Sunday, 16 November 2014

Or Tzaddikim Yismach

The Hidden Light

It is a traditional Jewish belief that the world was created for the use of humankind. But what kind of use? The use of becoming a tzaddik, a righteous one, or true human being. This is behind the popular Rabbinic sayings that the whole universe was created for the sake of the tzaddikim; that the world is not destroyed "because of 36 righteous people"; and that the tzaddik is the yesod olam, the "foundation of the world".  It is also behind one of the quotations ascribed to Yeshua HaMashiach in the apocryphal besorah tovah of Yehuda Tomah, or the "Gospel of Thomas". There is says:

V.12  The talmidim said to Yeshua: We know that you will leave us; who is it who will be great over us? Yeshua said to them: Wherever you are, go from there to Ya'akov haTzaddik, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.

The phrase "for whose sake heaven and earth came into being" is a way of saying that Yeshua's brother Ya'akov (James) is a truly great tzaddik, worthy of their full trust and obedience. 

In the Mesilat Yesharim (Way of the Upright) the Ramchal (Moshe Chaim Luzzatto 1707-1746) discusses this concept. He states there:

The world stands as in a great balance. If humanity is drawn after the world and distanced from the Creator, humans become degraded and degrade the world with them. However, if they control themselves and cling to the Creator, and use the world only as a way to serve the Creator, they are elevated and the world itself becomes elevated with them......This is similar to what our sages, of blessed memory, said regarding the light that the Holy One, blessed be, stored for the righteous (Chagigah 12a): 'Once the light saw that the Holy One, blessed be, had stored it for the righteous, it was gladdened (samach), as it is stated, 'The light of the righteous is gladdened" (or tzaddikim yismach).'  [Mesilat Yesharim Ch. 1, my translation]

Reading this paragraph I was reminded of Rav Sha'ul's words in Romans 8:19-24 (my translation): 

For the creation eagerly awaits the revelation of the children of God; for the Creation was subjected to ephemerality, not willingly but because of the one who subjected it in hope that the creation itself will also be set free from bondage to decay into the glorious freedom of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning with birth pains right up the present moment...

Rav Shaul seems to me to be saying here that when humanity fell it degraded the whole creation, which now waits with groaning to share in humanity's uplift as we truly become, and are revealed to be, the children of God. There is a fascinating glimpse of the continuity of Jewish thought here, and the Rabbinic sensitivities of Rav Sha'ul. 

In the second part of the Ramchal's paragraph, he makes his point by citing the Talmudic statement that the "light stored away" was glad to see that it was to be given to the righteous. The sages derive this from a creative reading of a verse in Mishle which literally means, the "illumination of the righteous brings gladness" but they read as "the light for the righteous is gladdened". This is a reference to the light that was created on the second day of Creation. The Rabbis ask, if light was created on the first day, then why are the stellar lights created on the fourth day? They answer that the light referred to on day one is a spiritual light that Hashem then hid away for the tzaddikim (this light is known in Jewish theology as the or haganuz). 

 There is a sod (a secret here): the words for "samach" (shin-mem-het) are also the root letters of Mashiach (mem-shin-yud-het). Yochanan (1:1-5) says that the Davar (Word) was the "light of men", or in other words, the spiritual light that illuminates men. Yeshua is the source of the light, as Yochanan states many times in different ways. This is even clearer in the passage in Mishle, which in Hebrew reads "the light of the tzaddikim gladdens": "or tzaddikim yismach" (yud-shin-mem-het), the exact letters of Mashiach (mem-shin-yud-het). The passage can thus also be read "the light of the tzaddikim is Mashiach". 

Friday, 14 November 2014

Love Is Stronger Than Death

Parshat Chayei Sarah

Bereishit 23:1-25:18; 1 Kings 1:1-31; Mt 1:1-17; 1 Cor 15:50-57

After Sarah Imanu (our mother) dies in this week's parsha (which some say is due to finding out what almost happened to Yitzhak in last week's parsha) it says "vayavo Avraham lispod l' Sarah v'livkotah", and Avraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993), known as "the Rav", comments on this parsha that there is a difference between "mourning" (lispod) and weeping (livkotah). Weeping refers to the primal release of grief. Mourning (hesped), which also means "eulogy", is not primarily an emotional process but an intellectual one. Hesped is the process of fully understanding, with as much accuracy and holism as possible, what you have lost. This is an essential part of the Torah approach to death, says the Rav (basing himself on the Talmud). This sounds excruciating, and no doubt it is. Yet in order to honour the dead, and I would think also, to honour oneself, it seems necessary. One should first review everything that has been lost with the death of the loved one, then let that full knowledge pour out in one's primal grief. 

I am struck here by what what might call the "nonBuddhist", or "nonstoic" nature of this advice. Not only is one not discouraged from grief, or counselled into a more "enlightened" response based on accepting impermanence, the focus here is on grieving fully and "properly". 

As we learn in the Brit Hadashah, even God weeps. When Yeshua learns of the death of Elazar (Lazarus), his friend and the brother of his disciples Miriam and Marta of Beit-Aniya (Yochanan 11:33), he is not stoic but deeply grieved. We should perhaps remember here that death was not God's hope for humankind. Had Adam and Chavah rested in the emunah (faith/trust) they were called to in the garden instead of choosing "their own possibilities" (Bonhoeffer) they would have remained in gan eden and eaten of the Tree of Life. Death grieves God. 

In that same chapter of Yochanan Yeshua comforts Marta by saying "Your brother will rise". She says that she knows he will rise in the techiyas hamesim (resurrection), but Yeshua assures her that he in fact means right now. Elazar will arise when his death is touched by the source of life, the Living Word. 

In this week's Brit Hadashah reading Rav Sha'ul affirms that "the shofar will sound, and the dead will be raised (1 Cor 15:52)". Quoting Hoshea, he says (15:55),

O death, where are your plagues?
O grave, where is your victory? 

In one of his shocking locutions Sha'ul goes on to say (in my translation based on Hoshea's Hebrew) that the plague leading to death is sin, and the power of sin is the Torah (15:56). In other words, sin leads to death on the authority of the Torah. Yet- thanks be to God who keeps giving us the victory through our Lord Yeshua the Messiah! (TLV).  The amazing implication of this is that Yeshua gives us victory over the power of condemnation for failing to fulfill the Torah, and thus breaks the authority which which sin kills us. This is a vision of Yeshua Hago'el, Yeshua the redeemer. 

Joyful, with all the strength I have my trembling lips shall sing:
Where is your boasted victory grave? And where is the monsters sting?
So let us praise the God of victory
Immortal hope for mortal flesh
So let us praise the God of victory
Who makes us conquerors in death. 
(Isaac Watts 1674-1748) 

This is the amazing offer present in Yeshua, Hashem's amazing grace. And though we will still will and still should grieve our losses here, surely some balm is mixed with death's sting in knowing we will rise again, and be reunited, through the undeserved grace and mind-boggling sacrifice of Yeshua Mashiach. Gazing in Yeshua's eyes, which filled with tears for us fixed themselves on the cross, we in turn may smile amidst our tears. In the dark night of death a sun rises.

