Debunking Myths

Jan 21, 2010 at 1:59 PM

During our recent UMJC-sponsored
webinar, we asked the question "why aren't more Jewish people finding their spiritual home in Messianic Jewish synagogues?" We dissected the common myths that congregational leaders parrot to justify the absence of Jewish people in our pews. Here's a re-hash:

Myth #1: Jewish people just aren't spiritual enough.

How many times have you heard some variant of "Jewish people are just not interested in spiritual things?" I hear it frequently parroted from the bimot of congregations that are failing to attract a critical mass of Jewish people. It's utterly bogus, and can veer toward the anti-Semitic accusation that Jewish people are only interested in affluence and materialism. Numerous studies have shown that
the average Jewish "dropout" is actually a spiritual seeker. Did you know that 60% of all people in cults are Jewish? There's a reason why Shlomo Carlebach took his guitar to ashrams in the 60s ... that's where the Jewish people were, desperately seeking a connection to G-d.

Today's Jewish seekers look for G-d on hiking trails, on globe-trots through Asia, through social activism, and in the community of faces gathered around their dinner tables. In the 21st century, Israel is still living up to our namesake as the people who wrestle with G-d. We seek intellectual rigor, meaningful prayer, and opportunities to put feet on our faith (see
Pirkei Avot for a pithy way to say this). Most significantly, we seek genuine community with other Jewish people who share these interests.

But what do Messianic congregations greet these G-d wrestlers with? The "brand" we've built tends to be cluttered with tchotchkes, scarves, banners, powerpoint prayers, costumes, doctrinal statements, anti-church rants, partisan politics, and long-winded sermons. What is profoundly alienating about all of this is that it reflects an unapologetic disinterest in the spiritual needs/wants/desires of Jewish people. Is there any wonder why there is such a disconnect?

Myth #2: Jewish people are not interested in Yeshua.

The second myth that we comfort ourselves with is that Jewish people are just not interested in Yeshua. Also bogus. It's rare that I meet a Jewish person who hasn't at some point engaged in a wrestling match with that guy from Nazareth (or isn't on the verge of beginning one). Many have even dared to have a conversation with G-d about him. But Yeshua the person/Messiah/divine figure is not the problem. Surely, every once in awhile a theological objection poses too high a hurdle for a Jewish person to embrace "that guy." For example, the concept of Yeshua's deity can feel like idolatry. The "Trinity" feels like a rejection of the
most famous Jewish prayer. The idea of two Messiahs, or two arrivals of the same Messiah, although once embraced, is no longer considered a mainstream Jewish view.

Although these theological hurdles are significant, often
it's other things that get in the way, and provoke a stronger reaction in the Jewish neshama. It's the way Jesus' followers have treated the Jewish people for two centuries. It's the way he's developed in the popular imagination, as a flaxen-haired pacifist draped helplessly on a cross. Or it's the fact that, historically, Jews who follow Yeshua don't become better Jews. A Jewish Messiah who fills the job description would make Jewish people into better Jews, nu? See my favorite manifesto of Stuart Dauermann's for more on this. Why, then, are Yeshua's Jewish followers sometimes the most visible proponents of rejecting Jewish practices, traditions, values, and potential spouses? And why are his Gentile followers constantly quoting that Pharisee (Paul) to defend their view that they are the "real" Israel?

All this happens (hopefully) outside the confines of a Messianic congregation. In light of "all this," isn't it a shame that when a Jewish seeker darkens our doors, we clutter the path with polyester banners, pixelated prayers, Fiddler on the Roof costumes, random shofar blowings, and broken (or no) Hebrew? All of which send the message that HERE is definitely not the space for a Jewish wrestling match with a first-century stone mason. HERE is not where Jewish people aggressively pursue torah, avodah, and gemilut chasadim together. No, HERE is where we type Judaism into Google and stir in a little Jesus ... because that's just how we like it, thankyouverymuch.

MYTH #3: Messianic Judaism is just too hard.

