A Chasidic Parallel to the Incarnation

Oct 28, 2009 at 1:48 PM

The idea of a preexistent Messiah is not unknown to Judaism. In fact, I lightly touched on this idea in my previous blog post on Breishit, where I additionally connected this idea to Creation, and further to John, chapter 1.

The book of John is traditionally attributed to the apostle John, one of the original twelve shlichim of Yeshua, and believed to be written between 60-100 CE. Many scholars believe that one of the main emphases of the book is to defend Yeshua’s deity. Rather than a history of Yeshua, it is primarily a profound study of who Yeshua is. It is deeply mystical, and filled with rich spirituality and symbolism.

When reading the beginning of John, one should be immediately hit by the imagery of Creation. This is no accident, for there is a direct and purposeful connection between Genesis 1 and John 1. John purposefully uses words and imagery from the Creation Account to equate the G-d of Creation with Yeshua. For John, since Yeshua was at the Beginning (John 1:1), and only G-d was existent at Creation (Genesis 1:1) John is contending they are one and the same! John wants the message to be bold and clear – Yeshua the Messiah is the God of Creation.

In the beginning was the Word,

and the Word was with G-d, and the Word was G-d.

He was with G-d in the beginning.

All things came to be through him,

and without him nothing made had being.

In him was life, and the life was the light of mankind.

The light shines in the darkness,

and the darkness has not suppressed it

…The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us,

and we saw his Sh’khinah,

the Sh’khinah of the father’s only Son,

full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-5, 14)

For those steeped in Jewish thought, the Jewish context of John is clear. John is writing with Genesis in mind. As such, for many of us, the idea of the Torah made flesh – that Yeshua himself is the Torah incarnate – is not a problem.

However, the question may still arise as to the idea of incarnation within a modern Jewish context. One can argue that maybe during the Second Temple period there may have been a few Jews that believed in a divine Messiah, and in some sort of concept of incarnation. But is there a more recent parallel in Jewish texts?

The answer is yes! Around 1797, the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the founder of Chabad Chassidus) composed the Tanya – which quickly became one of the primary texts of the Chassidic movement. In a particular passage of the Tanya, the Alter Rebbe explores an idea of the Torah and HaShem being one and the same. According to the Tanya, the Torah itself is a physical incarnation of G-d.

"The Torah and the Holy One, blessed be He, are one. The meaning of this is that the Torah, which is the wisdom and will of the Holy One, blessed be He, and His glorious Essence are one, since He is both the Knower and the Knowledge … Therefore has the Torah been compared to water, for just as water descends from a higher to lower level, so has the Torah descended from it’s place of glory, which is His blessed will and wisdom; [for] the Torah and the Holy One, blessed be He, are one and the same and no thought can apprehend Him at all. Thence [the Torah] has progressively descended through hidden stages, stage after stage, with the descent of the worlds, until it clothed itself in corporeal substances and in things of this world (Likutei Amarim, Section 1, Chapter 4)."

Although this is not an exact parallel to John 1, what it does help us understand is that the idea of incarnation and specifically the idea of “Torah made flesh” are Jewish. The Alter Rebbe spends an entire chapter in the Tanya describing this mystical relationship between HaShem and the Torah.

Abraham and the Amidah

Oct 27, 2009 at 3:19 PM

Parashat Lekh Lekha

In the opening words of this week’s Torah portion, G-d speaks to Abraham, saying:

Lekh Lekha – Get yourself out of your land…and go to the place I will show you (Genesis 12:1).

At the age of seventy-five, Abraham left his home in modern day Iraq, and traveled all the way to the land of modern Israel. Included in the command to leave his homeland was also a promise that G-d would multiply Abraham’s descendents, and that they would inherit a new homeland.

This must have come as quite a shock. At an age where Abraham should have been settling down and enjoying retirement, G-d basically exiles him from his place of comfort. The place he had always known. The place where he speaks the language, knows the customs, and knows all his neighbors.

Through an act of great faith Abraham did it. He left all he had ever known and set out to a place he was not even sure of yet. But he trusted G-d would be with him, and would eventually reveal where this place would be. He trusted the calling.

What makes this act of faith even more remarkable is the fact that Abraham also trusted G-d’s promise of children. At the age of seventy-five, like most of us, he must have finally given up on any hope of a child.

Throughout the difficult years that followed – battles, wanderings, and expulsions – Abraham remained convinced that G-d would remain faithful to his promise. That is – until the day his faith gave out!

One day, at the age of ninety-nine - twenty-four long years later – G-d appeared again to Abraham and reemphasized the promise of blessing. That was enough! Abraham could not take it any longer! Abraham threw himself to the ground and scoffed:

Shall a child be born to a hundred-year-old man? And shall Sarah – a ninety-year-old woman – give birth? (Genesis 17:17)

By this point Abraham’s faith was so weak that it took an additional appearance by G-d found in next week’s parasha to finally convince him that he would indeed have a son (see Genesis 18:10-15).

