Midrashes on Messiah

FFOZ’s latest journal, Messiah Journal 104 is now available and has some very important articles for our community. To subscribe to Messiah Journal, go here.

One thing I hope you will read is my own review of Richard Harvey’s important book, Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology. Harvey’s book is very important for understanding the diversity in Messianic Jewish thought and for getting some ideas about where MJ should go in the future.

There are articles about Yeshua’s Sabbath disputes, the Sabbath and Gentiles who want to observe, thoughts on faith from the Elijah stories, a reflection on the Holocaust, a look at the Torah and environmental issues, the recent claim of Eilat Mazar that she has found a wall of the Solomonic Temple, and a translation of a midrashic section from Yalkut Shimoni.

I want to talk about the translation and content of this section of Yalkut Shimoni. This rabbinic work was probably compiled in the 1200’s and quotes from many earlier sources. It is a midrashic commentary on all the books of the Hebrew Bible.

Midrash is a kind of literature with creative interpretation of texts, stories of biblical characters that are not in the Bible, and parables and stories clarifying abstract theology. You almost have to read Midrash to get the idea.

Midrashic interpretation is not about being faithful to the original meaning of the text. It uses a variety of accepted tools (rabbinic rules of hermeneutics) to creatively make the text mean things that are not necessarily part of the intention when it was written. The meanings sought in the text are usually matters of theology or practice decided before the text was consulted (so it is eisegesis, but eisegesis done with flair!).

Midrashic stories are not supposed to have actually happened (generally). They are illustrations, not history.

So, why would anyone want to read Midrashic literature given all these facts about its playful rearrangement of reality? Well, while some passages of Midrash are quite pedestrian and uninspiring, this creative playing with text and truth often rises to the level of insightful genius.

Yalkut Shimoni on Isaiah Speaks of Messiah
Aaron Eby writes in Messiah Journal 104, “It [Yalkut Shimoni] speaks of a messiah whose soul exists before creation and is predestined to suffer for Israel’s sins.”

Many people have a wrong idea about Judaism. They regard it as a fixed system of opinions with no room for diversity. Actually, Jewish tradition is so rich and has contained so many points of view, it is possible to use tradition to justify a wide variety of beliefs and practices.

Those who would say that Messianic Jewish beliefs about the divinity of Messiah, the atoning death of Messiah, the manifestation of God as a man, and other concepts are beyond the pale of Jewish thought are not dealing with the entire deck of Jewish tradition. There are plenty of source texts and ideas in Judaism for divine manifestations, even corporeality, and for redemptive suffering.

Yalkut Shimoni has in it texts which add to the corpus of ideas in Jewish tradition which Messianic Jews can bring to bear on the discussion.

One story illustrates a high view of Messiah (though not technically his preexistence):

What is

Posted in Bible, FFOZ, Judaism, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Talmud and Tradition, The Messiah | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

J-BOM: Doubt Seeking Faith

Our Jewish Book of the Month for June has been As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg. It is the story of Elisha ben Abuya, the tragic heretic, much beloved as a member of the Sanhedrin, a disciple of R. Joshua and the teacher of R. Meir.

The July selection is The Promise by Chaim Potok. The August selection is The Last of the Just by Andre Schwarz-Bart.

The September selection, to prepare us for High Holidays, will be Yom Kippur: Its Significance, Laws, and Prayers which is available on www.artscroll.com. I will recommend a few sections of the book, which isn’t long in any case, and so you won’t need to read the whole thing (though you certainly may). I had hoped to suggest a shorter work focused strictly on repentance (and Maimonides’ teachings), but it is not widely available (if you’d like to get it, look for Wahschal’s Practical Guide to Teshuvah). But the Artscroll guide to Yom Kippur has selections from Maimonides’ teachings in repentance and is a volume which will add depth to your Jewish library.
………………………….

The end of As a Driven Leaf is filled with a sweet sadness. Steinberg does well in capturing the senseless tragedy of the second Jewish revolt and in posing questions of faith and doubt. The story of an encounter late in life between Elisha ben Abuya and his student, the faithful and devoted R. Meir, is told superbly and with the exact pathos to match the tale from the rabbinic literature (see “J-BOM: Elisha ben Abuya, Pt 2”). The legend of Elisha’s burning grave and Meir’s determination to win redemption for his master in the world beyond is also brilliantly presented.