What's implied in the third most convenient myth is that the Jewish people who are not attracted to our congregations "just can't hack it." It implies that those of us who stick with Messianic Jewish communal life despite weekly fits of exasperation have far greater moral, spiritual, and social fortitude than the average Jewish follower of Yeshua.

The Royal "I" can straddle sociological, religious, and ethnic fences with aplomb. "I" can handle a constant stream of rejection, criticism, and judgmentalism from my own people and from the Church because "I" am not ashamed. "I" will raise Jewish children better than you will, so help me G-d. "I" have the vision, and "they" do not.

This is also bogus. Being Jewish is difficult, in and of itself. G-d pulled the entire people of Israel into the wilderness and it turned out that pretty much NO ONE could hack it, not even Moshe Rabbenu. But hardship has never kept the Jewish people from passing our traditions, texts, and faith from one generation to another. And the generations of Jewish people who have been led by a compelling vision (articulated by Joshua, Solomon, David, and Herzl) have invariably held themselves together.

The shame reflex, it turns out, is a rather convenient excuse for
failing to offer a compelling vision for Jewish life to Yeshua's Jewish followers. And this gets us back to Myth #1. By which I mean, there are no Jews (or few Jews) in our pews because we aren't preoccupied with understanding or meeting their spiritual needs.

To illuminate alloftheabove, I offer the account of Lauren Winner, an Orthodox Jewish girl whose heart was stolen by that stone mason from Nazareth. Three years after beginning her walk with Yeshua, she wandered reluctantly into a Messianic congregation in the South (which I will decline to identify, primarily because she could have had this experience almost anywhere). Here is her recollection, from her book "Girl Meets G-d":

"A man in a tallis, a prayer shawl, stands at a podium in the front of the room, and a small choir clusters to his right, leading the congregation through songs that are printed on a transparency and displayed on a large screen. In the corner of the room, a circle of women are dancing, some variation of the hora. I am prepared for that. I've read a recent ethnography of a Messianic Jewish congregation, and the author explains that dancing is an important element of Messianic worship services. I feel an unexpected pull to join them. The dances are similar to those at Tova's wedding. I have not yet found a group of Anglicans who love Jewish folk dancing.
The service consists mostly of songs, with a little spontaneous prayer thrown in. No one mentions Sukkot. The fact that it is Sukkot doesn't seem to be part of the service at all. Why bother playing at Judaism, I wonder, annoyed, if you don't move by the rhythms of the Jewish calendar? I have been trying, since I got baptized, to learn to live according to the seasons of Advent and Lent, but so far my body still thinks in terms of Jewish holidays.
The absence of Sukkot is just one of many things that irritates me about the service. The pink satin yarmulkes, straight out of a Reform synagogue in the 1908s, irritate me. The gold-and-magenta banners proclaimed YESHUA irritate me. And the music irritates me. Rather than sing the haunting melodies available to anyone who is casually acquainted with the centuries-old Jewish cantorial tradition, the folks [at this congregation] seem content with songs that sound as though they had been lifted from the praise music guide at any nondenominational evangelical church, only [these] songs have a little Hebrew thrown in.
This is how I feel all morning: that [this congregation's] Judaism is just raisins added to a cake - you notice them, but they don't really change the cake. The structure of the service bears no relation to the Jewish liturgy, and I can't tell if my fellow worshippers think that being Jewish leads them to understand Jesus any differently from the Presbyterians down the street. Add Hebrew and Stir."

Is it really Lauren Winner's fault that her first experience in a Messianic Jewish congregation left her with a sour taste in her mouth? Here was a young Jewish woman, thoroughly persuaded of the Messiah-ness of Yeshua, seeking a deep connection with G-d, carrying a wealth of Jewish literacy. She writes that a few days later, for Simchat Torah, during a visit to the Orthodox synagogue that she attended in college, she finds the Jewish spirituality she was seeking (sans Yeshua). With a Hebrew-flavored Pentecostalism on the one hand, and an Orthodox community on the other, is it any surprise that Ms. Winner chose Anglicanism instead?

Pretty much every fiber of my being wants to create spiritual homes for people like Lauren Winner. In my humble opinion, this is exactly what Yeshua expects of his Jewish followers in the 21st century.

