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On the Floor Between Two Chairs
(A Spiritual Journey)

by Paul Sumner

About the time of Neil Armstrong's one-small-step moon landing, I embarked on an uncharted voyage of my own from which I could never return. At the urging of my Greek tutor and spiritual mentor, I began reading the New Testament from a "Hebrew" perspective.

That meant reading it with awareness that behind the Greek text from which we get our English translations were the Hebrew language, Bible, and thought-world. Very soon my spiritual course swung toward a new North Star with new orientation points:

א — Behind the name "Jesus" is a form of God's Hebrew name YHVH, the Tetragrammaton.

בּ — The Greek names "Christ" and "Christian" mean "Messiah" and "Messianist."

ג — Jesus and his disciples did not repudiate but upheld Hebrew Scripture and remained faithful biblical Jews.

ד — Jesus did not promote "Judaism" as we know it; that is, the evolving traditions of the rabbis. Nor was he the founder of "Christianity" as we know it. He was the validator and guardian of the one Eternal Covenant.

Following this navigation change, I saw the error in the popular antithesis: Judaism/Old Testament versus Christianity/New Testament. I now thought in terms of One Biblical Faith. I wasn't raised in the church, so my religious or spiritual views were formed in my adulthood. I came to these things as an outsider, questioner and idealist, without loyalty to a group.

The New Testament taught me that the Hebrew Bible wasn't an irrelevant, skipable preface to the main book. It was three-fourths of the book. And if you start reading any book a thousand pages in you won't get the story straight.

I heard only hints of this whole-Bible-Hebrew perspective among Christian traditions.

While many ministers preached from the Old Testament, few ever referred to the Jewishness of Jesus. Most of them didn't make an issue of it. His Jewishness, it seemed, was irrelevant. My impression was his being Jewish was like an adolescent stage he had to go through before becoming what he truly was: a Christian, not a Jew. No, of course he was more than that. He was God, not a man. Well, he was the God-Man — though not the God-Jewish-Man.

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Some Christians were deeply worried about saying the wrong thing about him, or not saying enough. Doctrinal precision determined your salvation (and your membership in a group). So anything less than a fully orthodox testimony was avoided. You could talk about the human Jesus. But if you wanted to discuss the "Jewish Jesus" it almost implied you denied his deity.

Yeshua-Ancient-Hebrew
"Yeshua" in Ancient Hebrew

For them, the New Testament served as the magna carta of the New Faith, Christianity. The old had passed away because God had thought up new ideas for a new dispensation: grace was better than law; heaven better than an earthly kingdom.

Especially strong was their resistance to being "Judaized." They could observe Christmas with its 1-to-10 mix of biblical and pagan trappings, but not Passover. That perplexed me, because the disciples in the book of Acts, even Paul himself, observed Passover. They lived as orthodox Jews, though they believed in Jesus. They felt no contradiction. Paul proudly said, "I am a Jew," not "I was a Jew."

What changed in the later church?

Overall, it seemed to me that Christian leaders had inherited and passed on a corporate deafness to Paul's warning in Romans 11 about Gentile ingratitude, pride, and heartlessness toward Jews.

I couldn't reconcile the New Testament with how Christianity had drifted from its foundations. And that created alienation and longing for a real home.

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Unable to find a more biblical and Jewish Jesus in any denominational church, I was drawn to Orthodox Judaism.

It was clear that the New Testament fit better with that world. And the NT continued the biblical story of Israel and God's original Plan for the nations, whereas Gentile Christianity did not. The Church calendar begins new time. Biblical holidays are discarded or reclothed with new meanings. The Church celebrates no Old Testament events, and it memorializes Christian "saints," not Hebrew or Jewish ones.

The continuities between old and new were all broken.

I bought a Tanakh and copies of Rabbi J. H. Hertz's Siddur and his commentary on the Pentateuch, took classes at synagogues, and occasionally attended services. My wife and I started keeping home Shabbat and the three major biblical festivals. We subscribed to the Jerusalem Post (airmail paper edition), poured over the Jewish Catalog (the product of American baalei teshuvah hippies) and (usually) relished Molly Bar-David's Israeli cookbook.

When we could, we bought products made in Eretz Yisrael and tried to speak Ivrit Kallah at home. In Judaism we thought we found a welcome harbor.

