A walk through New York City’s Washington Square Park on a hot summer evening involves all the senses. At night this is a lively oasis in the midst of New York University. It is bustling with a variety of street musicians, students, artists, dope peddlers and food vendors.
In this West Village quadrangle, which is a potpourri of sight and sound, I heard a man speaking through a megaphone. He was talking about Jesus.
Being a Jew, I assumed his message was only for gentiles, so I tuned it out, letting it blend into the background of all the other sounds around me. Then a peculiar couple approached me. They were in their late twenties. Whaaat do y’all think about whaaat thaah preacher is sayin?” the woman asked. I shrugged and said it didn’t matter to me.
In her heavy Southern drawl, she started to tell me all that Jesus had done in her life. My immediate, gut reaction was to blurt out, “…Lady, I’m Jewish!” It wasn’t so much a matter of expressing my own religious convictions as stating a commitment to my people and my heritage. Among the many things being Jewish meant to me, was that I must stay away from her ‘Jeesus’!
My stance didn’t deter the woman from her efforts at telling me about her alien religion. Acknowledging my Jewishness, she asked, “Whaat do y’all do when y’all sin? Do yah sacrifice animals?”
This was the height of absurdity to my ears. It also made me angry. I answered her with my typical New York sarcasm: “Don’t be silly, that hasn’t been done since the late 1960s.” They (those born-again Christians) didn’t even know that modern Jews didn’t sacrifice animals on the streets of New York!
Having heard my words of commitment to Jewishness the woman had assumed that I believed like Moses did. Actually, her question, though inappropriate, was a logical one, considering how much Moses wrote in the Torah about the shedding of animal blood to provide atonement for sin. But my Jewish pride was quickly triggered to defend what I did not believe.
I had all but forgotten that incident when, a year later, a Jewish friend challenged me to examine the issue of Jesus for myself. I was quite surprised to read the claims of Yeshua (Jesus) in the New Testament:
“These are my words that I spoke with you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44)
Before I debated the finer points of whether or not Jesus did fulfill these writings, I was struck with another question: Did I really believe what Moses wrote? I was certainly proud to be a Jew, and I claimed Moses as my own. But what did I believe? What exactly did Moses write about God?
Moses for God
Moses believed in God. As a people, we Jews have always claimed Moses as “ours.” Yet today more and more Jews question the “need” to believe in God, even within the framework of religious life.
Mordechai Kaplan, father of the “Reconstructionist” movement which stresses the cultural and peoplehood aspects of Judaism, maintained that it should be left to the individual to create God in his or her own image. Kaplan asserted:
The Jewish civilization cannot survive without the God-idea as an integral part of it, but it is in no need of having any specific formulation of that idea authoritative for all Jews.1
Moses not only believed in God, but in his writings he also described the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as an uncompromising and demanding God who held to absolutes. Moses warned the Israelites that this God insisted upon daily obedience. It was not enough to acknowledge him only if and when they chose to be religious. Nor was it acceptable to worship God “in their own way.” God himself had indicated to Moses how, when and where the people were to respond. In the book of Leviticus we read:
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘I am the Lord your God. You shall not do what is done in the land of Egypt where you lived, nor are you to do what is done in the land of Canaan where I am bringing you; you shall not walk in their statutes. You are to perform my judgments and keep my statutes, to live in accord with them; I am the Lord your God.'” (Leviticus 18:1-4)
Moses for Miracles
Moses believed in miracles—God’s supernatural interaction with his creation. On every page the living God is shown as transcendent, caring and relationship-oriented. To remove the miraculous from the writings of Moses would leave us with a collection of lifeless stories and groundless principles. According to Moses, miracles are not coincidental circumstances, but imperative historical events upon which the biblical accounts rest. The first sentence Moses wrote presents the reader with the most difficult statement of the entire Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
Some people take these words to be merely symbolic, while others believe them to be a historical account. Some people claim to be “for Moses” and choose to see the creation passage as figurative. Unfortunately, this often means denying God’s power and abilities as well as the specific events that are being labeled “symbolic.” However, all of the writings of Moses point to an all-knowing, all-powerful, sovereign God.
If God is not responsible for creation, then every sentence after Genesis 1:1 and the creation account is metaphor or myth, and all the writings are suspect.
Moses records the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea. This event is remembered every year at Passover. However, today God’s interaction with his people in the Exodus account is often downplayed (if not completely negated). The variety of Haggadahs available attest to that. There are Haggadahs espousing ideologies as diverse as Marxism, New Age thought, feminism and even atheism. The words of Moses are given second-class status to those groups with their own agendas.
