Tag Archives: tradition

Messiah Journal: Excerpt from “Origins of Supersessionism in the Church”

Yeshua not only defined himself as the gateway to salvation, but commanded his Jewish disciples to do something that had never been done before. Yeshua commanded his Jewish disciples to make non-Jewish people disciples in a Jewish sect that followed the Messiah and worshiped the God of Israel. Yeshua identifies his Jewish disciple Peter as the rock upon which he will build the Messianic community (Matthew 16:18). Acts 4 shows us that thousands of Jews came to faith in the Messiah well before the time when Paul began to actively seek non-Jewish disciples. We also see in Acts 15 that the Jewish Jerusalem council exercised authority over the Gentile assembly of the Messiah. With the foundation of the early Messianic community being so thoroughly Jewish, how did a concept like supersessionism even come into being? Actually, the seeds of this rather ugly plant began to sprout early.

Excerpt from the article
“Origins of Supersessionism in the Church”
by James Pyles
Messiah Journal
Issue 109/Winter 2012

I just received my advance copy of the latest edition of Messiah Journal (MJ) and of course, as it contains my first article published in religious literature, I’m more than thrilled. I showed my wife and she said that she will have to read it, which is even more intriguing (as surprising as it may sound, she doesn’t often read my material). I hate to admit this, but like many authors, I really enjoy seeing my work in print. I suppose it is the same feeling a painter has when he or she sees their work on display in an art gallery.

But I shouldn’t forget everything else this issue of MJ has to offer. I haven’t had the opportunity to read it yet (so I can’t review its contents), but I’ve looked through this issue and there are definitely some submissions I’m anxious to dig into.

There’s an article written by Tsvi Sadan called “Halachic Authority in the Life of the Messianic Community”. Apparently, it was delivered as a lecture to Messianic leaders in Israel in September of 2008 as the “final chord of a debate between those Messianic Jews who teach to live according to Jewish tradition and those who view this tradition as ‘the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.'” This discussion has taken place in the Messianic blogosphere fairly recently, such as in Judah Himango’s blog post Kosher Jell-O, and whether Messiah’s disciples need our own ruling body, as well as on my own blog in the write up Tradition! (and as always, some of the most interesting parts are in the comments sections).

I must admit, I will probably dive into Sadan’s article first, but I also want to read Russ Resnik’s “Shema: Living the Great Commmandment” (Part 1). I’m also very interested in Toby Janicki’s article “The Gentile Believer’s Obligation to the Torah of Moses”, which is also a topic of great interest among non-Jews who are attracted to Jewish religious lifestyle and worship. I believe MJ has had similar articles in the past and want to find out if this is just a reworking of material with which I’m already familiar or something entirely new. I know I’ve been challenged on this topic by comments made on my own blog very recently, both in Defining Judaism: A Simple Commentary and The Focus and the Lens, so I’m hoping for some “re-enforcement” to augment my own knowledge in this area.

For tomorrow’s “morning meditation,” I’m posting a blog on Gentiles and the Shabbat, and Aaron Eby has an article in the current issue of MJ called “Fire by Night: Lighting the Shabbat Candles” which (you should pardon the pun) should prove illuminating. That’s not all of the contents of issue 109 of MJ but those are the highlights. Of course, if you find all of that tantalizing, don’t forget my own article on the origins of supersessionism in the church, how the seeds were first planted, who the major players were, and how the history points to modern times.

If you don’t already regularly receive issues of Messiah Journal, go to the First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) website and order issue 109 today. I’m really looking forward to reading it myself.


The Prayer of Cornelius

At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.”Acts 10:1-3

The shortest prayer service of the day takes place in the afternoon, or at least just before sunset, and is called Mincha.

-Rabbi Berel Wein
“Mincha: the afternoon prayer”

moshe.gorin: The KSA says the ikar time for mincha is mincha ketana (9 1/2) hours after sunrise but the Rebbe davened before then. If you’re davening alone, when is best?

Torah613: The Rebbe davvened earlier (probably) because he davvened with the Yeshiva’s minyan, which was daily at 3:15.

Straight halacha would imply that Mincha Ketanah is better, so if it isn’t a question of davvening betzibur, MK is better.

Disaclaimer: As in all halachik questions, a competent Rov should be consulted.

mosheh5769: Whether we pray alone (bediavad) or with a Minyan (betzibbur), the prefered time for Mincha is Mincha K’tanah. Some say that if you pray in Mincha Gedola, you are still Yatza, but Lechatkhila, it is proper to pray at the time of Mincha K’tanah.

I don’t know where and who, but I have no doubt Taryag will help, there is a Posek who ruled that it is better to pray Mincha K’tanah alone than to pray Mincha Gedola with a Minyan. Why, I don’t remember, and I don’t know if other Poskim poskened in the same way.

Anyway, the best time to pray is at the time of Mincha K’tanah and not earlier. But of course, if a Shul has the custom to pray earlier (like the Yeshiva’s Minyan as it has been explained by Taryag) and if there need you to complete the Minyan, even if it is not your custom, you should complete the Minyan and daven earlier.

-from the discussion thread “Best time for Mincha”
Archived thread at Chabadtalk.com

We don’t know much more about the late Second Temple figure Cornelius than what we read in the verses I quoted above. He was what we call a “God-fearer;” a Gentile, a Roman centurion who, by definition, would have been a pagan polytheist, and who, during his assignment in the land of the Hebrews, came to realize that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, was and is the God; the One and Unique Creator of the universe.

