Tag Archives: Sunday

Paul’s Sunday Shavuot

first-fruits-barleyThe period from Passover to Shavu’ot is a time of great anticipation. We count each of the days from the second day of Passover to the day before Shavu’ot, 49 days or 7 full weeks, hence the name of the festival. The counting reminds us of the important connection between Passover and Shavu’ot: Passover freed us physically from bondage, but the giving of the Torah on Shavu’ot redeemed us spiritually from our bondage to idolatry and immorality. Shavu’ot is also known as Pentecost, because it falls on the 50th day; however, Shavu’ot has no particular similarity to the Christian holiday of Pentecost, which occurs 50 days after their Spring holiday.

Shavu’ot is not tied to a particular calendar date, but to a counting from Passover. Because the length of the months used to be variable, determined by observation, and there are two new moons between Passover and Shavu’ot, Shavu’ot could occur on the 5th or 6th of Sivan. However, now that we have a mathematically determined calendar, and the months between Passover and Shavu’ot do not change length on the mathematical calendar, Shavu’ot is always on the 6th of Sivan.

– “Shavu’ot” at Judaism 101

The date of Shavuot is directly linked to that of Passover. On Passover, the Jewish people were freed from their enslavement to Pharaoh; on Shavuot they were given the Law and became a nation committed to serving God. Shavuot is celebrated in Israel for one day and in the diaspora (outside of Israel) for two days. Reform Jews celebrate only one day, even in the diaspora. Karaite Jews and Christians believe that Shavuot always falls on a Sunday, while mainstream Jews follow the teaching of the Talmud, which holds that the holiday commences immediately after the “counting of the omer,” or 50 days after Passover.

– “Shavuot” at New World Encyclopedia

Last Sunday, my Pastor’s sermon from Leviticus 23 was on Shavu’ot/Pentecost. Like many Christians (and I had no idea Christians believed this before a few days ago), he believes that Shavuot must always fall on a Sunday for the following reasons:

The word “Sabbath” in this verse is assumed, by some, to be the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which has been deemed to be a “special Sabbath.” Therefore, it is not uncommon for people to assume that the first instance of “Sabbath” in Leviticus 23:15 indicates the special Sabbath during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Aviv (or Nisan) 15—that is, the day after the Passover, Aviv 14. In thinking this way, their count of the Feast of Weeks would begin on the day after the 15th, which is the 16th. Many, if not most, Jewish rabbis begin the count here.

However, in Leviticus 23:16, it says, “Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath….” There are not special Sabbaths during each of the seven weeks during which the count is made. However, there are seven regular weekly Sabbaths. Therefore, the fifty-day count ends on Sunday, the day after the seventh weekly Sabbath (which is Saturday). That makes the first day of the fifty-day count to be a Sunday as well. So Shavuot = the Feast of Weeks = Pentecost always falls on a Sunday, although some believe that it can be on any day of the week, depending on the year.

– “How do you calculate the timing of Shavuot or Pentecost?”
at TedMontgomery.com

churchesI have no idea who Ted Montgomery is or why he’s considered an authority in this matter (and he should update his website design to something that doesn’t just scream, “1998!”), but what he has on his site is basically the same explanation Pastor gave in his sermon.

If he’s right, then Shavuot/Pentecost always occurring on a Sunday would have a great deal of meaning in Christianity and bolster the Christian tradition of having the official weekly worship day on a Sunday. I don’t know enough about it to have much of an opinion, but one of my personal “laws” (and I think almost everyone has this “law”) is that when something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

When I looked up the dates for Shavuot at Chabad.org, the holiday doesn’t always fall on a Sunday according to their calendar. In fact, this past year, since Shavuot is celebrated two days in the diaspora, Shavuot was observed on Wednesday, May 15th and Thursday, May 16th. Next year, it will also be held on a Wednesday and Thursday, but in early June.

