Love, Hate and the Greatest Commandment

Parashat Va’etchanan

Why do we read this parasha every year after Tisha B’Av? Thought we were finished with all of the pleading already? This week, we spent a hungry evening on the floor reading Lamentations, remembering the horrific tragedies that have beset our people on Tisha B’Av: the destruction of the First & Second Temples, our expulsion from England and Spain, the beginning of World War I, the Chelmniecki pogrom in Ukraine, the beginning of deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto, a terrorist bombing at a JCC in Argentina … Indeed, I thought we were finished with all of the pleading. No, the time has come again to read Moses’ famous last words, beginning with “and I pleaded.” In this portion, Moses warns of the consequences of failing to hold up our end of the bargain – observing God’s commandments. If we fail to hear and to obey, we will be driven out from the Land of Israel and become scattered among the nations. Why did our sages choose the Shabbat following Tisha B’Av for the reading of this portion?

According to tradition, it was the corruption of our people that led to the destruction of the Second Temple (see b. Yoma 9b). “Baseless hatred” is the buzzword that’s meant to describe our undoing, and seemingly characterized Jewish national life during the Second Temple period. But what is baseless hatred?

It seems awfully vague and wholly unrelated to the minutiae of Jewish life – laws regulating our food, clothing, work, study, marriage, child rearing (even bathing habits!). What does baseless hatred have to do with God’s commandments?

The greatest commandment, according to Yeshua, is the love of God and the love of others (cf. Leviticus 19:6). Hillel offered a similar assessment. When asked to summarize the whole of Torah while standing on one foot, he said, “what is hateful to you do not do to another. All the rest is commentary.” The commentary of Yeshua and Hillel seem to draw a correlation between one’s love for God and one’s ability to love others. If love of God and love of others are intrinsically linked to each other, then “baseless hatred” of other people would imply a failure to love God, as well.

Indeed, the phrase “baseless hatred,” or sinat chinam, is literally “the hate of their chen.” A person’s chen is the quality that makes her unique. The part of her that is betselem Elohim, in the image of God. To commit sinat chinam is to deny a person’s right to exist and to believe that person has nothing valuable to contribute to the world. Sinat chinam, then, is the condition and the action of ultimate arrogance.

If I assume that you have nothing of value to contribute to this world, then my thoughts and deeds make the statement that God doesn’t know what he is doing in creating and sustaining you. When I perceive a person made in God’s image as worthless and treat her accordingly, I violate the greatest commandment to love God. In violating this commandment, I may as well have nullified the whole of Torah.

Perhaps it is fitting that, only days after fasting in memory of the destruction of the Temple, we are reminded of Moses’ words warning us about the very behaviors that bring about these sorrows. We violate the whole of Torah if we do not love each other and act accordingly. And if we violate the whole of Torah, we lose our entitlement to life in the Land. The challenge of Jewish life is to find the chen within each person, no matter how distasteful they seem. In acknowledging the dignity of people who seem to have no valuable purpose in this life, we honor the ultimate wisdom of God and God’s confounding yet generous act of creation. To love others is to love God. This is the whole of Torah.

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The Shechinah in Exile

A Classic Repost in honor of Tisha B’Av:

The concept of a compassionate and personal G-d is not foreign to Rabbinic thought. One particularly interesting example is the concept of “the Shechinah in Exile.”

According to the Tanya[1] (quoting the Gemara), “When they [the Israelites] were exiled to Edom, the Shechinah went with them.”[2]

I find this to be a very powerful idea. It is a picture of HaShem not as being distant, but as rather very near to us. It is a very personal conception of G-d – an idea that G-d suffers along with Israel and is exiled alongside the Jewish people. That G-d chooses to be exiled along with His people. In thinking about this concept, I cannot help but think about Abraham Joshua Heschel’s description of “G-d in search of man.”[3] That more than we think we are pursuing G-d, G-d is actually in pursuit of us. And not only is this a G-d who pursues us, but is so moved by, and with us, that G-d too is exiled along with Israel.

