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The Book of Life

"May your name be inscribed in the Book of Life" is the most common greeting for the Jewish New Year season.

From the time of Moses onward, the roll call of the redeemed has been closely linked with atonement (reconciliation with God). The Book of Life held much meaning for other world religions as well.

The ancient belief can also be traced to Mesopotamia. Babylonian religious writings speak of "The Tablets of Transgressions" and "The Tablets of Destiny," which record man's fate. If one's name was written in the sin-recording tablets, it was blotted out of the Tablets of Destiny. According to this legend, every year all the gods got together in a special room in heaven called "The Room of Fate." Marduk, who was the chief god, presided over the meeting. Nabu, the god of wisdom and literature, took notes, recording each man's fate on these tablets. Again, the "Book of Life" concept appears in tablets from the neo-Assyrian period, and there seems to be a hint of the same idea in an ancient Sumerian poem.

Because of these writings, some modern Jewish "scholars" believe that the Sefer Hayyim (Book of Life) was adopted into Jewish tradition as a result of the Babylonian influence. Who's to say, however, that the Babylonians weren't influenced by the ancient Jewish revelation before it was transcribed by the Bible writers?

Other theories have been put forth as to the origin of the Book of Life concept. Some say it corresponds to the civil list, or register, in ancient Judea which recorded all the names of the fully qualified citizens. The idea of a heavenly register, they say, might have been derived from this earthly system so that membership in the Book of Life would mean membership in the divine commonwealth. The Mishnah states that the Book of Life records man's deeds: "Know what is above thee—a seeing eye and a hearing ear, and thy deeds written in a book." (Avot 2.1) The Sayings of the Fathers also compares life to a shop with its open ledger of credit and debit. Following this concept to its conclusion, good deeds can cancel out bad deeds or vice versa. Or, as R. Simeon B. Yohai put it, "Even if he is perfectly righteous all of his life, but rebels at the end, he destroys his former good deeds, for it is said, '…The righteousness of a righteous man will not deliver him in the day of his transgression…' (Ezekiel 33:12.) And even if one is completely wicked all his life but repents at the end, he is not reproached with his wickedness, for it is said, '…and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he will not stumble because of it in the day when he turns from his wickedness… (ibid).'" (Kiddushin 40a-b.)

One of the most common interpretations on judgment and forgiveness is found in Rosh Hashanah 16b:

"Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah: one for the wholly righteous, one for the wholly wicked, and one for the intermediates. The wholly righteous are at once inscribed in the Book of Life; the wholly wicked are at once inscribed in the book of death and the intermediates are held suspended from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. If they are found worthy, they are inscribed for life; if found unworthy, they are inscribed for death."

Jewish liturgical writings also mention the Sefer Hayyim: Zakhrenu Le-Hayyim ("Remember us unto life") is a prayer that is said in the daily service from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It reads, "Remember us unto life, O King who delightest in life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for Thine own sake, O God of life."

U-Netanneh Tokef, a most poignant and stirring liturgical piece, describes what the Day of Judgment will be like: "Let us declare the mighty holiness of the day, for it is solemn and awesome." The prayer acknowledges, "True it is that Thou judgest and givest reproof, Thou discernest and bearest witness, Thou recordest and sealest, Thou recountest and measurest; Thou rememberest things forgotten. Thou unfoldest the book of remembrance, and it speaks for itself, for every man's seal is found therein." Up to that point, the prayer sounds very ominous, giving man little hope for a positive verdict. But then it concludes with three ways to alleviate the severity of the judgment. Teshuvah is one. It is usually translated "repentance," however a literal translation would render it more accurately, "return." One is not to become a new person, but to return to the "goodness" that is inherent in him according to rabbinical understanding. Tefillah is the second way to making things right. It is usually translated as "prayer" and connotes "attaching oneself." Man is to strengthen his attachment to God. Tzedakah, the last route to forgiveness, comes from the Hebrew word meaning "justice," and is translated "charity." Justice demands that man give to others.

According to rabbinic thought, it is these three: Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah, that will insure one an inscription in the Book of Life. In Hagigah 27a we read, "At the time when the Temple stood, the altar brought atonement for a person; now a person's table brings atonement for him (through the hospitality shown to a poor guest)." In other words, without Temple sacrifice for our sin, we can now rely on acts of charity to gain us entrance in God's Book of Life.

Yet the Bible paints somewhat of a different picture of this ledger, its origin and its contents.

Moses knew who originated the Book of Life. When he pleaded with God atop Mount Horeb after the children of Israel committed the great sin of the golden calf, he cried, "Alas, this people has committed a great sin, and they have made a god of gold for themselves. But now, if Thou wilt, forgive their sin—and if not, please blot me out from Thy book which Thou hast written!" (Exodus 32:31, 32.) So God Himself is the author and keeper of the Book of Life.


What is recorded in the book? According to the Bible, everything! King David remarks that even his tears are entered in that heavenly journal. (Psalm 56:8.) The Psalmist also speaks of the fact that the days that were ordained him were written in God's book before he was even born. (Psalm 139:16.)

And who will be blotted out of the book? God's response to Moses' plea for the children of Israel was "Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book." (Exodus 32:33).

But everyone has sinned against the Almighty. Does this mean that according to the Bible all will be blotted out of the book of life? No. God is just, but he is also merciful. In His mercy, He has always provided a means of atonement, so that we could choose life.

The Day of Atonement (Yom ha-Kippurim) is first mentioned in the book of Leviticus. It is a solemn day, accented by fasting and praying to God for forgiveness of the sins committed against Him. In the Temple days, the High Priest was the key figure in mediating between the people and God. This one day of the year, he entered the Holy of Holies. This one day of the year, he took a live goat, laid his hands upon its head and confessed "all the iniquities of the Israelites and all their transgressions, and even all their sins." Thus he transferred, in symbol, the sins of the people onto the sacrifice animal. This scapegoat was made the victim, the substitute for the human sinner. In accepting the substitutionary sacrifice, God could inscribe His people into the Book of Life. Therefore, it makes sense that the liturgy for the Day of Atonement concludes with a prayer for inscription in the Book of Life, but with the plea that one be sealed in it.

With the Temple destroyed, the priesthood disbanded, and the cessation of the sacrifices, the rabbis felt they had to improvise. They rationalized, "Repentance and works of charity are man's intercessors before God's throne. " (Shab. 32a.) "Sincere repentance is equivalent to the rebuilding of the Temple, the restoration of the altar, and the offering of all sacrifices." (Pesik., ed. Buber 24.158; Lev. R. 7.; Sanh. 43b.) However, the Bible does not teach these as ways of being inscribed into the Book of Life, for there is no access to forgiveness without a mediator, an intercessor. Moses fulfilled that role when he pleaded with God not to blot the children of Israel out of His book. The High Priests did likewise.

Who can plead our case today? Only God Himself. And that He did, in the person of Jesus. When Jesus began His earthly ministry, the prophet John heralded Him as "the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world." Jesus served as the substitutionary sacrifice, the "scape-lamb" of God.

In the Machzor, the prayerbook for the Day of Atonement we read:

"Our righteous anointed is departed from us: horror hath seized us, and we have none to justify us. He hath borne the yoke of our iniquities and our transgression, and is wounded because of our transgression. He beareth our sins on his shoulder, that he may find pardon for our iniquities. We shall be healed by His wound, at the time that the Eternal will create Him (the Messiah) as a new creature."

Form of Prayers For Day of Atonement. Revised Ed. pp. 287-88. Rosenbaum & Werbelowsky, New York, 1890

With our sins upon Jesus, God's righteous anointed, He can look upon us as righteous and worthy to be entered into the Book of Life.

Jesus told those who believed He was God's anointed, "…rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven" (Luke 10:20.) Does it seem strange to link the idea of celebrating the inscription of one's name in the Book of Life to the person of Jesus? The Jewish New Year expression "Le shanah tova tikatev ve-tehatem" is more than a quaint custom. It is an expression of hope for God's acceptance and forgiveness.

At the time of Christ, the ancient Biblical tradition of atonement ceased. Was this merely coincidental? The Kapporah, or sacrifice animal, to accomplish atonement is nowhere apparent in modern Judaism—yet in original Judaism, sacrificial atonement is intrinsic and essential:

"For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement" (Leviticus 17:11.)

In order to fully comprehend the concept of God recording man's eternal destiny, one cannot stop reading the Bible at the Old Testament portion. Nor can one allow himself to be side tracked into the forest of contradictory statements which is the Talmud. For understanding, one must read the continuation of the Bible, in what is commonly called the New Testament, to see the true meaning of the Book of Life and to discover how a person is permanently inscribed for eternity:

"He who overcomes shall thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My father and before His angels."

Revelation 3:5

"And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God made ready as a bride adorned for her husband…and nothing unclean and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb's book life."

Revelation 21:1, 2, 27

Had Judaism not rationalized away God's system of sacrificial atonement, then it would not have come to regard the person and atoning work of Jesus as alien. Had it not substituted humanistic and humanitarian value for God's value structure, would not God's remedy of Jesus the "scape-lamb," have made sense?


What a paradox confronts the modern Jewish person! If he would be a faithful Jew according to the Bible and not merely according to the traditions of man; or if he would be God's kind of Jew, then he must be written in the Lamb's Book Life and thus be a follower of Jesus, the Messiah.

A Bridge over the Chasm

A famous Jewish chemist made the most important discovery of his life when he opened up the New Testament.

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The Torah: God's Indestructible Book: But It Can Be Broken

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the original Torah of God in his hands, he found out that his people had broken one of its commandments. For the Torah he held in his hands said, Thou shalt not make unto thee…any manner of likeness, of any thing that is…in the earth…Thou shalt not bow down unto them, nor serve them…" Our people transgressed this command and, as a result, there was no need for the whole Torah, for we have the record which says, "And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing; and Moses' anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and broke them beneath the mount." (Shemot—Exodus 32:19.) One command was broken and, therefore, there was no need for the rest of the commandments, for the Torah is one. The Torah was transcribed again but only after full repentance, punishment and restitution was fellowship with God restored.