In the Zen tradition there is a saying that one always needs to have "two eyes". The meaning is that one needs on the one hand to view things as ephemeral and merely external. On the other hand one needs to navigate those very ephemerals wisely. In a similar way we are not to suppress our grief because of our faith in the resurrection. Yeshua did not. Yet even while grieving for our loss in this life, we should simultaneously remember that a day will come when every tear will be wiped away, and let our mourning be tempered by that sweetness.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Vayera: Gods Right and Left Hands: The Conflict Between Charity and Justice?

Messianic Parsha: Vayera

Bereishit Vayera; Haftorah 2 Melachim 4:1-37
Brit Hadasha Readings: Lukas 1:26-38, 24:36; 2 Kefa 2:4-11

Prolegomenon: Avraham and Israel

Shlomo Katz (Ha Ma'ayan) writes on this week's parshah: 

"The Midrash Rabbah on this week’s parsha opens: “It is written (Tehilim 18:36), ‘You have given me the shield of Your salvation; and Your right hand has sustained me, and Your humility made me great.’ ‘You have given me the shield of Your salvation’--this refers to Avraham. ‘Your right hand has sustained me’--in the furnace (a reference to another midrash where Avraham was placed in a furnace for his belief in Hashem and survived], during the famine, and in Egypt. ‘Your humility made me great’--when did Hashem show humility to Avraham? When Avraham was sitting and the Shechinah was ‘standing,’ as it is written (in the first verse of our parsha), ‘Hashem appeared to him [Avraham] in the plains of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance of the tent . . .’.” 

R’ Yitzchak Ze’ev Yadler z”l (1843-1917; Yerushalayim) explains: If the only reason that Avraham was sitting was because he had recently undergone an operation (the circumcision), it would not have been worth the Torah’s while to report this fact. Rather, the midrash reasons, there must be a message in the verse. That message is alluded to in the cited verse from Tehilim, which teaches us three things about Hashem’s relationship with Avraham and the Jewish People. 

(1) Just as Hashem was Avraham’s shield (see Bereishit 15:1), so He is a shield for Avraham’s descendants. 

(2) Hashem acted towards Avraham and his descendants with his "right hand"- a term usually interpreted by our sages as an allusion to supernatural action.

(3) Even when a person is not capable of lifting himself to spiritual heights--as Avraham was not at this moment because of his physically weakened state--Hashem acts with humility and brings Himself closer to man. (Tiferet Zion)."

How truly do we see this reflected in Mashiach. Mashiach is a sheild for believing Israel and anyone who believes- a sheild that turns away the wrath we are heir to for our sins;

This salvation has come to us supernaturally through the self-sacrificial death of Yeshua Tzidkeinu (our righteousness);

Hashem's great humility is shown in the famous verses from Philippians 2:5-7:

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Mashiach Yeshua, 
6 who, though he was in the form of YHVH, did not count equality with YHVH a thing to be grasped, 
7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of humanity. 

This great humility of God is described in the first Brit Hadashah reading in Lukas, 1:26-38, which describes Gavriel's visit to Miriam, the declaration of Gods intent, and her acceptance of it. 

Charity and Justice

The Chofetz Chaim (R' Yisrael Meir Kagan, d. 1933) in his book Ahavat Chesed (The Love of Kindness) raised a question on verse 18:19:

"For I have chosen him (Avraham) that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of The Lord by tzedaka and mishpat (charity and justice)...." 

The Chofetz Chaim asks, "How can a person teach his household to do both charity and justice?" 

One needs to understand here that in Rabbinic thinking, these two qualities of tzedaka and mishpat form polar opposites. Tzedaka, which literally means righteousness, has a strong connotation of "charity/generosity/kindness" and sometimes carries the latter meaning exclusively. Mishpat literally means "judgement" and is taken to refer to strict justice or punitive judgement. These two qualities therefore represent the so-called "right" and "left" hands of God also known as chesed (kindness, mercy) and gevurah (severity, anger). 

Rabbinic thinking dating back to the Talmud sees these two qualities as existing within God in tension with each other. One somewhat shocking aggadah in the Talmud depicts God as praying , "May my mercy be stronger than my anger...." (T. Bavli, Berachot 7a). 

In fact on a Biblical, or p'shat level, this is somewhat of a false problem. The word "tzedaka" does indeed connote righteousness with an emphasis on interpersonal kindness, compassion and general ethical behaviour. The word "mishpat", however, refers to the sense of giving everyone their due, respecting their rights, being just. This is why when God is depicted as coming to the earth to bring mishpat it is an occasion of joy, not dread:

Psalm 98  

1 Sing to the Lord a new song,
    for he has done marvelous things;
his right hand and his holy arm
    have worked salvation for him.
2 The Lord has made his salvation known
    and revealed his righteousness to the nations.
3 He has remembered his love
    and his faithfulness to Israel;
all the ends of the earth have seen
    the salvation of our God.
4 Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,
    burst into jubilant song with music;
5 make music to the Lord with the harp,
    with the harp and the sound of singing,
6 with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—
    shout for joy before the Lord, the King.
7 Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
    the world, and all who live in it.
8 Let the rivers clap their hands,
    let the mountains sing together for joy;
9 let them sing before the Lord,
    for he comes to bring mishpat to the earth.
He will do mishpat to the world in righteousness
    and to the peoples with equity.

As Timothy Keller points out (Generous Justice) mishpat here connotes "vindication" or "putting things to right". It is a relief, not something to dread. Note also verse 9 actually says he will "do mishpat in tzedaka". In other words here mishpat is an expression of tzedaka!

These two qualities then are not necessarily in tension at all- in fact they support each other. The Rabbinic understanding of mishpat arises out of the juridical culture of the Rabbis, sprouting out of the internal debates of those called to judge legal cases. For the Rabbis mishpat referred to rendering a verdict in accordance with the law, and tzedaka to being kindly- going beyond the letter of the law to show compassion.

Interestingly these two ideas- strict justice and mercy- also arose as polar opposites in Christian thinking. "Strict justice" or "wrath" came to be associated with God's "holiness" which would not tolerate sin, and this attribute was juxtaposed with God's "love" or "mercy", which is his desire to save and bring His creations into his redeeming presence. Protestant theology has frequently described Yeshua's death on the cross as the resolution of this tension within God. In Yeshua's sacrifical death God's wrath is satisified, his justice honoured and fulfilled, and His holiness expressed and manifested. Yet this happens as a fulfillment of God's love- He himself takes our sin and death on Himself, in a staggering display of humility and mercy, in order to save us from ourselves. In the words of John Stott, "The cross demonstrates with equal vividness both His justice in judging sin and His mercy in justifying the sinner." (The Cross of Christ).  

This sacrifice is offered to all. All who accept it through faith are forgiven, made righteous, adopted as sons, and filled with the ruach hakodesh- the very Spirit of God, in order to be sanctfied and made holy. This is the culmination of the history of Israel and the centre of the story of the world. 

So how does the Chofetz Chaim answer? More prosaically, but still with wisdom worth heeding: "One teaches their children both charity and justice like this: with the rights of others be absolutely strict to the full letter of the law. With your own rights practice charity, and overlook other's transgressions against you."  

The Binding of Yitzhak (the Akedah)

The Akedah has long been considered an event of cosmic significance. In Christianity it is thought to be a sign, or type, foreshadowing Gods sacrifice of His own son. In Judaism it has been thought of as a great act of merit that Jews draw on eternally before God. In the zichronot prayer on Rosh Hashanah we pray the following, echoing what we said above:

"Remember the binding of Yitzhak so that your mercy overcomes your anger....."