This idea is actually rooted in Scripture. In several places we find references to G-d’s presence going into exile with Israel, for example:

Genesis 46:4

ד  אָנֹכִי אֵרֵד עִמְּךָ מִצְרַיְמָה, וְאָנֹכִי אַעַלְךָ גַם-עָלֹה; וְיוֹסֵף יָשִׁית יָדוֹ עַל-עֵינֶיךָ. 4 I will go down with you into Egypt; and I will also surely bring you up again; and Joseph shall put his hand upon your eyes.’

Ezekiel 11:16

טז  לָכֵן אֱמֹר, כֹּה-אָמַר אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה כִּי הִרְחַקְתִּים בַּגּוֹיִם וְכִי הֲפִיצוֹתִים בָּאֲרָצוֹת; וָאֱהִי לָהֶם לְמִקְדָּשׁ מְעַט בָּאֲרָצוֹת אֲשֶׁר-בָּאוּ שָׁם. 16 therefore say: Thus saith the Lord GOD: Although I have removed them far off among the nations, and although I have scattered them among the countries, yet have I been to them as a little sanctuary in the countries where they are come;

This very personal conception of a compassionate G-d is also a popular motif within Midrash. This is especially true within a particular group of texts from Eichah Rabbah regarding “Rachel Weeping.” These texts clearly demonstrate HaShem’s compassion over Israel where G-d is described as weeping alongside Rachel:

כיון שראה אותם, הקב”ה מיד, “ויקרא ה’ אלוהים צבאות ביום ההוא לבכי ולמספד ולקרחה ולחגור שק.” ואלמלא מקרא שכתוב, אי אפשר לאמרו. והיו בוכין והולכין משער זה לשער זה כאדם שמתו מוטל לפניו. והיה הקב”ה סופד ואומר אוי לו למלך שבקטנותו הצליח ובזקנותו לא הצליח.

“As soon He saw them, the Holy One, Blessed be He, immediately declared ‘HaShem, G-d of Hosts, on that day has called for crying, lamenting, pulling out one’s hair, and for putting on sack-cloth [Is. 22:12].’ If it were not written in Scripture, it would be impossible to say. [Yet], they would weep continuously from one gate to another as a man who’s dead is laid before him. The Holy One, Blessed is He, lamented and said, ‘Woe to him, to the king who succeeded in his youthfulness, but was unable to succeed in his old age.’”[4]

In this particular text from Eichah Rabbah, HaShem declares a day to cry and lament (ויקרא ה’ אלהים צבאות ביום ההוא לבכי ולמספד ), and is described as weeping along with Rachel (בוכה, ומבכה הקב”ה עמה). In another closely related text [5], “Rachel” is meant to be understood as representing both Rachel and HaShem (אל תיקרי רחל … אלא רוח-אל).

These “Rachel Weeping” passages in Eichah Rabbah (and Seder Eliyahu Rabbah) exemplify an idea similar to the concept of the Shechinah in exile represented in the Tanya. In the Eichah Rabbah passages it is not just Rachel weeping over her children, but HaShem as well. As such, these texts, along with the Tanya’s reference to the Shechinah in exile demonstrates a perception of the Divine that is personal, compassionate over the Jewish people, and actively involved our daily lives.

 


 

[1] The Tanya is one of the primary texts of Chassidut – Chassidic life and thought, and could even be said to be an introduction to “Chassidic Psychology.” It was written by the founder of Chabad Chasiddism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the Alter Rebbe) and was first published in 1796.

[2] Tanya, Chapter 17.

[3] Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man (New York: Farrar, Straus and Groux, 1983).

[4] Petichta 24, Eichah Rabbah HaMevuar (Jerusalem: Machon Hamidrash Hamevo’ar, 2004) 78. (Translation mine)

[5] Seder Eliyahu Rabbah, Ch. 28, Siman 2. (Davka)

 

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Tisha B’Av: A Reenactment of Tragedy, a Glimpse of Hope

Tisha B’Av

Tonight, Wednesday, July 29th, begins Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av).

The day itself can be summed up in one word: Tragedy. On this day we remember many of the most tragic events in the history of the Jewish people which all took place on Tisha B’Av (or within just a few days of it).