How the dates for Shavuot are calculated depends on when you start counting. If it’s always on the first day after Passover, the day of the week Shavuot occurs will vary. If it’s always on the first day after the Saturday Shabbat, then it will always be on Sunday. Before last Sunday, the only way I heard that it was to be calculated was how Judaism traditionally recommends. Christianity, it seems, always comes up with little surprises for me.

I know that Christians, including my Pastor, will tell me that the calculation for the “Sunday-only” Shavuot/Pentecost is purely Biblical and thus, it doesn’t matter what Judaism and the Rabbis have to say about it. On the other hand, this observance was given to the Children of Israel well over a thousand years before the birth of Christ, so I’d have to give the Jewish people some “props” in how they choose to understand the Torah on this matter.

According to Pastor in his sermon, in Acts 20, we see Paul anxious to get to Jerusalem as soon as possible. Pastor tells us that this is because he wanted to arrive in time for Shauvot, but he asked an odd question. Why should it have mattered to Paul? He wasn’t a farmer. Shavuot is (or was) all about offering the first fruits of the wheat harvest to God at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. What was the big deal for Paul?

Pastor’s answer was not so much about the Jewish Shavuot as the Christian Pentecost. Because of the giving of the Holy Spirit in the original Acts 2 event and its meaning as the “birthday of the Church,” Paul wanted to get back to Jerusalem to commemorate the Christian side of the coin, so to speak, as opposed to observing one of the three pilgrim festivals that all Jews are commanded to attend in Jerusalem each year.

shavuot_two_loavesIt is true that based on Leviticus 23:15-22, it doesn’t seem as if Paul would rush right back to Jerusalem in order to offer a personal wave offering of two loaves of bread along with the lamb and drink offerings. But then again, in the same sermon, Pastor said that the offerings recorded in those scriptures weren’t personal offerings but were offered for the entire assembly of Israel, so Paul wouldn’t have had to be a farmer  with a personal sacrifices to offer to desire to be present at the Temple. He just had to be a Jew.

We see in Acts 2 that thousands upon thousands of Jews from the diaspora were present in Jerusalem for Shavuot. Could they have been responding to this?

“Three times a year you shall celebrate a feast to Me. You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread; for seven days you are to eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the appointed time in the month Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. And none shall appear before Me empty-handed. Also you shall observe the Feast of the Harvest of the first fruits of your labors from what you sow in the field; also the Feast of the Ingathering at the end of the year when you gather in the fruit of your labors from the field. Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord God (emph. mine).

Exodus 23:14-17 (NASB)

You can find similar language commanding Jewish people to appear at the Temple in Jerusalem for Shavuot in Exodus 34:21-24, Numbers 28:26-31, and Deuteronomy 16:9-12. I’m not saying that the Acts 2 event had no meaning for Paul and that it didn’t add a tremendous dimension to Shavuot for Paul and the other Jewish apostles and disciples, but it would hardly be disconnected from the commandments of God for the Jewish people and Jewish obedience to the Torah of Moses. There’s no reason to believe the Christian conceptualization of Pentecost would have unplugged the festival from the Jewish Shavuot.

After all. Pastor acknowledged in his sermon that one of the names for Shavuot is “Z’man Mattan Toratenu” or “The Time of the Giving of the Law (Torah).” In his sermon, he affirmed that it is quite Biblical to believe that, given the timing of the Exodus from Egypt, that the Children of Israel could have been at Sinai for the giving of the Torah on the traditional date for Shavuot.

For Paul then, the linkage between the giving of the Torah and the giving of the Spirit would have been inescapable and been seen as a dramatic illustration of God’s continual graciousness to the Jewish people as a light to the world and as the means by which Israel and the nations would be redeemed.

While I strongly believe that the coming of Jesus, his life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of the Father represents a revolutionary event in the course of human history and the plan of God for both the Jewish people and the people of the nations, it was and is also the predictable, prophesied, and logical extension of God’s plan across time, not a radical departure shifting from God’s “plan A” to “plan B.”

