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It’s the Saturday before Christmas, 2014.

Shabbat (Sabbath).

Still trying to sort out what I experienced at a synagogue this morning.

Congregation Ohr ha-Torah features the teaching leadership of Rabbi Mordecai Finley. I’ve been following his teaching for several years. He introduced me to two wonderful things:

  • The teaching and work of Avivah Zornberg, who continues to reframe my mind every time I read her commentaries.
  • Duties of the Heart. Arguably the greatest devotional classic ever, written in Spain about a millennium ago.

Make that three. We both share history in the Galilean town of Tsfat. I had the most profoundly spiritual event of my life there: Underwater in Israel.

This is my second visit to this synagogue in the last couple of years. Entering near the welcome and reception area, I picked up a bulletin. Would you believe it said “Annual Christmas Sermon?”

Let that sink in for a moment. 

Now I knew that Rabbi Finley was open-minded, but I had no place to put this thought. These are not Messianic Jews. These are plain old Reform Jews. As Methodists are to Christians, so are they in relationship to Judaism.

Rabbi Finley had been studying Luke and Acts all week and he was so anointed by the power of the Holy Spirit, that he could barely contain his energy.

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Some sound bites from his message (every Saturday at 9am):

  • I could title this message “The lies I was told (about Jesus) in Hebrew School.” (Heavy laughter from the congregation)
  • The center of Jesus’ message is the Malkuth Shamayim (Kingdom of Heaven)
  • This is in direct opposition to the Kingdom of this World (Jesus said “my kingdom is not of this world”)
  • I can only create the lamp, I cannot light the fire.
  • The time of Jesus (Second Temple Period) had much thought of an unseen realm full of forces that we cannot see. Angels and demons. Jesus clearly operated with this in mind.
  • The Davidic Messiah morphs into a Cosmic Messiah during this time into which Jesus was born.
  • Daniel is the loneliest book in the Bible, we Jews ignore it.
  • Jesus is a non-rational teacher. His parables are like Buddhist Koans. They deconstruct the common received worldview
  • Jesus came to wake people up from their spiritual slumber and help them to stay awake.
  • Jesus: Don’t act according to Reason and Rule of Law. Because that’s what got us what we have. You have to think in a new way (Meta-noia).
  • People (to the congregation)! Open yourself to the changed consciousness which Jesus is teaching!
  • Jesus is a spiritual-mystery teacher. His worldview is trans-rational.
  • In Daniel there is a percolation of the worldview that Jesus teaches later.
  • Every teaching of Jesus has an antecedent in Jewish scriptures and writings. There is no new material, but he reworks it in a brilliant way.
  • In the book of Enoch, the Son of Man was given a name above all names before the creation (See John 1 for an amazing parallel).
  • Jesus also echoes the archetype of the “Teacher of Righteousness” from the Qumran community (the Dead Sea Scrolls people).
  • If Jews found the New Testament today (and there had been no successful Christian movement), they would see all of it as Jewish thinking. Totally Jewish.
  • Luke and Acts: Luke was a gentile. The big question is “How far does this New Covenant extend?” and “How much of the Law do the Gentiles have to keep?”
  • You’ve all heard the story of the Good Samaritan. The key is that he was an outsider. Luke always shines positive light on outsiders. A light to the Gentiles.
  • Here’s an illustration on Jesus and the Law. You have a owner’s manual for your car in your glove compartment. But you never read it. It’s true. But you don’t need it to drive. Don’t mistake the handbook for driving, or a map for the true landscape.
  • Luke pushes the idea that this is for everyone.
  • All of you, get out there and read the gospels. Be intentional about it. Read at least one gospel a month. Don’t read stuff people write about Jesus. Read his teaching “raw.”
  • Don’t get into arguments with Gentile Christians. Ask them questions like “What does Grace feel like.” Then you can actually get somewhere and learn from each other.
  • We are Grace-challenged as Jews. The Christians always teach on Grace so we decided that it must not be a Jewish thing. So we neglect it. Grace is present throughout the Torah.
  • When I see Jesus, I get what he’s doing. We Jews have lost a great teacher. We need to re-aquaint ourselves with him. Reading the New Testament is like reading lost (and now found) Jewish scripture.
  • Jesus challenges the idea that communities should be about sex and money. He goes for something bigger.
  • What teachings have we lost that we need to find?
  • Things have to change. There has to be a change of Spirit.
  • Metanoia. Change your head.
  • There is a new self to be discovered.
  • I want to read this man (Jesus) raw. There is something in here for all people.
  • Jesus is on the lookout for marginal people. He uses transformative interactions with them to challenge the very foundations of how people thought.
  • Jesus is a lost Jewish teacher who is still trying to wake people up.
  • Malkuth Shamayim is the official liturgical name of Rosh HaShanah. Kingdom of Heaven Day. This is common ground with Gentile followers of Jesus. We need to build on this.
  • How do we wake up to this Kingdom and stay awake.
  • “Daht” — The capacity to know God was given to all.
  • Jesus has disorganized my consciousness.