Here Avrahams sacrifice is hoped to placate God forever; his descendants can call on mercy biglal Avraham (for Avrahams sake).

No doubt Hashem's love for Israel is eternal, but we know it doesn't quite work that way. God commanded Israel to offer atonement for themselves in the Temple despite Avrahams sacrifice, and even that was not enough in the face of Israel's failure to fulfill its mission to the world. God had to come Himself.

The Akedah is also a story of Avrahams consecration of Isaac to God as an offering and therefore the consecration of all Israel. It is Avrahams response to Gods consecration of Him, from which we learn that there must always be a response to complete the action of grace.

"Therefore I urge you brothers and sisters, in view of Gods mercies, to offer your bodies as living sacrifice (Romans 12:1)"

As I have argued elsewhere, I believe that Avraham did not think God would actually take Isaac from him, but rather trusted in Gods promises in the face of seemingly incontrovertible evidence. He trusted because he had walked with God and come to know Him. His faith in His promises had been amy rewarded and his faith his justice proven by his respond to Avrahams questioning over Sodom and Amorah.

This faith is what Kierkegaard called that of the "knight of faith", who gives all up to God confident that it will somehow be returned to him. This is the faith in resurrection. Instead of clinging tight to this world, grabbing what we can and looking out for no. 1, we "hate the world" and love God. But we will not lose all these beauties, we will not lose each other. All will be restored in a state infinitely more wonderful and true than now, and Gods justice and love will be vindicated even as he loves and vindicates.

This faith, and Gods power of resurrection, feature in this weeks Haftorah where we read of the resurrection of "the Shunnamite woman's" son through the intercession of Elisha. Like Avraham, the Shunnamite woman is first given abundance and then has her son seemingly taken from her, only to have him returned. All of the wonders that happen to her are a result of her faith in Elisha through light and dark.

In Lukas 24:36 we read of the ultimate sign of the resurrection: Yeshua's startling return as the first fruits back from the dead and the conqueror of death for all. Whereas Avraham has faith in Hashem even in the face of the apparent loss of Yitzhak, and the Shunnamite woman has faith in Elisha, Yeshua's disciples seem lost in doubt and fear (24:38). Yeshua's miraculous appearance is utterly shocking to them, and they think he is a spirit, or fail to recognize him at all. True to form Yeshua's reappearance to them and to us is not based on their or our faithfulness: it is a unilateral act of mercy that evokes faith in lost hearts.

It is interesting to note what the disciples do after meeting Yeshua on the road to Emmaus: they return to Yerushalayim and "were continually at the Temple praising God" (24:58 ESV). The disciples take their joy back into the very heart of Judaism and Israel. They express their joy Jewishly. Messianic Jews can take heart in their own path of delighting in Yeshua as and through and with Israel.   

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Lech Lecha: On Faith

Lech Lecha (Bereishit ); Isaiah 40:26-41:16; Romans 4:1-25

The Haftorah for this week, in Isaiah 40-41, features God's voice castigating and reassuring Israel for being "of little faith":

Look up at the sky!

Hashem yells, 

Who created the celestial lights? 
.....why do you say, Israel, "God does not know what is happening to me
and is not concerned with my vindication?

YHVH is the eternal Lord, the creator......Isaiah says, He does not grow tired or faint....He gives strength to the exhausted, renewed energy to the weak.

Those who wait on YHVH's help find renewed strength
they rise up on eagles wings
they run without getting weary
walk unfatigued.

The Haftorah goes on to picture the enemies of Israel building solid, well made weapons and cheering each other on as they prepare to decimate Jacob. Don't be fooled, says God. If you rely on me then though they be mountains that rise against you I will shred them to dust.

How wonderful all of this sounds to the heart that longs for YHVH. That faints to be embraced in His arms and drawn close to His heart. 

What Hashem is asking for is not for Israel to have faith in itself. Hashem does not say, "Cheer up Izzy, you can do it." No, Hashem speaks a provocative word of faith into Israel's weakness.

When Abraham is called out of his father's house he is likewise not called to faith in himself. He is an old man called to set out like a young pioneer; an octogenarian husband called to believe in the fertility of his barren marriage; head of a small clan called to believe he will father nations and be a blessing to the ends of the world. 

In Sha'ul's letter to Rome he dwells on a particular aspect of Abraham's faith: that Hashem "reckoned it to him as righteousness." What is righteousness? Maybe the best definition of righteousness is being in a right relationship to God. The fact that Abraham believes God's promises shows that he has a true faith- a faith that apprehends the nature of God and trusts Him (for more on this key aspect of Abraham's faith see this post). Our Parshah, and Sha'ul, argue that a person with faith of this kind is righteous in God's eyes- not because he or she has attained complete righteousness of character but because God, in His grace, views a broken and imperfect human being with such faith as righteous, or in right relationship to Him. 

Abraham's faith is, if you think about it, a tremendous accomplishment. That same faith has been accomplished for us by Yeshua. 

What do I mean by "accomplished for us"? I am not going Calvinist on you (although in some instances I think going Calvinist is a good thing!). What I mean is that Yeshua has decisively revealed God's nature to us, and He has humbled Himself, come as a servant, and laid down His life for our sake in a way which decisively shows His goodness. He has come as Immanuel, God-with-us, and shown us just what that means. Anyone who looks into the face of Christ will be moved to faith in Hashem, and will be on the way to knowing the God that he is placing his faith in. What Abraham accomplished through a miraculous leap of perception and trust waits now for anyone whose eyes are opened to see Yeshua. Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheynu Melech HaOlam Asher Hechiyanu Vekimanu Vehigiyanu Lzman Hazeh. 

I Follow the Torah, Not The Laws of Men

I grew up in a traditional Jewish culture which made no distinction between rules found in the written and "oral" Torahs (torah sh'bichtav and torah sh' ba'al peh). Only when as an adult I became seriously interested in Judaism as a spiritual path did I begin to learn about these two types of mitzvot, or "commandments". The argument for the authority of the "oral" Torah rests in a simple truth. The written rules and examples of case law in the Torah, by which I here mean the Chumash or "five Books of Moses", are not sufficient to govern personal conduct, legal culture, or political structure without further elaboration. The Torah gives us precepts, principles and "case law", ie. examples of how to judge in a selection of cases. Torah law explicitly covers a tiny percentage of what an actual society needs rules for, however. There must, therefore, have been oral traditions to fill out the picture of Gods intent (for more on Torah law as "case law" see Joshua Berman's Created Equal). 

A little reflection will show that this must be true. The Chumash simply does not contain sufficient legal rulings to govern an entire society. The idea of an "oral law" is also very useful since an unwritten law can be modified over time, providing flexibility and innovation. All historians of Judaism agree that this has in fact happened, even in the long period after the oral law was written down in the form of the Mishnah and Talmud. 

The problem develops as follows. The law contained in the Mishna is more elaborate than Torah law and sometimes reinterprets or modifies literal Torah law. The Talmud goes further. There are two principles at work here: one is teasing out as much detail as possible from creative exegesis of the text. The other is creating "fences". A "fence" is a law which protects a Torah law by forming another law "around it" which is actually more stringent than the original law but keeps a person totally away from any possibility of violating the original law. An example of this process is the laws around mixing meat and milk. 

