40. Community: Editorial and Two Interviews

Clifford Denton

The Community Rule (or Manual of Discipline) of the Dead Sea Sect begins:

“The Master shall teach the saints to live according to the Book of the Community Rule, that they may seek God with a whole heart and soul, and do what is good and right before Him as He commanded by the hand of Moses and all His servants the Prophets; that they may love all that He has chosen and hate all that he has rejected; that they may abstain from all evil and hold fast to all good; that they may practise truth, righteousness, and justice upon earth and no longer stubbornly follow a sinful heart and lustful eyes committing all manner of evil.” (Taken from ‘The Dead Sea Scrolls in English’, G Vermes, Penguin 1990)

The remains of the houses and other buildings, where the Dead Sea Sect lived, can be seen in Qumran today, near the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the Spring of 1947. They are no more than ruins but provide a site where one can walk and meditate on what this community must have been. Also one might meditate more generally on the way community life has been an essential goal for mankind since the creation. The Community Rule was probably written around 100 BC and is evidence of a small community who sought to be separate from the influences of the world systems and to live in right relationship with God and with one another.

Further south in the area of the Dead Sea one comes to Masada, and one’s meditations move on several generations to around 70 AD. Here Herod had built a palace and refuge, on top of a high hill, for his personal use, but this was to become the last stronghold of the Jewish zealots after the fall of Jerusalem. These zealots would not give in to the might of Rome and sought to stand together to preserve their Jewish identity against tremendous odds. Their resolution not to give in led to their death at their own hands: a dramatic and moving testimony. It is an awesome thing to reflect on these matters as one wanders among the ruins on the lofty heights of Masada today. As one looks at the remains of the siege ramp that was built by the Romans day by day over many months from base to summit of this high hill, demonstrating to the zealots, surely, the certainty of their final extinction, one can consider the price that people will pay to preserve their community life.

These are not the only dramatic incidents of history. The Jewish people have been persecuted from the time that they first became a community. This persecution is not only physical, though there have been many extreme physical persecutions. Persecution is also about principles and ideals. The Empires of Greece and Rome, for example, have sought to infiltrate the ideas of the philosophers of these Empires and have promoted the false gods of the Empires.

The need to be a part of a community is ingrained into the human character. The word ‘community’ implies that there is something that is to be held in common; common beliefs, common rules for organising society, common submission to agreed principles for the sharing of physical goods, common goals. Some communities live on a shared plot of land. Others are scattered but have common ideals. Once established these things are distinguishing features of a particular people group and considered worthy of defence, sometimes to death.

Mankind is family orientated because of the design and intent of his creator. Families have distinct identities, traditions, beliefs, authority structures and so on. Communities, likewise, reflect the character of their families. Community principles can influence the family and the family can influence the community. There is an interaction, and sometimes a tension. On the whole, therefore, people of the world seek to find a community life which addresses their needs and meets their aspirations. Stable communities have set ideas, set principles which are describable in general terms, and there are also responsibilities which individual members of the community must accept.

When God singled out the Hebrew people He began to teach them how He expected His community to live. He brought the Torah and the Feasts and promised blessings to His community if they would follow His ways. He gave them their own distinctive characteristics. The extent to which the Jewish people would go to hold fast to these distinctives (as they understood them) is reflected in the history of the Dead Sea Sects and the Zealots. Then Yeshua came and a renewed and deeper emphasis came to God’s teaching in the community of His disciples. Throughout the generations since then, the world has developed its own systems for community life and the church has found many expressions of community life as it has sought to follow the traditions of its historical past and the teaching of its Master.

In our day the need of the Lord’s people to live out a community life, which fulfils His teaching, is as important as in any previous generation. The constant struggle against the standards of the world is also there, so that community emphasis is often found weakened in the church, compared with what it should be. As we study the roots of our faith, therefore, this is an essential topic for us to consider and one which should fill us with the sort of zeal that has characterised the best expressions of believing community life over the centuries.

