Thursday 30 September 2010

Word of mouth

I’ve just been talking to one of our field workers who is in contact with an Orthodox Jewish man via e-mail and she feels frustrated because the man in question draws his teachings from the Talmud, that enormous compendium of rabbinic wisdom contained in over sixty tractates, whereas she wants to refer him to the Tanakh, the Hebrew Scriptures. Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner believes it is impossible for Jews and Christians to talk together meaningfully because, as he puts it in his book Jews and Christians: the Myth of a Common Tradition, Christianity is the religion of the Bible whereas Judaism is the religion of the Talmud. Christianity, he says is concerned with personal salvation, whereas Judaism is concerned with national sanctification. Consequently, there is no middle ground where both can meet. This is just a scholarly way of avoiding confrontation that could lead to Jewish people becoming concerned about personal salvation and exposing them to the teachings of the Bible.

I never come away from any discussion with people of other faiths without asking myself whether they might, however weak their arguments, be right. I suppose that’s because we as Christians are concerned about truth. I get the impression thatsome people defend their religion as they might defend their local soccer team or their favourite rock band. They want to win the argument so you’ll go away and they are prepared to bluster and even make up facts to get you to do that.

The Orthodox man my colleague is witnessing to believes that, at Sinai, God gave Moses not only the written Law but also the Oral Torah, to explain the written law. According to tractate Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Fathers), “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it Joshua. Joshua transmitted it to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise many students, and make a protective fence for the Torah.”

The Oral Law (the Talmud) is the cornerstone of traditional Judaism but the written Torah says nothing about God transmitting a verbal explanation of the Torah. The only evidence for the Oral Law comes from the Oral Law itself.

Of course, if he so chose, God could have imparted a verbal explanation of the Law in order for the Jewish people to know how to order every minute of every day of their lives. He could have explained the minutiae of the Torah in such a way that every case brought before the judges of Israel could have been solved by reference to the Oral Law.

However, there is evidence in the writings of Moses that cast serious doubt on the claim that there ever was an unwritten body of law. Take, for instance, the case of the Sabbath breaker in Numbers 15:32ff:

Now while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron, and to all the congregation. They put him under guard, because it had not been explained what should be done to him.

Maybe I’ve misunderstood precisely what the Oral Torah is, but if God had exhaustively explained the application of the Law to Moses, why did Moses have to enquire of God what had to be done to the Sabbath breaker?

Take again the case of the five daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 27. It is obvious that Moses did not know what should be done in the light of the request of those five women for property rights in the Promised Land. He had to seek the Lord’s mind.
There is much in the so-called Oral Law that is wise and helpful but the final authority in all matters of faith and practice must be the written word. Whenever tradition, however good that tradition might be, is added to Scripture, it swallows Scripture. This is the case with Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, Christian Scientism and every other sect that sets a body of tradition alongside Scripture.

Our principle for knowing God’s mind and will must always be: “To the [written] law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20).

Dancing in the Dark

Imagine condemned criminals dancing for joy around the courtroom holding up the very documents that seal their fates! That bizarre scenario becomes a reality for the Jewish people every year when they celebrate Simchat Torah: “Joy of the Law”.
Today was “Simchat Torah” and every year on 23 Tishri in the Jewish calendar, Jewish people celebrate the conclusion and restart of their annual Torah-reading cycle with an unbridled joy that surpasses even the joy of Sukkot.

Every year, the books of Moses are read in synagogues, starting with Genesis 1 and concluding, at the end of the year, with Deuteronomy 34. Tishri 23 began last evening and in synagogues tomorrow (Friday 1 October), chapters 33 and 34 of Deuteronomy will conclude the annual cycle of Torah readings. Genesis 1, the first chapter of the new cycle will also be read.

At Simchat Torah, it is customary for every man to take part in the celebration by receiving an aliyah, by “going up” to the bimah in synagogue to read from the books of Moses. Children too receive an aliyah, but the highlight of Simchat Torah is the hakafot, when congregants march and dance with Torah scrolls around the reading table in the synagogue.

On reflection, there is something profoundly sad about Jewish rejoicing in the Torah. At one level, it is wonderful to possess God’s law, or instruction (which is what the Hebrew word Torah means), and we should be grateful for it. But to rejoice with unrestrained joy is another matter altogether, for the Torah is not an unmixed blessing. According to the apostle Paul, the Torah is a curse because it condemns us all, and if Jewish people can read the Torah and rejoice in it, there is only one conclusion to be reached: they simply have not understood it.