In the end – in spite of all the trials – Abraham and Sarah did have a son. It took an exile to bring a blessing. So it is often with us. We often need to be removed from our comfort zones in order to see spiritual fruit in our lives.

When we stand before G-d at the beginning of the Amidah, we take three steps back. We exile ourselves from G-d’s presence. It is G-d’s way of telling us, “Lekh lekha…get yourself out of that place of comfort…that place of stagnancy…” So that in the end, when we take three steps forward, like Abraham, we will step into the place of destiny and blessing.

Quote of the Day: "Where have all the Men Gone?"

Oct 26, 2009 at 1:08 PM

Balance. Something we are supposed to always have, yet often lack. Yinon is our understanding of Jewish life - progressive, yet traditional. Empowering, yet leading. This understanding also extends to the participation of men and women in Jewish ritual life.

I have long been an advocate for the spiritual empowerment of women within Judaism, and have been especially vocal in support of women being ordained as rabbis within Messianic Judaism.

And although I agree women should be empowered within ritual life, I am at the same time growing more aware that men are disappearing from ritual life. And not just in Judaism. We are also seeing other faiths address this issue. For example, I was recently made aware of a book called, Why Men Hate Going to Church, written from a Christian perspective.

The reasons are complex and are far more complicated. However, I and others are convinced that finding balance is the key. The answer is not to stop empowering women. It should not be a choise of one over the other. The answer will be in finding ways to empower men as men, and women as women - to reach our fullest potentials TOGETHER as being B'tzelem Elohim - created in the image of G-d.

Our quote of the day is taken from a recent interview on Jewcy with Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein, one of the rabbis of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in New York City - by far one of the most vibrant and successful synagogues of our time.

I am a product of the feminist revolution, so the fact that women lead most of the activities of our congregation never bothered me. I have always thought that the people who want to get involved, will get involved. I never paid attention to whether those people were men or women. But suddenly, I began to hear people talk, and began to listen to others and even pay attention to what it was in front of my eyes. Also recently, I participated in a conversation at NYU on gender and education. Speakers said that finding a male educator, a male teacher in New York, would be very soon like finding a diamond in the street. They are that rare.

… Well, I started a men's group, not because the men asked, but because I noticed these things ... I should say that creating a men's group at my synagogue, a very politically progressive synagogue in New York, was very politically incorrect. I thought someone would cut my head off.

So, before starting the group I went to talk to a feminist friend. I told her I wanted to start a men's group, and asked her opinion. She said, I love what you are doing. Why, I asked. She said, In the beginning, feminists chopped the testicles off men. That was a necessary act of war. Afterwards, when we achieved some equality, we sat and cried. Where are the men? They oppressed us, so we castrated them. So I like that you are trying to celebrate the differences without imposing power.

A Man of Mystery

Oct 21, 2009 at 1:00 PM

When I was growing up, John the Immerser received very little attention. Of course people talked about him as being important because he was a cousin and forerunner of Yeshua, but otherwise his role was largely reduced to a small mention in the introduction to a much larger narrative.

Mentioned in all four Gospels

However, most people miss the emphasis on this incredible, yet mysterious figure. The Gospel writers place the greatest weight on details they deemed most important to the larger story. All four Gospels emphasize John. You can choose to skip over this fact – as most others do – or you can recognize the significance. Not even Yeshua’s birth narrative is mentioned in all four Gospels (it is only recorded in Matthew and Luke). As such, all four Gospel writers considered John’s narrative as having far more relevance to the larger redemptive story of Yeshua than even Yeshua’s birth.

Think about that for a moment.

Who was John?

So who exactly was John? In addition to being Yeshua’s cousin, he was a cohen – a priest on both sides of his lineage. He was groomed from birth to be a cohen in the Jerusalem Temple. Yet, it seems at some point he was either sent, or vanquished to the desert. Luke records:

The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel (Luke 1:80).

Imagery of John as Elijah

The imagery ascribed to John is also important. He is described as Eliyahu, Elijah, wearing clothing of camel’s hair, a leather belt tied around his waist, eating locusts and wild honey, and proclaiming a message of repentance (compare the imagery of 2 Kings 1:7-8 with Mark 1:6). Luke describes John as coming in the “spirit and power of Eliyahu” (Luke 1:17) in fulfillment of Malachi 3:23-24. Although the real Eliyahu will usher in the second return of Mashiach, John is described as also fulfilling this function.