During the time of compilation of this issue I have had the privilege of sampling community life in a number of different ways, including that of believing Jews in Israel today, and also among believing Gentiles who want nothing but the highest form of community life. I have had the privilege to discuss community life with a member of a Jewish community in Britain. I have also been inspired when considering various aspects of family and community life in seminars addressing the roots of our faith. Similarly, I have been alarmed to monitor the decline of secular community life and also the infiltration of counterfeit spiritual ideas, in our day. These things and more are contained in the articles in this edition.

At the end of it all my conviction has deepened concerning the relevance of this topic. If one emphasis has dominated the investigations above all else it is the role of the family. The family is probably central to our spiritual enemy’s attacks in our day and this should come as no surprise when we realise that, according to the fundamental teaching of our faith, this is the foundational unit of our communities. When all is considered, a meditation on this theme of community might bring some of us to our senses and restore essential elements of family life and community life which are even in danger of being eroded away. Its importance is stressed in the prophetic message for the end times: “See, I Will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.” (Malachi 4:5-6) ………….

Lessons from a Jewish Community

(This article is based on an interview with a leading member of a Jewish community in South Wales. He belongs to the Jewish community of Cardiff which has around one thousand members. I met with him one afternoon a few hours before the beginning of Shabbat and am grateful for the valuable time that we had together discussing aspects of life in the Jewish Community. We had not gone far into our discussions before I realised how diverse a subject this can be. There are some straightforward ideas that emerge, but it all depends on the questions one asks, as to which line of thought develops. There seem to be aspects of community life among the Jews which are lived rather than analysed. Questions as to why the communities have been preserved do have answers, but they only seem to be partial. To get to the bottom of it all would take more than one short interview and many questions could be raised that were not within the scope of this particular interview. Nevertheless, there are some fascinating and important ideas and a start to this fascinating and important topic.)

My first question was the key to the whole interview, “What factors have held the scattered Jewish communities together for nearly two thousand years since the destruction of the Temple?” This was summed up within two main factors, the Sabbath and the dietary laws. Indeed, the fact was emphasised that it is not so much that Israel has kept the Sabbath and dietary laws as the fact that the Sabbath and the dietary laws have kept Israel. In addition, persecution and the fact that the Jewish communities have always been in minority have ensured that communities have been preserved.

Israel was given a religion which has continued throughout the generations and become the essential distinctives of Jewish communities. Israel was given its religion when the Nation was born in the wilderness and this religion has continued to this day. The traditions of Judaism are the essential elements emerging from the roots within a myriad of laws. After thousands of years these are indelibly imprinted on the community and have become the marks of identification.

Indeed, for the Jew, as for any group, it is natural to want to be linked to one’s roots and maintain an identity. There is a social aspect to this. Wherever a Jew goes in the world he has common interests with any other Jew and this can be the means of forming and building friendships. This is not excluding other factors that influence the Jew from the world around but the religious aspects of Judaism are so prominent as to give a particularly Jewish approach to the major issues of life. The common root of the Hebrew language is, of course, another distinctive which identifies a Jew anywhere in the world (whether he speaks it or not). There is a strong belief that expresses itself both directly and indirectly in Jewish communities, that the distinctives of the Jew should be maintained.

In the context of this, it is interesting to note that the Sabbath and dietary laws are not kept particularly well by the majority of Jews. Out of the Cardiff community of one thousand, for example, there is a core of only about thirty who are strict with their practices. This principle applies more generally in a wide range of aspects of Judaism, including the festivals. Not many will keep them in every detail, while most will keep the festivals to some degree. It would seem that this strongly religious core is the main means by which the Jews have remained distinctive over the years. They carry the burden, in some way, for the whole community. Because they are there, even though most of the community cannot be so religious, there is a standard that is acknowledged and the community maintains its identity.

