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.