Butter Chicken

The Torah forbids cooking a kid in its mother's milk (Exodus/Shemot 23:19; 34:26; Deuteronomy/Dvarim 14:21). The Rabbis extended the law to mean eating any animal in its mother's milk (lamb and beef were thus included). They argued that this was the true intention of the law. They also argued that it was not only the case of cooking but also of eating: milk and meat should not be eaten together. They also felt that the wording of the text also forbids benefiting in any way from a combination of milk and meat, for example selling it to to someone. Thus far we have a concern to elaborate the law as much as possible based on that they thought were its implications (Hullin 113b, 115b, Talmud Bavli). 

Then the fences come in. Not only can milk and meat not be eaten together, but they cannot both be part of the same meal at all. Chicken and milk also cannot be. Why? Someone might think you were eating milk and meat and be tempted or misled into sin. Also no taste of meat or milk can mix with their forbidden other. Plates which have been in contact with meat thus cannot be used for milk and vice versa. One must therefore own two sets of plates. In the modern world there must be milk restaurants and meat restaurants.

And on and on we go. A tremendous amount of material, psychological and intellectual energy goes into maintaining the resultant system. But what was the original rule? Don't cook a goat in its mother's milk. 

This is why I eat butter chicken with no twinge of guilt (as do Karaites, Falasha and some other ancient Jewish communities. Just saying). 

The issue becomes even more piqued when we ask what the purpose of the rule could have been. Some suggest it was meant to engender sensitivity to the dignity of animals. Eating a creature cooked in its mother's milk? My people, Israel, don't do that, says Hashem.

Some people say that it was a pagan delicacy, a feature of Cannanite cuisine that was part and parcel of the rapacious and morally insensitive culture of the people whom the land of Israel "vomited out". Maybe both answers are true. If so the take home lesson would be to avoid barbaric culinary practices which disrespect the dignity of animals, not to develop soy based coffee cream so we can can have whitened coffee after our steak dinner. 

The oral law has generally moved in the direction of stringency, but it does cut both ways. For instance, the Torah mandates that every seven years all debts should be cancelled. It also mandates that the community should not allow anyone to be lost in poverty- in other words, the giving of loans will be necessary. In Mishnaic times the Rabbis found that no one was giving loans as the seventh year got closer, knowing that the debts might be forgiven before they would be paid back. Rabbi Hillel, a great Rabbi, instituted the famous prozbul, a legal device where debts would be held by the Rabbinic court itself and thus repayment could still be demanded after the seventh year. R' Hillel's intention was to protect the poor from finding no lenders. Yet there is no denying that in doing so he contradicted a divine law. One could also argue that he aided a process of moral and structural unravelling of Jewish society away from the idealistic society envisioned in the Torah.  

In the New Testament Jesus, that arch-enemy of Rabbinic Judaism (on their side, not his) criticized the burgeoning Talmudic movement in Jewish society on both fronts, both for moral laxity and loopholes and for legalistic stringencies. So this is an old pattern, and one that is endemic to the way that the Oral Law has developed.

What is the solution? I would argue that the solution lies in a kind of "protestant Jewish reformation". Like the best of the Christian reformation this movement should not throw out the wisdom or insights of Rabbinic Judaism. But they should hold to a sola scriptura emphasis which holds honest, scientifically infomed scriptural exegesis as its dominant principle. We live in a time where this is possible like never before. 

I am not arguing against "oral" law (although at this point it might be better to call it "traditional" or "extra-biblical" since it is bound to be predominantly textual in nature). What I am arguing against is the lack of radical ongoing "reformation" (in the protestant sense) in traditional Jewish law. Some of the methods and ideologies with which the Rabbis interpreted the Torah law do not stand up to analysis, yet they are held to be sacred and authoritative, even "God's will" in a way which is ironically quite reminiscent, if anything, of the Catholic Church and the magisterium. 

In the Jewish community the solutions thus far are: 1) the "Catholic" option, represented by Orthodox Judaism. Here the decisions of previous generations and of contemporary Rabbinic courts are considered to have authority which supersedes the written Torah and is divinely guided; 2) the "Anglican" option, represented by Conservative Judaism. Here great respect is given to legal precedent , but theoretically all is open to scrutiny. In practice the degree of "reformation" allowed is quite conservative (more conservative than the Anglicans in fact), meaning that the core precedents and praxis of the oral law are not radically reexamined; 3) the Protestant option allowing for total freedom in interpreting law to the point that the idea of "law" itself is almost absent. This covers the Reformed, Renewal, and Reconstructionist movements. This doesn't mirror historical Protestant movements so much as the most liberal and inchoate forms of Protestantism. 

Something is Missing

Something is missing from this picture. It is a robust, theologically Orthodox, devout and earnest Judaism rooted in an intellectually honest and academically informed engagement with the Torah and Jewish tradition. In the absence of such a communal pursuit those of us who believe that the Torah is divinely revealed and want to know and follow the God if Israel must live a quasi-karaitic existence, which is what I do. 

Now as a messianic Jew I do not believe that my standing before God is dependent on my obedience to the Torah's commandments, or my own righteousness. I am "set free from the law" yet that freedom is toward embodying the Torah, not disregarding it. As a result of this I am both passionately interested in understanding and applying the Torah and free to do so in a non-legalistic manner governed by my conscience as it is illumined by my ongoing growth in submission to the Holy Spirit. 

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheynu Melech Ha-Olam Asher Natan Lanu Derech Hayeshua baMashiach Yeshua, baruch Hu.  

Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Tree of Life: Messianic Parsha-Haftorah-Brit Hadashah CommentaryFor This Week

Genesis 1:1-6:8; ; Isaiah 42:5-43:10; John 1:1-5; Revelations 22:6-21

The Messianic Parsha readings this week are wonderfully interlinked. As we open the scroll again to begin at the beginning we also have a glimpse of the ending and the thread that ties it all together, the alef, the taf, and the Word Himself.

Adam and Chavah are created mortal with the potential to become immortal. Gods breath sustains them but after they eat from the Tree of Life they will be by nature deathless. They are created, blessed and given freedom and pleasure. There is only one thing requested of them: to live in and by faith, through God. They are to live in reception of God, which is not an obligation or task but a blissful blessing.

As we know the story takes a long, crooked turn. Adam and Chavah believe the lie of the serpent and distrust God- they take matters into their own hands. As Bonhoeffer says, they desire "their own possibilities" good and bad; they eat the fruit. Through this fall they fall into death and away from the life of their Father. They leave the Garden mortal and vulnerable, estranged from the Tree of Life (etz chayyim).

God's redemption plan is revealed in this week's haftorah: Isaiah 42. In Rabbinic synagogues they will begin the reading at 42:5, but this misses the first key verses which will be so resonant to believers in Yeshua (42:1-5):

Behold my Servant whom I uphold
My chosen one in whom my soul delights
I have put my spirit upon Him
He will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry out or raise His voice
Nor make his voice heard in the street 
A bruised reed He will not break
And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish
He will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or discouraged
Until He has established justice in the earth
And the coastlands wait for His teaching.

The Rabbinic opening passage was perhaps chosen because it echoes Bereishit: 

42:5-7: Thus says YHVH The Lord
who created the heavens and stretched them out
who spread the earth and what comes from it
who gives breath to the people on it
and spirit to those who walk on it......

