabbos 114a

I’ve been pondering a few things lately regarding Judaism and particularly the Messianic sect of Judaism which recognizes Yeshua (Jesus) as the Moshiach (Christ). There are many things about Judaism that I find beautiful and I find myself sometimes drawn to those traditions. In the days when I used to worship on Shabbos and pray while wearing a tallit gadol, there was a “specialness” about it I can’t articulate. Weekday mornings when I would pray shacharit while wearing a tallit and laying tefillin had a texture and a quality about them that I can’t describe. The blessings I recited from the Siddur (which are taken from Hosea 2:21-22 in the Tanakh or verses 19-20 in Christian Bibles) when donning the arm tallit, invoked a particular unity between me and my God that I think Christians miss some of the time.

I will betroth you to Me forever; and I will betroth you to Me with righteousness, with justice, with kindness, and with mercy; and I will betroth you to Me with fidelity, and you will know Hashem.

Hosea 2:21-22 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

Christians sometimes criticize Jews for all their “man-made traditions” but there is a certain beauty in how observant Jews even prepare themselves for encountering God in prayer. After all, if you were summoned to appear before an earthly ruler, such as a King or President, you would certainly prepare yourself, including dressing for the occasion. Why shouldn’t the same be true if we are summoned to appear before the Ultimate King: God? And after all, Jews are indeed commanded to wear tzitzit (Deuteronomy 22:12) and to, in some sense, wear the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:8).

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 6:4-8 (JPS Tanakh)

But as my conversation with Pastor Randy reminded me the other day, there are also commandments and rulings that are beyond my comprehension.

All holy writings may be saved from a fire.

-Shabbos 115a

Perek teaches the laws of saving items from being burned in a fire on Shabbos. On the one hand, our sages realized that if a person is given an unlimited license to save everything he can possibly grab, the person would invariably be driven to try to extinguish the flames, which is a Torah violation… This is why the halachah put a finite limit on what a person is allowed to salvage from a fire. Once this quota of clothing and food is met, the person may not remove anything more from the burning building, even if the particular situation allows the time and conditions to retrieve more.

On the other hand, our sages were lenient to allow saving holy scrolls from a burning building. It is permitted to remove a Torah scroll, for example, to a domain which is normally rabbinically restricted. This is the topic which the first Mishnah discusses.

It is interesting to note that the sages put limits on a person regarding his property pulled from a fire in a building, whereas in other cases we find the opposite. If a person is traveling up to the last minute before Shabbos, and he fails to make it to the city, what should he do with the valuables he is carrying? The Gemara (153a) rules that a Jew in this predicament may instruct a gentile who may be traveling with him to bring the items into the city for him. This is normally a violation of “amira l’nochri – telling a non-Jew to do a melachah for a Jew on Shabbos”, but in this case our sages allowed it, being that they felt that if the Jew would have no recourse, he
might carry the items into the city himself. The Rishonim deal with this apparent inconsistent approach of the halachah to a Jewish person who is faced with a risk to his property. In the case of a fire we limit him although he is not doing any melachah, but when carrying into the city as Shabbos begins, we are lenient.

PogromFor a Christian, the problems being posed here and their solutions do not appear on our “radar screens,” so to speak. It’s as if a difficulty was made up for the sake of proposing a solution. Yes, the Jewish people are commanded to observe the Shabbat and to keep it Holy (see Exodus 20:8, Exodus 31:15-17, and Deuteronomy 5:12), but all of the Rabbinic rulings that go along with these commandments are enormously complex, at least to me. How can one even begin to observe Shabbos and remember each and every condition and circumstance that could possibly apply in a flawless manner?

But then again, I don’t live in the Orthodox Jewish space, so what do I know?

(I should say at this point that being married to a Jewish wife does give me an insight that a Christian who is not intermarried lacks, but on the other hand, my wife is the first one to say that she’s hardly Orthodox)

I can only imagine that there are many, many Jews who are Shomer Shabbos. I know that after the local Chabad Rebbetzin gave birth to her youngest child on a Friday night, her husband, the Rabbi, walked from the hospital to the synagogue in the middle of the night (since it was Shabbos and he was forbidden to drive or to even accept a ride from another) so that he could be at shul to lead Shabbat services Saturday morning.