The synagogue is a focal point for the community. It is a social centre and one of the first things that is built when a community of Jews comes together. Without it there is an impediment but the community would not dissolve without it. As in the Second World War, if a synagogue is removed meetings will take place in homes. Indeed, Shabbat itself is celebrated by far greater numbers in the home than the numbers who go to the synagogue.

On the priority of family, it was pointed out that the family is a main unit of any society and certainly this is true of Jewish communities. When the family unit is allowed to decline then a nation declines too, as is happening in Britain today. Judaism influenced Christianity and the focus on the family that has been a consequence for both religions has been, and still is, immensely important. Family responsibility is wide and a basis of Judaism. In Jewish communities there is also the concept of the wider family. On Holy days, for example, families will gather from far distances to be together.

Despite this, there are tensions in Jewish communities as the world’s influence penetrates family life and there is decline in community life that is evident because of this. There is not uniformity across all Jewish communities. Some are far more strict and separate from general society than others. It is considered, however, to be important to recognise the need to be a part of the wider community and to adapt to a changing world.

Are the challenges of today greater than in the past? Is there a greater likelihood of dispersion of the Jewish communities because of the strength of influence of the world’s structures? It was thought that this was not so. Over the many centuries of Judaism there have been a variety of pressures to withstand, at least equal to the present day. During the time of the Maccabees around 165 B.C.E., for example, there was an immense pressure of Hellenism which was withstood. The Bible also speaks of these dangers from the early days. There is a constant struggle to live the two identities of the Jewish community and the wider local community, but it is possible, and this is not new.

What about the call to be a Holy people? Thinking Jews who would stress the high calling to holiness would be a small minority. Holiness is an emphasis of the Jewish religion but not strictly followed by most, who will tend to follow the ways of the world. In Israel today, for example, there are only about ten percent religious Jews. The rest tend to go the way of all the world. Yet it is generally acknowledged that the role of the Jew is to be an example to the world, loving their neighbour as themselves. There are many who will acknowledge this outwardly but not obey it inwardly.

Judaism intends life to be lived in the way God would want it lived. Though intended, this is not easy. Torah is intended to be at the heart of community life, but in all honesty this is not so except for that small core. Yet, as has been said, this small core retains the focus for the whole community. It has been said that membership of the community fits into three categories (there is a mnemonic for this based on the three Hebrew letters of the word ‘Sibur’, one of the words for community). The small core of committed people represents the first category. They attempt to do everything that is expected properly. Then there is a second category who generally conform but not totally or deeply. The third category consists of the backsliders. It is interesting that the strength of the influence of the inner committed core is such as to maintain the general framework of community life. For example, parents from non-religious families will take pleasure if their children become strongly religious. Another example is the interesting case of a man who usually had very little religious commitment, but was found all day in the synagogue on the Day of Atonement. A further example was that of a man who had turned away from the community on marrying a gentile, but who returned to the community when the marriage failed. In such ways the tie to the community is always there and the returning backslider always finds a welcome back. Yet without the religious core the community would collapse, and there is a particular growing problem of marriages outside the community.

Are there other factors which keep the religious core together? What about Messianic hope or the fulfilment of biblical promises of prosperity in the end days? In general terms it is not a vision for the future which strengthens the core. It is simply the day by day observance of religious matters. The return to the Land of Israel and greater promises for the future are seen as a consequence of daily observance rather than the objective.

The strength of commitment to the community does not depend on a conscious knowledge of the bloodline from Abraham. Indeed, there have been many conversions of gentiles to Judaism over the centuries, so it is not easy to know who the physical descendants from Abraham are. Converts are brought into the community as full members, not to be reminded of their gentile background. The common identity is more on the common interests and practices than anything else, though this may have developed over the years, since we read in the Bible of Jews at the time of Jesus who were proud of their family descent from Abraham.

The Cardiff community of Jews has a number of activities which are based at the synagogue, including an old people’s club and a day centre. They share in charitable fund raising, particularly for needs in the Land of Israel. The caring community is an expectation of Judaism.

