Tag Archives: obedience

Elul, All, Nothing, or Something

Question: I have been testing the waters, trying to get involved in Judaism. But I feel like I’m swimming in a vast ocean of unfamiliar concepts: Hebrew texts, legal nuances, culture, etc. I’m not sure any of this is for me!

The Aish Rabbi Replies: There is a misconception that many people have about Judaism, what I call “the all or nothing” syndrome. With 613 mitzvot in the Torah, things can seem a bit overwhelming. People take a look at traditional Judaism with all these different commandments and say to themselves, there’s no way that I can be successful at living that type of lifestyle, so what’s the point of looking into it or getting involved? Where to start? What to focus on? How to make sense of it all?!

That’s not the Jewish way!

“Judaism: All Or Nothing?”
-from the “Ask the Rabbi” column
Aish.com

Really? Not the Jewish way? Most Christians would disagree based on this:

If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not commit murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

James 2:8-13 (NASB)

I suspect we’ve traditionally misunderstood what James is trying to say to his readers, since he doesn’t seem to be saying that you have to keep the Torah perfectly. He seems to be saying that if you expect your observance to justify you before God, only then would you have to keep the Torah perfectly. However, if you observe the “royal law”, that is “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18, Mark 12:30-31), and do not show partiality, you are not sinning and not counted among transgressors if you are not perfectly observant. Even if you are not perfect but you show mercy, then God will show mercy to you (see Matthew 5:21-22, Matthew 6:12).

So it would seem the Aish Rabbi is correct in that being an observant Jew doesn’t mean being a perfectly observant Jew:

Imagine you bump into an old friend and he tells you how miserable he is. You ask him, what’s the matter? He says, I’m in the precious metals industry. My company just found a vein of gold in Brazil that’s going to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

You say, that’s fantastic. Your financial problems are solved. What’s the problem?

He says, you just don’t get it. Do you realize that this is just one vein of gold? It represents such a tiny fraction of all of the unmined gold in the world. What do I really have, compared with what’s out there?

You say, are you nuts? Who the heck cares about what you haven’t found yet? What you’ve got now is a gold mine!

That’s the Jewish approach. Any aspect that you learn about, or can incorporate into your life, is a gold mine. What does it matter what aspect of Judaism you’re not ready to take on? In Judaism, every mitzvah is of infinite value. Every mitzvah is more than any gold mine. Don’t worry about what you can’t do. Even if you never take on another mitzvah, you’ve still struck eternal gold.

The best advice: Relax.

Christian Bible StudyWhat if when you first became a Christian (if you are a Christian), you believed you had to live a perfect Christian life (however you define such a life)? What if you believed you had to go to church every Sunday, had to attend every Sunday school class, had to be at church every Wednesday for whatever class or event was being offered? What if you thought you had to instantly understand terms like “justification” or “propitiation” or “agape” and if you didn’t know and do all you believed was expected of you, it would be the same for you as a Jewish person who didn’t literally observe the 613 commandments of the Torah?

Sounds pretty horrible, huh? Instant perfection or instant failure.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “But we’re under grace, not the Law. We Christians don’t have to be perfect.” Ironically, that’s pretty much what the Aish Rabbi is saying, too. Except in Judaism God’s grace and His behavioral expectations for Covenant members aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s all part of the same package. It’s all God’s providence and love.

The love between God and Israel is unconditional. Even when Israel behaves in a manner that results in estrangement, that love is not diminished. Israel does not have to restore God’s love, because it is eternal, and His longing for Israel to return to Him is so intense that at the first sign that Israel is ready to abandon its errant ways that led to the estrangement, God will promptly embrace it.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Elul 1”
Aish.com

In Judaism (as I understand it and I realize I’m making an overly generalized statement), God loves not because a Jew is perfect but simply because God loves and because He chose the Jewish people and the nation of Israel to be His own.

One of the things the Aish Rabbi says is:

The misconception that Judaism is all-or-nothing includes the false idea that a person is either “observant,” or “non-observant.” But that’s not true. In fact, here’s a secret:

Nobody is observing all the mitzvot.

Pretty shocking, huh? But that’s not all.

That’s because certain mitzvot only women usually do – like lighting Shabbat candles or going to the mikveh. Other mitzvot only men can fulfill – like Brit Milah. Others only apply to first-born children, such as the “fast of the first born” on the day before Passover. And only a Kohen can fulfill the mitzvah of reciting the Priestly Blessing.

So when we talk about the totality of mitzvot, we’ll never do them all anyway! So rather than get overwhelmed with the vastness of it all, better to be realistic about what we can do, and move forward in a positive way.

But that just means some people don’t do all of the mitzvot because not all of the mitzvot are intended for everyone, like the laws for the Kohen or the laws pertaining only to women (and as you probably already know, there are laws that apply only to Jews and not to Gentiles, Christian or not).

But that could still mean a Jew is supposed to be perfect in all the laws that do apply to him or her.

Let’s say, for example, that a person wants to try the mitzvah of prayer. We may go to synagogue and see someone immersed in intensive prayer for one hour. We cannot conceive of how we could possibly get to that point ourselves. That’s understandable, especially for one who is not fluent in Hebrew. So it’s a matter of knowing which prayer gets top priority – for example, the Amidah prayer.

The Amidah has 19 blessings, and it’s very difficult to concentrate for that entire time without being distracted, or one’s mind wandering to other things like shopping and checking your email. So the key is to take on a small goal: “I am committing that for the first prayer of the 19, I will not rush nor allow anything to interfere between me and these few words.” That goal is realistic and attainable, and one can begin to approach a high degree of intensity and concentration on that one prayer.

What this does is give a taste of the higher goal. All that’s needed is to extrapolate to all 19. This is much more effective than starting off by saying, “Today I’m going to pray the entire 19 with great concentration!” – and then after three words, you’re thinking about what’s for breakfast.

If it’s too lofty a goal, then at least taste it once. Break down a huge goal into bite-size steps that are realistic to achieve, and will give a taste of the full goal.

That’s a lot of text to say something simple. Start with just one, small mitzvah and work up from there.

But what does this have to do with Christians?

One point of relevancy, and I alluded to this above, is that we Christians need to have a better understanding of how Torah observance relates to Jewish life, since we tend to give observant Jews a hard time for not being perfectly observant. We also tend to view “grace” and “the Law” as polar opposites (like “Christianity” and “Judaism”) which, as I also mentioned, is not true.

But if, as most Christians believe, the Law has nothing to do with us, why do we care beyond those straightforward statements?

Dr. Michael Brown
Dr. Michael Brown

If you’ve been reading my blog posts for the past couple of weeks, you know there is an ongoing debate about whether or not God requires all Jesus-believers, both Jewish and Gentile, to observe the same Torah commandments in the same way.

If you listened to the rather uncomfortable debate between Dr. Michael Brown and Tim Hegg on this topic, you discovered that Mr. Hegg believes the answer is an unequivocal “yes” for everyone, while Dr. Brown thinks that no believer, Jewish or Gentile, has to observe any of the commandments (grace replaced the Law).

Frankly, I disagree with them both, but then the question is, what should Gentile Christians do?

Now that I have addressed the notion of “Torah on the heart” as a covenantal anticipation and partial fulfillment as promised to Jews, how may we envision it having an impact also on non-Jews who attach themselves to the Jewish Messiah? They do not become members of Israel or participants in the covenant per se, and they are not legally obligated by the Torah covenant. Therefore, something must become available to them because of their increasingly close proximity to the knowledge of Torah and its impact on those who actually are members of the covenant. In one other recent post, I invoked the analogy of gentiles entering the Temple’s “court of the gentiles” in order to offer sacrifices in accordance with Torah stipulations for gentiles doing so. I compared the symbolic sacrifice of Rav Yeshua to such sacrifices, but offered in the heavenly sanctuary by Rav Yeshua as a mediating Melchitzedekian priest. Such symbolism reflects the ratification of continual repentance, after which the forgiven offerer learns to walk in newness of life in accordance with HaShem’s guidance (e.g., the aspects of Torah that apply to him or her). In another recent post I addressed the notion of a gentile ‘Hasid and the appropriate reflections of Torah that may be applicable — in which a gentile might become thoroughly immersed in order to experience the same sort of spiritual intimacy with HaShem, and enter into the perceptive environment of the kingdom of heaven in its metaphorical sense in anticipation of its future physical realization. Thus non-Jews would experience spirituality from outside and alongside the covenant in the same manner as intended for Jews inside the covenant.