Gradually, we considered conversion to Judaism as a way of making "whole" our faith in Jesus, whom we began to call Yeshua (the Hebrew form behind the Greek name Jesus). We even joined Americans and Canadians for Aliyah and met with a perplexed but friendly aliyah agent from Israel to find out how to become olim.

Jerusalem-Menorah
Kenesset Menorah, Jerusalem. Photo: Paul Sumner

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Looking back, all that now seems like an exercise in adolescent growth. Yet it confirmed to us that Yeshua was not the son of Western Christianity.

Inevitably, of course, I had to turn that last corner in the center of our idealized Jerusalem. The one I'd been avoiding. Didn't want to see. There over synagogue doors was a bold sign that had been there all along: "Jesus Not Welcome Here."

By then, after reading Jewish history, Elie Wiesel's "Night," and hearing a Holocaust survivor tell his story, I could understand why Jews mistrusted, feared, and even hated Christendom. But why hate Jesus?

At first, I thought that if Jews knew the true Jesus — the original Hebrew-Jewish "Yeshua of the New Testament" — they'd discard their mistrust and hatred for him. They'd surely see the difference between him and what Christian tradition made him into and what the institutional Church did to them as a people.

And if they were sincere spiritual seekers of the God of their fathers, they'd embrace him (not Christianity) as their own. They wouldn't, in my vision, join a church. They'd be like Yeshua's first disciples and live authentically Jewish, Messianic lives in their own congregations.

But my experiences with "Judaism" convinced me that the real issue between Jews and Yeshua wasn't a lack of intelligence or historical enlightenment. It was a soul issue.

The light and joy I had experienced in my studies in Hebrew Scripture weren't of interest to them. Instead, I encountered mild curiosity or indifference or a knowing pity or even anger that a goy took the Bible seriously as a revelation from God.

Western Jews, I concluded, don't read the Bible (the Jewish Bible, not the New Testament). At least, the way I was reading it. And I sensed that the majority had no idea who the real Jesus was, and is.

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Finally, I did an honest counting.

Most of the Jews I'd met, studied under, or read weren't personally interested in the God of their fathers — much less Yeshua. Their religion was a mix of the Jewish people themselves, their synagogue/community center life, and the State of Israel. Liberal secularism (with a veneer of Jewish culture) was a common creed.

God, by now, was unnecessary because Jewish accomplishment and civilization were the Malkhut Hashamayim, Kingdom of God. And Ha-Am, the People, were the messianic presence on earth.

Not all educated Jews were irreligious, atheistic. Some articulate conservatives were even evangelizing the Gentiles via radio [now the web] on behalf of Judaism as the preeminent religion of reason, morality, and ethics. A good religion for pluralistic democracies.

But their saving "messiah" was observing the Ten Commandments. There was nothing about the need for the "new heart" mentioned in the Hebrew prophets. Nothing about inborn human rebellion or inability to reach God or to be holy, as He is. There was a deadly self-confidence.

menorahs
Judaica Window — Jerusalem
Photo: Paul Sumner

As one of my unofficial mentors, Jakob Jocz, once wrote, "Judaism is essentially a religion for those who can." That is, for those who have no need of God, Jesus, or redemption.

Even though I often supported Orthodox views on religion, family, and morality, it was clear that among the Ultra-orthodox Haredim, "true Judaism" is defined by the Talmud and the chain of rabbinic Tradition, not by the Scriptures.

The rebbes aren't and never were sola scriptura protestants. The Tanakh or Miqra does not have the final say.

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Sunlit rocks insistently, finally, emerged through my fog: Judaism had evolved into an independent self-sustaining religion within a spiritual ghetto of its own making.

In Medieval Europe, the Catholic Church created the first ghettoes to isolate Jews from Christians. And over the centuries, Jews cooperated. They put up stone walls to keep Catholicism — and Jesus — out. They weren't interested in Jesus, Jewish or non.

They created a messianic civilization without him, without a messiah. And to insure cohesiveness inside the yishuv/ghetto they censored anyone who discussed "that Man." Worse, if someone dared believe in him, they branded them traitors, worthy of symbolic funerals for being dead to Israel.

That stunned me most: how the most oppressed community had become intolerant toward things involving God.

Censorship, denial of individual convictions, and exile from the community fill Roman Catholic Church history. It also describes the annals of the Jewish people. For all the espoused hunger for liberty and passion to search for God, the Jewish search always has short chains. It must stay within acceptable bounds.