The past several blog posts where I mention my Pastor, I know it seems as if I’m really butting heads with him, so to speak. While we don’t always see eye to eye, I have great respect for him and I thought last Sunday’s sermon especially was informative and illuminating. In fact, the highlight of my church attendance every Sunday is his sermon. As you can see, he provides me with a lot of food for thought.

ShavuotI know why Christians count the Sabbaths from Passover to Shavuot as they do. The symbolism relative to Pentecost and Sunday is exceptionally compelling given Christian tradition. I can also understand why Judaism would calculate it differently based on disconnecting the Jewish Shavuot from the Christian Pentecost. On the other hand, that doesn’t make the Christian calculation right and the Jewish calculation wrong (or vice versa). Even if Shavuot/Pentecost occurs annually according to the Jewish calendar, that hardly devalues the meaning of the holiday for believing Jews and Gentile Christians. Christians just don’t have to work so hard to disconnect Pentecost from its original and ongoing meaning in Judaism. If there will be a Third Temple as both Pastor and I believe, then those offerings will once again be upon the altar in Jerusalem in Messianic days.

Why was Paul in such a hurry to get to Jerusalem before the festival of Shavuot? We can’t derive his exact intent from the text of Acts 20. However, reason, history, and the Torah tells us that he needed no other reason than because he was Jewish. If he had other reasons, then we will learn those after the time of Messiah’s return, may he come swiftly and in our day.

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“He is Risen” Day

he-is-risenBut on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” And they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened.

Luke 24:1-12

I learned something new on Sunday morning. I learned that on Easter, when a Christian greets you by saying “He is risen,” the proper response is He is risen, indeed.” Seriously, I’d never heard that before Pastor Randy greeted me that way right before “sunrise services” (I say that in quotes because sunrise yesterday was at 7:27 a.m. and our “sunrise services” were scheduled to kick off at 8:30 a.m.).

I also remembered something that I had completely forgotten. Easter is usually the service which requires a multimedia program for the main event. But I didn’t remember that until the program actually started.

I did remember that church is usually packed on Easter and tried to arrive early, but the real crowds didn’t show up by 8:30 (though there was a respectable attendance). By the middle of the main service (or around 10:30 or so), people were still coming in and it was practically standing room only.

Or almost.

But the thing that struck me most of all was my lack of emotional attachment to Easter. Everyone was fairly gushing with joy and happiness over Easter and while I think it is important to commemorate the resurrection of the Master, I just didn’t “feel” it, at least not with an intense power surge.

I dunno…maybe there’s something wrong with me. As an emotional experience, it felt pretty much like any other Sunday at church. I had some friendly conversations with folks. I enjoyed Pastor Randy’s teachings. I was OK with the music and the Easter program.

But it wasn’t like the day was incredibly, amazingly, profoundly, special. I’m sure that after it was all over (around 11:30), families went home for a big Easter Sunday feast, but because I’m the lone Christian in my house, I went home and helped my wife pull weeds and water the new plants.

I don’t know how it happened, but I’m more attached to Passover than I am Easter. It’s probably through sheer repetition. Even when I first became a believer, I only attended a church for a few years before becoming “Messianic.” I’ve probably been to a lot more Seders than I have Easter Sunday sunrise services. In fact, this was the first early morning service I’ve ever attended for “Resurrection Day.”

Actually, besides Pastor Randy’s teaching on Luke 24, I’d have to say that the early morning outdoor service was my favorite part. I learned that even when the high for the day is projected to be about 70 degrees F, it’s still quite cold outside at 8:30 in the morning. I’m glad I wore a sweater, but people brought blankets, and when I first sat down, that chair seat was freezing!

Boise-SunriseThe outdoor service was simple.

