The High Priest according to Melchizedek

Yom Kippur is coming up. I look at my checklist. I must say I have done pretty well this year. Not only did I hear the shofar on both days of Rosh Hashanah and gave more tzeddakah than last year, I even went to a river  in the pouring rain with the rebbetzen to cast my sins and leave them behind in the new year. (Tashlich prayer) Anything to be a “Jew for the Jew” and a “good testimony” so on the day of revelation, they would find no fault in me, either biblically or halakhically. Despite some believers interpreting it as a burden, this level of observance is anything but a burden: it connects me with my creator and my people as well as with the spiritual power manifesting in all the Jews praying the same prayer at the same time.

One thing, however, is cumbersome: the Kapparat prayer service. After long wondering what excuse I am going to come up with this year for not attending, I can’t help myself and tell them I find the ceremony appalling. Even hours later when I arrive for the evening Kol Nidrei service, the whole shul stincs of chicken. The disgusting smell and my imagination of what was happening here this morning make it difficult to concentrate on my prayers. They think it’s because I feel bad for the chickens. They think it’s because I am arrogant and don’t think I need atonement for my sins. Quite the contrary, I consider the idea of a chicken atoning for my sins i disgrace.

Ever since the destruction of the Second Temple, the rabbis have been advocating that prayer has replaced sacrifice. The truth is they have no choice but to come up with a solution since Judaism without the Temple is dysfunctional. Despite the focus having shifted from the sacrificial system to prayer and deeds during the last two thousand years, the supplication for the rebuilding of the Temple is included in our daily, Shabbat and High Holy Days prayers. This theology therefore is somewhat antagonistic since if sacrifice is not so important, why are we in such a haste to re-institute it after all? If Judaism believes that we and nobody else have to pay for our own sins and there is no mediator between man and G-d, why do we swing the chicken over our head and recite: “If there be for a man [even] one interceding angel out of a thousand [accusers], to speak of his uprightness in his behalf, then He will be gracious to him and say: Redeem him from going down to the grave; I have found expiation [for him].” This line is so befitting to the ministry of Yeshua that we can read him right into this text. The Bible tells us that G-d has made him higher than angels by placing him on his right on the throne; and if one angel can successfully intercede on our behalf against Satan’s accusations, how much more can our High Priest achieve. I have said it several times that certain extra biblical Jewish traditions have developed to paint a picture of Yeshua and this prayer is a prime example of that.

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Mitzvot – a counter-jihad strategy

Another terror attack. I wonder if here in Europe we are becoming as immune to these news as we are blind about the root motivation of them. I, personally, anticipate the same staged scene in the media’s response each time: 1. the attacker was a third generation immigrant (whereby proving that the current wave of illegal immigration does not directly lead to terrorism and the sole reason Ahmed was not integrated into society is because, by fault of his host country, he could not find a job in racist Spain so he had no choice but to resort to devising a plot of plowing into the crowd with a truck out of sheer boredom. If this attack had taken place in the UK, we would have identified him as an “Asian looking man”, connoting that it could very well be our dear neighbor Patel from next door, a hindu accountant from Delhi who has never even eaten a piece of meat in his life, so much respect he has for all life on Earth), 2. it has nothing to do with Islam, 3. we post solidarity messages on Facebook (with my favorite being #prayforthisandthat although none of these Europeans have ever uttered a prayer in their lives), 4. we need to work together to raise security measures (definitely not by treating the root cause but by banning cleaning supplies from supermarkets so as to prevent people from throwing acid into others’ faces in the street and banning driving and renting trucks would be a solution too), 5. blame the ult-right and perpetuate fear of potential “islamophobic”backlash beacuse in our twisted world the victims are the perpetrators and vicas versa, since Muslims have to be in perpetual victimhood, which is part of their strategic plan to take over the world one day.

