Jewish Visions of Heaven

Apr 30, 2010 at 9:17 AM

When the average Jew thinks about the afterlife, they often draw a blank, says Nathaniel Deutsch in a smart and witty article in a recent issue of Reboot.

"Asked about Christianity, they might say something about pearly gates or fire and brimstone; asked about Islam, they might conjure up the phrase “black-eyed virgins”; asked about Hinduism, an entire generation of Jewish yoga students would unhesitatingly mention reincarnation. But ask the same Jews about Judaism, and many would draw a blank."
Embarking in a crash course on "Jews and Heaven 101," Deutsch skims over varied Jewish texts that discuss the afterlife, giving us a stunning portrait of what Jews have come to expect when we croak.
"[T]he biblical view is that the dead return to dust and then end up in a gloomy, subterranean place called Sheol, where they mope around for eternity. ... [In rabbinic writings,] instead of wasting away in Sheol, you could now look forward to being physically resurrected during the Messianic Age ... the rabbis also developed the concept of the “world to come,” or olam ha-ba. After spending a lifetime in “this world” (olam ha-ze), the rabbis believed that people made their way to the world to come, where the righteous ended up in the heavenly Garden of Eden (Gan Eden) and the wicked in Geihinnom, a kind of Jewish purgatory."

Deutsch retells his father's vision of heaven during open-heart surgery. (Do
take a look! It's a fabulous tale, with Coco Chanel and Moshe Rabbenu as guest stars in the Yeshiva on High.) And he concludes that "these beliefs are not organized systematically, and they’ve changed over time, so it’s impossible to offer a definitive Jewish account of what to expect in the afterlife."

We agree that it's basically impossible to construct a homogenous vision of heaven from these texts and observations, but we're excited to see parallels between New Testament writings on the afterlife/heaven/"world to come" and other Jewish texts. N.T. Wright, an Anglican bishop, sums it up nicely in a recent interview with Time Magazine:
"the New Testament is much more interested in what I've called the life after life after death — in the ultimate resurrection into the new heavens and the new Earth. Jesus' resurrection marks the beginning of a restoration that he will complete upon his return. Part of this will be the resurrection of all the dead, who will "awake," be embodied and participate in the renewal ... In Revelation and Paul's letters we are told that God's people will actually be running the new world on God's behalf. The idea of our participation in the new creation goes back to Genesis, when humans are supposed to be running the Garden and looking after the animals. If you transpose that all the way through, it's a picture like the one that you get at the end of Revelation."

In our view, the New Testament writers' vision for the afterlife is a deeply Jewish view ... lets call it a "renewed" Jewish view of HaShem's master plan for creation. Renewed by the knowledge that Mashiach has come and is in the process of returning ... and by the anticipation of partnering with HaShem in the world to come (AKA "the new heavens and the new Earth").

Quote of the day

Apr 29, 2010 at 1:52 AM

Little does contemporary religion ask of humanity. It is ready to offer comfort; it has no courage to challenge. It is ready to offer edification; it has no courage to break idols, to shatter callousness.

The trouble is that religion has become "religion" - institution, dogma, ritual. It is no longer an event ... It is customary to blame secular science and antireligious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.

When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living foundation; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, "The Insecurity of Freedom," p 3-4.

Quote of the Day

Apr 27, 2010 at 5:33 PM

The true motivation for prayer is not, as it has been said, the sense of being at home in the universe, but rather the sense of not being at home in the universe.

Is there a sensitive heart that could stand indifferent and feel at home in the sight of so much evil and suffering, in the face of countless failures to live up to the will of G-d? On the contrary, the experience of not being at home in the world is a motivation for prayer.

The experience gains intensity in the amazing awareness that G-d himself is not at home in the universe. He is not at home in a universe where His will is defied and where His kingship is denied. G-d is in exile; the world is corrupt. The universe itself is not at home.

To pray means to bring G-d back into the world, to establish His kingship for a second at least. To pray means to expand His presence.

- Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom, p. 258.

Holiness in Doing

Apr 22, 2010 at 8:50 PM

Acharei Mot - Kedoshim

This week’s Torah portion seems to be a long list of do’s and don’ts. If so, why does it talk so much about holiness and being holy? What is the connection?