Even mainstream Judaism is minimizing the role of God in the Exodus story. Rabbi Martin Weiner of Sherith Israel Congregation wrote a commentary to the weekly Torah portion in the Northern California Jewish Bulletin which includes the Exodus account. It is admittedly historical, although the means of escape is presented as a mystery. In the article a miracle of God is not even hinted at as a realistic possibility. The rabbi wrote that our ancestors knew much less than we do about science, and therefore “whenever something spectacular happened which they could not explain, they concluded that it must have been a miracle.” He ends his article by saying:
However, when all is said and done, this whole controversy over biblical miracles is really unimportant. The most significant lesson in our sedrah is not based on discovering a rational explanation for the parting of the Reed Sea. The critical teaching of our sedrah is that human beings long to be free. The struggle of Israelites to be delivered from the bondage of Pharaoh and Egypt became the great paradigm for such struggles in all of Western civilization.2
When rabbis categorically deny the supernatural, who needs atheists? When the teachers of religion instruct their students to doubt the facts on which the sanctioned religion is based, then atheists have no distinct platform to advocate.
To consider the miracles as only symbolic and to explain them away by “telling what really happened” is to deny the God of whom Moses wrote. Merely to point out that all people have similar problems to those the Israelites had, yet not focus upon God as the solution, discredits the words of Moses.
Moses recorded the Exodus event (and all the miracles) to tell of the sovereign God who loves and helps his people. As C.S. Lewis, the late author and professor of literature at Cambridge University, explained, the miracles described in the biblical texts have a foundational importance. He wrote:
If, for example, you are writing an ordinary realistic novel and have got your characters into a hopeless muddle, it would be quite intolerable if you suddenly cut the knot and secured a happy ending by having a fortune left to the hero from an unexpected quarter. On the other hand there is nothing against taking as your subject from the outset the adventures of a man who inherits an unexpected fortune. The unusual event is perfectly permissible if it is what you are really writing about: it is an artistic crime if you simply drag it in by the heels to get yourself out of a hole.3
The children of Israel were “in a hole” when the Egyptian army chased them to the Sea, but Moses did not invent the Parting of the Sea as a dramatic literary device. Rather, God had arranged all the events of the Exodus to converge and bring the people to a certain point. His purpose was to reveal the miraculous aspect of his nature to them. God wanted his people to recognize and actively accept and serve him as God. After the people passed through the sea they did just that, as evidenced by their song of praise and worship:
I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted; The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea. The Lord is my strength and song, and he has become my salvation; This is my God, and I will praise him; my father’s God and I will extol him.” (Exodus 15:1-2)
Moses for the seriousness of Sin
Moses spent more than a little time discussing the nature of sin, its effects and what to do about it. Much of the book of Leviticus (one-fifth of his writings) is devoted to the regulations regarding atonement for sin. One thing stands out in the passages explaining the various animal sacrifices: God took sin quite seriously. Nowhere did Moses portray God as “letting things go with the flow” or as casually dismissing anyone who “did the best they could.”
Moses spelled out God’s requirements for the Day of Atonement in chapter 16 of Leviticus. Modern readers might find “uncivilized” the description of the slaughter of bulls and goats and their blood being used to bring about atonement, but that’s what Moses wrote. According to Moses, atonement (being “at-one” with God) was to take priority over all other concerns on that day. Each Israelite was to examine his own heart and consider his own sin and look to God on that special day.
Some thinking people would rather wrestle with the theological question of where sin came from. Others, who are experience-oriented, would rather compare themselves to their neighbors, whereby their sins might seem relatively minor. Yet Moses wrote about the God who saw everyone as guilty, whether of big or small offenses. And all were required to recognize and submit to God’s plan in order to be “cleansed.” There’s no place in the religion of Moses to take sin lightly or to concoct one’s own remedies.
Much of contemporary Judaism has replaced Moses’ view of sin with humanistic values. The concept of guilt (especially before God) is often seen as “old-fashioned” or “narrow-minded.” It is something the psychologists have long since explained away as a product of our upbringing or our irrational feelings. Though the Yom Kippur expression “May your name be inscribed in the Book of Life” has its roots in the idea of escaping God’s judgment for our sins, nowadays it often means nothing more than “happy holidays.”