This reminds me of a rather unpleasant conversation during a Shabbat meal. We had an older gentleman who was a baal teshuvah (a person who was not religious before but repented and returned to faith, that is, orthodox lifestyle). Sometimes these people become more fervent and self-righteous than those who were raised orthodox from birth. It was the first time in my life I had to face the sad reality that Islam as a religion had more respect in traditional Judaism than Christianity. The gentleman happened to say that “Islam is a kosher religion. I am not talking about how Muslims behave, that is a different story, but the creed itself is kosher.” Christianity, on the other hand, is bad to the core. As he was a violonist, he was discussing that he had to categorize classical music into two boxes: “permitted” and “forbidden”. Evil composers such as Handel, who wrote idolatrous oratorios dedicated to J. (the full name of Jesus is never pronounced at an Orthodox Jewish table) is off limits. I thought I was sitting at propaganda meeting in the 1950’s Russia and soon after that we were going to go outside and burn books. I got disturbed by the “Islam is good but Christians are our enemies” theory that I had to confront him: “Wait, by the same token, are you actually saying that Allah is the same as the G-d of Israel?” – “Yes, why not?” – he answered. I was in shock. I gave my rabbi a desperate look across the table in the deep conviction that he was going to correct this man but, to my utter bewilderment, he remained silent.

I know where this is coming from: the Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, a 12th century Jewish scholar). He redifined everything we are obligated to think about Judaism and the world, including Jewish-Muslim and Jewish-Christian relations. Although he believed that the religion of Islam was corrupted since it did not accept the Torah as a divine revelation from G-d, nevertheless it was monotheistic in its nature, which apparently renders it kosher. Christianity, on the other hand, was idolatrous since it taught the trinity, a concept greatly misunderstood by Jews until today. Christians, however, believed in the Torah so a Jew was allowed to engage in theological debates with them but was banned from entering their churches while allowed to worship in a mosque. Maimonides was born in Cordoba, Spain but escaped his country of origin during the abolishment of the dhimmi status by the Muslim Almohad tribes that ruled Spain at the time. A series of abuses against the Jews and Christians ensued which led to the choice of exile or forced conversion. He lived the rest of his life in Fez and Cairo, which were equally under Islamic rule, so we can clearly see that both the Crusades and the Islamic oppression had an influence on his life and thinking. I believe that part of his philosophy was rather reactionary than rooted in previous rabbinical opinion. Both the existence of the dhimmi status (the protection of non-Muslims in Muslim ruled areas in exchange for special taxes imposed and the acceptance of social inferiority) and the ending of it dispel the myth that the “Jews lived better under Islamic than Christian rule in the Medieval Period.” While it is true that at certain times the Muslims were less violent against the Jews and also allowed Jewish scholarship to flourish in some areas of the Middle-East, it was not for a long period and we would certainly have to discount the social humiliation that was prevalent for dhimmis if we wanted to believe this narrative.

I wonder how this man can believe that Islam is OK although Muslims behave badly. Aren’t our actions a direct result of what we believe in? Do terrorist acts not feed on the Quranic verses that incite voilence against unbelievers?  One of the most disturbing comparions that are frequently drawn lately by the leftist media and used as a justification by Islamic commentators is that of the “violent verses” found in the Bible and the Quran. I often laugh at this because those who discuss this are not religious scholars and probably have no idea what the context in either book is, the word is clearly put into their mouths by propagandists. For those who are confronted with this argument and actually believe in the Bible, I suggest they point at the lives of Jesus and Mohammed rather than trying to vindicate certain Biblical verses. First of all, because we believe that the Bible is divinely inspired and the Quran is not. As the concept of witnessing is important to all three monotheistic religions, we give credit to the scriptures that were revealed in front of six hundred thousand people on Mount Sinai, the gospel message that was preached around the Holy Land candidly for three years, the crucifixion that was witnessed by hundreds followed by the reality of the resurrection that Jesus manifested by walking on Earth for forty days afterwards. We know our G-d, his nature and we are familiar with the way he cominucates with us. Our G-d speaks and acts according to the “that which is true is out in the open” rule.  The “problematic” verses of violence in the Bible relate to a specific time and place when G-d ordained his people to terminate idolatry before they took hold of the land he had promised them. It was a one-time order (not timeless perpetual violence as Muhammed commanded) directed at taking over one region, Canaan (not the whole world as Muhammed commanded). While many tragedies have been committed against the Jews by Christians throughout history, none of these were directly ordered or condoned by Jesus himself. I wish my fellow Jews got over and moved on from the Crusades after eight hundred years. We still dwell on it! But if I kill a human being in a person’s name who has not instructed me to commit murder against anybody, this person is not responsible for what I do in his or her name. In Muhammed’s case, however, the actions of the Islamists are an imprint of Mumammed’s life which we can read about in the Quran and the Hadith.