Parashat Kedoshim is one of my favorite parashiot in the Torah. For it clearly illustrates the stark distinction between the concept of holiness as understood within the Jewish community and much of the western world. Holiness in the Torah is not some mystical, esoteric state we all somehow strive to attain; but is rather a state of being, and a way of living our lives. In the Torah, holiness is establishing G-d’s Kingdom and Presence here on this earth. It is partnering with G-d in bringing redemption into the world.

The Torah portion is called Kedoshim because it is all about holiness. It is the instructions of how to live a life that is holy and pleasing unto G-d. We are instructed to weigh fairly, pursue justice, observe Shabbat and the mitzvot, and protect those who are down trodden. Why? Because the Torah states “Anochi HaShem … Because I am HaShem … and you are to be holy as I am holy (Leviticus 19:2)”.

It is a concept radically different from many of our own understandings of what we perceive as holy. For holiness is establishing G-d’s Presence among us and through us. Yeshua intrinsically understood this. Yeshua came to serve, and to ransom his life for ours (Mark 10:45). After all, it is in this week’s Torah portion we find the commandment echoed by Yeshua, “V’ahavta l’Raeicha Kamocha – To love your neighbor as you love yourself (Lev. 19:18).” For Judaism clearly teaches that how we treat one another is a direct reflection upon our relationship to G-d.

This is what Yeshua even taught us to pray for, “May Your Kingdom come. May Your Will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven (Matthew 6:9).” Let us pray for the inspiration and strength to lead lives that are holy and pleasing to G-d. May each of us pursue justice, follow Torah, and protect those downtrodden.

HaShem our G-d, open our eyes for opportunities to serve you, and help us see the world and our neighbors the way you see them. And may we merit your soon coming and the ultimate redemption in the messianic age!

Kabbetz Northeast

at 3:36 PM

Last week was a busy one ... the Borough Park Symposium in NYC, and then Kabbetz Northeast in Bloomfield, CT. Although I have spent this whole week trying to catch up, it was well worth it!

Kabbetz HaEsrim (Gathering the Twenties) is the UMJC’s regional conferences geared toward young Messianics ages 18-35. This year's theme, “Yibane HaMikdash: Building our Community,” focuses on building relationships among ourselves, our congregations, and our wider communities.

Three different regional Kabbetz HaEsrim conferences were scheduled for Spring 2010 - the first was in March, in Seattle, WA, Kabbetz Northeast was this last weekend in Bloomfield, CT, and the next one is Kabbetz Southeast to be held in Cary, NC in two weeks.

All three events are in a Shabbaton format, which combines traditional Shabbat observances and services with teaching, group discussions, and lots of time for informal interaction. The smaller group attendance at Kabbetz HaEsrim, typically thirty to fifty people, allows for more intimate contact and greater opportunities to really get to know each other.

Kabbetz Northeast was held April 16-18 in Bloomfield, CT at the recently completed facility of Shuvah Yisrael/Shalom Company. With over twenty young people in attendance, Kabbetz Northeast was an inspirational and meaningful time. The music and liturgy was led by Jane Rodriguez and Benjamin Ehrenfeld, and special speakers included Rabbi Paul Saal, Rabbi Tony Eaton, Benjamin Ehrenfeld, Twenties Committee Chair, Julie David, ... and yours truly!

Kabbetz Northeast was an inspiring time to gather with old friends, make new ones, and connect to HaShem on a deeper level. If you have not been to a Kabbetz conference before I encourage you to join us in two weeks in Cary, NC ... or join us next year!

Borough Park Symposium

Apr 16, 2010 at 12:21 PM

Earlier this week I had the honor of attending and presenting a response paper at the second Borough Park Symposium held in Queens, NYC. The Symposium brought together the most diverse group of individuals and organizations from various countries, and across the Messianic Jewish Movement, including the UMJC, MJAA, AMC, Chosen People, Jews for Jesus, and many others.

As many of you sadly know, the Messianic Jewish Movement is very diverse and very bifurcated. Until fairly recently, many groups had very little interaction with each other (at best), or down-right hostility toward each other (at worst). What makes the Borough Park Symposium unique is that it brings together individuals from these various groups to dialogue and build relationships. Prior to the first symposium held in 2007, many of these individuals had never been in the same room together at one time. There were also many individuals present who had not been in the same room with certain other individuals for nearly 40 years!

