My Policy Regarding Messianism

Image: Shabbatai Tzvi, a 17th century self-proclaimed messiah. Public Domain.

Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai used to say: “If you have a sapling in your hand and they tell you ‘The Messiah is coming!’ first plant the sapling and then go to greet him.” – Avot de Rabbi Natan, 31b

Lately I’ve noticed an uptick in comments reflecting a “Messianic Jewish” point of view. It’s time for a policy statement about that, so here goes.

Rabbinic Judaism came into being in the first and second centuries when the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem closed the period of Biblical Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism subscribes to the notion that we have both a Written Torah (the five books of Moses) and an Oral Torah (the interpretation of those books passed down by a group of people known to us as the rabbis.)

There is a huge range of belief among Rabbinic Jews. We are more focused on actions than on belief, on keeping mitzvot (commandments) than on a particular orthodoxy (with a small-o.) We do not have creeds.

We do not have a messiah. Those of us who expect one (and not all of us do) are waiting for a political or military leader. We are not waiting for or interested in a savior to save us from our sins. This has been a matter of some distress to Christians, who historically want us to accept the person they believe to be a messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

Christianity began as a sect of Judaism, but early on separated itself from us partly over doctrinal issues and partly over the fact that in the Roman world after the year 135 it was not healthy to be mistaken for a Jew. We Jews were rebels, we were trouble, and the Roman establishment did everything it could to put us out of business. Small wonder that the Christians of the time, who were interested in converting Romans to their faith, took care to differentiate themselves from Rabbis (aka Pharisees) in the Gospels, which were all written after at least one revolt against Rome.

Jews have suffered for centuries for our unwillingness to accept the Christian messiah. Those centuries of suffering  – of murders, of robbery, of stolen children, of persecution, of genocide – inform a certain testiness when someone comes along cheerfully talking about “being both,” or of conversion to Christianity under cover of a Hebracized name for Jesus.

By the way, Jesus isn’t the only candidate for messiah in Jewish history. By some counts as many as 24 individuals have been proposed as messiahs for the Jews. Some disappear into history, taking a few followers with them; others have been major disasters. The fellow pictured at the top of this post, Shabbetai Tzvi, was one of those who did terrible damage to the Jewish People.

So-called Messianic Judaism is a 20th and 21st century phenomenon. I do not teach Messianic Judaism. To my mind, it smacks of cultural appropriation – the adoption of the elements of a minority culture (Judaism) by members of the dominant culture (Christianity.) From where I sit, if someone thinks Jesus is their messiah, fine – but then they’re Christian, not Jewish. A person who worships Jesus as God may have Jewish ancestry, but their acceptance of that doctrine makes them no longer Jewish, no matter which of their ancestors were Jews.

And no, I’m not interested in a debate about this.

From now on, I’m simply going to delete “messianic” comments in this blog. Those who want that material have many websites upon which to find it. I can’t stop them from using materials on my site but I can prevent them from proselytizing at people who come here to learn about Judaism.  That same policy also goes for Christians who proselytize.

So that’s the policy. Don’t bother posting that stuff, because I’m going to delete it.

 

Advertisements

A Different Kind of Purim

Image: Demonstration organized by Teens For Gun Reform, an organization created by students in the Washington DC area, in the wake of the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Photo by Lorie Shaull, some rights reserved.

In the past, the Book of Esther and its holiday of Purim have mostly been celebrated as a party in the United States. We’ve been in an extraordinarily peaceful time for the Jews of North America.

So much has changed since last Purim. Some of us may not feel in our usual Purim mood, wondering what festivity is really suitable. Every community has to decide that for itself.

It is quite certain, though, that the themes of the Scroll of Esther, themes of threat and dramatic reversal are very much with us right now. The sages speak of both the book of Esther and the holiday of Purim as hafuch – upside down, topsy-turvy – and we seem to be in the midst of reversals.