Here YHVH describes Himself as both the Creator and the enlivener: it is YHVH who gives breath and spirit to those who walk the earth. YHVH is the source of life, has given it and continues to give it. That we walk around breathing is his moment-to-moment gift. Should he withdraw his spirit we would perish. 

In the next verses YHVH says that He will give Yeshua as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open eyes that are blind, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. 

The key image here is the transition from darkness to light. What is this light?

John 1:4-5:

In Him was life, and the life was the light of men
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it

The light, then, is actually the servant Himself- it is in Him. The very light that enlightens human beings is His light. 

And what is the dungeon? This liberation is not just political or juridical, no it is universal in scope and arouses overhelming gratitude and joy:

Sing to YHVH a new song
His praise from the ends of the earth
you who go down to the sea and all that fills it
the coastlands and their inhabitants.
Let the desert and its cities lift up their voice.......
let them shout from the top of the mountains
Let them give glory to YHVH
and declare His praise.....

What causes this eruption of joy is the work of Hashem's servant, the one who liberates from the dungeon and the prison. What could this universal prison be but the entrapment to sin and its wages? The lies of the serpent are darkness; the narrowing and bondage of human life "turned inward on itself" (incurvatus in se) is the dungeon. This "slavery to sin" and its result, death, alienate us from God now in His miraculous Creation and can alienate us from the eternity of intra-trinitarian love He wishes to give us in the New Creation. 

The (4th-8th century?) Jewish Targum Yerushalmi, a midrashic translation of the Tanakh, translates the story of Adam and Chavah to show Hashem's Messianic rescue mission. T.Yerushalmi adds the following to the famous protoevangelium of Bereishit 3:15:

For them (Adam and Chavah)....there will be a remedy, but for you (ie. the serpent) there will be no remedy; and they are to make peace in the end, in the days of King Messiah. 

(M.Maher, Pseudo-Jonathan, 3:15, 27-28, quoted in Shapira, Return of the Kosher Pig p.123). 

This New Creation is symbolized in the book of Revelation as the "new jerusalem" or "holy city". It is those who "wash their robes" in the blood of the Lamb who "have the right to the tree of life" and "enter the city" (Rev 22:14). This is the completion of God's saga and of our rescue from ourselves.  

Hesed Ha'Adon Yeshua Im Kol HaKedoshim. Amen. 

The Grace of The Lord Yeshua be with all the Holy Ones, amen. 

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Bonhoeffer and The Garden

 Parshat Mashihi : Messianic Parsha Commentary 2014

 Bonhoeffer and Bereishit

Until becoming a follower of Yeshua I was unable to understand the story of Adam and Chavah and the tree (etz daat tov v'rah). It was clear to me that Adam and Chavah had been told not to eat of the tree- basically they had been given one mitzvah through which to stay in Gods favour and to be able to choose and merit life in His presence. It was a negative mitzvah (mitzvah lo ta'aseh). According to Jewish theology humans must choose God freely and must merit receiving Him, so this seems pretty straightforward- yet the story still troubled me.

One of the difficulties the story posed for me was the nature of the fruit of the tree. If the fruit gave "knowledge of good and evil" (daat tov v'rah) then how could Adam and Chavah have been expected to know that they should listen before eating it? In other words, how could they recognize the moral good of obeying God before they had knowledge of morality?

After becoming a follower of Yeshua and reflecting again on this story I came to a new understanding of it which I recently found echoed in a comment of the great theologian and "righteous gentile" (defender of Jews in the Holocaust) Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945).  

According to the New Covenant, the way to salvation (yeshua) and sanctification (kedushah) is through faith (emunah) in Yeshua. We are forgiven our sins (chet) and declared righteous (tzedek) before God on the basis of our transformative emunah in Yeshua- in his identity, his teachings, and the cosmos changing nature of his death and resurrection. 

"The tzaddik (righteous one) will live by faith" (Habakkuk 2:4) and those dead and reborn in the living Moshiach drink from the waters of life (mayim chaim, Yohanan 4:14) and live now in the world that is coming (olam ha-ba), the world whose life is eternal since its source is the life and light of the world (Yohanan 1). 

The heart of the way revealed in Yeshua is emunah- faith or trust. That is what was required in the beginning from Adam and Chavah. What was required was not so much "obedience" nor moral goodness. "Religion" was not what was required from them. What was required from them was emunah. Emunah is what recieves God, and God is what God wants to give us.

As a great Jewish Rabbi, Nachman of Breslov, once said, "The mitzvot (commandments, good deeds, religious practices) are emunah." What he meant was the essence, meaning and purpose of the mitzvot is emunah. 

Emunah is why Avraham was declared a tzaddik before Hashem (Bereishit 15:6). When Avraham's relationship with Hashem, and the covenant with Avraham's descendants, was tested by Hashem during the Akedah (sacrifice of Yitzhak) it was the nature of Avraham's emunah which was tested. 

It could be said that the essence of Yeshua's mission was to demonstrate the character of Hashem and call forth the emunah of humanity, both Jew and Gentile, so as to re-establish the relationship that God wanted from the beginning. This was the relationship He had with Adam and Chavah before their sin. What destroyed Adam and Chavah's relationship with YHVH was not, precisely, disobedience or bad behaviour- it was a fall from emunah. 

Here we come to Bonhoeffer: "Already in the possibility of knowledge of good and evil Christian ethics discerns a falling away from the origin. Man at his origin knows only one thing: God. It is only in the unity of his knowledge of God that he knows of other men, of things, and of himself. He knows all things only in God, and God in all things. The knowledge of good and evil shows that he is no longer at one with this origin."

"In the knowledge of good and evil man does not understand himself in the reality of his destiny appointed in his origin, but rather in his own possibilities, his possibility of being either good or evil. He knows himself now as something apart from God, outside God, and this means that he now knows himself and he no longer knows God at all: for he can know God only if he knows only God." (Ethics, p.1-2)

The snake approaches Chavah promising wisdom, independence, and equality with God. He offers self separated from God. He offers her her  "own possibilities". He roots this in mistrust of God's word (Bereishit 3:1). Chavah and Adam choose to know good and evil- to make their own choices and to live by their own "works", by their goodness or evilness as opposed to their simple faith. This is the fall into karma, the choice of the way of the ladder. Adam and Chavah are evicted from the garden and barred from the tree of life (etz chaim) though that tree will re-appear in humanity's future in a surprising way (Mishle 3:18, 8:23; Yohanan 1). 

Only through God's full self-revelation in Yeshua can the Tanakh be understood, and this is no more in evidence than in this seminal story. 


Sunday, 12 October 2014

The Image of Holiness

"We see all of the virtues of holiness perfectly aligned in Christ. He was always gentle, but never soft. He was bold, but never brash. He was pure, but never prudish. He was full of mercy but not at all at the expense of justice. He was full of truth but not at the expense of grace. In everything he was submissive to his Heavenly Father, and he gave everything for his sheep. He obeyed hs parents, kept the law of God, and forgave his enemies. He never lusted, never coveted, and never lied. In all that Jesus Christ did, during his whole life and especially as his life came to an end, he loved God with his whole being and loved his neighbour as himself."

"If somewhere down the road you forget the Ten Commandments or can't recall the fruit of the Spirit or don't seem to remember any particular attributes of God, you can still remember what holiness is by simply remembering his name."

- Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in Our Holiness

Friday, 10 October 2014

Karl Barth on Love

"The one who genuinely loves is also a cheerful person, and the genuinely cheerful person is also one who loves....even when their love beats against a stone wall, recieving no answer, or only a more or less hostile answer....He or she does not love the other for the sake of their answer, but because he or she is made free to do so by God (IV/2 895=788-89)."

"We cannot insist too sharply that we do not love for any external reason...the one who loves does not want anything except to give themselves, to enter into relationship with the loved one. If they have any other plan or project- however noble- it means that their love is betrayed and ended (IV/2 894=788) people [are] signs of hope, comfort, and encouragement for many who are still unfree."

-Excerpted from "The Great Passion: An Introduction to Karl Barth's Theology", Eberhard Busch (language adjusted to remove gender bias).

The Gospel Holiness Prayer

In his in many ways excellent book Gospel JD Greear provides a short daily prayer to be used as a way to meditate on the gospel. Greear, like his hero Tim Keller, is of the school of thought that the gospel of justification in Christ is not just the beginning of the Christian life, but the whole means of the Christian life. As Keller puts it, it is not the ABCs but the A to Z. Greear's prayer, which I'll include below, aims to ground the believer in the Gospel as the wellspring of their spiritual life.

This perspective- that sanctification flows naturally from a deep reaction to understanding one's own justification in Christ- has been and is important to me. I have found, though, that the effortful pursuit of holiness, which one could also call the effort to be discipled by Christ, is also necesary to my spiritual health and growth. I think the word "holiness" could be replaced by the term "christian integrity". It is indeed a reaction to Gods love- a desire to be pleasing to, and do whats pleasing to, Him.

I do believe that the gospel of justification is the ground of this and a ground we must return to again and again. I also believe that my own fleshly efforts at holiness are extremely limited and fail more often then they succeed. What I have come to believe, though, is that the Spirit empowers me to be able to triumph over sin (or at least to win some battles and slowly and painstakingly gain territory). The promised spirit empowers me to act like the reborn creature I am. When I act in humble reliance on the Spirit- when I call on the Spirit to transform me and then act with strength and discernment within the space that the Spirit opens up for me- then some progress is made. I have found my experience echoes a book I read some time ago somewhat lukewarmly which is now looking better and better in the rearview mirror- Bryan Chapell's The Promises of Grace.

Recently I also came cross the teachings of Kevin DeYoung on holiness (The Hole in our Holiness) and they have been shoring me up in the approach I am taking. I try to combine the Kellerian emphasis on meditation on the Gospel with intentional, discerning battle against sin. I understand this to be the holistic, deep Way of Christ followed by giants like Wesley and the Puritans.

During this time I have on and off again been reciting JD Greear's prayer, which is as follows:

In Christ, there is nothing I can do to make you love me more, and nothing that I have done that could make you love me less.
You are all I need for everlasting joy.
As you have been to me, so I will be for others.
When I pray I will measure your compassion by the cross, and your power by the resurrection.

I have now amended the prayer to the following, which I present here for anyone who loves Greear's basic prayer and shares my resonance for these changes. As well as adding an emphasis on being empowered for holiness and what is pleasing to God, I also simplified the first verse in a way I think the second to last line makes acceptable to do. I added the initial address to God as Father both because of the important theological implications that come with the adress "Abba, father!" and because addressing God without some kind of title or name to begin felt odd to me. Here it is, what I am thinking of as the "holiness gospel prayer":

Father, I know that in Christ there is nothing I can do to make you love me more, and nothing I can do to make you love me less.
You are all I need for everlasting joy.
As you have been to me, so I will be to others.
Please strengthen me in everything that pleases you.
When I pray I will measure your compassion by the cross, and your power by the resurrection.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Born In Chains: Leonard Cohen and Jesus

I have been a big fan of Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer/songwriter and poet, since my early teen years, and still am. I love the man. Since coming to faith in Jesus, it has occurred to me that there are many references to Christ in Cohen's music, some explicit and some subtle. I get the feeling that to Cohen Jesus is a part of his Jewish heritage and spiritual world and a presence in his thoughts as opposed to someone alien or threatening. Perhaps this is related also to his French Canadian influences growing up. On Cohen's new album there is a stunningly beautiful song of praise and contemplation with unmistakeable Christian resonances as well as the obvious Jewish ones. Before I share a direct quote from Cohen on Yeshua, here is the song:

Born In Chains

1. I was born in chains but I was taken out of Egypt
I was bound to a burden but the burden it was raised
Lord I can no longer keep this secret
Blessed is the Name, the Name be praised

2. I fled to the edge of the mighty sea of sorrow
pursued by the riders of a cruel and dark regime
but the waters parted and my soul crossed over
out of Egypt, out of Pharaoh's dream

3. Word of words, measure of all measures
Blessed is the Name, the Name be blessed
Written on my heart in burning letters
That's all I know, I cannot read the rest

4. I was idle with my soul when I heard you could use me
I followed very closely but my life remained the same
But then you showed me where you had been wounded
in every atom, broken is the Name

5. I was alone on the road then your love was so confusing
All my teachers told me I had myself to blame
but in the grip of sensual illusion
this sweet unknowing unified the Name

6. Word of words, measure of all measures
Blessed is the Name, the Name be blessed
Written on my heart in burning letters
Thats all I know, I cannot read the rest

7. I've heard the soul unfolds in the chambers of its longing
and the bitter liquor sweetens in the hammered cup
All the ladders of the night are fallen
Only darkness now to lift the longing up

8. Word of words, measure of all measures
Blessed is the Name, the Name be blessed
Written on my heart in burning letters
Thats all I know I cannot read the rest

There you have it. Stunningly beautiful. Hamaveen yaveen (let the wise understand).

A few thoughts on the images in the song: In both Jewish and Christian mysticism the Exodus symbolizes the salvation of the individual soul (verses 1 and 2). This is a more central metaphor for Christians since Jesus' death and resurrection is closely linked in the New Testament to the symbolism and inner meaning of Passover. "The Name" is itself a name of God and translates "Hashem", the usual way of referring to God among Jews. The Torah itself is also considered a "name" of God, sometimes said to be written in flaming letters (verse 3). In Jeremiah the promised "new covenant" will be written on the heart (verse 3). In the New Testament Jesus shows his wounds to "doubting Thomas" who then believes that Jesus has in fact come bodily back from the dead and is The Lord. This is also after Jesus' body is broken on the cross, an act Jesus foresaw and described with the word "broken" (verse 4). ""Unifying the Name" is a mystical goal of Jewish practice and refers 1) to the coming of the Messiah and the healing of the world; 2; to there being only one name under which God is known and 3) the unification of the shekhinah and God, or the unification of the soul of Israel/soul of creation with its Creator (verse 5).

I would not want to pin this song down to one clear meaning. I do get the sense that it is about coming to a relationship with God and finding his name written on his heart, even if in many ways he lives in a "sweet unknowing" which leaves many things not understood. It does seem like this has been a liberating passage for Cohen (out of Egypt) and that all of this may in some way be connected to contemplating Jesus' life and teachings as expressions of God as well. It is tempting to read more into the poem but out of respect for Cohen and the mystery and beauty of the the poem-song I will stop there. My point here is not to argue that Cohen is a closet messianic Jew. I do think though that Jesus is a presence in his thoughts and this is a provocative and interesting song melding Jewish and Christian imagery into a beautiful song of praise to the Name.

