Praying in Solitude

Jul 27, 2010 at 9:34 AM

Inspired by one of Tim Layne's past posts, I decided to expand on the Chasidic concept of Hitbodedut.

Reb Nachman of Breslov, a great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov and founder of Breslover Chasidus, breathed new life into Judaism by combining the mystical elements of Chasidus with in-depth Torah scholarship.

In addition to regular davening from the Siddur, Reb Nachman frequently recited extemporaneous prayers. In fact, he taught his Chasidim (his followers) that they should spend at least one hour alone each day, talking aloud to G-d in his or her own words, as if "talking to a good friend." This practice was to be in addition to the prayers of the Siddur. Breslover Chasidim still follow this practice today, which is known as hitbodedut (literally, "to make oneself be in solitude"). Rebbe Nachman taught that the best place to do hitbodedut was in a field or forest, among the natural works of HaShem's creation. The hours spent in secluded prayer, according to Reb Nachman, were one of the primary ways to build a relationship with G-d.

According to Rabbi Wayne Dosick, quoting Reb Nachman:

'Hitbodedut' - inner-directed, unstructured, active self-expression before G-d - 'is the highest path of all. Take it!' (Dancing with G-d, p.49)

Within our prayer lives, we need communal and personal forms of prayer, the structure of the Siddur, as well as hitbodedut. For they all draw us closer to HaShem. And yet, there is something special about our personal prayer times - alone, secluded, without distraction.

This type of prayer, which Rebbe Nachman referred to as hitbodedut was also practiced and encouraged by our own "rebbe." Yeshua himself would often go off into seclusion to pray. We see this many times throughout the Besorot.

Although Yeshua exemplifies the pattern of formal communal worship within the Temple and synagogues, he also teaches us:

But you, when you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. For your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. -Matthew 6:6

What's love got to do with it?

Jul 22, 2010 at 1:10 AM

Parashat Va'etchannan:

Why do we read this parasha every year after Tisha B’Av?

I thought we were finished with all of the pleading already? This week, we spent a hungry evening on the floor reading Lamentations, remembering the horrific tragedies that have beset our people on Tisha B’Av ... the destruction of the First and Second Temples, our explusion from England and Spain, the beginning of World War I, the Chelmniecki pogrom in Ukraine, the beginning of deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto, a terrorist bombing at a JCC in Argentina...

Indeed, I thought we were finished with all of the pleading. No, the time has come again to read Moses’ famous last words, beginning with “and I pleaded.” In this portion, Moses warns of the consequences of failing to hold up our end of the bargain – observing G-d’s commandments. If we fail to hear and to obey, we will be driven out from the Land of Israel and become scattered among the nations.

So ... why did our sages choose the Shabbat following Tisha B’Av for the reading of this portion?

According to tradition, it was the corruption of our people that led to the destruction of the Second Temple (see b. Yoma). “Baseless hatred” is the buzzword that’s meant to describe our undoing, and it seemingly characterized Jewish national life during the Second Temple period. But what is baseless hatred? It seems awfully vague and wholly unrelated to the minutiae of Jewish life – laws regulating our food, clothing, work, study, marriage, child rearing (even bathing habits!). What does baseless hatred have to do with G-d’s commandments?

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

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

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

Perhaps it is fitting that, only days after fasting in memory of the destruction of the Temple, we are reminded of Moses’ words warning us about the very behaviors that bring about these sorrows. We violate the whole of Torah if we do not love each other and act accordingly. And if we violate the whole of Torah, we lose our entitlement to life in the Land.

The challenge of Jewish life is to find the chen within each person, no matter how distasteful a person may seem. In acknowledging the dignity of people who seem to have no valuable purpose in this life, we honor the ultimate wisdom of G-d and G-d’s confounding yet generous act of creation.

To love others is to love G-d. This is the whole of Torah.

Paul's Rule

Jul 21, 2010 at 2:37 PM

A good friend and colleague, Dr. David Rudolph, had an article of his; entitled "Paul's Rule in All the Churches," recently published in the online journal Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations.

Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations is the flagship publication of the Jewish-Christian relations community so the article will be read by many Jewish and Christian leaders and thinkers involved in dialogue and related research.

The article can be downloaded FREE here.

I think this is a helpful resource not only for our congregations, but for all who are serious about theology, because it lays out a biblical, theological and practical case for Messianic Judaism using Paul's writings as a starting point. It is also an online resource that we can share with church leaders to help them understand the importance of working with the Messianic Jewish community.

Interestingly, the paper also has several pictures of UMJC synagogues and a hyperlink to the UMJC website. So check it out to see if you're mentioned!

Also check out what fellow bloggers Yahnatan (at Gathering Sparks) and Rabbi Derek Leman (at Messianic Musings) have written about this article.

This is an important work by one of our movement’s brightest scholars. I highly encourage you to read this important article.