Someone reads a section of Luke spanning chapters 22 through 24 and we sing a little bit. Back and forth, back and forth. Three stanzas and five readers. Sing a stanza, a reader reads. I like having the Bible read to me. It sort of reminds me of a Torah service when readers are each called up for an aliyah.

Other than that, I especially liked when, during the main service, Pastor explained what “TaNaKh” meant, including that “Law” is a poor translation of the word “Torah,” and that “Torah” comes from a Hebrew root word related to “teaching.” I did a silent little happy dance inside when he was sharing that from the pulpit.

I almost felt him chiding me when he was talking about how we need to study the scriptures, and especially on “things to come.” We had the identical conversation last Wednesday. I told him I tended to steer clear of studies and commentaries about “the end times” because I’ve encountered too many people who are just “conspiracy theory crazy” about “the end times.” He said to everyone else on Sunday what he more or less said to me last Wednesday. I doubt he was trying to “zing” me, but maybe my response to him resulted in the topic being included in his sermon.

I learned the theological use for the words “inspiration” and “illumination.” Apparently inspiration is directly related to this:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…

2 Timothy 3:16

“Inspiration” really means “expiration” (actually, “exhalation”) or breathing out, so imagine God exhaling and His Word leaves His lips and enters the ears of man. Pastor Randy said that each word of the Bible was written exactly as God intended it to be written and thus is perfect. I tend to think of the Bible more like a partnership between God and human beings so that something supernatural is experienced by the writer, but the vocabulary, style, syntax, and everything else about the written scriptures has the “thumbprint” of the human author. That’s why we see such variability between accounts of the same event in different Gospels, for instance.

“Illumination” is just what it sounds like, light or enlightening.

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself…They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”

Luke 24:27, 32

Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures…

Luke 24:45

light-in-my-handsDuring his sermon, Pastor Randy said almost exactly what I often think about. He said that he would love to be able to watch and listen as Jesus opened the minds of the apostles and explained scripture. From my point of view, I would be ecstatic if Messiah would open up my rusty mind and interpret the scriptures with absolute fidelity for me.

I’ve said before that I believe one of the roles of the returned Messiah is that he will be a great teacher (the greatest) and teach what the Bible means in absolutely correct and perfectly enlightening terms to all of us.

Please, illuminate me.

But that, among many other things, is yet to come.

I wish I could get all worked up about Jesus being risen. But in my mind, he was risen a thousand years ago, he was risen the day before yesterday, and he’ll still be risen the day after tomorrow. I know Easter (interestingly, Pastor Randy referred to the day as “Resurrection Day” or “the Lord’s Day,” but he didn’t say “Easter” once…he did mention the Didache, which surprised me, since FFOZ articles refer to it with some regularity) is the Christian equivalent to Passover; a sort of “retelling” of the greatest event in the history of the church.

But like I said, I didn’t feel it. Easter Sunday didn’t resonate within me. I went to have fellowship and to worship, but the fact that it was Easter didn’t set off any bells and whistles. I wonder if it ever will?

He explained those statements, saying that it was energetically imperative for human beings to realize that the only thing that matters is their encounter with infinity.

-Carlos Castaneda
from The Author’s Commentaries on the Occasion of the Thirtieth Year of Publication of The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, pg xiii

Maybe I’m just bad at Christian traditions and culture. Or maybe I missed out on a special encounter with infinity; with the infinite One.

36 Days: Two Pockets in My Sunday Suit

Rabbi Bunim of Pshis’cha said that everyone should have two pockets; one to contain, “I am but dust and ashes,” and the other to contain, “The world was created for my sake.” At certain times, we must reach into one pocket; at other times, into the other. The secret of correct living comes from knowing when to reach into which.

Humility is the finest of all virtues and is the source of all admirable character traits. Yet, if a person considers himself to be utterly insignificant, he may not care about his actions. He may think, “What is so important about what I do? It makes no difference, so long as I do not harm anyone.” Such feelings of insignificance can cause immoral behavior.

