Today I want to deal with a sensitive subject. I know it’s sensitive, because I have so often heard the passion of those who have given themselves to a holy walk with the Lord, and who have strong convictions about their music making and listening habits. I heard it recently from a singer-guitarist who was a fairly new believer, and was playing in a Christian coffee house setting. I heard it from a more seasoned believer, in a passing remark around the table at a restaurant. I’ve heard it various other times.
All of these people have shared their conviction that all secular music was off limits for them. Only music written about and for the Lord was acceptable. Some of them were convinced that what was true for them should also be true for all believers.
I would like to begin my response by stating that I respect the believer who chooses to avoid all music except “sacred” music, as they might term it. I remember once being around an excellent musician who was in a Messianic band, and who had been a professional secular musician before he was a believer. His previous life had included drugs, alcohol, and all that goes with that lifestyle. When a certain light-hearted secular love song from the sixties played somewhere near us, perhaps at a restaurant (specifically, The Beatles “Drive My Car”,) he expressed discomfort. I sensed in my spirit that memories were triggered that created a stumbling-block for him. I feel that this was a perfect example of a principle expressed in Romans 14:14.
“I know and am convinced by the Lord Yeshua that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.”
I realize that even what some might consider an innocuous song could present a significant problem for them. And I also realize that there are some songs that, by their very nature and focus, might be inappropriate for anyone to listen to or play. These might include songs with graphic sexual references, profanity and the vain use of God’s name, etc. However, I have a problem with a carte blanche application of the second conviction stated earlier—the one that considers anyone who plays or listens to what might be called secular music as unspiritual—or at the very least, the practice as unspiritual. Below are a few reasons for my disagreement with this stand.
First, when one is calling all secular music off-limits, they would have to include all secular music throughout history—whether the themes involved romance, historical subjects, comedy, mythology, or whatever. One would have to include Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” for example. And almost all operas and operettas would have to be included, as well as almost all show music and American standards. Would Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors”, Handel’s “Messiah”, and Schwartz’ “Godspell” be representative of the rare listenable vocal material?
Second, why single out music, and separate it from all other art forms? Almost none of those who hold to the “no exposure to secular music” standard would avoid all films. This represents hypocrisy on two levels. First, even if one would restrict themselves to PG films, they would still expose themselves to secular material, and that material would cover some of the same territory subject-wise that various songs do. The other level relates to the songs on the film soundtracks. Most of these songs are either songs written for the film, like “Flashlight” from recent film “Pitch Perfect 2,” or songs from some composer’s catalogue, such as “I Will Follow Him” in “Sister Act.” If one would be consistent, they would avoid all films. But very few of those who would shut out all secular music would avoid a film like the recent “Wonder Woman,” of even an “art” film like “Woman in Gold.” And what about the viewers’ favorite TV shows? Some binge watch series on Netflix or Amazon Prime for hours at a time. Others watch their preferred shows on cable TV. They are not to be judged. But it is also important for them not to judge others for their music preferences.
Third, restriction of all secular songs would present a dilemma for anyone attending school, whether junior high, high school, or higher education. What if the English class includes a study of the lyrics in Bog Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” or the theater department is casting for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma,” and the student cast in the role of Ado Annie is tasked with singing the song “I Cain’t Say No?”
At the risk of repeating myself, I will say that I understand the choice to not listen to secular music, and I certainly can appreciate the preference for listening to sacred music that many might have in their daily experience. However, before believers declare all secular music off-limits at all times, I think that some of the above thoughts should be taken into account.
As I write this blogpost, I am in the middle of a day our congregation has dedicated to pray for marriages—and potential marriages. It’s part of a week of focused prayer. Don’t get me wrong. We’re not spending the whole week praying for marriages, although it wouldn’t hurt. Other days during this special time are focused on other areas. However, even though the other areas are very important—Israel is one of them, as you might guess—nothing is more foundational than the marriages among us.
That’s reasonable, you might respond. But potential marriages? When does a prayer meeting focus on potential marriages, meaning marriages that haven’t yet come onto existence? Well frankly, never, in my long years of congregational leadership. And I think I know why. In fact, I know a few reasons why. For one thing, those who are single and are looking for a spouse may not want to be “singled” out—especially by someone who is interested in them when they aren’t interested in return. For another thing, prayer of this sort just doesn’t sound very spiritual, at least to some. Although most of us would like to see many of our singles find a mate, much of our teaching on the subject informs us that singles can (and by implication even should) find wholeness in their singleness. So why stir the pot, so to speak? Or to put it another way, why not let sleeping dogs (no insult intended) lie?