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

Jul 19, 2010 at 1:00 AM

Tonight, July 19th, begins Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av).

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

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

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

Some events associated with Tisha B’Av include:

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

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

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

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

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

Words to a New Generation

Jul 16, 2010 at 3:10 PM

Parashat D’varim

Deuteronomy is unique. Firstly, the book is a retelling of the entire Torah.

Second, as the Vilna Gaon notes, the first four books of the Torah were heard directly from the mouth of HaShem. Whereas Deuteronomy is Moshe’s recounting of the events at a later date. In the first four books of the Torah, HaShem is the primary speaker. In Deuteronomy, Moshe is the primary speaker.

Lastly, the book involves a different generation than the rest of the Torah. Meaning, the whole reason Moshe is pleading with the people at the beginning of this parasha is because it is a new generation about to go into the Promised Land. This is not the generation who wandered in the dessert for forty years. This is not the generation that left Egypt and was involved in the sin of the golden calf. Many of these people were not even born when the Torah was originally given, and if they were, they may not have been old enough to fully comprehend the impact of the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. This was a new generation.

Many of us represent this new generation. There is a new land we are about to enter. As many voices in the Jewish world are declaring the demise of Judaism in America, we stand at the threshold of opportunity. We can either listen to the calls of those who only see the end of the Jewish community as we know it, or we can take hold of the vision cast by HaShem.

Deuteronomy is a voice to a new generation. It is a voice to us. You and I may not have physically stood at Mt. Sinai, but we did receive the Torah (Dt. 5:3). It is time to take hold of the Torah once again and step forward into a new land.

The generation of our Torah portion experienced the dying out of the pervious generation. We also do not have to look far to see Judaism diminishing among our parents’ generation. But it does not have to end here. If we are willing to look closely, there is a Promised Land ahead.

The great Jewish believer, Paul Phillip Levertoff once wrote,

It is the business of the Chasid to live now for the realization of the Messianic Age.

It is our destiny, as devoted Chasidim of our Messiah, to prepare the world for the coming of Mashiach.

We need to create communities that are focused on relationships, where people are valued for being created b’tzelem Elokim – in the image of G-d. Communities where people are empowered to lead and to follow. Where leaders serve as guides, rather than as lone-rangers or stars of the show. We need to embody a vision of Jewish life infused with the power of Yeshua, and filled with the Spirit. We need to reclaim our identities as Israel declaring a corporate witness to the world of G-d’s continued unfolding plan for the Jewish people and the Nations.

There is yet a Promised Land ahead. Are you able to see it? And if you’re able to catch a glimpse of it, are you ready to help build it?

Where was Adam?

Jul 12, 2010 at 10:10 PM

I am in LA this week for two MJTI Summer intensive classes, and we are spending our mornings studying Eicha Rabbah. As a part of our discussion this morning I ended up running across this fascinating commentary on Adam and Eve that I just had to share:

“The woman is not a temptress. She does not say a word but simply hands her husband the fruit, which he accepts and eats. The absence of any hint of resistance or even hesitation on his part is strange. It should be noted, however, that in speaking to the woman, the serpent consistently used the plural form. This suggests that the man was all the time within ear’s reach of the conversation and was equally seduced by its persuasiveness. In fact, the Hebrew text here literally means, 'She also gave to her husband with her (‘immah),' suggesting that he was a full participant in the sin, thereby refuting in advance his later excuse (JPS Torah Commentary, Breishit, pg. 25).”

Vows and Oaths

Jul 8, 2010 at 8:57 PM

Parashat Mattot

This week is another double header from the Torah – Mattot and Massei. The first parasha, Mattot, begins by describing vows and oaths sworn to HaShem. Halachah (Jewish law) takes vows and oaths very seriously.

A vow, or a neder, is described by the sages as a pledge to do something. One can either vow to prohibit oneself from something the Torah actually permits, or obligate oneself to perform a commandment that is optional. Either way, a neder is more than just the English equivalent of a “vow.” A neder is so strong, that violation of such a vow can result in a court-imposed penalty of lashes.

The second topic addressed is that of an oath, or a shavua. By means of a shavua, one may either prohibit or require oneself to perform a particular act.

Within a halachic framework, there is a great difference between a neder and a shavua. A neder changes the halachic status of an object, whereas a shavua only places the obligation on the person who made the oath.

So what’s the big deal? The Torah is describing something that heretofore could only be done by G-d: the creation a new halachic status. Through a neder or a shavua a person is now given the ability to place upon themselves or an object a status equivalent to a Torah command.

Judaism teaches that although Torah originates from HaShem, authority is also given to the community and individuals to apply the Torah within our communities and lives. Torah is meant to be wrestled and grappled with. It was never meant to be static. We are partners with G-d in not only preparing the world for the coming of Mashiach, but also in the application and revelation of Torah in the world around us.