An important figure in his own right

John was an extremely important figure in his own right. John become well known within Judea, and built up a number of followers. Andew, the brother of Peter, was originally a follower of John before becoming one of the original 12 apostles of Yeshua (John 1:35-41). And the movement he created would outlive him. In fact, John’s message of repentance and immersion spread throughout the known world. A number of years after Yeshua’s death, Paul encountered a man in far away Ephesus (Asia Minor) who was aware only of “the baptism of John” (Acts 18:25 & 19:3), proving how widespread his influence became.

John and the Dead Sea Scrolls

Many scholars have also long connected John with the Qumran community and to a message found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The similarities between John and the Qumran community are indeed extraordinary. John proclaims a similar message:

In the desert: preparing the way for the L-rd (Is 40:3 and quoted in the Manual of Discipline).

John’s emphasis on ritual purity, his message of repentance and righteousness, and his prophetic forms of rebuke all echo motifs found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Another interesting connection between John and the Dead Sea Scrolls is actually found in an exchange between Yeshua and John. While John is in prison, Matthew 11 records that he sent a message through his talmidim to Yeshua asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for someone else?” (Mt. 11:3). John is clearly asking, “Are you the Messiah?” And Yeshua responds, saying:

Go and tell John what you are hearing and seeing – ‘The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are being raised and the poor hear the Good News.’ (Matthew 11:5 quoting Is. 61:1)

Yeshua responds with a Messianic passage from Isaiah on purpose. Why? Because in Jewish thought, talk is cheap. Yeshua does not respond merely with words, but rather a demonstration that he is indeed the Messiah. Yeshua wants John to know for sure. However, Yeshua, knowing John, also adds a small detail he knew maybe only John would catch. In his quote of Isaiah 61:1, Yeshua adds “the dead are being raised,” a detail not actually in Isaiah 61:1. The only other place this particular phrasing of Isaiah 61:1 has ever been found with the added words “the dead are being raised” is in the Dead Sea Scrolls (in scroll 4Q521). In my opinion this was a sort of personal nod or wink to John, adding even greater emphasis to his response.

An exiled High Priest?

And why was he wandering around in the desert? There are some authorities who believe John was sent (or maybe even exiled) from Jerusalem because he was to be the next legitimate High Priest, for the High Priesthood during this time had become corrupt and was controlled by the Romans, who appointed the position based on bribes. If John were to be the legitimate High Priest, it would also make even greater sense why Yeshua had to go to John to be immersed prior to beginning his public work - in order to fulfill “everything righteousness requires (Mt. 3:15).” Yeshua was going to John because of his priestly role.

Although this aspect of John is speculative, what is true is that John was the perfect candidate to be a forerunner for Messiah. John was indeed this Elijah type figure who would usher in Yeshua’s time on earth. As John himself says, “the reason I came immersing with water was so that [Messiah] might be made known to Israel” (John 1:31).

Each of us has a role similar to John. We too are to be preparers for Mashiach. We need to prepare the world for Messiah’s return, and become participants in ushering in the Messianic Age. It is a great task. However, our role has also been divinely selected. G-d has chosen each of us in this particular time for a certain reason. G-d needs you. G-d needs me. Only when working together can we experience the long awaited return of our beloved Messiah Yeshua – may it be soon!

So what is Messianic Judaism's Purpose?

Oct 14, 2009 at 1:03 PM

The Messianic Jewish movement currently finds itself in the midst of a rabid identity crisis. From its inception, Messianic Judaism’s primary goal has been to be a home and way of life for Jewish followers of Yeshua. However, if we are honest with ourselves we must admit that our efforts have largely been a failure. In the decades since our recent inception, we have not yet succeeded at creating a JEWISH Messianic Movement.

Where did we get distracted?

First, let me clarify what I am NOT saying. I recognize there is a definite place for non-Jews who are legitimately called to Messianic Judaism. We applaud the efforts of those non-Jews who have chosen to sojourn among the Jewish people and who have sacrificed greatly in order to be a part of our communities. However, by our own fault, and the simple overwhelming number of non-Jewish followers of Yeshua, the result of Messianic Judaism has largely been reduced to being a Torah revival for Christians.

Now – please hear me out before your start throwing rocks …

I bring this up because it is detrimental to our future. We have largely missed why we should exist and for what purpose. We have been distracted, chasing controversies that only continue to marginalize those Jews we seek to embrace. Although there is a place for discussions like “the role of Torah for non-Jews,” the overwhelming attention placed on these issues affecting non-Jews carries very little weight for Jews. For most Jews being Jewish and living a particular Jewish way of life (the way they so choose) is a no brainer. So why would an intelligent Jewish person want to get mixed up with our baggage? Afterall, many of the issues we seem to find ourselves wrapped up in have very little to do with someone who is Jewish.

And it is not just those on the “outside.” We are loosing young Jews even within our own ranks who have not yet been compelled with a good enough reason to remain Messianic. It is not faith in Yeshua that is largely the stumbling block keeping us from effectively being a home to Jewish believers and seekers – it is our own hang ups. If we do not come to grips with a clear purpose and vision for Messianic Judaism we will find ourselves extinct.