Another way of investigating the key elements of a Jewish community is to discover the requirements for conversion. These include, first, undertaking the external symbols of Judaism summed up, in part, as in loving one’s neighbour as oneself. Secondly, having good reason for wanting to belong to the Jewish community, because it is an unnatural decision to become a part of a persecuted minority and there is a guard against ‘fifth columnists’. Thirdly, a convert would be examined by the ecclesiastical authorities, and this would be followed by teaching and examination relating to the Torah. The convert would then be put with a Jewish family and there would be a certain amount of observation. Circumcision for males is necessary and also every convert is expected to undergo ritual immersion. Observance of the Sabbath and food laws is then expected as well as maturing in all aspects of religion. In Jewish law it is then forbidden to ever refer to the convert’s past. He is fully integrated into the Jewish community.

Has identification with the Land of Israel been an important factor to bind the community together? Yes, but not always consciously. There are prayers three times each day regarding the return to the land and it is simply understood that the Land of Israel never ceased to be the land of the Jews for this 3500 years. Indeed, Jews always feel alien in a strange land and it is an interesting to reflect on the fact that it is the gentile communities which emphasise this. They expect the Jew to be an alien and in this sense emphasise his Jewishness and keep him that way. There are many labels for a person in society, but a Jew is always labelled a Jew above everything else. This may not be out of antisemitism or any other hostility. A Jew does not belong to another society because he is simply not expected to belong. This has led to ghettos, but it is usually a principle which goes with the Jew wherever he is. He is forced to be identified with his own community by exclusion from other communities. Hence he cannot be truly at home permanently anywhere else but in his own land.

What about the sense of God keeping the community? Shouldn’t God’s role in the community be at the top of the list? For Jews who believe in God He is always there in the background but there is no expectation of a day by day interaction at a personal level. The community is not generally conscious of God in their midst. His plans are beyond human understanding. There is no direct expectation of God bringing about personal needs in a defined way. Judaism is a religion of ‘doing’ from the moment one gets out of bed to the moment of return. It involves prayers and blessings to God but these are simply routines to be carried out. Prayers are said but there is not the consciousness of praying to God. Praying is a part of Judaism and so it is done. There is the sense of keeping oneself ready for a communication with God at some time in the future. Except on specific prescribed times attention is not given to thinking about God. God’s ways are not to be understood, so He is there in the background to history, evidenced by the way Israel is kept as a nation and has returned to the Land, but in a way which is impossible to understand.

It was interesting at the conclusion of our interview to ask if there are any things that Christians should learn from Jewish communities in order to strengthen their own community life. Interestingly, it was thought that there was nothing that had not been achieved already. Christianity, he felt, had adopted the moral aspects of the Torah, particularly the teaching to love one’s neighbour as oneself. He felt that they could do no more than this. He saw Judaism as a code which encompasses all aspects of life, to do with every moment of the day, with a myriad of requirements. He saw Christianity as having taught that there are no fixed things to do. There is no need for a Sabbath in the Jewish sense. He sees early Christianity as rebelling against the law and throwing out the Sabbath. He felt that Christians should cease to blame the Jews for killing Jesus (and this was happening now). He felt that they should respect their ‘mother’ religion, but that it is too far down the path now to recover a Jewish identity. This brought to my mind Romans 11:11 and an idea that a Messianic Jewish teacher once gave me, that if Christians simply celebrated Shabbat correctly in their communities then, without doubt, Romans 11:11 would be fulfilled. But that is my own particular conclusion from an interesting interview, for which I am both challenged and thankful. ……………………………..