In the synagogue the next morning, I receive no explanation to the root cause of terrorism but I am told we have invented the cure: do more mitzvot (good deeds). We all have to be more out there, says the rabbi. We have to get more men to lay tefillin, more women to light candles and all to give more tzeddakah (charity). Of course the first thing that occurs to my evangelically indoctrinated mind is “just how many will be enough?”. I look around the women’s section and my gaze lands on Mrs. Horowitz. I know she is a widower and her children are all grown up now. She receives a lot of help from the community but I wonder if I could give her a hand with the Sunday shopping. I ponder on the possible effects of my actions: if I help her one Sunday versus every Sunday, would that equal to preventing one terrorist attack versus several ones? If I throw in some tzedakkah (charity) as well by offering to pay for her shopping, perhaps I would save even more lives? Would my godly deeds penetrate the heart of this terrorist who, touched by my humanity, would miracously change his mind and not blow himelf up? Nonsense.

Judaism is the religion of the deed, not the creed, we say. This is where Christians usually jump in on the other side of the debate, shouting “not by works”; so we sit on what I call the “seesaw of hyper grace and hyper mitzvah”, the Jews on one side, the Christians on the other, swinging eternally and never being able to stop in the middle. Neither is right for both faith and deeds are equally important. What we often miss is that the emphasis on the mitzvot in Judaism has nothing to do with the salvation of the soul. Judaism teaches that the reward of the mitzvah is the mitzvah itself. Its cultural and religious meaning is based on the basic idea that it is more than just a Biblical and halakhic (rabbinic law) commandment of a set of rules of do’s and don’t’s, but a lifestyle where we commit to bettering ourselves and the world – tikkun haolam, heal the world. The mitzvot are not burdensome, as Christians believe (since they confuse the idea of laws with legalism), but a pleasure, a privilige and a channel through which we communicate with our Creator and the Creator communicates with the world. It is also something impossible to learn from textbooks, for one needs to be in the inner circle of the Jewish community to witness how it is implemented daily. Christians often try to explain everything with theology but overlook the  fundamentals of Jewish life: the community. We don’t preach as much, we live. Family and community come before theology.

The Hebrew word mitzvah is linked to the Aramaic word tzavta, which means attachment, relationship, bond. The physical action of performing the miztvah unites us with G-d and reveals his light and presence in a dark world we live in. This subject is probably the broadest in the entire religion therefore it is impossible to fully explore within a few pages, however, the essential aspect we need to grasp is the influence the Kabbalistic and Chassidic philosophies have had on altering the Torah’s concepts. How could a good deed, completely disconnected from the acts of the terrorist in place, time and sphere of influence, affect his decision making? The answer is the endowment of the mitzvah with supernatural power. But that is the character and role of the Holy Spirit, you would say. Quite right. The “forefather” of the Holy Spirit was the Shechinah, the divine presence of G-d which dwelt in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple. During the time Jesus was on Earth, He embodied G-d’s presence and after his ascension, He sent the Spirit to live within us. According to traditional Jewish thought, however, the Shechinah is exiled with the Jewish people to the diaspora. Until its full restoration in the Third Temple, it is broken and only fractions and sparks of it remain in a so-called voluntary captivity, locked up in our limited physical bodies. Stripped of its force in a world that, as they claim, would otherwise be unable to contain its full vigour, its spiritual power is shifted to the mitzvot.

What a lie they have constructed. G-d’s Spirit is G-d himself. Praise be to Hashem, neither is He deconstructed, nor broken; neither exiled nor transmuted, neither can He be robbed of part of his power, nor does He choose to give it up. Although “faith without works (mitzvot) is dead”, G-d is greater than us and can do greater things. His main channel of communication in this day and age is his Spirit, for without direct revelation and the conviction of the heart, the terrorist’s mind won’t change. It is only G-d’s Spirit that can truly and fundamentally change the heart and human nature. When we are “born of the Spirit”, we are also “clothed with the power of the Spirit”. It seems like we believe opposite things: traditional Judaism claims that the Spirit is constrained by the flesh while the mitzvot are bestowed with full strength. The truth is quite the contrary: we and our actions are limited but his Spirit is neither finite nor bound. “One thing G-d has spoken:…’Power belongs to you, G-d’ “. (Psalm 62)

