Sunday, November 13, 2005

None Righteous vs Anyone Righteous

A couple of years ago I was in an airport van transiting to a hotel where I was to speak to a group of educators. There happened to be a Christian conference in the hotel at the time and riding along with me was a fairly well known Christian author and speaker. When he learned I was Jewish (easy to spot with the beanie on), he proceeded to "witness" to me, to tell me the message of salvation through faith in Jesus alone.

At one point, he asked, "If you tell a lie, what does that make you? Or if you steal from someone, what does that make you? And how many times does it take to qualify as a liar or a thief?" I know where this line is going so I say to him, "Just one, right?"

"That's right", he affirmed. "So how many times does a person have to sin to be a sinner?", he queried. "Ah - let me guess. Once?", I offered. "Right again", he confirmed. "So, do you know anyone that has never sinned?" "No, I don't." "So that means that all men are sinners and in need of a savior, because the Bible says there are none righteous, no not one."

"There are none righteous?", I asked. "That's right - not one. Look at Psa. 53:3 - there is none who does good, no not one."

I then told him I had a problem with his presentation. "I'm sure you've read all the chapters in Psalms and also the Book of Proverbs, right?" I asked him. "For sure. Many times."
"Then we have a problem. You are showing me one verse in Psa. 53 that says there is no one who does good. But if we take the phrase 'the righteous' and do a search in Psalms and Proverbs, we find it appears in these two books 43 and 54 times respectively. In Proverbs 10 alone, the phrase 'the righteous' appears 13 times. So, if there are no righteous ones, who are these people?"

"Oh, that's God's ideal. No one has ever lived up to it", he said.

So let's look at a few of these references and YOU decide if they are merely ideal or realizable in everyday life. Here are phrases from Proverbs 13 alone (NKJV).

Proverbs 10:3 The LORD will not allow the righteous soul to famish, But He casts away the desire of the wicked.
Proverbs 10:6 Blessings are on the head of the righteous, But violence covers the mouth of the wicked.
Proverbs 10:7 The memory of the righteous is blessed, But the name of the wicked will rot.
Proverbs 10:11The mouth of the righteous is a well of life, But violence covers the mouth of the wicked.
Proverbs 10:16 The labor of the righteous leads to life, The wages of the wicked to sin.
Proverbs 10:20 The tongue of the righteous is choice silver; The heart of the wicked is worth little.
Proverbs 10:21 The lips of the righteous feed many, But fools die for lack of wisdom.
Proverbs 10:24 The fear of the wicked will come upon him, And the desire of the righteous will be granted.
Proverbs 10:25 When the whirlwind passes by, the wicked is no more,But the righteous has an everlasting foundation.
Proverbs 10:28 The hope of the righteous will be gladness, But the expectation of the wicked will perish.
Proverbs 10:30 The righteous will never be removed, But the wicked will not inhabit the earth.
Proverbs 10:31 The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom, But the perverse tongue will be cut out.
Proverbs 10:32 The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable, But the mouth of the wicked what is perverse.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Access The Audio File of: A Minister's Journey to Judaism


I recently posted the audio of a lecture I gave in Rochester NY. Many have requested that I upload such a session - so I have. It is available in Windows Media Audio (wma) format. Make sure you have the latest version of Windows Media Player. Click HERE to access the 57 minute program.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

What Convinced Me? - Part 3 - Liar, Lunatic, Lord, or _______?

She called herself a Messianic Jew. She'd been born into a nominal Jewish home. Very little of Jewish tradition was practiced by her family. By the time she got to college, she was spiritually curious. A missionary supplied her with answers that appeared to make sense. She believed she could have the best of both worlds - being Jewish and believing in Jesus. After all, he was Jewish, as were all his original followers.

She had come to the home of a friend of mine in Atlanta to hear me speak about my journey to Judaism. During the question & answer session, she hit me with a favorite missionary question. She raised her hand politely and asked, "But what do you do with the person of Jesus? He was either a liar, a lunatic, or lord. Which is it?"

I love questions like this. They suggest that the options given are the only options there are. I suggested to her that there was at least a fourth option beyond her list. "Lore," I said tersely, "I believe we have to consider lore as an option".

I then proceeded to give her a brief overview of the "god-man" theme that runs through many ancient mystery religions existing prior to and contemporarily with early Christianity. Many of them share elements strikingly similar to the life of Jesus. A pre-existent deity becomes human through the agency of a virgin birth, lives a life of miracles, gathers disciples, dies on a cross or tree as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of others, is buried for three days, rises again, and ultimately ascends back to heaven. A memorial meal consisting of bread (representing the body) and wine (representing the blood) is also a common element amongst some of these mystery cults.

I suggested to my inquirer that she investigate this further. She did. Thank G-d she was willing to do some openminded homework. Today she is Torah observant and reclaiming the heritage she never knew growing up in a "typical American Jewish family".

G-d, speaking through the prophet Hoshea (4:6), said "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge" (nidmu 'ami mi'bli da'at). Ignorance has caused many sincere Jews to drift into scores of cults and isms. Baruch Hashem, our young lady in this case made it home to a spiritual treasury she hadn't known existed, yet had been hers all along.