Coming to that realization alone must have taken great courage and conviction. His actual response to his realization was certainly astounding, given who he must have been and where he had come from. We know he “gave alms generously to the people”, who we assume to be the Jews among whom he lived. The messengers sent to bring Peter to Cornelius after the Centurion’s vision referred to him as “an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation” (Acts 10:22). And oh wow! Cornelius was so favored by God that this happened.

And Cornelius said, “Four days ago, about this hour, I was praying in my house at the ninth hour, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.’ So I sent for you at once, and you have been kind enough to come. Now therefore we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.” –Acts 10:30-33

Incidentally, the ninth hour is at about 3 p.m. in the way we tell time today, about the time of the Mincha prayers. But why is that important? So who taught Cornelius to pray the Mincha prayers. Ok, there’s nothing to say that he was truly praying Mincha, but here’s why I think he was. Consider this.

The Roman Centurion Cornelius comes to faith in the One true God of the universe. Now what does he do? We know that he gives alms, probably to the poor among the Jews. Whatever else he did resulted in Cornelius being “well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation”, which is no small thing since he was also part of the Roman occupying army. As far as we are able to understand, that group of non-Jews who were called “God-fearers” worshiped on Shabbat among Jews in the synagogue. Where would he have learned the prayers and how to worship? What was the only available model Cornelius could have used to worship a God who was virtually unknown in the Greek and Roman world?

I’m not suggesting that Cornelius “lived as a Jew” in the sense of fully taking on Jewish customs including the various religious and identity markers. It is doubtful (but what do I know) that he would have shown up in the Court of the Gentiles at the Jerusalem Temple. After all, he had to consider appearances and what would the troops in the Italian Cohort have said if one of their Centurions was seen in such a public place among the Jews. On the other hand, his reputation preceded him among the Jewish people based on his being a devout and charitable man. Desiring to worship God above all other considerations, what would he have done? He would have consulted his Jewish mentors as to how to approach God. Prayer offered to the God of Israel is available to everyone, Jew and Gentile alike.

“Likewise, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for the sake of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm, when he comes and prays toward this house, hear from heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name. –2 Chronicles 6:32-33

Even in the days of King Solomon, a non-Jew could come to Jerusalem, pray facing the Temple, and expect to be heard by God. Why couldn’t the Jews among whom Cornelius lived and worshiped have taught him the same thing?

How did Jews pray during the Second Temple period? I’m no expert, but assuming the Jews in the time of Cornelius and Peter had similar traditions about prayer to those of Jewish people today, they would have prayed as Jews pray now. They would have prayed the Shacharit (morning), Mincha (afternoon), and Maariv (evening) prayers. If Cornelius wanted to learn how to pray from the Jews, they would have taught him how to pray the way that they prayed, with perhaps only a few variations, because Cornelius was not Jewish. In those days, siddurim (prayer books) were not used and the prayers were generally memorized. That means, Cornelius would have had to say the prayers by memory, probably in Hebrew or Aramaic (given that the Centurion was posted to a foreign land, it’s not inconceivable that he was bi-lingual or multi-lingual). He also would have prayed at the times set by halacha for prayer which, in the afternoon, meant around 3 p.m. or the ninth hour.

Why am I writing this and why should you care? What does it matter to a Christian in the 21st century if a Roman centurion, who came to faith in Jesus almost 2,000 years ago, happened to worship and pray in a manner similar to the Jews? Have you ever wondered why Christians don’t pray in the same manner as the Jews today?

I’m not saying that we must pray morning, afternoon, and night (though it wouldn’t be a bad idea). I’m saying that there’s nothing stopping us from considering where we come from as a faith. However you pray and however you worship in your church, your way isn’t the only way. In fact, if you go back more than a few decades or a few centuries, the way you may consider “Christian” and “holy” probably wasn’t practiced, as least in a manner you’d recognize. Go back far enough, like 2,000 years, and the way a God-fearer and a Christian prayed and worshiped wouldn’t be much different than the way a Jew prayed and worshiped.

Imagine that.

We tend to take prayer and worship for granted because we can always pray and worship anytime we want. But in many ways, the church considers prayer and worship as optional or at least voluntary. We get to choose our own way and manner of doing things. However, for believers and God-fearers like Cornelius, that privlege and honor to worship the King may have come with a commandment attached, maybe at the level of rudimentary “halacha” for non-Jews who had faith.

Today’s amud discusses the halachah regarding hearing the Torah reading when one is in prison. Although today in many places things may be different, it used to be that most prisons would not allow a sefer Torah inside—even for an important person or a minyan of prisoners. When the Vilna Gaon spent about four weeks imprisoned it was impossible for him to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the Torah reading. After he left prison he called a baal koreh to read for him all four parshios he had missed while in prison.

Although missing so many weeks is very unusual, many greats were meticulous to make up the reading that they had missed that day.

Mishna Berura Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
“The Prisoner’s Duty”
Siman 135, Seif 11-14

Our Gemara reviews a series of Mishnayos where the obligation to fulfill mitzvos is taught to be more inclusive than plainly stated. Regarding the mitzvah to read the Megillah on Purim, R’ Yehoshua b. Levi teaches that the expanded inference is meant to include women. Although this rabbinic mitzvah is one that is restricted to time, and women are generally exempt, here woman are obligated because “they were also included in the miracle.”