Anti-Semitism and White Supremacy: In August, Jews in the United States were faced with the spectre of a president who said, and repeated, that he thought “there is blame on both sides” in Charlottesville, where white supremacists threatened a synagogue while the local police declined a call for help.  Like the Jews of Shushan, the Jews of Charlottesville were left unprotected. The fact that a non-Jewish woman who was attempting to counter the messages of hate was murdered by white supremacist violence underlined the fact that this was not paranoia, not drama, but genuine danger.

All manner of bigotries are on the rise. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports 957 hate groups currently active in the U.S.  Wholesale hatred of African-Americans, Latinx persons, immigrants, Jews, Muslims and LGBTQ people has not been this open and shameless in decades.

#MeToo: In October, a different set of Esther themes resonated as a series of high-profile, powerful men lost their jobs when men and women began to speak up about their experiences of sexual harassment at the hands of those men. It seemed that the rules changed overnight: the accounts of victim/survivors were taken seriously. We are still in the midst of comings-out and revelations, and we are also beginning to see some backlash, but the situation is filled with echoes of the reversals in Esther, and the story of Vashti, the shamed queen from Chapter 1.

 

The Youth of Parkland: Then on February 14, 2018, we have witnessed yet another mass murder in a school, carried out by a white man armed with an assault rifle. At first it seemed much like the mass shootings that preceded it: white male uses legally acquired AR-15 to mow down an unthinkable number of students going about their business in what should have been a safe place. Then the story changed, with an Esther-like reversal: the victims have refused to behave like victims. They have already traveled to the state government in Tallahassee and to the federal government in Washington. They are organizing school walkouts and marches in the coming weeks and months. They are absolutely serious about fighting back against the horror of mass murder by AR-15, and they have rallied the hearts of many Americans.

It remains to be seen what comes of all of this. On the one hand, dark forces have been set loose in our society, given permission and encouragement by people at high levels of the government. On the other, the new willingness to listen to and believe victim/survivors of sexual violence is astonishing to many of us who had despaired of change in that quarter. The voices of the young men and women of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School seem downright miraculous. I am reminded of the line from the prophet Joel 3:1:

And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out My spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, [while] your old men dream dreams, your youth shall see visions.

However you choose to observe Purim this year, whether with the usual Purim spiel or a more solemn observance, pay attention to all that is hafuch – upside down – in our world at the moment.

We can allow the spirit of Mordechai’s words to Esther to percolate through our being:

Who knows whether you are not come to royal estate for such a time as this? – Esther 4:14

Like Esther, we must use the tools at our disposal to right the wrongs in our world.

Purim sameach!

Tetzaveh: Dressed for Success?

Image: Colorful clothes hanging in a closet. (Maridav/Shutterstock All rights reserved.)

וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ בִגְדֵי־קֹ֖דֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹ֣ן אָחִ֑יךָ לְכָב֖וֹד וּלְתִפְאָֽרֶת׃

Make holy vestments for your brother Aaron for dignity and adornment. – Exodus 28:2

Clothing is an important social symbol. We dress to send messages about ourselves and about our feelings regarding the place or the people we will visit.  We dress to fit in or to stand out.  We often feel anxious about our clothing. Too fancy? Not fancy enough? Wrong kind of fancy? Does it fit? Is it clean? Is it new? Is it “me” or “not me?”

Kohen gadol
A Bible card published in 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company. Public domain.

And then there are uniforms: clothing that sends an impersonal, public message. Doctors wear white coats. Police wear blue uniforms. In this Torah portion, Parashat Tetzaveh, we get the directions for the uniform of the High Priest of Israel. God instructs Moses to produce an entire wardrobe: a breastplate, an ephod, a robe, a gold frontlet inscribed “holy to the Lord,” a fringed tunic, a headdress, a sash, and linen pants. Inside the breastplate are supposed to be something called ummim and thummim, which the priest will use to find answers to questions.