(I read an insightful book on the relationship of Jesus' life to the themes of pagan mystery religions. It was written by two Australian Christians. Click here to learn about it at Amazon.com.)

26 Reasons Why Jews Don't Believe in Jesus

For nearly ten years, my friend Asher Norman, an attorney from Los Angeles, has been working assiduously to complete his compelling new book "26 Reasons Why Jews Don't Believe in Jesus". It is a very well researched volume and, distinct from most other books in this genre, it is not combative or polemical.

There is not another book on the market quite like this one. It contains the least a Jew should know when confronted by a missionary.

One of the most remarkable endorsements Asher Norman received came from the Reverend Doctor John Goldingay, Professor of Old Testament Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena CA. He said, “Obviously, I disagree with Asher Norman’s interpretation of the facts that feature in this book, but he has worked hard to get the facts right, and as far as I can tell, his facts are correct.”

You can visit Asher Norman's website and order the book directly online at: www.26reasons.com.

Friday, October 21, 2005

What Convinced Me? - Part 2 - 300 Prophecies?

As a missionary working in Israel in the 80's, I spoke to many Jews about why I believed that Jesus was the Jewish messiah. One of the platform declarations I would make is that there were some 300 prophecies from the Jewish Scriptures which were fulfilled in Jesus' alleged virgin birth, his ministry, his death on the cross/tree, his three day burial*, his resurrection, and his ascension. I would cite many of the connected "fulfillments" between the testaments to show inquisitive Jews how these prophecies were validated.

In truth, I was unwittingly shooting an arrow, drawing a bulls-eye, and then claiming pinpoint accuracy as an archer!

About a year and a half ago, I wrote an article on this subject which was published on Jewsweek.com. You can read that here.

* No matter how you calculate it, there is no way that Jesus spent three days and three nights in the grave as he said he would. All the gospel accounts are fuzzy on this point. This is disturbing because of all the specific events Jesus said he would fulfill, being in the grave for three days and three nights was "the sign" that would be given to validate his claims. Mt. 12:38-40 says: Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee. But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

The most ancient of Christian traditions tell us that Jesus supposedly died on the afternoon of Good Friday and rose before dawn on Sunday. There is no way one can derive three days and three nights from this account. There are many discussions on this serious problem. I've never read one that adequately resolves this contradiction.

Furthermore, Jesus made the claim about the three day/three night sign to "certain of the scribes and Pharisees". It would make sense by every stretch of reasonability that Jesus would return to this "certain" group following his alleged rising from the dead in order to deliver the sign. However, according to the gospel accounts, he did not. He appeared only to those predisposed to believe in him. So, how is this a sign if only a select few are entitled to see it?

When G-d delivered the Torah to the nation of Israel at Mt. Sinai, the event was witnessed by millions.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

What Convinced Me About Judaism? Pt One


I speak in a number of yeshivas, Jewish day schools, and synagogues across the country. The number one question I receive, besides "what did your mother say when you told her you'd converted" is: What was the one thing that convinced you that Judaism is true?

The humorous answer I usually give is "chulent", that gastronomical mixture of beans, meat, potatoes, barley, and whatever else you can throw in that is put up on Friday afternoon and slow-cooked for hours till served at Shabbat lunch. Chulent is a distinctly Jewish food, consisting of ordinary ingredients, yet possessing an extraordinary taste. Non-Jews have many unique foods - but chulent is not among them. (Follow this link to learn more about chulent than you ever wanted to know:
chulent.)

So, the answer to the question of "the one thing that convinced me" is best understood by the chulent analogy; it was a combination of things which, slow-cooked over time, distilled into a uniquely flavored conclusion: that what I'd learned about Jesus was inaccurate and I would follow this path of realization wherever it would lead. I did not expect at the time that I would become a Jew, much less an observant one. Maybe I could just become an honest person without a need for religion of any kind. Maybe I could be spiritual without creed, dogma, or ritual. (More on this in another post. It's a separate and critical subject. Hint: maybe we can have societies without laws, business deals without contracts, marriages without exclusivity, and actions without consequences.)

Having left the church formally in 1986, I slowly entered the realm of agnostic for about eight years. I played peek-a-boo with my old life, visiting a church now and again to see if I could reconnect. Sometimes the heart would go for what the head could not support.
I had been so deeply in love with so many aspects of it all:
  • the music,
  • the celebration,
  • the wistful, personal God experience,
  • the community,
  • the certainty of the salvation message,
  • the simple solutions to complex issues,
  • the power of the charismatic, Pentecostal style of preaching & praying

And I had feared a number of aspects:

  • by denying Jesus as my lord and savior, wasn't I doomed to eternal hell? (This is considered by many as "the unpardonable sin".)
  • how could a billion Christians in the world be wrong?
  • maybe the problem was just me?
  • the Baptists told me once saved, I was always saved. Was I? Wasn't I?
  • my Dad was a Baptist. He was saved, right? He said I was. Right?
  • what about all the 300 prophecies that Jesus fulfilled in the New Testament?
  • what about the accounts of Jesus physical resurrection from the dead?
  • what about all the spiritual experiences I had over the years? Didn't my belief in Jesus change my life from hopeless sinner to one saved by grace and sanctified by the spirit?

