–Exodus 35:1 (JPS Tanakh)
The verb vayakhel – which gives the portion its name – is crucial to an understanding of the task in which Moses is engaged. At its simplest level it serves as a motiv-word, recalling a previous verse. In this case the verse is obvious:
When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they assembled around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us.” (32:1)
Moses’ act is what the kabbalists called a tikkun: a restoration, a making-good-again, the redemption of a past misdemeanour. Just as the sin was committed by the people acting as a kahal or kehillah, so atonement was to be achieved by their again acting as a kehillah, this time by making a home for the Divine presence as they earlier sought to make a substitute for it. Moses orchestrates the people for good, as they had once been assembled for bad (The difference lies not only in the purpose but in the form of the verb, from passive in the case of the calf to active in the case of Moses. Passivity allows bad things to happen – “Wherever it says ‘and it came to pass’ it is a sign of impending tragedy”. (Megillah 10b) Proactivity is the defeat of tragedy: “Wherever is says, ‘And there will be’ is a sign of impending joy.” (Bemidbar Rabbah 13)
At a deeper level, though, the opening verse of the portion alerts us to the nature of community in Judaism.
In classical Hebrew there are three different words for community: edah, tsibbur and kehillah, and they signify different kinds of association.
There’s a tendency in certain corners of Christianity to struggle with the definition of words like “kahal” and “kehillah” vs. the word “ekklesia.” Does “ekklesia” mean “church” or is it associated with one of the words that has to do with “Jewish” gatherings? Certainly “ekklesia” and “synagogē” although related, tend to be split in our modern world to mean (Christian) church and (Jewish) synagogue. But digging just under the surface, here’s what we find.
At its most basic level, “ekklesia” means “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly.” (see BibleStudyTools.com). This strips the word of all its religious connotation and gives us the “nuts and bolts” understanding. An ekklesia can be any gathering of citizens called out into a public place. They could be football fans or a lynch mob. They don’t have to be “the church.”
Interestingly enough, one definition provided by my source says, “the assembly of the Israelites,” but there’s no way to understand in that context if we are to take “Israelites” as strictly Jewish people or rather to overlay a Christian understanding and include Gentile believers as “Israelites.” Given that ekklesia tends to be considered a compound word made up of “ek” (out of, from, by) and “kaleo” (to call, to invite, to give a name to), it seems more likely that the application in this sense, is recognizing “Israelites” as those called by God in the original “called” or “chosen” manner at Sinai. I don’t see the idea of a “mixed” population of Jews and Gentiles being called collectively “Israelites” here.
A synagogue (from Koine Greek: συναγωγή transliterated synagogē, meaning “assembly”), sometimes spelt synagog, is a Jewish or Samaritan house of prayer (When broken down, the word could also mean “learning together” – from the Greek συν syn, together, and αγωγή agogé, learning or training) that emerged at first essentially within the context of Hellenistic Judaism in the diasporas of Greece and the Hellenized regions of the MENA area (Cilicia, Syria and Alexandria) in the second half of the Second Temple period, then progressively became the typical place of Jewish worship and education after 70 CE, when Roman persecutions accelerated the geographic dispersion process that accompanied the abrupt ending of Temple worship and priestly rituals and traditions.
So synagogue seems to be more related to “house of assembly,” “house of prayer,” or “house of study,” but within a specifically Jewish context (we do see God-fearing Gentiles periodically attending synagogues in the late Second Temple period, but they were clearly non-Jewish guests within a Jewish venue). People don’t typically ever say something like “Christian synagogue” or “Jewish church.”
This week, I’ve been discussing (complaining) about the interactions and friction that seem to occur between certain groups of believing Jews and certain groups of believing non-Jews (i.e. Christians). One of the questions that comes up in such transactions is how closely those groups are related. Are they a single group with a single identity, differentiated only by a bit of DNA and a slice of culture, or are they defined as more distinct and separate on the level of community and covenant?
Let’s take a look at what we know about “ekklesia,” which is how we commonly think of the community of disciples of Jesus Christ, and compare it to Rabbi Sacks’ definitions for different communities of Jews (and I’m setting “synagogue” aside for the sake of this conversation). First, Rabbi Sacks’ discussion:
Edah comes from the word eid, meaning “witness.” The verb ya’ad carries the meaning of “to appoint, fix, assign, destine, set apart, designate or determine.” An edah can be a gathering for bad as well as good. The Israelites, on hearing the report of the spies, lose heart and say they want to return to Egypt. Throughout, they are referred to as the edah (as in “How long will this wicked community grumble against Me?” Bemidbar 14: 27). The people agitated by Korach in his rebellion against Moses and Aaron’s authority is likewise called an edah (“If one man sins, will You be angry with the whole community?” Bemidbar 16: 22). Nowadays the word is generally used for an ethnic or religious subgroup. An edah is a community of the like-minded. The word emphasises strong identity. It is a group whose members have much in common.
