The characters were barely indistinguishable to my untrained eye; the black squiggles on the page more resembled shepherd’s staffs, doorposts and upside-down L’s squished together.
Then, my professor put sound to them – and magic happened.
Prof Meshel spoke extremely fast, his hands gesturing wildly as he retold the stories of the Old Testament. His eyes sparked with a fire of a man deeply in love. He was more artist than professor; his storytelling interspersed with scribbling sessions on the blackboard. Stepping back, he would reveal a perfectly-detailed map of the Middle East or a caricature of Abraham with knife in mid-air ready to sacrifice his only son.
It happened in class. He was in the middle of one of his passionate rants, this time on Miriam and the exodus, when all of a sudden, I heard something unworldly. It was simultaneously the power of a mighty rushing river and the sweetness of rich, golden honey.
It stirred my spirit, sending shivers up my spine as my professor slipped effortlessly into the lilting melody of the freedom psalm Miriam sang in ancient Hebrew.
I was addicted. The next semester, I signed up immediately for an introductory course to biblical Hebrew, and spent hours at dusk pored over an ancient Hebrew bible I had unearthed, painstakingly copying my favorite verses character by character until the light was no longer enough for me to distinguish the squiggles.
Every time I read the metaphor of olive tree grafting in Romans 11, my mind takes me back to my senior year in Princeton, also my immersion year in Judaism. It started with my first course with Prof Meshel: Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel, and culminated with my visit of the Holy Land.
Paul uses imagery that would have been very familiar to his audience to describe the inclusion of Christianity into Judaism. We are partakers of the rich root of the olive tree, Paul reminds us (Rom 11:17), grafted in from a wild olive tree into a cultivated one.
Grafting is an ancient agricultural practice performed by farmers to combine the hardy roots of one variety with the productive branches of another. The original olive tree is first cut down to its root stock, then another branch is pressed against the wound, their exposed raw edges touching and bound with cloth or date straw. As they both seek to heal, their vascular tissue grows together in a process called inosculation and the result is a stronger tree that bears more fruit.
The purpose of grafting was not to change the character of the tree, but rather to increase its yield.
So, I’m thinking about grafting and what Paul was trying to say about how the Gentiles are to relate to the Jews. I’m trying to envision us melding into the tree, our vascular tissues becoming one, yet an honest look would reveal more of a disconnect.
We Christians know little about the Jewish faith – its festivals, beliefs, culture – and I understand the reason behind the rejection. We associate Judaism with legalism, archaic laws of the Old Covenant, and unbelief.
Much of this thinking stems from books like Galatians where Paul harshly denounces anyone who returns to following the law. The historical context is important, however. The first Christians were a small movement of Jews that were confused as to their identity. They were in danger of losing their core values and being swallowed by the dominant religious system of that day.
Today, we have swung the other way. Christianity has disassociated with Judaism in such a way that most of us have never even opened the Bible to the minor prophets (what is the central message of Malachi?) and count books like Leviticus as irrelevant.
Perhaps if Paul was preaching today, he would be preaching the opposite message of Galatians. Yes, we are saved by grace, but this does not discount our heritage.
So, it is with humility that I approach our Jewish brothers, and ask what I can learn from them:
1. Faith is not meant to be invisible, but a tangible, visceral experience with a living God.
When the Israelites thought of YHWH, they most probably thought of fire, cloud, the ark, the temple, or some other manifestation of the divine. God wasn’t a disembodied Being located somewhere distant; He was a Presence that would go with them, and in a way that my mind cannot comprehend, His infinite glory could be contained in a finite box of cedar.
The Holiness of God was palpable, so much so that when Uzzah reached out to touch it, he fell to the ground dead.
While investigating Hebrew words and their stems, I found that many concepts we have reduced to pure intellectual conjecture had their roots in something tangible and earthy.
For example, the word ‘glory’ in Hebrew is כבד (kabod), which comes from the root word ‘heavy’. So, while we think of glory as a shroud of light, the Jews thought of the glory of God as a weight one could not stand up under. It had substance and could be felt.
In fact, it was the Greeks, under Plato’s influence, that divided the body and mind. They disregarded the things of the flesh as unspiritual (hence, sex and dancing are of the devil), and sought after a purely spiritual faith.
But, the Jews remind us that faith does not exist merely in theological discussions; it is lived out.
It looks like the divine clothed in skin. Like meeting Him under stars strewn across the sky, barefoot on holy ground, smelling smoke from a bush, burning.
2. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom.
One of my prayers is that He would give me a deeper reverence, a more authentic awe.
On my trip to Israel, I observed the ultra-orthodox Jews with their austere, black top hats, curly beards and the prayer boxes they had bound to their foreheads. They took the command given in Deuteronomy of binding the laws of God on our foreheads literally. While the automatic response might be disdain for such strict adherence to an archaic law, I was instead ashamed at my lack of zeal in comparison.
If I truly believed that God wanted me to wear a box tied to my head as a command, would I?
But such should be my degree of obedience to a God I call Most Holy.
What the strict laws of purification and rituals gave the Jews was an understanding of the degrees of holiness. There were the outer courts, the inner courts and the Holies of Holies. Only the most holy priests, sanctified by the temple baths, could enter that sacred space.
On the contrary, I cannot grasp the difference between ‘Holy’ and ‘Holy Holy Holy’. I wish I did.
Our jeans-and-coffee Sunday church services make it all too easy to treat cavalier what should be treated with the utmost fear.
But, I do pray for you and for me, that we enter into a greater understanding of what it is to fear God, whose name is so holy it cannot be pronounced.
3. Life is enjoyed in sacred rhythms
If you really study the laws outlined in Leviticus, you will realize that many of them revolve around the rhythms of life: when to rest and when to work, when to celebrate certain festivals and when to eat certain foods.
As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, for everything there is a season.
And with the scheduled times of feasting and fasting, resting and working, that the Jews follow, they represent life as the Creator intended.
I remember walking into the Center of Jewish Life on a Saturday. Groups of men with kippahs and women in ankle-length skirts were lounging on couches. Some were deeply involved in a card game, others simply chatting. An almost empty bag of tortilla chips lay crumpled on the floor.
I, on the other hand, was there to grab a meal, but the dining hall was not open yet. And so, I settled into an armchair and pulled out my lecture notes, ready to dissect them with my highlighter. Very obviously, I was not Jewish.
Yet, I observed with wonder the way my fellow students were relishing rest. It was counter-cultural. Even more so, in the pressure-cooker of Princeton, where one is afraid that every minute not spent studying is a minute wasted.
But, I was witnessing the result of a rhythm that was cultivated.
They knew how to protect what was important, what was sacred. And I, too, wanted to do the same.
So, what does this all mean? Am I saying that we should dissolve Christian practices in favor of Jewish ones?
Certainly not any more than a grafted branch is supposed to meld indistinguishably into the original tree.
We were not meant to be disconnected, but joined at the vascular tissue, one tree – one body.
And so, I encourage you to study a book of the Old Testament you have never opened to before. Read about a Jewish festival you never bothered to learn about. Challenge yourself to learn some biblical Hebrew.
You will be the richer for it.