Messiah Jesus instructed his Jewish disciples to rejoice that their names were written in heaven (Luke 10:21). Jewish people around the world spent the Jewish New Year, the ten Days of Awe and Yom Kippur seeking to have their names inscribed in heaven, in the Book of Life, but were not able to rejoice. Today, Jewish people rejoiced in the very law that keeps them from being written in the heavenly volume.

Saturday 18 September 2010

Got to get you into the Book of Life

A few minutes ago, the most solemn day in the Hebrew calendar. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, ended. It began on Friday evening and for the next 25 hours Jews around the world afflicted their souls by fasting and spent the day in synagogue confessing their sins and repenting of them in a bid to have their names inscribed in the Book of Life.

An Orthodox friend told me he was trying to make his life “100% fantastic” in preparation for the big day.

I was on a plane to Israel on Wednesday and found myself seated with an Orthodox Jewish family, squashed between the pater familias and his teenage daughter. I wished him Shanah Tovah (a Good Year) and asked if he would be keeping Yom Kippur at the Western Wall. He told me he would be at a synagogue in Jerusalem.

I asked if the prospect of being judged by God frightened him. It did.

When I asked if he knew his name would be in the Book of Life at the end of the Day of Atonement, he shrugged. Who could tell?

I asked about Gentiles, since the rabbis teach that at Rosh Hashanah God judges everyone’s sins, not just those of the Jewish people. What could I do to find a place in the Book of Life?

“Do good things” was the only response I got.

Also on the plane was a friendly, non-religious Jewish man. He heard our conversation and joined in. He told me about two events he had attended to hear Rabbi Shmuely Boteach debate Messianic Jews. The first event he told me about was when Rabbi Boteach took on Dr Michael Brown in London two years ago. He thought Michael Brown got the better of Shmuely and I agreed.

The other debate was about twelve years ago when Shmuely went head to head with Messianic “Rabbi” Philip Sharpe. I was also at that debate and Zev was of the opinion that Rabbi Boteach wiped the floor with Sharpe. I agreed but that was only because Sharpe was an easy target. I asked if he remembered the last question of the evening. When I reminded him that Shmuely had called the questioner a liar, he remembered. The questioner was me.

Rabbi Boteach had stated in his presentation that Matthew, the author of the Gospel, did not understand Hebrew. If he had, he would never have understood Isaiah 7:14 as a reference to the virgin birth, since the Hebrew word almah means “young woman”, not “virgin”. In Greek, claimed Rabbi Boteach, there is one word that serves for both “virgin” and “young woman”.

In my question, I pointed out that Shmuely was factually incorrect. The Greek word for “virgin” is parthenos and “young woman” is neanis. When I asked Shmuely why the Jewish scholars who translated Hebrew Scriptures into Greek 300years before the birth of Jesus also used parthenos to translate the Hebrew almah, he yelled – to the astonishment and horror of the audience – that I was a liar. I thanked him for his opinion but continued to press the point.

Afterwards, when I confronted him, Shmuely angrily insisted that, unlike him, I had no interest in truth but I kept asking why the translators of the Greek Septuagint understood Isaiah to have been referring to a virgin in chapter 7 of his book. Finally, in frustration and anger, he shouted ay me that it was because they were “stupid”.

Please pray for the family on the plane, for the secular Jew and for Shmuely Boteach, that they may discover the "Book of Life" is "the Lamb’s Book of Life" and look to the Lamb of God, who alone can take away their sins.

Friday 10 September 2010

R.E.S.P.E.C.T. find out what it means to me

Okay. We all know that Terry Jones, the pastor of the inappropriately named "Dove World Outreach Centre" was wrong to call for the burning of Korans. Worse than wrong. Pastor Jones' foolishness has already generated hostility and violence in the Islamic world. Even though he has called off the burning of copies of the Muslim holy book, the genie is out of the bottle.

Although I deplore Jones' stupidity, I understand what motivated his ill-conceived project: his anger at the proposed erection of an Islamic cultural centre/mosque across the road from Ground Zero.

But let's not forget that among all those eager to cast the first stone at an easy and soft target, there is a double standard at work. Suppose a Muslim cleric had pre-empted Jones and announced a burning of copies of the Talmud. Would there have been an international outcry? Suppose an imam organised a Bible-burning jamboree? Would he have been denounced on the front pages of the world's dailies?