Here is the lovely quote from Cohen on Jesus:

"I’m very fond of Jesus Christ. He may be the most beautiful guy who walked the face of this earth. Any guy who says "Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek" has got to be a figure of unparallelled generosity and insight and madness…A man who declared himself to stand among the thieves, the prostitutes and the homeless. His position cannot be comprehended. It is an inhuman generosity. A generosity that would overthrow the world if it was embraced because nothing would weather that compassion. I’m not trying to alter the Jewish view of Jesus Christ. But to me, in spite of what I know about the history of legal Christianity, the figure of the man has touched me."

Leonard Cohen (1988), from "Leonard Cohen in His Own Words" by Jim Devlin

Monday, 22 September 2014

The Serpent In The Wilderness- a Jewish Insight

In John 3:14 Jesus references one of the strangest stories in the Bible and applies it to himself: 

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up (ESV).

The "lifting up" here clearly refers to Jesus's crucifixion. It is a well-known Johannine paradox that Jesus' sacrifice on the cross is presented as the exaltation and glorification of the Son. But what is the story of the serpent in the wilderness, and why does Jesus mention this story?

In Numbers 21 the people of Israel grumble once again against Moses and God. The sin of their faithlessness and ingratitude is exacerbated by the great signs and wonders they have been directly exposed to. As Rabbis have explained to me, Israel in the dessert is treated very harshly by God's justice because of the depth of sin needed to grumble, complain, rebel, doubt and stray to idols when they have themselves seen the parting of the Red Sea, the pillars of cloud and fire, and the exodus itself!

In this instance God responds by sending a plague of serpents of fire who bite the Israelites and make them painfully (and terminally) ill. Serpents of fire are a motif in ancient middle eastern sacred art and were some kind of spirit being (of a similar type to the seraphim in Ezekiel's vision, which were not angels of the type in the European imaginaire but winged serpents, probably having bodies of flame, as scholars of ancient middle eastern religion have shown). The burning serpents are therefore a kind of spirit being sent by God to punish the Israelites.

The story only gets stranger when Moses resolves the problem by following an instruction from God to make a bronze serpent (which would perhaps look firy in the burning sun of the desert) for the Israelites to gaze at and be cured. This object was actually preserved by the Israelites and later ended up becoming a focus of idolatrous worship (2 Kings 18:4). 

Why does Jesus reference this story? One relatively simple explanation that lies ready to hand is the analogy with Jesus' crucifixion. Just as the ill Israelites in the dessert gazed at the serpent hung on the cross "and lived" so those sick with sin gaze at Jesus hung on the cross and live.  It has also been pointed out that serpents represent sin in the Bible (Genesis 3:15) and Jesus "became sin" on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:10). 

I think all of this is correct, but I recently came across another insight I wanted to share in a fascinating book by Rabbi Itzhak Shapira (The Return of the Kosher Pig). In order to understand R' Shapira's insight, we need first to understand the ancient Jewish practice of gematria. 

Gematria is a type of Biblical exegesis which relies on a curious feature of Hebrew. In Hebrew there are no numbers. Hebrew letters are themselves numbers, so that aleph= 1, bet=2, etc.....

This means that any Hebrew word can also be read as a series of numbers. It is fairly common for Rabbis to use this fact to fish surprising insights out of the Bible by translating words into numbers and then seeing what other words or phrases contain the same numerical value. A popular example is the gematria of the divine name YHVH. 

The numerical value of YHVH is 26, which it is often pointed out can be reached by adding the words echad (one, which equals 13) and ahavah (love, which also equals 13) together. As a side note, it is interesting that 1 Corinthians 13 contains 13 verses on love (13). 

One can see how this kind of thing can get easily out of hand (and it does) yet sometimes insights gained through gematria can be quite illuminating and surprising.  

Take the serpent. The Hebrew word for serpent, nahash, has a gematria of 358. This is the same as the gematria of the Hebrew word mashiach, or Messiah. Jesus avoids identifying himself as the Messiah directly throughout the Gospels, but a gematric translation of Jesus' words could be that the Messiah must be lifted up, hung on wood before the world, in order to give the lost life. Did Jesus intend this reading? What I find exciting about Rabbi Shapira's insight is that it is plausible that he did. Gematria is very old in the Jewish tradition. Even leaving aside for a moment the fact that God obviously knows gematria, my point here is that a 1st century Jew could be expected to know it. This means that Rabbi Shapira's insight may give us another insight, small but precious, into Jesus' mind. 

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

What is Rosh Hashanah?

A compelling argument that before the Rabbis transformed it RH was a remembrance of the acceptance if the covenant at Sinai:

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Faith of Abraham: Isaac, CS Lewis and Kierkegaard

The story of Abraham and Isaac, known as the Akedat Yitzhak (binding of Isaac), or Akedah in Jewish tradition, has long haunted the imaginations and consciences of Jews and Christians. The Torah recounts in suspenseful, harrowing prose God's request to Abraham that he slaughter his beloved son Isaac as a ritual sacrifice. Abraham famously acquiesces and takes Isaac up Mt. Moriah to a makeshift altar. He is stopped by an angel of God at the last moment. Do not stretch out your hand against the child, the angel says, you have passed the test.

What exactly is the test? How could God ask such a thing? How could Abraham agree? Are we supposed to applaud Abraham for the seemingly horrifying willingness to kill his own son? In the days of ISIS and other forms of religious violence across the religious spectrum these questions gain a new urgency. I want to suggest that the point of this story is somewhat different than most of us take it to be, and that there is still something important to learn from it 3,ooo years or so on from the events it purports to describe.

First bear with me while we reread the story.

Genesis 22

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!"

"Here I am," he replied.

2 Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you."

3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 He said to his servants, "Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you."

6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, 7 Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, "Father?"

"Yes, my son?" Abraham replied.

"The fire and wood are here," Isaac said, "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?"

8 Abraham answered, "God himself will provide (adonai yireh) to the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And the two of them went on together.

9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!"

"Here I am," he replied.

12 "Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you revere God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."

13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide (Adonai Yireh). And to this day it is said, "On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided."

Growing up in a Jewish context I was told that this story has two main points: 1) Abraham's incredible faith in God; and 2) God's lesson that Israel was not to sacrifice its children in religious ceremonies, unlike the tribes that Israel would later dispossess in the land of Canaan. I agree that these two points are among the lessons of the story. But they still leave many questions which Jewish and Christian thinkers have struggled with.

Kierkegaard famously opens his masterpiece Fear and Trembling with several re-imaginings of the story. What really happened? In one harrowing version Kierkegaard imagines Abraham indeed carrying Isaac up the mountain but before drawing the knife confessing to Isaac that he, Abraham, is in fact a fraud- an idolater and a violent man, and he intends to sacrifice Isaac to an idol. Better he not believe such a thing true of God and believe me evil instead, Abraham reasons.

In some Jewish versions the Rabbis notice that Abraham is described returning from the mountain but Isaac is not mentioned. He remained alone on the mountain, scarred by what happened and unwilling to descend, say some. Others, more shockingly: Abraham did kill him.