I have an answer to those questions. In fact, it’s more than an answer. It’s forty years of experience. I’ve watched young fresh-faced men and women from all backgrounds—including of course Jewish, but certainly not exclusively Jewish—come in to our synagogue zealous for God and their Messianic calling, and then get older year by year with no prospects. There are many reasons for this, including but not restricted to the number of eligible candidates in our congregations, contrary visions and paths, and other issues too personal to list here.
Okay. So the pool in the local synagogue is somewhat limited, whether the congregation is 50 or, say, 350. There are bigger ponds, aren’t there? Well, yes there are. There are the national organizations and their conferences. Over the years, I’ve seen singles of various ages lay out their best clothes, so to speak, and prepare for the Jane Austin balls of the Messianic movement—the MJAA and UMJC conferences. I’ve even watched as focused singles crossed the wide gulf between the conference their congregation affiliates with and the one it doesn’t, to fish in fresh streams. These adventurous souls might even be partially credited for the unity that exists between the organizations today—although that was hardly their motive. In fact, their motive has always been kept as a never-spoken and tightly-held secret—at least by them.
I must say that I’ve observed painfully that the singles functions at these conferences have sometimes taken on the appearance of a sixth grade dance, complete with wallflowers. This is not to criticize the valiant hard work that’s being done by facilitators in this area. But no one wants to appear desperate, even if they are. And to the extent that these meetings consist of desperate people trying not to appear desperate, they can become as pleasant as waiting among other patients in a doctor’s office waiting room.
I know it sounds like I’m trying to be funny. If that’s the case, it’s only because I’m actually somewhat frustrated inside, and sad. I’ve seen people spend the best years of their lives focused on their ministry calling, whether it’s in a Messianic synagogue or in an international outreach ministry. And during those years, which slip by all too quickly, they never find their significant other—or sometimes find anything that comes even close. What to do?
Well, one answer that some are willing to dip their big toe into and others aren’t, is the dating site. A few people in my synagogue, and even a rabbi and close friend in the movement, have found their spouses this way. There are general sites, faith-based sites, and even Messianic sites. I know they’re not for everyone. But apparently they’re for some, because I’ve seen it work. I also feel that the kind of prayer focus our congregation is involved in today, culminating in a prayer meeting tonight, could be practiced more than it is—in spite of the awkwardness for some. Anyone who wants to know how it went is free to ask me either by email, phone, or at the Messiah conference (where singles mingle.)
Oh, and one last thing. At this point, I’m not past playing a little bit of a matchmaker, at the right time and under the right circumstances. I know there’s a risk. It could come back on me if and when things don’t work out. But I think we happily married Messianic folks could do a little more praying—and even acting on our praying—when we see two fishes in the pond, either locally or movement-wide.
“For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice, that the LORD may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him.” Genesis 18:19
It was through this same Abraham that God called a people. The people eventually was expressed in twelve tribes, and each of those tribes developed its own community identity that contributed to the whole peoplehood of Israel. That “Klal Yisrael” exists to this day, as God promised it would. There were times in history—both in the land and in the diaspora—when the nations sought to pressure Israel into surrendering their community identity. In the Nineteenth Century, for example, that identity was seen as a liability in western Europe. The national identity of each of the competing nations in that part of the world was seen as preferable, and in many cases the only open door to upward mobility and wider community acceptance. Jews who identified first and foremost as Jews were seen as an awkward liability. One has only to study the French Dreyfus affair of the 1890’s to see a xenophobic pattern that was suspicious of a Jewish community with its own identity.
Of course, this perspective was strongly rooted in virulent Anti-Semitism. And this form of the prejudice eventually took on racial tones—as in inferior and superior races—eventually resulting in the Nazi “Final Solution.” But solution to what? The answer is, to the very existence of Jewish community anywhere in the world.
The early church fathers understood that the same God who created the first community in Adam and Eve, and had overseen the development of communities of nations, was developing community among called individuals from those very nations. They correctly understood that men and women in spiritual agreement must dwell in community. One had only to study Yeshua’s words in John 17, or the letters of Paul, to come to this conclusion.
“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; “that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” John 17:20, 21
“…with all lowliness and gentleness, with long suffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling;” Ephesians 4:2-4
However, those same church fathers had no idea what to do with God’s call to the physical seed of Abraham to dwell in community. As many of us in the Messianic movement are painfully aware, a number of these early church leaders decided that the community call of God to the twelve tribes had been rescinded and replaced by the community that King James translators called “The Church.”