If our day-to-day oblivion to all that is evil, senseless, and spiteful in the world needs a wake up call, As a Driven Leaf will fill us with a sense of the reality of the Satanic. Several scenes of needless, useless, practically random violence fill out Steinberg’s account of the horrors of the Second Jewish revolt. And the executions of the sages are told in scenes not for the timid reader. If you read these and do not experience horror, then you are due for some soul-searching.

We forget that evil is palpable and not a myth. The capacity of human beings for cruelty without reason is real and exists no less today than in antiquity.

But even closer to home, for people of faith, is the torment of Elisha’s soul. The heretic, the traitor, the one who walked away from his rabbinic calling in Steinberg’s speculative retelling (the actual reason for Elisha’s excommunication is known only in vague sources) and searched for philosophical answers is beyond sad. We see our own doubts and fears in the story. We can imagine being such a tortured soul as Elisha.

If Augustine explained reason as “faith seeking understanding,” Elisha in Steinberg’s novel is doubt seeking faith.

The rabbinic tradition is that Elisha heard, variously from a class of young Torah students or from the voice of an angel or God, that repentance is offered to man, but not to Elisha ben Abuya. Like many doubters, Elisha wants to know the peace of God and the assurance of mind and spirit he once knew. But he does not believe either that he will be accepted after his many sins or that he will be capable of going back to an innocent faith.

In answer to this dilemma, a real one, I offer words from the scriptures. Perhaps in these words we can let this issue rest and maybe some reader of this blog, struggling with doubt seeking faith, will find here the voice of the One Who Spoke and It Came Into Being:

Wisdom cries aloud in the streets, raises her voice in the squares. At the head of the busy streets she calls; at the entrance of the gates, in the city, she speaks out. –Proverbs 1:20-21

If you seek it as you do silver and search for it as for treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and attain knowledge of God. –Proverbs 2:4-5

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding. –Proverbs 3:5

Ho, all who are thirsty, Come for water, Even if you have no money; Come, buy food and eat: Buy food without money, Wine and milk without cost . . . Incline your ear and come to Me; Hearken, and you shall be revived. And I will make with you an everlasting covenant. –Isaiah 55:1-3

Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God. –Hosea 14:1

Even now, return to me with all your heart. –Joel 2:12

He forgives all your sins, heals all your diseases. He redeems your life from the Pit, surrounds you with steadfast love and mercy. -Psalm 103:3-4

He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor has He requited us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him. –Psalm 103:10-11

My yoke is easy, and my burden is light. –Matthew 11:30

Your faith has saved you; go in peace. –Luke 7:50

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled. –John 14:27

Posted in Book Reviews, Christian, Faith, Judaism, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

A Sad Article on Friday Nights for Some Intermarrieds

This would not happen if intermarried families chose to belong to Messianic Jewish communities:

Tablet Magazine, “Private Practice,” June 25, 2010. by Elizabeth Cohen.

Posted in Messianic Jewish | 3 Comments

PODCAST: Yeshua in Context – I Am

In the fourth gospel there are thirteen uses of I am by Yeshua in describing his identity and authority. Raymond Brown investigates these

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Helsinki Press Release: Jewish Believers in Jesus

Jewish believers in Jesus is a broader category than Messianic Jews. The former category includes all Jewish people in churches, in Messianic Jewish synagogues, and even unaffiliated who profess faith in and allegiance to Jesus.

Throughout history since the time of Yeshua, there have not failed to be Jewish believers in Jesus. What is new about Messianic Judaism is not the idea of Jewish people turning in faith to the Messiah of Israel, but to do so as even more than self-identifying Jews, but as participants in Judaism, recognizing that in coming to faith in Yeshua, it is not necessary to leave Judaism and join another religion called Christianity. The ultimate arc of Messianic Judaism is faithfulness to Torah and connectedness to Jewish tradition, which is where, at last, many of us have been arriving during the past decade.