A view From Jerusalem

(Based on an interview with a leader of the Moshav Yad-Hashmona near Jerusalem. The believers’ Moshav is situated in the Judaean hills overlooking Tel Aviv. Wood imported from Finland has been used extensively in the construction of the buildings. There are houses for individual families and halls for meeting together. There is a successful guest house which is a community project and brings in valuable income to the community)

A Moshav differs from a Kibbutz in some fundamental ways. It is a community of people who live on the same physical site and share in some but not all general facilities, but the family unit is preserved as a distinct element. There is a sharing of some common aims, but this does not override the function of the family as the basic unit of community life. Indeed, from the discussions that took place as a background to this paper, the importance of role of the family in a community was probably emphasized more than any other factor. Though linked with experience in the Moshav, the comments have much more general emphasis than this. Indeed, at the start of our discussion it was made clear that we must define what we mean by community, because there are many ways that we can use the word. I emphasised that I wanted to explore what should characterise the community of believers in Yeshua both locally and globally. Is there a model? Are there some basic principles which apply within the context of variety of cultural and physical frameworks? Is there a key to be found in the context of our Jewish roots, perhaps best seen in the life of the early church? Does the Moshav or Kibbutz lead us to a model?

It was made clear that it is preferable to emphasise our Scriptural or Biblical heritage rather than our Judaic or Hebraic heritage, seeing the dangers of looking for something in traditions rather than from Scripture. Within the context of Scripture itself there is no scholastic definition of “community” in what could be considered an element of systematic theology. The material which can be discovered in Scripture is scattered and can be applied in a variety of ways depending on the location and situation of believers. The Moshav is just one way to develop community life in the context of a group of believers settling in the Land of Israel today.

Even the New Testament community described in the Book of Acts does not provide a clear model for community. It is attractive because of the emphasis on sharing and the believers being of one mind and heart. These may be right principals but the particular community that was described in Acts was for a given time and place. It is nowhere described as a community to be modelled. Experience even shows that this was an unnatural outworking of community life to some extent.

One can, however, assert the primary function of a believing community to be understood from the Hebrew term “kehilah”, an assembly or congregation of those who worship God. This is not to be understood as a synagogue of believers. The synagogue would not give a complete and satisfactory model. There are some social elements that are relevant, of course, but a believing community should not simply be a social community. The seven congregations of the Book of Revelation give some of the clearest positive and negative principles that must be considered among the other scattered references in the Bible.

In further consideration of the believing community there can be seen four essential elements that should characterise it: individual, family, congregation and universal community. Community life should begin with the emphasis of the individual believer’s relationship with God. Then this relationship is to be in the context of the nuclear family. The congregation is then seen as an outworking of families coming together for corporate worship. The congregation itself is a member of the wider universal community of believers. In addition, within the life of the local community of families there is to be provision for the members without families (the alien, the widow, the orphan, so often mentioned in Scripture). These are not independent issues. The individual, the family, the congregation are all essential and grow together. When this growth is harmonious there is not a priority in the structure, rather an interdependence of the different aspects of community life.

Viewed in this way the family is intended to develop as a small unit of the congregation. There is clear biblical teaching on the place of the man and woman and injunctions as to how children should be raised with sound instruction and according to good example. The Bible emphasises these priorities quite clearly. For example, the Feast of Pesach is a remembrance of essential details of God’s interventions and contains elements that should be told and retold generation by generation. The congregation itself is then a combination of individuals and families, including those who are single, sharing in some activities together and celebrating the feasts. The family and congregation mature together. Both are essential aspects of a believing community, but it must be stressed that a healthy congregation is the consequence of healthy family life. For example, the role of women is first in the family and then in the congregation. The rise of feminism in the Protestant Church is not scriptural.

In regard to where the emphasis of Scripture lies (family or wider congregation) in regard to studies relating to community, it was pointed out that the mature believer should see an inter-connectedness. It is not one or other but both. In reading the Bible nothing should be neglected so that the full picture can be seen. The New Testament interprets the Old Testament and the Old Testament interprets the New Testament. Yeshua is the important key to this. We must master Scripture at personal, family and community level and this takes time. Sadly, believers in the materialistic society of today spend more time with the television than with Scripture.