However, God’s word has a way of being fulfilled, even when every force seems to be arrayed against it’s fulfillment. In this case, not only was an ongoing expression of Jewish community—in and out of connection to the Messiahship of Yeshua—seen as a contradiction to the existence of a spiritual community of believers; but also, an express Jewish community consisting of—or including—Messianic Jews, was also seen as contradictory to Jewish life by the historic rabbinical leadership. Nevertheless, in our generation, such a Jewish community expression has arisen. And that expression serves as a reminder that God never called Jews to live, as John Donne pointed out, as individual islands. In fact, no believer in Yeshua—Jew or Gentile—was ever called to live that way. We can’t get valuable close-up connection with others through TVs, computer screens, iPads, and smart phones. We must come together in ever-widening circles of community—unified both through house to house and the larger Temple experience.
“So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart,” Acts 2:46
One of the greatest expressions of community occurs when Jewish and Gentile believers join together in a Messianic Jewish gathering. This experience harkens all the way back to Abraham—the man through whom the nation of Israel was called—and his full household mentioned in the scripture quoted earlier, Genesis 18:19.
This summer, two conference will convene; the MJAA Messiah Conference in early July, and the UMJC Conference a week or so later. Whichever conference you attend, you will find ever widening circles of Jewish community, and will experience the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise to Abraham, as well as Adam before him—the joy of coming together in unity!
“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is For brethren to dwell together in unity!” Psalms 133:1
As I was studying Ezekiel recently, I ran across an interesting couple of verses. They deal with the vengeful and spiteful heart of the Philistines against Israel. I was particularly struck by the use of the words “old hatred”, or “Ayvat Olam” in Hebrew. Here are the verses:
“‘Thus says the Lord GOD: ‘Because the Philistines dealt vengefully and took vengeance with a spiteful heart, to destroy because of the old hatred,’ therefore thus says the Lord GOD: ‘I will stretch out My hand against the Philistines, and I will cut off the Cherethites and destroy the remnant of the seacoast.” Ezekiel 25:15, 16
Old hatred results in so many dire consequences—the kind hatred that goes so far back, it’s hard to remember a time when it didn’t exist. In the case of the Philistines, the enmity went all the way back to the book of Exodus. By the time we get to the book of Judges, it was in full flower.
Notice that the “seacoast” is mentioned in the above verses. This is, of course, the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, and the territory it speaks of is Gaza, where the Philistines lived. It doesn’t take an archeological expert to point out that this is the same area as the northeastern end of today’s Gaza Strip. Gaza was conquered by the Israelites in about 1000 BCE. It was a part of the land promised to Abraham, but it became a part of the Assyrian empire in about 730 BCE. There were still Philistines who lived there at that time.
There is no way of knowing if the ancient Philistines still comprise some of the Palestinians who live in the Gaza Strip today. No one knows where the descendants of the ancient Philistines reside—or even if there are any of them left. We do know that many of the modern Palestinians are from the Arab peoples that populated various areas of the region. Although the word “Palestine” was named after the Philistines, it was actually used by the Romans in the second century—particularly Emperor Hadrian—to refer to the whole land of Israel, and was meant as a statement of disparagement about the conquered people of Israel. It seems even in those days, the world purposely refused to acknowledge Israel’s historical heritage and claim to her own land.
However, even if ancient Philistines don’t live in the Gaza strip, the leadership of those who do carry the same hatred for the Jewish people that the nations who surrounded them thousands of years ago did. It’s an old hatred, and it still exists today in the same regions where it existed when the Philistines ruled. It’s interesting that the terror group presently in power calls themselves Hamas. According to their charter, the name is an Arabic acrostic that translates as “Islamic Resistance Movement” in English. However, in Hebrew the word “Hamas” simply means violence—the kind of violence that stems from hatred. The word appears in Genesis 6:11.
“The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.”
Before the flood, the thoughts of men’s hearts were wicked continually, and all their acts were based on hatred. This is an apt description of the irrational blind hatred in our day that desires to destroy all Jews and wipe Israel off the map. This is the old hatred, the hatred that Ezekiel tells us will bring judgment back on the heads of those who possess it. It’s the cursing hatred we hear daily from the United Nations. They often seem united about just one thing—their hatred of Israel. And it’s the cursing hatred described in Genesis 12:3.
“I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Many of those reading this blog are familiar with the concepts I have shared here, even if they aren’t familiar with the specific Ezekiel passage about the “old hatred.” But how many of us apply these truths in our own lives?