The outfit was colorful and some things about it are mysterious to us today (ephod, ummim and thummim, for instance.) The text doesn’t explain those words because it assumes we know what they are.

A careful reader will notice that the uniform mixes linen and wool threads, something we are forbidden to do in ordinary garments. This is a way of expressing the extraordinary nature of these clothes: they are what the high priest will wear in the presence of the Holy One.

I imagine Aaron was very nervous when he heard about this uniform. He may also have felt somewhat confused when he heard what he was going to do in that fancy outfit. The kohanim [priests] had many tasks, but the most common task was to sheckt [slaughter] the animals for the sacrifices, then cut them into pieces and stack the pieces on the altar. They tended the sacrificial fires and then carried out the ashes when the fire was finished.

In other words, Aaron was going to do some of the bloodiest, filthiest work imaginable in that fancy outfit!

The 16th century commentator Rabbi Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno explained the purpose of these clothes from the verse at the top of this entry. He writes that the splendor of the uniform was to render honor to God.  Secondly:

The priest should inspire awe among the Israelites who are all considered his disciples seeing he had the names of all the tribes engraved on these garments right opposite his heart when he wore them in his official capacity. – Sforno on Ex. 28:2

The garments were to give honor to God, and an inspiration to God’s people. Their friend Aaron would disappear into this uniform and take on the role of Kohen Gadol, High Priest of Israel. From here on in the Torah, there are two Aarons: one is the Kohen Gadol, who fulfills the role of his office and provides a link to the Holy. He puts aside personal feelings just as he put aside his personal clothing. We will see this most sharply in the opening verses of Leviticus 10, when his sons die violently while offering a sacrifice, and “Aaron is silent.”

The other Aaron, the private Aaron, is the human being who wept in his tent later. He made mistakes (big mistakes – see the Golden Calf in Exodus 32 and the episode with his sister Miriam in Numbers 12.)  Being Kohen Gadol was a heavy job because he was suspended between the public role and the private self. Someone had to be in charge of the sacrifices. Someone had to be the visible link to the God of Israel. Aaron was given that task, and we do not know how he felt about it.

Do you wear a uniform in your work? Do you have a public, professional persona that sometimes has to suspend personal feelings for the public good? What do you do to “let down your hair” and relax? How do you care for the the private self that has to wear the professional role?

 

Wanted: Jewish Leadership!

Image: A red and white sign saying “Now Hiring.”

Only twice in the whole Torah does the phrase “lo tov” (not good) appear. The first is when God says, “It is not good for man to be alone.” The second is when Jethro sees his son-in-law, Moses, leading alone and says, “What you are doing is not good.” We cannot live alone. We cannot lead alone. Leadership is teamsmanship. – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Seven Principles of Jewish Leadership,” 2012.

The best leaders lead by encouraging others, and by working as part of a team. Torah makes that point again and again. Moses is the leader, but he must work with the chieftains and judges. No matter how wise he is, no matter how holy he is, he cannot do the job alone.

Moses put a priority on raising up the next generation of leaders. He notices when Joshua son of Nun and Caleb come back from scouting the Land of Israel in Numbers 13-14, and alone among the spies speak encouragingly of the land, not just to him but to the people. He recognizes them as potential leaders – and God agrees with him, saying that alone of their generation, those two will survive to lead the next generation into the Land.

Moses had the foresight and the humility to see these young people as budding leaders of the Israelites. Where a lesser leader might have felt threatened by them, Moses nurtured them and their considerable gifts. He mentored them, especially Joshua, so that when Moses died, there was a new leader ready to step into those very large sandals.

Jewish congregations and other institutions last longer than any one life. We are mortal, and a wise leader will keep an eye out for the next generation or two of leadership. This is true not only for clergy but for lay leaders: good lay leaders don’t grow on trees.

Most successful lay leaders don’t start as president of the congregation. They start out small, working on a committee or two, getting to know people in the congregation, learning how things are done. They are more positive than negative. They look for ways to build up, not to tear down.