Judaism is a religion of sacred drama. We don’t just remember, we relive, re-experience, and reenact events of the past. This is also true of Tisha B’Av. In going through the four associated fast days, and their accompanying customs, we relive the stages of destruction of the First and Second Temples and the loss of Jewish sovereignty.

The primary focus of Tisha B’Av is mourning. As such, the Halachah of the day draws heavily on the imagery of the death of a family member, walking through the stages of grief and sorrow.

Some events associated with Tisha B’Av include:

  • The 10 Spies return with a bad report after spying out the land.
  • Destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. About 100,000 Jews were killed during the invasion of Jerusalem, culminating in the Babylonian exile sending many from the remaining tribes in the southern kingdom to Babylon and Persia.
  • Destruction of Second Temple by Romans the Roman in 70 CE, under Titus. Over 2,500,000 Jews were killed as a result of war, famine and disease. Over 1,000,000 Jews were exiled to all parts of the Roman Empire. Over 100,000 Jews were sold as slaves by the Romans, and Jews were killed and tortured in gladiatorial “games” and pagan celebrations.
  • In 132 CE the Second Jewish Revolt of Bar Kochba was crushed, and over 100,000 Jews were killed.
  • In 133 CE, Turnus Rufus ploughs the site of the Temple mount and builds the pagan city ofAelia Capitolina.
  • In 1095, the First Crusade was declared by Pope Urban II. In the first month alone, over 10,000 Jews were killed. The Crusades brought death and destruction to thousands of Jews, totally obliterating many communities in the Rhineland and France.
  • In 1290, Expulsion of Jews from England, accompanied by pogroms and confiscation of books and property.
  • As a result of the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, in 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain issue an edict expelling all Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. Families separated, many died by drowning, and there was a massive loss of property. What was once a major hub of Jewish civilization was decimated and scattered throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe.
  • In 1914, Britain and Russia declared war on Germany, beginning the First World War. Issues left unresolved eventually lead to the Second World War and the Holocaust. 75% of all Jews were in war zones. Jews served in armies on all sides – 120,000 Jewish casualties. Over 400 pogroms immediately followed the war in Hungary, Ukraine, Poland and Russia.
  • In 1942, the first of the Deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka concentration camp begin.
  • In 1994, the deadly bombing of the AMIA, the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires,Argentina, which killed 86 people and wounded some 300 others.

On Tisha B’Av it is traditional to fast, observe the customs of mourning, and hear the book of Lamentations and other mournful passages read in synagogue. The service is also accompanied by special liturgical readings known as Kinnot.

Although in our day, Tisha B’Av is associated with mourning and tragedy, according to the rabbis, when Mashiach comes the day will become of day of rejoicing. As followers of Mashiach, it seems appropriate that Yeshua applies the imagery of the Temple to himself:

“Yeshua answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” -John 2:19

Tisha B’Av carries that hint of redemption. For out of the ashes of tragedy our redemption will sprout forth, and we will see the return of our Messiah.

May that day come speedily and soon! Until then … we wait, mourn, yearn, and prepare for that day to finally arrive.

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A Flood and a Tower

Parashat Noach

A Flood and a Tower. These are the two central narratives within this week’s parashah. Noach is rich with lessons for our day, connections to other biblical events, and full of historical allusions within the greater ancient Near East.

The most central narrative within the parashah is of course the account of the flood, of Noah and his family, and the salvation of all living creatures through the building of an ark (a wood vessel).

The Ark

The ark that Noach builds is called in Hebrew a Tevah (תבה). This word only appears in two places in the entire Torah. The only other time the word Tevah is used is in reference to the reed “basket” Moshe is placed in by his mother and hidden in the river, only to be later discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter.

This was intentional. The use of the word Tevah is meant to connect these two stories. So what are the connections between the two narratives? Both of these are mysterious “vessels.” They are literally boxes. When you look at the dimensions of the ark in the Torah, it is not a typical ship. It is a box. They are both covered with pitch. Both are also “divinely directed.” Meaning, neither of them are guided by human means. The ark has no oars, or any type of steering mechanism. The reed basket Moshe is placed in is also divinely directed, left to the current of the river.