The Torah Is One

According to rabbinic reckoning, there are 613 commandments in the Torah: 248 positive commands, i.e., what we should do; and 365 negative commands, what we should not do. The positive commands correspond to the number of separate parts in our body and the 365 negative commands correspond to the days of the year, so that, throughout the year, we are commanded to do all the commands with all the joints and parts of our body.

Yet we are told that all these commands can be reduced down to one. This was done already by the famous Hillel (a contemporary of Jesus) of whom we are told that, when a Gentile came to him and asked for conversion to Judaism on condition that Hillel would teach him all the Torah while he stood on one foot, Hillel agreed and told him the whole Torah is summarized in one command. "What is hateful to you do not unto others. The rest is commentary." A fuller exposition is found in the Babylonian Talmud (Makkot 23-24):

Rabbi Salmai gave the following exposition: 613 commandments were given to Moses; 365 negative commands to correspond with the days of the year and 248 positive commands to correspond with separate pieces of man's body…Then came David and made them compact into 11 commands as it is written in Psalm 15, "Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? Who shall dwell in thy holy hill? (1) He that walketh uprightly, and (2) worketh righteousness, and (3) speaketh the truth in his heart. (4) He that backbiteth not with his tongue, (5) nor doeth evil to his neighbor, (6) nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbor. (7) In whose eyes a vile person is condemned, (8) but he honoreth them that fear the Lord. (9) He that sweareth to his own hurt and changeth not. (10) He that putteth not out his money to usury, (11) nor taketh reward against the innocent. He that doeth these things shall never be moved. "…Then came Isaiah and reduced them to six commands (Isaiah 33:15)…Then came Micah the prophet and reduced them to a compact three (Micah 6:8): "He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, (1) but to do justly, and (2) to love mercy, and (3) to walk humbly with thy God."…Then came the prophet Habbakuk and reduced all the commands to one, as it is written (Habbakuk 2:4), "The just shall live by his faith. "

One Mitzvah* Equals the Whole Torah

Clearly it was the official teaching of the rabbis that one mitzvah equals the whole Torah. Thus we have it in Midrash Rabbah Exodus 25:16. "Rabbi Levi taught, 'If Israel should keep the Sabbath as it ought to be kept, even for once, then the Son of David (Messiah) would come. Why? Because it is as they would have kept the whole Torah.' " Rabbi Elazar, son of Abina, goes on to explain in the same context that this can be proved in a threefold way from the Torah, the prophets and the writings.

In the same Midrash we have the exposition on Exodus 22:24, "Come and see: he that is well to do and gives charity and does not take usury on his loans, it is as he would have kept all the commands of the Torah."

Should the objection be made that these are extra-important commands and therefore one of them is equal to the whole, the highest talmudical authority warns us saying, "Be careful to perform a minor mitzvah just as well as a major one, for you do not know the reward for each mitzvah." (Aboth 2:1, printed in Daily Prayer Book, Birnbaum's translation.)

God, Torah and Israel

The Hassidic saying that, "God, Torah and Israel are one," has its origin in hoary antiquity. Right in the first book of the Torah we are told how our ancestor Jacob became Israel, taking on the name of one God, El, and receiving the blessing of the mysterious Person who struggled with him. After it, Jacob said, "…I have seen God face to face…" (Genesis 32:31.) Our ancestor Jacob is joined to God by rulership and by struggle and now carries the name El, God, in his own name. Possibly the best summary is given by Moses in Devarim—Deuteronomy 30:19,20. He had told his people that the command (singular 30:11) is nigh to the Jewish people in their mouth and heart to do them. Summarizing the covenant, he warns us saying:

I call heaven and earth to witness this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thee and thy seed may live: that thou mayest love the Lord thy God, and that thou mayest obey his voice, and that thou mayest cleave unto him, for he is thy life, and the length of thy days…


The situation we have before us can be summarized as follows: God is one. Rebellion against the angel of the Lord is rebellion against God. "Behold, I send an angel…Beware of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not…for my name is in him." (Exodus 23:20-21.) Rebellion against God's prophet is again rebellion against God (Deuteronomy 18:18-19). The same is the case with rebellion against the Holy Spirit, as is seen in the inspired record, "But they rebelled, and vexed his holy spirit: therefore he was turned to be their enemy, and fought against them." (Isaiah 63:10.) All aspects of God's manifestation are One.

The same applies to the Torah. One cannot eliminate or change even a letter of the Torah or of the prophets without hurt to God Himself. This is clearly taught in the Talmud and Midrash:

Rabbi Levi said: Even little things which are only end of letters are actually mountains that can destroy the whole creation: It is written, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One." If you change the letter daled in Echad so that it becomes a resh, you destroy everything. Another example, "Thou shalt not worship another God." If you make a daled of the resh it will come out, "Thou shalt not worship the One God." Thus you will destroy the whole creation. A third example: It is written in Leviticus 22, "And ye shall not profane my Holy Name. " If you change the letter het in profane and make it a hey, it will say, "and ye shall not praise my Holy Name," and so you will destroy the world. A fourth example from Isaiah 8. It is written, "And I will wait for the Lord." But if you change the het in wait to the letter hey, it will come out, "I will smite the Lord." Thus you destroy the world.

—Midrash Rabbah Song of Solomon 5

Y'shua (Jesus) the Messiah expressed this thought a long time before in the sermon on the mount: "For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the Torah (Law), till all be fulfilled." (Matthew 5:18.)

The same applies to Israel. Israel is one people. He that toucheth one Israelite toucheth all of Israel. This is well summarized in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 37a.

Therefore was man created alone, to teach you that he who destroys one Israelite, Scripture considers him as if he would have destroyed the whole world. But he who preserves one Israelite it is as if he would have preserved the whole world.

What Does It Mean to Me?

Yaakov (James), the apostle and brother of Y'shua, the Messiah, reminds his Jewish brethren of the well-known, sacred principle that God is One; the people of Israel are one; the Torah is one. Hence the warning, "For whosoever shall keep the whole Torah (Law), and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all." (James 2:10.) Destroy one part of any of them and you destroy the whole. Preserve and keep one part and you keep it all.

What it comes to is simply this: man by himself constantly stands condemned before a holy and righteous God. Man has no choice but to admit with Moses (who himself was forbidden to enter Israel because of his sin at the Waters of Strife as recorded in Numbers 20:12), "'…Oh, this people have sinned a great sin…' And the Lord said unto Moses; 'Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book.'" (Exodus 32:31,33.)

With Isaiah we must intone saying, "Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips…" (Isaiah 6:5.) Solomon in Ecclesiastes 7:20 warns us, "For there is not a righteous man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not." And Eliphaz scores a point when he says, "What is man, that he should be clean? And who is born of a woman, that he should be righteous? Behold, He putteth no trust in his holy ones; yea, the heavens are not clean in his sight. How much more he that is abominable and filthy, man who drinketh iniquity like water?" (Job 15:14-16.)

The question is, are we aware of it? The answer must be a resounding YES! Books would have to be written to quote from our Jewish sources, even if we limit ourselves to the most outstanding references to human sin in general and to Israel's sins in particular. The references in one tractate of Berakhot would be too many to quote. Rabbis one after the other admit that the sufferings they endured and/or the Jewish people endure is a result of some transgression of the Law at one time or another. Only one rabbi stands and claims that his ten fingers kept the ten commandments. But the very boastful claim shows that he is a transgressor in the matter of humility.

On the other hand we have the oft-quoted story of Yohanan ben Zakkai who was visited by his disciples while he was sick. They found him crying and weeping. When they said to him, "Rabbi, you are the light of Israel, the pillar on which we lean, the hammer that crushes all heresy. Why should you weep?" He sincerely confessed and said he was afraid to die because he was not too sure whether he would end up in heaven or hell; enjoy the light of God or be thrown into the darkness of Satan and his host (Berakhot 28, Babylonian Talmud).

Who of us is not acquainted with the Siddur and Mahzor and with the constant confessions and admissions of our guilt and sin? In the Amidah, the Shemoneh Esreh (18 benedictions), we implore God: "Forgive us, our Father, for we sinned; blot out our sins, Our King, for we transgressed."

Who of us has not been to synagogue and constantly smitten our breasts listing all possible sins we might have committed and then summed it in the Hebrew alphabetic confession,

"Ashamnoo, Bagadnoo, Gazalnoo…We are guilty; we are unfaithful, we robbed; we spoke unseemly; we were perverse and we are guilty; we rebelled, we robbed; and we spoke lies…"

Even on the most joyous occasions of the three pilgrim festivals, we remind ourselves in the special Shemoneh Esreh prayer that it was "because of our sins that we were driven out from our country and were removed far from our land. Therefore we cannot ascend to Jerusalem to offer the sacrifices for the forgiveness of our sins…"

Yet there is a problem. Sometimes when non-Jewish believers or even when Jewish believers try to share their experience in Jesus with Jewish people and remind them of their sins, there is a strong reaction which usually goes like this: "We haven't sinned. We haven't killed Gentiles, but they have killed us." This defense is justified for the Jewish person wants to say just this: "You being a Christian should identify yourself with all the wrongs Jews have suffered from the hands of so-called Christians and should come and speak softly to us. First confess your sins, the sins of Gentile Christianity; then later you will be able to tell us of what we sinned to God, but not to you."

The whole world stands condemned by a righteous and just God. The whole world can be saved only by the Korban of Messiah Jesus!

*The literal Hebrew translation for mitzvah is command. However mitzvah has two meanings today. The common usage has to do with any act of charity performed. The more traditional meaning refers to fulfilling any of the 613 commandments according to the rabbis.

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A Lesson for My Son... About Sin

Back in the days when most New York Jews lived in tenements, they would go to the public baths. However, the children were bathed at home in a small washtub. When they grew too big for the washtub, they too went to the public baths.

Rabbi Gottlieb took his eight-year-old son, Davey, to the baths for the first time. Davey was excited, but he carefully listened to his father's instructions and was told to jump into the cold pool. As soon as he did, he began to shiver. Goose bumps" covered his skin, and his lips turned blue. "Oy, Papa, oy!" he sobbed.