Quote of the Day

Jan 20, 2010 at 12:10 PM

Actually, more like several quotes of the day. What started as one quote turned into a few extras thrown in. So here are some of my favorite quotes from a friend and colleague, Dr. David H. Stern:

“It is not enough for us merely to proclaim loudly our Jewishness if, like the great majority of Messianic Jews, we are Jewishly unlearned and uninvolved.”

“If we call ourselves Messianic Jews we must intend to back up our words with actions demonstrating that our Jewishness has substance.”

“Ultimately Messianic Judaism depends on Jews, because a Messianic Jew is a Jew who believes in Yeshua.”

“We may know that we have been united with the Messiah by faith, but if we fail to do what our L-rd commands and continue in our worldly ways instead of shedding them, we put G-d to public shame.”

“The Messiah did not and does not bring the Torah to an end. Rather, attention to and faith in the Messiah is the goal and purpose toward which the Torah aims.”

“Our rallying battle cry must be: Torah! Torah! Torah! – understood in the Spirit of the Messiah.”

“Only Yeshua will restore the kingdom to Israel and bring peace to the world.”

Creating Spiritual Homes for the New American Jew

Jan 19, 2010 at 10:24 AM

Continuing the conversation we started at the UMJC Mid-Year leadership retreat in December, Monique and I recently led a UMJC webinar which is now posted on the UMJC website. (You may need to log-in/create a profile to view the webinar).

The interactive discussion focused on the make-up of the American Jewish Community today, identifying the spiritual needs of three primary generations - Baby Boomers, Gen X'ers, and Millennials - and what these generations are looking for in a spiritual home.

Drawing upon the conviction that Messianic communities should be vibrant spiritual homes for Jewish believers and seekers, we delved into the practicalities of creating welcoming Jewish spiritual environments. We discussed current communal models and methods, explored alternative and emergent models, and presented simple "how-to's" for transforming your congregation into a sacred community for the New American Jew.

The webinar is divided into two parts, separated (and ended) by an interactive panel discussion where attendees could either call or email in their questions. The panelists for the interactive discussion were Nathan Joiner (a rabbinic intern at Ruach Israel in Boston) and Britta Phillips (a Hazan at Beth Emunah in Los Angeles).

Whether you are a leader or a lay-leader within your congregation, we encourage you to watch this webinar for many practical suggestions for how you can transform your congregation into a spiritual and meaningful community.

Help for Haiti

Jan 14, 2010 at 10:22 AM

The thoughts and prayers of the world are with the people of Haiti at this time following the recent disastrous earthquake. The Torah states:
"Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor ... (Lev. 19:16)"
As Jews, we are supposed to take action when fellow human beings are in distress. Therefore, join Monique and I in supporting those who are already on the ground in Haiti.

Here are a few ways you can help make a difference (because every thought, prayer, and dollar makes a difference):

Thank you for joining us in the vital task of tikkun olam!

Support Doctors Without Borders in Haiti

Avatar ... the Messiah?

Jan 13, 2010 at 10:51 AM

Yesterday I blogged about some common themes found within the movie Avatar and in Judaism. Today, I ran across a very interesting blog post by Rabbi Barry Leff exploring some deep Messiological aspects of the Movie.

Rabbi Barry explores such concepts within the movie as a virgin birth, deliverance from oppression, a suffering 'Mashiach ben Yosef' who must precede 'Mashiach ben David,' and even the idea of resurrection.

A very interesting read indeed!

You can read his post here.

Avatar: A Jewish Spin

Jan 12, 2010 at 12:56 PM

This past Sunday, I saw Avatar in 3-D for the second time. Both times seeing the movie I was blown away with what James Cameron was able to do, and how the technology even made it seem almost (I said almost) believable. It truly is an incredible film.

Now, before proceeding, I acknowledge the film has some shortcomings. It has of course been deemed by some as an apologetic for pantheism, and is definitely another example of a "White Messiah complex" in regard to racial fantasy.