Nearly 95% of all Messianic congregations' websites state the purpose of a Messianic congregation is “to be a congregation of Jews and non-Jews worshiping together.” Really? That is the sole purpose of a Messianic congregation? In my opinion, this is exactly where we got distracted. Although I value Messianic congregations as being places where Jews and non-Jews can worship together, this should not be our primary purpose. Rather, it should be a byproduct.

We believe a Messianic congregation should exist for only three primary purposes:

  1. To be a home for Jewish followers of Yeshua;
  2. To be a welcoming environment for Jewish seekers open to exploring our claims that Yeshua is the Messiah;
  3. And a place to raise our children as Messianic Jews.

All other efforts and programs are secondary to these primary goals. We must exist to be vibrant spiritual homes for Jews. Otherwise we fail to accomplish our prophetic purpose.

Directing our primary focus on Jews does not in and of itself alienate non-Jews. For any congregational growth specialist will note that no specific congregation can be all things to all people. In the past we have tried to do it all – and it has not worked. We need to come back to our primary purpose. However, at the same time we must be careful not to purposely alienate non-Jews in our midst. Regardless of a person’s background, if a person shares a commitment to the above primary values they should be invited to pursue this prophetic task along with us. Jews and non-Jews worshiping together may be a byproduct of a much clearer purpose, but should not be the primary purpose.

We must first and foremost be vibrant spiritual homes for Jews and directing our efforts as such. If we do this, hopefully everything should fall into place.

Quote of the Day

Oct 13, 2009 at 10:55 AM

I do not claim that everything I say fits all synagogues equally. My charges are both specific and general. As to the specific, I make many particular claims here: that synagogues lack good spiritual leadership; that they do not use volunteers well; that they squander their members' natural gifts because they never ask what they are; that synagogues do not rise to the level of excellence that the new generation expects; that their websites are poorly utilized; that their bulletins fill a congratulatory function (they reward the regulars who plan everything) but are inefficient as announcements; that tension is growing between rabbi and cantor; that, despite the claims of the regulars, synagogues are by and large neither welcoming nor warm; and so forth. To these and other specific claims, some readers will retort, "Not my synagogue!" And they might be right. If so, I can only respond that I wish most other synagogues could honestly say the same thing. I do not know the specifics of every synagogue, but I believe I am correct regarding the majority.

Quote of the Day

Oct 9, 2009 at 6:32 PM

Rabbi Shlomo Carelbach used to say that if he met a person who said “I’m a Catholic” he knew he was a Catholic. If he met a person who said “I’m a Protestant” he knew he was a Protestant. If he met a person who said “I’m a human being” he knew he was a Jew.

Jews have led some of the great universalist movements of the world. They did so under the illusion that if all people were just alike, the thorny problem of being different would disappear. It never did. It never should. Being a Jew is not a problem but a blessing and a destiny.

There is no such thing as a person in general. Each individual grows up with a certain family, land, heritage, language and culture. To deny it is to cast off a piece of oneself. Jewish is not opposed to being human; rather it is an ancient and beautiful way to be human.

In every age there are those who dream of homogenizing the world. It is an ignoble dream. When we honor difference we honor the One who created this diverse, multicolored pageant of a world.

-Rabbi David Wolpe from today's "Off the Pulpit"

Quote of the Day

Oct 8, 2009 at 1:21 PM

The reason the world is still waiting for the Messiah is that most people don’t actually want one.

- Alex Witchel, New York Times Journalist

Drumroll Please . . .

Oct 7, 2009 at 11:40 AM

As of today, we're officially launching our brainchild. It's been our plan since moving from Los Angeles to cultivate the fertile soil of "Yinon the blog" into Yinon ... the living, breathing, DC-area spiritual community. Et voila!

Here's a brief primer:
Centered in our nation’s capital, Yinon is a spiritual home for Jews of many kinds. We are traditional and we are post-modern. We are believers, we are doubters, and we are seekers. We are inspired by a vision of Messianic Jewish life that is progressive, egalitarian, and engaging ... rooted in the enduring legacy of Messiah. We seek to cultivate in our fellow Jews greater levels of faith, hope, and involvement with the world. We seek to inspire our sisters and brothers to prepare the world for the coming of Mashiach. We are committed to creating a kehilla kedosha – a community of holiness, embracing the ideals, ethics, culture, and faith of the Jewish people. Our energies and programs span the breadth of learning, social justice, community building, and professional networking.

If you live in the DC/VA/MD area and are interested in linking arms with us as we build this community, get in touch! We just bought a massive dining table that we'd love for you to help us break in.

And if you know any young Jewish students, professionals, couples, or families in the DC/VA/MD area, then spread the word! We'd love to meet them.