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Dispatches from the Mashiachsphere–February 22, 2015

A few links of what’s going on in Messianic Jewish cyberspace and beyond.

  • Richard Harvey reminds us that today (February 22) is the Feast of Martyrdom of Polycarp, an important figure in the early church, a “messianic gentile” in certain ways, though regrettably, one of the last prominent ones for a few thousand years.
  • In what promises to a completely benign event that will absolutely not stir up any controversy with anyone at all, Mark Kinzer is coming out with a new book, Searching Her Own Mystery, on Catholicism and its relations with Judaism and Messianic Judaism.  You can put me in the camp of MJs who are very much opposed to Catholicism in general, but being somewhat familiar with the recent dialogue which has been going on between MJ and Catholic leadership, I’m encouraged that it’s healthy for both parties and there should by no means be cause for concern that we’re being led down some “road to Babylon”.  Catholics are people who love Yeshua, and MJs are well situated to show them more about Yeshua.  I look forward to reading his book.
  • Jacob Prasch recently did a weekend sermon series at Fellowship Bible Chapel in Columbus, OH.  The series had quite a bit new content and teaching, with lots of discussion on a Pre-trib vs. Pre-wrath view of the rapture (yes, there is a difference) in light of his very good new book Harpazo: The Intra-Seal Rapture of the Church.  No word yet on his book about Catholic-Jewish ecumenical dialogue. 
  • Rabbi Paul Saarecently updated his blog after a two-month hiatus with a d’rash on Parshah Terumah dealing with the altar before the tabernacle and its message for us today.
  • Rabbi Joshua Brumbach on Parshah Mishpatim: To G-d, there is no separate realm between ritual and spiritual matters (unlike within Western thought which separates the two). All areas of life are intertwined and holiness potentially binds them together. According to the Torah, concern for justice is a concern for the Holy. Holiness is not some mystical, esoteric state of being. Rather, it is a way of life and a pattern of action.”
  • An interesting and somewhat troubling news article on a Messianic synagogue in Pensacola, FL trying to raise $750,000 to secure its building (via Messianic Times).  Brit Ahm Synagogue leases their building from the local Catholic Diocese, the Diocese is now about to sell the property to a developer, and once that goes through, Brit Ahm will have to match the offer or find another place to worship.  I say that it’s interesting because they are attempting to use crowdsourcing to raise the money, specifically via a gofundme fund-raising campaign.  I say that it’s troubling because, after a few weeks and as of this writing, they have not been able to raise even 2% of the amount they need.  This instance may indicate a weakness in the Messianic Jewish movement’s ability as a whole to raise large amounts of capital for big needs or elicit broad-based support for individual causes when need be.  Brit Ahm’s campaign campaign is still ongoing, and you can donate if you feel led, but I don’t know enough about this synagogue to feel confident in donating money to them.  Therein lies the problem.
  •   A good sermon by David Wein on biblical conflict resolution, with this gem 

“Shalom, harmony, reconciliation . . . it’s very easy if you’re the only one around.  But we’re not designed for isolation . . . . We’re designed for relationship, relating to others in a community.  Genesis 2:18 says “it is not good for man to be alone.” Now, this is the first time in the Torah that something is “not good” or “lo tov“.  Everything else is good (“tov”) up until this point.  God created the light; that was good: “ki tov”.  The Earth and the Seas were good: “ki tov”.  The sun and the moon: “ki tov”. The creatures in the land, sea and air . . . about all of the creation in a summary of Genesis 1, God said “Hinei tov meod” “Behold, it was very good” But here in chapter 2, for the first time, God says, “lo tov.”  These are two very power words when contrasted with the goodness of creation. What’s not good?  It’s not good for man to be alone.  Isolation, disunity, lack of community, absence of fellowship . . . “lo tov heyot ha’adam levado”  “It is not good for Adam, or anyone, to be alone.” So we see we are designed to be bound together, and the answer to peace is not isolation, but relationship.