However, other people have already written exhaustively on those subjects. As a rabbi, what I left the theater thinking about are the many themes common between the film and Judaism.

We are an ancient people. At our roots, we are a tribal people with a tribal language, a tribal culture, and a tribal land. As a result, to really get to the essential core of the Jewish people, we have to peel away the layers of the last 3,000 years.

There are three central tenets of Israel - G-d, the Land, and the People. Interestingly, these are three of the same common themes in Avatar.


Although we are monotheistic and not a pantheistic people, we Jews understand that everything originates from, and is interconnected to a single source. And that source, HaShem, still interacts with, and is heavily involved in, the world we live. And just as we have an Etz Chaim, a tree of life that stands at the center of Gan Eden, so too the Na'vi have their sacred tree centered in their sacred land.

The People

The Na'vi refer to themselves as "the People," similarly to how we Jews refer to ourselves. We refer to all of our fellow 'tribesmen' as Am Yisrael - the people of Israel. And just as the Na'vi are interconnected with each other, so is every Jewish person. We have a phrase from the Talmud, "Kol Yisrael arevim ze ba'ze - All Jews are responsible for one another (b. Shavuot 39a)." We are directly responsible for what happens to other Jewish people across the world. And our tradition teaches us that when one Jewish person in the world is hurting, so we all are.

The Land

The movie takes place on Pandora, a lush Earth-like moon of the planet Polyphemus, in the Alpha Centauri star system. Pandora is sacred to the Na'vi, and the Na'vi are interconnected to Pandora through a vast bio-botanical neural network that all Pandoran organisms are connected to. We Jews also have a very special connection to Eretz Yisrael - the Land of Israel. Through this special bond, throughout the last 2,000 years we have prayed daily for our full return to the Land.

If we could look into the future of the Na'vi, we might see another similarity. The destruction of Hometree is extremely significant. As Dr. Augustine, one of the main characters argues, the destruction of Hometree could affect the vast bio-botanical neural network that all Pandoran organisms are connected to, thereby changing forever not only the Na'vi, but Pandora itself.

In the year 70 CE, we Jews experienced a similar catastrophe that rocked the Jewish world. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the expulsion of Jews from our land, dealt such a tremendous blow to the Jewish people that it took centuries to recover from. There are even some who would argue we have not fully overcome it even 2,000 years later!

Lastly, the word Na'vi in Hebrew means a 'prophet.' Despite its shortcomings, there are also a number of themes within Avatar we would do well to heed. As Jews, we need to recognize that stewardship of our land, its resources, and one another are not just themes of another culture, but deeply embedded within our own culture and texts.

The Torah has much to say on social justice, human rights, stewardship, care of the land, and the value of life - all life. The Torah teaches us that even the smallest creatures are not overlooked by our Creator.

So you may not agree with the pantheistic elements or the racial fantasy of 'another White Messiah' who ends up becoming the savior of all the 'poor natives.' But, if you have not seen Avatar, go see it! I recommend seeing it in 3-D if possible. Despite its shortcomings it really is a film worth seeing on the big screen. And keep in mind that many of its lessons are found right in Jewish Scripture.

A Mysterious Encounter

Jan 8, 2010 at 2:43 PM

Parashat Shemot

As Moshe was attending his father-in-law’s sheep in the wilderness, near the base of Mt. Sinai, the Torah tells us that an angel appeared to him in the form of burning bush (3:2). As Moshe approached the bush to discover why it was burning, and yet not being consumed, HaShem called out to Moshe from the bush (3:4).

This encounter between Moshe and G-d is one of the most exciting stories in the entire Torah, and is rich with so much meaning and imagery. HaShem instructs Moshe to return to Egypt to deliver a message and liberate the Jewish people from slavery. During their encounter, Moshe asks G-d what he is to tell the people when they ask who sent him, and what G-d's name is. And HaShem responds with one of the most amazing, mysterious, and mystical answers ever recorded – “Ehiye Asher Ehiye.”