Yesterday, I went to the movie theater to see “Case For Christ,” the narrative film base on the life of apologist Lee Strobel. Without revealing any spoilers, I will just say that Strobel had to deal with some “old hatreds” during his journey from atheism to Biblical faith. How many of us have addressed such things in our lives? Are you still carrying “old hatred” against family members—fathers and mothers (even if they’re gone,) brothers and sisters, children? What about old wounds from friends whom you feel betrayed by, as Yeshua also did? Remember what he declared. “Father forgive them.”
If you happen to be reading this blog, I suspect that God may be dealing with you about that old Philistine hatred in your life—the kind of hatred can result in odd and irrational behavior, the kind we see exhibited by Hamas. Perhaps you thought you had nothing in common with that group. Think twice, and consider Yeshua’s words.
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of the fires of Gehenna.” Matthew 5:21, 22
As each day goes by, evidence of the link becomes more apparent. When it comes to Israel, the hotter things get politically, the more clear it becomes that G-d and his spiritual enemy Hasatan are waging a galactic battle that will culminate with Yeshua’s return on the Mount of Olives, as predicted in Zechariah 14:1-4. One only has to follow the pronouncements of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, or the Boycott Divest Sanction movement, to recognize the hostility toward Israel that is growing every day. Add to that the violence on Israeli streets, the pronouncements of Iran, Hezballah, Hamas and even the Palestinian Authority—along with the International threats to Jewish community centers and cemeteries—and the spiritual importance of the prophetic return to the Jewish homeland becomes…well…obvious.
On the positive side, I’ve always been amazed by Israel’s ongoing survival—and not only survival, but success—in the face of such opposition and outright hostility. Yes, she has her economic and security challenges. But she is also on the cutting edge of the high-tech fields in so many areas, including medical. Her impact on the agricultural world is astounding. The aid she extends to communities in crises worldwide is second to none—including even the U.S. And her military might is up there with ours as well. And of course she is, as many in our government have so often mentioned, the only democracy in the Middle East.
All of these extraordinary developments have occurred over a relatively short period of time. And during that same period, another amazing phenomenon has occurred—that is, the revival of the first clearly identifiable Messianic Jewish community expression since the first century. It’s not lost on me that the first century also was the last time Israel dwelled in her own land as a nation. Both of these prophetic realities occurred parallel time wise.
In regard to the Messianic Jewish revival, similar astonishing growth has occurred. There was a time not all that long ago when a Jewish believer might believe they were the only one in the world who believed Yeshua was the Messiah. Nowhere was that more true than in Israel. In the 1950s, there were just a few Messianic Jews there—although they were not called that back then—and most of those few felt alone as Jewish believers. Now, estimates of the number of Messianic Jews in Israel are somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000. Estimates worldwide range in the hundreds of thousands. In Israel, the Messianic Jewish community is often cited in the media. Many Messianic Jews serve with distinction in the military. They hold key positions in the legal, tech, medical and other fields. And now, there are political organizations and parties forming to advocate for Messianic Jews.
While discrimination against Messianic Jews remains in Israel and beyond, there is an increasing recognition in the Jewish press, and among a number of Jewish leaders that Messianic Jews are fully Jewish. In the past, this was rarely true. Articles in major Jewish publications and television reports usually refused to consider Messianic Jews as Jews. And they were usually negative. That is rapidly changing. At one time, New York’s Jewish Daily Forward included aggressive anti-missionaries among its staff writers. Now, positive articles are being written. And the Messianic Jewish community is being recognized as a helpful constituency in the battle to advocate for Israel in the face of a hostile world—and even at times hostile church structures. Here is a quote from a recent Jewish Daily Forward article.
“…raising awareness about anti-Semitism and advocating for Israel has been a part of [the messianic Jews’] mandate since the modern messianic Jewish movement coalesced in the 1960s. Messianics view Jews as divinely linked to the Land of Israel. For them, anti-Semitism is not just bigoted, but also an abomination.”
Many orthodox Jews contribute articles to the Forward, and are readers as well. There is an increasing awareness that we are here to stay, and may have something positive to contribute to the wider Jewish community and society as a whole.
The openness in Israel to Messianic Jewish humanitarian aid organizations has also greatly expanded. Organizations like the Joseph Project and the Joseph Storehouse are doing a great work, and are working hand in hand with Israeli agencies and governmental officials. Some of those officials have even spoken at major Messianic Jewish conferences.
As we approach the future, I believe that G-d’s hand will become ever clearer in Israel, the Jewish homeland, and in the Messianic community in Israel and worldwide. And we can expect an intersection of the two prophetic phenomena in Israel, as the Messianic community there continues to grow in numbers and influence.