Rashi explains that women are obligated in the mitzvah to read the Megillah to the extent that a woman may read the Megillah for her husband or other men.

Daf Yomi Digest
Distinctive Insight
“Women’s obligation in reading and hearing the Megillah”
Arachin 3

The level of “commandedness” which defines Jewish tradition, worship, and prayer seems very “heavy-handed” to most Christians and the spectre of “man-made rulings” is generally disdained in the church (and among many Gentile believers to call themselves “Messianics”). And yet, how would an “upright and God-fearing man” like Cornelius have seen his responsibilities to God as taught to him by his Jewish mentors? Would the Jewish sense of halacha have meant to him what it meant to the Jews? We don’t know. But imagine if we, as Christians, could experience some of the sense of duty and obligation to God, to the prayers, to our way of worship, as Cornelius may have? How much more would God be a part of our lives today? How much more would God be our lives today?

ShemaOne of the functions of tradition and halacha in the life of a Jew is to make every act holy. You cannot eat without blessing God and considering the food on the plate sitting in front of you (or even without considering the plate). You cannot wake up in the morning without gratefully thanking God for returning your life to you. You cannot go to bed at night without asking God to send his angels to guard your soul as you sleep. You cannot progress through your day without ceasing your labors at specific hours in order to devote yourself to God in prayer. And for one day a week, you cannot do many things as you do them on the other days of the week, but instead, you cease labor entirely and dedicate the day to family, prayer, worship, and God.

I’m still not saying that as Christians we should live like Jews, but consider what we’re missing by not taking tradition more seriously. Tradition can be like a straight-jacket or a pair of wings. It can bind us inescapably to a collection of actions and rules that threaten to smother us, or it can send us free into flight away from a mundane world and into the presence of God with practically every move we make.

Maybe this is why the Jews considered the foreigner Cornelius an “upright and God-fearing man”. Maybe this is why God found that Cornelius merited a vision of an angel, and made him and his household a bridge between God-fearers and disciples of Christ.

While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. –Acts 10:44-48


Fighting Words

Teshuvas Minchas Yitzchok was asked about people who daven in the summer in a field, how far apart they could be spread and still constitute a minyan. Does the matter depend upon whether they could see one another, whether they could all hear the sh’liach tzibbur or perhaps they have to stand within four amos of one another since the pasuk (Devarim 23:15) indicates that a person’s camp is four amos. He responded that combining for a minyan depends upon two factors. The first prerequisite is that everyone must be able to hear the sh’liach tzibbur. This is based on Shulchan Aruch’s ruling that if nine people do not listen to the sh’liach tzibbur it may be that the berachos recited by the sh’liach tzibbur are berachos l’vatalos. The second prerequisite is that the participants in the minyan have to be capable of seeing one another. This is based on Pri Chadash’s ruling that when two groups of people are in different rooms they combine to make a minyan if some of them could see one another. Although there are authorities who disagree, in the case of an open field all opinions would agree since there is no wall dividing the group into two that seeing one another is sufficient for them to combine.

Our Mishnah teaches that animals combine for tithing if they are in an area “as large as an animal’s grazing range.” This is defined by the Mishnah as an area of sixteen mil. Rashi explains that this refers to the size of an area in which animals could spread out but still be watched by a single shepherd. Sefer Imrei Devash also wondered whether the discussion in our Mishnah has bearing on the question of how far apart a group of people may be spread out and still constitute a minyan. Perhaps they can be as far apart as sixteen mil since they should be able to see one another but perhaps forming a minyan follows a different set of rules. He leaves the matter unresolved.

Daf Yomi Digest
Halacha Highlight
“Forming a minyan in a field”
Bechoros 54

I recently wrote an article about tradition and how our religious traditions add context and meaning to our worship of God. This is true in any religion I believe, but especially true in Judaism. Perhaps for that reason, Christianity tends to give Judaism a really hard time because of all its “man-made traditions.” The problem for most Christians, even those who otherwise find great beauty in Jewish religious practice and study, is that Jewish traditions are given the weight of authority and even appear to override the plain meaning of the Torah text, seemingly positioning the Rabbinic sages above God. While Judaism doesn’t have this perspective, the ability of most Christians to see from a Jewish point of view is extremely limited, which produces a lot of misunderstanding and, to my way of thinking, unjustified criticism.

I’ve been involved in conversations regarding tradition and Talmudic rulings at a number of blogspots recently including those written by Judah Himango and Derek Leman. Derek especially has been vocally dynamic in this area, writing two subsequent blog posts answering specific questions posed by individuals: Answering Dan and Answering Peter. Although most if not all of the people involved in the discussions on these blogs are in some way attached to the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots movements, there is a great deal of difficulty in understanding and accepting how tradition and rabbinic authority work in the Jewish world and particularly within Orthodox Judaism.