In the next posting, I'll explore the last three questions listed here. They are three legs of a tripod in Christian apologetics. In my book "A Minister's Journey to Judaism", I'll go into more depth on all of these issues, G-d willing.

Why My Name is Really Your Name, Too!

My Hebrew name is Gavriel Aryeh ben Avraham. Why did I choose to be known as this?

Every convert to Judaism becomes a ben (son) or bat (daughter) of Avraham Avinu – Abraham our father. So, in effect, every convert has the same “last name” by virtue of being a child of the very first Jew.

In many cases, the convert will take a Hebrew name that sounds like his/her given name. Morris may take on Moshe. Mary may take on Miriam. Leanne may take on Leah. Mark may take on Mordechai.

My given name is Mark, but I didn’t choose Mordechai or Menachem or a host of other options. I wanted a name that was emblematic of the inner nature and challenge of Jewish life. When I hear “Gavriel Aryeh”, I want to be reminded of what I’m really all about in being a Jew.

Our Sages tell us that there are two natures within which vie for our allegiance. The yetzer hatov (the good inclination, also referred to as hanefesh haEloki – the divine soul) and the yetzer ha’ra (the evil inclination, also referred to as henefesh habehemati – the animal soul). Mankind is created with these opposing forces within. The clash and struggle between them is what enables the exercise of free will, the choice for good over evil, and the striving to live on a plane higher than mere animal urges.

I represent the yetzer hatov by the name Gavriel, after the great angel whose name means “my strength is G-d”. This is the part of my inner being that strives to connect with G-d through observing the mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah. Some of these commandments require positive action – do this. Some of these commandments require restraint and avoidance – don’t do this.

I represent the yetzer ha’ra by the stately lion, called aryeh in Hebrew. This part within me contains the animal urges for sustenance, survival, defense and protection, acquisition, and procreation.

The challenge is for the Gavriel to rule over the Aryeh – for the angel to ride upon the beast. We don’t kill the beast. We ask G-d to tame it within us. We need it. But we must give it over to higher, holy purposes. That is why we say in the beginning part of the morning prayer, “chof et yitzreynu l’hishta’abed lakh” – subdue our inclination to be subservient to You.

In this sense, each of us is a Gavriel Aryeh, for we share a common constitution, a common struggle, and a common reward for strengthening ourselves through application of the Torah’s solutions.

The Long & The Short of It

There is a famous chassidic story of a man who is trying to reach a city. Along the road, he asks another traveller for directions. The traveller advises, "There's the long shorter way through the canyon and the short longer way through the mountains." The man declared he'd take the long shorter way through the canyon. Upon reaching it, he could actually see his destination on the other side. But the canyon had no bridges, no stairs, and at this time of year, a torrential river raged between the sheer cliff walls. He was so close, yet so far.

He was forced to backtrack and go over the mountains which in distance was longer but in time was much shorter.

My journey to Judaism from the world of evangelical, charismatic Christianity has taken me over both of these paths. I've tried for the short cut and I've gone the distance. On this blog site, I will deal with aspects of this odyssey in the hopes that others may benefit.

I ask you to keep in mind that you are reading about my experiences, thoughts, shortcomings, quirks, failures, and triumphs. You may or may not agree with what I've concluded, said, or done. But allow it simply to be the path I am on.

This path began in Atlanta GA, where I was born. It took me on to Florida at age seven, then Texas at age fifteen, then California at sixteen, then Oregon at sixteen, and back to California at twenty. At twenty-four and married for two years, I made my first trip to Israel for a half-year language program. At twenty-eight, I returned to Israel for a three and a half-year stay as a language teacher and low profile missionary (I preferred the term "Christian Zionist"). At thirty-two, I was back in LA working as an associate pastor for a 10,000 member church. At thirty-five, my Christian world imploded. At thirty-seven, I was a newly-single language teacher in Saudi Arabia, trying to put order back into my life. I went through a number of painful experiences, mostly self-inflicted. This was not a pretty chapter in the journey.

A decade and a half later, I now reside in Queens NY, entering my sixth year as a convert to Orthodox Judaism. I work in the publishing industry, produce a weekly Internet broadcast, write periodically for various Jewish media outlets, and speak widely to Jewish audiences across the country about this spiritual journey. I found my basherte - a wonderful woman who has been Torah observant from birth.

When some hear that I was a minister that converted to Judaism, they think it must have been a sudden move, corresponding to how most evangelicals "get saved" and "accept Jesus". That was not the case. I pondered the path to Judaism for many years. When I officially left the ministry in 1986, I did call the University of Judaism in Bel Air CA to ask about conversion. (This is a Conservative university where I'd done intermediate and advanced Hebrew work in 1980 and 1985.) But I was too scared, too burnt out, and too uncertain of anything to commit to another spiritual path. It would be another eight years, spent mostly as a goy for nothing, until I took serious strides toward embracing Judaism.

It's a long story and I'll share it in installments. I look forward to interacting with any of you that wish to ask questions or share comments. You can write me at: gavriel@gavrielsanders.com.

Gavriel