When a person does not feel that his actions are significant, he either allows impulses to dominate his behavior or slouches into inactivity. At such a time, he must reach into the pocket of personal grandeur and read: “I am specially created by God. He has a mission for me, that only I can achieve. Since this is a Divine mission, the entire universe was created solely to enable me to accomplish this particular assignment.”

When presidents and premiers delegate missions to their officials, those officials feel a profound sense of responsibility to carry out the mission in the best possible manner. How much more so when we are commissioned by God!

Today I shall…

keep in mind both the humbleness and the grandeur of the human being.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Kislev 1″
Aish.com

I cited this exact quote from Rabbi Twerski just a week ago but it seems appropriate to do so again. As you read this “meditation” it is Sunday morning, but given the Thanksgiving holiday and having my parents in town, I’m writing this several days in advance. As it is right now, I feel as if I will attend church again on Sunday and attend the same Sunday school class, having come (however tentatively) to terms with my failing grade in community.

If only I could continually recall the rather useful piece of information provided by Rabbi Bunim of Pshis’cha about having two pockets and reaching into one or the other as need be. I suspect that we all would be better people if we heeded such sage advice. But in attempting to balance out my character traits, I seem to have stumbled upon a greater and more “multi-dimensional” human problem.

When G‑d created the world, He created both good and evil. After these two elements came into being, they came before G‑d and asked for their respective missions. “Spread the light of goodness and kindness in the world,” G‑d instructed the Good Side. “This is achieved by making people aware of their Creator.”

G‑d then instructed the Evil Side to combat the good, thereby giving people the choice and opportunity to overcome adversity. The Evil Side asked, “But will I be able to do my job? Will people really listen to me?” When the Creator responded in the affirmative, the Evil Side asked to be told its name. “You will be called the Serpent,” said the Creator.

Upon hearing this, the Serpent became worried. He was afraid that his name alone would frighten people away and doom his mission. “Have no fear,” reassured G‑d, “you will succeed.”

Indeed, the Serpent was successful in misleading Eve to sin, convincing her to eat from the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden and to share her sin with Adam. After Adam had eaten from the same fruit, G‑d banished the pair from Eden, and thus began all of life’s challenges.

However, when Adam and Eve realized their sin, they repented completely and managed to atone for their folly. Seeing the holiness that now permeated their lives, the Serpent came before the Creator again. “Destroy me,” he implored. “I will never be able to succeed now!”

-Rabbi Yossy Gordon
“Sly Arrogance”
Chabad.org

Christians aren’t used to imagining “evil” as a sympathetic character and we certainly don’t imagine evil as a creation of God (and a useful one at that). I suppose that’s one of the reasons we Christians have a difficult time truly grasping how Jews think and conceive of God, the Bible, and everything.

As Rabbi Gordon proceeds to tell a tale attributed to Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch (the “Mitteler Rebbe,” 1773–1827), we see the “identity” of the evil inclination continue to be metamorphosed by God as circumstances required.

From the failed serpent, evil was transformed into the Angel of Death, which was greatly feared until the advent of Abraham, who spread knowledge of God to the people around him. After that, God had pity on the evil inclination and allowed the Angel of Death to become Satan. You’d think that would be his final identity, but no. In the guise of Satan, the evil inclination was able to do its work until Moses came and began teaching Torah. Satan was so forlorn that he begged the Creator to put him out of his misery.

God had other plans and renamed the adversary “Arrogance.”

Arrogance now began his career. This time, his disguise was so good that he even penetrated houses of Torah learning. The more a true scholar studies, the more he realizes how little he really knows. However, under the influence of Arrogance, people would study and not be humbled by their knowledge. Instead, they assumed airs of superiority and looked down with disdain at the unlearned. Of course, they sugarcoated these feelings by claiming to defend the dignity of their knowledge, not their own person.