Both figures emerge from their respective Tevah to become a type of redeeming figure – a savior of humanity. And both are recognized for their obedience and faith to HaShem. The Torah wants to make clear that Noach is a redeeming figure similar to Moshe. The use of these connections also ties the whole narrative (and all the intermediate narratives) together.

I have not even touched on the connection of the Biblical flood account to other flood accounts known throughout the world, let alone the Ancient Near Eastern flood account of Utnapishtim.

The Tower of Bavel

The other narrative central to this week’s parashah is the Tower of Bavel. According to the Torah, a great “tower” was built in the plain of Shinar, intended to reach up into the heavens. G-d destroyed the tower and scattered the people across the earth, and confused their languages because of their intentions.

Ziggur9The reference to Shinar is believed by scholars to be ancient Sumer (one of the earliest great civilizations), and more broadly to Mesopotamia as a whole. Interestingly, the tower is called Bavel, most likely a reference to the Mesopotamian city with the same name – Bavel (Babylon).

According to the Biblical account, the purpose for building the Tower was to reach the heavens so they could make a name for themselves (Gen. 11:4). Scholars have long connected this story with the great Mesopotamian temples, known as Ziggurats – which were massive stepped pyramid structures. Ziggurats were places where priests offered prayers, offerings, and sacrifices to the Mesopotamian pantheon of gods.

Another interesting possible connection is that the great ziggurat in Babylon was called “E-sag-ila,” meaning, “the head that reaches the gods,” the same concept behind the biblical account. Maybe this is further insight into the reason G-d destroyed the Tower of Bavel???

So, what are we to make of all this?

The Scriptures contain a wealth of historical allusions and references. It is fascinating just how many there really are when you are familiar with ancient Near Eastern civilizations. But these narratives were included for particular reasons – theological reasons. They were meant to demonstrate to their ancient listeners (our ancestors) that the G-d of Israel was in fact the G-d of the flood account, which was known throughout the world. And the narrative of the Tower of Bavel is meant to demonstrate that the G-d of Israel is greater then the pantheon of Mesopotamian gods, and was meant to explain the reason for various people and languages spread throughout the world.

May we, like Noach, learn to hear from HaShem. May we also be bold enough, like Noach, to act on whatever G-d asks of us. HaShem may not ask us all to build an ark, but sometimes G-d asks us to do tasks that are often just as difficult in faith and action. The lesson of this parashah is that difficult faith is rewarded, and that the same all powerful G-d is also active in the world around us today to help us through life’s most difficult trials.

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Genesis in Context

I love the book of Genesis! Not only as a religious Jew, but as an academic. I value the theological understandings gleaned through thousands of years of Jewish interpretation. However, I also value the rich tradition of Genesis from its historical and literary understanding, which is also teaming with Ancient Near Eastern allusions, language, and places.

The Bible is a product of the Ancient Near East. When we view the Bible also from the perspective of literature, we can appreciate the context out of which it was birthed, the particulars of the people who brought it forth, and its similarities to other ANE texts.

Although the creation account in Genesis differs from other creation accounts and has its own unique characteristics, there are also many ANE allusions. The idea of “tohu v’vohu,” of the earth being in utter chaos prior to Creation, of the “firmament (or dome)” above the earth, the separation of the “upper” and “lower” waters, and of course even the concept of the Garden of Eden. Interestingly, the word Eden itself is not Hebrew. It is a borrowed Sumerian word that finds its way into the Bible through Akkadian influence.

Ancient Sumer (the Biblical “Shinar”) was the cradle of civilization. It is the earliest known complex civilization in the world and spanned over three-thousand years – from the 6th millennium to the 2nd millennium BCE. Sumer was the birthplace of complex society, the wheel, and of agriculture. It was also the birthplace of writing (ca. 3500 BCE).

The heart of ancient Mesopotamia is between the two great rivers of the Tigris and Euphrates, which are mentioned in Genesis as two of the rivers bordering the Garden of Eden. Several of these earliest cities are mentioned in the first three Torah portions – Bavel, Uruk (Biblical Erech), Akkad, Nineveh, and Ur (just to name a few). The biblical patriarch Abraham, himself, came from Ur in Southern Mesopotamia.