They have lied to us

It is one of those Shabbat meals. We are gathered around a giant table, Jidden from all over the world – the peculiar looking French Jew with the messy hair and no sense of fashion (defiling France’s reputation as the world’s fashion leader), the Belgian Jew whose family surprisingly isn’t in the diamond business, the shy Jew from Manchester who can’t stop being amazed by all the Kosher food options available in London, the gorgeous Persian Jewish princess whose mother accidentally stumbled upon a Chabad house in Brooklyn and as a result her daughter made this not-so-good-looking Ashkenazi boy a lucky man, the Iraqi Israeli businessman who is experiencing a cultural shock having travelled thousands of miles from the Holy Land just to realize that Jews are more observant here than back home, one Hindu girl and one Spanish Catholic orchestra conductor on the path of conversion and two gorgeous divorced Yemenite sisters, looked upon with envy (as Ashkenazim will not admit but we really do think the Sephardim are the real Jews, the royal blood). This is the diversity that makes Chabad great.

The Yemenites do seem different though. One of them is twice divorced (how did that happen, we are all allowed to mess up once but not twice) and shouts at her sister “shut your mouth” whenever she wants to speak. This is the “clueless Ashkenazi in Sephardi land” cultural shock for me. They are vegan and would only eat organic food and wash their hair with home made shampoo consisting of eggs and lemon juice. They have a facebook profile and have heard of Conchita, the transvestite singer who won the Eurovision song contest a few hears ago. This is a new generation of Orthodox Jews, I’m thinking. After about an hour of wondering why on earth she looks so familiar to me, I realize oh my, this is the unsane Moroccan Jewish woman from the gym (we, Ashkenazim and especially Israeli Ashkenazim are so racist that whenever we see a Jew misbehave in public, we immediately assume he or she is a Moroccan Jew, but we won’t admit to that either). We have actually been attending the same gym for three years where she brings her two little girls, leaving them alone sitting on the floor under the running shower while she is placidly sweating the week’s stress off in the sauna. She blushes now. She informs me that they have actually been banned from the gym and their membership has been terminated.

The conversation is about women’s hairloss problems now. We are both familiar with the pain of this. Our discussion does not stir up any particular controversy until the subject turns to the sheitel, the wig married Orthodox women wear. Having already been around many friends with sheitels, I am now an insider who actually understands the sense behind covering your own hair with someone else’s hair, as queer as it may sound.

You may be puzzled about this as you would usually connect headcovering with Islam – make no mistake, every ludicrous tradition they practise was copied from us, something I am certainly not proud of. In terms of theologial justification, they bring up the story narrated in the Book of Numbers called Sotah, the woman accused of adultery in front of the priest who has to go through the ritual of drinking water infused with poisonous herbs in order to establish whether she is guilty or innocent. Part of the naming and shaming procedure is that the priest has to uncover her hair as part of the humiliation that precedes this ceremony. From this, apparently, we can conclude that this married woman’s hair was covered, which hence must be a divine law ordained by G-d. The Gemara, rabbinic commentary of the Oral Law in the Talmud, however, distinguishes between Dat Yehudit (best translated as Jewish tradition) and Dat Moshe (the law of Moses) and categorizes the headcovering as tradition during a discussion about divorce. Further commentaries suggest that a woman without her head covered is considered naked, since after the sin Adam and Eve made themselves clothes to cover their shame, which included headcovering for Eve as well. There are further associations with other Biblical verses, such as the one in Song of Songs, to rationalize this custom but at the end of the day, it is apparent that in the ancient Middle-East it was customary for women to cover their hair, but it was purely cultural. What we see is not uncommon – the imposition of Halakha (Rabbinic Law) on pre-halakhic text, the Bible.

