Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Light to the City: A tribute to Morris Zeidman

Morris Zeidman (1894-1964) was one of the most accomplished, visionary Hebrew Christians of the 20th century. Around 1912, he arrived in Toronto from Poland, wandering through its teeming, poverty-stricken Jewish district, a penniless immigrant. No one could have foretold that he would rise from obscurity in one of the most WASP cities in North America to be acclaimed by his city and his country as “Man of the Year.”

How did Zeidman earn such respect? Not as a missionary to the Jewish people—though in fact that’s how he saw himself, and that was his original calling as a Presbyterian clergyman for almost 40 years. But he became best known as a leading public figure providing for the needy from the earliest days of the Depression and then creating one of Toronto’s great faith ministries to the poor, The Scott Mission.

Zeidman came to faith through another important figure—Rev. S.B. Rohold, the son of a rabbi, who was raised in Jerusalem. Rohold’s ministry in Toronto pioneered free medical care, prescription medicines, English instruction and practical assistance to the city’s Jewish immigrant community at the turn of the century. He created the Christian Synagogue, with a congregation that Rohold proudly identified as a “Presbyterian Hebrew Christian church.” As a Hebrew Christian pioneer, Rohold was elected in 1915 as the first leader of the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America.

A sign in Yiddish proclaiming “The House of the Good Tidings of the Messiah of the Children of Israel” caught the attention of the 17 year-old immigrant Morris, lonely and seeking English lessons as he walked down through Toronto’s Jewish district. He stepped inside, met Rohold and began his faith journey. A local pastor with a great heart for young people, Rev. Dr. John McPherson Scott, also nurtured Morris’ vision. With Scott’s prayerful support, the young man courageously completed high school courses, entered the University of Toronto and prepared for ministry at Toronto’s prestigious Knox College seminary, completing a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1925. (In 1920 Rohold left Toronto; called to Israel to serve in a new ministry in Haifa. Dr. Scott passed away in the same year.) The newly graduated Morris, together with his bride, Annie, whom he had met and worked with in the mission, officially took over the work.

As the effects of the 1929 Crash and the impact of the Depression began destroying livelihoods of men across the country, many climbed aboard railway boxcars, seeking work elsewhere. Many got off in Canada’s financial center—Toronto, walking north from city’s main train station into the area bounded by factories and warehouses—the old “Ward” area that was once the Jewish district. Hungry, dispirited and sometimes in desperate need—they knocked on the door of the local mission. They often arrived at the back door during meal-times when Morris and Annie were sitting down to eat with their young children and the Zeidmans did not have the heart to refuse them.

Like many of the Jewish missions of the day, Morris’ mission had been founded on practical support for the poor. People came to them out of need at first, and then stayed because they found an unexpected blessing. Whether people came to share their faith or not, help was freely offered.

In late October 1930, with winter fast approaching, Zeidman saw the growing number of men on the streets was going to be an urgent city problem. He wanted to start a soup kitchen but didn’t have the means. In the office of a local newspaper editor, John “Black Jack” Robinson of the Toronto Telegram, he was explaining these plans when a call came in from a local department store. They had leftovers from their Thanksgiving dinner: 130 gallons of turkey giblets. That was a cornerstone gift for a ministry that began to feed and clothe thousands of transients beginning in the Depression years—and still does today.

Zeidman was dedicated to prayer and faith. It’s often said he built his ministry one miracle at a time. One of the most touching stories found Morris on a train, praying that he might find favor with the owner of Canada’s leading department store, the T. Eaton Co. As he looked up, a gentleman had been seated at his dining car table. “Are you Mr. Eaton?” Zeidman asked. “Yes, Mr. Zeidman” came the reply. It was R.Y. Eaton, the president of the company. “What can I do for you?” It was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship.

Sadly, over time, the leaders of the local church presbytery became least supportive of Morris’ work. He was often subjected to nitpicking complaints about his expenses—largely because he raised such large amounts of support, which he generously gave to those for whom it was intended, the poor. His own family lived in barely adequate housing, but Zeidman was renowned for scrupulously directing gifts to those who were desperately needy.

In 1941, as winter again approached, he gave up his position and founded, with Annie, The Scott Mission. The work had long been named the Scott Institute for his mentor, Rev. Dr. Scott. Now that name would live on as an independent ministry to the poor. The work grew and eventually became one of Toronto’s best-known outreaches to the poor with the slogan: “The Gospel of Hope to All.”

An aspect of Zeidman’s work that is less well remembered was his startling bravery in a time when the scourge of anti-Semitism was still common in Canadian church life. He personally experienced this when he brought new Jewish believers to church with him. Christians didn’t want to take communion with “Jews.” His sister, a devoted believer, was refused entrance into a local ladies’ Christian organization. In 1935, one of the leading evangelical pulpits in the city invited North America’s most virulent anti-Semitic Protestant preacher, Rev. Gerald B. Winrod of Wichita, Kansas. Morris was outside that church (which today faithfully supports the mission) leading the protests.

Zeidman began actively to promote the concept of indigenous, independent Hebrew Christian churches. That dream was not realized in his lifetime. However, the modern Messianic movement brings that vision to life.

He also served as General Secretary of the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America from 1934 to1944. After the war, he made a heart-breaking return to his native Poland, dispensing aid as possible and listening to the many stories of cruelty that had destroyed 6 million of his people, including much of his own family. On his return, he earnestly helped many Holocaust survivors who came to Toronto.

Zeidman’s success was built on his own sterling character. People trusted him. But he also knew how to promote the work—through weekly radio programs, streetcar advertisements, newspaper fundraisers and strong visibility in the community.