For some people, it’s not enough to understand that, if you don’t belong to an Orthodox community (and especially if you’re not Jewish), you do not have to consider yourself bound by their rulings and traditions. You can choose your own traditions and make them as flexible and non-binding as you’d like (though you probably shouldn’t imagine that your own traditions create a formal “Judaism”). For some of these individuals though, it is important to prove that Jewish tradition is “wrong” and goes against God. The presumption for the other side of the coin is that their own interpretation of the Bible is “right” and can be used to manufacture a “true” Jewish or Hebrew Roots religion more in line with God. Scriptures such as Mark 7:1-23 are often cited to support how Jesus disdained Jewish man-made traditions and supposedly taught only from the “pure” Word of God (although we have a good indication in John 10:22 that Jesus celebrated the tradition of Chanukah).

I specifically quote the “Halacha Highlight” above because of the following line:

Perhaps they can be as far apart as sixteen mil since they should be able to see one another but perhaps forming a minyan follows a different set of rules. He leaves the matter unresolved.

The collection of talmudic rulings and judgments and their associated commentaries are vast and it literally requires years of study to become even somewhat proficient at understanding their wisdom and meaning. Here we also see that these rulings and commentaries are not always definitive. That is, they don’t always take the force of “thou shalt not” or “thou shalt” and many discussions on halakhic matters are left “unresolved.” In fact, the validity of judgments and how (or if) they are to be enacted can be hotly debated to this very day in Rabbinic circles. There is not always absolute agreement about how these “man-made traditions” are to be lived out in everyday Jewish existence. Local authorities often contradict more historic and global sages and typically, a Jew will form their religious practice around the decisions of their Rebbe or local synagogue Rabbi.

So why should you care?

If you’re not Jewish, you don’t have to. Even if you are Jewish, if you don’t consider any rulings of any Rabbis anywhere, including what we have recorded in Talmud, as authoritative, then you don’t have to care either (unless you suspect that somewhere inside those rulings is the will of God). There are plenty of atheist Jews who work on Saturday, eat ham sandwiches and shrimp scampi, and who have never worn a tallit (let alone prayed to God). They apparently don’t care about what the Talmud says and if you are a Jewish person who is religious but not in a traditional Jewish manner, then you can also decide not to care.

That doesn’t mean the Rabbinic sages don’t have authority within their communities, it just means you choose not to consider them having authority over you and your community. God will sort all that out at some point and then we’ll know for sure. Right now, there’s enough doubt to result in their being many different ways to live as a religious Jew let alone as a religious Christian (including Gentile Messianic and Hebrew Roots). Either God accepts the variations we have created with the patience of a kind Father toward small and confused children or He’ll show us all where we “got it wrong” in the end of days.

However, human nature says we’re going to continue to jockey for position, so to speak, and attempt to establish our own authority and “correctness” relative to the people and groups with which we disagree. We see that happening all of the time, even within the context of the Talmud itself. Judaism isn’t always about “getting it right” but rather, it’s sometimes about struggling with the Torah, other Jews, and God. It’s not a crime to disagree in Judaism (but don’t try it in Christianity or the “Messianic” worlds unless you want to get into the spiritual equivalent of a bar fight), it’s expected, and on just about any subject.

A few days ago, I was talking with my wife about a topic on which I was emotionally sensitive and she started arguing with me. I have to admit, I got kind of put out by her attitude and started to walk away when she stopped me. She reminded me that we’ve been married for almost 30 years and that she’s always argued. She then said something like, “I’m Jewish. I argue. That’s what we do.” In other words, she was saying, “Don’t take it personally.” I like a good debate every now and then (though obviously, not on every possible occasion) and one of the things I try to promote is being able to disagree without personalizing conflict. This is quite possible, even outside of a Jewish context. I’ve seen a prosecuting and a defense attorney practically come to blows in open court during a trial only to become best friends and make dinner plans together after the trial was over and the jury left the courtroom.

It’s tough not to take religious arguments personally because our faith is the most personal thing about who we are. When someone disagrees with how we perceive our faith, we hear that disagreement as “them’s fightin’ words”, to employ an old, Western TV show phrase. In fact, they aren’t “fightin’ words” unless we choose to make them such. Still, the best many of us can do is “agree to disagree” and drop the conflict as “unresolved” (see my opening quote at the top of the page). Like it or not, that’s the way we are going to have to leave many of our questions and disagreements…until the time of Messiah’s return.

Until then, may we all find the ways of peace with each other, no matter how differently we see ourselves and God.

The blessing Jacob gives Judah concludes with the words: “his eyes will redden from wine, and his teeth white from milk.” Rabbi Yochanan says homiletically (Kesubos 111b) that you can read it as “teeth whiter than milk” — to give a smile to a friend is even greater than giving him nourishment.

When someone comes collecting charity, it is a difficult and often thankless job. Rejection can break a person’s spirits and keep him or her from continuing, no matter how important the cause. So, as it happens, a smile may be one of the most important things you can give — you can brighten that person’s spirits and enable him or her to persevere.

Closer to home, there is no one who doesn’t have a “hard day” now and then. There are great people who have tremendous internal reserves of happiness, so that no matter what, it seems like they are always happy. Even people like that need an encouraging word now and then — much less the rest of us, who sometimes just want to crawl back into bed and start over tomorrow, if not next week!

To be generous of spirit is at least as important as being generous with money — and when it comes to smiles, the more you give, the more you have!

-Rabbi Yaakov Menken
“Brother, Can you Share a Smile?”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayechi


Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything… How to sleep, how to eat… how to work… how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl that shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, “How did this tradition get started?” I’ll tell you! I don’t know.