By contrast the word tsibbur – it belongs to Mishnaic rather than biblical Hebrew – comes from the root tz-b-r meaning “to heap” or “pile up”. (Bereishith 41:49) To understand the concept of tsibbur, think of a group of people praying at the Kotel. They may not know each other. They may never meet again. But for the moment, they happen to be ten people in the same place at the same time, and thus constitute a quorum for prayer. A tsibbur is a community in the minimalist sense, a mere aggregate, formed by numbers rather than any sense of identity. A tsibbur is a group whose members may have nothing in common except that, at a certain point, they find themselves together and thus constitute a “public” for prayer or any other command which requires a minyan.
A kehillah is different from the other two kinds of community. Its members are different from one another. In that sense it is like a tsibbur. But they are orchestrated together for a collective undertaking – one that involves in making a distinctive contribution. The danger of a kehillah is that it can become a mass, a rabble, a crowd.
The beauty of a kehillah, however, is that when it is driven by constructive purpose, it gathers together the distinct and separate contributions of many individuals, so that each can say, “I helped to make this.” That is why, assembling the people on this occasion, Moses emphasises that each has something different to give: Take from what you have, an offering to God. Everyone who is willing to bring to God an offering of gold, silver and bronze … All you who are skilled among you are to come and make everything the Lord has commanded …
Moses was able to turn the kehillah with its diversity into an edah with its singleness of purpose, while preserving the diversity of the gifts they brought to God…
And to sum up his definitions, Rabbi Sacks states:
To preserve the diversity of a tsibbur with the unity of purpose of an edah – that is the challenge of kehillah-formation, community-building, itself the greatest task of a great leader.
Kehillah seems to be what God, through Moses, was trying to forge from the Children of Israel. Each type of group had something valuable to offer but those elements needed to be brought together and combined within a single container to result in both diversity and unity being focused on constructive purpose.
How does that compare to our understanding of ekklesia?
In a Christian sense:
- an assembly of Christians gathered for worship in a religious meeting
- a company of Christians, or of those who, hoping for eternal salvation through Jesus Christ, observe their own religious rites, hold their own religious meetings, and manage their own affairs, according to regulations prescribed for the body for order’s sake, those who anywhere, in a city, village, constitute such a company and are united into one body
- the whole body of Christians scattered throughout the earth
- the assembly of faithful Christians already dead and received into heaven
It’s as if ekklesia is trying to mirror the Jewish (or at least Rabbi Sacks’) understanding of kehillah. Ekklesia is taking the general understanding of a group of people who are called out, in some sense, who are dissimilar, who can also be assembled by random chance, but who also, when given a purpose by God, gather together from widely diverse backgrounds to be united into one body of believers for the sake of Jesus Christ.
I know that some people don’t think being gathered together for the sake of Christ is a “constructive purpose.” Certainly the vast majority of Christian history has shown us we haven’t been very “constructive” in relation to the Jewish “kehillah.” Many atheists would also agree that, based on their perception of “Christian bias,” the body of believers is hardly constructive and especially not “progressive.”
But for those of us who authentically and honestly seek out God through being disciples of the Master, being gathered together in the ekklesia of Messiah very much is a constructive purpose. Feeding the hungry, comforting the grieving, visiting the sick and imprisoned is all “constructive purpose” as far as I’m concerned and as far as the teachings of Jesus and the Torah are concerned.
Pulling all this together within the widest possible sense of the body of believers, just how close a comparison can we make between the Messianic Jewish kehillah and the Christian (including Hebrew Roots) ekklesia? I’m unwilling to say that the only difference between Jewish and Gentile believers is a string of DNA or a bit of cultural context and rather, believe that the manner in which God distinguished the Children of Israel at Sinai continues to distinguish their descendants, the Jewish people, even within the community of Messiah. I also believe, going back to Rabbi Sacks and his commentary, that community must be active and not passive, we must live holy lives, not just talk about holiness.
In other words believing Jews and Gentiles are and aren’t different at the same time. We are different in that Sinai is the defining moment for the Children of Israel and always will be relative to their special “called out-ness” from the nations. All Jews are born into this covenant relationship whether they want to be or not. But what believing Jews and Gentiles have in common is that we all had to consciously and willingly hear the voice of Messiah and respond to him, and to accept the good news of salvation from sin and the promise of the restoration of national Israel under her King.
There are groups who want to separate the believing Jews and believing Gentiles completely and have us live in two parallel but isolated silos. There are other groups who want to pour us all into a single silo like so many millions and millions of grains of wheat, completely indistinguishable form one another.
I believe we are more like two sheep pens united in a single flock with a single shepherd. Not all sheep look the same. Not all sheep act the same. Some of the sheep, a relatively small number, have a more specified purpose within the flock than the vast majority of other sheep in the flock. In spite of that, we have one shepherd whose voice we all listen to and who we all respond to in faith and trust. Since we’ve originally come from two separate pens, we have two separate histories and we different sheep have a lot to learn about one another. Sometimes, that means we “butt heads,” so to speak. The shepherd, seeing this, encourages us to live at peace with one another, not as identical drones or dough stamped out from the same cookie cutter, but as sheep from the Jewish pen and sheep from the Gentile pen in the flock of Messiah.
Kehillah/Ekklesia: different and distinct but brought together for a common and constructive purpose, offering our distinctive talents and identities in a unified container all for the sake of Messiah and by the plan of God.
Come together, right now