Rabbi Gottlieb took his son to the dressing room where he covered him with a large towel and began to rub him down briskly. Soon the shivering ceased and color came back to his lips. The boy was quite warm now. "Aahh, Papa—a-a-h-h!" purred Davey.

"My son," the rabbi said placidly, "do you know the difference between a cold bath and a sin?"

"No, Papa. What?"

"Well, when you jumped into the cold pool you first wailed 'Oy!' Then you said 'Aahh!' But when you commit a sin you first say 'Aahh!' and then you wail 'Oy!'"

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What Is Man...

The Jewish community and the evangelical Christian community share a common aspiration toward a time when there will be universal peace. However, alongside this commonality of aspiration is a contrast of viewpoints as to how it will be realized. While evangelicals often stress God's sovereignty in bringing in the world order described by the prophets, most Jews emphasize the freedom of man in bringing in the kingdom of God.

The Jewish position involves an emphasis upon the freedom of man in the here and now." The desired result is a better world in which to live. The evangelical emphasis recognizes the quirk in man's nature which works against his realization of his goals. Some evangelicals put undue emphasis on the Fall of man and his inability to find an atonement through self effort, thereby reducing the incentive to relate to the concerns of "this world." However, if we balance the Jewish perspective concerning the freedom of man, with the evangelical assessment of man's limitations, we can have a realistic overview of our potential.

Image of God

In defining the nature of man, Judaism begins with the Scriptures,

"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."

Genesis 1:27

Jewish scholars differ on the meaning of "image." Most definitions refer to a strong resemblance, yet obviously always less than the original. Herberg comments, "The 'image of God' in man established an affinity between man and God without in the least obscuring the vast gulf between creature and Creator."1

In many ways, man is related in physical structure and function to the animal world, yet "the image of God" makes him unique: "man alone among all the creatures is capable of sustained thought, creativity, and awareness of God; the light of God is immanent in his spirit."2

What seems most probable from the Jewish point of view is that the "image of God" includes the capacity to reason. This leads to the consideration of the multitude of moral choices and dilemmas which man faces. Robert Gordis has well stated that "this moral freedom is the basis of man's responsibility for his actions without which society cannot exist."3

The biblical view concurs. Man is distinguished from the animals because he bears the divine image: it establishes the basis for Adam's fellowship with God (Genesis 2:19), and mankind is therefore ranked "a little lower than God" (Psalm 8:5). Man has dominion over the earth, e.g., naming the animals (Genesis 2:20), and this, in turn, is a reflection of the dominion of God over the entire cosmos. In addition, even as God has the capacity to make choices, so man has the freedom and responsibility to choose (Genesis 2:16-17). Seen in its larger aspect, the image of God means that the totality of man's higher powers distinguishes him altogether from the rest of animate creation. Because of the "image," the whole pattern of human life is affected, and man has matchless value in God's sight.

Freedom and Determinism

The attempt to reconcile man's freedom with God's sovereignty has always been a pressing problem for Judaism. Rabbi Akiva boldly asserted that "all is foreseen yet free will is given" (Pirke Avot 3:16).4 Although Judaism generally never plays one consideration against another, there is a strong insistence upon the doctrine of man's freedom and man's responsibility. Perhaps Moses the teacher of Israel, emphasizes this best of all when he placed an awesome choice before his people, "I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse, so choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants" (Deuteronomy 30:19; 11:26; 30:15). Adler adds, "In a supreme act of self-limitation, the Absolute God gave man freedom of moral choice."5

Jewish scholarship generally does not regard this freedom of man as absolute or infinite. The Talmud pointedly declares that "all is in the hands of God except the fear of God" (Bab. Berakot 33b),6 and this is taken to mean that only man's moral decisions are exempt from God's control. While boundaries do exist in many areas of life (psychological, biological, economic, etc.), man is free to work within these perimeters making his own choices.

As a result of man's freedom, the Jewish view holds that a Jew can and must relate responsibility to his fellow Jew and to society as a whole.

Israel's principal leaders were not to be power-happy or morally bereft tyrants, but were to be unselfish servants. Their conduct had to be above reproach because the sanctity of Torah could be brought into question by misbehavior. "If a fellow sage (or Rabbi) is caught sinning it is a disgrace to him because he blends pure with impure matters, and brings into contempt the very Torah which was precious to him."7

Correct moral choices are an expression of forgiving love. The Hebrew Scriptures and Jewish tradition consider the Almighty's forgiving love incompatible with disobedience, insincerity, and a rebellious heart. To experience God's forgiving love, it is necessary to be sensitive to sin. Man is encouraged to obey God's revelation so as to avoid wrong doing. The right moral choices enable society to see the Almighty's love.

Moral choices enable one to administer resources responsibly. Through the centuries Judaism has developed a concept of mitzvot, a system of good deeds performed as a demonstration of faith. Through responsible administration, our people provide support for synagogues, courts of justice, schools and highly developed systems of social welfare. If one is lazy and wasteful with his own things, the community has a right to disapprove; such a person cannot be given greater responsibility until he mends his ways.

Constantly, Judaism puts its approval and emphasis upon faith that works. Since man was created in God's image, he is to display, through a working faith, decent care and concern for himself and love for his neighbor. This concern and involvement in society is on the conviction that each human life is sacred. This is epitomized in the rabbinical statement, "Let thy friend's honor be as dear to thee as thine own…Let the property of thy friend be as dear to thee as thine own" (Pirke Avot 4:12).8

In many ways Judaism encourages its adherents to relate to the world by making moral choices compatible and consistent with God's nature: holy, just, and righteous.

But, can a strictly Biblical view agree with man's complete freedom to make moral choices affecting fellow man and society at large? The Hebrew Scriptures tell us the sad and bitter story: all of mankind was involved in the Fall (Genesis 3) which has seriously impaired the divine image within. Man is not as free as he claims to be. He is constantly dogged by a contradiction in his very being which causes him to fall short in the goals he sets for himself and for society at large. What then is the potential in man today?

Man's Sin Nature

Jewish thought says man is not to be regarded as tainted by "original sin," inherited because of Adam's sin in the garden (Genesis 3). The rabbis declare, "My God, the soul which Thou hast given me is pure" (Berachot 60b).9 To assert that man is chained to an evil nature, thereby preventing him from doing anything good regarding his redemption is "a doctrine that represents not only a negation of religion but also a denial of the possibility of ethics."10 It is regarded as placing man in a prison from which he will never be released. Judaism insists that man is free, and this emphasis upon freedom makes it possible for man to redeem himself.

At the same time, Judaism has a keen sensitivity to specific acts of sin. There are some 100 words in the Hebrew Scriptures which define and illustrate sin. The rabbis have always gone to great lengths to point out how to avoid misdeeds and live righteously.

Dr. M. Friedlander indicates that in order to repent, one must remember what Solomon said of sin: "there is not a righteous man upon the earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not" (Ecclesiastes 7:20; I Kings 8:46).11

Solomon Schechter states that sin is present when one follows his evil inclination whereby he makes the wrong moral choices. In themselves, he adds, these natural passions are neither good nor bad but become evil by the improper use man makes of them."12 Morris Joseph speaks of sin as that which degrades a person, "It is possible to tell a lie without its entailing any harm save the moral degradation of him who utters it."13 He goes on to say that "sin is to be shunned because of the discord it makes between man and God—in other words, because of the degradation in which it involves the sinner."14 Kaufman Kohler talks about sin as "a straying from the path of God, an offence against the divine order of holiness."15 Sin is therefore an offence against God's holiness and majesty. Leo Baeck talks about sin in the sense that "Every act of the evildoer is a sin against God and the divine, against the true freedom in the life of men,"16 whereby sin is really the failure by man to understand how God feels about it.

But no matter which Jewish thinker is quoted, none will admit that there is such a doctrine as "original sin" and that man is morally depraved.

Is man, however, a sinner only because of the acts of sin which he commits, or does the problem run deeper, down to the core of man's nature itself?

What do the Hebrew Scriptures say concerning man's inner nature?

In the account of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:17-19), where man once had dominion over his world, he became involved in a losing struggle against it. From a moral point of view, the Fall took away man's ability to freely choose to do right (Jeremiah 10:23). While the traditional rabbis agree that Adam's action resulted in a legacy of mortality for all mankind, Adam's transgression had a much deeper and more profound effect. David expressed it well: the legacy one generation leaves to the next includes the sad testimony that the very nature of man is marred and tarnished (Psalm 51:5).

Therefore, while man certainly can understand some aspects of right and wrong and even accomplish great exploits, his goodness is only on the surface and then it vanishes away (Hosea 6:4). The problem is not only to what extent a man can understand right and wrong, but also his inability to consistently make the right choices. To the contrary, his nature often leads him to commit evil deeds.

The Sin offering of the Mosaic Sacrificial system reminds us that a person can sin without even being aware of it; "sins unintentionally" (Leviticus 4:13, 22, 27)! The point here is that man is a sinner, not because of acts of sin which he commits, but because of a nature which leads him to sin, even when he is unaware of it. Y'shua (Jesus) strongly implied that such a nature is present, "If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children…" (Matthew 7:11). He also stressed that all manner of sins come from a heart which is evil (Matthew 15:19).

Forgiveness and Atonement

In man's personality, rabbinic Judaism sees the presence of two impulses or inclinations: yetzer hatov (the good inclination), and yetzer hara (the evil inclination). The word yetzer appears in a conversation David had with his son Solomon that God is aware of what is present in every heart and understands every "intent (yetzer) of the thoughts' (I Chronicles 28:9). It is Schechter's opinion that this yetzer refers to imagination or inclination which leads a person to rebellion against God. The evil inclination, and its opposite, the good inclination, were a part of the rabbinical understanding by the end of the first century.17

The tradition adds that the good inclination controls the righteous, while the evil impulse controls the wicked, and both inclinations are present in the average person (Berachot 61a).18

How then does a man find forgiveness when he does sin? After the second Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., Judaism was restructured to be a religion without a sacrifice. Jewish leaders and scholars put a premium upon the Great Three as the atonement for sin: Repentance, Prayer, and Good Deeds. When one did wrong, he sought repentance, prayed for forgiveness, and then made a practice of following his good inclinations so as to do what is helpful and commendable in the moral, political, social, and economic areas of life.