But there are far more Jewish believers in Jesus (the broader category) than Messianic Jews (the narrower category). In fact, to compare the numbers (theoretically, since no one has actual numbers) is to realize Messianic Judaism is not merely outnumbered, but dwarfed by the swell of Jewish believers in Jesus.

Helsinki Consultation on Jewish Continuity in the Body of Messiah
MJTI’s president, Mark Kinzer, is in Helsinki now with David Rudolph, an assistant professor of Bible and theology at MJTI and a group of fifteen scholars from a variety of denominations: Lutheran, Catholic, Orthodox, Messianic Jewish, and more.

This body of scholars has issued a press release. The full text will be posted later today on www.mjti.com.

They deliberated for several days and settled on a few points of agreement. I will summarize some points here in my own words and then quote a bit of the press release. The purpose of my summary is to highlight some meaningful resolutions from this diverse group of Jewish believers in Jesus:

–They do not believe their Jewish identity is something forfeited by means of turning in faith to Jesus (Yeshua).

–They do not believe that their Jewish identity is something forfeited by means of membership in Christian denominations (for the ones who have joined with Christian denominations).

–They do believe their Jewish identity serves a purpose in the healing of humanity in Messiah (Christ) as the divide between Israel and the nations (Jews and Gentiles) is to be healed in the work of Messiah.

–They do believe that as Jews, not having surrendered their identities either through joining Christian denominations or in forming Messianic Jewish synagogues, there is a “distinctive” calling for Jewish believers in Jesus in terms of lifestyle.

They did not say that observance of Torah and tradition was exactly what they meant by this “distinctive” calling. I can only hope that this is the trajectory they are considering.

The papers delivered at the conference will be published in November/December in Kesher: A Journal of Messianic Judaism (www.kesherjournal.com).

Excerpts from the Press Release
The full press release will be posted later today on www.mjti.com. For now, here are a few excerpts as well as a complete list of participants:

The first ecumenical conference of Jewish believers in Jesus in modern times met in Helsinki, Finland June 14-15, 2010 to affirm their Jewish identity, their faith in Jesus and their desire for unity.

Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Messianic scholars

Posted in Christian, Judaism, Mark Kinzer, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Faith Without a Reason? Pt 1

A popular Jewish blogger, whose blog I only recently started following, has a recurrent theme. In the midst of commentary on the news of the Jewish world and Israel mixed with some religious reflection and Torah commentary, this blogger enjoys bringing up modernity, challenges to faith in God, and his own skepticism.

He says more than once that all arguments for faith are invalid. Then he says, I believe anyway.

For example, in a post from 2006 which he titles “Demolishing Dumb Arguments” and which he regards as a classic from his own blog writing, this observant Jew sharply criticizes the argument from history that the Torah was given on Sinai. The argument is, admittedly, not a tight one, but is, I would argue, a matter of evidence and not proof (a distinction this blogger seems not to make): millions throughout history have believed their ancestors stood at Sinai, these millions go back to an original set of people who passed the memory down through the ages, and thus it must be true that a people experienced a revelation at Sinai.

In a later post he explains why he believes anyway. Belief is irrational, he says. He can’t help believing and doesn’t want to stop. But all arguments bolstering belief are invalid from the start. He relates this to some ideas from Hume.

Is faith irrational? Is it something other than faith if it has a reason?

The discussion of faith and reason has a long history, which I will not recount. The ages long discussion has two extremes:

(1) Fideism – faith is an irrational choice to believe and is antithetical to reason.

(2) Theological rationalism – faith is nothing more than reason’s conclusion.

There are a few distinctions that are helpful as we think about the relationship between faith and reason. I picked on up from C.S. Lewis and the other from William Lane Craig. Both of these distinctions are helpful and practical for real people, like you and me, for whom the questions of faith are a matter of importance:

–We should distinguish between reasons to believe and the reasons we actually believe. Once we have become firmly convinced of a belief we reach a “psychological exclusion of doubt,” which is to say that we can’t actually be argued out of our belief. This does not mean we won’t entertain dialogue about our belief (“not a logical exclusion of dispute”), but that we have personal and interior reasons for certainty which are not based purely on reason. Lewis discussed this in an essay called “On Obstinacy in Belief” which is included in the volume The World’s Last Night.