However, recognizing the need for greater unity, various individuals began to work toward changing this situation. I for one have been greatly impacted by these two events. I must admit, prior to these two symposiums I too held various assumptions and stereotypes against a number of individuals and organizations.

The Borough Park Symposium has helped to break down many of my attitudes, and present an opportunity to actually meet some of these people and groups I had previously only known by name. It is much easier to vilify the "Other" when you have never actually met them. However, after building relationships with people, you quickly realize that "they" are really "Us."

A number of papers were presented with various opportunities for discussion. The topic of the forum was the Nature of G-d (specifically the Deity of Yeshua). Although there were a number of views and opinions presented, the overall topic actually brought much unity. No matter what the differences were - we were all united around the fact that we were all Jews who follow Yeshua - in all its versions, stripes, and practices.

There was definitely not uniformity. But that was not the point. The point was unity with diversity - much like the subject of the forum.

Leaving the symposium I thought about Proverbs 27:17, "As iron sharpens iron, so does one person sharpen another." True strength is being able to look past our differences and embrace those around us. As the Torah teaches us, we are all made in the image of HaShem. As such, I hope I left the Borough Park Symposium a better person - with more friends, less judgments, and a better hope for the future of our Movement.

A Fresh Look at Ein Keloheinu

Apr 11, 2010 at 9:01 AM

Yom HaShoah

Today is Yom HaShoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day. As I've mentioned before, my grandfather was a member of the U.S. armed forces that liberated Germany.

Actually, he was both a liberator and a survivor, having escaped Germany as a young boy on the Kindertransport. He was eventually reunited with his parents after hiding in a Catholic boarding school in England. Together, they immigrated to the United States, where my grandfather joined the Army, which was eager to put his linguistic skills to work.

Serving in U.S. Army intelligence, in 1945, he helped to liberate Dachau. His fellow veterans reported a living nightmare. As the Allies advanced through Axis territory, the Nazis had sent trainloads of Jewish prisoners toward Dachau, which was near Munich, their communications center. When the U.S. military arrived at Dachau as liberators, they confronted thousands of dead bodies. My grandfather never could bring himself to speak of it.

He remained in Germany to assist in U.S.-led war crimes investigations, then returned to the States to attend law school and set up a law practice that assisted Holocaust survivors in retrieving their stolen assets from Swiss and German banks. His refusal to charge survivors with exorbitant fees forced him to run a high-volume practice, which my hyperactive uncle manages to this day.

My grandfather died before I was old enough to see beyond the tip of my own nose, or show an interest in anything other than getting him to stack Legos with me. He bequeathed to me his bum right knee, which he exercised using green ankle weights wrapped around his dark knee-high socks. I vividly remember watching his funny exercises, utterly mesmerized by my lanky old Poppy.

I still have trouble reconciling my childhood image of my grandfather with who he really was - a refugee and veteran, a survivor and a liberator, a war crimes investigator, and an advocate for the poor. According to my mother, Dachau ruined his faith in G-d, yet he remained committed to Jewish life, community, and continuity. He was extremely punctual, fastidious, and hard working. His family, his law firm, and the tight-knit community of German Jewish survivors in his neighborhood in Queens, were his main priorities.

I'm now a lawyer, too, having followed in the family tradition of human rights advocacy. I wish he were still here, that I might pick his brain, hear his young lawyer stories, and tell him what a hero he is to me. I wish he could have seen his granddaughter graduate from law school, and that he could have rejoiced with me at my huppah a few months ago.

In his absence, I cling to bits and scraps .... testimonials of fellow liberators, the jurisprudence of the Nuremburg Tribunals, and my uncle's occasional stories of his early career as my grandfather's apprentice.

I found this jewel a few days ago, which includes audio of the first Jewish service broadcast over the radio in Germany, almost immediately after U.S. troops arrived on German soil. Being in the middle of a war zone, the troops didn't have time for a full service, and chose Ein Keloheinu to mark the event. My grandfather wasn't a part of this, but perhaps he listened to it on the radio.

From now on, I'll think of my grandfather every time I pray Ein Keloheinu.

