Israel the Man, Jews the People and Jesus the Contradiction

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Israel is a man.

The Israelites, now called Jews, all came from Israel, the man whose name was changed from Jacob, to whom God promised a land.

Jews have been termed as everything from an ethnicity and a race to a religion and a culture. Jews have been defined by actions ranging from laughing at Yiddish jokes and eating matzoh balls to teaching their children about the Scriptures and praying three times a day. In an attempt to save our dying people from the brink of extinction, a great many things are allowed now that would previously have resulted in swift excommunication from our ranks. I say “our” and “we” as if I have not already committed one of the few remaining sins.

You can be a Jew and reject all evidence of your Judaism in an attempt to blend better with your peers. You can be a Jew and hate the land that was promised to you as your inheritance in the covenant that defined your ethnic label. You can be a Jew and practice all manner of eastern religious rituals, believe in all manner of pagan ideology and worship all manner of modern idols. You can be a Jew and not believe in the Scriptures which legitimize the word “Jewish” as a description of any substance. You can be a Jew and not believe in the God of Israel referenced in the first commandment as the one true God.

The great and obvious irony is that the genesis of Judaism, in whatever form you choose to define it, is God. Without God and the Words He has given us about our heritage, the title “Jew” is worthless. There can be no Jews without God because He tells us who we are. What use is there in calling yourself by a name which ties you to words spoken by One in Whom you do not believe? Without the calling God placed on us and the land He promised us and the name He calls us by, the word “Jewish” means nothing more than a bloodline which traces us back to a character named in a mythical book. It is a mark of stigma and death. Why carry it at all?

This brings up bigger questions in the increasingly Godless Jewish world, especially for those of us in the diaspora outside of Israel. Who are the Jews? Why is it relevant that Jews be defined at all?

“Jewish” was the most definitive adjective I applied to myself for most of my life. Until I married a Brazilian, it had never occurred to me that I was even an “American”. The fact that I am Jewish had defined me more than being a woman, being “white,”  and being born in the United States. Nothing had ever defined me as thoroughly as being Jewish had.

Although each of my grandparents comes from a different country, most as a first-generation Americans, I have always identified most strongly with my Israeli grandmother’s heritage. For most of my life I romanticized the idea of being a sabra, a Jew born in Israel, and was very proud of where we came from. We are descendents of the Baal Shem Tov. Our family helped found the Israeli city of Sefad. I learned Hebrew from Israelis in a small Chabad school in which many of the pupils were children of two local rabbis. My grandmother’s older siblings returned to Israel, as did her mother, and I have many cousins there now who were born in the land.

I grew up feeling like an alien most of the time. As Moses said, “I have been a stranger in a strange land” (Exodus 2:22). This was my concept of the world around me. The fact that I did not belong was a fixed point in my mind.

I went from the conservative Hebrew school to a small Chabad “Academy” when I was 5. We attended a conservative synagogue until I was 7, then we switched to Chabad. My Zayde, my father’s father, was a modern orthodox rabbi in New York. My father’s practices were not the same as Chabad, but they were more alike than those of conservative Judaism. Even among those who were supposed to be “mine,” I never fit. Aside from the rabbi’s children, I was the most orthodox of any of my friends. My knowledge of anything related to Judaism usually exceeded my peers. Being Jewish was never something I had to convince myself of or prove. It was intrinsic, inextricable and plainly evident.

Vividly, I remember two defining marks in my life as a Jew.

My head was resting on the door handle of the car on the way home from synagogue on a Saturday morning. We drove, although my father had grown up walking, because the synagogue was 10 miles away. There was tall grass growing on the side of intersection and I felt a sense of pure incredulity as I processed a phrase. The light was red. I don’t remember the context. These words left my mouth: “How can you be a Jew for Jesus? That makes no sense. If you believe in Jesus, you’re not a Jew anymore.” I could not have been older than 10.

At 16 years old, I had been devouring everything I could get my hands on by Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. Something in me profoundly resonated with the slavery and the systematic stripping of identity these women wrote about. This was my people. We were once slaves in Egypt and now we are free. “But what if they came for us…” Suspended before me sat this familiar fear. Well-instilled and firmly rooted was the knowledge that in recent history we had been exterminated. As quickly as it presented itself, it was answered. “If I wanted to, I could pass for something else. The color of my skin would not betray me as it did these women.” Yet, even as I knew this was true, I knew this was not an option. If I ceased to be Jewish to save myself, I would be lost. They could take my skin, but they could not take what made me a Jew out of me.

I am not ashamed to say I am Jewish. I never have been. I do not renounce the adjective because it is dangerous or inconvenient, although both are true. Because I call a Jewish Man who was born and died in Israel my Messiah, there are many who would say the word is no longer applicable to me. Some would say I did it to fit in. Some have said I did it because it made me more like my peers. I am neither offended nor deterred by their opinions. Pledging my allegiance to the Name Yeshua has not won me any extra acceptance or decreased my exposure to scorn, quite the contrary. I still find that I don’t quite fit anywhere.