Although this wasn’t to be the last guise of the evil inclination, it’s one that manages to adhere to and sway many, many religious people in the world. For some people I encounter, they “defend the dignity of their knowledge,” denying that they are actually arrogant, but some say they are defending the “truth of God” (though they are actually defending their own interpretation of “truth”) and thus apparently make themselves invulnerable to criticism (because to criticize such a person is to actually criticize God).

That’s not my problem, though. I’m not even sure the following is my problem, but in offering advice to a chassid who feared becoming arrogant due to his great Torah knowledge and devotion to prayer, Rabbi DovBer had this to say as the climax of his parable.

This continued until Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov arrived in this world. He revealed the true unity of G‑d, before whom all are equal—no matter their level of scholarship.

Again the Evil Side came before the Creator, disguised as Arrogance, asking for a merciful end. Again his name was changed. This time, instead of plain Arrogance, it would be known as “Fear of Arrogance.” Being less bold than plain old Arrogance, Fear of Arrogance could do its work in peace.

“Now, listen here,” concluded the Mitteler Rebbe. “You should know that Fear of Arrogance is Arrogance, who is Satan, who is the Angel of Death, who is the Serpent himself! Quickly, throw him out of your house, because your life is at risk!”

You can either be too arrogant or too humble, but excessive humility can be a disguise for “fear of arrogance.” That’s where I am or where I imagine myself to be, not just in relation to church but in relation to faith and trust in God, sitting on the edge of a razor blade, fearing to jump in one direction or the other. Even though I’m physically going to church, I’m not really being the church (is four weeks sufficient to be the church?).

Early Sunday morning, my parents should be leaving to return home, my daughter should be at work, I’m not sure of my wife’s schedule, but at 9:30 this morning, I should be sitting in church, trying to decide which of two pockets to reach into in order to pull out what I need at the moment.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Addendum: Keep in mind that any number of experiences will have occurred between when I wrote these words and how I think and feel by the time you read this. My next “meditation” could have a very different tone.

41 Days: Still Processing Sunday

“Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him. Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says,

“‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
or what is the place of my rest?
Did not my hand make all these things?’”

Acts 7:44-50 (ESV)

Conclusions from Pastor Randy’s sermon on Acts 7:44-53:

  1. Israel’s history is one long story of their stubborn, rebellious tendency to reject God’s gracious dealings with them.
  2. Israel’s history has been characterized by limiting worship to a sacred placed, rather than a sacred person.
  3. We must take great care that we are not guilty of the same things!
  4. We should faithfully imitate Stephen’s bold witness, rather than have undue concern for our own safety or protection.

I don’t know. For the most part, what Pastor Randy said about this portion of Stephen’s defense before the Sanhedrin was supportive of the Tabernacle and the later Temples, including the idea that Ezekiel’s temple is literal and not figurative, and will someday exist in Jerusalem.

On the other hand, I’m bothered by the “either/or” concept of “Israel’s history has been characterized by limiting worship to a sacred placed, rather than a sacred person.” I think it would be valid to say that there were times in Israel’s history when they were faithless and even when offering sacrifices in the Temple, did so only to pay “lip service” to the commandments, while their hearts were far from God. But I don’t think that Israel’s temple service was always without value. Point 2 above seems to imply that rather than the Temple, the Jewish people should always have been focused on the Messiah, but didn’t God command Israel to build the Tabernacle? Didn’t the Shekhinah inhabit first the Tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-38) and later Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 8:10-12)?

Did Jesus replace the Temple? But then Pastor believes Ezekiel’s Temple will be built, so can he believe that?

The title of the sermon was something like “Putting God in a Box.” I think the idea was that it’s a bad thing to put limits on God in any sense, but I never really got the impression that throughout the history of the Jewish people, anyone actually thought God was confined to the interior of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) or Temple. The Divine Presence, what most Christian Bibles translate as “the Glory of God,” was understood as a manifestation of God’s Presence without being perceived as anything like His totality. This is where understanding a little bit about Jewish mysticism and concepts such as the Ein Sof and Shekhinah would be helpful.

