Her unifying thesis is that modern Jewish thinkers invented the notion that Judaism is a religion in response to the distinctive challenges of European modernity. In the pre-modern period, “it simply was not possible…to conceive Jewish religion, nationality, and what we call culture as distinct from one another.” This was because Jewish communities were corporate entities whose authority over their members was recognized by the state. The community collected taxes, adjudicated civil disputes through rabbinic courts, and enforced halakhic norms by punishing religious deviants through fines, corporal punishments, or excommunication.
“Are We All Protestants Now?”
from his review of Leora Batnitzky’s book
How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought
at Jewish Review of Books
Why Native American religions, when scholars acknowledge that Native American tribes do not traditionally distinguish between religion and the rest of life?
-William T. Cavanaugh
Chapter 1: “The Anatomy of the Myth”
The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict
When I was reviewing Part 3 of this series, (which inspired a very spirited conversation) I realized that there were actually two overlapping topics involved. The first I’ve already attempted to address, which is whether or not Rabbinic authority is Divinely sanctioned or inspired. The second is implied but you have to be paying attention to see it. Is Judaism a “religion?”
Gottlieb’s review presents Batnitzky’s understanding of “the Protestant conception of religion” this way:
- “Religion denotes a sphere of life separate and distinct from all others” such as “politics, morality, science and economics.”
- Religion is a “largely private affair, not public.”
- Religion is “voluntary and not compulsory.”
- Religion is about “personal belief or faith,” which she contrasts with the view that religion is primarily about ritual practice or “performance.”
This very much reminds me of a significant point Cavanaugh made in his book about the problem in defining religion as a separate entity from other social, political, and cultural realms. Prior to the rise of the modern, western culture, it was impossible to separate religion (Christian, Jewish, Islam) from those other entities. More specifically, for the Jewish people historically, being “Jewish” wasn’t just a matter of what you believed but rather, it was an individual’s full, lived, experience and identity, biologically, culturally, ethnically, nationally, and communally.
The fact that Judaism has multiple expressions, both in ancient and modern times doesn’t change this understanding. Each community established and maintained its own local, internal standards across the boundaries of politics, social norms, morality, legality, spirituality, and more. Most likely, before a certain point in human history and development, so did Christianity, at least according to Cavanaugh.
While none of this speaks to the idea that the Rabbinic sages ever had “Divine authority” to establish binding halakhah for their communities, it does address strongly the right of Judaism to define itself biologically, conceptually, ethnically, culturally, educationally, communally, and behaviorally.
In Part 3 of this series, I presented a challenge to the Divine authority of the Rabbis as offered in a paper written by Tim Hegg: What Version of the Mishnah did Paul Read? (PDF). Hegg doesn’t specifically address the Jewish right to self-definition or self-government, but, for the Messianic Jewish believer, he does say that “there is no historical nor biblical case for accepting oral Torah as divinely sanctioned. Nevermind that all that encompasses the Talmud cannot simply be reduced down to the concept of “oral Torah,” as the initial writings of the Talmud (Babylonian and Jerusalem) and their subsequent commentaries, arguments, and judgments cross multiple expressions and sects of Judaism over nearly 2,000 years and are incredibly vast and complex. The question isn’t whether or not ancient oral Law is Mishnah. The question is whether or not the Mishnaic Rabbis have Divine authority to write Mishnah.
But setting aside the Biblical implications and matters of “Divine inspiration” for a moment, let’s take a look at Talmud in a different manner (I’m going to be compressing a lot of history into just a few sentences, so please be forgiving). After the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile of most (but not all) Jews from “Palestine,” Jews, as a people, were at dire risk of dissolving and assimilating into the surrounding cultures. The very heart of Judaism up to that point, the Temple in Holy Jerusalem, had been leveled and pillaged. The majority of the Jewish people had once again been exiled; barred from the Land that was the home and lifeblood of every Jew. What most defined Judaism and Jewish people was now gone and within a few generations, everything that history had once recognized as Jewish would follow.
The “salvation” of the Jewish people was that compilation of texts, wisdom, and rulings that we consider the Talmud. No, it was not an immediate “fix” and in fact, it would be centuries before the Talmud would become the central feature in Jewish life.