From a Biblical point of view, however, at what one point in history did God sanction a religion without a substitutionary atonement and thereby put a premium upon atonement based on self effort? Regardless of whether one looks at the words of Moses (Leviticus, chapters 4 and 16), or the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31), the principle of substitutionary atonement is crucial. This is the only prescribed way in the Scriptures whereby a person can be released from the chain of the sin nature and exhibit a newly implanted, divine nature. Once a man has this new nature, he has an imputed righteousness, and only then is he free to make the kinds of choices that will provide for his greatest freedom. (See A Jewish Believer and Atonement as to how a human being can find atonement as prescribed by God in His Word.)

Judaism puts the responsibility upon man to make the right choices in order to be of help to his fellow man and society. Biblically, man's first right choice must be to abandon all false hopes of bringing in the kingdom of God by his own efforts. The kingdom of God only exists where people recognize the King of Kings: God's cure for our fallen nature.

  1. Will Herberg, Judaism and Modern Man (Philadelphia: Jewish Publishing Co., 1951), p. 72.
  2. Israel Adler, 'The Nature of Man," Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol ll. (London: Soncino, 1939), pp. 843-844.
  3. Robert Gordis, "A Basis for Morals," Judaism Magazine, Winter, 1976, p. 33.
  4. H. Danby, tr., Mishnah, (London: Oxford University Press, 1933) p. 452.
  5. Israel Adler, p. 844.
  6. Zera'im, The Babylonian Talmud (London: Soncino, 1948), pp. 34-35.
  7. Midrash Proverbs 6:20.
  8. H. Danby, p. 454.
  9. Zera'im, p. 378.
  10. Trude Weiss-Rosmarin, Judaism and Christianity: The Differences (New York: The Jewish Book Club, 1943), p. 48.
  11. Michael Friedlander, The Jewish Religion (New York: Pardes Publishing House, 1946), p. 406-407.
  12. Solomon Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (New York; Behrman House, 1936), p. 267.
  13. Morris Joseph, Judaism as Life and Creed (New York: Bloch Publishing Co., 1929), p 117.
  14. Morris Joseph, p. 140.
  15. Kaufman Kohler, Jewish Theology (New York: KTAV Publishing Co., 1968), p. 206.
  16. Leo Baeck, The Essence of Judaism, English Translation (Toronto: Macmillan, 1936), pp. 134ff.
  17. Solomon Schechter, pp. 242-243.
  18. Zera'im, p. 381.
Articles tagged

In the Face of Terrorism: How Shall We Then Live?

When I was a little boy, terrorism had a real name and a real face: Joey,* the neighborhood tough guy." He would pick on anyone regardless of size or age, and to my six-year-old frame, Joey loomed larger than life. So it came as a real surprise to everyone—and most of all to me—that one day I was able to stand toe-to-toe with him. As we fought, his punches made me cry, but I felt some strange empowerment to keep on fighting—and eventually Joey sulked away, crying. I felt good. I had won. I wasn't going to be intimidated by him any longer.

As an American and as a Jewish person, I now face an even greater enemy—terrorism—but its face and persona are more difficult to capture. To go one step further, I am also a believer in Y'shua (Jesus), and I know He calls us to a higher battleground, an even more daring adventure. Through my own death to sin, burial and resurrection in Messiah, I have come to recognize His invitation to follow Him. That includes confronting my feeling that it's right to hate bullies, who now bear the more sophisticated title of "terrorists."

Jesus challenges me to adopt His attitude towards terrorism.

Sin is real.

There is no other word that so adequately describes the horrible events this past fall. Scripture tells us that sin entered the world through human choice. The beginning of Genesis traces the explosion and infiltration of sin into the human race as man continually rejected God and chose his own ways. Sin is not just a weakness we can overcome by finding ways to clean up and be strong. Y'shua Himself knew sin was real, and it required His death to overcome it.

Yet, despite His victory over death as evidenced in the resurrection, until Jesus returns, sin still affects our lives. The horror of September 11 and the subsequent terrorist acts such as anthrax in our mail system, force us to face the truth that sin is still very much alive. There are those who defy God's ways and live to personify evil.

God is more powerful than sin.

Sin is real, but God is more powerful than sin. Evil does not defeat God and He has promised that while sinful people can hurt us, they will ultimately fail. Y'shua dealt evil a deathblow when He died on the cross. What was meant for evil became good. The events of the past few months have seen many redemptive moments. There has perhaps never been such a sincere, unselfish outpouring of love, care and compassion in all of recent history. Whereas the terrorists meant to frighten us, they could not have foreseen how their actions would provoke the increase of strength and love in our country.

Whether in death or in life, God will never leave us alone. "…neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38-39).

God calls us to join Him in overcoming sin.

God commands us to join Him in the process of turning evil into good. In the Jewish tradition of "Tikkun Olam," we are called to repair the world, to help make God's world righteous and just. We can raise money to help the victims, the fatherless, the widows. We can give blood. We will continue to support our people Israel.

But Y'shua also calls us to a higher ground: "Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil.…Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord" (Romans 12:9,14,19).

This call to love in the face of evil is hard to accept. But we're called to remember that God loves those who hate us just as much as He loves us. He hates evil, but God weeps for the terrorists and for those whom they terrorized. He died for us all. How do we live that out daily as Y'shua's people? We must stop terrorism, but we must find ways to do this in a manner that reflects Jesus' love for His world. To do anything less would dishonor our God.

* a pseudonym

Articles tagged

Missiles, Messiahs and Maccabees

A Hanukkah Meditation

It's Almost Hanukkah

Hanukkah will soon be arriving (December 8, 2012 to be exact). The erev of the holiday falls on the night of December 7 — which happens to be the "date that will live in infamy" when Pearl Harbor was attacked.

Which brings me to another possible war, the escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas, and to the Maccabees.

The Hanukkah Story

Hanukkah today is a pretty de-fanged holiday.  Sometimes people will dress up as Judah Maccabee and we'll tell the story of the fight against Antiochus Epiphanes. We'll light the menorah, of course, sing Hanukkah songs, and spin the dreidel for gold-wrapped chocolate gelt. Consider that the main story of Hanukkah began with one Jew killing another (the pious Mattathias did in the dude who was willing to engage in pagan sacrifice), not to mention the anti-Semitic legislation emanating from Antiochus and his defilement of the Temple by sacrificing treif to Zeus on the altar. (The legend of the eight days of oil didn't come till much later.)

It's a long way from all that to the safety of Grandma's kitchen and her golden-brown latkes.

Missiles and Messiahs

As I write this, Israel has responded to a long-term barrage of missile attacks by striking back at Hamas in Gaza, and the situation has since escalated. If not for the Iron Dome system in place, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem may well have seen serious casualties and loss of life by now. And of course there is loss of civilian life in Gaza as well.

What do people look for in times like these?

Right now, failing to achieve a ceasefire, Israelis will be looking for a military solution to the rain of missiles coming from Gaza.

Confronted with tough times, religious Jews hope for a Messiah — one who will, among other things, destroy Israel's enemies.

Despite the party atmosphere of Hanukkah, most Jews read the story of the Maccabees as the story of military victory, enabling Judaism and the Jewish people to continue unmolested.

Enter Jesus ...

... or to use his Hebrew name, Y'shua.

Then came Hanukkah at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon's Colonnade. The Judean leadership gathered around him, saying, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly." (John 10:22-24)1

It seems to me that the question being put to Jesus at Hanukkah is this: "We know how the Maccabees defeated the Greek-Syrian armies. If you're the Messiah, that means you're claiming to defeat Rome just like the Maccabees —  so out with it already! Are you the Messiah or not?"

Jesus answered, "I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father's name speak for me, …" (John 10:25)

Jesus' answer reflected his own vision of what he was all about. He never claimed to be the kind of Messiah who would defeat Roman armies. Instead he performed miracles of healing and compassion, and taught his followers that he would go to his death as the atoning sacrifice for our sins (that is, the sins of Jews and Gentiles alike), and rise from the dead the third day after.

It's not what a lot of people wanted to hear.

People and Problems

When you think about it, most of the problems in this world are due to people — how we treat one another, how we fail to treat one another. The root problem of Antiochus, of Hamas, of Israel, of Norway, of you and of me — is the sin in our hearts that leads to war. Perhaps we don't all wage war on the scale of nations. But I've seen enough to know that we all manage to do it on a more personal level.

If it weren't for all the people, we could finally live in peace.

Of course that makes no sense, because we are the people. Jesus knew that the problems of the heart had to be resolved before the problems of politics could be addressed.

Israel and Hamas are once again on the verge of warfare. It's good and right to seek political solutions, to work for ceasefires, to address issues of justice and injustice and humanity on both sides of the fence. Yet a deeper solution will elude us until matters of the human heart are addressed, exactly what Jesus said he came to offer.

So This Hanukkah ...

... as you munch latkes, spin dreidels, and light the menorah, think about what Hanukkah means. Is it just about the tough guerilla warriors of the Maccabee family? Is it even about the legend of the oil?

Consider what Jesus said at Hanukkah — even if you don't usually read the New Testament. Hanukkah means dedication. More than dedicating an altar, Hanukkah can be about dedicating ourselves to God this year. At the end of the day, that will be the only sure, permanent path to peace.

Missiles only go so far (no pun intended). The Messiah Y'shua is who we really need this Hanukkah season.

1 In the interests of full disclosure: most translations say "the Feast of Dedication," going from the Greek directly into English; but the Greek is exactly the translation for "Hanukkah." Most translations say "the Jews gathered," but after all Jesus and his followers were Jewish too; the correct nuance is to the leadership, particularly in Judea (the Greek words for Jewish and Judean are the same). Finally, most translations say "Christ" — which every yeshiva bocher ought to know, if they don't already, means "Messiah."

Whatever Happened to the Substitute Atonement of the Torah?

The young Jewish man asked, Do you really have an Orthodox Jewish background?"