The flood story of Noah is also interestingly paralleled in earlier ANE versions; however, I will not expand on this as my friend and colleague, Derek Leman, has blogged on it extensively in the past.

Even the idea of the Tower of Babel is believed to be an allusion to the great Mesopotamian temples, known as Ziggurats – which were massive stepped pyramid temple structures. Ziggurats were places where priests offered prayers, offerings, and sacrifices to the Mesopotamian pantheon of gods.

As a religious Jew I obviously attribute theological truth to Genesis as Scripture and I absolutely believe HaShem literally created all that exists. However, it is important that we also understand Genesis for what it is, and what it is not. We should not try to read especially the creation account too literally. It was never intended to be a scientific account of creation (although it may contain scientific and historical information). Rather, Genesis is a theological account of Creation. As I mentioned last week, Genesis is meant to directly establish God as the sovereign of the universe. As such, the Torah speaks only in general terms to illustrate that nothing came into being except at God’s command. Unlike other origin stories circulating around the Ancient Near East, the Biblical account makes no attempt to explain the origins of God, or try to persuade the listener of God’s existence. The existence of God, in Judaism, is an axiomatic fact. Therefore it immediately jumps to the explanation of God’s creation of heaven and earth, and to what God expects of His creation.

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New Commentary: Letters of John

I’m excited to announce the release of my new book, a commentary, titled: John’s Three Letters: On Hope, Love and Covenant Fidelity. It is already available for pre-order on Amazon and the Lederer website.

This is part of a Messianic commentary series, published by Lederer, within which I also have a previous volume on Jude.

From the Preface:

The Letters of John include some of the most beloved and often-quoted portions of scripture. Countless sermons have been given on their verses and they are intimately familiar to innumerable individuals across time. Therefore, most people conversant on the Bible – scholars included – are confident they already have John’s letters figured out.

But do they really?

My challenge is to encourage you to question what you think you already know about these ancient texts, to set aside pre-conceived ideas, and approach them with a fresh perspective. Although much has already been written on these popular epistles, most of it has failed to approach them from the thoroughly Jewish world-view and hermeneutic they deserve.

There is a need for a fresh and post-supersessionist reading of John’s letters that challenges common presuppositions regarding their purpose, message and relevance. By delving into their original Jewish context we will discover a world of hope, love, and God’s ongoing covenant-faithfulness to Israel. We will also demonstrate that the author’s theology, particularly his understanding of the divine nature of Messiah, was thoroughly embedded within the Jewish world of the first century (Second Temple Judaism).

ENDORSEMENTS

“If you are looking for a guide to make the Letters of John fresh and interesting again, this is the book for you! Conversant in both Jewish and Christian scholarship, Rabbi Joshua Brumbach builds a credible case against the modern theories asserting that the Johannine body of literature is a kind of general philosophical theology consonant with the Greek philosophical milieu of the first century. John’s letters are deeply rooted in the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish religious interpretive traditions … You may just discover that the letters of John are more practical and relevant to real earthy life in the twenty-first century than you ever realized before!”

-Dr. William D. (Bill) Bjoraker, Associate Professor of Judeo-Christian Studies and Contemporary Western Culture, William Carey International University, Pasadena, CA

“Rabbi Brumbach interacts with the text of the letters and with current scholarship to explain John’s messages in terms of Late Second Temple Jewish life and thought. An excellent brief commentary on John’s letters!”

-Rabbi Dr. Carl Kinbar, Director, The New School for Jewish Studies

“Brumbach’s commentary is a wonderful and welcome addition to the growing body of post-supersessionist New Testament interpretation. While engaging with traditional and well-established New Testament commentators, Brumbach raises a key set of issues and questions that has largely been eclipsed by the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity. For anyone who is interested in digging deeper into the Jewish context of the letters of John, this commentary is an invaluable resource.”

-Dr. Jennifer M. Rosner, Affiliate Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA

I recommend this work for all who are interested in being gently initiated into an up-to-date, concise, yet comprehensive treatment of John’s letters.