What, then, holds a community together? Is it Shabbat? Is it the other Feasts of the Lord? Historically, the Christian Church has lost much including a mature emphasis on the Feasts and Shabbat, but even these things are secondary to personal maturity, daily study, prayer, infilling by the Holy Spirit, becoming a servant (actually a slave) of God. In an important, though secondary place, comes Shabbat and the Feasts. There has been much lost because Gentiles have adopted another calendar for their celebrations and do not celebrate with the Jews. For example, the replacement of Pesach with Easter is now showing up its bad fruit. There is much to restore in the context of believers living in a child-like (and that does not mean stupid) relationship with God and their approach to Scripture. By contrast we see the rise of feminism and liberalism in the Church. This is the same as some of the early Church fathers who brought in their own inventions.

What evidence should the world see when observing a believing community? The answer is clear. They should see exactly what should be seen in the life of an individual believing family. Sooner or later the right characteristics will emerge if they are lovers of truth and will come out in the general loving atmosphere of family life. Families should be members of congregations and this too will be seen. There is something wrong if this is not so. Should a believing community be self-sufficient with education structures, work structures, perhaps even a banking system? After all autonomy is a principal by which the Nation of Israel can live. Though emphasising that different circumstances demand different models, we are reminded that Yeshua said that He would not take us out of the world, and so it is not generally right to establish our own institutions. This establishes a ghetto and this happened in Catholicism, leading ultimately to a self-contained state with diplomatic relations with the rest of the world. We were taught that the wheat and the tares would grow together. Ours is a spiritual responsibility and we could be diverted, using too much energy to maintain a diversity of institutions. In the Moshav community they made a conscious decision not to send their children to separate schools for believers. They felt that if they had not done this they would have had a shock when one day they came out of the ghetto. In cases where children of believers go to secular school family responsibility becomes much more important. The mother’s role as homemaker is important and the father’s role as teacher and provider. Similarly the life and influence of the congregation becomes important. They have seen the fruits of this over 20 years experience in the Moshav as well as through their general observations of other situations. Through prayer, home environment and the teaching programme of both the home and the congregation in general, children have become believers.

Is the Moshav a model? No, this is simply the framework of community for some people at a certain time and for God’s purposes. Within the Moshav too there are changes. For example, some members have work outside when this was not so in the past. Furthermore, there is no ambition for certain facilities, for example a banking system, in the community. Neither the Kibbutz nor the Moshav is idealistic. Communal life is not simple. People have different views within the community. Gentile believers should not look to the Kibbutz or the Moshav as a model. It is not, and it is not a natural way of life. What about Jewish communities in general? Is there anything to learn? No, Scripture is the only basis for developing our community life with the Holy Spirit’s interpretation. There are no other models and this is more than enough for us to build on a rock.

Hence we should expect a variety of characteristics of believing communities. The principles of the Epistles, the seven congregations of Revelation and other Scripture should be our only basis. We must not seek a prescription and even Scripture which is interpreted without the Holy Spirit becomes legalistic.

So what about the Gentile Church in its present condition? When I asked this it was simply said, slowly and carefully “They are not serious, not biblical .. not serious, not biblical”. After a pause it was also said that there is no depth, too much on the surface apart from a few serious believers building on the basis of the Bible. The general impression of the Gentile church was that they are too unbiblical. People must accept the Bible as the living Word of God, every sentence, every word, every chapter. They must learn to become like children. There are particular dangers in the changing roles of women. Women must not teach in congregations and they have a fundamental role in the stability of the home. In general leadership has become liberal. As fundamentalists our prime goal should not be in rabbinic studies or Hebraism but in a return to Scripture. Here we find direction and a paraclete. The roots of our studies are to be found in Scripture, regarding an individual’s relationship with God, family life and the wider life of a congregation or community.

(Reprinted, with minor editorial changes, from Tishrei Vol2, No 4, Summer 1994, Community)



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