In his classic work, Love and the Messianic Age, the great Jewish believer Paul Philip Levertoff writes:

Man has been created by G-d in order that he may finish what G-d has deliberately left unfinished. Not that G-d needs the help of His creatures, but it is His love which causes Him to impart His own Nature to the work of His hands, in order that man should have the privilege and joy of becoming His fellow-worker in this world, in natural as well as spiritual life.

In Parashat Mattot the ability to create a new halachic status (to the equivalent of a Torah command) was extended to individuals (in limited circumstances – like a neder or shavua). Previously the Torah gave authority to decide matters of halachah to the leadership of Israel. Yeshua, in turn, transmitted the ability to render halachic matters to his talmidim (his followers).

I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you prohibit on earth will be prohibited in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven. (Matthew 16:19, 18:18)

Our authority in Messiah is not only in spiritual matters, but matters of the interpretation and application of Torah as well. Whether we actually take on a neder or a shavua, a lighter commitment to G-d, or any other application of Torah within our lives; we must not do so lightly. It is a living Torah – meant to be applied and re-applied in every generation. As Levertoff wrote, there are aspects that G-d “has deliberately left unfinished.” G-d needs you and me to finish the task, to wrestle with Torah for ourselves and our communities, maintain our commitments, and prepare the world for the coming of Mashiach.

My Jesus Year

Jul 6, 2010 at 10:33 AM

Last week I finished reading My Jesus Year, by Benyamin Cohen (Harper Collins, 2008). The book is a hilarious recounting of an Orthodox Rabbi's son who spends a year wandering the Bible Belt in search of his own faith.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone looking for some light and fun Summer reading, but especially for congregational leaders. Although Benyamin Cohen spends a year visiting churches, the book provides an excellent glimpse into what it is like to be a visitor, and forces introspection about the way we portray our communities to others. Throughout the book Cohen shares important insights and ideas from various types of communities that he thinks could actually benefit the Jewish Community, recognizing that each of our faiths have much we can learn from one another.

Fellow blogger and friend, Yahnatan Lasko, his wife, and I recently heard Benyamin Cohen talk about his book at our local JCC. His quick wit, his shared insights gained from the experience, and his humor all led me to read the book. And I am glad I did!

As the son of an Orthodox Rabbi, and raised within the Jewish community of Atlanta, Benyamin Cohen spent a year trying to rediscover his own Jewish Spirituality. But what is interesting, is that he decided to pursue this search in what would seem to many Jews the most unlikely of places - Christian churches in the Bible Belt. However, as a practicing Jew, he had to get a special rabbinic dispensation for his quest. And although he did receive it from one particular rabbi, it was not without some certain parameters on his participation.

It is interesting that Benyamin was not visiting churches to necessarily "find Jesus." In his mind, with many American Churches being vibrant spiritual centers, attracting masses of people on a weekly basis, they had to be doing something right.

Cohen contrasts this to the state of much of the Jewish Community today, noting:

"Synagogue attendance is flagging; for that matter, Judaism as a whole is struggling just to keep its followers interested. Studies indicate that Jewish philanthropists in this country spend more money on what's called 'inreach' than on any other cause - including that catchall cause, support for Israel. Fueling all of this is an alarming fact: 50 percent of Jews in America are now intermarrying into other faiths. The Jewish community in America is hemorrhaging; we're a dying breed (Cohen, 28)."

So what is Cohen's personal answer?

"As crazy as it sounds, I'm looking to Jesus to make me a better Jew. I want to reconnect to my Judaism (Cohen, 28)."

With my own theological ideas on that comment aside for the moment, Cohen is on to something. Cohen is not the first individual within the Jewish community to recognize that there is much to learn from contemporary Christianity. Synagogue 3000 is just one example of a Jewish think-tank that has sought out figures such as mega-pastor Rick Warren for assistance in recreating vibrant Jewish communities. As Cohen puts it, "People are basically tired of sitting in synagogue and having no connection to G-d when everyone else is. People are waking up (Cohen, 169)."

Many churches do a great job at marketing their communities, empowering their members, and creating vibrant worshipful atmospheres that are spiritually moving for their congregants. For the most part - they are simply doing a much better job at reaching people.

I of course recognize that there is also much the Church can learn from the Jewish Community. But I believe, like Cohen and many others, that there is much to be learned on both sides. My Jesus Year is a helpful look into our communities and what newcomers experience when they visit. It should force us to think much more critically about our services, our visions for our communities, and how to make ourselves more welcoming to those who are searching.

My Jesus Year is a quick and light-hearted read - perfect for relaxing by the pool, sitting on an airplane, or on vacation. An ideal book for the Summer - and educational to boot!

See you in Seattle!