This phrase, “Ehiye Asher Ehiye,” is one of the easiest, and yet most difficult passages of the Torah to translate. The reason is because it carries nuance, mystery, and an ever present reality. Many translations render the passage in the present tense, either as “I AM,” or “I AM Who I AM.” Many Jewish translations translate it in the future tense, “I Will Be Who I Will Be.” The Complete Jewish Bible renders it as both “I am/will be what I am/will be.”

The most fascinating thing is that they are all correct. In Hebrew, the way this phrase is constructed renders it timeless and eternal. In Jewish mystical understanding, the phrase “Ehiye Asher Ehiye” can actually be translated in every tense, and in every combination of tenses. It could be “I am who I am,” “I will be who I will be,” “I was who I was,” “I am who I will be,” “I will be who I was,” etc.

My point in offering some various possible renditions of this phrase is not to place one particular rendering over another as a “more correct” translation, but rather to emphasize the point that all English translations struggle to convey the depth of the phrase.

The Midrash acknowledges this and also denotes that the word ehiye describes G-d as timeless and eternal. The Aramaic Targum Onkelos alludes that this phrase is itself one of the divine names, for he does not even translate the three words into an Aramaic meaning, but leaves the phrase in Hebrew.

The response G-d gives to Moshe is itself one of the divine oracles meant to be a sign to the people. But this is often missed by non-Hebrew speakers. By G-d’s response, He is telling Moshe that He is in control of everything. That all is consumed in, by, through, and from Him. An answer that is just as deep and mysterious as G-d is. Yet, it is close and simple at the same time.

When we get into positions like Moshe, and feel overwhelmed, and that we can not possibly do all that G-d asks of us, we must remember that our G-d is not only a consuming fire, but is the source of everything that exists. And that nothing has being apart from Him. We must always be reminded of the assurance that through HaShem, we can do all things.

Thank You, Chabad

Jan 7, 2010 at 10:15 AM

We have much to thank Chabad for - particularly for their work spreading Yiddishkeit around the world, and for bringing fellow Jews back to Torah. I too have much to thank Chabad for personally, for their role in my own spiritual journey. However, most of all, I think we owe Chabad a bit of gratitude for bringing the issues of Mashiach front and center in the Jewish community.

This is particularly true in regard to Chabad Messianism. Many people outside of Chabad circles have assumed that much of the messianic fervor within Chabad has all but fizzled out. However, in a recent blog post, I pointed out that Chabad Messianism is alive and well.

Chabad continues to raise awareness to messianic ideas within Judaism that have mostly been brushed aside and "hidden under the rug," if you will. Ideas like a resurrected Messiah, incarnation, and miracles. Messianic thought that appears in Jewish history and texts, but have been weeded out due to their sounding too much like "that other guy" (i.e. Yeshua).

Yesterday I came across a particularly interesting blog post at Failed Messiah about a radio talk show that featured well-known modern Orthodox rabbi and thinker, Yitz Greenberg, and Rabbi Sholom Ber Kalmanson, a leading Chabad messianist.

I really encourage you to listen to the radio show. Aside from an annoying Christian guy who called in and probably did more harm than good, the show gives an interesting perspective into Chabad messianic understanding. And, interestingly, the weak responses against some of the ideas Chabad messianists put forth.

Aside from the comments made by the Chabad rabbi, one of the most controversial points in the radio show is when a couple Chabad messianist women called in and repeated over and over again that the Rebbe did not pass away, that he is at this very moment the messiah, and those who do not believe in him will be damned.

Shmarya Rosenberg, at Failed Messiah points out; during one of these calls, the radio host, Zev Brenner, asked one of these women, "Did the Rebbe die?"

She responded, "G-d forbid. The Rebbe is atzmus me'elokus [the very essence of G-d] in a guf [body]. He cannot die."

"Where is the Rebbe right now?," Zev Brenner asked.

She said, "All over." After being pressed by Zev Brenner, she repeated "All over," and then said, "[He's in] 770, [he's] everywhere."