Back to the sheitel. Observant Jewish women, up until contemporary times, used to wear a hat or a cheap headscarf. For my grandmother in the early 20th century, sunk in poverty in the freezing rural areas of western Ukraine, it would have been unheard of to afford a wig of prices which now soar at £3,000. Don’t be deceived – it is a business just like kosher Pringles (with no ingredients to render them non-kosher in the first place, but I know, it’s all about the conditions of the environment of production). The Lubavitcher rebbe, considered a revolutionary in many aspects without compromising traditional values and customs, empathised with women and comprehended how important looking beautiful was to them. He rebutted the idea that modesty equalled unattractiveness, but advocated that is was rather a sign for married women to send a message that they were not available to other men and “reserved for a private sphere”, as the Talmud says. And Chassidic women started to buy wigs in mass. If you are lucky to be a Lubavitcher and don’t belong to another Chassidic sect, the Satmar for example, where you would have to shave your head to the bone; it is acceptable if you just cut your natural hair short under the wig.

My new Yemenite divorcee friend, who no longer covers up, is talking about her life in the wig back in the good old married days. She complains that she could never arrange her own hair nicely under the wig and by the time she got home and was ready to remove it (which is already bad as pious women should not show their hair to their children either so they continue to wear it inside the house as well), her hair looked so messy and without volume that she felt awful about herself. She is convinced this is one of the reasons why her husband left her. “He must have been a superficial person and not a tzaddik (righteous)” – the choir of response comes. This seems to be of little comfort to her. She goes on to tell that she has actually done a thorough research and doesn’t have a clue where this is coming from and why they are forcing women to wear wigs. She kept losing more hair therefore she came to the conclusion that it is better to wear a scarf instead. (The rebbe forbade the headscarf because it can easily slip off or one might feel tempted to take it off.) “The rebbe commanded us!”. The choir is ready to burst. Heavens, the rebbe is our pope and he is infallible, how dares she question him. “Yes, I know, and I respect the rebbe’s opinion just like that of any other rebbe’s.” – she responds. Oh, dear. This is the end. Not only is she questioning the rebbe, now she is equating him with other “ordinary” rebbes. And his “opinion”? Only if Jesus was mentioned at the table can I imagine a more embarrassing moment. They are now throwing verbal stones at her. Had she not married an idiot, she wouldn’t be so bitter now. Vow. All she was asking for is healthy hair. In the midst of the attacks, she keeps trying to prove the results of her research findings and finally exclaims: ” I AM SO DISAPPOINTED BECAUSE THEY HAVE LIED TO US!”

By this she obviously means that they have told her in Chabad that wearing a sheitel was a halakhic ruling rather than a tradition of the sect. As I’m sitting in discomfort, paralysed by the self-disappointment that I can’t stand up for her, not now, not here, not in somebody else’s house; my mind is straying away from the subject. This is no longer about the sheitel. I can’t help but wonder: will this sparkle of light have a knock-on effect? If they have lied to us about this, what else have they lied to us about? When will the moment come when she and many others will come to a sobering conclusion about the other lies?

The rabbis are often demonised. They are portrayed by the Christian and part of the Messianic communities as little devils with long beards and black hats who sit at their desks all day, trying to contrive more new ways daily to deceive and hide Jesus from the Jewish people. But nothing could be further from the truth. These men are highly devoted to G-d to the last meticulous detail and observant to an extent that requires many grinding sacrifices in life which, to be frank, none of us are prepared to make. They have given us knowledge and wisdom, they have preserved our faith with their undismayed determination to keep it alive despite the diaspora and persecution and they have sustained our nation with the dozens of children they have each fathered. Some of the questionable things they believe and teach us were handed down to them from previous rabbis who had received them from their rabbis and on it goes back 2,000 years, creating an inextricable spider net almost impossible to untangle even for those who walk in the Spirit. When it comes to the Oral Law, traditions and Chassidic philisophy, oftentimes the line between what actually originates from G-d as opposed to what has been added by man is very fine. Our only guide can ever be the Ruach haKodesh (Holy Spirit) and we should exercise no judgement because we have seen that even tradition has developed in a way that it points to Yeshua. Nevertheless, deceived and incomplete they are indeed.

But our Massiach, our Savior, our High Priest eagerly waits to be revealed to them to open his arms so he could finally “gather the lost sheep of Israel”. It is my prayer that each outcry of “They have lied to us!” of any Jew will lead to brokenness, brokenness to the acknowledgement of an empty hole, the empty hole to research, the research to confusion, the confusion to spiritual battle, the spiritual battle to prayer, the prayer to openness, the openness to revelation and the revelation to acceptance of the one who gave us the correct interpretation of the Torah and sense to it all.

“You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.”