Mainstream Jewish tradition has always affirmed Abraham's virtuousness in the story, though the horror of it continued to surface in Jewish midrash (exegesis). As an old man Isaac was blind because His eyes were weakened by the sight of the angel that saved him. Or: His eyes were ruined by tears shed because his father was willing to sacrifice him.

Surely in all of our imaginings the shadow that haunts us is this: how could Abraham have been willing to sacrifice his son, and what kind of faith is this willing to do such a thing? Is this faith actually commendable? Let's look at the story in more detail.

God calls Abraham personally and unequivocally. Abraham responds: Hineni!, "Here I am!" a phrase which in Hebrew suggests total availability. At this point in his life Abraham has shown himself to have deep faith in God. God has been at times inscrutable and God's time frame in delivering promises has tested Abraham's trust, but Abraham has trusted and has thus far followed God's voice, and his trust has proven trustworthy.

God opens without preamble to a shocking request: Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac.....God's wording is strange. Why does he not just say "take Isaac"? God's wording bears within it explicit reference to the intense meaning of Isaac for Abraham. Isaac is his son (his first son Ishmael is lost to him now). Isaac is his "only one", his only son, who carries the whole weight of Abraham's mission into the future. Whom you love. Isaac is not just the bearer of Abraham's legacy; Abraham dearly loves him.

Why does God speak this way? It is as if he is affirming Abraham's feelings and signalling that He understands them. I think God speaks this way, counter-intuitive as it might at first seem, to evoke Abraham's trust. In other words, at the moment that supremely tests Abraham's faith he speaks in such a way as to simultaneously support it. As we shall see, it is essential that Abraham be reminded of what we could call the humane nature of God.

Most amazing is Abraham's response to the request: early the next morning Abraham woke up and loaded his donkey. Abraham indeed responds with trust. What, though, is the exact nature of that trust? Does Abraham believe that whatever God ordains is good, and so he must comply? Is Abraham's trust a simple submission to God's inscrutable but always authoritative will? That was the way the text was presented to me as a child, and I think it is a very common reading. I also think it is wrong. Is this not the same Abraham who argued with God over the punishment of Sodom? The same Abraham who called out the challenge, will not the judge of the world deal justly?

I believe the text itself tells us the nature of Abraham's trust in the next harrowing moment in the story, surely one of the most spine tingling in all religious literature.

Abraham and Isaac proceed up the mountain together alone. Isaac seems to intuit that something strange is going on. Perhaps Abraham's hand trembles. Perhaps Isaac has heard stories of Canaanites who offer their children as sacrifices. Father? he asks.

Yes, my son?

The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?

Abraham's answer holds the key to the whole story. YHVH himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, he replies. Adonai yireh, he literally says, God will see to it.

When I was a child I thought this answer was ambiguous and meant only to reassure Isaac. It wasn't until I read Yoram Hazony's discussion of it (in The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture) that the scales fell from my eyes. Hazony argues simply that Abraham is here saying exactly what he means. God will see to it. Abraham does not believe that YHVH will actually require him to sacrifice Isaac. This is likewise why Abraham explicitly tells his servants not just to wait, but says, "we will return to you."

To believe that YHVH will in the end truly ask that heinous deed of Abraham would contradict everything Abraham believes about Him. Abraham's trust is not just about trusting in God. It is about trusting in God's character. The point of the monotheism of Israel is not just that there is one God. It is not a religion finally about the nature of divine authority- about its singularity. Judaism is not a numbers game. Israel's monotheism is the belief that the universe is ruled by one good God.

The fact that what is central to Abraham's trust is his trust in God's character is proven by his reaction when God does indeed send a ram in Isaac's place. Abraham names the spot to commemorate the wonder of what has happened. He does not name it "test passed." He names it, "God will see to it." That is the central meaning of what has happened to Abraham: He was right. Right about God's character. Right about God's justice. Right about God's promises and faithfulness.

The test that YHVH set for Abraham is significantly different than we might have thought. It is not in the final analysis a test of Abraham's submissiveness. It is a test of Abraham's faith: its nature and its object. It is as if God is speaking through the test to Abraham, and he is asking the question, Do you know me?

God is not interested in mere submission. What God wants is for Abraham to know His heart. God does not want Abraham just to trust Him, but to trust Him for the right reasons. God wants Abraham to know who He is trusting. In the story of the Akedah God does not just test the nature of Abraham's faith, He is also vindicates and reveals His own character.

Imagine that you wake one night to find your house on fire. You grab your sleeping infant and turn around to find your wife trapped in a part of the room that is becoming engulfed in flames. "Hand me the baby!", she yells.

Your reaction will tell us everything about your opinion of your wife. If you trust her with your life (and the life of your baby) you will hand over the baby to her even though it seems that this is a homicidal act. So you do, and she then passes the baby out the window into the arms of waiting firemen you couldn't see. 

If you believe your wife to be irrational or even delusional you will not pass the baby to her. Your trusting aquiescence, or lack of it, tells us about your understanding of her character and your consequent faith in her (or lack of). This is the meaning of the last line of the story of the Akedah: now I know that you revere YHVH, because you have not withheld your only son from me.

In CS Lewis' The Final Battle a cunning ape named Shift convinces a gullible, weak donkey named Puzzle to dress up like Aslan the lion, the spiritual ruler and creator of Narnia. The Narnians are well aware that Aslan is "not a tame lion" so when he begins making questionable, even violent requests many Narnians go along with it. Their instincts rebel and they feel sick, but who, after all, can understand the inscrutable Aslan?

Lewis brilliantly depicts the trap of perceiving God as above morality, a God of absolute power beyond good and evil. If God is not "tame", i.e. does not conform to human demands and expectations, then who are we to judge his actions? In the end God may request anything of us, which means that his "representatives" may request anything of us. 

Kierkegaard's analysis approaches the truth of the story but also obscures it. In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard correctly asserts that Abraham surrenders his son, his family obligations, his ethics and even his very self in a transcendent trust of God. His brilliant insight is that Abraham does not do this merely as a "knight of resignation" who acquiesces out of his sense of nothingness before God. Abraham acts as a "knight of faith" who against all rational evidence trusts that since God has promised him Isaac God will deliver- Isaac will somehow be returned to him in this world.  

Kierkegaard is right in thinking that the nature of Abraham's faith transcends normal reasoning and is based in a trust that he will not lose Isaac because God has promised him Isaac and will not himself be unfaithful. He is wrong though in considering this a "suspension of the ethical" or a trust which is entirely irrational or absurd. This line of thinking actually obscures the nature of Abraham's faith as routed in an apprehension of the supremely ethical nature of God.

The Akedah teaches us about what Abraham believed of God's character, and what God wanted him to believe. The point is not submission, not obedience beyond reason. Abraham trusts God not just because He is God, but because Abraham knows God. Abraham has seen God's character and believes in Him as a God of grace and justice. Abraham trusts that God will not ask him to do something unjust, capricious, or immoral. If it appears that that is what God is asking than the reality must be otherwise, and Abraham complies and trusts, waiting to be proven right. God Himself will see to the lamb for the burnt offering, son. And he does. Abraham proves the nature of his faith, and God proves the nature of His faithfulness. The kind of faith that God wants is not simple obedience to pure authority, but knowing trust in His goodness. That is one of he reasons that God went to such great lengths to show His character to humanity in the life and death of his Son.