We Live In Strange Times

We Live In Strange Times

By Amos Wittenberg, UK

This note is a reposting of something I wrote in a post.  I think it is worthwhile having it around as a note.amos wittenberg

We live in strange times. So far so obvious. People who have grown up in Christianity – one form or the other of the myriad of denominations, flavours and sects that are more often than not at each other’s throat, I may add – are discovering that they are the victims of one of history’s most successful con tricks.

Ironically, a major driving force in leading people “out of the Church” started itself as a con trick: “Messianic Judaism”. This movement can be traced back to the Lausanne Consultation on World Evangelization, sometimes called the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization or simply “the Lausanne Movement”, coming out of a meeting of some thirty-plus missionary organisations in Lausanne, Switzerland.

A follow-up meeting in Pattaya, Thailand, in 1980 gave rise to the “Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism”. Apparently there was some sort of consensus back then that “Jewish evangelism” had not been too successful and that some new approach was needed. It seems that the main conclusion was that Jews should not be required to shed their “Jewishness” when converting to Christianity. They should not be required to say “Jesus Christ” because, it was realised, that name is toxic for Jews. Better to call him “the Jewish Messiah”. That sounds kosher. I do not have to elaborate. Anyone having just a nodding acquaintance with the messianic scene knows exactly what I am talking about.

Before you jump on me and throw at me that prior to the ‘70s there were already beginnings of this trend: I know. As early as the mid-1800s there was Alfred Edersheim with his “The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah” and the “Quest for the Historical Jesus” tendency in New Testament scholarship certainly played – and continues to play – an important part in this saga. However, I want to keep this simple 😉

Two things happened as a result of the Purim masquerade of Christianity in “messianic Jewish” garb.

1. It provoked a concerted effort to defend real Judaism against this missionary attack and consequently Jewish activists had to educate themselves and get to know the claims of Christianity. Of course, this effort has a long pedigree as well. Throughout our exile under the fourth of the world empires, wicked Rome and its bastard offspring, the Christian nations, we have had to confront forced disputations and mass onslaughts of “evangelism”. There is a great book called “אוצר הוויכוחים” [“Compendium of Disputations”] containing the major counter-missionary apologetics of Jewish scholars from Josephus’ “Against Appion” via Nachmanides’ famous Barcelona disputation right up to Moses Mendelssohn’s letter to Lavater. In our times we have the likes of R’ Michael Skobac, R’ Tovia Singer, to names but two of the best known. Here is the thing: today Jewish apologetics is freely available to allwho seek, on the Facebook, YouTube and on a great array of blogs.

2. Parallel to (but quite independent of) the Jewish pushback something weird happened: the “Jewish evangelism” effort was much more successful among non-Jews than among Jews. Of course, we should never underestimate the dangers of deceptive evangelism to our fellow-Jews. Every Jew in the Church or in “messianic Judaism” is one too many. But those in the “messianic Jewish” scene know the plain truth: these “messianic synagogues” are full with non-Jews. One should not generalise but it does seem that for a great many of these non-Jewish “messianic Jews” this rebranding of Christianity gives them a feeling that they are somehow reconnecting with some imagined pristine form of their faith before it got hopelessly corrupted. This corruption is generally seen to have started with Constantine and Nicaea. This is a gross misrepresentation. In truth there is barely a trace left of “the original Jesus movement” in the Christian New Testament and “Nazarite Christianity” or “the Ebionites” are a mere footnote to Christian history. This does not stop self-styled “Netzarim” inventing a history that never was.

The (for the Lausanne evangelists!) horrible consequences are felt today: people in the Church find their way to “messianic synagogues”, start to examine Christianity in the light of Tena”ch, connect with Jewish apologetics, juggle for a while with some sort of “Torah is true but Yeshua is my rabbi” pit stop until a growing number of these Godfearing ex-Christians suddenly realise that Jesus is just an unnecessary load on their shoulders.

Most Jews in the Torah community are oblivious to all this. You guys out there are not even a blip on our radar. It is not that we see you but ignore what we are seeing. We just do not even realise that there is something out there to ignore! We have been literally living in survival mode for some twenty centuries. Barely seventy-five years ago Christian spoon-fed Jew-hatred culminated in the murder of one out of every three Jews in the world. We are still recovering. Jew-hatred is alive and well in today’s world. And we look at anything coming out of the church with deep suspicion.