-Joseph Shulam, Director of Netivyah Bible Instruction Ministry, Jerusalem, Israel

“This accessible yet scholarly commentary does readers the needed service of moving the Johannine Letters out of the realm of anti-Jewish polemic and into the realm of intra-Jewish dialogue. Rabbi Brumbach carefully highlights how the letters reveal a community wrestling with what it means to love one another for the sake of HaShem (“the Name”), especially when there are divisions and defections. There is life-giving word here for all current believers.”

-Dr. Nicholas J. Zola, Associate Professor of Religion, Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA

So check it out on Amazon or the Lederer website and please let me know your thoughts!

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Holy Cow!

redShabbat Parah

This week is a special Shabbat, called Shabbat Parah. It is named after the special supplemental reading, called the maftir, from Numbers 19 that describes the process for sacrificing the Red Heifer. This portion is always read before the beginning of the Jewish month of Nissan.

In biblical times, every person was required to bring a Korban Pesach, a Passover Sacrifice on the eve of Passover that was to be eaten during the Seder. However, only people who were ritually pure were able to partake of it. Therefore, right before the month of Nissan (the month in which Passover falls) a public announcement would be made that every person who had become impure must purify themselves, and be extremely careful not to become impure before Passover.

The parah aduma (red heifer) represents the quintessential chok (a divine decree without any seeming rationale). The ashes of the Red Heifer were used for purification. Through the death of a calf, the Tabernacle, its furnishings, and those who served were purified and ritually cleansed to serve in the presence of G-d. The ashes were also used to purify someone who became ritually impure through contact with a dead body.

In Likutei Halachot, Rebbe Nachman explains why this special portion (Shabbat Parah) is read after Purim. In the course of our victory over Haman-Amalek, we become defiled through contact with death and evil, and need to be purified. The Sfat Emet further explains that tumat met (impurity from the dead) is a function of mortality, which entered the world as a result of the primordial sin of Adam who ate from the tree of knowledge. According to Rabbi Zvi Leshem, man’s desire to be all knowing like G-d, placing the value of knowledge over that of faith, led to his downfall, bringing death and impurity into the world. Ritual purity comes through the willingness to serve HaShem even in a reality permeated by doubts and confusion.

On this Shabbat Parah we focus on a cow. Although this does not make any sense to our rational minds in the modern age, there are significant reasons. For it is not about us, but about HaShem. The purpose of the red heifer is to to bring forth purification and life where there seems only death.

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Divine Presence

Parashat Terumah

What is the connection between the construction of the Tabernacle, its furnishings and the Presence of G-d among the people of Israel?

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Terumah, centers on the instructions concerning the building of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) and its furnishings. This raises an interesting question. For if the Bible’s overall theme is about G-d’s relationship with humanity through the Jewish people, then why is so much attention given to the details of objects? The answer is deeply connected to the purpose of the Mishkan, its services, and the manifest presence of the Divine.

The Torah states, “They shall make for me a Sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them (25:8).” The Hebrew name for the Tabernacle is mishkan, which means “to dwell” or “dwelling.” As such, even the word mishkan denotes HaShem’s presence that would dwell among the people of Israel.

Ibn Ezra comments that “while Moses was still on Mt. Sinai, G-d commanded him concerning the tabernacle so that it would be a permanent place among the people for the glory that had rested on the mountain.” Further, Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch notes that the key to the Tabernacle is directly related to Israel’s calling in verse 8. The Sanctuary represents Israel’s obligation to sanctify itself in its personal life. When the nation carries out that primary responsibility, G-d responds by dwelling among them.

G-d has always desired to tabernacle among His people. And the purpose of the Mishkan was to be a constant reminder of G-d’s presence residing among the Jewish people. The mishkan represents G-d’s shechinah (from the same word as mishkan) – G-d’s manifest presence on earth.

The author of Revelation writes that this continued presence of G-d among the Jewish people will continue beyond the second coming of the Messiah and even into the “New Jerusalem.”

“And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of G-d is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. G-d Himself will be with them and be their G-d (Rev. 21:3).’”