Before his death in 1964, Zeidman received multiple honors from his city and even the church that had once snubbed his ministry. One of the most remarkable of these was Canada's "Man of the Year" in 1961. He was particularly pleased to receive an honorary doctorate by his seminary and, in response, granted them the gift of a Torah scroll which still sits in the center of its great library. Many evenings, as a student there, I admired the Torah scroll and thought of his legacy. As a student I also wrote an extended paper on the Scott Mission (it has been referenced in other scholarly research on the mission) and met Morris’ son, Alex. Tragically, Alex Zeidman passed away in 1986, but the Zeidman family, including Alex’s son Andrew, continues to take a leading role in the mission.

The mission that he founded is a remarkable facility: expansive, with great storage rooms and large kitchens. Hundreds pass through its doors each week receiving help in a variety of languages. Hundreds more receive instruction in the Bible in their mother tongues. All are welcome and the ministry continues to exude the passion and care of his founders.

As the season of remembering Yeshua’s birth begins to fade from our thoughts, I’ll close with this quote from one of Annie Zeidman’s poems that exemplifies the heart and spirit of her and her husband’s character, an inspirational remembrance of how their ministry goes on today:

Bethlehem is far away, far, and long ago…
But just down the street, perhaps around the corner,
Is Bethlehem in poverty, Gethsemane in tears,
Nazareth misunderstood, Calvary unpitied—
May we dare to seek Him there?
Friend, let us go!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

On Messiah's Birthday

Christmas is a bit too laced in cynicism in our day. In the malls, the old carols celebrating the birth of Messiah have been replaced by ersatz Xmas songs—from Jingle Bell Rock to Blue Christmas. And I can’t even read about White Christmas—one of the nicest of these, without being reminded that it was written by Irving Berlin, a Jew. Of course, he also wrote other religious songs—like Easter Parade. No wonder we’re cynical.

Even among believers, there is widespread cynicism about Christmas—few educated people today think it's the date of Yeshua’s birth. They likely know that the Romans enjoyed their winter solstice—Saturnalia—in December and the 25th hosted two related festivals: natalis solis invicti (the Roman "birth of the unconquered sun"), and Mithras, the Iranian "Sun of Righteousness." It looks like the Christians just took that date for their own festival, especially after Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Rome.

However practical that appears, it doesn’t sound like a religion that’s experienced much persecution. After all, if the early Christians were so eager to go along with the empire, why were they so disliked?

A cynical era likes cynical answers. But not everyone’s a cynic. David Stern, in the Jewish New Testament Commentary (p. 187) agrees that the Bible gives no specifics on Messiah’s birthday, indeed, it was not usually a day of memory for most people born in that era, unless they were of royal birth and likely to be later considered a god—a common fate of royalty and assorted celebrities. And yes, it’s true that the first believers had no interest in Yeshua’s birthday. But in time, the issue of his birth date was discussed.

Around 200 C.E., Clement of Alexandria mentions a series of possible dates. These are all in the spring: March 21; April 24 or 25; May 20. However, Stern notes that Hannukah was often associated by Jewish believers with Yeshua’s birth—perhaps because they associated the dedication of the earthly Temple with His coming as the heavenly Temple in our midst. That celebration is Kislev 25—which roughly corresponds to December and usually falls between Nov 27 and Dec 27.

One of the most interesting and extensive discussions of the birth of Messiah comes from Alfred Edersheim who has fascinating insights. I was always surprised by Edersheim’s footnote on the date of Dec 25 which says the following: “There is no adequate reason for questioning the historical accuracy of this date.” He notes that Jewish chroniclers of Yeshua’s life fixed on the date of the 9th of Tebeth for his birth (a date for which there was a fast prescribed)—and in fact this particular date has indeed a history of falling on Dec. 25.

An online Biblical Archeological Review article by Andrew McGowan (President of Trinity College, University of Melbourne) gives a much more satisfying explanation. The date of Dec. 25 apparently comes from another ancient tradition. Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage noted that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Yeshua died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Thus, Yeshua was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, December 25.

McGowan notes that the same view is repeated by Augustine in On the Trinity (c. 399–419): “For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, [a tradition that he received from the Donatists—a unique ancient North African Christian sect] upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”

There is something about this connection that seems both an unusual yet oddly satisfying explanation, especially as modern believers grapple with linking the birth and death of Messiah.

McGowan also points out that the concept of creation and redemption occurring at the same time of year reflects ancient Jewish tradition, recorded in the Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud preserves a dispute between two early-second-century C.E. rabbis who share this view, but disagree on the date: Rabbi Eliezer states: “In Nisan the world was created; in Nisan the Patriarchs were born; on Passover Isaac was born...and in Nisan they [our ancestors] will be redeemed in time to come.”

Is Dec. 25 a real birthday? Or as meaningful as a White Christmas? Sometimes we’re a little too cynical. Remember that God told Miriam: “with God all things are possible,” a direct reference to the answer that Sara gets when she doubts the conception of Isaac—see Gen. 18:14.

Let me confess that I hated this season growing up, the materialism, the carols and the joy for a celebration that I couldn't share or enjoy. And then it was mine, too. Yeshua became my Messiah; the least I can do on His day is to be a little less cynical than the world would make me.

And yes, Irving Berlin was Jewish (tragically losing his first wife to a disease she caught after their honeymoon in Cuba). But a few years later he found happiness with a lovely Catholic heiress. They were inseparable for more than 65 years. (One of his most beloved songs was penned for their first child, a baby girl; it's called Blue Skys.) Maybe Irving did know a little more about white Christmases than we know.

A blessed Yom Yeshua to you and all those you love.