But it did become that central feature, replacing, in some manner, the Temple and the sacrifices with prayers and charity. Instead of Jews making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover or Sukkot, they fervently beseeched God to bring the Messiah and to restore all that was lost. Judaism was functionally reorganized to exist and in many instances, to thrive, as locally internal communities which both adapted to historical and environmental imperatives and preserved the essence of Judaism, the practice of the Torah and the mitzvot, and the worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, both as individual and communal faith.
But as we’ve seen, it was impossible to separate the religion from the people. The definition for everything that was (and is) Jewish was (and is) encapsulated in that expansive collection of tomes known as the Talmud.
No one in their right mind is going to dispute the Jewish right to self-identification and self-definition. No Christian is simply going to walk into a synagogue and start lambasting the Rabbi, the Cantor, and the worshipers for following “man-made traditions” while ignoring the Bible.
However, the world of Messianic Judaism is unique. There are few halalaic Jews currently occupying Messianic Judaism, but their number is growing. Imagine being Jewish in that fully lived, experiential, educational, cultural, communal, ethnic (and so on) manner I previously described. Now imagine that fully lived Jew coming to faith in Jesus (Yeshua) as the one, true Messiah of God. This is not a Jew, like so many in the past, who has converted from Judaism to Christianity, leaving Mishnah and Torah in the dust. This is a Jew who has come to faith in the Jewish Messiah and who sees no dissonance in remaining fully and completely Jewish and acknowledging that the “Maggid of Natzaret” is the prophesied Moshiach.
Why can’t this Jew continue to live out the same Jewish experience he or she always has? Why can’t this person remain a Jew in every sense of the word, including all those words I used above to define a Jew? The Talmud, the historic and ancient Rabbis, the judgments, rulings, experiences, and everything else that is wrapped up in what is Jewish, cannot be separated out and compartmentalized for observant Jews (yes, different Jewish religious traditions do minimize certain aspects of that identity and Jews who are atheists may remove major portions of it altogether). For a Gentile and/or Christian individual or entity to demand that a Jew remove, discount, eliminate, or modify Talmud, halakhah, the mitzvot, and so on would result in removing Judaism from the observant Jew (Messianic or otherwise). What defines Judaism as Judaism would be gone.
Now, why in the world would Christians, including One Law, One Torah, and Hebrew Roots Christians, want to tell a Messianic Jew that, in order to be accepted by them and (in theory) by God, they had to do away with everything that made them Jewish?
If the Gentile Christians in these varied “Hebraic” Christian congregations and movements choose not to employ the Talmud or halakhah into their worship practices or lifestyles, it is probably for the best since they are not Jewish. But it is the height of presumptive arrogance to declare that any Jew who has faith in Yeshua as Messiah must dispense with the Talmud, and thus their Jewish identity, as well.
Whether the Talmud is an expression of the Divine will or not, it is illogical, unreasonable, and perhaps even a little cruel to demand that a Jew stop being a Jew in order to worship the Jewish Messiah. But by requiring that Messianic Jews devalue the Talmud, that’s exactly what many Gentile Christian pundits in the Hebrew Roots space are doing.
I’ve been accused of being overly concerned with the issue of Supersessionism, (I think “supersessionoia” was the term that was coined to describe me) but if you look at the dynamics I’ve been illustrating in this blog post, it seems rather plain that, even unintentionally, certain elements in the Hebrew Roots (One Law, One Torah, Two-house, etc…) movement are suggesting that the “Jewishness” of Jews in the Messianic movement be diminished in order to fulfill a Christian imperative.
My final note for this missive is one of irony. If written Torah, the Christian Bible, and Jesus are the only valid authorities for religious practice and lifestyle in the Hebrew Roots movement (including One Law/One Torah, and so on), then why do all of their groups and congregations follow a modern Jewish synagogue model when they worship? Why do all the men where kippot? Why do all the men wear tallit gadolim with tzitzit that are halalically correct? Why do they daven with modern Jewish siddurim? Why, in less than a week, will they construct their sukkot according to Rabbinically prescribed specifications?
In other words, why are you guys trying so hard to look and act Jewish when you’re not?
How can you disdain the authority of Jewish halakhah and Talmudic practice when virtually every religious act you diligently perform comes from the rulings and decisions of the Talmudic Rabbis?
Part 5 will continue with investigating the concept of “Messianic halakhah” and whether or not any of it apply to non-Jews within the various contexts of Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots.