Tag Archives: purpose

Who Am I and Why Am I Here?

Indeed, surveys show that actual converts to Judaism are far outnumbered by Americans born outside the faith who consider themselves Jewish despite having never formally converted to Judaism. However, even in the most liberal Jewish communities, there is a dividing line that excludes non-Jews. Practically no synagogues allow non-Jews to be called to the Torah (unless they are accompanying a Jewish spouse at their kid’s bar mitzvah). Jews married to non-Jews are barred from admission to rabbinical school. And, of course, non-Jews can’t marry Jews under Conservative or Orthodox auspices.

Most importantly, you can call yourself whatever you want – friend of, member of, parent of. But unless you formally join, you’re no Jew.

-from the article “10 Questions About Jewish Conversions You Want to Know but are Afraid to Ask”
VirtualJerusalem.com

Don’t worry. I’m not considering converting. However, I saw a link to this article on Facebook and was interested about which ten questions one might be afraid to ask.

In my two most recent “meditations,” Are Christians Idol Worshipers and Doing It Right, the conversations kept returning to what Derek Leman might call “the intersection of Judaism and Christianity, Jesus and Torah, temple and atonement.”

But while many or most traditional Christians don’t see much of an intersection between their faith and Judaism, those of us involved, at some level in Messianic Judaism find it unavoidable. In a comment to Gene on Doing It Right, I said in part:

From my point of view (and I could be wrong, of course), you have a ready-made world, a Jewish community, to which you belong and in which roles, identity, and expectations are all clearly defined. It would seem to me that all you have to do is step inside of that community, close the door, and never look back.

I, on the other hand, picture myself fighting my way through the Bible tooth and nail, clawing my way through the collision (Derek calls it an intersection) between the Jewish and Christian aspects of my faith, feeling like the inside of a sandwich being squeezed by two opposing slices of bread.

I could make up a story or a series of stories about the Jews and Gentiles who left Messianic Judaism and entered a more mainstream Judaism or entered (re-entered) the Church.

disconnectedI could say that the dissonance (remember, I’m making all this up) experienced living in-between various elements of Jewish and Christian faith are very “crazy making” and that in order to reduce or even eliminate the inherit discomfort of being identified as “Messianic,” these individuals chose to escape into a more internally consistent or at least more readily acceptable religious identity.

I’ve heard stories of more than a few non-Jews in Messianic Judaism who (in my opinion) became confused about what to prioritize in a life of faith and mistook function for devotion by converting to Orthodox Judaism. It’s not being Jewish that makes one acceptable to God, since even the Orthodox readily admit that Gentile conversion isn’t the only way, or even the primary way, a Goy may merit life in the world to come and be considered righteous. It’s living a life that is Holy to God by transforming our lives from being focused on ourselves to being focused on service to others and service to God (think Matthew 22:36-40).

Of course, that’s not the only path leading out of Messianic Judaism. For Jews, there’s going to/returning to a more normative Judaism such as Orthodox Judaism, and for the Gentile, there’s going to/returning to normative Christianity. Those groups disagree with each other, but the world generally accepts them as valid religious expressions.

But the world, including the religious world, doesn’t always know what to do with Messianic Judaism. While many of the Jewish people within the movement strive greatly to live authentically Jewish lives, in some cases, indistinguishable from Jews in Reform, Conservative, and even Orthodox Judaism, the really big question (and I’ve brought this up before) is what to do with all the Goyim in Messianic Jewish community space.

Actually, there are two other escape paths, particularly for the Gentile, I haven’t mentioned. Leaving the world of faith entirely and becoming an atheist, and continuing to adhere to faith but leaving all forms of religious community and considering all such community as non-sustainable.

I rarely quote from Christian articles and blogs, but the other day, I did find something written by A.W. Tozer called The Saint Must Walk Alone.

The idea, based on a number of Biblical precedences, is that the person of faith by definition is isolated from the larger culture. Tozer cited a number of the Prophets including Noah, Abraham, and Moses, but while it’s true that, in the end, Noah only had his family as his form of community, and Abraham had to gather people around him in order to construct community, Moses, though effectively isolated from the community of God for the first forty years of his life, found a ready-made body of millions of Israelites once God commanded him to rescue His people Israel.

In the Apostolic Scriptures. Jesus (Yeshua) called apostles and disciples to himself, and after the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, the apostles and disciples, made many more disciples, both Jewish and Gentile, across the latter part of the First Century CE and beyond.

I’ve said before that people gravitate to groups made up of “their own kind”, that is, others who are like themselves. That’s why in older cities in our nation, you have neighborhoods defined by nationality and ethnicity. Visit New York, Chicago, or San Francisco to see what I mean.

And I believe the same is true of religious people. We all want to hang out with people like us, so we don’t get thrown too many theological curve balls. The secular world is a hard place to live in, so it’s comforting to know you have a place to retreat once in a while where you can truly be yourself and be understood without being judged or maligned (ironically, sort of like being a recovering alcoholic at an AA meeting).

Tozer writes:

The pain of loneliness arises from the constitution of our nature. God made us for each other. The desire for human companionship is completely natural and right. The loneliness of the Christian results from his walk with God in an ungodly world, a walk that must often take him away from the fellowship of good Christians as well as from that of the unregenerate world. His God-given instincts cry out for companionship with others of his kind, others who can understand his longings, his aspirations, his absorption in the love of Christ; and because within his circle of friends there are so few who share inner experiences, he is forced to walk alone. The unsatisfied longings of the prophets for human understanding caused them to cry out in their complaint, and even our Lord Himself suffered in the same way.

A.W. Tozer
A.W. Tozer

Of course, Tozer’s “Saint” is only lonely away from the authentic community of the Church, and while he says that there may be few who have great devotion to Christ in the body of believers, he hasn’t taken into consideration the fact that there could be “Saints” who have no access to fellowship, and any such like-minded communities nearby could be too internally conflicted and even unstable to be viable options.

Ultimately, the person of faith may be isolated and alone not only from society but from other religious people, even those who fundamentally conceptualize their theology in similar way.

The problem for many of these “Messianic Gentiles,” is not that they/we are attracted to God, but we’re attracted to a particular exegetical system that allows us to read the entire Bible (Tanakh and Apostolic Scriptures) as a unified Jewish document that upholds the primacy of national Israel and the Gospel message as one of national and even worldwide redemption rather than a truncated plan addressing salvation on an individual-by-individual basis.

By definition, we find Judaism more attractive than Christianity (I speak of institutions, traditions, and lifestyles here). However, as the VirtualJerusalem.com article I quoted from states, “you can call yourself whatever you want – friend of, member of, parent of. But unless you formally join, you’re no Jew.”

Not that I would try to be, but many others like me can’t separate their identities from Jewish (quasi-Jewish really) identities. In the end, we either find others who accept us as we are in religious community, we change our identity by conversion to find acceptance, we retreat into the Church (abandoning Messianic theology) to find acceptance, or we just retreat and call an end to seeking acceptance and community. In the latter case, acceptance comes from secular community. We’ve thrown our net very wide and through the wide gate, everyone can travel together.

Tozer concludes:

The weakness of so many modern Christians is that they feel too much at home in the world. In their effort to achieve restful “adjustment” to unregenerate society they have lost their pilgrim character and become an essential part of the very moral order against which they are sent to protest. The world recognizes them and accepts them for what they are. And this is the saddest thing that can be said about them. They are not lonely, but neither are they saints.

Earlier in his article, Tozer admits that those Christians who say they are never alone because Jesus is always with them, echo a rather hollow message. Remember, he also said man was made for community, and the people of God are made for community with their fellows.

But in the end, all we really have is God. No religious community is perfect, and some of them are downright toxic. There are who knows how many wounded souls who have sought fellowship, but once burned are thereafter “twice shy.”

I’ve been pleased with how discussions have gone on in my two previous blog posts, especially given the rather controversial nature of the topics at hand. After all is said and done, we “odd balls,” many of whom are like me and simply are not made to be in community, or who otherwise have no acceptable peer group at hand, in addition to God, have the Internet. This is the only place we can find each other, through our communication is merely so much binary and electrical chatter across fiber, copper, and wifi.

Since I’ve pulled back from writing so much, I can feel my intellectual and emotional attachment to the “Messianic blogosphere” wane correspondingly. I don’t scour the web looking at other blogs the way I used to. I don’t view each article and quote at Aish.com or Chabad.org as inspiration for yet another “morning meditation.” I no longer even peek out of my home office on Friday evenings to see if my wife is about to light the Shabbos candles. They either are lit or not as she wills.

purim
Purim Parade in Hebron

Right now (Sunday afternoon), she’s at the Chabad helping to prepare for the upcoming Purim celebration. I couldn’t be more pleased. That’s where she belongs, in Jewish community because that’s who she is. Given the enormous barriers she’s had to cross, I’m glad she’s found her way home. Her experience has taught me that my having community doesn’t seem to be part of the reason I exist. If my marriage to a Jewish woman has previously inhibited her from a Jewish life, maybe our union also helps to reveal my purpose in supporting and encouraging her pursuit of that Jewish life.

I believe for the Messianic Gentile, that’s why we are here, not to promote ourselves but to support Jews, both in Messiah and otherwise, to return to devotion to Torah, devotion to Jewish community, and devotion to Hashem.

As a “Messianic Gentile,” if that’s who I am and why I’m here, it’s enough.

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What God Wants

the-divine-torahIf one wishes to add on more restrictions than the law requires, one may do so for oneself, but not [make such demands] of others.

-Shulchan Aruch

Some people employ a double standard. One set of rules applies to themselves, and another to everyone else. The Shulchan Aruch, the standard authoritative compilation of Jewish law, accepts this policy – but on one condition: the more restrictive set of rules must apply to oneself, and the more lenient apply to other people.

Guidelines exist for many things, such as the percentage of income that one should give for tzedakah. Many tzaddikim, righteous people, retained only the barest minimum of their income for themselves, just enough to provide for their families, and gave everything else to the poor. However, they would never expect anyone else to follow their example, and some even forbade it.

Our minds are ingenious in concocting self-serving rationalizations. Sometimes we may have excellent reasons not to give more liberally to tzedakah, even if it is within the required amount. We may project into the future, worry about our economic security, and conclude that we should put more money away for a rainy day. Yet we often criticize people who we feel do not give enough to tzedakah.

We should be aware of such rationalizations and remember that the more demanding rules should apply to ourselves. If we are going to rationalize, let us rationalize in a way that gives the benefit of doubt to others.

Today I shall…

…remember to be more demanding of myself than I am of others.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Elul 5”
Aish.com

I know that between Christianity, Judaism, Messianic Judaism, and Hebrew Roots (and their various streams and branches), there is quite a bit of difference in understanding what God wants from us. How do we serve Him in holiness and righteousness? There is some common ground. Generally performing acts of kindness and charity are involved. We can all agree that giving food to the hungry is the right thing to do. But we also have lots and lots of traditions, doctrines, dogmas, and theologies that only sort of match up with the other groups or that don’t even come close.

Most Christians believe that Jesus replaced the Law with Grace, while observant Jews believe the Torah continues to be in force upon the Jewish people, as interpreted and operationalized by the sages. Within Messianic Judaism, there are different opinions about Torah and how it applies to Jewish and Gentile believers, and Hebrew Roots is so diverse a population, that opinions about Torah span a very wide spectrum.

I can’t tell you what to believe and how to live your life. If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you know that I’m continuously working on how to live my own life in accordance with my beliefs. I thought I’d reached a state of equilibrium, but recent questions have made me take another look at a few things. Also, as my relationship with different people change, I’m forced to evaluate the meaning of those relationships and how they impact my understanding of faith and God.

And there are no end of opinions on the Internet, and no end of people who are more than happy to tell you what to do, where to go, and especially what you’re doing wrong. If my hair were long enough, I’d want to tear it out, at least sometimes.

Some people accomplish a great deal, yet they are unhappy because they keep thinking that “somewhere else” they might be able to accomplish more. They live their lives with the general feeling that whatever they are engaged in at the moment is nothing compared to what they might possibly do.

This feeling is a poison that destroys joy and happiness in life. While you should try to accomplish as much as you can, it is often an illusion that you are missing out by not being “somewhere else.”

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #908, Make the Most of the Here and Now”
Aish.com

approaching-GodI sometimes feel this way about those believers who seem obsessed with “the end times” and spend unceasing hours and effort exploring every possible conspiracy theory as if they were investigating a spiritual X-Files. But Rabbi Pliskin’s statement is also well applied to understanding the purpose of our lives in general. What does God want from us? How are we to live? How stringent are “the rules” and are “the rules” the same for everyone, or do they differ for differing populations? What does God want of us?

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)

That seems like a good start but is it a good finish as well? I don’t know. I do know that any life of faith has to stand on something solid. If it doesn’t, it becomes too easy for someone else to come along and knock your faith down, like a shoddy sand castle on some forlorn beach.

In Christianity, it’s all about what you believe. In Judaism, it’s all about what you do because of what you believe (that last part isn’t exactly correct, but I’m choosing to express it as such).

Never underestimate the power of a simple, pure deed done from the heart.

The world is not changed by men who move mountains, nor by those who lead the revolutions, nor by those whose purse strings tie up the world.

Dictators are deposed, oppression is dissolved, entire nations are transformed by a few precious acts of beauty performed by a handful of unknown soldiers.

As Maimonides wrote in his code of law, “Each person must see himself as though the entire world were held in balance and any deed he may do could tip the scales.”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Powerful Beauty”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

God is here. He is listening. I sometimes forget until He reminds me, that He fulfills my every need, even when I don’t ask Him to. When I “see” Him doing that, it’s His reminder to me that He’s there and He’s real and He cares.

I can’t let anyone try to take that away from me. I pray to God that He continually shares His Presence with me. What does God want? For me to wait for Him, watch for Him, and when He reveals Himself to me, to respond to Him with acts of righteousness, kindness, compassion, and justice. What do those things mean? I’ll spend the rest of my life finding out, but I know I’m not alone on the journey. I’m walking humbly with my God.

What I Know About the Purpose of Torah So Far

Path of TorahThe Torah, or Jewish Written Law, consists of the five books of the Hebrew Bible – known more commonly to non-Jews as the “Old Testament” – that were given by G-d to Moses on Mount Sinai and include within them all of the biblical laws of Judaism. The Torah is also known as the Chumash, Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses. The word “Torah” has multiple meanings including: A scroll made from kosher animal parchment, with the entire text of the Five Books of Moses written on it; the text of the Five Books of Moses, written in any format; and, the term “Torah” can mean the entire corpus of Jewish law. This includes the Written and the Oral Law.

-from “The Written Law – Torah”
Jewish Virtual Library

Tonight, I’m having my usual Wednesday evening meeting with Pastor Randy. Our agenda includes discussing Chapter Eight of D. Thomas Lancaster’s book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians, “The Antioch Incident: Galatians 2:11-14”.

Here’s the relevant scripture:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?

Galatians 2:11-14 (NASB)

That’s going to be interesting since, on the surface, it seems as if Paul is accusing Peter of being two-faced in his observance of Torah, living “like the Gentiles” when among Gentiles (which is commonly interpreted as Peter scarfing down plates of ham and shellfish with the goyim), but pulling back from his Gentile friends when “certain men from James” (probably Jewish believers sent to Antioch by James, the leader of the Jerusalem Council and who likely didn’t approve of Gentile inclusion into “the Way”) came around to see what was going on.

However, there is an underlying issue involved in our discussion of Galatians. What is the purpose of Torah in New Testament Judaism? I’ve spent some time this past week looking into that question in three separate blog posts (so far, not including this one) and they have elicited some interesting responses. It’s those responses, more than anything I’ve written, that are helping me begin to pull together some sort of answer.

Today, I want to gather some loosely associated points or statements that point in the direction of an answer. I don’t want to say that they are the answer, but perhaps they form the container in which the answer resides. Although this should be an easy topic to address, in fact, it is enormously difficult to grasp and define.

Here’s what I’ve got so far. I’m going to mine the comments I’ve received on all three blog posts more or less in the order they were submitted.

Starting with the comments in Part 1:

According to Rabbi Carl Kinbar, the Christian tendency to separate the Torah into ritual/ceremonial law and moral law originated with the church fathers and was perpetuated by the reformers, but does not have a basis within the Bible itself. That is, the Bible doesn’t categorize the Torah mitzvot into those two containers. They are a convenient method of defining why the “ceremonial” laws were killed by Jesus but why Christians must still maintain the “moral” laws.

altruistico suggests that the Torah, which for him includes all of the authoritative and sacred texts in Judaism, has functionally preserved Judaism as an entity and the Jewish people as a unique and distinct people group for the last two-thousand years or so, particularly in the absence of the Jewish homeland, Temple, Priesthood, Sanhedrin court system, and Messiah King. Without Torah observance on some level and a halachic lifestyle (although many Jews today are non-observant and non-responsive to such), the Jewish people and Judaism would have gone the way of the Hittites and the Canaanites long ago.

ProclaimLiberty (PL) says that the purpose of Torah is very simply expressed and contained in Psalm 19 and that the teachings of Jesus as well as his death, resurrection, and ascension have changed none of that purpose for the Jewish people, Messianic or otherwise. Jesus himself said that until Heaven and Earth passed away, the Torah would remain, as stated in Matthew 5:17-18. In fact, PL says that verses 19 and 20 illustrate the Messiah’s encouraging better performance of the mitzvot for his Jewish listeners.

Proceeding to the comments in Part 2:

rabbis-talmud-debateCarl Kinbar says that as a Messianic Jew who studies the Rabbinic writings every day, he finds them “illuminating and nurturing” but presents the opposite side of the coin in saying that he weeps “over the gaping absence of the Master from their pages.”

ProclaimLiberty and Carl Kinbar engage in a lengthy discussion in the comments section of this blog post regarding how the Rabbinic writings should be considered by Messianic Jewish people. PL seems to have a more traditional viewpoint about the authority and binding nature of Rabbinic rulings, and while Carl Kinbar also esteems the Rabbis, he notes that their viewpoint would discount the reality of Yeshua as Messiah, even if a Divine Voice from Heaven should declare the truth.

I know you are probably thinking at this point that I’ve strayed from my original question, but for observant Jewish people, except in rare circumstances, one does not separate Talmud from Torah and in fact, studying Talmud is studying Torah. It would be best for you to review the full text of PL’s and Kinbar’s conversation, since any attempt to condense it here would likely do them both an injustice.

Moving on to Part 3:

At my request, Carl Kinbar gave me his understanding of how Matthew 23:2-4 can be interpreted relative to the Noel Rabinowitz paper (see the body of the blog post for the link or go to my Books page). In his series of comments, Kinbar specifically addresses the legal aspects of Torah which are not easily, if at all, enacted in the modern world due to the lack of an appropriate Sanhedrin or other court body. Except in Orthodox Jewish contexts, there are no judges to rule on matters of halachah and to issue judgments binding on the Jewish people involving such legal cases.

However, Kinbar did offer one other nugget for consideration that addresses the variability we see in both ancient and modern Jewish practice. One of the problems in defining what “Torah” is and how it is observed is the inconsistency across different Jewish communities (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and so on). Kinbar notes that in ancient times including during the “earthly ministry” of Jesus, Judaism had a common core (common Judaism), which was defined as the basics of Torah observance according to the prevailing customs of the time, but that different communities, synagogues, sects kept their own unique set of “specifics.” Most synagogues did not have a centralized leadership and did not recognize the authority of other sects (including the Pharisees) to impose other laws on their groups.

It is my contention that even within the Messianic Jewish sect of “the Way,” there were sub-groups that disagreed with the halachah issued by the leadership of the Jerusalem Council, principally around the mechanism of allowing Gentiles entry into their Jewish religious space.

Whether in ancient or modern times, it seems clear that there has been a long-standing pattern within the overarching entity we call “Judaism” of many individual communities operating off of a varying religious and cultural praxis, all of them considered “Jewish,” and yet with no one group having any influence on the observance or behavior of any other group. Many communities within both ancient and modern Judaism do not even have a centralized leadership, allowing for variability between the practice of different synagogues occurring within the same sect of Judaism.

Thus the “function” of Torah or rather how (or in some cases “if”) it is lived out, differs across the variety of Jewish communities in the ancient and modern worlds. This includes how Torah functions within modern Messianic Judaism. No one group has the corner market in defining what “Torah” is and how it works.

I do want to point to a few additional details.

reading-of-the-torahOne function of Torah from a Christian perspective, is to point to the Messiah. It has been a tutor or custodian of the Jewish people, keeping them “contained” within a certain moral/ethical boundary (Galatians 3:23-25) until such time as the Messiah arrived. However, if we do away with the Torah as custodian or pointer after the first generation of Jews is born post-ascension, what is left to point subsequent generations of Jews to Moshiach, especially those who do not have an awareness of Jesus as Messiah? I know Christians would say “the church” is the new pointer, but seeing as we have the majority of Jews defining themselves as Jewish primarily because they don’t believe in Jesus, we might want to reconsider our position. We should let the Torah be the pointer for the majority of Jews on Earth, allowing Torah to continually fulfill this purpose.

Even setting Talmud aside for the moment, nothing defines the Jewish people more than the Torah. We can indeed see that during every exile, the Jewish people have maintained their identity and distinction because of their religious and cultural observances as defined and provided by Torah. Without Torah observance, the Jewish people would long ago have assimilated into the cultures among which they were exiled. It’s always a danger and is a particular threat in the modern world where so many Jews are secular. Only a slender thread of DNA and a few ethnic leftovers prevent a person now known as a “Jew” from vanishing, if not from the sight of God, then at least from the human cultural consciousness.

So much for the entire Sinai event and the promises God made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and every subsequent generation of Jews as spoken by the Prophets that a Messiah would come to restore the Jewish people, restore Israel as a nation, and inspire unprecedented zeal for the Torah.

That’s what I’ve got so far. No definitive answers, just a list of important points to consider. Most of them can’t even be said to be “the inspired word of God,” at least not as how Christianity would see it.

You need not, like withered leaves, fall away from your ancient stock, or deny parents or nationality; you need not be unfaithful to the God of your fathers, on account of reverence rendered to the Son, for only when you do him homage are you a true Jew, a genuine son of Abraham, not only after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

-Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein
from “Points of Contact between Evangelical and Jewish Doctrine” (1895)
as quoted in “The Story of Rabbi Issac Lichtenstein”
by D. Thomas Lancaster, pg 32
The Everlasting Jew: Selected Writings of Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein

If you want to add anything to this summary before tonight, now would be a good time.

Blogging from the Ashes

drowning-in-ashesI am but dust and ashes.

Genesis 18:27

As far as my blog is concerned, I need to have things settled and digested in my own mind, before I impose them on others! I am not saying that this is what you do, as I view your blog more of an exploration of the spiritual and perhaps encouragement for fellow “travelers”, instead of a place for doctrinal pronouncements and apologetics.

-from a private email conversation

Ironically, this is almost exactly what Pastor Randy said to me about the difference in how we write during our most recent Wednesday night conversation. In talking to him and recalling my previous conversation with Rabbi Carl Kinbar about how and why I blog, I realized just how different I am from most people who write on the web, or even just most people who write.

If you’ve read the last few blog posts I’ve published, then you know that I’m backing away from the idea that anything I write, say, or do is any sort of rip-roaring big deal. I keep catching myself in mistakes. No, that’s not right. Other people keep catching me in mistakes. Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s arrogant to think you’ll never make a mistake, but it’s still no great honor, either.

I like the idea of being an explorer and I tend to think of myself and this blog in that light, but lately, I’ve been feeling like less like an explorer and more like a rat in a maze…and I keep finding all the dead ends instead of the cheese.

But in talking to Pastor Randy and turning everything over in my mind, I realized that my purpose in writing this blog isn’t to get things right all the time or to strive to conquer other people’s differing opinions of me and what I think about. Sure, I try to do that sometimes, and that’s when I start getting discouraged.

But while others may only publish their words in print (or electrons) once they’ve fully digested a topic and have come to what they believe is a rock-solid conclusion, that’s not what I’m trying to do. If that were my purpose, it would take me a lot longer to come up with even a single blog post, and these would become weekly or even monthly meditations, not every morning missives.

I’ve said before that as of 2011, there were an estimated 181 million blogs on the web. That makes any one blog (and blogger) seem pretty insignificant by comparison. Whenever I think about “winning,” I start feeling pretty insignificant as well, not just in terms of the blogging population on the Internet, but as far as people, friends, family, and God goes too.

dark_tunnelI’ve thought about quitting. I’ve thought about throwing in the towel because I can’t come up with “perfect” ideas or “perfect” ways to describe them in my blog. I’ve thought about quitting because people can shoot holes in everything I say or do all day long.

Then I realized that of course people can shoot holes in my thoughts. I’m not arriving at conclusions, at least not very many of them. As you read my blog posts, it’s important that you understand how they come into being. How do I write a blog post?

I start with a quote or an idea that has spawned some sort of interest in me. I have an amorphous thought of how I want to pursue my inspiration, but I don’t really have an endpoint in mind. That’s right, even as I’m keyboarding this, I really don’t know how it will end, which is why some of my posts are from 1000 to 1500 words long, and others exceed 3000 words. No outline, no pre-conceived structure, no bullet points or notes (well, sometimes I use notes) to guide me.

What you are reading is my mind in operation moment by moment, or at least as fast as I can type.

I don’t know anyone else who blogs like this. I explained to Pastor Randy that, based on the feedback I get, what I do is appreciated, at least by some folks, because lots and lots of people are processing the same sort of questions I am. It’s just not visible because no one blogs about “half-baked” thoughts. No one likes to serve up raw food unless its sushi, which is the finished product. The way I write is like watching someone trying to develop a recipe for something they’re going to cook in the near future, but you only later get to see some of the cooking and you may never taste what finally comes out of the oven.

I think that’s called “living.” We do it day by day and each day is a little different. God may never change, but our experiences with Him do, because if we’re growing spiritually, we change. Even if there are areas where I’m not changing, what’s reflected in my blog posts are the continuing struggle and engagement with that “stuck” place in my life. I think lots of people have a stuck place in their lives, too. I know a few people who have a hard time letting go.

Yesterday (as I write this), I felt pretty insignificant, very small, especially without purpose. But in talking to Pastor, I came to rediscover that I have a unique perspective or at least a unique way of expressing it. The point of my writing is not to sell you on my perspectives as being “right.” I’m not giving you answers. I haven’t come to many conclusions. I’m not some self-appointed guru out to sell you some form of enlightenment based on my “specialness” as teacher, or leader, or scholar, or any of that.

Well over three-hundred years ago, French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes famously said “cogito ergo sum” or “I think, therefore, I am.” In my case, it’s “I think/feel/experience/live, therefore I write.” That’s really the whole of it. What you see (read) is what you get.

If I had to know every thing and be right all the time, I’d be horribly trapped in a steel box, shackled in chains, imprisoned in my own need to have a carefully designed system that explained everything I write about. But writing as I do, just because I am, just because I live, is very liberating.

soaring_hawk

Being transparent is like flying, soaring up through the clouds. Like a phoenix at the keyboard, I’m blogging from the ashes and rising into the sky.

Yet those who wait for the LORD Will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles.

Isaiah 40:31 (NASB)

Thanks, God. I needed the lift.

20 Days: Nosce te ipsum

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

-Shabbos 68b

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I agree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

74 Days: Contemplating Jumping

The Rebbe my father told someone at yechidus: Ever since G-d told our father Avraham, “Go from your land etc.” (Genesis 12:1) and it is then written “Avram kept travelling southward,” (Ibid 12:9) we have the beginning of the mystery of birurim. By decree of Divine Providence man goes about his travels to the place where the “sparks” that he must purify await their redemption.

Tzadikim, who have vision, see where their birurim await them and go there deliberately. As for ordinary folk, The Cause of all causes and the Prime Mover brings about various reasons and circumstances that bring these people to that place where lies their obligation to perform the avoda of birurim.

“Today’s Day”
Shabbat, Cheshvan 1, Shabbat Rosh Chodesh, 5704
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

There are people who do many good things, but with pessimism—because to them the world is an inherently bad place. Since their good deeds have no life to them, who knows how long they can keep it up?

We must know that this world is not a dark, sinister jungle, but a garden. And not just any garden, but G‑d’s own pleasure garden, full of beauty, wonderful fruits and fragrances, a place where G‑d desires to be with all His essence.

If the taste to us is bitter, it is only because we must first peel away the outer shell to find the fruit inside.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Garden”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

I suppose Rabbi Freeman has hit the nail on the head as far as I’m concerned (though of course, he’s not even aware that I exist or of my circumstances). I tend to see the world as a rather negative place, as defined by the negative people who express themselves in it. You don’t have to go far to see what I mean. Watch any news channel on TV or the Internet and you’ll see tragedy, horror, despair, murder, and many other depressing and disheartening things. The debates and controversies surrounding the upcoming Presidential elections are just another reason to consider our world a negative place. It doesn’t matter which political party you belong to, the supporters of one person invariably use any trick and tactic they can find to sully the reputation their opponent’s supporters. The world of religion and religious blogging is no better, it seems.

According to the Rebbe, “Tzadikim, who have vision, see where their birurim await them and go there deliberately,” however, for the rest of us, “the Cause of all causes and the Prime Mover brings about various reasons and circumstances that bring these people to that place where lies their obligation to perform the avoda of birurim.” In other words, if you are a truly righteous person, you know where you must go and what you must do in order to accomplish the purpose of your life. For everyone else, God leads us to the places we must go and shows us what we must do, but it’s up to us to correctly interpret these events and then take the correct action.

Which is why, for most of us, life and God and our purpose can seem like we’re endlessly trying to solve a mystery by traveling down a dark street late at night hoping for illumination.

This week’s Torah Portion is Noah, which tells a narrative even most non-religious people know quite well. But according to Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski in his Growing Each Day commentary for Cheshvan 1, it tells me something more specific.

God said to Noah, “Enter … into the ark.”

Genesis 7:1

The Hebrew word for ark, teivah, has two meanings: it can mean “an ark,” and it can also mean “a word.” In the above verse, the latter meaning tells us that God instructed Noah to “enter into the word.” Rabbi Moshe of Kobrin expounded on this theme, explaining that when we pray, we should “enter into the words,” i.e. totally immerse ourselves into each word of prayer, as though the word is encompassing us.

A listener once asked him: “How can a big human being possibly enter into a little word?” Rabbi Moshe answered, “People who consider themselves bigger than the word are not the kind of person we are talking about.”

The Talmud states that people’s prayers are not accepted unless they efface themselves before God (Sotah 5a). God abhors those who are egotistical, and therefore the prayers of a vain person are not likely to be received favorably.

People preoccupied with their egos remain external to their prayers. The truly humble person feels small enough to “enter” even the tiniest word.

Today I shall…

try to throw myself entirely into my prayers by setting aside those thoughts and feelings that would inflate my ego.

While I don’t think of myself as someone who struggles with an inflated ego, it has already been pointed out to me (correctly, I might add) that I don’t trust God as I should. I don’t “enter into the word” with complete abandon, trusting that God will take care of my well-being. Terrible things happen to good people every day. Why would I be exempt?

That goes for trying to solve the mystery of my path of faith as well. If I make one decision, how will I manage the consequences? If I make no decision, that’s a decision and it has consequences. Even standing still is really moving backwards. If only all of the “egos” on the web who casually malign their brothers of the faith and the Jewish people (who are sometimes one in the same) never seem to throw themselves entirely into their prayers, setting aside those thoughts and feelings that would inflate their egos, at least as evidenced by their online behaviors.

Maybe it is better to ignore the world and to simply throw myself into a life of prayer, study, and contemplation.

There was a story about a Torah scholar who died young… – 13a-b

The Gemara elaborates and tells the story of a Torah scholar who died young. This man’s wife came to the Beis HaMidrash carrying his tefillin, and she began to complain about his shortened life. Although this student was very diligent, and no one was able to respond to this woman’s bemoaning, finally Eliyahu discovered and exposed the tragic flaw which this young man and his wife possessed.

It is noteworthy that this woman specifically brought her late husband’s tefillin with her, as if it indicated more of a reason why he did not deserve to die. Maharsha explains that she brought the tefillin to increase the anguish of the other students who would see her. Sefer Gilyonei HaShas of R’ Yaakov Engel explains that tefillin specifically represents the connection which we have to Torah study. Her argument was sharper, as she demonstrated that her husband learned Torah and was bound up with Torah as his life pursuit.

Therefore, this woman took her husband’s tefillin as she circulated around the shuls and the Batei Midrash to demonstrate that her husband did not simply learn Torah, but he was bound up with the Torah, just as the tefillin is tied around one’s arm.

Daf Yomi Digest
Distinctive Insight
“Bound in Torah”
Shabbos 13

But even reading this commentary convinces me that there is an insufficient perspective being applied here. It’s not what you study and learn but what you do with it that counts. I sometimes define the difference between Christianity and Judaism as the difference between what you believe and what you do, but that’s not always a very fair comparison. In some aspects of Jewish thought, the person who studies Torah, binding themselves in it so to speak, is of greater value than the simple person who cannot study but only tries to live a descent life as best they can.

A person can be a Jew just by being born of a Jewish mother and on that virtue, is a member of the covenant and one of God’s chosen people. A Christian can be born anybody and all by itself, that means practically nothing. A person is only a Christian after making a decision and a declaration. After coming to faith and confessing Christ, the only way to tell a Christian from a secular person is by what they do. Even then, many secular people behave more righteously than many Christians.

However, faith and belief are invisible. Only God knows what is in a person’s heart. It is what we do that defines us, sometimes because of what we believe and sometimes in spite of it. When God leads each of us, even me, into any given situation on any given day, there’s an expectation about what we’re supposed to do there. Should we turn left or right? Should we go forward or back? From God’s perspective, the answer is obvious. From a human’s point of view, it can seem like an impossible puzzle, or we might even miss the fact that a decision must be made at all.

Or, we know what we should do and are just loathe to do it. But if God has sent us to “reveal a spark,” so to speak, who are we to say we won’t do it or pretend we don’t understand what He is asking of us?

The answer is that we are human and flawed.

It would be easy just to ignore my dilemmas by ignoring God, but God or my conscience won’t let me do that. But it still feels like He’s asking me to jump off a cliff into a bottomless void with only the promise that He’ll make me fly to sustain me.