It must never admit Yeshua.

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Our third trip to Israel was the beginning of the end of my long Homeland quest.

We stayed ten weeks with believing Israeli friends in Tel Aviv, Haifa, the Golan, and Jerusalem. In each place, we witnessed a bright, emerging, living presence in the Land: Jews who believed in Yeshua within their own land, in his Homeland. It was like seeing the sunrise after a long dark night.

In contrast, the atmosphere among the competing houses of Judaism in Israel smelled of smoke and war, suspicion, intimidation — and unbelief.

The unbelief was disheartening.

During a visit to Yad VaShem, I took a photo of a Nazi lampshade made from a Torah scroll. The amber parchment, crudely cut, sutured together and hanging from a chain, is from Exodus 15 which celebrates in song God's victory over the Egyptians at the Red Sea. It's prophetically ironic.

nazi-lampshade
Yad VaShem Holocaust Memorial — Jerusalem Photo: Paul Sumner

The Germans were defeated, their pharaoh became ashes, and the 3,500-year-old Song of Moses endures. But for many Jews there is no song of victory.

The lampshade is a emblem of the demonic effort to destroy the People of Israel by destroying their faith in the God of those Scriptures.

It worked terribly. The Spiritual Holocaust has taken a far greater toll among the Jewish people. The Bible is to them a dead book; they’re dead to God. They can’t hear Him, so they don’t believe Him.

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Leaving Jerusalem for the last time, my mind was seared by lines from two prophets who wrote after Zion’s first Shoah in 586 BCE: “She has no menachem, she has no comforter” (Lamentations 1:9; Zephaniah 1:15).

Yet, I knew she could have a Comforter, Advocate, in Yeshua (1 John 2:1).

After several conflicted years in the States, wondering how I could make aliyah and be honest about my faith, I gave up. As much as I wanted to be mishpachah, I’d always be a ger toshav, a resident stranger. No, as long as Yeshua Mashiach was the frame through which I interpreted God, reality, and life purpose, I’d be a goy, treif, an enemy. The activists in Yad L’Achim would see to that.

So Israel, for me, was not that safe harbor. I could not expect what people could not give. Though disappointed and still Homeless, it was necessary for me to learn that spiritual harbors are not a matter of geography or ethnicity. There is but one Harbor — and He borders the whole sea.

I know there are courageous citizens of the Yishuv who are true believers in God and Messiah Yeshua. Disciples in Brooklyn, Benei Braq, Mea Shearim, Gilo, the Galil and Golan. Old and young Jews living incognito: living in two worlds, between two camps: “on the floor between two chairs.”

That’s where a Jewish man once said I lived.

He believed that sitting on a solid chair in a traditional house with a specific address (whether “Christian” or “Jewish”) was the best thing to do. You musn’t live in-between. “You’ll never be accepted. You're arrogant to think you’re smarter than everyone inside the houses.”

But it’s not the floor I occupy — it’s another, better kind of chair.

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Gratefully, I’ve met many chairless Jews and many Gentiles who have no resting pews in church. Through prayer, tenacious discipleship, and liberating study, they too found the Harbor. And in time they chose to join the watch-camps in the hills encircling the Homeland, wherever they live in the world.

Each of us has tasted firsthand the birth-pang truth that “here we have no lasting city, we’re seeking the One to Come” (Hebrews 13).

This heart-breaking reminder was written by a Jewish believer living just before the fall of the Temple and Jerusalem in 70. His words cross time and stir up both first-child expectation and daily endurance for the delayed arrival.

ahavah-arm
"Ahavat Olam Ahavtich"
(Jeremiah 31)

Therefore, we too, who love her in our generation, must work and wait — for the next Jerusalem.

That’s what I’ve learned after my sojourn of many years. Yeshua’s company of scattered exiles is my people, my country (1 Samuel 22:2). Where he and they sojourn is home for now — ad hayom hahu — till That Day.

So what you’ll find on this website is material written by messianic halutzim, pioneers. It’s meant to encourage others wanting to leave Exile for an ancient trek, living in sukkot in the wilderness. We aren’t calling anyone to come join a particular group. Yet it’s still recruitment literature.

Jeremiah speaks across the centuries: “Depart! Don’t stay! Come out!” It’s in the desert where you find “the ancient paths” and “the good way.”

Out there — out here — “You shall find rest for your souls” (6:16).

Paul Sumner

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