Be that as it may, we must look at the Torah for guidance. Let’s have a look at the midrash in Parshat Toledot. You’ll find in in Midrash Rabba on Bereshit, 67:4.

כשמוע עשו את דברי אביו א”ר חנינא כל מי שהוא אומר שהקב״ה וותרן הוא יתוותרון בני מעוהי אלא מאריך אפיה וגבי דיליה זעקה אתת הזעיק יעקב לעשו דכתיב כשמוע עשו את דברי אביו ויזעק זעקה והיכן נפרע לו בשושן הבירה שנא׳ (אספר ד) ויזעק זעקה גדולה ומרה עד מאד

[When Esau heard his father’s words (Genesis 27:34): Rabbi Chanina commented: Whoever says that the Holy One Blessed Be He is lax in exercising judgment and overlooks things, his innards will become lax. He merely postpones His anger but ultimately will exact payment. Jacob caused Esau to cry one cry, as it is written “When Esau heard his father’s words he cried a great and exceedingly bitter cry”. And when was this debt of Jacob demanded from him? In the citadel of Shushan as it is written (Esther 4:1) “And Mordechai had learned all that was done and Mordechai rent his clothes and donned sackcloth and ashes and went out in the middle of the city and cried a great and bitter cry”.

The midrash observes a striking similarity of language between the passage in Genesis and the one in the book of Esther. A quick reminder of the two stories:

In Genesis the Torah relates the story how Esau callously sold his first born rights and obligations for a bowl of soup to his younger brother. When later Isaac instructs his first born Esau to come to him to receive the blessings of the first born, Jacob tricks his way into his father’s presence and obtains the blessings. When Esau shows up later and discovers that his brother has beaten him to the punch, he cries out with a loud and exceedingly bitter cry and shouts “Bless me, me too, my father!”

In the Esther story Mordechai becomes aware of a plot by Haman, a descendant of Esau, to exterminate all the Jews in the Persian empire. Mordechai goes around in the capital city of Shushan wailing loudly.

The two passages share an almost identical expression. Esau’s “great and exceedingly bitter cry” and Mordechai’s “great and bitter cry” are clearly connected. The Torah does not contain accidental similarities. Every word counts. The midrash tries to tell us what this similarity of words signifies.

Anyone familiar with the Jacob/Esau story will realise that there was definitely something very amiss with Esau. His spurning of his task as a first born is stated quite openly by Scripture: וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו אֶת-הַבְּכֹרָה [and Esau despised the status of the first born] (Gen. 25:34). Jacob’s subterfuge when he deceived his father seems a morally ambiguous story but it is abundantly clear that he obtained both his father’s ex post facto agreement and, far more importantly, the sanction of Heaven.

So what was Jacob’s failing that somehow caused the threat of wholesale extermination in the days of Mordechai and Esther? Surely not the fact that he obtained the blessings and not even the seemingly questionable method by which he obtained them.

Rather, it is his lack of empathy with his brother, his failure to “hear” Esau’s bitter cry and his heart-rending “Bless me, me too, my father!”

True, Esau blew it. He refused to bear the “yoke of Heaven” as the family’s first born. He had only himself to blame. But does that make his anguish of realising his loss any less?

I am not going to dig deeper into the Mordechai and Esther connection. That could easily triple the already inordinate length of this note. Let me just concentrate on Esau’s bitterness.Anyone who knows the Pauline New Testament can easily discern the cry “Bless me, me too, my Father!” of the Esau Church that rejects the yoke of Torah, yet craves the blessings of God’s first born Israel.

The challenge for us, Jews, is to remain steadfast in keeping a safe distance from our twin brother Esau as he manifests himself in his institutions and yet remain sensitive to his deep yearning for a connection with what he knows to be the source of living water: God’s light of Torah, entrusted to His first born Israel.

Out of Edom/Esau we have gained some of the greatest people of our nation: The prophet Obadiah, Onkelos who wrote a Targum which is printed in almost every Chumash, Rabbi Akiva who is a towering Sage of the Mishna, Rabbi Meir, the list is long.

And then there was Antoninus Marcus Aurelius, the true friend we had right in the heart of Rome, and “Oom Otto”, the simple Calvinist churchgoer who hid a little Jewish girl from the clutches of the Nazis in my native Holland, because he loved and feared the God of Israel. I knew Oom Otto well. He escaped a Nazi firing squad with only days to spare when Holland was liberated in May 1945.

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