–Another way of making this distinction, which I found in William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith is between knowing and showing. We have one set of reasons we would say we know the content of our faith (they are personal and experiential) and another for how we might show the credibility of our faith (they are evidentiary and logical).

Personal and Experiential Faith
Saying it simply: religious believers have reasons “reason knows not of.” This is, at least in part, what the Jewish blogger was saying. His reasons for believing in Judaism are not about logical proofs. This far, I agree. But if this type of interior and subjective reason is all there is, we are in the realm of fideism.

Fideism is the idea that faith is never more than a blind leap. Apart from any evidence, we accept the content of our faith due to a variety of other sorts of causes. For Kierkegaard this was an inner realization of existence, thoroughly subjective, in which we confront in ourselves the inescapable ideas that have no rational justification. For Barth, this is a communication through ordinary means (the Bible, preaching) of the voice of God personally to us (an interior realization, subjective to us but objective because God is the one revealing truth to us) without rational justification.

One reason, in my opinion, that some people are drawn to fideism is that they are failing to understand the distinctions I listed above — between “reasons we actually believe” and “reasons to believe,” between knowing and showing. In Barth’s case, the inability to reason out faith is because God is unknowably transcendent. In Kierkegaard’s case, the inability to reason out faith is because of the limitations of knowledge and all we can know is subjective.

Lewis admits that the reasons religious believers actually believe have little to do with evidence. There is, in his phrase, an obstinacy in belief which psychologically excludes doubt.

Craig says this is the communication, mystically, of God’s Spirit in us. It is personal, relational, and experiential. Therefore, it is stronger than reason.

Reasonable Faith
But this does not mean that evidence and showing reasons for faith is unimportant. For some people it is all-important, the only important thing.

Theological rationalism, which I will only briefly describe because I find it boring, is the idea that we build our beliefs on foundations which are self-evident and then add arguments based on logic to form an unassailable castle of truth.

A lot of religious people think that something like theological rationalism is true even though, if they examined their own souls they would find their reasons for belief are not rationalist.

Foundationalism or theological rationalism is something most who think deeply eventually discard. In spite of many noble attempts, no philosopher has made the be-all-end-all theory that proves everything or even the theory that “proves” anything. You can’t even prove that you exist.

Some people (fideists and relativists of various types including radical postmodernism and existentialism) embrace the subjective as all there is: we only know what we see and feel, but it is not real outside of ourselves.

Others, myself included, settle for a kind of realism (things outside myself are real and I am certain this is true) that has a lower threshold. We do not seek proof, which is impossible through reason. We seek only evidence and we critically choose to believe what seems to have sufficient evidence.

The key words for a moderated realism are: critical and coherent.

Our view of reality beyond ourselves has to be critical. We think we understand the motives and inner thoughts of another person, but then they surprise us and we have to critically reevaluate. We think we understand the stories of our past and our environment, but then we are challenged and we critically reevaluate. Knowledge is never final.

And the key thing we look for is not proof, but consistency. If I consistently get better gas mileage by accelerating moderately, then I don’t have to know all of the science to conclude: it is better for my bank account if I accelerate moderately (but I don’t because I enjoy speed). If we find that a certain way of understanding a person often matches their words and actions, we believe certain things about that person with reasonable knowledge (even though we cannot know them absolutely).

Reason as Evidence for Faith
The role that reason plays is not as the basis of our faith. And note that by faith I do not mean only faith in the Jewish or Christian ideas of God. Agnosticism and atheism are also a kind of faith.

Whatever the reasons we actually believe something (we would say we know it), it is a different matter to describe reasons to believe (showing).

And showing has value. We reinforce our beliefs with reasonable evidence. An atheist sees evil in the world and concludes there cannot be a good God. This is evidence that God either does not exist, does not act in the world, or is not good. I didn’t say it was sufficient evidence (for example, what is the basis for the idea of good or evil in the first place). But it is evidence.