Jul 5, 2010 at 11:27 AM

*Online conference registration ENDS TODAY!

The 2010 UMJC International Conference is quickly approaching and I want to encourage you to attend. The conference will be held in Seattle this year, and I believe will prove to be one of the best conferences ever.

This year's theme is "Walk the Talk," based on Isaiah 52:7. The conference will feature vibrant worship, inspiring speakers, innovative music, a joyous Shabbat, and a Seattle-style educational track that will help you W-A-L-K the talk:

W - Working

Are you working ...on your character traits? Are those around you affected positively by your example of Messiah Yeshua?

A - Alive

Are you alive ... living a spiritually healthy and vibrant Messianic Jewish life? Are Scripture, tradition, and prayer through the Spirit of Messiah empowering and renewing you daily?

L - Learning

Are you learning ... committed to your personal spiritual growth as a diligent student of Scripture? Are you becoming the knowledgeable teacher Messiah Yeshua needs to help build his Messianic Community?

K - Kiruv

Are you doing kiruv ... reaching out within your Jewish community with the Good News of Messiah Yeshua? Do you both publicly and privately share about God's truth and faithfulness in Messiah?

The conference hotel this year is the Hyatt Regency Bellevue - located close to the airport and downtown Bellevue - a green picturesque Northwest city, home to outdoor adventures like hiking, boating, golfing and more. Plus guests enjoy easy access to the many unique landmarks and attractions that have made Seattle famous.

This will be a conference you will not want to miss. So register now!

See you in Seattle!

Happy 4th of July!

Jul 4, 2010 at 10:36 AM

We wish you and your family a very happy 4th of July, and leave you with a couple of inspiring thoughts on this Independence Day.

"Of all the disposition and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports ... Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion."

-President George Washington (Farewell Address)

"Our G-d and G-d of our ancestors: We ask Your blessings for our country, for its government, for its leaders and advisor, and for all who exercise just and rightful authority. Teach them insights from Your Torah, that they may administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may forever abide in our midst ... May this land under Your providence be an influence for good throughout the world, uniting all people in peace and freedom and helping them to fulfill the vision of Your prophet: "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they experience war anymore." And let us say: Amen.

-'A Prayer for our Country,' Siddur Sim Shalom

A Rich Young Ruler

Jul 2, 2010 at 12:21 AM

This week I was thinking about the familiar story of Yeshua's encounter with the rich young ruler (Mathew 19:16-30). In the story, the rich young man asks Yeshua about what more he must do in order to obtain eternal life. Truth be told, I always found this story a little puzzling. Originally I was under the impression, as is commonly taught, that this passage was speaking against being wealthy, and having many possessions. Although this interpretation could be plausible, over time I have also come to see something different.

I have found a nuance of something much deeper and related to our relationships with others rather than an abrogation of being wealthy. I came to this conclusion by asking the not so seemingly apparent question: If the wealthy young man was already observing the mitzvot, why did Yeshua tell him that the only way to obtain eternal life was to sell all of his possessions? For nothing in the Scriptures seems to allude to wealth and possessions as being equal to not being able to obtain eternal life.

Yeshua’s original response to the young man was simply, “If you want to obtain eternal life, observe the mitzvot (19:17b).” He than continued by citing five of the Ten Commandments, and the commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18 & Mark 12:31).” The young man stated that he had done those mitzvot, and wanted to know what more he needed to do.

I believe Yeshua’s response was posited to question the young man’s assuredness. The reason is because all the mitzvot cited by Yeshua fall into the category of "ben adam l'chavero," mitzvot dealing with one’s relationship toward others, and putting others’ needs before your own. When Yeshua asked the young man if he was truly doing so, the young man was too quick to respond.

Being wealthy can put you in a difficult position. As it often forces you to put your own needs before others. With great wealth comes great responsibilities, and often those responsibilities cloud our judgment to see our priorities clearly.

Each one of us may not be financially wealthy, but we each have gifts and talents that can possibly cloud our judgment as well. We can often feel like we are doing everything for G-d already, and when we ask what more G-d wants from us, we are often shocked by His response. We all feel there are things we cannot possibly give up because they are our tools which we use to serve Him. But what G-d really wants is our entire neshama, our entire self. We may be leaders, teachers, musicians, speakers, and artisans. And what G-d wants to know is, if asked to do so, would we be willing to trust Him with our gifts? Would we be willing to give those gifts and talents up for Him?

I am not saying that G-d expects you to give up your talents and gifts, as we are entrusted with those gifts to prepare the way for the coming of Mashiach. However, like the rich young ruler, G-d does often test our faith to determine which we trust more - our own abilities, or upon HaShem. We are all “wealthy.” As such, would we truly be willing to give it all up in order to follow Him? I pray that we would. For by being obedient in doing so, Yeshua assured us, “We will find our rewards in heaven (19:21).”