Most historians believe that the Pharisees originated sometime after Israel’s return from the Babylonian Captivity. The group liked to trace their inception to Ezra, who, according to Nehemiah 8:8, gave the sense of the Torah’s meaning and helped the people to understand it. The group actually probably developed a bit later during the Second Temple period, but at any rate the motives of the Pharisees included a desire to put a “hedge around the Torah” with extra laws that protected the people from repeating the disobedience that brought about the Babylonian invasion and subsequent captivity.
Over the period of time that spanned from the second or third century BCE and continued through the rest of the Second Temple period, the Pharisees developed counsels to deliberate on the meaning and application of scripture, particularly from the Torah but also from the rest of the Tanach. These counsels, or sanhedrin, took on a more authoritative nature over the years. In time, the Pharisees claimed that the rabbis among them who oversaw these deliberations were the inheritors of the mantle of the Judges that are mentioned in Deuteronomy 16:18.
“You shall appoint judges and officers in all your gates, which the LORD your God gives you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with just judgment.” Deuteronomy 16:18
Therefore, although there is no office of rabbi mentioned in the Tanach, the Pharisees could now claim that theirs was a divinely ordained office instituted in the Torah. Over time, in order to further cement their claim to divine authority as the shepherds of Israel, as opposed to other groups—like the Sadducees, who were connected to the priesthood and Temple system—the Pharisees further claimed that the precedent of their decisions went all the way back to oral commands that had been handed down through the ages—from Moses, through Joshua, to others, and finally to them as Israel’s divinely appointed judges of what is right and proper and wrong and improper.
In one of the most famous texts in the Talmud, the “Oven of Achnai” account, the Pharisees clearly affirm their authority over Israel by pointing out that the wisdom of God on a matter is not revealed from heaven as a divine revelation, but by the majority opinion of the Pharisaic sanhedrin. This is expressed through a story about an oven, and whether it is kosher. The rabbi who advocates for it’s being kosher calls forth several miracles that conclude with a voice from heaven, a “Bat Kol.” But the rabbis vote the opposite way, and the story ends by expressing God’s approval that his people have “won Him over.”
The view that an authoritative oral Torah exists survived the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Yochanan Ben Zakkai, who was secreted out of Jerusalem in a casket and ended up in Yavneh, started a school there and perpetuated the oral Torah belief—and the Pharisaic or rabbinic authority associated with it. Not only do virtually all traditional Jews today subscribe to this belief (although Reform and Reconstructionist Jews may not take the divine origins as literally as some Conservative most Orthodox and Chabad Jews would,) but also some Messianic Jewish leaders subscribe to this belief. The problems with this are twofold.
First, as Jewish Voice Ministries founder Jonathan Bernis once said, we are either under the authority of the rabbis or Yeshua. Yeshua Himself spoke of problems associated with some of the Pharisaic decisions. And if there were sometimes problems, how could the “oral Torah” be divinely inspired and authoritative? Here is an example.
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.’” Matthew 23:16
It must be pointed out that Yeshua supported a number of rabbinically sanctioned post biblical mechanisms for Torah observance that were the result of community consensus, like using wine sacramentally and the wearing of leather boxes as a literal interpretation of Deuteronomy 6:8. And he supported various other rabbinic teachings when they lined up with His Word. But He did not consider them part of a divinely ordained demand for how things must be observed.
Second, there are verses in Joshua that inform us conclusively that there is no such thing as an oral Torah, which was divinely given to Moses. Here they are.
“And afterward he [Joshua] read all the words of the law, the blessings and the cursings, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law. There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded which Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, with the women, the little ones, and the strangers who were living among them.” Joshua 8:34, 35
This text tells us that everything Moses commanded was written down. It was all read by Joshua. None of it was transmitted orally by Moses, separate from what was written down.
In closing, I happen to believe that the Pharisaic belief in an oral law was more about politics than theology. Perhaps they had started out well as biblical interpreters in the mold of Ezra. However, like so many religious groups, power-based corruption eventually crept in. And if we are not careful as a Messianic movement that skewed understanding of the origins of rabbinic writings can impact us negatively as well. I urge the movement I value so much—the movement I’ve been serving for almost 40 years—to pay heed to what I’m sharing here, and to allow it to inform their Messianic Jewish experience.
This blog will mark the last of my essays on the hundred-year anniversary of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America. The three scripts below were used in three videos that were shown at the Messiah 2015 conference. They reflect three eras in the MJAA’s hundred-year history. Thanks to Dr. Robert Winer, Rabbi Joel Liberman, and Linda and Melissa Brown for their contributions. And thanks also to Rabbi Paul Liberman for narrating the videos.