This promise echoes passages from the Torah in which G-d promises that He will be Israel’s G-d, and that they shall be His people. This promise of Israel’s unique relationship will continue into the Olam HaBa – the World to Come. May we, as followers of Yeshua, our Righteous Messiah, continue to live personal lives aware of G-d’s manifest presence, and may we continue to work to bring that Presence to the rest of the world – thereby affirming our calling to be a Light to the Nations.

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Yahrzeit of Rabbi Lichtenstein

Today is Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot, and also marks the yahrzeit of Rabbi Ignácz (Isaac) Lichtenstein, one of our great Messianic Jewish forbearers.

Lichtenstein’s Early Life

Rav Lichtenstein was born in 1824, and became a rabbi before turning 20 years old. After officiating for several years in different communities in northern Hungary, he finally settled down as the Chief/District Rabbi in Tápiószele, where he remained for nearly 40 years.

Early in his career, one of his teachers in the communal school of the district casually showed him a German Bible. Turning the leaves, his eye fell on the name “Jesu Christi.” He became angry and reproved the teacher for having such a thing in his possession. Taking the book, he flung it across the room in a rage; it fell behind a shelf where, dusty and forgotten, it lay for some thirty-odd years.

Tisza Eslar Affair and Franz Delitzsch

In April of 1882 a fierce wave of anti-Semitism broke out in Hungary, culminating in the now historic “Tisza Eslar affair.”  As is often the case, the blood libel was ultimately demonstrated to be false and baseless – thanks largely to a number of prominent Christian leaders, most notably Dr. Franz Delitzsch, a Biblical scholar and Professor at Leipzig University, who rose to the occasion to defend the Jewish people against the outlandish blood libel.

This act of defense by Delitzsch, such a prominent Christian, played a key role in Rabbi Lichtenstein beginning to rethink his position on Yeshua and the Brit Chadashah:

“In articles written by [Delitzsch] in defense of the Jews of Hungary, I often met with passages where Jesus was spoken of as He Who brings joy to man, the Prince of peace, and the Redeemer; and His Gospel was extolled as a message of love and life to all people. I was surprised and scarcely trusted my eyes when I espied in a hidden corner the New Testament which some 30 years before I had in vexation taken from a Jewish teacher, and I began to turn over its leaves and read. How can I express the impression which I then received? Not the half had been told me of the greatness, power and glory of this Book, formerly a sealed book to me. All seemed so new, arid yet it did me good, like the sight of an old friend who has laid aside his dusty, travel-worn garments, and appears in in festive attire, like a bridegroom in wedding robes, or a bride adorned with her jewels.”

Lichtenstein’s New Boldness

Lichtenstein’s synagogue in Tápiószele.

For two or three years Rabbi Lichtenstein kept these convictions a secret. However, in time, he slowly began to teach some of these strange and new doctrines in his synagogue which both interested and astonished his hearers. At last he could contain himself no longer. On one Shabbat, while teaching on a parable of Yeshua, he openly proclaimed that his subject was taken from the New Testament and spoke of Yeshua as the true Messiah and Redeemer of Israel.

He ultimately embodied his ideas in three publications appearing in rapid succession which created a tremendous sensation within the Jewish community, not only in Hungary, but throughout Europe. Here was an old and respected Rabbi, still in office, calling upon his people in burning words to align themselves under the banner of the long-despised Yeshua of Nazareth, and to hail Him as their true Messiah and King.

Opposition and Persecution

A storm of persecution quickly broke out against him. From the Jewish pulpit and in the Press, insults were hurled against Lichtenstein, and he who but a few weeks before was considered among the noblest leaders and teachers was now described as a disgrace to his nation.  Falsehoods were spread against him and he was eventually cited to appear before the assembled rabbinate in Budapest.

On entering the hall he was greeted with the cry, “Retract! Retract!”

“Gentlemen,” said Rabbi Lichtenstein, “I shall most willingly retract if you convince me I am wrong.”