When I replied in the affirmative, he looked at me incredulously and was quiet for a moment. Then he queried, "If you have such a background, then why is it that you believe that the Messiah has already come?"

I reflected, and then began: "Let me make one point as to what is the most basic underlying dynamic in my thinking as well as in my heart. Simon the Just at about 200 B. C. E. declared, according to the Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Father) that upon three things does the world rest: 1) Torah, 2) worship, (which is taken to mean the sacrifices in connection with the temple service) and 3) the showing of kindness."1

"Now," I continued," after the fall of the Temple. in 70 C.E., there was a council which met at Yavneh at which Yohanan ben Zakkai presided. One of the decisions by ben Zakkai and others was to change the statement by Simon the Just to read: 1) Torah (which now is the pillar of studying and teaching Torah); 2) temple worship (they redefined it in term of prayer); and 3) the showing of kindness."2

The Jewish man quickly responded, "What did you expect Jewish people to do after the Temple was lost? Since there was no more possibility to offer sacrifices, prayer then became the obvious substitute!"

"Ah," I responded, "but there was a possibility that the concept of sacrifice was not changed. What did the Jewish writers of the New Covenant proclaim? Did they change Moses and the substitute atonement of the Torah?"

He had no answer.

Since that encounter, the decisions which were made at the Council of Yavneh have been the object of continued study for me. Were the rabbis right in substituting the Temple service with prayer? Or, is it legitimate to insist that there is no possibility of changing what God had already revealed regarding substitute atonement!

Atonement According to Moses

To understand properly what an atonement is according to the Torah, it is necessary that we examine closely Moses' explanation of the sin offering. It will not be my objective to cover every verse in Leviticus chapter four which deals with the sin offering, but rather to consider the principles in connection with this most important offering.3

Four Major Principles

Regardless of who brought which offering, there was a certain procedure to be followed. Four major principles can be derived from that procedure:

  1. Substitution. God's specific instruction to Moses was that as each Israelite came to present the offering in accordance with his station in life, he was to regard this animal as his personal substitute.
  2. Identification. The Israelite next placed his hand upon the head of the animal and confessed his sins which were then, in a symbolic sense, imputed or transferred to the animal. The animal-substitute became identified with the sin of the offerer.
  3. Contrary to what many people believe, it was the task of the offerer to kill the animal under the guidance of the officiating priest who caught the blood and applied it in the appropriate place, depending on who brought the offering. The third principle is: the death of the animal. God wanted the offerer to kill the animal, so that he would be reminded that the penalty of sin is death. The prophet so aptly comments," …The soul who sins will die" (Ezekiel 18:4). God extended His mercy by providing the substitute to die in place of the offerer.
  4. While the passages in Leviticus chapter four do not explicitly say so, I do suggest that a fourth principle is present: exchange of life. When the animal died because the sin of the offerer was upon it, its life was then transferred to him. There is the hint of an exchange, for the sins of the offerer were placed upon the animal, causing it to die; thus when the animal died, it gave its life up to the one who stood in need of it.

The Israelite's Response

As the Israelites brought their animal substitute, they could exhibit one of three kinds of responses:

The Attitude of Indifference—There were those, certainly in the days of the First Temple period (ending in 586 B.C.E.), who did not care for the sacrificial system as outlined by the Torah. Perhaps some were more interested in the idolatrous systems of the pagans. Obviously, God's wrath was directed at such idolatrousness (Deuteronomy 18:9-14).

The Attitude of Ritual—Most Israelites exhibited a perfunctory attitude and merely went through the motions because this is what Moses asked them to do. Such folk were more interested in the practical affairs of life, making a living and family concerns. Yet God detested the degeneration of Temple worship into a ritualistic procedure. Many times the prophets singled out this one attitude. Isaiah in particular described how "worshippers" were sure to bring their animals for sacrifice but their hearts were not repentant at all (Isaiah 1:1-18).

The Response of Belief—There were many in Israel who, upon bringing their sacrifice, became aware of the meaning of substitute atonement and what God wanted each one to learn in the process. The Torah was designed to be a schoolmaster to teach the great truth of the possibility of atonement, but the Spirit of God also worked in the hearts of unbelievers for those who became interested in spiritual matters, there came a time when the offering of the animals took on the meaning intended by God. Such a seeker then accepted by faith the four principles, internalizing them within his own heart. When he did so, he continued to bring his animals on the prescribed occasion, but he did so as a believer and therefore was part of the educational process of the Torah to teach others who did not know the Lord. Those Israelites who exhibited the response of belief were then considered a part of the remnant-believers, present in every generation, even in times of spiritual renewal when the numbers of believers were great (e.g. in the days of, 2 Chronicles chapters 29-31, and during the time of Josiah, 2 Chronicles chapters 34 and 35).

The Assurance of Forgiveness—Furthermore, believers had an assurance of the forgiveness of their sins. David could exclaim that "As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us" (Psalm 103:12). Furthermore, as the believer watched the procedure on the Day of Atonement when the scapegoat took away the sins of the nation he could very well cry, "Hallelujah." He realized what was transpiring when the animal removed his particular sin (Leviticus 16:10).

The Council of Yavneh Decision

Neusner cites ben Zakkai's mention of the verse, "For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice…" (Hosea 6:6) demonstrating that it "was consistent with the contemporary hermeneutics" of the leading rabbinical figures.4

In biblical times, hesed had meant (in part) "the mutual liability of those who are friends and relatives", masters and servants, or any relationship of joint responsibility. In relation to God, hesed meant acts in conformity with the covenant between man and God. Thus Hosea meant that God demanded loyal adherence to His covenant, rather than sacrifice. By Yohanan's time, however, the word had acquired a different connotation. It meant mercy or an act of compassion and lovingkindness.

As a further argument for his point, he even quotes Y'shua of Nazareth who seemingly made the same claim for the meaning of hesed, "…those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means; I desire mercy (eleon) and not sacrifice. For I came not to call the righteous but sinners" (Matthew 9:12,13).

It would appear, therefore, according to Neusner, that hesed takes on more of a "personal moral quality, rather than a specific external action, either ritual or legal.…" He goes on to say that this "is in accordance with the increasing emphasis on the inner aspects of religion which was characteristic of this period."5

Neusner's argument is flawed. First, did the prophets really indicate that God was much more concerned for repentance, the development of the inner and personal moral quality and acts of lovingkindness than in the offer of sacrifice in accordance with a ritual? Second, is there another atonement other than substitute atonement? We shall touch briefly on these two considerations.

The Genuine Prophetic Message

When we examine the books of the Torah of Moses and the prophetic books as to how Moses and the various prophets regarded sacrifice vis-a-vis the so-called greater emphasis of inward and spiritual experience, we find a completely different situation than the one Neusner suggests. For example, Moses summed up the first table of the Decalogue with these words, "Hear, O Israel The Lord our God, the Lord is one! And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" (Deut. 6:4-5). Such a statement is assuredly the basis for doing acts of compassion; on the other hand Moses himself, under God's direction, specified the offering of various kinds of sacrifices at the place the Lord would choose for worship (Deut. 12:6,11,13-14,21).

But Jewish leaders will insist that this was Moses as he explained the necessity of the ritual. The prophets tell it otherwise.

Jeremiah stated that God did not speak to the fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices. Rather, he wanted Israel to listen to his voice so that he could be their God and they could be his people (Jeremiah 7:23). This might accord with ben Zakkai's insistence that sacrifices were really nnot necessary.

On the other hand, Jeremiah insists that to truly worship the Lord, the people of Israel were to bring their "burnt offerings, sacrifices,…sacrifices of thanksgiving to the house of the Lord" (Jeremiah 17:24-26). Does this mean that Jeremiah was inconsistent in what was considered to be "true worship"? Or, must we recognize that the prophet had to accurately reflect what Moses had already declared.

When we turn to the Psalms, David states, "For Thou dost not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; Thou art not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise" (Psalm 51:16-17). And yet, David later declared, "Thou wilt delight in righteous sacrifices, in burnt offering and whole burnt offering; then young bulls will be offered on Thine altar" (Psalm 51:19). Once more we can only reflect that neither a prophet nor any other person in the Writings could contradict Moses.

Neusner referred to a passage in Matthew where Jesus desired mercy and not sacrifice, but on another occasion Jesus recommended that "if therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering" (Matthew 5:23-24). We can only insist again that the Messiah himself would not set aside what Moses indicated was true worship.

Within the past hundred years, the liberals of Christendom concocted a somewhat similar argument, stating that the prophets felt it to be more important for the people of Israel to do acts of love out of a heart of concern for humanity than to offer sacrifices. Young notes a few of these statements:

Grey, (George B., The Prophecy of Isaiah, Edinburg, 1926), for example, says that the rejection of sacrifice is that which distinguished the religion of Israel. Marti (Karl, Das Buch Jesaja, Tubingen, 1900) claims that the Lord demanded justice and righteousness, not sacrifice. According to Marti, this section (Isaiah 1:10-31) shows that Torah should not be confined to cultic prescription and that the ethical requirement stood in the foreground for Isaiah.6

Young's comment concerning the liberal position is that "This position…fails to understand the true character of the prophetic teaching. What Isaiah opposes is not sacrifice in itself, but the misuse thereof."7

These attempts by ben Zakkai and others at the Council of Yavneh and in recent times by Jacob Neusner, fail to grapple with the real meaning of what Moses and the prophets conveyed. One cannot create a dichotomy between the cultic expression of offering sacrifices and the call for a repentant heart. It was always presumed that penitents would make sacrifice as the outward sign of their repentance. What the prophets emphasized was for the Jewish persons to first have a true heart experience and then to offer their sacrifices. There is no contradiction between sacrifices on the one hand and the genuine heart experience out of which acts of kindness were to be performed; both were necessary if we take Moses and the prophets seriously.

After the Second Temple

With the direction provided by the men of the Council of Yavneh, Judaism became a religion with no substitute atonement. Neusner sums up this decision, declaring that "the new age would endure on the foundation of studying the Torah, doing the commandments and, especially, performing acts of compassion."8

Succeeding leaders built upon this new direction. Rabbi Simeon said, "The words of the Torah are more precious to me than burnt offerings and sacrifices" (Abot de Rabbi Nathan VIII). But that was his opinion.