But it’s a tradition… and because of our traditions… Every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach answered, “Although there is no source in the poskim, this is the custom and it has been the custom for quite a while.”

Mishna Berufa Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
“A Sign of Mourning”
Rema Siman 131 Seif 2

Powerful and moving as study can be, Judaism has to do more than challenge us intellectually. If it is to help us search for spirituality and quest for a sense of God’s closeness, Jewish life has to give us opportunities to express hope and fear, joy and grief. It has to connect us not only to tradition and to our history, but to family and community. It has to create moments in which we touch the innermost parts of who we are, when we can appreciate the miracles of everyday living and when we can reconnect to the dreams we have for ourselves, our families, and the world. Judaism, if it is to provide Jews with something that will truly shape their lives, has to make room for the soul no less than for the mind. That is why in addition to the world of words and text, Jewish life also revolves around ritual.

-Rabbi Daniel Gordis
“Ritual – Creating Space for Spirituality” (pp 102-3)
God Was Not In The Fire

As I make my way through Rabbi Gordis’ book, I find myself falling in love with Judaism all over again. I know people can stab and poke at Jews and Judaism and find fault, but I suppose that’s because Jews are human and not perfect and the rest of us are human and not perfect. But there’s something so beautiful and calming about the traditions in Judaism. There’s an order and a “centeredness” about a devout life, from saying the Modei Ani upon awaking to reciting the Bedtime Shema before retiring. People, whether secular or religious, who do not have a tradition from which to draw and add meaning to their lives, must experience existence in such a colorless dimension. It seems rather sad when religious people disdain tradition, because it’s part of what gives context and meaning to a life lived for God. Tradition and ritual also provides direction and form to trust and faith because without them, the Bible does not say in precise detail how we are to even worship.

Shabbat is not the only ritual in Jewish life that fosters relationship and connection. While each life-cycle ritual (the bris, naming ceremonies for girls, weddings, funerals, and the like) has its own symbolism and its own message, and each holiday on the annual calendar cycle (Rosh Ha-shanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, Shavuot, and the others) celebrates a different value or event, what ultimately makes them powerful is the sense of community that they provide. Sharing many of these holidays and life-altering moments together somehow creates the connectedness that many modern Jews desperately want but have not found elsewhere. When they finally find that connection, they find spiritual richness, a sense of intimacy. They find meaning (Gordis, pg 108).

I think this is part of what makes Judaism so attractive for some non-Jews. I know it’s what attracts me but I recognize the inherent limits as well. Ritual does not a community make, at least not right away. It’s not as if I could simply enter a synagogue on Erev Shabbat and gain an immediate sense of belonging. I would have to stay, perhaps for many years, and allow my life to be molded by the rituals and ceremonies of the community. I would have to allow myself to become connected and the community would have to be willing to allow that connection. Rabbi Gordis wrote this book primarily for a Jewish audience longing to return to or to discover the spiritual meaning in their Judaism. I think Goyim like me just get hooked and taken along for the ride without the author’s full intention.

After all, it’s not like other religions don’t have traditions and rituals, even if they don’t recognize their behaviors by those names. Consider the rituals and traditions of the church. We’ve just finished the Christmas season and many believers in the church find deep meaning, both personal and as families, in celebrating the birth of Christ. It’s not important to them that Jesus was probably born no where near December 25th or that the origins of the modern celebration are attached to ancient, pagan festival practices. The meaning is found in tradition, not the history books. This is true for the other important Christian calendar events and rituals such as Easter, but also includes marriages, funerals, the ritual of communion, baptisms, and a myriad of other activities that define Christian living and life. People outside those traditions may not agree with how the church constructs its rituals and some folks are even vehemently opposed to Christian traditions, but traditions are the structure and the building blocks from which we construct our faith and relationship with God and our fellows.

But there are so many traditions, both within the church and the synagogue. I remember, many years ago, sitting in the local Reform shul when a woman asked the Rabbi (I’m paraphrasing, since I can’t remember what she said word-for-word), “Why do we have so many traditions? It’s like every country we were kicked out of, we took their traditions with us. We have so many. I can’t remember them all.”

It was kind of humorous, and kind of frustrating, and kind of sad the way she asked (you had to have been there…her vocal inflections and pacing gave a wealth of meaning). All of those traditions and rituals are what makes Jewish living uniquely “Jewish”. Not that there’s just one way of being “traditionally” Jewish, as Rabbi Gordis relates (pg 104):

As we examine the world of Jewish ritual, we should not anticipate one authoritative reason for each ceremony or custom. Just as each Jew who studies classical Jewish text reaches different conclusions about its meaning and is touched in profoundly personal ways, so, too, each person drawn to Jewish ritual is drawn by something slightly different. The wisdom of Jewish ritual is that it works on many different levels. Often, it functions in different ways for even the same person.

Particularly for a Jew, ritual and tradition connects them to the study of the sacred texts (Talmud torah), to other individual Jews, to the larger Jewish community, and to the wonder of God. It also connects the Jew to himself and his own personal identity as a Jew beyond an ethnic definition. When a Jewish man davens in the morning wearing a kippah, talit gadol and laying tefillin, feeling the siddur in his hands, singing prayers that are hundreds and even thousands of years old, how can he not feel inside of his soul that he is a Jew?

