Light from the Sidra

Mattot/Massei (Tribes/Journeys).

Torah: Numbers 30:2(1)* -36. Haftarah: Jeremiah 2:4-28

Desperately seeking spirituality

I was never a great fan of Elvis but when I was on a speaking tour of America last February, as a colleague and I drove into Memphis, even though our schedule was very tight, I insisted on stopping off at Graceland, the King’s fabled mansion. The thing about Elvis that fascinates me is that decades before Madonna discovered Kaballah, Elvis was studying Jewish occult writings. Although his mother was part Jewish and part Cherokee, Elvis was raised in a fundamentalist Christian church but towards the end of his life, he turned to Judaism, Zen Buddhism and Kaballah and, for all I know, other religions. Although it is reported that Elvis identified with his Christian background to the end of his life, he carried a yarmulke in his pocket and when, shortly before his untimely death, he was asked why he wore a Chai symbol round his neck, he retorted that he didn’t want to miss heaven ‘on a technicality.’

The type of spirituality Elvis embraced is known as syncretism. Religious syncretism is an attempt to fuse together sometimes contradictory beliefs and practices from a variety of different religions. And Elvis was not the first syncretist, nor was he the last. It was a feature of life in ancient Israel and remains so today.

The book of Jeremiah the prophet reveals a people who, although they formally worshipped YHWH and presented sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem, also served Baal and numerous other gods of the surrounding nations. Syncretism is very popular today also. The ‘New Age’ movement is syncretism writ large. It’s a pick ’n’ mix spirituality in which, say, a religious Jew can fuse yoga, transcendental meditation and astral projection with their Judaism. Leonard Cohen, for example, manages to be a Buddhist monk while stating that his religion is Judaism.

Jeremiah’s picture of Judah a thousand years after the events recorded in the book of Numbers is of a nation morally and spiritually corrupt; a nation about to die. In the Haftarah reading, God expresses astonishment that, in spite of all he has done for them, Israel is further away from him than she was in the wilderness. There were lapses in the wilderness wanderings when, as in the case of the Baal of Peor, some of the men broke faith with God but in 6th century BCE Judea the nation as a whole seemed to be following other gods. Formally speaking, YHWH was their God but Israel also served the gods of the surrounding nations. The people were no doubt keeping their spiritual options open, but with disastrous results.

Syncretism is the mark of the spiritual bankruptcy of a culture and Israel at the time of Jeremiah was dead in the water. The nation that had been called to be a light to the nations adopted the religious attitudes of the surrounding nations and descended into pagan darkness.

But all was not lost. Six hundred years after Israel was taken into captivity in Babylon, a rabbi of the tribe of Benjamin began to fulfil the nation’s call. Rabbi Saul began to function as a light to the Gentiles when he and a small band of Jewish believers in Jesus began travelling round the ancient Roman world proclaiming a message that literally altered the course of world history.

In Athens, which was the centre of Gentile learning and culture, a historic philosophical disputation took place between Saul and a group of Stoic and Epicurean thinkers. As Saul witnessed intelligent, educated, cultured Greeks bowing down to the hundreds of idols distributed around the city, his spirit was stirred. After speaking in the synagogue, he began disputing with some local philosophers. Even though some of them dismissed Saul as a ‘babbler,’ probably about the most demeaning insult an intellectual could throw at you, they introduced him to the other philosophers at the Areopagus, the ‘Hill of Ares’.

The glory of Greece at that time was fading fast and according to the record we have, ‘all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.’ The greatest thinkers of the time were into novelty, a sure sign that a culture is on the skids and the essence of Saul’s address to the Areopagus has been preserved in chapter 17 of the Book of Acts. Although the speech was delivered almost 2,000 years ago the address has a contemporary feel to it:

Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us. In him we live and move and have our being; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’

Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

In the first century of the Common Era, tens of thousands of Gentiles responded to Saul’s message about the true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and his Messiah. In his mission was fulfilling his nation’s call to be a light to the Gentiles.

Most Jewish people imagine ‘Christianity’ is a Gentile religion simply because so many Gentiles believe in Jesus. But the message Saul preached to the Greeks was very Jewish because it was about the God of Israel fulfilling his promises to Israel.

How tragic that as more and more Jewish people in their spiritually bankrupt condition are turning East in their quest for spiritual fulfilment, they are moving further and further from their own God in whom they live and move and have their being. Jerusalem has, as it were, become ‘Athens’. Jewish people desperately need to respond to the message that their God commands all people – Jews as well as Gentiles – everywhere to repent, because, as the Hebrew prophets foretold, he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.'

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