Prayer also became important. Prayer was an important dimension during the Mosaic ritual of substitutionary sacrifice, but now, with the Temple gone, prayer became one of the means for atonement. According to Rabbi Eliezer, prayer ranks higher than sacrifices and even good deeds (Berahot 26b). Prayer is also regarded as true worship of the heart, apart from sacrifice (Taanit 2b). The one who puts on phylacteries (tefillin), recites the Shema, and offers prayer to God is regarded as having sacrificed upon the great altar (Berahot 15a). Once again the opinion of man is taken more seriously than Torah.

Repentance is also included as one of the means of atonement. Moore points out:

The important thing is that while the temple was still standing the principle had been established that the efficacy of every species of expiation was morally conditioned without repentance, no rites availed. With the cessation of the sacrifice, repentance itself was left as the sole (italics mine) condition of the remission of sins.9

Moore also indicates that by the second revolt (132-135 C.E.) Jewish people in the land of Judah had become so accustomed to a religion without a sacrifice that repentance was regarded as having taken the place of substitute atonement.

When it was all said and done, the rabbinical leaders had redirected Judaism to an atonement based on self effort by 500 C.E. when the Talmud was completed. They had taken the dimensions of prayer, confession, sin and repentance, once associated with the substitution sacrifice, and declared that these dimensions alone were the means for atonement.

But how can we account for a Jewish religion with no substitute atonement compared to what Moses had directed in the Torah?…

Some can say, as did the Jewish young man I conversed with, that there was nothing else left to do and that the rabbis had a "legitimate reason" for changing the means for an atonement. But this answer has serious consequences for all eternity.

The Biblical Alternative

The Jewish believers who penned the Brit Hadasha (New Testament) did not dare to alter Moses' words on the matter of atonement. What is interesting is that the very same four principles in connection with the sin offering of Leviticus chapter four are taken over into the New Covenant and now, instead of being connected with a sacrificial animal, they are attached to the ministry of the Messiah himself.

He indeed is our substitute: the "Lamb unblemished and spotless…foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you…" (1 Peter 1:19-20). He identified with our sins so that when we receive him: "He himself bore our sins in his body" (1 Peter 2:24). Because he has become sin, he therefore died as our sin offering: "For Messiah also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust" (2 Peter 3:18). But in his death, we who believe in him receive his life. Some of the saddest words the Messiah had to declare of some of his generation were: "You are unwilling to come to me, that you may have life" (John 5:40), but he who will come to him receives eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life" (John 5:24).

No, these Jewish writers of the New Covenant did not change the message of Moses; they took the four principles in connection with the substitute atonement of the sacrificial system and applied them to the Messiah of Israel, thereby propounding a scriptural equation: atonement = repentance + the atoning sacrifice. Both are necessary and if people take only one and attempt to use it as the means for atonement, no atonement will be forthcoming.

When the Second Temple was destroyed, the people were in a crisis. What could be their approach to God? God foresaw, however, what would occur and had made provision through the sacrifice of the Messiah, but not contrary to what Moses had already declared in the Torah. Yet the leadership of that day actually turned away from what Moses had declared to be the only possibility for an atonement for sin.

Two covenant peoples now remained in the land after the loss of the Temple: 1) Jewish believers, to which later were also added gentile believers, all brought under the cover of the New Covenant; and 2) the people of Israel, guided by its religious leaders, who remained a covenant people under the Abrahamic Covenant as well as whatever other religious system was structured for the people to observe.

What kind of hope is possible for those who came under the cover of the New Covenant and for those who chose to develop their own worship system? The best way to consider the consequences of the hopes of each group is to examine what they themselves have said as they approached the day when they were to depart from this world. Neusner cites a number of sources concerning the account of the last words of Yohanan ben Zakkai:

In his last hours, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai kept weeping out loud. O master, his disciples exclaimed, O tall pillar, light of the world, mighty hammer, why art thou weeping?…I go to appear before the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be he…moreover I have before me two roads, one to paradise and one to Gehenna and I know not whether He will sentence me to Gehenna or admit me into paradise.10

To hear such words from a man who felt that atonement could come because of acts of lovingkindness is sobering indeed. He fears the Holy One because there just might be a sin which he had not confessed.

We turn to consider the words of one of the Jewish believers, a leader in the community who had found atonement under the cover of the New Covenant, Rav Shaul or Paul. It is possible that both Paul and ben Zakkai had studied together and had been co-workers at one time since they were both about the same age. But Paul's faith was in the atonement wrought by the Messiah, and now, in the possession of his life, declared. "But I am hard pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Messiah, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake" (Philippians 1:23-24). Likewise, Paul stated, "We…prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 5:8). The differences in the hopes of the two covenant peoples are astounding.

Because of a sure atonement which the Jewish believers held to, there was no question in their minds, that when they would leave this world, they would immediately be in the presence of the Lord. Are you as sure?


  1. R. Travers Hereford, ed., The Ethics of the Talmud Sayings of the Fathers (New York Schocken, 1962), 22-24.
  2. J. Goldin, "The Three Pillars of Simeon the Righteous" from the American Academy for Jewish Research Vol. XXVII, 50-51.
  3. Louis Goldberg, Bible Study Commentary: Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), 16-20. The reader is encouraged to " dig further" in the study of Leviticus by consulting this book.
  4. Jacob Neusner, Development of a Legend. Studies on the Traditions Concerning Yohanan ben Zakkai. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1970) 142. The former further explains 142, 143.
  5. Ibid., 144.
  6. Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, Vol. I (Grand Rapids Eerdmans) 61.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Op. Cit., 145.
  9. G E. Moore, Judaism, I (Cambridge Harvard, 1955), 505.
  10. p. Cit., 172, citing Avot de Rabbi Nathan chapter 35, Schechter 40a.
Articles tagged

Teshuvah: Repentance in the Right Direction

If you wish to come back, Israel—it is HaShem who speaks—
it is to me you must return. (Jeremiah 4:1)1

And one of them, an authority on the Torah, put a test question to Him. Rabbi, which is the greatest commandment in the Torah?" He [Y'shua] answered, "'You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest commandment, and is first in importance. The second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' These two commandments sum up the whole of the Torah and the Prophets."2

From these words we may understand two categories of mitzvot. One is our obligations to God and the other our obligationns to our neighbor. These are the standards of Torah righteousness. These are the heart of the Law.

Succinctly, our duties are the vertical aspect of our spiritual obligations to God, and our relationships with our neighbors are the horizontal dimension of our responsibilities.

The moment we recognize these two areas of obligation, we discover two areas of our failure. We have not fulfilled our duty to God or to our neighbor. Whether active or passive failure, whether we failed to perform what was required or violated what was forbidden, it is called sin. Whether we sin in the vertical or the horizontal dimension, we must make Teshuvah [Hebrew] (repentance). We have a day of atonement to make that repentance.

For transgressions between man and the Omnipresent, the Day of Atonement procures atonement, but for transgressions between man and his fellow, the Day of Atonement does not procure any atonement, until he has pacified his fellow.3

In upholding the principle that true worship must reflect the fact that "the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 John 4:20)4, the Mishnah echoes the Sermon on the Mount where Y'shua had said,

If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. (Matthew 5:23-24)5

Maimonides' treatise Hilchot Teshuvah (the laws of repentance) in the Mishneh Torah deals with the positive command that "a sinner should repent of his sin before God and confess." He cites Numbers 5: "If any man or a woman sins against his fellow man…they must confess the sin that they committed" and says it refers to a verbal confession. He then goes on to say,

A person who injures someone or damages his property, does not attain atonement, even though he pays him what he owes, until he confesses and makes a commitment never to do such a thing again as implied by the phrase (Numbers, 5:5-7) "sins against his fellow man."6

According to the Rambam, even though we sin against another human being, we have also broken faith with God. Our sin against that person is not atoned for merely by making restitution, although restitution, when possible, is required. The sin is not atoned for unless the sinner specifically repents and confesses his act as sin to the Lord.

As for sins against God, the prophet Hosea speaks quite clearly that a deliberately articulated Teshuvah is necessary: "Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have fallen because of your sin. Take words with you (confess) and return to the Lord." (Hosea 14:2-3)7

If we examine all the mandatory precepts in the Torah, we do not find any one precept through which alone one may attain the purpose intended by the Torah except repentance. The purpose intended by the Torah to be realized through the performance of its commandments…is the love of God, which leads man to the great reward destined for the soul. Now we find that this very purpose is stated in the Torah in relation to repentance.8

In our sins against our neighbor, there is a betrayal of the love we ought to have for a person created in God's image and therefore we dishonor God.

At the same time, our sins against God are reflected in every mitzvot we forget, in all the seasons of our lives when we do not give the Almighty a place, and even in the religious rites of passages in our lives when we fail to give him the wholehearted love and zeal which he deserves. This omission of God serves to dishonor his Majesty.

It's been noted that the sinful deeds we commit have horizontal and vertical dimensions, in that they distort our relationship with other people and our relationship with our Maker.

It is also true that the problem of sin has specific and general aspects. There are the deeds we commit; the actual transgressions of the law of love outlined by the Messiah.

But at the root of those specific manifestations is the cause: the sickness of sin. The Talmud says,

How is one proved a repentant sinner? Rav Judah said: If the object which caused his original transgression comes before him on two occasions, and he keeps away from it.9

The proof of repentance is that we do not sin again. But can we ever attain to repentance? We can repent of a thousand particular sins but is it within our power to repent of being sinners? Sin is a condition of human existence and it does not occur to us to confess being merely human and mortal because we don't see that God designed us to be more.

Perhaps on that horizontal dimension it may be possible for a person to discipline his or her temperament so that no person could level the accusation of transgressing the command, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." But as that person stands before the King of Kings, how can they say, "I have failed to love you with my entire being, but I repent and from this moment I shall love you totally."?

The person might keep all of the ceremonial commands of the tradition, but still their heart would be laid bare by Y'shua, who taught, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment." If one cannot even attain to the first command, one needs to admit that though one can indeed repent of sins, it is impossible to repent of being a sinner, or to make true Teshuvah in their own power.