Evidence firms up belief. This is what discussions of reasons for faith is always more interesting to believers than non-believers. If your synagogue or church has a “reasons to believe” lecture series, expect the believers to flock to it and for the neighborhood you advertise to to avoid it almost to a person. Atheists, similarly, buy Christopher Hitchens books like candy to reinforce their faith.

Augustine is credited with an idea that reason is “faith seeking understanding.” It turns out this is true for all sorts of people (not just Christians like Augustine). Our actual reasons for believing, as the Jewish blogger said, are not reasonable arguments.

But don’t say faith is without reason. This is going too far. If you admit that the world outside yourself is most likely real and act as if it is real, you get good results. And perhaps God is not fully knowable, but he mediates his presence to us in lower emanations that we can know. And faith feels like a leap in the dark, but we have actual reasons and showable reasons.

Posted in Atheism, C.S. Lewis, Christian, Faith, Judaism, Philosophy | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Israel, What Are Christians to Think?

Doing my morning commentary work (in Numbers and John right now) I had to struggle with a bit of anger and a preoccupation with wanting to write this post instead of doing my task at hand.

The source of my vexation is a discussion started yesterday on a major Christian blog. As happens from time to time, the left-leaning side of Christianity has to show its moral legitimation by speaking ill of the state of Israel. It is a qualification for true leftness to show maturity by disapproving of every action of the state of Israel and chalking the violence of Hamas up to the understandable pent-up frustration of being an “occupied” nation struggling against oppression.

Before I go on to talk about the way I think Christians should think of the state of Israel (don’t assume you know what I will say), let me tell you that Israelis have a lot more sanity about the situation than the comfortable theorists in America who sit back and judge over their morning coffee untroubled by the prospect of war, of Iranian nukes, or of the rising anti-semitism in Europe. Israelis and, in rare cases where they are allowed to speak freely and without fear of repercussions from their Hamas overlords, Palestinians, believe they can get along. Of course, I am generalizing and you can say my generalization is wrong, if you’d like, but try talking to some Israelis and some Palestinians who have freedom from their oppressive, terrorist government.

But Americans and others in the west continually interfere and fan the flames of hatred. Can anyone suggest to me that American interference has helped the problem? I suppose some people will tell me that if America left Israel unchecked the state would, allegedly, take a heavier hand with the Palestinians. I doubt that and argue against it. Israel has a conscience as big or bigger than America.

America gets a pass, compared to Israel, on the way we treat our enemy combatants. America kills civilians.

Anyway, it felt good to say those things.

The Unhelpful Christian Zionist Approach
On this blog a well-meaning-but-in-way-over-his-head Christian spoke up for Israel. His argument is all too familiar, but needs evaluation:

1. Genesis 12:3 says those who bless Israel will be blessed.
2. The land has been given to Israel by God in the Torah.
3. Therefore, America should seek God’s blessing by supporting the state of Israel in its every decision and action.

Well, I agree with point #1. I think point #2 is true in a sense, but this is the ultimate plan, in God’s time, and is not true of every generation and does not overrule the divine imperative of justice and faithfulness to the Torah covenant.

Let me suggest a Jewish view, a biblical view of the situation:

1. Israel is the people elected freely and irrevocably by God, whose destiny and purpose serve as the forefront of God’s plan of world redemption.
2. Israel’s relationship with God is one of unconditional love and favor, but its temporal fortunes are tied to the covenant relationship through Torah.
3. The state of Israel is a secular government with little regard for Torah, which is obligated to follow the divine commandments and is not, and which is not guaranteed peace or success in any generation until there is renewal.

I believe Christian Zionists are great friends to the Jewish people. I believe there are plenty of mature, biblically thoughtful Christian Zionists. But there are also plenty who have not thought deeply. Their love for Israel is well-meaning but needs to be balanced with the prophetic call for Israel to be the covenant people.

This commenter on the Christian blog did not help the cause with his unbalanced call for unequivocal support for a secular Jewish state.

Of Freedom of Speech in Israel and in Muslim Lands
Dershowitz, in his excellent book, The Case for Israel, documents the right and regular use of free speech by Israelis to criticize their own government.