  • James Pyles has an intriguing couple of posts on themes of isolation tied into discussion of the present state and future trends of American diaspora Judaism in general and Messianic Judaism in particular.  I don’t have much in way of response except just to encourage everyone avoid pessimism and agonizing over identity issues.  Pyles does point out one important trend that tends to be overlooked: that the future of American Judaism is looking very Orthodox (note the mention of Yitta Schwartz [z”lwho, in biblical matriarch fashion, passed away five years ago with over 2000 living descendants at the time). There’s an increasingly urgent missiological question about how MJ–such as its composed of now–will relate to this very large new generation of Orthodox Jews coming down the pike.
  • Rabbi Derek Leman’s Blog recently got a makeover, both in appearance and content: “My philosophy about things like arguing with commenters has changed. Hopefully I’ve gained knowledge and experience. . . . I’m going to stay away from the negative and focus on the positive. If I argue against a kind of belief or practice or group or personality, I’ll be nicer about it.”  He also laments that “not much MJ blogging is happening compared to yesteryear”, something which I hope to change here at The Afikomen Project. 

Speaking of which, if you have any good MJ related articles or web content, feel free to update me.  Shavua tov 🙂

My $0.02: The Infamous Incident at Antioch

Rabbi Derek Leman has an interesting post up on Mark Nanos’ take on the Antioch Incident.

My $0.02 on this subject: I think we should take seriously the statement that Peter was “fearing the party of the circumcision” after receiving news from James’ men. It may be that Peter received news of a credible, substantial threat to the safety of his table fellowship. It would certainly comport with the hostility and martyrdom Yeshua believer’s were suffering during that time. It’s easy for modern believers to forget or underestimate just how dangerous the situation was back then.

Peter would then have to decide whether or not he wanted to endanger the lives, not just of his fellow Jews, but also his Gentile guests whom he may have considered as “innocent bystanders” he didn’t want hurt. Paul saw things differently. He had more exposure to gentile believers and knew they were just as willing and capable to ensure hardship for Yeshua. He also had an intimate knowledge of anti-Yeshua zealots and knew how important it was to not back down to them.  

A thought experiment: Suppose a messianic synagogue hosts a public seder one Passover and, as a sign of goodwill, several prominent Muslims and mainstream Jews in the community agree to be guests. A week before the Seder, a terrorist threat is phoned into the synagogue demanding claiming reprisal if the seder goes through. What do you do as Rabbi? Do you cancel the event or disinvite the guests to avoid potential bloodshed, or do you take a stand against troublemakers? There’s reasons for either decision, just like Peter and Paul both had their reasons for the stances they took.

Of course, there’s not much historical clarity in the context of the Paul’s Galatians epistle and the so-called Antioch incident, so I’m open to different views on the issue.

Luke 13 and Sneaking into the Synagogue (Shlichim Yomi: Luke 12:13-15:35)

This week’s reading puts us in the middle part of Luke’s gospel, the structuring of which has been something of an enigma to bible scholars.  The first nine chapters of Luke are a rather straightforward historical/chronological telling of the life and works of Yeshua, but beginning with the phrase “When the days were approaching for his ascension” in 9:51 the narrative becomes somewhat disjointed.  It transforms into a seemingly miscellaneous catalog of anecdotes, works, parables and aphorisms associated with Yeshua, grouped loosely by subject matter but in no particular organization. And granted, Luke did apparently have a diverse collection of small vignettes of Yeshua’s teachings and interactions–some found in other gospels and others unique to his account–that he wanted to relate in his orderly account for his correspondents.   So is there an order here?  A closer look at the middle of Luke’s gospel, in particular chapter 13, shows not just a method but a certain genius to the Lukan narrative and its basis in Second Temple Jewish thought.  Also important is how this chapter shows a deep, overriding concern for Jewish followers of Yeshua in an important issue they faced in the first century and which Messianic Jews deal with now:  participation in Synagogue life.

Yeshua’s concern for synagogue life is discussed in a (somewhat unfortunately named) article by Robert J. Shirock “The Growth of the Kingdom in Light of Israel’s Rejection of Jesus: Structure and Theology in Luke 13:1-35”.  Though the verses of Luke 13 may seem to relate unconnected disputes, sayings and teachings by Yeshua, Shirock argues that this chapter has a certain framework and–by implication– conveys a certain theological message. Shirock writes

Corollary to structural problem is the theological one.  When structural discord is evident it becomes well-nigh useless to search for themes and theological ideas which span a sequence of pericopae. Enigmatic structural work leads to uncertainty and disagreement among commentators who are seeking to understand the narrative theology of the gospel writers.