Remembering Rabbi Daniel Zion

Apr 10, 2010 at 11:53 PM

*Reposted for Yom HaShoah

Today, the 23rd of Cheshvan, marks the yahrzeit of one of our great rabbis and a Holocaust-era hero.

When HaRav Daniel Zion passed away in 1979 at the ripe old age of 96 years old, the Bulgarian Jewish community in Israel gave him a full burial with military and state honors. His bier stood in the center of Jaffa with a military guard, and at noon was carried by men all the way to the Holon cemetery on foot. He was buried as the Chief Rabbi of Bulgarian Jews who saved them from the Nazi Holocaust. Rabbi Daniel Zion also believed in Yeshua the Messiah.

Rabbi Daniel Zion is most honored and remembered for his tremendous accomplishment during World War II to save the Bulgarian Jewish Community.

According to Rabbi Daniel himself, a major change happened in his life one morning as he was praying, when looking at the sunrise; Yeshua appeared to him in a vision. Rabbi Daniel believed in Yeshua and remained faithful to the Torah, to Jewish life, and to the Jewish people.

Each Shabbat afternoon, Rabbi Daniel began studying the New Testament with a very select, small group of Jews in his home. Among these few were some of the leading members of the Jewish community in Sofia.

Rabbi Daniel's faith in Yeshua as the Messiah became a well know secret in the Jewish community of Bulgaria. However his position was so honored, and his personal services so highly esteemed, that no one could openly criticize him. And because he remained well within the framework of Orthodox Judaism and did not stop living as a Jew, there was little any of his opponents could point to as heresy.

When Nazi Germany occupied Bulgaria, Rabbi Daniel, as the Chief Rabbi and spiritual leader of Bulgaria’s Jewish community became the object of persecution and ridicule. On one particular occasion he was taken and publicly flogged in front of the Great Synagogue of Sofia.

Rabbi Daniel had built a strong friendship with Metropolitan Stephen, the head of the Church in Bulgaria. As a result of their relationship, Metropolitan Stephen remained a strong advocate of the Jewish community. When intense discussions arose about shipping Bulgaria’s Jews to Germany, Rabbi Daniel and his secretary, A. A. Anski, wrote a letter to the King of Bulgaria. In the letter, Rabbi Daniel begged the King not to allow Bulgaria’s Jews to be taken out of Bulgaria. Rabbi Daniel wrote in this letter that he had seen Yeshua in a vision, and Yeshua told him to warn the King from delivering the Jews to the Nazis.

The next day, the King went to Germany for a meeting with the Nazi Government and Hitler himself. King Boris of Bulgaria stood his ground and did not submit to Nazi pressure to deliver the Jews to the death camps of Poland and Germany.

Rabbi Daniel Zion was able to save many of Bulgaria’s Jews throughout the War. And although the government of Bulgaria fell to the Russians in September 1944, Rabbi Daniel Zion remained the leader and Chief Rabbi of Bulgaria until 1949, when he and most of the Bulgarian Jewish community immigrated to Israel.

In Israel, Rabbi Daniel continued to serve the Bulgarian Jews and became the Chief Rabbi of Jaffa. In 1954, Israel’s Chief Rabbi, Samuel Toledano, invited Rabbi Daniel to be a dayan, a judge on the Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem. However, when rumors started to fly that Rabbi Daniel believed in Yeshua, Rabbi Toledano confronted him in his office and asked him personally about the rumors.

Rabbi Daniel explained to Toledano his position. He explained that he accepted Yeshua as the Messiah but that he did not accept Christianity as the true expression of the teaching and person of Yeshua the Messiah. Rabbi Toledano said to him that he could live with this position as long as Rabbi Daniel kept it to himself. However, Rabbi Daniel refused, feeling that it could not be kept a secret, and Toledano was forced to bring Rabbi Daniel before the rabbinical court to allow the other rabbis to decide what should be done.

Evidence of Rabbi Daniel's faith in Yeshua was brought before the religious court in the form of four books he had written in Bulgarian. Although the Rabbinical Court stripped Rabbi Daniel of his rabbinic title, the Bulgarian Jewish community continued to honor Rabbi Daniel as their Rabbi.