In Sunday school class, I did hear one gentlemen using examples of the specific type of clothing worn by Orthodox Jews and praying at the “wailing wall” (Kotel) as illustrations of Jews “putting God in a box.” It was one of the few times during class that I didn’t speak up, mainly because it would have taken too long to try to explain why those practices aren’t necessarily bad things (for Jews, anyway).

I was also a little disturbed about where I would lead such conversation if I allowed it to go down the predictable path. At the beginning of services, Pastor Randy reminded everyone that he would be leading a tour of Israel this coming spring and that “affordable prices” for airline tickets needed to be purchased by the end of this month. He was extremely supportive of Israel’s efforts in defending itself during the current crisis, and said that we should not let ourselves be put off in planning to visit in the spring because of what is happening right now.

As he went through the slide show of where the tour group would be visiting, the last place is to be Jerusalem, including stopping at the Kotel. How was I supposed to tell this fellow in Sunday school that when I saw the slides of the old city, that I have always desired to offer prayers to God at the Kotel? What would he say? How much more trouble would I stir up than I already had?

I know I don’t fit in to a Jewish community. I’m not Jewish and I’m not going act in such a way that pretends otherwise. But while I say that I’m a Christian because it’s the closest approximation of an accurate description of my faith, I don’t believe a Jewish devotion to the House of Prayer that God Himself requested and required of the Jewish people is a vain and empty effort, even relative to the person and power of the Jewish Messiah King.

And I don’t believe that Jews who choose to observe the mitzvot by a certain way of dress, or who honor their Creator by praying at the Kotel is “putting God in a box.”

Am I just looking for excuses for not going back to church? Maybe. I’ve already concluded that this particular church is about the closest I’ll ever come to finding what I’m looking for within the Christian world. If I blow it here, I’ve blown it completely. I knew I’d never find perfection, but then, what did I expect?

I just don’t know if I can agree with how Stephen’s defense is being interpreted. More from last Sunday’s study notes:

  1. They had accused him of reviling the Holy Place; He accused them of resisting the Holy Spirit. (vs 51)
  2. They had accused him of belittling the Law; He accused them of breaking the Law. (vs. 52a)
  3. They had accused him of making light of Moses, the man of God; He accused them of murdering Jesus, the Messiah of God. (vs. 52a-53)

Granted, Stephen was limiting his accusation to the Sanhedrin (as opposed to leveling it toward all Jews everywhere) in turning the accusations around to apply them to his accusers, but did he not defend the Temple, the Law, and Moses as well as the Messiah?

What am I doing here?

For the most part they were willing to support the state and to partake of the cultural bounty of the Hellenistic world, but they were unwilling to surrender their identity. They wished to “belong” but at the same time to remain distinct. Support for the state was not to be confused with the abnegation of nationalist dreams. Hellenization was not to be confused with assimilation. This tension is also evident in the social relations between Jews and gentiles.

-Shane J.D. Cohen
Chapter 2: Jews and Gentiles
Social: Jews and Gentiles, pg 37
From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Second Edition

That’s not really describing me, but when I read this paragraph from Cohen’s book, I couldn’t help but think of my attempts at “belonging” in my current church context. However, at the same time do I want to remain distinct? Distinct as what?

I’ve described both Judaism and Christianity as cultures in addition to “faiths” (for lack of a better word). Judaism is notoriously difficult to define since it is a nation, a people, a faith, a culture, and an ethnicity, all rolled into one thing. Worse than that, Judaism encompasses multiple cultural and ethnic elements as well as variations on religious practices, but at its core, Jews will always be part of a single nation; Israel, because God has so ordained it.

By comparison, what is Christianity? It is primarily a religion, but it encompasses many “Christianities” and it has many different cultural and theological expressions. In the middle of all that, what identity do I have among them, and of what they teach, how much can I believe?