In other words, find Luke’s structure and you’ll find Luke’s theology.  Find no rhyme or reason to Luke’s storytelling, then Luke’s narrative becomes only the sum of its parts, the whole no more spiritually meaningful than a news ticker or a police blotter.

The good news here (pardon the pun) is that there is some evidence of a pattern in Luke 13.  For one, there are several gematria number allusions in this chapter–a phenomena in scripture this blog has discussed before. Luke 13 uses the number 18 three times, once in relation to the 18 victims in the tower in Shiloach collapse in v. 4 and twice in relation to the bent over woman’s 18 year injury in vv. 11 and 16.  It’s ironic and ominous to see Yeshua associate the number associated with life, הי (ḥai) = 18, with death and disease.  Alternatively,  as in the modern west, the number 18, can denote an age of majority and ability to marry legally.  Was Yeshua using this number to show that the set time had come for Israel’s accountability and/or marriage to him?  In either case, use of the number 18 three times, along with other triads in chapter 13, shows some reasoning to why Luke puts these incidents together.

Moreover, Shirock argues that Luke 13 was put together in a chiastic, mirror image structure (a common literary device found both in the Tanach and in Greco-Roman literature) looking something like this:

A. (13:1-9) Yeshua responds to an account of violence at the hands of civil authorities.  He warns people that repentance is necessary or they will all likewise perish.  He then relates the parable of the fig tree that did not bear fruit for three years, but was fertilized and given another year to bear fruit before being cut down.

B. (13:10-17) Yeshua, while teaching in the synagogue, heals a stooped-over woman. The synagogue official admonishes the crown to not come into the synagogue on Shabbat to get healed.  Yeshua responds with a rebuke of the hypocritical policy, referring to the woman as a “daughter of Abraham”.  There is an ironic reversal of popularity as the religious elite was humiliated while the crowd rejoiced over Yeshua and his actions.

C. (13:18-20)  The parable of the mustard tree and the parable of the three loaves, the interpretation of which is problematic.  On the one hand, the parables show a growing and expanding kingdom, as a small mustard seed grows or as a small lump expands.  On the other hand, unkosher birds roosting in a rather ugly looking shrub or lumps of leavened dough has connotations of sin and pride.

B. (13:22-30) When asked if only a few will be saved, Yeshua makes a reference to entering and not being able to enter into the synagogue (see below) or into a house. Yeshua makes reference to Abraham in stating another ironic reversal of popularity in that Yeshua’s own contemporaries will be locked out of the kingdom while outsiders will recline in the kingdom of God and “there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”

A. (13:31-35) Yeshua responds to warnings of violence to himself from civil authorities. He responds that he will be casting out demons and performing cures for three days, then will travel three days before perishing (i.e, a fourth day of destruction). He laments over the Jerusalem’s violence to prophets and states that the city will be left desolate in it says “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord.”

So what deeper theological meaning does this structure of Luke 13 convey?  Before we answer, the synagogue imagery of this chapter deserves a second look.  As Shirock writes

Luke records narrow door/closed door imagery (vv. 24,25) as opposed to Matthew’s small gate/narrow way language (Mt. 7:13,14).  The narrow door imagery may allude to the synagogue scene with which it is matched.  Although no door is mentioned in the synagogue pericope, it is known that there were small (narrow) and large doors in many ancient synagogues. Different people, based upon their status in the community, entered the synagogue through various doors and were seated accordingly.  The bent woman, being low in communal honor, may have entered the synagogue via a small, side entrance.  This forms a picture of what Jesus says later: “Enter through the narrow door” (v.24).

There are gaps in our historical knowledge about Second Temple era synagogues and precisely what their structure, function, activities and attendance was like, but hints like the ones we find in Luke 13 give us a springboard for cautious speculation.  No doubt “status in the community” depended in great part on whether one was Jew or Gentile and subtle distinctions therein. A Ioudaios Jew proper would have a different status a Hellenized non-religious or nationalistic Jew; or a gentile with a passing curiosity about the God of Israel may receive different treatment a devout God-fearer on a committed track to Jewish conversion.   As with the Temple complex, there were likely efforts in the synagogues to separate different people on a pecking order of holiness and ceremonial cleanliness.