I have been the beneficiary of generous mentors, both clergy and lay. After I stepped out of the mikveh, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself, but I wanted to be a part of things. I joined two committees: the Caring Committee and the Outreach Committee. I learned skills that continue to serve me well. I learned things about myself that I’m still working on, too!

I strive to “pass it on” by looking for likely young leaders and nudging them to take their place in the life of the Jewish people. If they are scholarly, I mention rabbinical school. If they are warm, practical types, I point them to a committee that I think might interest them. It’s not enough to simply be Jewish – we have to DO Jewish too, and part of doing Jewish is making sure that Torah continues after we are gone.

If you are in a position of responsibility in your congregation, never forget that part of your job is looking for your replacements, encouraging future generations of leadership. Yes, it takes humility: they’re going to do things in new ways, not always the way you want things done, but without them there is no future. 

If you are young or new and hope to build the future of your congregation, join a committee and get cracking!  Get to know people. Get some work done. If you have limitations, welcome to the human race. If you can’t figure out what you can contribute, talk to your rabbi or someone in leadership, and ask for help figuring out what you can bring to the party.

The Jewish People need you!

משֶׁה קִבֵּל תּוֹרָה מִסִּינַי, וּמְסָרָהּ לִיהוֹשֻׁעַ, וִיהוֹשֻׁעַ לִזְקֵנִים, וּזְקֵנִים לִנְבִיאִים, וּנְבִיאִים מְסָרוּהָ לְאַנְשֵׁי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הֵם אָמְרוּ שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים, הֱווּ מְתוּנִים בַּדִּין, וְהַעֲמִידוּ תַלְמִידִים הַרְבֵּה, וַעֲשׂוּ סְיָג לַתּוֹרָה:

Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples and make a fence for the Torah.

Adar and the Fight Against Evil

Image: A figure in a Venice Carnival mask. With his three-cornered hat, he could be the villain Haman!  (xxxmax/Pixabay.)

I was born in the month of Adar. About 20 years ago I decided that I wanted a new last name to mark a new chapter in my life.  It seemed logical to choose “Adar,” since it was the month in which I was born. However, a famous line from the Talmud gave me pause.

 משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה

When Adar enters, joy increases.  — Taanit 29a

I resolved that if I was going to take the name Adar as my own, I had to take this famous teaching about the month of Adar very seriously. I needed to live life in such a way to affirm and not contradict it.  A line from the Mishnah has been my guide in this matter:

שַׁמַּאי אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה תוֹרָתְךָ קֶבַע. אֱמֹר מְעַט וַעֲשֵׂה הַרְבֵּה, וֶהֱוֵי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת:

Shammai says, “Make your Torah fixed, say little and do much, and receive every person with a pleasant countenance.”

I loved the fact that the speaker in this case was grumpy old Shammai. He understood that it was no easy thing to greet everyone cheerfully every day. However, if he could do it, then I could certainly try to learn this mitzvah.

But Adar is not always a joyful month. This Adar, Adar 5778, began with a tragedy: a young man took an assault weapon and killed 17 people in Florida. Many of them were Jews, for whom Adar is supposedly a “joyful” and “lucky” month. Unfortunately, Feb 14 and the month of Adar will never again be a time of joy for their families.

24 years ago, in Adar 5754, a Jewish physician and IDF reservist named Baruch Goldstein opened fire in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Israel. He murdered 29 Muslims at prayer, and wounded 125 others. His actions set off a wave of violence in the West Bank. Mainstream rabbis and politicians condemned his actions, and the State of Israel took steps to see to it that in future Muslims and Jews could both pray in peace at the holy site.

I was still very new to Talmud study when I changed my name. I knew the saying, “When Adar enters, joy increases” but I did not know the context of the saying. It is an important principle of text study to pay attention to context, never more so than in this case. 