This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it.…(Matthew 22:38-39)10

Many would suppose that because we are good people, by our own measurement, God must accept us. We need to remember that the first commandment is first, and the second commandment is second. Although it's true that a person cannot be a sociopath and be close to God, it is also true that a person can be well thought of by all his peers and be a profane person by God's standard.

Imagine a narcissistic young man in college. He is preoccupied with himself. He visits his parents' home, the place where he grew up, but tensions that were ignited in his teenage years erupt into a violent argument. He curses his father, and pushes his mother so that she falls to the floor. Turning on his heels, he stomps out, slams the door, and never returns. His parents are heartbroken, and go searching for their boy, but he will not speak to them, and during the summer he moves away and they cannot find him again.

Years later, those bereaved parents are watching television. They see a city official of a neighboring state, officiating at a ceremony where charity money is being donated to the nation's homeless. The face of the young politician is strikingly familiar, and although the years have changed his appearance and he has changed his name, they recognize their estranged son. The news program is lauding the qualities of this great lover of humanity. Are his parents thrilled with pride at the achievements of their son?

No, their hearts sink with pain they could hardly communicate to anyone else. This great philanthropist they've just seen on television is a person who never sought to be reconciled to his parents, to his mother and father whom he'd repudiated so many years ago. How could he care for his fellow man when he can't even relate to his parents?

Their hearts tell them, there must be something other than the love of humanity motivating this man. Every parent wants to be proud of their children's achievements and kindness on behalf of strangers. But when there is no love at home, love for strangers seems strangely false.

And so it is with us. If we get along well with other people, and we do it for their friendship or esteem or our own feelings of self-worth, but have not been reconciled to God, then all our social action seems out of place.

God loves the poor and he teaches us to be caring and compassionate. But if our kindness to others is not born out of love for God, then it misses what God intended for us. Our "good" reputation with one another does not impress our Creator! The first command is first. And if we do not seek to be reconciled to God, then although we may seem "good" in our own estimation and be considered a good person by our peers, this goodness does not make us holy or acceptable to the One who knows the secrets of our hearts.

The perception of truth is the basis of penitence.11

Y'shua taught a parable of two sons. One was good and faithful to his father; the other was not. The story tells of how the father had compassion for his prodigal son who recognizing his sinful ways, "got up and came to his father" saying,

"Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son." But the father said to his slaves, "Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found." (Luke 15:11-24)12

Teshuvah is not merely a turning away from specific transgreessions, a return to a natural state of purity as if purity were our natural, normal state and sin were abnormal! In actuality, it is sin that is part of our nature, demonstrated by the fact that, though we can repent of sins, we do not have the power to repent of being sinners, much as we might regret our situation.

The essence of Teshuvah, according to the insight we receive from Y'shua, is in the prodigal son's statement: "I will get up and go to my Father." Sin at its root is our alienation from God. We cannot by self-reformation, repair the damage that sin has wrought to the depths of our being. But true Teshuvah turns us away from self and toward the Holy One.

It is a tragic expression of the spiritual poverty of our age that many of us do not even consider our lack of a relationship with God when we come to the Days of Awe. We think of sin merely in terms of acts which society finds objectionable, and we give no thought to the standards that the Holy One has set. Our "religion" has become a secular pursuit. We have discarded what Y'shua called the first commandment. And many spiritual leaders would confirm us in this deviation.

Some modern Jewish thinkers such as the late rabbi Mordecai Kaplan would prevent people from even conceiving of true Teshuvah:

To the modern man, religion can no longer be a matter of entering into relationship with the supernatural. The only kind of religion that can help him live and get the most out of life will be the one which will teach him to identify as divine or holy whatever in human nature or in the world about him enhances human life.13

Those who join Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism in his denial of God as Scripture knows him cannot repent in the sense of returning to God. A person whose outlook is secular can certainly seek to improve himself or society, but such self-reformation is not Teshuvah—it is not repentance as the prophets and the Messiah taught it.

Alongside the secular, anthropocentric world view of many liberal Jews, the cosmic humanism of many Chasidic thinkers also constitutes [hebrew], a destruction of the foundation upon which repentance is built.

Each Jew possesses a Divine soul which is a spark of God. This Godly potential represents the core of our beings, our real "I." Teshuvah implies returning to this essential core, seeking contact with these inner powers, and establishing them as the dominant force in our lives.14

This is an attempt to heal the disease by denying the gravity of the illness. By falsely portraying our own souls as being a part of God [Hebrew], this teaching introduces a subtle form of idolatry. Both secular and cosmic humanism as taught by the left and right wing fringes of Judaism would prevent us from saying as we must, "I will get up and come to my Father."

When the New Testament letter to the Hebrews says, "…he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him" (Hebrews 11:6)15, it states the obvious fact that without such faith, it is impossible to conceive of, much less to attempt repentance in the vertical dimension. Faith in God is essential to repentance.

The tradition gives a name to that sin which is the root of all sin; it is called pride. No evil trait vulgarizes a person more than pride, so that he cannot rise toward the majesty of the spiritual. Whoever yearns for the light of God to illumine his soul must despise pride so that he will literally feel its defilement.

As long as the heart is pervaded by pride, one is inhibited from repentance and cannot comprehend any concept of purity.16

The late C. S. Lewis comments in a parallel way:

According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride, or Self-conceit. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.

It is pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began. Other vices may sometimes bring people together: you may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness among drunken people or unchaste people. But pride always means enmity—it is enmity. Not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God.

In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as thatïand therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison—you do not know God at all. As long as you are Proud you cannot know God.17

Human pride is seen in the fact that we have arrogated to ourselves the place which God in fact holds and deserves in the world. After all, it was he who created this world according to his will. Yet, we honor ourselves and we dishonor God. Even those who loathe themselves still occupy that central place in their own concerns, the sanctuary that God requires in their hearts.

We are bound by God's word to love him with all of our hearts, and we see the rightness of that obligation. But we are unable to fulfill it.

Before the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the founder of Chasidism) died, his disciples asked him who was to be their master in his stead. He said: "Whoever can teach you how pride can be broken, shall be my successor."

After the Baal Shem's death, they first put the question to Rabbi Baer (Rabbi Dov Baer of Metzrich). "How can pride be broken?"

He replied: "Pride belongs to Godïas it is written: The Lord reigneth; He is clothed in pride. That is why no counsel can be given on how to break pride. We must struggle with it all the days of our life." Then the disciples knew that it was he who was the Baal Shem's successor.18

A king's son was sick, and the doctor said that if he would eat a certain thing, he would be healed. But the son was frightened to eat it. His father said to him, "So that you may know that it will not harm you, I will eat of it." Thus said God to Israel, "You are ashamed to repent; behold, I will be first to repent," as it says, "Behold I repent" [a playful mistranslation of Jeremiah 30:18]. Now if one in whom there is neither sin nor corruption says, "Behold I repent," how much more must the sons of men repent.19

We might have discovered from our self-examination that sin, for us, is both a condition and a number of specific sinful actions resulting from that condition. We may regret and seek to change the actions but we do not find the power within ourselves to repent in the vertical direction. We can regret our sins but we cannot stop being sinners. We can regret our alienation from God, but we cannot find him on our own.

Yet God has not left us on our own. The answer of the Bible is that what we could not do, because of our weakness, God did. Y'shua, who had no sin, lived that humble, submissive life that we could not live. He humbled himself, even to the point of death. The only one who never needed to repent fulfilled the role of the Perfect Penitent, committing his life completely into the hands of the Almighty in heaven. His lifelong attitude of "Not my will, but Thine be done" was an embodiment of the essence of Teshuvah. In his innocent death, he paid the price of atonement for those whose failure to submit to God led to his sufferings. But he did more than merely pay the penalty for our sin.

The Bible says that if we will receive Y'shua, he will come and live his life in us and through us. The one who was sinless became our Kippur so that we might share in his life and draw strength from him. We must learn to say with the "Baal-Teshuvah" of Y'shua's parable, "I will arise and go to my Father."

And when we determine to make the kind of Teshuvah that Jesus spoke of, when we've come to the end of our own resources, we find that it truly is possible. Because Y'shua did not merely point the way. He is the way.

Footnotes 1The Jerusalem Bible; New York: Doubleday and Co., 1968, adapted.
2The Good News According to Matthew, translated by Henry Einspruch; Baltimore: The Lederer Foundation, 1964. Matthew 22:35-40.
3The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Isadore Epstein et al.; London: Soncino Press, 1938. Yoma 8:9 (translated by Leo Jung).
4New American Standard Bible; Carol Stream, Illinois: Creation House, Inc., 1971. (hereafter referred to as NASB)
6Maimonides, Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Teshuvah, 1:1, translated by Eliyahu Touger; New Yorl: Maznayim Publishing Co., 1987.
7Tanakh, A New Translation of the Holy Scriptures; Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1985.
8Rabbi Yosef Albo, Sefer Ha-Ikkarim, IV: 25:1, translated by Isaac Husik; Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1930.
9The Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 86b.
11HaRav Abraham Isaac Kook, The Lights of Penitence, 15:1, translated by Ben Zion Bokser; New York: Paulist Press, 1978.
12From the "Parable of the Prodigal Son," NASB.
13Mordecai Kaplan, The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion; New York, 1962, pp. 20-29. Quoted in Understanding Jewish Theology, edited by Jacob Neusner; New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1973.
14Eliyahu Touger, in his commentary on the Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Teshuvah; New York: Maznayim Publishing Co., 1987, p.35.
16Rav Kook, Moral Principles: Pride, 1, 4., translated by Ben Zion Bokser; New York: Paulist Press, 1978.
17C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity; New York: Macmillan, 1952, pp. 109-111.
18Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters; New York: Schocken Books, 1975, p.100.
19Pesikta Rabbati, 184a. Quoted in C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, A Rabbinic Anthology; New York: Schocken Books, 1974, p.325.
Articles tagged

Don't Ask!

He shook his head slowly, sadly. How could you do that?" he asked. "How could you believe in Jesus?"

