“Therefore search the Bible diligently; read the Prophets with an open mind; learn to understand the New Testament without prejudice, and you will be convinced that the eternal truths stand in an inseparable connection with one another. Even those which appear to contradict actually complete and explain each other, as the jewel completes a costly ring; as the protecting roof covers the house; the golden cupola caps the cathedral; the branches crown the tree.”
– “The Rabbi Testifies”, pg.55, as translated by Vine of David publishers, Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein (1825-1908)
The book, The Everlasting Jew: Selected Writings of Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein, from Vine of David, an imprint of First Fruits of Zion, Marshfield, MO, celebrates the life of this Orthodox rabbi from the end of the 19th Century and also exposes an English-speaking audience to his writings. What is remarkable about this gentleman was his unflinching passion for Yeshua Messiah along with his unapologetic devotion to Torah Judaism. In a rare case of insight and clarity, he cut through the prevailing thought of both the Christianity and Judaism of his day and embraced both communities. He also fought with his pen against wrong-headed ideas within both expressions, criticizing both Replacement Theology within Christianity and its tragic consequences, as well as the equally tragic results of cultural Judaism making the exploration of the New Testament and the claims of Christ a taboo exercise. The rabbi strove to peel back the veil of mystery from the writings of the Jewish apostles of the Master and expose Yeshua to the Jewish world, without the typical attendant call to leave Rabbinic Judaism and convert to Christianity. Rabbi Lichtenstein encouraged a life of devoted Torah-observance, while also casting one’s allegiance upon the risen Messiah.
It is unknown from the pages of the book whether or not the rabbi foresaw the current phenomenon of Gentiles leaving Christianity behind and embracing Torah Judaism, though it would be safe to assume not. Nor, it would seem, could he have foreseen the often bizarre mutations of this as we see today within the Hebrew Roots movement.
Rabbi Lichtenstein refused to be baptized as a Christian, as he was deeply concerned about maintaining a faithful connection to his native community. He was convicted that there was nothing wrong with his religion of Judaism, and felt very strongly that faith in Yeshua as Messiah and King of Israel was a valid form of expression of his native faith. He remained steadfast in his Torah-observance, and in his devotion to Talmud and the Midrashic tradition, as the foundation of Jewish thought and practice, and was loyal to Jewish identity throughout his life. He also paid a severe price for this stance. Ultimately, he was forced to step down from his rabbinic post, after a number of years, and was reviled by many of his own countryman and Christians alike, many of whom were perplexed and even offended that he would not simply “choose sides”, but instead, in their view, co-existed in both worlds. In spite of this, he was also beloved by many, and led many of his synagogue assembly to faith in Yeshua, even while also exhorting them to remain faithful to the Torah.
These factors make Rabbi Lichtenstein a brother-in-arms with the early apostles, as scholars agree that Judaism was clearly the religion of all the followers of Christ for many decades, before Hellenism, political pressure and persecution took their toll on the assembly.
Today, there are many people in the United States and across the world who are interested in connecting to the roots of their Christianity; to get beyond the shallow life-coaching and entertainment-centered modern evangelical experience and get back to the whole counsel of God’s word.
Unfortunately, most of these folks are blissfully unaware of the massive paradigm shift which awaits them, if they truly are going to get back to a First Century expression of faith in Christ. There are many pitfalls and dead ends that await the unsuspecting man or woman who dives headlong into the Hebrew Roots movement. In many of these expressions, it is “buyer beware”!
But there are resources available, if you search carefully, which gleam like a diamond in the sunlight, and richly reward those who explore them. This book is one of those.
From the jacket flap: “Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein (1825-1908), served as district rabbi in Tapioszele, Hungary when an encounter with the Gospel changed his life. He became an outspoken disciple of Yeshua of Nazareth, but he remained in his post as district rabbi for several years. Despite pressure from rabbinic authorities, Jewish believers, and Christian leaders, he could not be compelled to renounce Judaism or his devotion to the Torah.”
Part memoir, part biography, part compilation; this book deeply moved me as I read it. It is not a long read, coming in at under 140 pages, but it is one of those books that one will reference again and again. Lichtenstein, according to the editors, wrote in a verbose, Victorian style typical of his day, but the translators did a wonderful job of capturing the rabbi’s thoughts clearly without losing too much of the character of the original works. The result is a truly inspirational reading experience. The rabbi’s sermons pack a tremendous punch. A person of faith will be deeply stirred by the rabbi’s passionate exhortations and insights, and his many decades of service to God are evident in the perspective and wisdom found in his words. Many messianic believers and leaders should read this book for that aspect alone.