To go deeper (if you dare):

Rabbi Finley’s Newsletter Article for This Week:

Our motto is “Moving Tradition Forward” and my annual Christmas sermon is probably on the “forward” side in terms of Jewish Shabbat teaching but on the “tradition” side when it comes to Ohr HaTorah. I spoke about Chanukah last Shabbat, so this Shabbat I will keep that Ohr HaTorah tradition of a “Christmas sermon”. Here is the background:

Most you know that we rented space for our services and Religious School from Redeemer Baptist Church from 1995 to 2000, and then from Faith Tabernacle from 2000 to 2008 (our undying gratitude to Pastor Rick and Pastor Mike). Every year the sanctuaries were adorned with Christmas trees at this time of the year.

The first year that we were in a church on the Shabbat before Christmas, I made a decision to speak to the topic instead of past it, for a few reasons. First, most Jews have only a caricature understanding of Christian faith. As I have taught over the years, I have constantly heard well-meaning people say less than thoughtful things about Christianity. Since Jews often times think about Christianity and sometimes have a lot to say on the topic, it is well that we think in an informed way and speak accurately.

Secondly, we are blessed to have many Christians in our community (usually, though not always, through intermarriage), and nearly all of us have close family members and/or extended family who are Christian. We have a large number of Jews by Choice at Ohr HaTorah, perhaps up to a third or more of our membership. The topic of Christianity, therefore, has to be treated with informed circumspection.

Third, and probably most deeply, my own spiritual path has been shaped by my readings of Christian thinkers. For example, all I knew about Martin Luther before I began college was that he led the Reformation and that he was anti-Jewish. That was just about all a Jew needed to know, where I came from. Then, I was assigned to read Luther in my history of Christian thought class. I was hit to the bone when I read Luther on grace. I reflected that I knew we had mentions of grace (chen) all over the Psalms, the prayer book, rabbinic literature and so on. But I had never read a treatise on grace from a Jewish perspective. I realized why: grace was “Christian”, therefore we Jews stay away from the topic. I realized that I had to figure out a theory of grace from a Jewish perspective, and that process deepened me as a person immensely.

As my studies progressed, and I read Paul Tillich, Rudolph Bultmann, Karl Barth, Helmut Gollwitzer, and a host of other Christian thinkers, I realized that reading Christians thinkers made me think about Judaism with new questions, with a new set of eyes. My studies of Christianity have been absolutely transformative in how I see Judaism, because those studies made me look at things that were obvious in hindsight, but that I never noticed before. I am a better Jew because of those studies. I want to share some of those riches with you.

I divide my teachings on Christianity the Shabbat before Christmas into two parts. At the morning 9:00 study session, I go over some aspect of the spiritual crises in first century Judea, when various Judaisms became Rabbinic Judaism, and how Christianity was formed in that first century. I also cover aspects of Messianism in Judaism, a concept that certainly had major influence during that time, and afterwards, in both religions. During the second study session, at 11:15, I will speak on some other essential aspects of Christianity that I believe will be edifying for our community. As I write these words, my thoughts are moving toward understanding how experience became dogma in the works of Paul, who laid the foundations for Christian thought. I may move on to something else as I sink back into the topic, but I think you will find whatever I focus on to be not only of interest, but also spiritually important.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Same’ach.

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