As you can see above, the line appears in Taanit, “Fasts,” the volume of Talmud having to do with days of fasting. If you look at the page on which the line about Adar appears, you will see that it comes only at the bottom of the page. What preceded it is a long list of disasters that have befallen the Jewish people during the month of Av. The line about Adar is almost an afterthought, mentioned in contrast to the horrors mentioned before it.

There is nothing magic about the month of Adar. It has the reputation of being “lucky” and “happy,” mostly from the association with Purim, but in fact bad things happen in Adar, too. So why talk about Adar as a time of joy? Is it just superstition?

Adar and Purim are a reminder that we are not helpless in the face of tragedy. In Esther, the Jews fought back and survived. The ninth chapter of Esther is not a pretty story – the Jews fought back hard and killed a lot of Persians. That chapter is there to remind us that fighting back is not a happy fantasy; it is mostly an ugly necessity.

The rabbis insist (at the beginning of tractate Megillah) that we must, must, must read the story every year because they wanted us to remember to stand up for ourselves in the face of evil. They wanted us to realize that Purim wasn’t a party; it was a struggle against evil, and it cost a terrible price.

This Adar, this Purim, I encourage us all to think about how we will fight back against the wave of school shootings over the past 20 years (Columbine was in April, 1999.)  We are commanded in Leviticus:

לֹא־תֵלֵ֤ךְ רָכִיל֙ בְּעַמֶּ֔יךָ לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃

Do not deal basely with your countrymen. Do not stand upon the blood of your fellow: I am the Eternal. – Leviticus 19:16

Many, many innocent children have died or been maimed by these shootings, and it is long past time that we began fighting back against them. Whatever our opinions about the Second Amendment, surely we can agree that these shootings must stop.

  • If you believe that NRA lobbyists are to blame, demand that your lawmaker stop taking contributions from the NRA.
  • If you believe that better security in the schools is the answer, write your lawmaker and insist that funds be allocated for security measures.
  • If you believe that better mental health care is the answer, write your lawmaker and insist on free mental health care for anyone who needs it.
  • If you think the above three are not good ideas, ask yourself: what am I going to do?

If you want to make a public commitment to doing something in particular, you can use the Comments section to do so.

And don’t forget the words of Shammai: “say little and do much” – talk is cheap.  Insist on more than talk from public officials. We must insist on doing more than talking inside our circles of agreement: we must call, we must write, we must vote, we must show up to make our point. Social media is a means, not an end to action.

Purim is not just a children’s party. Listen to its call and take action!  Take action so that in future there might be joy.

It’s JDAIM – so what’s that?

JDAIM is Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month.

Jews have been celebrating JDAIM in February for the past ten years. It’s a yearly reminder that we want our synagogues to be, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “a house of prayer for all people.” (Isaiah 56:7)

I’ve been observing JDAIM this year by dealing with a bunch of disability challenges.

Disability is a tricky topic. It’s very tempting to climb on the “heroic crip” bandwagon, to tell inspiring stories and post a bunch of rah-rah stuff. However, that isn’t about the real lives and real situations of Jews with disability.

The fantasy: I’ve got my scooter, I can go pretty much anywhere, and life is always good. See the rabbi drive up, get out her scoot, and go!

The reality, lately: Can’t sit comfortably in the car. Can’t lift the scooter. Chronic back pain, sciatica, and fatigue are kicking my tuches. Sitting too long at the computer makes everything worse. My 50% hearing is now down to somewhere less than that, but the auditory processing disorder still makes hearing aids a bad idea.