In such an environment the Shema may take on additional meaning, as a gentile reply and response to its pronouncement by Jews. As Jews say: “Shm’a Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad” (“Hear, O Israel, HaShem is our G-d, solely the One-and-Only HaShem”), followed by “Baruch shem k’vod, malchuto l’olam va’ed” (“Blessed is His glorious purpose — an eternal kingdom”), then gentile disciples of Rav Yeshua may reply: “Hear, O Israel, HaShem your G-d has become our G-d also, the One-and-Only HaShem” (“Shm’a Israel, v’hayah Adonai Eloheichem gam Hu ‘aleinu, Adonai Echad”), perhaps followed by Zech.14:9 “V-hayah Adonai l-melech ‘al col ha-aretz — ba-yom ha-hu, yihiyei Adonai Echad u’shmo echad” (HaShem shall be King over all the earth — in that day HaShem shall be [recognized as] One, and His purpose [as] unified).

But maybe I’m already looking a little too far ahead ….

-comment made by ProclaimLiberty
on one of my blog posts

praying_at_masadaThat’s probably a lot to absorb and it’s likely not all of you will relate let alone agree.

Coming at the question from another direction, a friend of mine pointed me to an article by John C. Wright called Christians in the Pantheon called Life.

A reader with the name Metzengerstein, which sounds like it might actually be a real name for once, writes and comments:

“It is an interesting fix we Christians find ourselves in. On the one hand we should like to argue that Capitalism is a better system than any other by virtue of its results and its preference towards voluntary action and organization over government coercion for arranging society.

“On the other hand, we are anti-materialists who would like to proclaim there are more important things in life than money, and that wealth can lead you astray. Even technological improvement and scientific advancement can lead us into a mindset of creating a heaven on Earth, rather than passing through a transitory phase in a strange land.”

I confess I do not see the paradox.

Click the link I provided above to read the rest, which outlines why there isn’t a contradiction between the Biblical expectations for Christian behavior and living in the world.

Learning what God expects of us is simple enough to grasp in a few moments and yet complex enough to take an entire lifetime to comprehend.

He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8 (NASB)

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

Matthew 22:36-40 (NASB)

Seems pretty straightforward but within those simple statements is a world of meaning and learning.

In Christianity, we tend to expect that we are to understand everything in the Bible perfectly and live it out unerringly (which sounds very “legalistic,” the way most Christians see Jewish people). There are no mysteries or contradictions and that with the right interpretation (and solid doctrine), the meaning of God’s Word just unfolds right in front of you with little or not effort at all.

Except that’s not how most Christians experience the Bible if they’re at all honest in admitting it.

The reason I study the Bible through a somewhat Jewish lens is not to learn how to practice Judaism, but to learn to live with a certain amount of dynamic tension involving those little things that don’t seem to add up or that even contradict each other in the Bible.

I recently heard (read) a joke about Jewish people (I think it was in one of ProclaimLiberty’s comments) about “him being right, and the other guy being right, and you’re right, too.” From a Christian point of view, that all seems impossible. How can three different people hold three different opinions and yet all of them are right?

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

-attributed to Yogi Berra

Rav Yosef Cologne, the Maharik, wrote against a group of Rabbis who imposed their authority on their students and claimed that once someone studied under the authority of a rebbi he must behave submissively to that rebbi forever and may not disagree with his ruling. Maharik responded that even if one wants to claim that the former student remains submissive to his rebbi forever, that would only apply to halachos related to honoring a rebbi, e.g., to stand when the rebbi enters the room or to tear kriah if the rebbi passed away. If, however, the former rebbi is making a mistake in halacha the former students must raise the issue rather than silently accept the rebbi’s position.

-from Halachah Highlights
“Disagreeing with one’s Rebbi”
Commentary on Moed Katan 16
Daf Yomi Digest for Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Most Christians and even some Jews tend to see observant Judaism and particularly Orthodox Judaism as a straight jacket made out of lead. Once you’re in, you can never escape and there’s no such thing as “wiggle room”. Here we see (again) that Christian presumptions about Judaism don’t always hold water.

The lived experience of a Christian is actually more complicated and nuanced than one would imagine. Just reading John Wright’s brief essay reveals details that aren’t obvious to either the secular or Christian Gentile. The same can be said for observant Jewish life. Neither lifestyle exists as a single package that one acquires immediately like a birthday present, but rather represents a lifetime of experience, painstakingly gained bit by bit with each passing day.

TeshuvahWe’ve just entered the month of Elul in the Jewish religious calendar, which is the month immediately preceding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Derek Leman made some suggestions that could apply to both the Gentile and Jewish believer, but while there seems to be some overlap here for those of us to consider ourselves “Messianic,” it’s critical for us to grasp that we also have very individual duties and responsibilities to God that we are constantly seeking to master.

Frankly, my plate is full just in keeping up with all I need to learn on my journey of spiritual growth. I don’t have a lot of time to worry about what other Christians or what Jews are or aren’t doing.

If I’m to borrow anything useful from Elul, let me adopt a discipline of repentance, increased prayer, introspection, and seeking to draw nearer to God.

For more on the month of Elul, read Elul: The Secret to Change.

“May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”

Why Judaism is a Religion of Joy

Before discussing how the Baal Shem Tov revolutionized the Jewish view on joy, it must be mentioned that happiness was never foreign to Judaism. As King David declared: “Serve G‑d with joy!” Indeed, the Talmud states that “One should not stand up to pray while dejected…but only while still rejoicing in the performance of a mitzvah.”

The concept of simcha shel mitzvah, the “joy of a mitzvah,” has always been part and parcel of Jewish teachings. After all, can there be a greater privilege than serving the King of kings? As such, mitzvot must be executed with joy.

-Baruch S. Davidson and Naftali Silberberg
“Perpetual Joy:
The Baal Shem Tov’s Revolutionary Approach to Joy”
Chabad.org

I’ve been thinking about my role in church lately, as well as the Biblical and historic perspective ancient (and modern) Judaism had (has) regarding “doing” as opposed to “believing.”

It’s not that the Church doesn’t believe in doing good works, but the incredible phobia some Christians have against even appearing as if there’s a connection between salvation and what we do, makes the Church hold their good deeds pretty much at arm’s length, including repentance. Worse, the Church tends to judge all forms of Judaism but particularly Orthodox Judaism, as a “dead works based religion” with no foundation in faith or spirituality.

I suppose there could be some truth to the accusation, particularly if performance takes on a life of its own to the degree that there is no apprehension of God. What’s the point if observance is just a list of arduous duties that impinge on a person’s relationship with God rather than enhancing it? I’ve heard stories of Jews who feel virtually bound and gagged by the Torah commandments, which is how most Christians see “the Law”. Of course, as we see from the quote above, there’s a flip side to a traditional Jewish life.

Every mitzvah should be performed with joy. One aspect of “mitzvah joy” is to do the good deed with all your energy and ability.

For example: Rather than offer a needy person a morsel of food, serve him a hearty meal!

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Do Mitzvahs with Joy

A person who feels joy when performing mitzvahs will forget all his suffering and misfortunes. In comparison to becoming closer to the Almighty, of what import is pettiness and trivialities?

A person who experiences joy in doing good deeds will feel greater joy than a person who finds a large sum of money. Why should a person expend his efforts trying to find happiness in areas where the basis is transient and ultimately meaningless, when he has a far better alternative?

-R. Pliskin
Joy in Mitzvahs Greater than this World

Granted, Rabbi Pliskin’s viewpoint may not represent all Orthodox Jews everywhere, but I consider his perspective, as well as the Baal Shem Tov’s, to be the ideal that Jewish people shoot for or should shoot for. I’ve repeatedly heard people at the church I attend express joyfully how they are so glad we are no longer “under the Law” (even though Gentiles were never “under the Law”) and are free in Christ, as if performing even the slightest commandment from the Bible (such as loving God with all your resources or not considering things like bacon, shrimp, or catfish as food) in obedience to God would be an incredibly difficult thing.

Tell me Christians, if God asked you to do something like, oh, I don’t know, help someone who was beaten by robbers and left for dead, a person who you may not even like, getting them medical attention, and paying for it all out of your own pocket (Luke 10:25-37), would you tell God “no” because that would be “dead works” (and I’ve written about the true meaning of dead works before)?

Hopefully, you’d respond to my question by saying of course you’d obey God’s commandment to love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31).

But it’s a commandment and one rooted in the Law (Torah). Of course they’re all rooted in the Torah, the instructions, the conditions God gave the Israelites at Sinai when He made His covenant with them. Granted, how the Torah is applied to grafted in Gentile disciples of the Master (Jesus) is different than how Torah was and is applied to Jewish people (including Jewish disciples of the Master), but we are still obligated to obey God in all that He desires in our lives.

How can you even question that?

The key to obeying God is joy.

Now this I say, he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

2 Corinthians 9:6-7 (NASB)

Paul’s statement wouldn’t be out-of-place in any Jewish context, ancient or modern, and I think even the Baal Shem Tov would have agreed with him.

Charismatic prayerBut this is a part of scripture that Pastors often preach from when they’re asking for an increase in tithes from their congregations, especially if the church elders have approved of a special project, an expansion of the church building, or if the church’s income is falling behind what they projected in their annual budget.

I agree that anyone who consumes a church’s resources should provide for the church’s income but how many people give tithes or increase their giving out of a sense of obligation, guilt, or even sometimes, intimidation? How many Christians give to their local church and other worthy causes out of sheer joy?

I can’t answer that last question, but hopefully, quite a lot. But my knowledge of human nature tells me that a Pastor who preaches that their congregation should give more when they tithe because of the sense of joy they’ll experience and that tithing will bring them closer to God might not see a resulting increase in congregational giving.

But that’s exactly the approach that should work if Christians obeyed all that God asks of them/us with joy.

Rabbi Joseph Albo, the 15th century author of the classic work Sefer Haikarim, writes: “Joy grants completion to a mitzvah, only through it does the mitzvah achieve its intended objective.” Similarly, Rabbi Elazar Azkari, 16th century Safedian scholar and author of the work Charedim, writes: “The main reward for a mitzvah is for the great joy in it.” “The reward is commensurate to the joy [with which the mitzvah is performed].”

Indeed, the 16th century Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the Arizal, once said that all that he achieved – the fact that the gates of wisdom and divine inspiration were opened for him – was a reward for his observance of mitzvot with tremendous, limitless joy!

-Davidson and Silberberg

But what’s the connection between obedience and joy? We don’t obey the traffic laws because it will increase our joy, we obey laws because we have to and we’ll be punished (by getting a traffic ticket, for instance) if we disobey (and are caught).

One of the most common misconceptions deals with the word “sacrifice.”

We often think of sacrifices in the Temple in terms of buying off an angry deity with lots of blood and guts.

Alas, these pagan ideas show how much our thinking has been influenced by other cultures. God is not lacking anything and does not need our sacrifices — animal or any other kind.The offerings that were brought in the Temple, like all the commandments, were not done for God. They were done for us.

In fact, the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, comes from the root korav meaning to “come close,” specifically, to come close to God. The offering was meant to bring someone who was far near once again.

To understand something of the intense, elevating experience that bringing an offering must have been, let’s take a look at a typical offering: the peace offering.

-Rabbi Shmuel Silinsky
Understanding the Sacrifices

Most Christians and even a lot of Jews, think of the ancient Temple sacrifices as bloody, horrible, messes that they’re glad don’t happen anymore. Many Christians and even many Jews don’t believe a third Temple will ever be built and are relieved that God never again will require anyone to offer animal sacrifices in Jerusalem. But if you click the link I provided and read all of Rabbi Silinsky’s commentary, you’ll see they are missing the point.

TempleWe Christians (most of us) also miss the point about joyfully performing the mitzvot and even actively looking for ways to perform a mitzvah. Could you imagine a Christian waking up one morning and the first thing that popped into his or her head was, “I can’t wait to find ways to serve my Lord today!”

OK, there probably are some Christians like that out there, but I suspect they aren’t all that common. I know that the first thing I think of in the morning is my getting my first cup of coffee.

Well, that’s not quite true.

I gratefully thank you living and existing King for returning my soul to me with compassion. Abundant is your faithfulness.

Modeh Ani

That’s the first blessing an observant Jew will recite upon awaking in the morning. I memorized it (in English) and when I first wake up, even before throwing the covers off and getting out of bed, this is what I say.

Since coming to the conclusion a few years back, that Torah observance looks differently when performed by a Gentile than by a Jew (it’s a complicated topic), I severely scaled back on any behaviors that could appear “Jewish” (not that my observance was really, authentically Jewish). I didn’t do so because I think Torah observance is bad or that the mitzvot are a burden, but out of respect and honor to those special chosen people of God who received the Torah of Moses at Sinai, the Jewish people. Of course, being married to a Jewish wife was quite a motivator as well, since in no way do I desire to diminish or demean what it is for her to be a Jew.

But even if the rest of my day turns to doggie-doo, the very first thought I have is of God and being grateful to Him. Am I always truly grateful each morning? That is, do I feel a sensation, an emotional experience of gratitude? No, not always, and probably not most of the time. My brain is still foggy moments after I wake up. On the other hand, I do realize that I’m alive and that it’s because of God.

The last thing I think about before turning off the light and going to sleep is also of God.

A song of ascents. Praiseworthy is each person who fears Hashem, who walks in His paths. When you eat the labor of your hands, you are praiseworthy and it is well with you. Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the inner chambers of your home, your children like olive shoots surrounding your table. Behold! For so shall be blessed the man who fears God. May Hashem bless you from Zion, and may you gaze upon the goodness of Jerusalem all the days of your life. And may you see children born to your children, peace upon Israel!

Tremble and sin not. Reflect in your hearts while on your beds, and be utterly silent. Selah.

Master of the universe, Who reigned before any form was created, At the time when His will brought all into being — then as ‘King’ was His Name proclaimed. After all has ceased to be, He, the Awesome one, will reign alone. It is He Who was, He Who is, and He Who shall remain, in splendor. He is One — there is no second to compare to Him, to declare as His equal. Without beginning, without conclusion — He is the power and dominion. He is my God, my living Redeemer, Rock of my pain in time of distress. He is my banner, and refuge for me, the portion in my cup on the day I call. Into His hand I shall entrust my spirit when I go to sleep — and I shall awaken! With my spirit shall my body remain, Hashem is with me, I shall not fear.

Bedtime Shema

bedtimeshemaThis is only part of the full Bedtime Shema. I recite only this portion because, as a Gentile, I want my observance to not precisely mirror the performance of the mitzvah by a Jew. I must also admit that by this time of night, my brain isn’t working so well, and I have a difficult time concentrating on anything, including God, as I should, so a shorter form of this blessing seems more suitable. And yet I take comfort that as I surrender my consciousness, I’m also surrendering to God.

From a Jewish point of view, between the Modeh Ani and the Bedtime Shema blessings, is a world of opportunity to serve God by performing as many of the mitzvot as can be encountered in a single day and as Hashem offers them in their lives.

Lebisch: Rabbi! May I ask you a question?

Rabbi: Certainly, Lebisch!

Lebisch: Is there a proper blessing… for the Tsar?

Rabbi: A blessing for the Tsar? Of course! May God bless and keep the Tsar… far away from us!

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

I didn’t remember that dialog correctly. In my memory, I had the Rabbi respond, “My son, there is a blessing for everything,” and then he gave his humorous blessing about the Tzar.

But particularly in Orthodox Judaism, there is a blessing for everything. Just look at the table of contents of a siddur (Jewish prayer book). There are as many variations of the siddurim (plural for siddur) in Judaism as there are hymnals in Christianity. I just found an Ashkenaz online siddur at Chai Lifeline so you can have a look at the different blessings right now. And in a pinch, if a Jew did not have his or her siddur present but did have a device that could hit the Internet, they could still daven.

In the Church, we can choose to believe that all religious Jews are bound to a sterile, dead, spiritless set of archaic and meaningless laws that are designed to enslave them and that come straight from Satan and the pit of Hell. But that’s not the truth. It wasn’t true in the days when Jesus walked in Judea, it wasn’t true when Paul brought scores of Gentiles to faith in the Jewish Messiah, and it isn’t true today.

I can’t speak for every observant Jewish person and judge the intent of their hearts when performing the mitzvot anymore than I can speak for every Christian and judge their hearts when going to church, praying, visiting sick people in the hospital, and doing all those things they believe make up a good Christian life. Maybe some Jews pass up a BLT sandwich out of obligation rather than in joyful obedience to God, and maybe some Christians visit a sick relative in the hospital out of obligation rather than joyful obedience to Jesus.

But that doesn’t mean Judaism or Christianity are bad or worthless just because not all Jews or Christians don’t live up to the ideals set before them…before us by God. And when we do find a Jew or Christian who does live up to that ideal, a true tzaddik or saint, then it’s an amazing inspiration for the rest of us to try harder and do better at being the sort of person God designed us to be.

The animal has actually become a korban, a way of helping its owner to come closer to God. Eating this meal is now a very spiritual experience. It is being raised from the level of animal to that of human, by actually becoming a part of the consumer and by being the vehicle for the entire process.

One can easily see how a meal like this can be a focal point of holiday observance.

-R. Silinsky

Until Messiah comes and rebuilds the Temple, no animal sacrifices will be offered in Jerusalem. For the past nearly two-thousand years, Jews have considered prayer, Torah study, and performance of the mitzvot, as many as can be observed without a Temple, without a priesthood, and without a Sanhedrin, especially outside of Israel, as the substitutes for the sacrifices.

Christians believe that the crucifixion of Jesus substituted for all of the sacrifices rendering them obsolete and meaningless, right along with the rest of the Torah and observant Judaism.

the-joy-of-torahThe Church cannot imagine that anyone, Jew or Christian, can actually draw closer to God through any sort of action since behavioral obedience to God in any fashion is considered “dead works.”

But how can you ignore a life driven by the desire to serve God by serving other human beings? How can you deny a life motivated each day by looking forward to serving God in as many ways as you can, and even going out of your way to find opportunities to do good just for the sake of doing good?

I know calling joy a reward makes performance of the mitzvot seem self-serving rather than God-serving, but the joy isn’t in the doing, but the drawing nearer to God. Sure, we can pray, “God, please come nearer to me,” but why not demonstrate your desire by actually doing what God wants you to do? The “sacrifice of praise?” Sure. But we can praise God not just with our lips, but with our hearts, and our hands, and our feet, and our strength, and our compassion.

This people honors me with their lips but their heart is far away from me.

Matthew 15:8 (NASB) quoting Isaiah 29:13

Anyone, Jew or Christian, can lifelessly go through the motions of obedience to God. That doesn’t invalidate either observant Judaism or Christianity. That doesn’t invalidate the intent of God for our lives. You can’t point to a Jew and say their less than stellar performance of the mitzvot, or even their complaints about said-observance, are proof that Judaism, including Messianic Judaism, is not God’s desired response of a Jewish life, anymore than you could invalidate Christianity based on the life of a lackluster Christian (and plenty of atheists try to invalidate Christianity by judging such Christians).

Praise God with your lips, just make sure your praise is backed up with your heart’s desire and the joy of serving your Master and His creations, all of humankind. Then you will draw nearer to God through His teachings.

The Torah of Hashem is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of Hashem is trustworthy, making the simple one wise; the orders of Hashem are upright, gladdening the heart; the command of Hashem is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of Hashem is pure, enduring forever; the judgments of Hashem are true, altogether righteous. They are more desirable than gold, than even much fine gold; and sweeter than honey, and drippings from the combs. Also, when Your servant is scrupulous in them, in observing them there is great reward. Who can discern mistakes? Cleanse me from unperceived faults. Also from intentional sins, restrain Your servant; let them not rule over me, then I shall be perfect; and I will be cleansed of great transgression. May the expressions of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart find favor before You, Hashem, my Rock and my Redeemer.

Psalm 19:8-15 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

For more, see Why the Torah is the Tree of Life.

The Failing Light

Candle in ObsidianIn some naïve areas of Christian consensus people imagine that Jews obey Torah because they believe that this will save them. However, a simple conversation with the average religious Jew, or reading in books by religious Jews will demonstrate this to be a fantasy. And which of us has not heard the proposition that Judaism is a religion of law and Christianity a religion of grace, with Judaism being pictured as Mount Sinai covered in thunderbolts, and Christianity, the grace of Jesus dying on the cross. People forget, or never seem to get, that it was on that very same Mount Sinai that God revealed himself as “the LORD, the LORD, merciful and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”

-Rabbi Dr. Stuart Dauermann
“The Foundational Reason Jews, Including Messianic Jews, Should Obey Torah”
Interfaithfulness.org

There are times when I think I’m going crazy. No, not hallucinating, voice-hearing, I-need-my-meds crazy, but when the world of Messiah that I see being constructed around me is roundly and soundly contradicted in every detail by people I respect and admire, I feel crazy.

I had the “crazy” experience last night in my weekly meeting with my Pastor. I had several weeks to “get my ducks in a row,” so to speak, to present my side of the story about why Jews remain obligated to Torah, but there’s a difference between walking into your Pastor’s office with half a dozen books in hand plus a bunch of notes, and being a Pastor who has decades of experience interpreting scripture, a Master’s degree in the subject, and someone in a Doctoral program in religious studies.

I’d need about twenty years to catch up and he’d always have the same amount of time to stay ahead of me.

I used to be amazed that I seemed to be able to “hold my own” in our little debates, but last night was proof positive that I’ve definitely been “fighting out of my weight class” all along.

As a “Messianic apologist,” I’m terrible.

But when I read commentaries such as Dr. Dauermann’s or many of the resources produced by First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ), what they say seems to make so much sense, and they don’t require “retrofitting” the Tanakh (Old Testament) with later interpretations to make the Messianic prophesies work alongside what the Apostolic Scriptures say about Yeshua (Jesus).

They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Yeshua said to them, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham.”

John 8:39

Deeds are a natural response to faith. In fact, one can’t exist without the other. Messiah’s brother knew this all too well.

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.

But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

James 2:14-26 (NASB)

abraham-covenant-starsI see a completely clear line leading from Abraham to his physical son, the only son he had that was promised the inheritance, his son Isaac, and that line extends to Isaac’s son Jacob (but not Esau), and then to Jacob’s offspring, whose descendants are the twelve tribes of Israel, with that line extending out of Egypt, to Sinai, to the Torah, to the Mountain of God, to the Land of Israel, to the Messianic promises, to Messiah.

Unfortunately, I can’t verbally articulate that line and all of its details, at least not convincingly. Sure, I can write and write and write, but as you can see, over a thousand blog posts later, I’m still writing, I’m still exploring. I’m still trying to understand.

But I still can’t explain why it seems so simple and so reasonable and so Biblical that Jewish people, past, present, and future, and yes, Jewish people in Messiah, are obligated to observe the mitzvot, not as a condition of salvation, but because of the continual stream of ratified covenants God made with Israel and only Israel (name a covenant God made that wasn’t with Israel) and as a definition of the relationship Jewish people have with each other, with the Land of Israel, and with God.

The LORD appeared to Isaac just as He had appeared to Abraham. He told him, “I will establish the oath which I swore to your father Abraham” (Genesis 26:3). He restated the promise to multiply his descendants, to give them the land and to bless all nations through them “because Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws” (Genesis 26:5). Isaac was inheriting the Abrahamic blessing because Abraham had merited God’s favor.

How did Abraham keep God’s charge, commandments, statutes and laws? The commandments of God’s Torah—His divine law—had not been given yet. Did Abraham know all the laws of the Torah given through Moses at Mount Sinai? If not, how could he be said to have kept them?

Rashi claims that this means Abraham kept the entire Torah and the oral traditional law of Judaism. That seems like a stretch, but what does it really mean? What laws did Abraham keep?

-from “Abraham’s Torah”
Commentary on Torah Portion Toldot
FFOZ.org

The Torah and the Prophets never really talk about salvation the way the New Testament does, so it’s hard to make comparisons. People like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Joshua didn’t seem to worry or fret over their own salvation or the personal salvation of others. They worried about listening to God, and obeying God, and encouraging others to obey God, lest they become disobedient and as a consequence, die physically (their ultimate spiritual fate was never discussed).

So how can I compare the importance of obedience as we see in the case of Abraham above, when we have to deal with Paul?

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one.

Romans 3:21-30 (NASB)

practicing_faithFaith has to be the common currency for salvation, otherwise non-Jews could never be justified before God without converting to Judaism and observing the entire Torah. Faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness, and so it is with us, but then why does God commend Abraham, not for his faith, but for obeying God and keeping his “commandments, statutes, and laws?” (Genesis 26:5). In fact, in verse 3 of the same chapter, God says that it’s because of Abraham’s obedience that he re-established this promise with Isaac to multiply Abraham’s descendants, to give those descendants the Land of Israel, and “bless all nations through them.” It’s because of Abraham’s faith and obedience to God’s commandments, statues, and laws that we, the people of the nations, are blessed through Abraham’s seed, that is, Messiah.

I don’t want to quote from too much of Dr. Dauermann’s article, but commenting on the siege of Jerusalem by Babylon recorded in Jeremiah 35, he says:

What point is the Holy One Blessed be He making here? Just this: that the Jewish people have failed to show to Him the honor and respect due him. While the Rechabites show honor to their father Jonadab by obeying his rulings, the people of Israel dishonor God by not obeying his Torah.

And THAT is the reason we as a people, and as a movement, should be far more concerned with Torah living—because we honor God when we do so, and we dishonor him when we do not.

This very closely mirrors something the Master said to his disciples and his critics among the Jewish people:

Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:19 (NASB)

Jewish people, and especially Jewish teachers, who annul (fail to obey or disregard) the least of the commandments of God (Torah), will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven, the Messianic Age. But those who keep and teach the commandments, statutes, and laws of the Torah will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. A Jew annulling the Torah is dishonoring God and as a result, will be least, but a Jew who keeps the Law and teaches other Jews to do so, is honoring God and as a result, will be great.

If this makes so much sense to me, why can’t I communicate that convincingly to someone else? Really, I’m not making all this up, it’s in the Bible. If the primary matrix with which you interact with God is your intellect, and your primary tool for doing so is the Bible, shouldn’t you at least consider the possibility that this explanation has merit, even if it conflicts with your current tradition of Biblical interpretation?

Sigh.

smallI’m ranting. It’s been a frustrating week. I have to keep reminding myself that no matter what happens to me, if I get tossed out on my ear into the street tomorrow, it won’t affect God or His promises to Jewish Israel in the slightest. The fate of the world doesn’t rest on my shoulders.

So why am I here? Why do I matter? Do I matter?

In principle, the Bible seems to say so, but in the face of an infinite God, I always feel so terribly small and insignificant.

After reading some commentaries written by Christian blogger Tim Challies about MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference, I posted this on Facebook and Google+:

I was just thinking of MacArthur and his “Strange Fire” conference again (reading a Fundamentalist blogger my Pastor recommended). It occurred to me that MacArthur would no doubt view the Messianic movement as “strange fire” as well. I got to thinking that if MacArthur were aware of my existence, he might “come after” me, too. Then I realized I’m just small potatoes and I would be totally beneath his notice. I also realized in the same moment that I am never beneath God’s notice. What an odd situation. I can be too small to be noticed by a big-time famous Christian Pastor but I’m never too small to escape the notice of God.

In the 1994 film True Lies, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis, the character Simon, played by Bill Paxton, delivers this line when he erroneously thinks he’s going to be killed by Schwarzenegger’s character:

Oh God, no, please don’t kill me. I’m not a spy. I’m nothing. I’m navel lint!

Compared to all the Christian Pastors, and Christian bloggers, and Christian theological instructors, a guy like me “on the ground,” just praying, and studying, and worshiping day by day is pretty much “navel lint.” Compared to an infinite and cosmic God, I absolutely am “navel lint,” and actually, far, far less.

So why am I here? Why do I matter? Do I matter?

Why do I feel like God expects something out of me and that I have some sort of job to do…and if I fail, it won’t be a good thing…it will matter if I fail?

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.

-Edith Wharton, American writer

I don’t know what’s going to happen. I know that Israel was called to be a light to the nations by God (Israel 42:6). I know that Jesus, as Messiah, the firstborn son of Israel said he was the light of the world (nations) (John 8:12), and he said that his disciples (presumably including all future disciples such as me) are the light of the world (nations) (Matthew 5:14). If all that is true and it filters down to the level of the individual, that is to say, me, then I’m supposed to be a light to the world around me.

As Edith Wharton rather aptly states, I can be a candle or a mirror. I guess either will do. The worst thing that can happen is that I can go dark, either because I’ve been blown out or I’ve been shattered into tiny pieces.

walking-into-churchFortunately, Messiah’s light can never go out, and his light isn’t dependent on me. In the parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-12), five let their lamps go out, so I guess it’s not impossible for my light to fail as well, at least while it’s in my charge.

But if I have failed, then what use am I? Of the billions of “second chances” God has already given me, does He have one more, or is it all over?

I don’t know. I guess all I can do is keep showing up until I find out one way or another.

Imperfect and Perfect

praying_at_masadaGod appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am Almighty God. Walk before Me and be perfect.”

Genesis 17:1

If a human being cannot be perfect, why did God demand perfection of Abraham?

The entire context of the verse indicates both the definition of this perfection and the way in which it can be achieved. It is obvious that no human being can aspire to equal God’s degree of perfection. What man can achieve is to live according to God’s teachings and thereby live up to his own human potential; more than man’s personal maximum is not possible or expected. Thus, God did not say simply, “Be perfect”; He said, “Walk before Me + and thereby you will be perfect.” When a person tries to live according to the Divine teachings, that constitutes human perfection, although one is technically never perfect.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that the Hebrew word for “walk” in the above verse is not telech but heshalech which implies, “Go your way in spite of opposition, not making your progress dependent on external circumstances, but being led from within yourself: Let your movement proceed from your own free-willed decisions.”

The picture is now complete; human perfection can be achieved by making a free-willed choice to live according to the Divine teaching.

Today I shall…

…try to realize that although I cannot be absolutely without flaw, I can be perfect if I make free-will decisions to obey the Divine will.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day – Cheshvan 6”
Aish.com

This brings to mind something my Pastor and I periodically discuss. Perhaps I’d better preface this with scripture:

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.

James 2:10 (NASB)

No one keeps the Law (Torah) perfectly. No one can. So when I insist that Jewish people, including Messianic Jewish people, remain obligated to the mitzvot, he counters with James 2:10. No one can keep the law perfectly, therefore, no one can keep the law. It’s like he’s saying, “if no one can keep the law perfectly, why bother trying to keep it at all?”

Jesus once said that if a man looks at a woman with lust in his heart, it’s as if he had physically committed adultery with her (Matthew 5:28). And yet, probably most men at one time or another in their lives have found themselves looking at a beautiful woman and having lustful thoughts, even momentarily. Does that mean such men, having failed once (or more than once), should throw their marriage vows to the winds and start having physical “relations” with every woman who strikes their fancy?

praying-apostleI should hope not. As people of faith, we should strive to live out our lives in as close an approximation to the perfection of our Master as we can, all the while knowing we will never behave in a perfect manner. We try to better ourselves, we pray for God’s help in bettering us, but even if we come closer to our Master’s example, we’ll never match it.

Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’

John 15:20 (NASB)

I don’t think “perfection” is what Jesus had in mind when he made that statement, but it seems to fit today’s example. Just because we can’t be perfect like our Master doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

Putting all this back into the original context, and summoning Rabbi Twerski’s example, just because an observant Jewish person cannot perform all of the mitzvot perfectly (and may not perform some of the mitzvot at all) doesn’t mean that they should abandon their obligation to the Torah of Moses as a way to draw closer to God, or to surrender the lifestyle God gave to the Jewish people which uniquely identifies them as Jewish.

My understanding of one of the purposes of performing the mitzvot is to help a Jewish person continually be reminded that they are Jewish. You wouldn’t think remembering this would be much of a chore, but consider how rampant assimilation of Jews is in our society today. The mainstream culture works very hard at getting everyone to fit in, blend in, assimilate to the will of the world’s “marketing department,” and never, ever to be different or distinct in any way whatsoever.

So being an observant Jew is a lot of work. It would be much easier to assimilate. It would be much easier to be able to go to any restaurant in town and to order anything on the menu. It would be much easier to drive, cook, shop, play golf, and surf the Internet on Shabbat. It would be much easier not to have to study Torah, study Mishnah, study Hebrew (and in some cases Yiddish). It would be much easier to set aside the fixed times of prayer every day, easier to not don tzitzit, easier to not lay tefillin.

But being born into the covenant as all Jewish people are, it is incumbent upon each Jew to live as a Jew. God gave people, including Jewish people, free will, so a Jewish person can choose to observe the mitzvot or not (or choose which of the mitzvot to observe and which ones to ignore), but sooner or later, God will get around to reminding each Jewish person that they are indeed Jewish. The reminders are not always pleasant or easy to endure.

rabbi-prayingI’ve said before that only faith justifies one before God, not observing the mitzvot. It’s not what we do but why we do it and who we do it for that matters. If our thoughts and behavior are not focused on God and responding to God’s will, no matter how well we do something and no matter who we may show kindness to, it begins and ends with us. There is no connection to eternity.

But faith and justification are only the beginning of the journey. Once we have grasped onto “God’s fringes” tightly, we must respond to grace and faith by living life as God wills. For a Jew, that means Torah observance. How to observe the Torah, which of the mitzvot to start with, which tradition to employ in the observance (for instance, there’s more than one way to lay tefillin and to tie tzitzit) is a question and I don’t have the answer. But that doesn’t mean the Jewish person ceases in being obligated to try. Who is to say that the Ashkenazi way to tie tzitzit is any better or worse than the Sephardic tradition? Perhaps both are pleasing to God.

If a Jewish person were to wait around for iron-clad confirmation of exactly which way to do a particular mitzvah, they could wait around until Messiah comes (or returns).

It’s like my current frustration with the politicians in Washington over their lack of action in solving the debt ceiling crisis. I want to scream at them, “Just do something!” The Nike company’s well-known slogan of “Just Do It!” comes to mind.

Rabbi Twerski said that even though he knows he cannot be without flaw, still he does his best to walk in the way of his fathers and of God. He also said something peculiar:

Although I cannot be absolutely without flaw, I can be perfect if I make free-will decisions to obey the Divine will.

How can performing the mitzvot make one perfect simply by exercising free-will in obeying God?

Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:48 (NASB)

Jesus can’t possibly expect literal perfection from his disciples since none of us are perfect. Nothing we can do will ever be perfect. No thought we possess, even our faith is never perfect, so where does this expectation come from?

The road to perfection is infinitely long, and no matter how far we walk down that road, we are always at the starting line. God has to reach out to us to cover the distance we are incapable of traveling. All we can do is to turn to God in teshuvah and to do our best (which will never be good enough) in faith and love, and let God’s grace bridge the gap between lowly man and a Heavenly God.

In the performance of the Torah mitzvot, all a Jewish person can do is that…turn to God in faith and love, imperfectly attempting to do His will by living as a Jew, and letting God’s grace make the imperfect into the perfect.

jews_praying_togetherThe blood of goats and bulls never saved, but faith and grace saved. Davening Shacharit while wearing a tallit katan and laying tefillin doesn’t save, but faith and grace will save. However, in ancient times, God required (not requested, required) the Israelites to sacrifice goats and bulls, and even to this day, God requires (not requests, requires) Jewish people to observe the mitzvot, which includes davening Shacharit while wearing a tallit katan and laying tefillin.

It doesn’t save. It never did. And Jewish people won’t be perfect at all of the mitzvot all of the time. But they are still obeying the will of God in the best way they know how…just like the rest of us, just like Christians in the Church. We’re all doing what we can do. God will take care of what we can’t do. We just need to realize that when we’re tempted to judge others.

People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

-Popular idiom

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7:1-5 (NASB)

It does not become a Christian to criticize a Jew for not being perfect in the performance of the Torah mitzvot when there is no Christian, even under the full grace of Jesus, who lives a perfect life in Christ.

By the way, this is my one thousandth “morning meditation.”

Articulating an Encounter with God

saul-on-the-roadNow there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.

Acts 9:10-15 (ESV)

This is part of the section of Acts 9 Christians typically call “the Conversion of Saul” (Acts 9:1-19). It is what Pastor Randy’s message was about during last Sunday’s sermon, and it is what Charlie taught to the Sunday school class I attended after the worship service.

There’s just tons and tons and tons I could comment on, especially regarding the material and discussion in Charlie’s class, but I’m going to address almost none of it in this week’s “church report.” If I did, I’d probably start more of a messy debate than I really want to deal with. But rather than talk about the things I don’t always agree with the church about, I want to talk about something that actually “clicked” for me.

In fact, when I heard some of the folks in class mention this, I practically wanted to jump for joy. I’d never heard Christians talk like this before. It was as if they were reading my mind.

Let me explain.

Have you ever heard any Christian say something like, “And then the Lord told me to do such-and-thus?” How about this one: “I felt that it was a calling from the Lord for me to do such-and-thus?”

I’ve heard those phrases from time to time and I’ve always wondered about how those Christians could know that what they were experiencing was from God vs. a “message” they were telling themselves based on what they wanted to hear from God. When I’ve made such a statement before, I’ve usually been criticized for not understanding how the Holy Spirit moves in people’s lives. But get this…the members of my class who were vocal about it agreed with my assessment. One gentleman even said it gives him goosebumps in a “creepy” way when people talk like that.

Wow!

I even felt comfortable enough to weigh in with my own opinion.

Now just to be clear, no one was saying that God doesn’t work in our lives, direct us in our actions, and require that we serve Him.

It’s just not based on a “calling” such as we see in Paul’s encounter with Jesus in Acts 9. An interesting opinion that’s been coming out of the church I attend for the past several weeks is that Acts is a “transitional” book and doesn’t describe what we can typically expect in a Christian life. We can’t expect to have a “Paul on the road to Damascus” encounter with Christ. We aren’t going to (probably) see a blinding white light or hear a Bat Kol from Heaven. And we aren’t going to receive an amazingly clear-cut calling to perform a specific set of actions from Jesus the way Paul received it.

Or for that matter, we won’t have an experience like this one, either.

Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.