The hypocrisy is astonishing. Don't offend Islam but allow Islam to offend everyone else. Respect Islam, even though it has no respect for anyone else.

Pastor Jones is indeed a foolish shepherd but he is being denounced for copying the very people the media refuses to censure - whatever they do.

Thursday 9 September 2010

Monty Python's Frying Circus

I always thought Terry Jones was a member of that team of madcap, surreal comics behind Monty Python's Flying Circus. Perhaps he's become a man of the cloth.

Gun-toting Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Centre in Gainesville, Florida has declared Saturday 11th September “International Burn a Koran Day”. He and his little flock have announced they intend to burn Korans this Saturday, on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre nine years ago.

This proposed Koran-frying circus is stupid, ill-conceived, counter-productive and, worst of all, unchristian. Book burning serves no useful purpose except to get up the noses of the people whose books you are burning. I’m no prophet, but I predict the results of the book-burning will be anti-American riots in Islamic countries and increased attacks on US and British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Jones may well be putting his own life and the lives of his congregation in danger.

Jones and his flock are stooping to the tactics of the inarticulate and ignorant who, unable to defend their world views, resort to violence and destruction. Battles for truth are won by contending for the faith and exhibiting Christ-like attitudes. What is required in the battle for minds and souls is constructive debate, illumination of facts and reasoned analysis.

The Nazis burned Jewish books, Muslims burn US flags and radical rabbis in Israel burn New Testaments. Now, a professing Christian pastor is going to burn Moslem holy books.

Pastor Jones will have his fifteen minutes of fame (or infamy, depending on your perspective) but he’ll also have blood on his hands and the judgement seat of Christ to look forward to. I wouldn’t be in his shoes for all the oil in Kuwait.

Terry Jones had better keep that gun close. Muslims the world over know where his church is...

On the beach

If you went down to the beach today, you might have seen Orthodox Jews at the water’s edge throwing bread in the water. You would have seen the same thing on the banks of some rivers. In New York, the Brooklyn Bridge would have been crowded with Hasidic Jews casting bread into the Hudson River below. They will not be feeding the ducks but instead will be taking part in the solemn ritual of Tashlich, which in Hebrew means “casting off”. As well as casting bread into the water, some will deposit fluff and other bits of debris from their pockets, while reciting Micah 7:18,19:

Who is a God like You, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in mercy. He will again have compassion on us, and will subdue our iniquities. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if sin and guilt could be cast away so easily; if transgressions could be carried away or cast into the sea? The great tragedy of Rosh Hashanah is that the Jewish people could literally know their sins to be cast away and buried, never to be remembered again. That is why CWI exists; to tell Jewish people that they can know the reality of that which Micah foresaw 700 years before Messiah was born.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

A Question of Balance

Tonight at sunset, something awesome will happen. According to the Jewish Lubavitch Chabad sect, God will “recode the Universe”.

In less esoteric terms, the Jewish New Year of 5771 will commences when the sun sets this evening. According to the Jewish calendar, God created the world 5770 years ago. The Talmud says that the world is to last for 6,000 years. The first 2,000 years were years of desolation after which the Torah flourished for 2,000 years after the Law was transmitted to Israel at Sinai. The last two millennia of world history were to be the Messianic Age. According to the Jewish system of calculation, Messiah should have appeared 1,771 years ago!

But coming back to this evening, as we stand on the threshold of the new year, all the deeds you have committed in the last year will be weighed in the balances of heaven. According to Rabbi Ahron Lopianski on, “Rosh Hashana is a day of judgment on who will enter this most exclusive club of eternity along with which deeds, and what is to be discarded.”

If you are judged by God to be perfectly righteous you will be inscribed in the “Book of Life” thus being admitted to Rabbi Lopianski’s “exclusive club”; if you did nothing good in the last twelve months but only evil, you will be inscribed for death. The good news, if you are one of the “intermediate” class, having done a fair amount of both god and bad in the last year, you have ten days till Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement to tip the celestial balances in your favour. This can be done through acts of tzedaka, or righteousness, such as giving to charity. You should also seek to make amends with anyone you have wronged and give attention to study of the holy books.

Ten days to tip the balances of heaven in my favour? I would need a whole lot longer than that. The tragedy of Judaism is that it has become like the religions of the nations; it is a religion of personal merit. God forgives if we prove worthy of his forgiveness.