The man was staring at me with remorse and bewilderment. So I stopped handing out my literature for a moment, paused and said, "He's the Messiah, I ought to believe."

He shook his head. "So much has happened to us. So many terrible things."

"Yes. But did Y'shua (Jesus' Hebrew name) tell people to do those things? I think we need to look at what he said and did, not at what misled or wicked people said and did while claiming to be his followers. You know, he said he was the Messiah."

The gentleman waved his hand through the air, as though warding off the approach of danger. "He's not Messiah."

"How do you know? Have you ever asked?"

"I don't have to ask. He's not Messiah."

"But if he is, wouldn't you want to know?"

He stared at me again, not with pain, but with determination. "No."

Unfortunately, this was only a hurried street encounter about a serious subject which warrants much discussion. I would like to sit down with this man to give him my full attention. His reaction to the thought of being Jewish and believing in Jesus is an emotional one. There are answers to questions he didn't have a chance to hear. The message of Jesus should not be foreign to Jewish ears; Y'shua was Jewish, came to Jewish people and spread a Jewish (but very universal) message. He offered himself to restore people to a right relationship with God, a relationship based on God's standards.

The news of Y'shua—his life, his teaching, his death and his coming back from death—is the "good news," commonly called the gospel. Jesus said to people of all ages, and even generations to come, that they must simply believe in him and they will be granted eternal life. Now, these terms seem rather clear but, if you don't want to know…don't ask!

Let's face it, we Jews have many reasons for not listening to the gospel, not the least of which is that history of hardship we've endured in the name of the gentle Nazarene. But even if we're able to see beyond the barricade of embittered history, we still have difficulty looking candidly at the questions, "Is Jesus the Messiah? Is the gospel true? Should I, must I, believe?" We'd rather not ask, because we'd rather not discover that all this business about Jesus is true. We have reasons for telling ourselves, "Don't ask." The first is what we might call…

The Non-Complexity of the Gospel

For some of us, the gospel is just too simple, or too seemingly insipid. Saul of Tarsus, the Apostle Paul, understood this when he explained in the New Testament that we want some kind of "sign" while gentiles look for "wisdom."1 We tell ourselves we just want some hard-core miraculous proof, and then we'll believe. But that really isn't the case, for miracles in and of themselves will not produce faith in a heart that is hardened against believing. We will sooner dismiss the proof, disregard the evidence and even deny the miraculous sign rather than change our mind and believe what we simply do not want to believe.

No, we never require a sign in order to confirm something we're already willing to believe; we require a sign because we want to be able to point to something substantial and sensational as the basis of our belief. If we can just point to a tangible, spectacular experience then maybe people won't think we've deceived ourselves by believing, now will they? In the final analysis, we don't seek a sign in order to be convinced. Rather, we desire a sign in order to convince, impress and demonstrate to others that there is validity to our faith.

We're concerned with how we look in others' eyes, and so some seek "wisdom" as well. We want a sophisticated gospel message, because the harder it is to understand, then the smarter we seem for being able to understand it. How much more attractive are those beliefs which beckon us with questions like, "Are you spiritual enough to comprehend the real meaning of things? Are you intelligent enough to understand?"

Because this message of good news is simple to understand, simple enough even for a child to understand, then we're hardly allowed to think of ourselves as anything special. And if the gospel is so simple, then believing it makes us look simple by association. For certainly, only "simple" people believe a simple message, or so the argument goes. And so, rather than appear foolish or simple, and rather than believe on face value a message that may come in a non-spectacular manner, we tell ourselves, "Don't ask," and we choose to disbelieve.

Ironically, the gospel may be simple. But it is hardly insipid. Consider the powerful reaction it evokes from us when we hear the words, "…that Messiah died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.…"2 This message either stings our consciences or insults our sense of self-righteousness. "What do you mean, Messiah died for my sins," we may retort. "What sins?!" Our reaction gives us insight into another reason why we tell ourselves "Don't ask," a reason we may call…

The Cold Reality of the Gospel

Sin. It's not a very popular notion these days, so we tell ourselves it doesn't really exist. It's just a fairy-tale-type notion that comes in handy when we want to keep children in line. Or, if we are willing to concede sin does exist, then we are more apt to define it as those wrongs done unto us rather than as those wrongs we have done unto others.

Sin, in God's view, is not just an external action or serious crime. It can be a thought or an intent of the heart. We can think of sin as that one little thing that our conscience whispers to us is not quite right or even very wrong. It's realizing that it is wrong to cheat on one's taxes, even though "everyone does it." Sin is instructing your perfect prodigy to do as you say, then modeling something else.

Sin is indeed a reality and its presence in our lives is the very reason for our separation from God. This is illustrated in the Scriptures, and quite clearly in the book of Isaiah:

Surely the arm of the LORD iss not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.3

Not only is sin a present reality, it is an all pervasive reality. King Solomon powerfully stated that "there is no one who does not sin."4 The Apostle Paul echoed this same sentiment in his letter to the Romans: "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."5

Hearing of our sin may provoke us to admit we might have a problem. But becoming convinced of our sinful condition is one thing; coming to God in repentance, or turning our lives around, is something else. Acknowledging our sinfulness does not necessarily provoke us to repentance and saving faith anymore than acknowledging an ailment guarantees that we will take the medicine known to cure the disease. We have to be willing to listen to what the doctor says. Only, sometimes we prefer to tell ourselves, "Okay, okay, so I'm sick. But I don't have to listen to the doctor. I can take care of myself just fine."

In the same way, a person may come to view his condition against the backdrop of God's holiness and conclude that he has indeed fallen short of God's standard. But rather than trust the Great Physician, God, he may choose to treat the disease of sin by relying on the medicine of his own good deeds rather than relying upon the medicine of God's mercy, grace and love. Such a person has discovered, as Isaiah realized, that "All of us have become like one who is unclean.…" But he hasn't yet learned that "all our righteous acts [good deeds] are as filthy rags"6 when brought before a holy and righteous God.

Believing the gospel means we must accept two harsh truths about ourselves; we are sinners, and our good deeds will never constitute sufficient repayment for our wrongdoings. That is the cold reality of the gospel. It is a message we do not especially care to hear. And rather than deal with such a difficult truth, we tell ourselves, "Don't ask," and we choose to disbelieve.

The Accountability of the Gospel

Free gifts. We love them, and we hate them. We love them because they don't cost us anything, but we hate them because receiving a free gift of great worth can make us very uncomfortable. Some of us are inclined to say, "Oh no, I can't let you give me such a wonderful gift." Why do we balk? Because we feel obligated to the giver. We prefer to say, "Let me give you something for it." And in this way, we try to absolve ourselves from any responsibility or accountability or obligation.

The salvation God offers in Y'shua, the pardon for our sins, is a free gift we cannot earn. "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast."7 We cannot repay God for his gift, but in a sense, there are indeed strings attached to the salvation He offers us. We become beholden, obligated, and accountable to God. There are things God wants us to do, and there are things God wants us to stop doing. Jesus did not merely call people to believe. He called people to follow by living a life of obedience and accountability to him. This is why he said, "If you love me, you will obey what I command."8

But accountability makes us very uncomfortable. And rather than discover we'll have to submit to God's authority, we may tell ourselves, "Don't ask," and we may choose to disbelieve.

The Cost of the Gospel

One final reason for disbelief warrants our attention, the cost of the gospel. God's gift of salvation is free, yes. But there is a cost in making a full-hearted commitment to Y'shua. This cost is perhaps the greatest obstacle keeping many of us from coming to Messiah.

The Scriptures speak of a rich young ruler who approached the Messiah, wanting to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. Y'shua answered, "Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."9

Was Jesus saying that salvation comes through physical poverty? No. He was telling the ruler that coming to him involves a cost. In another encounter, he admonished anyone who would follow him to count this cost:

Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.'10

For most of us, the cost consists of relationships and reputations and the price is likely to be severe and immediate.

Larry is a young Jewish man who is very much like the rich young ruler. I told him, "You and I are very much alike. Both of us believe the Scriptures are true, and both of us, I suspect, believe they point to Y'shua."

"Yes," Larry said, "I agree."

"But we're also different", I explained. "You see, I've acted on those convictions, and you haven't."

Again, Larry told me, "I agree."

"What's keeping you, Larry?" I asked.

"Well," he began with a weak smile, "It's not like we're talking about buying a new pair of shoes, you know."

Then I asked him, "If the Scriptures are true, and if Y'shua is the Messiah, are you willing to believe and obey him, despite the consequences that may follow?"

After a moment, he looked at me with a warm smile. Then he told me, "No."

Like the rich young ruler, Larry walked away. He counted the cost, only to conclude that the cost of the gospel was too great.

"If you don't mind my asking…"

Is Jesus the Messiah? Could he be the Messiah? In light of the consequences of discovering he is, we might tell ourselves, "Don't ask." Let's face it, asking such questions isn't the easy thing to do, and believing in Y'shua isn't the popular thing to do. Then why should we ask, and why should we believe? Because the claims of Y'shua are true, and believing in him is the right thing to do. God expects us to believe in and follow the Messiah, whether people approve or not, whether the cost is great or merely an inconvenience. In the final analysis, we have to ask ourselves another, very difficult question: "Which means more to me, the approval of people, or the approval of the God of our people? Which is more important, the opinion of men and women, or the pardon of God?"

These are hard questions, even difficult to ask, and if we're not ready to entertain them seriously, then maybe we shouldn't ask. But maybe we should question why we're unwilling to ask. Is it because the gospel seems too simple? Is it because we can't accept our sinful state? Is it because of the accountability of the gospel or is it the cost?

  1. New International Version of the Holy Bible, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1978, 1 Corinthians 1:22.
  2. Ibid., 1 Corinthians 15:3-4.
  3. Ibid., Isaiah 59:1, 2.
  4. Ibid., 1 Kings 8:46.
  5. Ibid., Romans 3:23.
  6. Ibid., Isaiah 64:6.
  7. Ibid., Ephesians 2:8, 9.
  8. Ibid., John 14:15.
  9. Ibid., Luke 18:22.
  10. Ibid., Luke 14:28-30.
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