Shmarya Rosenberg, who is a former Chabadnik, emphasizes that what Zev Brenner heard represents normative Chabad messianist theology. The idea that the Rebbe, no longer confined to his body, is everywhere. That he is omnipresent and almost, but not quite, omnipotent, as well. He answers your prayers and intercedes for you on high, and watches over you.

I would like to again point out, that one of these callers claimed that the Rebbe is "the very essence of G-d in a body"! A claim that over and over again the wider Jewish community has declared "NOT JEWISH." And yet, it truly is. Those of us who understand these ideas recognize points of legitimacy to these claims. We would only disagree on the "who."

Anyway, and interesting discussion indeed. What do you think?

Jews, Exile, and the Murashu Archive of Nippur

Jan 6, 2010 at 10:04 AM

In May of 1893, while clearing collapsed debris from a room overlooking the ancient ruins of Nippur, a group of Kaffej workmen made a startling discovery. Buried beneath the rubble they discovered a number of clay tablets.[1] The excavators quickly worked to clear the debris and within a few hours recovered a total of seven hundred and thirty tablets buried beneath layers of rubble.

The location had once been used as a business archive by the wealthy and influential Murashu family of Nippur who lived in the 5th Century B.C.E. – during the reigns of the Persian kings Artexerxes I and Darius II (coinciding with the Biblical account of Ezra and Nehemiah).

Although not commonly known about, the Murashu archive provides invaluable information for multiple areas of study, including the History of Ancient Finance and Commerce, Biblical Studies, Linguistics, Paleography, Onomastics, Archaeology, and more.

An Interesting Twist

The bulk of the inscriptions, aside from a usual cylinder seal impression here and there, are in Cuneiform - similar to other Near Eastern Archives. Yet many of the tablets bear a second inscription or endorsement - a paleo-form of Aramaic - a Semitic and alphabetic language that would eventually replace Cuneiform as the Lingua Franca of the ancient world.

The Paleography of the texts reveals the development of the Cuneiform script – becoming more simplified and abbreviated over time (degeneration).[2] With the simplification of the Cuneiform, we simultaneously witness the development of Aramaic.

Additionally, we see a large number of foreign names and titles introduced into the Babylonian sources. The bulk of “borrowed” words are Semitic in origin due to a growing number of West-Semitic peoples introduced to the Nippur Region.

Jewish Exiles and Biblically Influenced Names

According to Michael David Coogan:

Names [containing] –yaw do not occur in Neo-Babylonian sources before the [Israelite] Exile, and their increasing frequency in the late sixth and fifth centuries can reasonably be associated with the gradual emancipation and increased prosperity of Judean exiles in Mesopotamia.[3]

A large number of these Jewish exiles were carried away by Nebuchadnezzar and settled in the region of Nippur. In fact, an unusually large number of Jewish names known from the Hebrew Bible (especially from the books of Ezra and Nehemiah), eventually find their way into Cuneiform texts and inscriptions, including the Murashu archive.

The prophet Ezekiel also mentions in multiple places “the community of the exiles by the Chebar Canal (for example, see Ezek. 1:1)”

These references suggest that the growing number of Jewish exiles began to hold positions of prestige, and conducted business like everyone else. Some references seem to support that a few Jews may even have amassed great wealth which would support the Biblical claim to large contributions of silver, gold and precious goods towards the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem (see Ezra 1:5-6 and 2: 68-69).

Despite the distance of time and space, these clay tablets still speak of a story long forgotten. For within the Murashu archive is a wealth of knowledge. Despite their having been recovered now for over 100 years, much work is still to be done. Further study needs to be carried out on the texts, those that produced them, and their influence for us today. Indeed, William Goetzmann of Yale University was on to something when he connected the Murashu archive to that “of a modern mystery full of intrigue.”[4]

[1] H.V. Helprecht, The Babylonia Expedition of the University of Pennsylvania. Series A: Cuneiform Texts, vol. ix, 1898. p 13.

[2] Hilprecht, Ibid. 16.

[3] Michael David Coogan. West Semitic Personal Names in the Murashu Documents, (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1976), 119.

[4] William N. Goetzmann. Financing Civilization, (Taken from a chapter excerpt posted online – 11.