I can’t imagine a Pastor ever being in a similar situation and from a Christian’s point of view, even if we had such a restriction, it is very likely that we would depend on the grace of Jesus and under unusual circumstances, overlook the commandment by allowing ourselves to drive or, in the case of a fire, retrieve any of our property we could lay our hands on before the fire could get to it (or to even put out the fire if we could).

Do we admire such dedication to the commandments of God as they are understood in religious Judaism or do we consider observant Jewish people to be bound and gagged by the letter of the Law and also by the commentary on the letter of the Law?

That’s a tough one. Even if we in the church disagree with how Jews choose to obey God, it’s their choice, not ours.

But if those Jews are also Messianic, should we look at the mitzvot any differently? Should we allow ourselves to judge others because they are Jewish and they choose to live a religious Jewish lifestyle?

I’m in no position to do any such thing, but it does bring forth interesting questions. There is not always a single tradition in religious Judaism as to how to perform the mitzvot because there isn’t a single Judaism. Further, there isn’t always agreement between the ancient or modern sages as to how to perform certain of the mitzvot, and so one much choose which tradition to follow, usually based on which Judaism you are operating within.

But those are human choices not necessarily the will of God, unless we want to consider that God is “OK” with all of the variants on Rabbinic teachings, and that is a big “if.”

Setting that aside for a moment, another problem presents itself, but it too is a man-made problem.

I was recently criticized on another person’s blog about the questions I was bringing up as a result of last Wednesday evening’s conversation with Pastor Randy, but the criticism wasn’t coming from anyone Jewish. There is a certain corner of Christianity that believes we Christians are identical to the Jewish people once we come to faith in the Jewish Messiah, at least as far as the mitzvot are concerned…well, sort of. It’s complicated, but the core of their argument is that there is such a thing as a perfect Christianity/Judaism that can be divined solely from the Bible, and that it is possible to practice this very particular form of religion without any (or any excessive) human-created interpretation and set of attendant traditions, and using more than a little theological sleight of hand to “prove” their position.

What’s really interesting is that my critic and his friends who have commented on the matter, didn’t seem to actually read what I’d written. I was asking questions, not making pronouncements, and yet they were actively condemning my “conclusions.” The one thing I can say with certainty though, is that I see no directive for modern Christians to mimic modern Jewish religious behavior in an attempt to worship as if we are in one of Paul’s first century churches or synagogues.

I’m not here to criticize Jewish people or Jewish religious observance. I don’t have the right or the necessary qualifications to render a definitive commentary, only the drive to share my questions and thoughts on the matter, such as they are. I’m not even really criticizing how other Christians choose to view their religious obligations to God, except to the degree that they attempt to impose their personal viewpoints on other Christians and on observant Jews.

To the best of my understanding (and I’m attempting to improve my understanding all of the time), no human being has the ability to perfectly obey God in every single detail, regardless of the religious tradition to which they belong. This was probably as true in the days of Moses, Solomon, and Elijah, as it was true in the days of Jesus and Paul, as indeed, it is true today.

studying_tanakh_messiahPastor Randy suggested a very straightforward method of studying the Bible based on the three steps of observation, interpretation, and application. That requires some fluency in Biblical Hebrew and Greek, and lacking much ability in that linguistic arena, I’m already handicapped. This is why I speak with teachers who I respect to discuss and debate them on their insights. This is why I have so many questions.

But in the end, the advice of another friend of mine must be at the heart of every question and lay the foundation for every answer. In the end, and in the beginning, we should not seek out Judaism or Christianity, but only an encounter with God. This is something that not only are we all capable of, regardless of who we are, but in fact, it is something that we are all commanded to do, because it is God’s greatest desire.

“What you dislike, do not do to your friend. That is the basis of the Torah. The rest is commentary; go and learn!”

-Shabbos 31a

Yeshua answered him, the first of all the mitzvot is: “Hear, O Yisra’el! HaShem is our God; HaShem is one. Love HaShem, your God, with all of your heart, with all of your soul, with all of your knowledge, and with all of your strength.” This is the first mitzvah. Now the second is similar to it: “Love your fellow as yourself.” There is no mitzvah greater than these.

Mark 12:29-31 (DHE Gospels)

Love God and seek Him and, if you do love God, seek out your fellows and love them, too.