The disastrous handling of the Gaza flotilla incident, which is the reason people are talking so much about Israel right now, has been roundly criticized by many Israelis. Most Israelis are frustrated with the way their government handled this. It is a black eye for Netanyahu, regardless of how much he personally did or did not become involved in its planning (I am unaware of his involvement or lack of involvement).

Israelis have free speech and can utilize it without fear of reprisal. Israel has been far more conciliatory toward Palestinians as a result. Israelis want peace and have been willing to sacrifice a great deal for it.

Meanwhile, in Palestinian territories and in Muslim lands, there is no such free speech or access to world opinion and news. Palestinian kids are educated with statist propaganda, outright lies, making Israelis out to be de facto Nazis. Citizens of Muslim lands, as a general rule, are not able to say that the Jews have a homeland in the Middle East which is here to stay (I am excepting Israel’s allies: Jordan, Turkey, and Egypt).

Jews are self-criticizing. Muslims must watch their mouths continually. A generalization, sure, but one that is truer than some will admit.

What Should a Christian Think?
One of the other commenters on this Christian blog took the anti-Israel approach to the max. They said Genesis 17 gives the land to Abraham’s descendants, Jew and Arab.

They reject the biblical teaching that the covenant passed through Isaac and not Ishmael, through Jacob and not Esau. Their unbalanced view is no better than the Israel-gets-the-land-no-matter-what Christian Zionist commenter (in fact, their view is worse).

But given the theological parameters I discussed above, here are some bullet points that I think should clarify a valid Christian Zionist position:

1. The state of Israel is in need of reform from the Torah (I believe Messiah will come after a return to Torah).

2. The state of Israel has no guarantee of success in the land as long as it is unfaithful to the covenant.

3. Blessing Israel a la Genesis 12 is about praying for a return to God, to Torah, to covenant love, not approving of each and every policy of the state.

4. Speaking against the state of Israel from time to time as a friend is a sign of a mature relationship.

5. Israel has a right as a sovereign nation to defend itself (I know the arguments for passive resistance as the only legitimate form of response and I reject them as heinous, not valuing human life enough to fight for it).

6. Supposed peace activists who bring combatants and arms into Gaza bring on themselves whatever happens (any boats bringing people chanting about the destruction of America with religious zeal would be seized and the people locked up).

7. The state of Israel must be held to Torah standards of justice, respect for human life, and so on. It is perfectly legitimate for Christians to be angry about torture and other abuses.

8. The Palestinians and Muslim anti-Israel activists have much more to answer for than Israel: for violent bloodshed, for a lack of respect for human life that makes Israel’s abuses pale, for oppressing their own people in ways that should embarrass every left-leaning supporter of the Islamic cause, for insisting that the Jews all leave Israel, for ignoring the historical reality that Israel has always been the home of the Jewish people, for denying God and Torah to a greater degree that the Israeli state, and the list of charges against Muslim cruelty and oppression could go on and on.

The Bottom Line
Christians should be pro-Israel as the elect people of God, holding the state of Israel to God’s standards, and praying for renewal in Israel. Christians can differ as to theories about solutions. Christians, like Jews and Israelis, should hold the government of Israel’s feet to the fire. Christians should recognize that the land will be restored by God to the people of Israel in his time and in his way. Christians should bless Israel by praying for and encouraging Jews to discover Torah and live by it. Christians should speak out against Muslim acts of violence, inherent disregard for life in the Muslim jihad, and the Muslim counter-narrative which arrogates God’s election of the Jewish people to itself.

Posted in Bible, Islam and the West, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

Don't miss it: discussion on Tithes in Ancient Israel, Pt 2

I am strongly arguing for a system of trained leaders devoted to teaching and pastoral care. Advocates of house-church movements (the Jewish counterpart would be havurot and alternate minyans) are taking me on. I know my rhetoric here is strong. I am trying, in general, to be less confrontational. So my strong stance here may seem like “the old, argumentative Derek,” but the idea I am contending for is important. Feel free to speak just as strongly back to me. I think this discussion is a good one: those in synagogues/churches need a stronger idea of what it is all for; those in informal groups need to understand how they undermine the building of a strong community of faith.