One hundred years ago, a group of courageous men and women came together to form an alliance that would one day become the catalyst for the greatest spiritual revival among the Jewish people since the first century. Those present at the first conference developed a preamble to declare the purpose of this alliance. It stated in part that the Alliance was to “unite Jewish believers into a corporate testimony, and to urge upon them in the name of the Lord Yeshua to give up their minor differences.” Two years after the Alliance’s founding in 1915, Messianic pioneer Arthur Kuldell added, “The Alliance is not a lodge. It is not a society organized for the purpose of aiding its members to the exclusion of all others. It is an organization that breathes the spirit of Messiah. It is actuated by the tenderest love for Israel.” No truer words were ever spoken about the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America.
The small group that met for the first conference, at the Assembly Hall of the United Charities Building in New York City, would be thrilled to see the multitude that has come together this year from the United States and nations all over the world, including re-gathered Israel--something every one of them had a vision for. We honor them even as we, like they, have our eyes on the future, expecting great things in the coming years.
Over the past hundred years, the Jewish community worldwide has experienced the most horrible of tragedy and the greatest of triumph. The greatest, triumph, of course, was the re-establishment of the State of Israel, Mi-dee-nat Yisrael. The first leaders of the then called “Hebrew Christian Alliance of America” envisioned the modern State of Israel. The first general secretary, Mark John Levy, declared in 1917, “Judah is on the eve of restoration to Palestine, and many Jewish believers will return with our nation to the Holy Land.” All of the founders of the Alliance had a similar expectation, based on the Biblical promise.
Of course, Levy could not have imagined the horrors of the greatest tragedy of the last hundred years…the Holocaust. However approximately twenty years later, in 1938, Morris Zeidman, the general secretary of his day, recognized the coming storm. He wrote, “In Poland, Germany, and Austria, sorrow is turning to despair. They can see no hope, not a gleam of light or kindness anywhere. There was a time when Jews who were persecuted in one land could flee to another country, where they would be received with open arms. But today the world is closed to them.”
After Zeidman visited Poland and saw the situation first hand, every possible effort was made to assist in the rescue of Jews in peril. Many Jewish believers were given shelter, helped financially, and finally aided in emigration. The help continued until it was no longer possible to get people out. This humanitarian mission is a little known legacy of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America.
After World War Two, the “greatest generation”--the parents of the soon-to-be- called “baby boomers”--kept the candlestick of the Hebrew Christian Alliance burning. They prayed for revival through the late nineteen-forties and nineteen-fifties. A few were given a glimpse of what was just around the corner. One of those was Martin Chernoff, who together with his wife Yohanna, faithfully reached out through studies, small groups, and eventually congregational work. In 1948, the year Israel once again became a nation, he had a vision of thousands trees rustling with fruit. Years later, he saw a vast river of young people pouring into God’s kingdom, dressed in motley clothes. These visions all made sense when the Spirit of God fell upon Jewish young people in large numbers, beginning in 1968. A Young Alliance was quickly formed as soon as salvations began to add up, facilitated by Marty, along with Manny Brotman and Joe Finkelstein. In the early seventies, Marty and Yohanna’s children were swept up in the revival, along with thousands of other young people.
Then, some began to sense a stirring to start Messianic synagogues. Beth Messiah in Cincinnati was founded by the Chernoffs in 1971. Beth Messiah Washington followed suit in Washington, with Paul Liberman joining with others like Manny Brotman. And soon, congregations began to sprout up like mushrooms. At every MJAA conference, new leaders were raised up and new congregations founded. Later, in the early eighties, The International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues, the IAMCS, was founded and helped facilitate this growth. The IAMCS trains rabbis and has a Yeshiva and a Rabbis Conference.
During this year’s Messiah conference, a number of you have heard about the many other ministries of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America--the Joseph Project, the Messianic Jewish Israel Fund, The Ethiopian Outreach, and so forth. And this is just the beginning. God has promised much more--in the MJAA and all over the world--culminating in the greatest outpouring of His Spirit on the Jewish people in history….and the return of the Messiah.
When I’ve been attacked by that same spirit in a man or woman who has accused me, my wife, or my leadership team—and threatened to tear the flock apart—I have lain on my bed and heard Elijah’s depressed and desperate plea in my head.