Acts 9:10-19 (ESV)

covering-eyesDon’t get me wrong. It would be great for Christ to talk to us and we could talk back, just like the conversation Ananias had with the Master, but such is not to be (to the best of my knowledge). It would be great if we could receive such specific information and even better if, like Ananias in verses 13 and 14, we could respond back, even questioning our instructions. Of course, that sort of communication presupposes that, again like Ananias, we would then respond in obedience, even if it was against our better (human) judgment, and do what we were told to do, That sort of communication presupposes that we would even act in obedience to restore the sight of someone who, up until a few days ago, had been a bitter enemy bent on imprisoning us and even killing us. It would mean we would have to obey the Lord and learn to address our enemy sincerely and with compassion as “brother.”

That doesn’t happen too often.

It must have been a difficult thing for Ananias to do, but he did it because he was a Jew and a disciple of the Master who was obedient to God.

But that doesn’t particularly mean what Paul and Ananias experienced transfers in any way to what we experience. Paul heard a voice from Heaven. When a modern-day Christian says, “the Lord spoke to me,” what do they “hear” if anything at all? We are not Paul. We are not Ananias. There’s no real evidence in New Testament scripture of Christians receiving a “calling” as many believers use the expression. I think the best we can hope for is this.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

1 Corinthians 12:1-11 (ESV)

The entire chapter of 1 Corinthians 12 describes how we are all different and all possess varying skill sets within the body of believers, but our gifts originate from a single Spirit and we serve One God.

I’m sure you have noticed what you’re good at and what you’re not so good at. I’m sure you have been in situations where what you’re good at can (and hopefully has) been applied to serving other people and serving God. Beyond specific skills, anyone can donate a can of food to their local foodbank. Anyone can visit a sick friend in the hospital. Anyone can listen to a friend who is going through a tough time tell you their troubles for an hour or so just because you don’t want them to feel alone.

But it doesn’t mean that God has “called” you to do this or that or such or thus.

So the question came up, how do you know you are where you are and doing what God wants you to do?

That’s a tough one. It really is. We tossed that one around in class for a bit. Some folks think that if they’re in a situation and there’s no adversity, then that’s where God wants them to be. Problem is, sometimes God puts you in a spot where you’re going to experience adversity, such as what Christian missionaries face in certain African countries. Just because there are problems doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong place to serve God.

My own litmus test (and this is just me) is that when I find myself doing something I never would have chosen for myself in a million years and it is something that is helping other people and serving God, then that’s where God wants me to be.

walking-side-by-sideNo, it’s not like God always puts me in uncomfortable and even miserable situations. In fact, on Saturday, I had a meeting with Pastor Randy to discuss some work I wanted to do for the congregation (yes, I met with him on Shabbos…if that bothers you, then you’re going to have to get past it). We ended up talking about a great many topics near and dear to my heart. I discovered that we have many attitudes and opinions in common and I even managed to bring up subjects with him that I thought might be premature, given how little time we’ve had to get to know one another.

I’ve had my doubts in the recent past that this church was where God wanted me to be. No, I haven’t heard even a single audible word from God for or against my being at this church, but the way things seem to be presenting themselves, I can see that there’s a fit between this church and me (no one was more surprised than I was).

Am I being “called?” Nah, probably not. But God does work in our lives in ways we can’t always explain or even understand. Beyond what I’m saying in today’s “church report,” I can’t really articulate the experience. I just know that like my bi-monthly coffee companion said not to long ago, I have encountered God in church.

Imagine that.

Obeying God

May He Who knows what is hidden accept our call for help and listen to our cry.

-Siddur

The Talmud states that a person may be coerced to perform a mitzvah even if it is required that the mitzvah be done of one’s own volition (Rosh Hashanah 6a).

But are not coercion and volition mutually exclusive? Not necessarily, explains Rambam. Inasmuch as the soul of the Jew intrinsically wishes to do the Divine will, and it is only the physical self – which is subject to temptation – that may be resistive, the coercion inflicted upon the person overcomes that external resistance. Thus, when one performs the mitzvah, it is with the full volition of the inner self, the true self, for at his core, every Jew wishes to comply with the mandates of the Torah.

There is a hidden part of us, to which we may have limited access, yet we know it is there. When we pray for our needs, said Rabbi Uri of Strelisk, we generally ask only for that which we feel ourselves to be lacking. However, we must also recognize that our soul has spiritual needs, and that we may not be aware of its cravings.

We therefore pray, said Rabbi Uri, that God should listen not only to the requests that we verbalize, but also to our hidden needs that are very important to us – but which He knows much better than we.

Today I shall…

try to realize that there is a part of me of which I am only vaguely aware. I must try to get to know that part of myself, because it is my very essence.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Tishrei 26”
Aish.com

The commentary of Rabbi Twerski will no doubt seem strange to most Christians. How can one be forced to obey God and why split your personality into two parts, the one tempted by the physical world, and the “true self” who “wishes to comply with the mandates of the Torah?” Of course, Christianity commonly splits life into the secular and the spiritual and recognizes that the believer constantly struggles between human desire and obedience to God.

But in our heart of hearts, as children of God, we do want to please our Father and obey our Savior in Heaven. It’s just a matter of what that means. For a Christian, devotion to God is largely an internal process. Sure, Christians go to church and commune with their fellows, but prayer and belief are at the core of the Christian faith. For Jews, it seems almost the opposite. Performing the mitzvot and obedience to the commandments are at the heart of Jewish devotion to God. Of course, prayer is a very important mitzvah, but in religious Judaism, faith is not so much what you believe but what you do.

Torah and mitzvot encompass man from the instant of emergence from his mother’s womb until his final time comes. They place him in a light-filled situation, with healthy intelligence and acquisition of excellent moral virtues and upright conduct – not only in relation to G-d but also in relation to his fellow-man. For whoever is guided by Torah and the instructions of our sages has a life of good fortune, materially and in spirit.

“Today’s Day”
Tuesday, Tishrei 27, 5704
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

I read Psalm 119 on Shabbat from the Stone Edition Tanakh (Jewish Bible) and was particularly taken by the psalmist’s devotion to God and the Torah:

Praiseworthy are those whose way is perfect, who walk with the Torah of Hashem. Praiseworthy are those who guard His testimonies, they seek Him wholeheartedly. They have also done no iniquity, for they have walked in His ways. You have issued Your precepts to be kept diligently. My prayers: May my ways be firmly guided to keep Your statutes. Then I will not be ashamed, when I gaze at all Your commandments. I will give thanks to You with upright heart, when I study Your righteous ordinances. I will keep Your statues, O, do not forsake me utterly.

Psalm 119:1-8 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

I find these words and their meaning to be very beautiful, and they weave for me, a life of study, contemplation, and devotion to the Words and ways of God. And yet, they seem (apparently) at odds with how Christians see obedience to God:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two…

Ephesians 2:13-15 (ESV)

The Jewish psalmist builds up and praises God’s “righteous ordinances” and “statues,” while Paul (apparently) in his letter to the Ephesians declares that “by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” the psalmist holds so dear, Christ obliterates the “dividing wall of hostility” between Gentile and Jewish believers, in order to create “one new man in place of two.”

However you choose to interpret that portion of Ephesians 2, it seems as if the traditional viewpoints of how to cherish and obey God between the Jew and the Christian are at odds (and aren’t the Psalmist and Paul also at odds?).

I periodically converse with and debate (click the link and scroll down to the comments section) with Christians (mostly Gentiles and a very few Jews) who attempt to reconcile these two perspectives into one, combining Christian faith through belief in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ with an attempt to obey the mitzvot as a response to that faith, thus imitating the Jewish Messiah in his Judaism, though with 21st century rather than 1st century Jewish methods. There is a great debate between Messianic Judaism (and probably other forms of Judaism if they would choose to enter the online discussion) and what is commonly referred to as “One Law” Christianity, regarding how proper this approach is, but I’m not here to discuss those matters today…at least not exactly.

