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The Silver Lining

In the summer (such as it was!) I spent a two week among Hasidic Jews, see my first experience of early morning encounters with Orthodox men after they had immersed themselves in the sea was exhilarating. Last year was also good and I had high expectations for this year but from the very first morning, a dark cloud cast a baleful shadow over my efforts to share Jesus with the men.

The surf was rough, and big waves were breaking on the beach. At around 8.45, I noticed lights flashing at the north end of the promenade and I feared the worst. A highly respected rabbi had been swept out to sea by a wave as he stepped into the water to purify himself. An Irish man had tried to throw him a life buoy but it was too late; the sea had taken him away. The rabbi was a highly respected man and the community was reeling. The following day – apart from the seagulls, a few joggers, a Welshman walking to lose weight and a Taiwanese lady with an enormous husky dog – the seafront was empty. There were no Hasidim.

 

Circular reasoning

The following Sunday morning, a young chain-smoking Hasid asked if I was Jewish. When I told him I was not, he asked if I kept the Noachide laws, seven commandments the rabbis defined as binding on all non-Jews. The Noachide laws prohibit the worship of other gods, blaspheming the name of God, cursing judges, committing murder, incest and adultery, theft, and eating flesh with blood in it.

I replied that I did keep the Noachide laws and he assured me I would go to Paradise. I responded that no one attains heaven on the basis of religious observance. The synagogue readings from the previous week included Isaiah 1, a passage that condemns the people of Isaiah’s day even though they were punctilious about their religious observance. He agreed that it was important to have a right heart as well as a religious zeal but told me that if we fail to match up to God’s standards, we will suffer in hell for a time and then go to heaven.

‘You believe in purgatory!’ I heard myself splutter. ‘That’s a Roman Catholic doctrine!’

The Catholics got it from the Jews, he answered.

My friend believed in the Oral Torah, a verbal explanation of the law, supposedly revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. How did he know there actually was an Oral Law if the Bible itself says nothing about such an important body of truth? Because the Oral Law says so! According to the Oral tradition, God offered the Torah to all the nations of the world but each turned it down; only the Jews accepted it, which means that they alone are required to keep the 613 mitzvot while Gentiles are required to keep only seven laws. My young friend ‘knew’ this was true.

 

Breaking with tradition

One morning I met a young orthodox married couple. They were in their mid-twenties and already had three children. They had lost another during childbirth. The wife almost died also so they had decided to call it a day as far as children were concerned. As well as the physical danger to the young woman, he told me, she was one of thirteen girls and had one brother but in such a large family it was difficult to give individual attention to each of the kids. The fact that the couple were at ease talking to me and that they were planning their family indicated that there are Hasidim who are not happy with the traditions. That they were out cycling and enjoying each other’s company, and that the husband was not immersing himself indicated they were different to the stricter Hasids.

 

After the dolphin

Another Hasidic man was finishing his prayers when I greeted him. He was excited because he had seen a dolphin. We spent a few minutes looking for it and glimpsed it a couple of times. We exchanged pleasantries for a minute or so and I asked if he was going in the sea. He was, but when I asked why Orthodox men had to immerse themselves each day, he told me he didn’t know.

That morning I had been meditating on Deuteronomy 17, which mandates that the first duty of newly crowned kings of Israel was to write a personal copy of the Torah, under the supervision of the Levites, which they were to read daily. I asked if he thought David’s love of God’s precepts and laws was what made him ‘the man after God’s heart’?

Although I detected a sudden look of panic in his eye, I decided to push a little further. Deuteronomy 17 also says the king was not to collect lots of horses. Did the fact that David rode on a donkey rather than a horse demonstrate his obedience to that mitzvah? Also, according to Zechariah 9:9, the Messiah would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey rather than a horse. Was Messiah’s obedience and humility what made him a man after God’s heart like David? I realised I’d pushed too far too soon. My friend told me I should talk to the rabbis and promptly legged it for his car. I was about to tell him that the rabbis wouldn’t talk to me but he was already halfway down the promenade, leaving skid marks behind!

The last man I spoke to was from Manchester. He was on his own at the beach and spent about fifteen minutes in prayer at the edge of the water after his mikveh. As he climbed into his minibus I smiled at him and waved. He hesitated before closing the door of the bus so I asked if he was going home that day. He was going back to Manchester and as we chatted he asked why I was interested in the Jews. I told him that after I became a Christian I started to read the Bible and discovered that the Jewish people were on every page; how could I not be interested in them? The Jews are God’s people and the Messiah I trust and follow is Jewish. He raised his eyebrows. I wished him an early ‘Shana Tovah’ (Good New Year) and asked if I would see him next year. That was highly probable he said. I’m grateful to God that even though this year’s outreach was difficult, it didn’t end on a negative note. There was, after all, a silver lining to the cloud.

This article was first published in the Winter Herald 2012

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