The book is formatted in a delightful and respectful manner. Instead of having the reader venture directly into the translated writings of Rabbi Lichtenstein, there are a series of introductory portions which enable the reader to have a meaningful appreciation for the life of this extraordinary man, giving, I believe, greater depth of experience to the reader once the rabbi’s essays are put forth.
I will try to share a few highlights from the book which impacted me.
The opening, short essay by Jordon Gayle Levy is beautiful. Jordan’s Jewish heart beats strong through her brief 7-page introduction. Like me, she is completely taken in by this man and his writings and, also like me, desires by the end of the book to have had the chance to sit before him and learn Torah from him. In her words:
“He did not just want his Jewish brothers and sisters to accept, confess, and believe in the Messiah, but he wanted that belief to intensify their observance of Torah and Judaism.”
“The rabbi viewed the Talmud and all Jewish law as a tutor and…custodian…established for…a time when the Temple lies in ruins and the Messiah is not yet ruling from his throne in Jerusalem. He believed that the Talmud preserves Judaism and the Torah until the Messiah returns…”
Such a view was not only extremely rare for his time, it is nearly (and sadly) as rare today. The majority of messianic believers today have a poorly developed understanding of Judaism, and (perhaps due to Christian indoctrination) are generally suspicious, if not outright antagonistic, towards the rabbis and their traditions.
Yet, when these well-meaning folks start to try to apply Torah to their faith expression, they must invariably at some point resort to this or that rabbinic tradition in order to find a way to sensibly apply the written Torah. It’s impossible not to, at some level, since the Torah does not explicitly spell out how to do certain things it commands its reader to do.
Rabbi Lichtenstein understood well that it is foolish to attempt to reinvent the wheel. He saw nothing wrong with the rabbinic traditions. What he struggled with was the stubborn refusal to acknowledge Yeshua as a legitimate candidate for the claim of being the Messiah within the traditional Jewish world.
D.Thomas Lancaster, the educational director of FFOZ, next offers a well-done synopsis of the rabbi’s career, casting an unflinching gaze upon the swirling controversy which surrounded his ministry and which yet and still manages to capture the stoic, resigned steadfastness of the man himself, in the midst of all of it. It is at times a painful account to read, and one’s heart breaks for the man when the extreme sacrifices he endured are considered.
I appreciated the bibliography of the rabbi’s complete writings after this point, as it is clear that this book only represents the most important of his works.
Finally, on page 51, the actual writings of the rabbi are presented, lovingly translated into English by the Vine of David team.
“The Rabbi Testifies” is just that; a testimonial of his faith and the journey which led him to belief in Yeshua as Messiah. In the rabbi’s words, describing reading the New Testament for the first time:
“A sudden clearness, a light, flashed through my soul…For I looked for thorns but gathered roses; discovered pearls instead of pebbles – heavenly treasure.”
He ends his testimony with a sad summary of his treatment at the hands of both Christians and Jews for his stance on faith, and with an exhortation.
“Reconciling Estranged Brothers” is a message ahead of its time. It is as if the rabbi were born out of time, such as Paul, and is speaking directly to the controversies and issues that the Messianic movement faces today both within its own ranks and in relation to the Jewish people; particularly with the Orthodox, who have no reason yet to view Messianic Judaism as anything more than Christianity with Jewish dress. The percentage of messianic believers today who share a positive view of Judaism and Jewish custom is small but growing. But it is most certainly a minority.
The rabbi, in this essay, asserts powerfully that there is no separation between faith in Yeshua and the practice of Judaism.
“Entreating the Jewish People” is clearly a Jewish missionary effort, but not in the way that so many attempt to do so today. Organizations such as One for Israel, or Jews for Jesus do not share the rabbi’s perspective as he articulates it here in this essay. To those organizations, and others like them, while well-meaning in intent, Torah-keeping and Judaism itself is a sort of shell that is maintained by the religious and cultural Jew, but which is abolished by Christ. A Jew must accept Christ, the “author” and “completer” of their “old religion”, in order to be a “completed Jew”. Such phraseology is understandably offensive to even secular Jews, and is not employed by Rabbi Lichtenstein. Yet, in great and classic Jewish satirical style, he admonishes his brethren, and one can almost see the wry smile as he writes the words:
“We Jews will receive with respect anyone else, however opposed he may be to God and His Word. We will esteem the godless and the secular…we smile benevolently at the latest strange ideas. Only one thing – oh horror! – oh grief! – we will not endure, that Yeshua should be preached to us, and whosoever dares to name that sacred name with reverence, we will curse and bitterly execrate.”