I, of course, am looking in from the outside, but even to me, this is abundantly apparent. It is no wonder that those who chose to try and destroy Jewish life over the long march of time have burned thousands of copies of the Talmud and siddurim, and forbidden Jewish families from lighting Shabbos candles or praying in synagogue. Even with the threat of certain death, under the most horrible conditions possible, Jews have refused to give up the rituals that say to the world that they are Jewish.

Consider the testimonies of Jews who survived the Nazi death machine and who told of Shabbat in the camps. They spoke of inmates who violated the Nazis’ law, risking immediate death by hoarding their bread from Thursday so that they could have two pieces on Friday (symbolic of the two loaves of challah that tradition requires on Friday evening and Shabbat afternoon). Why would people on the verge of starvation, in which Shabbat could scarcely be celebrated, take this risk? What was to be gained?

What they stood to gain was a chance to reassert their denial of Nazi Europe as an ultimate reality. Honoring Shabbat, even in a murder camp, was their way of saying, “I believe in the possibility of a better world. I deny that you are the real ruler. Despite you, I insist that I am human, that I am created in God’s image, and that one day, a world will arise when good will triumph over evil, when God will triumph over you.” (Gordis pg 120)

I know of no other religion or religious people, not even those Christians who have suffered terribly for their faith, who have something so powerful in their lives that they could be inspired to defy death for the sake of honoring the Shabbat and God.

Some non-Jews are so turned toward the delight of Judaism in their hearts that they convert and make being Jewish their life, adopting the rituals and traditions as their own. There are others who do not convert but who attempt to integrate at least some of what they see as precious in the Jewish life into their own as a form of worshiping Jesus or Yeshua as Savior and Messiah. This gets a little dicey when you start making decisions about which traditions you want to keep and which you want to discard, and the Gentile Christian (who may not even believe he still is a Christian) finds himself in the uncomfortable position of actually re-defining Judaism to suit his personal and religious requirements. It’s sort of like a person who has lived in Los Angeles all his life deciding to move to a small rural town in Colorado because he is attracted to the beauty of the Rocky Mountains, clean air, and simple living. Then, upon his arrival, he rebuilds Los Angeles all around him, brick for brick, car for car, freeway for freeway, because it makes him feel more “comfortable” with “country living”.

If you are going to change your lifestyle, you must come to the realization that you are the one who must change, not traditions and rituals. You accept them and change, or you reject them and admit that you do not want to live as a Jew (the latter being the wiser course of action for most non-Jews).

There is one “Jewish” ritual Rabbi Gordis describes that I think belongs to all human beings, though. There’s a blessing a Jew says upon seeing a rainbow in the sky.

Blessed are you O’ Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who remembers the Covenant, is trustworthy in His Covenant, and fulfills His promise.

Praying with TefillinHowever, this covenant was made with Noah who fathered not only Shem (the Semitic people including Jews) but all of humanity after the flood. The covenant spoken here is with mankind and all human beings can bless the heart of God in this gentle tradition.

But the vast majority of Jewish traditions are…well, Jewish. If you are going to adopt any of them for whatever reason (and keep in mind, some Jewish people might take exception if you end up imitating or “characterturing” Jews), please try to understand what you are doing and why you are doing it. Lighting the Shabbat candles honors God as Creator but it doesn’t make you a “spiritual Jew” nor does it say that you are now co-owner of Judaism because you are grafted in (Romans 11). It also doesn’t mean that you can declare yourself “Messianic” as if you are totally divorced from Christianity, and redefine the Torah, Talmud, halachah, and ritual, throwing into the trash whatever doesn’t suit you, and believe that you are in a “Judaism”. You may be doing something, but it probably isn’t very “Jewish”.

One of the “Thou shalt not covets” should be not to covet thy neighbor’s religious practices or his covenants unless you convert to your neighbor’s religion or have another compelling reason to take some on them on board, such as being intermarried. I previously wrote another meditation called Dayenu with that in mind.

Tradition is what gives our faith experience a structure and meaning but what attracts us to a certain tradition may defy logic. Most people love their traditions because it’s what they grew up with and their traditions provide a reminder of childhood comfort, safety, and simplicity. However there are those of us who are drawn to traditions completely alien to our parents for reasons only God knows. Where ever your heart goes and whatever traditions you find yourself practicing, if they belong to someone else, be polite, try to ask permission to join in, and treat the rituals and blessings gently. They may be new to you, but they’ve been precious to others for a hundred lifetimes.

Fragmentation Dilemma

At first all existed as a single whole in a single thought. Then it fell below, shattering into tiny fragments and fragments of fragments. Now Man picks up the pieces and says, “This seems to belong to this, and this relates to that,” until he reaches back to the whole as it was in primal thought.

It is not the cause and why of things that we find. Things are the way they are because that is how their Maker decided they should be. That is beyond the domain of intelligence. The beauty of intelligence is that it finds the harmony and elegance of the whole as it was originally conceived.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

I really thought I’d write just one blog post about Christmas and the anxiety it produces in the Christian, Jewish, and Messianic communities, and then I’d be done and move on. Wrong. The giant panic attack over “Christmasphobia” seems to be (you should pardon the expression) snowballing in the religious blogosphere and social media space, and I can’t leave it alone. There are so many “teachers” and “experts” who keep hammering on the points of “I’m right and you’re wrong” and “Christmas is evil!” that it makes me wonder if the community of faith is about serving God and other people or about establishing the “rightness” of various individuals and sub-groups in our little corner of the religious world.