One of the more “progressive” groups to appear under the heading of “Judaism” is called The Society of Humanistic Jews. While this group is still on the organizational fringe, it represents the views of many within the Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism. (Indeed, The Society of Humanistic Jews is under the umbrella of the Jewish Community Relations Council, a mainstream Jewish organization.) In its statement of beliefs, the S.H.J. denies the supernatural. It affirms the Jewish heritage, but adherents are deemed responsible to live their lives independent of God. Regarding Yom Kippur, an organizational publication states:
Yom Kippur is a perfect holiday for Humanistic Jews to celebrate our philosophy of life emphasizing, in our ceremony, reflection and evaluation instead of guilt. We ask forgiveness from humans we may have hurt, instead of divine forgiveness. We see this as a time to consider positive change through human effort.4
By contrast, Moses proclaimed that we should remember and acknowledge our guilt before God, and in doing so recognize that forgiveness and restoration come only from our Creator.
King David was a Jew for Moses who understood the seriousness of sin. He was a great king because when he sinned big he repented big. Most importantly, he recognized that his sin caused disunion and alienation from God. After committing adultery with Bathsheba he cried out:
Be gracious to me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness; According to the greatness of thy compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, I have sinned, and done what is evil in thy sight, so that thou art justified when thou dost speak, and blameless when thou dost judge. (Psalm 51:1-4)
Moses for God’s Promises
Moses wrote about the God who makes and keeps promises. One of the most well-known promises was made to Abraham:
“Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)
Five thousand years ago a small and ostensibly insignificant group of people claimed somehow to be special in the eyes of the Creator of the universe. They are still around to validate that claim. Many recognize the Jewish people as “chosen,” even when they are not ready to admit that there was in fact a “chooser.” Jews have endured seemingly impossible circumstances. Of course, anyone who truly believes in God as Moses presented him can easily recognize the survival of Jewish people as his work.
Even Mark Twain recognized the enigma of the Jewish people:
He could be vain of himself and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and, made a vast noise, and they are gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew, all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?5
Philosophers, anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists have also tried to answer this question. But the true secret in “the chosenness” lies in the one who did the choosing. The whole purpose of God in choosing a people was for them to be a “light to the nations,” so that “all the families of the earth will be blessed.” In other words, God chose the Jewish people so all people would choose him.
Moses for Jesus
If Moses walked the streets today, perhaps he would be labeled a fanatic. Conceivably he would hear comments such as, “Hey Moses, don’t you know that we Jews don’t proselytize?!” Fortunately, Moses was a prophet who would not be discouraged and cared enough to proclaim the truth of the living God.
I was recently confronted by a woman who learned that I am a Jew who believes that Jesus is the promised Messiah. This was five years after my encounter in Washington Square Park. Like so many others, this woman was intent on voicing her opinion. She smiled at me and said with emphasis, “I’m a Jew for Moses.”
This comment was hardly original.
“Oh really?” I questioned, “Moses spent a lot of time writing about animals shedding their blood and dying for our sins. Is that what you believe?”
Those concepts were foreign to her. Pausing for a moment, she then changed her mind: “No, I don’t believe in that.”
“Then how can you say you’re for Moses when he was for those things?” I prodded.
She shrugged and replied, “Okay, I guess I’m not for Moses.”
She walked away, her negative opinion about Jesus unchanged. Her disbelief had nothing to do with who Moses was or what he said. As with so many others, she was calling on the name of Moses merely as some sort of Jewish patron saint whose name is invoked only when the opportunity arises to proclaim one’s disbelief.
Why don’t most Jews believe in Jesus? Could it be a lack of belief in what Moses wrote? Before one debates the question of the messiahship of Jesus, more foundational issues need to be addressed. These include the existence of God and his involvement with his creation.
If one truly believes God created the universe from nothing, then the virgin birth or a man’s rising from the dead should not be incredible. If one takes a serious view of the problem of sin, as did Moses, then one should recognize that God would provide a serious solution for that problem. Finally, if one believes God made promises which he intends to keep, then the words of Moses and our prophets would be the logical place to find a description of the problem solver, our Messiah. If one does not accept these very basic aspects of what Moses wrote, the issue of Jesus’ messiahship is moot.
Using the name of Moses to assert disbelief is nothing new. It started in the first century with the people who were originally challenged by the message of Jesus himself. They, too, were less interested in God, but clung to “Moses” to express their disbelief. Jesus responded to such skeptics by saying:
“For if you believed Moses, you would believe me. For he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:46)
Endnotes 1M. Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization (New York: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1981, p. 394)
2Northern California Jewish Bulletin, January 17, 1992, p.13.
3C.S. Lewis, Miracles, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1960, p. 98)
4Northern California Chapter of Society for Humanistic Judaism Newsletter, November 1992.
5Mark Twain, “Concerning the Jews” Harper’s Magazine, 1898 cited from Joseph L. Baron’s A Treasury of Jewish Quotations, (New York: 1965)