Rabbi Daniel was even invited by Kol Israel, the official radio station of the State of Israel, to share his story and his faith in Yeshua:

“More than twenty years ago I had the first opportunity of reading the New Testament. It influenced me greatly. I began to speak about it in a small circle in Bulgaria. I always regretted that Yeshua the Messiah has been estranged from the community of Israel … I must confess that my position as a Rabbi did not allow me at once to come out openly before the world in order to declare this truth, until G-d, in His mercy, set me free from all fear … do not think that I have left my Judaism. On the contrary, I have remained Jewish, and have become more Jewish because Yeshua himself remained Jewish.”

Rabbi Daniel continued to serve as a rabbi in Jaffa, where he officiated in the synagogue until the 6th of October 1973. Rabbi Daniel did not often speak of Yeshua openly from the pulpit, but would often bring in stories and parables from the New Testament.

Each Shabbat afternoon, Rabbi Daniel would bring home a group of his fellow worshippers from the synagogue, and they would study about Yeshua from the New Testament until they had to return to the Synagogue for the evening prayers.

Many times Rabbi Daniel was offered large amounts of money for the use of his name and his story. However, in each case he rejected the offers. He did not want to destroy his reputation within the people of Israel for a handful of dollars. If anyone gave him free-will donations with no strings attached, he would accept it and pass it on to charitable organizations for the blind, or to orphans and widows. He himself lived in abject poverty.

*To learn more about Rabbi Daniel Zion, read Joseph Shulam's article or Tim's article on his blog, Emergent Observer.

From Slavery to Freedom

Apr 2, 2010 at 9:18 AM

Shabbat Pesach
Then He said to me, “Human being! These bones are the whole house of Israel; and they are saying, ‘Our bones have dried up, our hope is gone, and we are completely cut off.’ Therefore prophesy…then you will know that I am HaShem – when I have opened your graves and made you get up out of your graves, my people! I will put my Spirit in you; and you will be alive. Then I will place you in your own land; and you will know that I, HaShem, have spoken, and that I have done it, says HaShem.” (Ezekiel 37: 11-14)

What is the connection between this week’s Haftarah reading and Passover? T

his portion was specifically chosen by the rabbis to be the Haftarah reading for Shabbat Pesach. With other more direct allusions to Passover existent in the Biblical text, the choice of this specific portion does seem to be a bit odd.

With a careful re-reading of the text one quickly notices familiar themes of redemption, renewal, and the ultimate promise to bring the Jewish people back to our Promised Land. These themes are echoed in numerous passages from the Torah in relation to the Exodus from Egypt.

Therefore, say to the people of Israel: “I am HaShem. I will free you from the forced labor of the Egyptians, rescue you from their oppression, and redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I will take you as my people, and I will be your G-d. Then you will know that I am HaShem, who freed you from the forced labor of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

(Exodus 6:6-8a)

While in Egypt, the people of Israel were like the dry bones mentioned in Ezekiel – dried up, without hope, and feeling cut off – slaves to Pharaoh – and slaves to death. But G-d spoke to Moshe, like he did through Ezekiel, and reassured Israel that He would remember us and restore us. HaShem commanded both Moshe and Ezekiel to prophesy Hope and Redemption to the Jewish People and to assure them that He would bring us out of captivity and death, and into the Promised Land. For by doing so, we would know as a people that HaShem is our G-d.

Like the Exodus from Egypt, the Dry Bones will experience an Exodus from despair and the valley of death, which is Galut – Exile. We are still in Exile. We are still often enslaved to a different sort of pharaoh. It is not difficult to look at the state of many of our Jewish people today and see dry bones, like Ezekiel’s vision, dried up, without hope, and completely cut off. Many of us have opted for other spiritual avenues or no spiritual connection at all. But G-d promises this will not always be the case.

Let this year be the beginning of our own personal redemptions. Every year we are supposed to celebrate Passover as though we ourselves are personally being delivered from slavery. And although we may not be literally slaves, we are all physically or spiritually bound and enslaved to something. So let us take “our staff in hand” as the Torah tells us, eat the Passover meal, and experience a new hope of redemption. A redemption that has been brought about through the atoning work of the ultimate Passover sacrifice – Yeshua the Messiah.