I suppose I’m not immune since I still feel the need to blog about all this, and I hope I’m communicating, not the need to be “right”, but the message of tolerance and understanding. I know that there is an absolute God who has absolute standards in the Heavenly realm, but if you’ve been a human being and religious for more than just a few days, you should know that trying to distill an absolute right and wrong in every single matter of living existence is no easy task. In fact, it’s probably not even possible.

Look at what Rabbi Freeman might be saying. Here’s my picture.

It’s as if we all woke up one morning to find ourselves in a fog-enshrouded field. We aren’t quite sure who we are, who all these other people are around us, and what we’re doing here. We notice tons and tons of very small fragments of “something” lying all over the field and we realize that we can figure out who we are and learn to understand each other if we just start to pick up the pieces and put them back together again. This is an enormous effort and requires that everybody work together. As our pieces begin to take some sort of form, we start arguing over how the pieces are supposed to fit and what shape they’re supposed to build. Depending on the person or group of people doing the building, the pieces all fit together differently and take on many different shapes. There are pieces and shapes that are impossible to make, which defines “wrong”, but we are all surprised that there is more than one way to make a “right”.

Derek Leman recently wrote A Sermon on Belief and Intelligence which illustrates as much as anything how faith and human intelligence must go hand-in-hand. To quote from the blog post, “Unexamined faith is cowardness” and “intelligence alone can’t explain the mystery.” Since human faith and human intelligence are not the same universally across all people groups or across all individual human beings, we end up with a high degree of variability in how we use faith and intelligence to “understand” God and “understand” the Bible (and I’m not even including any other faith groups outside of Christianity, Judaism, and their variants). Given all that, it is the height of arrogance to say that any one tradition is the one right tradition (I know, I keep hammering on this point in blog after blog, but it’s important and almost nobody “gets it”).

Within you as an individual and within your particular religious group (and I suppose even secular humanism qualifies as a “religious group”), you settle on standards and principles and things you “know” are right and wrong, but try to realize that other groups have their standards and principles, too. Even when we depend upon the same Bible or, to return to my metaphor, we are working with the same pieces, we use our traditions to fit the pieces together differently and to create a shape that’s different from the shapes of other groups, even when we’re using almost exactly the same pieces (i.e. Bible).

I like one of Julie Wiener’s quotes from her In the Mix article on Christmas especially well and as far as I’m concerned, she has more credentials as a Jewish woman in an interfaith marriage to make such a commentary than most of the “pundits” in the religious blogosphere who are using their points to stick it to their brothers and sisters in faith.

A few years ago, the sight of my offspring engaging in tree trimming might have made me squeamish, but this year, while we don’t (and won’t) have our own tree, I’m on a bit of a crusade, so to speak, against Christmasphobia. By which I mean the attitude many Jews (even some intermarried ones) have that Christmas and all its trappings must be avoided at all costs lest we assimilate into nothingness — and that we must be offended when clueless but well intentioned Christians wish us a merry Christmas or offer us gifts wrapped in red and green.
Like intermarriage itself, the presence or absence of a Christmas tree in one’s home is often used as a shorthand pulse check of Jewish identity — and both are rather flawed, simplistic measurement devices.
The fact is that many interfaith families, and in-married families with Christian relatives, do live full Jewish lives yet also partake in Christmas celebrations.

Although Judaism obviously struggles with the “Christmas dilemma”, that struggle doesn’t come in the form of a vicious attack on those people who put together the pieces of their puzzle into the shape of a Christmas tree. We universally fail to work together as people to put the pieces together into their original, single, unified shape. As human beings, this seems to be an insurmountable goal. But while we work in our own groups to build our own shapes and see how the pieces fit together for us, let us also fail to criticize, attack, revile, and humiliate the other groups simply because they use their own tradition to put their pieces together differently than we do.

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)

Only God can put together the pieces back into the original, perfect whole. The Messiah will come again to show us that pattern. For now, we are here and we have been given the job to do justice as we understand it, to love kindness as we have been shown it, and to walk with God along the path we see before us. How we do this will be different, depending on the path we walk. Why is that so hard to understand?

Christmas Trees and Panic Attacks

There are many quaint customs that get passed on from father and mother to son and daughter. Some of these practices are minhag Yisrael which developed for various reasons. Others are firmly based on halachah. Still others are sometimes misapplications of both.

A new school is always an adjustment. Especially if one commutes, it is hard to know just how much food one needs for his grueling day. One commuting student was somewhat hungry and had nothing left from his lunch. A kindly student—an Israeli of Sefardic descent—shared an apple with the new student. To the recipient’s surprise, there was a bit cut away from the apple. “Why is some cut away?” he asked his friend.

“My parents do that to all of the produce which comes through our house,” the boy explained. “It is a way of fulfilling the mitzvah of tithing produce.”

“What, in chutz l’aretz?” wondered the surprised boy.

“That is our custom,” was his friend’s simple reply.

In addition to a snack, the recipient had also received much food for thought.