Chief Rabbi Kohn proposed a compromise. Rabbi Lichtenstein might believe whatever he liked in his heart, if he would only refrain from preaching about Yeshua publicly. The Synod of Rabbis would draw up a document stating that what Rabbi Lichtenstein wrote was done in a temporary fit of insanity and all he would have to do would be to add his name to this statement. Rabbi Lichtenstein answered calmly but indignantly that this was a strange proposal to make. When it was clear he would not sign the document, they demanded that Lichtenstein should resign his position and be formally baptized to indicate that he was leaving the Jewish people. But he replied that he had no intention of joining the church and had found in the New Testament the true Judaism, and would remain as before with his congregation, and teach it in the synagogue.

And he did so … in spite of tremendous persecution and reproaches. From his official position as the District Rabbi he continued to teach and preach from the New Testament. This was also a testimony to the strong commitment of his own community, which alone had the power to request his dismissal. In fact, much pressure was brought against members of his congregation, and relatives of his wife were completely ruined financially; but still they supported their esteemed rabbi.

Rabbi Lichtenstein and his writings become widely known across Europe and different church and missionary organizations sought his services with tempting offers – including the Pope.  However, to all Rav Lichtenstein had but one reply:

“I will remain among my own nation, I love Messiah, I believe in the New Testament; but I am not drawn to join Christendom. Just as the prophet Jeremiah, after the destruction of Jerusalem, in spite of the generous offers of Nebuchadnezzar and the captain of his host, chose rather to remain and lament among the ruins of the holy city, and with the despised remnant of his brethren, so will I remain among my own brethren, as a watchman from within and to plead with them to behold in Yeshua the true glory of Israel.”

Lichtenstein’s Resignation as Chief Rabbi of the District

Finally, after losing all his abilities to save the members of his congregation from total ruin, and with his health greatly deteriorating as a consequence of his bold stand, he voluntarily resigned his office as District Rabbi. He then settled in Budapest, but the opposition to him was relentless. He was shadowed and even physically attacked on the street. His barber was bribed to disfigure his beautiful beard. His landlord kept a close watch on everyone who visited him and reported to the rabbinical authorities. But, with all of this opposition also came interviews and discussions from fellow Jews from every walk of life.

The Final Years 

Rav Lichtenstein’s recently restored tombstone in the Central Jewish Cemetery in Budapest. Courtesy of Zsolt Marton.

Over the next twenty years Rabbi Lichtenstein traveled to many parts of Europe to speak about the truth as he saw it in Messiah. However, the storms of controversy, of misunderstanding and antagonism, began to take their tole on him. But his spirit remained undaunted. In his An Appeal to the Jewish People, Lichtenstein wrote:

“At the very outset I make my honest and public confession, the result of earnest thought and inward struggle, that it is my steadfast, unalterable conviction … Yes, as a Rabbi grown grey in office, as an old Jew faithful to the Law, I confess candidly, Jesus is the predicted Messiah of Israel … for whom we long, and for whose Advent our people have ever expected. He is come! This is now my shout of rejoicing, which my lips and pen, and, if God wills, my prolonged life shall serve to make known.”

Quite unexpectedly he became very ill. As he realized that his end was approaching, in the presence of his wife and the nurse, he said:

“Give my warmest thanks and greetings, to my brethren and friends; goodnight, my children; goodnight, my enemies, you can injure me no more. We have one God and one Father of all who are called children in heaven and on earth, and one Messiah who gave up His life on the cursed tree for the salvation of men. Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.”

On the morning of Hoshanah Rabbah, Friday, October 16, 1908, at the age of 85, Rabbi Lichtenstein entered into Paradise. On this Hoshanah Rabbah, a day of joy and celebration, we also remember Rabbi Lichtenstein.

A collection of his writings, The Everlasting Jew: Selected Writings of Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein, is now available through First Fruits of Zion.

Zichrono livracha … May his memory continue to bless and inspire us until Mashiach returns!

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Changes Ahead

For those who have not yet heard … after seven years at Ahavat Zion Synagogue I will be leaving at the end of this month to become the rabbi of Beth Emunah in Agoura Hills beginning June 30th. We will also be moving to the Conejo Valley.

We will deeply miss being a part of Ahavat Zion but look forward to a new season ahead.

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