His pen cuts both ways, however, as he also slams Christians who are believers in name only, and yet justify such atrocities as the blood libel scandals and the wrongful treatment of Jews in their community.
“The Shechinah and Israel’s Messiah” is perhaps the most subtle of the essays. I detected a veiled attempt by the rabbi at challenging the trinitarian dogma and substituting a Jewish understanding of how the Divine Presence indwelt the Messiah. This of course is an important argument to make, since the two most daunting doctrines of the Church that stumble a Jew from receiving Christ are the perception that Jesus taught apostasy against the Torah and second being the doctrine of the Trinity.
The rabbi sidesteps the issue of the Trinity doctrine, ultimately, but the way he does so indicates to an observant reader that he disagrees with it, however he qualifies this with the reminder to his Jewish reader that the rabbis teach, in essence if not in form, a version of the same with the Ein-Sof, or Ten Faces of the Sefirot. The rabbi says:
“I will not speak of the Holy Spirit or the Christian doctrine of the Godhead – Father, Son and Spirit – although our Chasidim, who claim to be successors of the heroes of the Talmud, and with whom the orthodox in Judaism now go hand in hand, believe in a ten-fold Godhead…”
The rabbi presents the Messiah as a “reflection” as in a mirror, giving a famous rabbinic example from Jewish writings, further enhancing his allusion to the tzimtzum, or self-limitation of HaShem in revealing Himself through His agent.
Perhaps my favorite essay of them all is “The Talmud On Trial”.
Unlike many of his other writings, which are aimed primarily at his own people, this essay appears chiefly to be a response to those Christian missionaries who wish to denigrate the Talmud and Jewish tradition as part of their strategy for reaching the Jewish people for Christ. In this essay, the rabbi passionately and effectively discredits such arguments, using a healthy machine-gun arsenal of Talmudic anecdotes to support his argument that the Talmud is not only a rich source of Jewish thought and historical perspective, as well as a source of halachic authority, but that it is also quite consistent with apostolic thought in the New Testament.
I really resonated with this essay, as Talmudic study is near and dear to my heart, and a chief focus of my ministry here at The Oasis.
The Christian (and now the Messianic) world has never lacked people who gleefully extract selected, truncated passages of Talmud to try and portray the sages as Christ-killing haters who subjugate women, stone children, issue divorce papers over burnt toast and promote outlandish superstition. The rabbi debunks these theories as only one who is an expert in Talmud can. How refreshing to read the words of a Talmudic scholar who is also a devoted follower of Christ.
In defending Talmudic scholarship and study, the rabbi speaks to its critics:
“…Nothing positive is said about the Talmud. Nothing is said about the Talmud’s life-giving practices of true spirituality. No mention is made of the genuine effort, spiritual labor, and practical applications taught in the Talmud. Nothing is said of the inward holiness of a genuine, righteous, observant (Talmudic) Jew: his sobriety, his moderation, his kindness and patience, his strength and tenacity. The observant Jew’s household, his family, and his community all know and correctly understand this about him.”
Finally, the final essay, “A Rabbi Laments” is birthed in pain: The pain of seeing his Jewish brethren turn to the world and attempt to hide their Jewishness. He points out that no amount of identity-obfuscation can reduce the persecution, the hate, the senseless rage of the nations against God’s chosen people. He laments the failure of Jews to embrace their unique religious identity as the priests of the world; the light to the nations. And he laments the failure of his people to recognize and accept their King, and end the long exile.
The irony of the testimony of the rabbi is that he saw brighter days ahead, but could not have foreseen the Holocaust which was yet to come.
As believers in Messiah, whether Jew or Gentile, we must champion the unique and distinct identity of the Jewish people, and follow our Messiah in a way that follows the example of men like Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein.
This book is a must have for all who seek to follow God and follow Torah. Vine of David is to be commended for this outstanding release, preserving the memory and testimony of a great and venerable messianic pioneer, and esteemed worshiper of God.