Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Item 07-01: A problem for Jews, a problem for Christians

It isn't often that a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly item has the potential to offend both Christians and Jews, but Item 07-01 has the potential. The item, sponsored by the Chicago Presbytery, is “On Distinguishing Between Biblical Terms for Israel and Those Applied to the Modern State of Israel.” Three actions by the GA are requested by the item.
1.     Distinguish the biblical terms that refer to the ancient land of Israel and the modern political State of Israel.
2.     Develop educational materials, with the help of our Presbyterian seminaries, for  clergy, church musicians, worship leaders, and Christian educators regarding the ‘ancient Israel/modern Israel’ distinction; and
3.     Inform our ecumenical partners of this action, nationally and globally—particularly within Israel and Palestine.
Item 07-01, has occurred because some are offended that the name Israel is used in the new Presbyterian Hymnal Glory to God, including a section of the hymnal, entitled “God’s Covenant with Israel.”

Palestinian American, Nahida Gordon, ruling elder and treasurer of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, is probably the first to complain of the use of the word Israel linked to God’s covenant. Her open letter to officials of the PC (U.S.A.), from which a quote is taken for the item, can be found at the social justice journal Unbound. Gordon is also bothered by the use of the word Israel in some hymns. She believes that Presbyterians will equate the word with the modern state of Israel.
Here is the Jewish problem:

While it is very clear that the modern state of Israel is not the ancient nation of Israel, it is also clear that many of the inhabitants of Israel are Jewish. That is, both those Jews who are indigenous to the Holy Land and most of those who have immigrated to Israel are descendants of ancient Israel.  The Jewish people of Israel are the connecting link between modern Israel and ancient Israel.

There is much more that can be said about that connection.  The Hebrew language, Torah and community life and ritual have, for two thousand years connected the Jews to their ancient ancestors the Israelites.

To add to the problem, in the rationale a Bethlehem pastor, Mitri Raheb, is quoted. His statement is “The establishment of the State of Israel created … an intended confusion. … Huge efforts were put by the State of Israel and Jewish organizations in branding the new State of Israel as a ‘biblical entity’. (Italics mine) Besides the slander of his thought, he is a pastor who denies that the European Jewish immigrants to modern Israel are ancestors of the ancient Israelites.

Several years ago as one of the speakers at a conference in Bethlehem, “Christ at the Check Point,” Raheb stated that the Jews who immigrated to Palestine from Europe were not descendents of ancient Israelites but were instead descendants “from an East European tribe who converted to Judaism in the Middle Ages.” He was talking about the Khazars of Eastern Europe who during the medieval times converted to Judaism. They later converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity and no DNA testing has proven any connection to modern Jews.

Any commissioner reading this should understand that only anti-Semites insist that European Jews are not related to ancient Israel. This item, 07-01, has every potential to promote bigoted resource material.

Here is the Christian problem:

There have been attempts since the early days of Christianity to disconnect the Old Testament from the New. The heretic Marcion is one example. The Gnostics made the Old Testament God a monster. Some liberals of the nineteenth century were guilty of the attempt. The Nazis, of course, majored in disconnecting the Hebrew Bible from the New Testament.

Now I am not saying that any of those who wrote this item want to disconnect from the Old Testament, but attempts to draw lines between the Israel of today and the Israel of yesterday is fraught with that possibility because as I have pointed out the Israel of old is the past of the Jews of today who make up much of modern Israel. And it isn’t a state that is being torn away from its past, in our thoughts, but it is a people.

Let me give the reader an example of the problem: Felix Mendelssohn, a converted Jew wrote the beautiful music “There shall a Star from Jacob rise.” It is based on the Old Testament passage Numbers 24:16-17a:

"The words of him who hears the words of God and knows the knowledge of the Most High.
Who sees the vision of the Almighty,
falling down, yet having his eyes uncovered.
I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near;
A star shall come forth from Jacob,
A scepter shall rise from Israel ... 

Now consider, the Jews of today are the physical descendants of the people Balaam was prophesying about.  And out of them would come the Messiah, the star shall rise, who would bring salvation.  Christians are children grafted into spiritual Israel.  They are adopted children because of that promised star and scepter.  Still, the physical children still exist and many of them make their home in modern day Israel. To deny their modern history is to deny their past history, to break all the links. The Israelites of the past did not disappear; they were not annihilated, instead, many of them returned to the holy land and survived.  And to deny their past history which is so meshed with Christianity is to deny the faith.

Yes, the word Israel in our hymns, biblical text and linked to God’s covenant are about ancient Israel. But the Jewish people and our faith in Jesus the Jewish messiah cannot be severed from their connections. But with item 07-01, there is danger that this will happen.

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