“But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he prayed that he might die, and said, ‘It is enough! Now, LORD, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!’” 1 Kings 19:4
If I were asked during those times if I loved being a Messianic Rabbi, I believe I would have said no. But then—like a ship in the distance, or a bolt out of the blue—a few miraculous things would occur. First, G-d would speak by His Spirit not only to me personally, but through his prophetically sensitive servants—just as He responded to Elijah through words as simple as, “Arise and eat.” I Kings 19:5
Next, He would stir up the original call in my heart, and place needy people in my path—just as he did with Elijah. In the final analysis, It’s not about us. That’s what we eventually come to love about rabbinical work. It’s about Him, and the people He has placed in our care. Sometimes the work is hard, especially when some of those people are resisting the very heart of G-d in us on their behalf.
“Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” Hebrews 13:17
But even when the work is hard, there is grace for every shepherd-hearted person who sticks with it. My advice to newer rabbis is to press into your call when things get tough. There is great turnover in pastoral work. Our spiritual enemy wants to chew us up and spit us out. He will seek to embitter us, and divert our attention from the One who can use the tough situations—and people—to prune us and mature our leadership, if we will respond to the challenges as loving discipline intended to mature us as shepherds.
“For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin. And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: ‘My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD, Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; For whom the LORD loves He chastens, And scourges every son whom He receives.’” Hebrews 12:3-6
It’s not so much what we go though, but how we respond to what what go through, that matters most. When I look back over all of the years of ministry, I see His miraculous hand bringing me through and causing me to stand after the tough spiritual battles. To quote Steven Sondheim, “I’m still here.” Or to put it another way,
“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.” Ephesians 6:12, 13
After all these years—with all the incredible victories in the lives of those I’ve worked with—and all the battles with spiritual forces working through those HaSatan has held captive—and yes, all the times I’ve experienced temporary set-backs defeats—I can truly say that I love rabbinical work. And I would answer that call all over again if it were presented to me afresh. It’s all been worth it. And I will continue obeying that call until He shows me that it’s time to lay it down. Hopefully, someday I will hear Him say, “Well one, My good and faithful servant.”
However, we were not called to stay in Philadelphia. We were called to move to Cincinnati. Yet, although I was well aware that we were in the middle of God’s will, I always envied the childhood education aspect of Beth Yeshua, and I wished my children could be a part of it.
Now, these many years later, I am aware that some of the young people who graduated from Chalutzim have indeed gone on with the Lord, and yet some haven’t. And some have stayed with Messianic Judaism, while others have stuck with the Lord but ended up in churches. The same dynamic has occurred at Beth Messiah in Cincinnati, since we have experienced growth and developed a solid Shabbat school and youth group ministry—as well as a Club Maccabee scouting ministry. Some have gone on with the Lord after high school, and some haven’t. And some who have gone on with the Lord have stuck with Messianic involvement, while many haven’t. We have prayed about this phenomenon, and strategized about it. Our success has been limited.
Now we are watching an even more pronounced pattern in the millennial generation. It’s a double-edged sword. On the positive side, a number of young people throughout the country—as well as in our own synagogue—have chosen to continue to walk with Yeshua during their post high school years. This is partly the result of the moving of the Spirit not only locally, but also nationally, through youth conferencing and retreats. On the negative side, many of these young millennials—who comprise the ages of approximately between nineteen through thirty—have chosen to either not attend anywhere, or to attend churches in the college towns where they live. This is often true even when there is a valid Messianic Jewish synagogue alternative.
There may be many reasons for this reality. For one thing, I believe that the number of college level peers in the church may play a role. In addition, the prioritization of a wider American and even Christian youth cultural experience may be a factor. And there may be other reasons. Whatever the reasons, I would like to point out some Biblical/historical realities that I hope will at least become thoughts for Millennials to consider.
First, I believe that a Messianic Jewish identity and connection is God’s answer to the anti-Semitic lie of replacement theology—the Church belief that God has rejected his promises to Israel, and that the the Church is the “new Israel.”. In Acts 21, when James met Paul, he informed him that some Jews believed Paul was communicating this lie, and they were spreading this false rumor. That lie still exists to this day—not only in the Jewish community, but in actual Church teaching. Verse 21 tells us.
“…they have been informed about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs.” Acts 21:21
And what was James’s remedy? Verses 23-24 inform us.
“Therefore do what we tell you: We have four men who have taken a vow. Take them and be purified with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads, and that all may know that those things of which they were informed concerning you are nothing, but that you yourself also walk orderly and keep the law.” Acts 21:23, 24
Paul’s adherence to a Messianic Jewish identity proved that replacement theology was a lie. In today’s world, when so many even in the Church are marking up the miraculous return of Jews to the land of Israel as happenstance—or even worse, colonialization and oppression of Arabs by the West—the testimony of Jews who have returned to their Messiah as Jews (as well as others in the Messianic community who identify with the peoplehood of Israel), is essential to combat the lie that God has forsaken his covenant promises to Israel.