When he got older he learned the probable source of this custom was a misapplication of a practice during the times of chazal which is not relevant in most places today. In the word of the Beis Yosef, zt”l,: “Since the custom is not to take terumos and maasros in these lands, I do not wish to discuss these halachos at length. Although we find in Bechoros 27—and other places in the Talmud—that they used to take terumos and ma’asros outside of Israel, the Ri, zt”l, explains that this only applies to lands which are close to Eretz Yisrael. Tosafos in Avodah Zarah writes the same, as does the Rambam in the beginning of Hichos Terumah…”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“A Family Custom?”
Bechoros 27

I read this and immediately thought of the continuing discussions in social media on the pros and cons of celebrating Christmas. These discussions reach the level of a “spiritual panic attack” in some corners of the Messianic world while the topic is all but ignored by the majority of folks in traditional Christianity and Judaism.

I was talking to my wife about traditions the other night and so much in the Judaism is driven by tradition. The interesting part is, there isn’t just one Jewish tradition. For instance, if there is a general ruling applied in the Talmud, but your local Rabbi has a differing opinion, a Jew is obligated to follow their local Rabbi’s ruling. Ashkenazi Jews have a tradition of considering beans and rice as leavened during Passover while Sephardic Jews do not, so if you are Ashkenazi, you are obligated to follow your own tradition (whether you personally agree with it or not) rather than choosing the Sephardic tradition. And as we see from the quotte above, there can even be family traditions within Judaism that are considered binding.

No wonder Judaism is confusing for most non-Jews.

I’m writing this to say that there can be more than one right way to behave as a person of faith and more than one tradition that is correct, depending on who you are and how you are identified. I don’t mean to say that there aren’t wrong things for a person of faith to do, but I am saying that there may be multiple streams of “correctness” or “acceptability”, depending on your traditions. The celebration of Christmas is a tradition. It’s attached to an actual event, the birth of Christ, but there’s nothing about the timing of Christmas or how it is observed, particularly in the modern era, that is really tied in to the birth of a baby boy to a young Jewish couple in first century occupied Israel. It certainly isn’t a celebration that the disciples of Jesus followed, either during his lifetime or after the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. I can’t imagine Paul showing the Gentile disciples in Antioch or Rome how to put up “Christmas” decorations.

But it’s a tradition that, in one fashion or another, the church as been celebrating for a very long time. How it is celebrated as changed over the years and the Christmas that we have now is just a few centuries old. For all those nations where Christmas is celebrated, it is observed with different types of traditions, and some are very different from what we have in America. There are even different ways to celebrate Christmas in different churches in the same city and even between different families who go to the same church.

And then there are corners of the Messianic movement that go absolutely bonkers at this time of year if anyone even breathes the suggestion that celebrating Christmas might be “OK” and not automatically “pagan” and “evil”.

I read a recent commentary on Facebook that was “shared” and originally written by a Messianic teacher I’ve never heard of before (I won’t mention names but the commentary got my attention, though not in a good way). This person compared the Christmas tree to the Tower of Babel, directly applied the prohibitions against idols written in Jeremiah 10 to the Christmas tree, and made an absolute statement that celebrating Christmas leads to (spiritual) death.

Oh my!

One of the reasons I left “the movement” was because of some of the more outrageous teachers that are attracted to “Messianic Judaism”. As in many other religious traditions, there are a number of different branches to “Messianism” and some are more “interesting” (I’m trying to be polite) than others. I have many friends in different branches of the movement, both in person and on the web, and I’m not trying to offend any of them, but I need to try to remind everybody that none of us has the secret keys to the truth and any of us can go off half-cocked given a good enough reason.

It’s OK to disagree with someone’s religious practice and to believe their understanding of the Bible is wrong. However, it is not OK to pass judgment on others to the point where you state unequivocally that those folks with whom you disagree are “going to hell in a handbasket.”

Interestingly enough, my family and I went out to dinner tonight and afterward, we stopped off at a confection shop in the Boise North End called Goody’s. The place was completely decked out for Christmas and while we were waiting for our order to be filled, my son told me there were some things about Christmas that he kind of misses. He lives in his own place and I told him he could decorate it for the holidays if he wanted, but he said it wouldn’t make much sense to do it just for him. He also said that he didn’t doubt he’d celebrate Christmas in the future when he had a family of his own. I was just a little surprised, but he was probably referring to the significant likelihood that he wouldn’t marry a Jew (just how many eligible Jewish young women are there in Boise, anyway?). Michael self-identifies as Jewish and has a spiritual component to his life, but he isn’t particularly religious. It occurred to me that in addition to community traditions and family traditions, sometimes there’s the evolution of the traditions of the individual. Like I keep saying, we all make decisions and we all manage the consequences in one way or another. We all have different ways in which we relate to each other and to God.

We need to keep it together, gang. Faith in God is about listening to and being supportive of others, even if they are different from you. Disagree on principle if you must, but do not condemn, especially if you aren’t that sure of how God views our traditions and particularly when you realize that how we understand the Bible and God may not have absolute fidelity to the original. For tomorrow morning’s “meditation”, I’m posting a blog called “The New Testament is Not in Heaven”. I hope I can further illuminate the role of tradition in our lives for both Christians and Jews, and just how much of what we believe comes from God is actually based on traditions.

Addendum: For more on this topic, go to Kabbalah Christmas and The New Testament is Not in Heaven.