“Leman takes readers through a journey of remembering the six major feasts of the Jewish calendar, examining their historical meaning and helping Christ-followers discover the richness of tradition and what those timeless practices mean today.”
While this interview is quite long, I believe that you will find the content very interesting. If this sparks your interest in our Jewish heritage, be sure to check out the study either on your own or with a group.
Interview with Rabbi Derek Leman
1) Understanding the Old Testament, the nation of Israel, and our Jewish heritage are important, but often neglected, elements for Christians in establishing our corporate identity as the people of God. Your study is a great resource in this area. Aside from full conversion to Judaism, what are other ways that you are aware of that Christians can enrich the depth of their faith in this regard?
I think that well-informed Christians would do well to worship in a synagogue just to experience it. I’d recommend a Conservative synagogue as a good middle approach (Orthodox make men and women separate and Reform isn’t always traditional in style). Just tell them you’re a Christian and you came to experience Jewish worship and you will be welcomed.
Other obvious ways to get a broader view of the Bible and our faith include: learn about and read the Old Testament regularly (I have a book that can help on that topic, by the way), try to read the New Testament as a Jewish book, make a Messianic Jewish friend, and take a trip to Israel (life-changing, I guarantee it).
Feast provides a number of Jewish experiences a Christian can enjoy with some friends or family. If you can get a Jewish or Messianic Jewish friend to be a part of those experiences, they will help you get them right and deepen your understanding.
2) It was wonderful learning about each of the feasts. A few personal reflections of mine…
The importance of Passover is obvious. Of the six, I was most familiar with this one. I loved learning about the connection of the Feast of Weeks with Pentecost and the correlation of the provision of the law with the provision of the Holy Spirit. The other feast that really stood out to me was the Feast of Tabernacles. The ideas of tabernacling, incarnation, temporary dwelling, leaving the security and permanence of buildings, God in our midst, are all themes that are rich with meaning for me.
Perhaps it would be like asking you to choose your favorite child, but could you share briefly about an aspect of one of the feasts that is particularly meaningful to you.
My favorite Jewish holy day is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. I need that time each year of penitential prayers, beating my chest, and cleaning up my life. Of all the ceremonies and observances, that one means the most to me. But in a different way, Tabernacles is my favorite because we camp out with other families for the whole week. We grill steaks and burgers every day, like the Israelites of old eating peace offerings at the temple. Nothing is more fun than feasting and enjoying the outdoors with friends. The only thing that would make it better is if it were at the temple in Jerusalem after the return of Jesus.
3) The Jewish holidays were a part of Jesus’ life, and He took part in and celebrated the feasts. This context is really important in our understanding of Jesus. You brought up several times how Jesus spoke into the midst of these Jewish celebrations. I wonder if particularly in the final year of His ministry, he was purposefully direct in pointing out the parallels and fulfillment of foreshadowing in each of the feasts.
Because of their familiarity with these symbols, wouldn’t Jesus’ comments and teachings have been basically like a neon sign over His head flashing “I am the promised Messiah”? I would love to hear more of your thoughts about this.
The messiah concept was subject to a variety of interpretations in Jesus’ day. His claims no doubt made the crowds wonder if he was starting a messianic movement. But I think many were confused or did not see in his words and methods what they were expecting from Messiah at that time: hints that he would overthrow Rome. So, on the one hand, I would say yes, when Jesus said, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink,” that people around him would think he was starting a messianic movement. Yet, on the other hand, he likely disappointed those who followed him hoping he would soon set Israel free from Rome.
4) The idea that John followed the holidays in his writing and used them thematically is very intriguing. Do you believe there was an intentional emphasis by John on that connection?
Yes, John structures the story of Jesus around successive visits to the temple for feasts: John 2 (Passover), John 5 (an unnamed feast, perhaps Weeks), John 7 (Tabernacles), John 10 (Hanukkah), John 13 to the end (the last Passover). John is also unique in pointing out that none of Jesus’ bones were broken which was a connection with the Passover lambs, whose bones were to be unbroken (Exod. 12:46). I think John was saying, “See, Jesus was the one who brought Israel’s story to its climax.”
5) I loved this quote of a running joke in Judaism: “The Jewish holidays all follow the same pattern: They tried to harm us, they failed, let’s eat.” Is it likely the early Christian church continued their celebration of Jewish feasts or were they replaced by the communion meal?
There is just out a study by a group called First Fruits of Zion that makes a startling case. I can’t affirm or critique this theory just yet, but they make a good case that the Didache (a Christian document from about 130 C.E.) has been misunderstood. They argue that the prayer in the Didache is not a Eucharistic (communion) prayer, but an early Christian version of a Jewish prayer called Grace After Meals. This might sound like a far-fetched theory, but it has a lot going for it actually. If it stands up to scrutiny and shows good evidence of being true, it means that some early Christians maintained Jewish practices longer and more widely than previously thought. You find similar evidence in two books by Oskar Skarsaune, including his recent Jewish Believers in Jesus.
So, here is my short answer: you find both Christians keeping Jewish customs and Christians erasing the evidence of any Jewish heritage to Christianity. And you find them both early. The stream that wanted to make Christianity more Roman is the one that won out.
6) If Christian churches were to resume keeping the feasts, what are some of the changes you would foresee in our understanding of the Christian evangelical worship service?
Keeping the feasts by itself might not change evangelical worship. But if evangelicals got from the feasts and from Judaism an appreciation for the physicality of worship, that would bring change. I think we are already seeing a paradigm shift in worship. We are seeing people bringing all the senses into worship. We are seeing the use of liturgy, hopefully including the fantastic liturgy of the Psalms. I would love to see churches bring in Jewish liturgy on a small scale. I think Scot McKnight has paved the way in his book The Jesus Creed.
7) Derek, it has been a pleasure. Obviously your study was thought-provoking for me. Any final comments?
I’d love to hear from people who go through the book. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d be thrilled to come to churches or study groups and introduce the topic or answer questions. I think the topic of Jewish customs, holistic worship, and appreciating tradition is timely and needed. I hope it will be a part of people opening to a new-old paradigm.
Fascinating conversation! Thank you very much Rabbi Leman.