I’ll take it for granted that all servants of the Master want to obey God. The question then becomes how is this done. For the traditional Jew, it is through the mitzvot. For the traditional Christian, it is through belief and prayer. Messianic Jews tend to take on the practices of the other Judaisms, and we see that the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council (which represents a sizeable portion of American Messianic Jews but cannot speak for the entire movement), according to their Standards of Observance (PDF), is strongly aligned with Conservative and Reform Judaism in terms of halakhah, however, as a Jewish body who has accepted Jesus Christ as the Jewish Messiah within a Jewish conceptual and practical context, there are other considerations:

In addition to Tanakh, we as Messianic Jews have another authoritative source for the making of halakhic decisions: the Apostolic Writings. Yeshua himself did not act primarily as a Posek (Jewish legal authority) issuing halakhic rulings, but rather as a prophetic teacher who illumined the purpose of the Torah and the inner orientation we should have in fulfilling it. Nevertheless, his teaching about the Torah has a direct bearing on how we address particular halakhic questions. As followers of Messiah Yeshua, we look to him as the greatest Rabbi of all, and his example and his instruction are definitive for us in matters of Halakhah as in every other sphere.

In addition, the Book of Acts and the Apostolic Letters provide crucial halakhic guidance for us in our lives as Messianic Jews. They are especially important in showing us how the early Jewish believers in Yeshua combined a concern for Israel’s distinctive calling according to the Torah with a recognition of the new relationship with God and Israel available to Gentiles in the Messiah. They also provide guidelines relevant to other areas of Messianic Jewish Halakhah, including (but not restricted to) areas such as distinctive Messianic rites, household relationships, and dealing with secular authorities.

If all that looks complicated, it’s important to remember that even traditional Christians struggle to understand how best to obey God and where we fit into His Holy plan.

But is it really so hard to understand at its core. Even for the non-Jewish Christians who are drawn to the Torah, is there such a great distance between them and their brothers and sisters in the church? For that matter, is there such a great distance behaviorally between religious Judaism in any of its forms and the body of Christian believers who also desire to obey God with all their hearts?

Let’s take a look at some of those behaviors of obedience. I’ll be using the list of the 613 mitzvot Jews believe God gave to Israel at Sinai which were (much) later codified by Maimonides. I’m specifically referencing the list found at Judaism 101.

It should be noted that exactly how one is to obey the mitzvot isn’t always a straightforward affair. Particularly in Orthodox Judaism, a large, documented body of rulings, judgments, and interpretations collectively known as the Talmud defines the methods and procedures whereby a Jew can fulfill the various mitzvot (most of which cannot be performed without the Temple in Jerusalem, an active Levitical priesthood, a Sanhedrin court system, or outside of the Land of Israel), but I won’t be going into those details as they are far outside the scope of this humble blog post. I should almost mention that the various Judaisms (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and so on) have differing approaches to halakhah and the mitzvot, so their prioritization and interpretation of how, when, or if to perform various acts of obedience will not be the same among all the modern “Judaisms”.

Naturally, I can’t list all 613 commandments so I’ll take just a few examples to examine.

To know that God exists (Ex. 20:2; Deut. 5:6)

Exodus 20:2 in the Stone Edition Tanakh states:

I am Hashem, your God, Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.

That doesn’t sound like a command or a mitzvot (something you can do) to most Christians, but for a Jew, it’s the first of the Ten Commandments. If you think about it for a second, you really can’t obey God at all unless you know that He exists and you know that He is God. Once you accept those things, then the rest of the commandments can follow.

While God didn’t bring the Christians out of the Land of Egypt and the “house of slavery” (except in a metaphorical sense when Jesus delivered us from the slavery of our sins), He is just as much a God to us as He is to the Jewish people. In fact, whether the rest of the world chooses to believe or not, God is God to all of humanity since we were all made in His image. If this is a commandment of God, then by definition, both Jews and Christians must obey.

To give charity according to one’s means (Deut. 15:11)

Deuteronomy 15:11 states in the Tanakh:

You shall surely open your hand to your brother, to the poor, and to your destitute in your Land.

The last portion of this verse, within its context, seems to be a commandment specifically on how Jews should treat the poor within the ancient Land of Israel, but it is an enduring commandment among Jews to this very day. Giving tzedakah (charity) is a great virtue in Judaism and there are a large number of Jewish organization dedicated to providing for the needy, both among Jews and also the rest of the world. Christianity also has this value.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

Matthew 25:34-40 (ESV)

This great virtue of providing for the needy and suffering exists in modern Christianity. At every disaster, you will find Christian professionals and laypeople volunteering to render aid to the suffering by providing medical treatment and supplies, food, water, clothing, and other needs. There are Christian missions all over the world building churches, sheltering the persecuted, comforting the dying, and offering time, money, and material goods to anyone in need.

To love the stranger (Deut. 10:19)

Deuteronomy 10:19 in the Tanakh states:

You shall love the proselyte for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Based on this translation and within its context, this specifically means that the native-born Israelite is to love the non-Israelite who has bound himself to the Laws of Hashem with the intent of having themselves and their descendents become full members of the community. Ultimately, the proselyte’s descendants (third generation and later) would fully assimilate and intermarry within Israel and history would “forget” whose ancestors were from among the proselytes and whose were from among the native-born Israelites.

Because “strangers,” “aliens,” or proselytes had no tribal affiliations, they could easily be victimized or treated as “second-class citizens” within Israel. God is commanding that they be loved by Israel in the memory of how Israel was treated as “strangers” (and slaves) in Egypt, not to replicate victimizing the stranger in the way that Israel was victimized in Egypt.

Today, this mitzvah is most commonly expressed in how Jews treat a Gentile who is in the process of converting or who has converted to Judaism. They are not to be treated differently within their community than the “native-born” Jew. This could, particularly within Reform synagogues, also be generalized to the Gentiles in their midst. There are a fair number of Jewish/Christian intermarried couples in Reform communities. At my own local Reform-Conservative shul, Gentiles even sit on the synagogue’s board of directors, so they are quite integrated into the Jewish community in that respect. A Gentile is still very unlikely to be called up for an aliyah to read the Torah on Shabbat or to lead the service when the Rabbi is unavailable, but in most other ways, they are equal in the community (perhaps this is the model for how non-Jews are treated in Messianic Jewish synagogues as well). This would be less true in Conservative Judaism and not even possible among the Orthodox, but even then, Gentiles who were intermarried to Jews in those communities would be treated (ideally) with respect and courtesy (and probably the best example of this is within Chabad synagogues).

This is a mitzvah that is looked at differently in Christianity since, by its very nature, no one is born a believer, even people who are born and raised in Christian families. We were all “strangers” to God and to Christianity at one point in our lives. Our duty is not to shun the non-believer but to welcome him and her into our midst in the name of the Christ who welcomed us.

OK, that was only three commandments out of 613, but it’s a nice start. We can see that in many important ways, how Jews and Christians obey God are identical or very similar. Know God. Give to the needy. Love the stranger among you. Both Christians and Jews do this. Identity is all but irrelevant in these cases. A Christian can as easily and as effectively give food to a hungry person as a Jew. You don’t have to bend yourself into an alternate identity to accomplish this. Really folks, it’s not rocket science.

I suppose you noticed that the list includes a great many items that Christians don’t address, such as “To circumcise the male offspring (Gen. 17:12; Lev. 12:3)”, “To put tzitzit on the corners of clothing (Num. 15:38)”, “To bind tefillin on the head (Deut. 6:8)”, and so on. These are behaviors that are typically associated with Jewish identity. That is, you perform these commandments specifically because you are Jewish and anyone who performs them, whether it’s their intent or not, will very likely appear Jewish to anyone who sees them.

In certain small religious circles, the question of whether or not Christians should perform these mitzvot as an act of a disciple imitating their Rabbi and Master Jesus is an ongoing debate. For the vast majority of Christianity, obeying the mitzvot of feeding the hungry and visiting the sick seems much more substantial and possesses a greater quality of imitating Jesus than (purposefully or otherwise) appearing overtly Jewish. How you choose to obey God must be within your understanding of Scripture and as it exists within your conscience. However, don’t disregard the “weightier matters of the Law” for the sake of your perceived devotion to the more superficial signs. Filling a hungry five-year old’s tummy will always trump whether or not to lay tefillin during morning prayers, at least within my conscience.