The discussion is two posts down, under “The Tithe in Ancient Israel, Pt 2.”

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PODCAST: Yeshua in Context – Friend of Sinners

More than even the other two synoptic gospels, Luke makes it a theme that Yeshua befriended sinners and the lowly, the am ha

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The Tithe in Ancient Israel, Pt 2

The situation in our day is very different from in the Torah. Judaism acknowledges this, while Protestant Christianity clings to an outdated and untenable system.

Here is what I mean…

As concerns obligation, Judaism acknowledges that the tithe laws of the Torah are partially inapplicable today. The laws as given concern Israel in the land supporting the Temple and priesthood.

But there is no functional priesthood now and no Temple to support.

Thus, Judaism has adapted the second tithe to fulfill the highest ideal of Torah. Whereas in Temple times, the second tithe was for a communal meal in years one, two, four, and five, and set aside for the poor in years three and six, it is now the case that the tithe is to be given to the poor in every year. But what about the seventh year? Since our modern lives involve income in every year, as opposed to the system in agricultural Israel where the seventh year had no harvest, the obligation to give a tithe is every year. Additionally, the shmittah (Sabbath year) and yovel (Jubilee year) legislation assumes the people of Israel living in the land, and they are based on the idea of God blessing the land to miraculously provide for the fallow fields. So any application of the second tithe (for the poor) cannot be combined with a practice of Sabbath years outside of the land.

Thus, in Judaism, the tithe law is applied as giving to the poor at all times and giving between a tenth and a fifth. It is considered an obligation to give a tenth to charity. And charity is prioritized, first to family in need, then to local needs, then to needs in Israel, and last to organizations and charities.

In Protestant Christianity, however, there is a rule that a tithe is given to the local church. This rule, for most denominations, is not written or enforced. Few actually follow the rule.

Protestants are intelligent people. It is not hard to see the difference between a local church and the Temple of Israel, between a pastor and the Levitical priest.

Protestants are intelligent people. It is not hard to see the inequity in the claim that the Law is abolished in contrast to the preaching from the pulpit that one law, at least, is sacrosanct: the law of tithing to the local church. Sermons insisting that the rigorous application of the law from Malachi should be applied in slightly changed form (storehouse now equals the church bank account) fall largely on deaf ears.

Protestants are intelligent people who realize that many of the laws of Torah were given for Israel and not for Gentiles. This is not only good interpretation of the books of Moses, but is in the New Testament too, in Paul’s letters and in Acts 15. How is it that churches make an exception for the tithe law?

Support for the Congregation and Clergy

The actual law that most religious people follow is not a strict application of the tithe re-applied to the church or synagogue.

Rather, it is that we need to support our congregation and clergy. We benefit from having teachers who inspire and motivate us. We benefit from buildings and personnel and all the trapping that make community possible.

One of the weaknesses of alternative forms of community (house churches, cell groups, alternative minyans, havurot) is that they do not provide for several things: serious research and teaching, an enduring tradition, continuity and perpetuity, and more. A group meeting in a home and led by lay-people has the advantage of freedom and spontaneity. But if everyone adopts these alternative forms, theological study will come to a standstill. Religion will devolve into the least common denominator in terms of intelligence and attractiveness to moderns. The sheep will be left with gleanings instead of a rich harvest.

Who hasn’t been part of an informal group where the level of learning was less than satisfying because “everyone here is equal”? So uninformed people come together to discuss a text and everyone leaves just as ignorant as they came.

And as much as we distrust institutions, synagogues and churches are here for the long-haul. Informal groups come and go. If we ignore our urges to worship God for a time, we know the church or synagogue will be there if we ever decide we need them. Will we find the living room liturgy group when we have a need? Will some lay-leader be available when we experience the death of a loved one and want an experience of divine comfort?

In Judaism, the actual rule followed is simple: pay your synagogue dues and give to fundraising programs to keep the community strong.

In Protestant Christianity, the actual rule followed is reflected in the New Testament:

–the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of a share in the crop (1 Cor. 9:10).

–Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching; for the scripture says,

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