There are others like me. You may be surprised to know that the most conservative estimates of Jewish believers in Jesus in Israel now number close to 20 thousand. More recent estimates suggest the number is closer to 30 thousand.* The number of Jewish believers worldwide is around 350 thousand.** Whether or not we are called Jewish is irrelevant. God knows us. He knows the songs in our hearts and the blood in our veins. We are the growing “problem” in the Jewish world. We are the hushed words on everyone’s lips. We are the paradox whose explanation threatens the current understanding of Judaism itself. Whatever you want to call us, we are here.

I long for a land I have never lived in. I wait for a world I have never seen. I bleed the blood of a people who have disowned me. I carry the soul of a sojourner as I walk in my hometown. Rife with apparent contradictions and against all odds, I am a Jew and I serve the God of Israel.

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Service Requires Identity

I’ve been living in the Gospel of John for the last few weeks. I leave it playing on my phone during the day, I read it when I sit down with a spare minute, I’m even hearing my son start to walk around quoting pieces of it on occasion. I’ve been trying (because heavenly things can only be grasped in the Spirit) to immerse myself in His Truth. I want to better understand the Deity of Messiah – His love, His sacrifice, His humility, His adoption – I want to truly be planted in Him. There are many things that pierce my consciousness every time I hear them, but one in particular has been pulling at me lately.

Most Christians are familiar with the account of Yeshua washing the disciples feet before instituting the last supper. I never noticed that this account is only given in the Gospel of John. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all address the disciples’ discussion of who would be greatest in the Kingdom. However, the act of Jesus washing their feet is only in John. It’s not this account, per say, that I get stuck on. It’s the sentence immediately preceding the short account.

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. – John 13:3-4 ESV

Why does John say this before going on to tell what happened next? There are many accounts in the Gospels of Jesus doing things that were just not done. Talking to the “unclean,” and even touching them – not done. What happened? They were healed and made clean. Talking to women – not done. What happened? They were healed, saved from stoning, lifted from shame, and given the ability to believe. Getting up from a table, at which you are the honored Rabbi and Teacher, to take off your outer clothing, tie a towel around your waist and wash dirt off of your students’ feet – definitely not done. So why does John make a point of saying what Jesus knew before He did this?

Yeshua knew who He was. Yeshua’s identity was not based in what He did for people, what He said to people, or who people thought He was. He knew Who He was. John wrote this (by the leading to of the Holy Spirit) for our benefit. We need to understand as a people consumed with image, what people think, what people don’t think – we need to understand that our identity comes from one place: God.

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. – John 1:12-13 ESV

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. – Romans 8:15-17

If I am a child of God, then I can do what God’s only begotten Son, Moshiach, whom I am to imitate, did. He was not afraid to lower or debase Himself in the midst of His disciples because it meant nothing to Him what they thought of Him. He knew Who He was.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand. Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, If I do not wash you, you have no share with me. – John 13:6-8

Just a side note – I heart Peter. He makes me feel better about myself because, for as many people say they are Peter, I so am. Constantly jumping the gun with my mouth, making bold proclamations about what is right, what I think, what we should do – that is so me. I’m praying for God to move from pre-Holy Spirit Peter to post-Holy Spirit Peter. Another blog for another day.

If Peter could not accept Jesus as a servant who washed his feet, how would he ever accept Yeshua, the Suffering Servant Moshiach, Who would allow Himself to be cursed on a cross, hung on a tree, to bear the sins of the world? Peter and the disciples, people who were not used to being lifted up before others, thought that by standing with Jesus, expecting a reigning King who would obliterate the Romans at any moment, argued about who would be the greatest. Why? Because most of them were fisherman! They were not people of respect, not esteemed by their people, they did hard work and looked forward to being in the court of the King.

Paul, on the other hand, came from the feet of the Rabbi Gamaliel. He was all set up to be one of the most respected, paid-attention-to, everybody-listens-to-me leaders in the Jewish world. To be blinded, thrown off his horse and addressed by God, only to find out that he is persecuting the One who he professes to follow so zealously – his call was the embodiment of humiliation. He knew where he came from, he knew who he was and he knew who he served. His take on identity and service was very different than that of the quibbling disciples.

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. – Philippians 3: 4-11

Yeshua said, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35 ESV).  He said also, “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43-45).

This is increasingly becoming my heart’s cry. Exactly what Paul, Shaul, said is how I feel. I want to know Yeshua HaMoshiach, Jesus Christ. I just want to know Him. And the more I know Him, the more I realize that my position in His Kingdom becomes increasingly irrelevant when I realize who I already am in Him.

I am a daughter of God. I am a servant of the One true God.

Who are you?