So here are my awareness and inclusion messages. They are phrased as mine, but they apply to many other persons with disabilities, as well:

  1. God bless my congregation for offering streaming Shabbat services over Facebook. I can “attend” even when I can’t attend in person. It isn’t as good, but it is so much better than sitting home wishing I could be there.
  2. If I ask you to repeat something once or twice or even a third time, do just that: repeat it. Don’t restate it, just say exactly what you said but a bit louder, or or a bit clearer, or take your hand away from your mouth.
  3. If I get to an event, please don’t tell me that I look like I’m “doing better” and ask when I’ll be healed. I am having a good day, but I am unlikely to be healed. And actually, I’m OK just as I am.
  4. Don’t abuse “handicap” parking spaces. Don’t use them unless you have a blue card and please don’t crowd them. Don’t park in the loading area next to them, because then some of us can’t get out of the car.
  5. If someone displays the blue card to use those parking spaces, just assume they need it, even if they don’t look it. Many disabilities are invisible.
  6. Please don’t give medical advice or ask nosy medical questions unless you are my doctor. Really. Even if you are sure you have the cure.
  7. Do not improvise “helping” me. Ask me if I need help with something, then believe what I tell you.
  8. Yes, I am at “child height” when I’m on the scooter. That is not an invitation to pat my head or adjust my clothing for me. When people do those things, I spend energy being annoyed that could go to many better uses.
  9. Encourage your congregation to stream services and do other things to make services more accessible to everyone. Is the building accessible? Is there a procedure for making accessibility requests?
  10. Remember that we’re all in this together. There have been Jews with disabilities since the very beginning. The patriarch Isaac was seeing-impaired.  Jacob had a limp. Moses had issues with speech. King Saul had bipolar disorder. Stuff happens. What matters is how we deal with it.

Tzedakah, Loans, and Human Dignity

Image: Three stacks of coins, with seedlings sprouting from the tops. (nattanan23/Pixabay)

If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them like a creditor; exact no interest from them. – Exodus 22:24

This verse in Parashat Mishpatim [Laws] establishes the top of Maimonides’ famous ladder of giving tzedakah: it begins im talveh (“if you lend”), not im noteh (“if you give”). Why is lending the preferred form of assisting the needy? And why, if that is the case, must there be no interest charged?

In the 11th century, Rabbeinu Bachya affirmed the teaching of Maimonides, and explained, “The loan is greater than the gift because it strengthens the recipient and he need not be ashamed of it.” He then quoted Shemot Rabbah 31:15:

When you lend money to my people, to the poor among you…  All the creations of the Holy borrow from one another. The day borrows [time] from the night and the night borrows [time] from the day… The moon borrows [light] from the stars… – Shemot Rabbah 31:15

Borrowing and lending are integral to creation; they predate the invention of money. For instance, manure lends its nutrients to the soil, the crop borrows moisture and nitrogen from the soil, the cow eats the crop for nourishment, and leaves its manure on the ground.  All creations of the Holy One borrow and lend from one another, and we are no different, borrowing and lending but remaining equal before God.

Both Maimonides and Bachya are concerned that we preserve the dignity of the recipient of tzedakah. Remember, embarrassing a person is strictly forbidden:

Anyone who humiliates another in public, it is as though he were spilling blood.  – Bava Metzia 58b (Babylonian Talmud)

We must tread carefully when we give tzedakah. It is a mitzvah, but only if we can do it without embarrassing the recipient. Giving assistance in the form of a loan or a business partnership preserves the dignity of the needy person.  It is less demeaning to take a loan than it is to receive charity, because there is an implication that the misfortune is only temporary.

Why then does the tradition discourage charging interest on a helpful loan, say, enough to cover costs or compensate for the unavailability of funds? 

The answer is in the word k’noseh (“like a creditor”). A creditor is in a position of advantage over a debtor. A creditor holds the debt over the head of the borrower. That is not in keeping with the spirit of tzedakah, the root of which means “justice,” not “charity.” Also, interest accrues, and the borrower can wind up deeper and deeper in debt. Therefore we are forbidden to charge interest on such a loan.

For more about loans and tzedakah, see The Highest Form of Jewish Giving might be a surprise.

One popular option for fulfilling this mitzvah is to contribute to your local Jewish Free Loan Society,  To find it, go to the website of the International Association of Jewish Free Loans. By going through such an institution, we remove all embarrassment by making the face of the donor invisible, and normalizing the act of receiving assistance.