Some of what’s said here may sound familiar to modern-day synagogue attendees, especially of the Messianic variety. Houses of worship always have their idiosyncrasies, but doubly so with synagogues and even moreso with older constructed synagogues (like mine).  Like any large public meeting place, a synagogue may have multiple entrances, but crowd control and security logistics make keep most of these doors locked from the inside . . . including even the main entrances once services and other synagogue events begin.  I’ve actually seen literal cases of people, in biblical fashion, locked out of the congregation building knocking on the door for someone to let them in. (We usually do.)  I’ve also seen people–and have done so myself–go through a certain entrance at a certain time to take a certain route to a certain pew in the back as to engage in as little social interaction as possible, either because they are sick, or because they want to be left alone, or because they just aren’t feeling particularly saintly that day.  

And this is MJs in their own synagogue.  There is also the delicate matter of MJs visiting traditional Jewish synagogues and worrying about obeying decorum, following along with unfamiliar and more complicated liturgy, or answering that sticky question “Where do you usually attend?”  Messianic visitors in that situation (including myself) will also take a quick route from the entrance to the back pew to not draw attention to himself or herself for the duration of the service–a great mussar exercise for building humility to say the least.  Rabbi Russ Resnik in his essayHesed And Hospitality Embracing Our Place on the Margins” relates a similar carefulness when visiting a traditional synagogue.  Resnik says that when he informs a traditional shul rabbi who he is, the typical response is that “I am welcome to attend, but not as a Jew” and quotes one typical email reply for permission to attend: “While you are correct as to my opposition to so called ‘messianic’ Judaism, anyone of any faith is welcome to pray/visit our congregation–so long as they do not proselytize. We have many Christians who visit us.”  Consider the mindset it takes for a prominent MJ Rabbi to hear himself, his faith and his Messiah discussed in such terms–yet still keep calm and be willing to be led in worship by those who say such things–and you’ll have a good picture of the humility Yeshua wants us to have.

It’s unexpected yet very appropriate that Yeshua used the topic of synagogue decorum to discuss larger themes and prophecies about the Kingdom of Heaven.  Shirock derives the theological message Luke 13’s structure that God’s Kingdom will grow and expand despite Israel’s rejection of Yeshua; there will be a reversal of fortunes when Israel is found to be outside the Kingdom while Gentiles are found to be included.  This is a plausible conclusion and certainly one borne out by post-Second Temple ecclesial history.  But is it correct to draw a bright-line Jew/Gentile distinction in the reversal of fortunes?  One one hand, many marginal Jews were incorporated into the Kingdom during the first centuries of the Church, and many marginal Jews (including myself) are being joined to the Kingdom in these last days.  On the other hand, many of Yeshua’s admonitions against pride, unrepentance and presumption are just as applicable to Gentile wing of the Church.  For example, Arnold Fruchtenbaum goes as far as saying that the three leavened loaves “point to the fact that Christendom eventually develops into three major divisions: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. All three, to a greater or lesser degree, will have false doctrine.”

Neither Christian church nor Messianic synagogue are exempt from Ray’s Rule “Every successful system accumulates parasites.”  Sin and pride will find its way into church and congregation and–such as things are–sinful and proud people will find a way to be large and in charge.  For this reason, despite how much we may grow in our congregations and in the esteem of God and man, we must work to fight off our baser desires and constantly recontextualize ourselves as stooped, humble, marginal people looking to Yeshua, the Door opened for us for entrance to God’s Kingdom.

God’s Chosen People, and Other Dangerous Occupations (Parshah Yitro: Exodus 18:1 – 20:23)

nuke workersThis week’s Parshah introduces the Asereth ha-Dibroth, the Ten Commandments. This would seem much more important than Moshe meeting with his Father-in-law Jethro, for whom the Parshah is named.  However, there is another very important principle at work in these chapters which Moshe’s meeting with Jethro illustrates.  If I wrote that this principle is “something just as important as the Ten Commandments” I would be incorrect and maybe a little irreverent, but such a hyperbole would convey the vital importance this concept has to Malchut Hashem and how God relates to man.

To show you what I’m talking about, it’s best to examine certain events of this Parshah in reverse order: Continue reading