In addition, personal journeys that include a Messianic Jewish identity make a huge statement about the Messiahship of Yeshua to the wider Jewish community. Just a quick perusal of the imetmessiah.com Youtube videos, released recently by One For Israel, provides evidence for this.
There are other reasons for Messianic millennials to come home. Space does not permit me to list them all. But they all add up to this. The Messianic Jewish movement needs Messianic millennials who step into their calling and fulfill their Messianic Jewish destiny. I humbly ask that each millennial who has been raised in the Messianic movement consider the points I am making and pray about identifying more directly as a part of the Messianic Jewish community.
“Yeshua answered [Nicodemus] and said to him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?’”
He was speaking about the necessity for a spiritual rebirth. He had been responding to a statement by Nicodemus in which he recognized the spiritual credentials of Yeshua, based on the signs and wonders He performed. As was often the case, Yeshua didn’t directly respond to Nicodemus’ generous comment. Instead, he took things in a completely different direction, actually challenging Nicodemus’ spiritual credentials in the third verse of the chapter.
“Yeshua answered and said to him, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’”
Nicodemus didn’t quite get it—hence Yeshua’s question a bit later in the text.
So why should the rabbis know about these things? And why should they teach them? I will say that I’m a personal witness to the fact that they don’t. I never heard the concept of the spiritual rebirth until Manny Brotman shared it with me in the summer of 1970. I had been to the finest Jewish institutions in my city—Hebrew school, Jewish day school, religious summer camp—and I’d never heard that I must be “born again,” as Yeshua put it. No one ever taught that to me. And I guess the question isn’t, “Why didn’t they teach it to me?” The question is, “From where were they supposed to learn it?”
The answer to that question, of course, is, in the Tanach—the Jewish scriptures commonly referred to as The Old Testament. A cursory study of the scriptures reveals a number of instances where a spiritual rebirth is described. There are too many examples to site all of them. So I will just mention a few of them.
First, there are a few places where a miraculous heart change is described. Sometimes, the description takes the form of a circumcision. Here is as example.
“And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” Deuteronomy 30:6
Notice that an act of God results in a new birth of love in our hearts.
In this next example, a new heart is given the individual, along with the indwelling of God’s Sprit, producing the same result—one of a new life lived for God.
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.” Ezekiel 36:26, 27
That scripture certainly describes a new life—actually a new rebirth of life.
The next verses are from the Shabbat Shuva Haftorah reading. Shabbat Shuva is the Shabbat between the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
“I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely, For My anger has turned away from him. I will be like the dew to Israel; He shall grow like the lily, And lengthen his roots like Lebanon. His branches shall spread; His beauty shall be like an olive tree, And his fragrance like Lebanon.” Hosea 14:4-6
This verse certainly describes that which was fruitless and barren now coming to life—to new life. The next verse, verse 7, uses the term “Revive,” “Chayu” in the plural, literally “bring to life.”
“Those who dwell under his shadow shall return; They shall be revived like grain, And grow like a vine. Their scent shall be like the wine of Lebanon.” Hosea 14:7
No wonder Yeshua expected Nicodemus to know about spiritual rebirth.
This last example is one of my favorite examples. It’s mentioned in the account of the little boy Samuel hearing from God for the first time as he is lying down in the room that has been prepared for him in the Temple. He thinks the high priest, Eli, is calling him from the next room, when it’s actually the Lord. Then we read these verses.
“Then the LORD called yet again, ‘Samuel!’ So Samuel arose and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ He answered, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ (Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, nor was the word of the LORD yet revealed to him.)” 1 Samuel 3:6, 7
It’s interesting that the text describes Samuel as not yet knowing the Lord. None of us, even the great prophet Samuel, are born knowing the Lord. We must experience a rebirth to that knowledge. That rebirth did end up occurring with Samuel, as God revealed himself to him and he opened his heart to receive Him. We often use that same language today when we describe our rebirth. We say things like, “I came to know the Lord ten years ago,” or “That was before I knew the Lord.” We are referring to our spiritual rebirth.
No wonder Yeshua asked that penetrating question, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?” And no wonder he spent the next several verses describing that spiritual rebirth to Nicodemus—crowning the explanation with the glorious sixteenth verse.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” John 3:16