Not in Heaven

HeavenThe Torah is not in heaven [i.e. though the Torah is of heavenly origin, it was given to human beings to interpret and apply].

from The Hasidic Tale
by Gedalyah Nigal
pp 148-9

This small snippet from Nigal’s book touches on something I’ve been pondering for quite some time. It’s a concept that’s common in Judaism but almost completely escapes Christianity, including many of the Jewish and non-Jewish believers of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah commonly referred to as “Messianic”. Here’s another example with more detail:

As a result of testimony by R’ Yehoshua b. Zeiruz, Rebbe ruled that fruits and vegetables which grow in Beis Shan were exempt from terumah and ma’aser gifts. Rebbe’s extended family members rose up against his ruling, and they wondered how he could release the obligation for tithing from items grown in Beis Shan, an area which his ancestors had deemed to be obligated in these halachos. Rebbe responded and said that this was an area of halacha which his ancestors had left for Rebbe to rule and to thereby be credited with this decision. Rebbe illustrated that a similar scenario is recorded in Tanach, where we are told that King Chizkiyahu ground up the copper snake made by Moshe Rabeinu to alleviate a devastating plague that threatened the nation. Later, this copper image was abused by the people, as they began to offer incense to it for idolatrous purposes. This is why Chizkiyahu had it destroyed. The Gemara notes that it is wonderous to think that this image which was being used for idolatrous purposes was not destroyed much earlier. Why would Assa and Yehoshafat, both righteous kings, not have destroyed this statue earlier? Rather, it must be that they left it intact in order for Chizkiyahu to take care of the matter.

Daf Yomi Digest
Distinctive Insight
“Leaving room for later generations to make their mark”
Chullin 7

There are a couple of things going on here. One is that the tzadikim (righteous people) and the sages in each age were given authority to make rulings about the Torah commandments and that these rulings were and are binding. The other thing is that rulings on the same Torah laws could be applied differently based on the demands of each generation.

Most Christians believe in “the Word” (i.e. the Bible) as the only authority (and certainly the absolute authority) over the believer’s life and consider the rulings of the Jewish sages to be “merely” the opinions of men and thus, they have no authority over a person’s day to day existence. The following is considered something of a “proof text” of this opinion in the church:

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)

So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

“‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” –Mark 7:1-8

Jesus was most likely referring to Netilat Yadayim or the ritual of hand washing, which is performed by observant Jews even today. This practice is considered to be a method of purifying the person after awakening and before eating and re-dedicating his or her life to the service of God.

It’s unlikely Jesus was speaking against the practice as such in Mark (see the full text of Mark 7 for the details) but rather, he was criticizing the Pharisees for focusing on what might be considered a matter of “lesser” priority and ignoring the more “important” duty (kaloh vs. chamurah or minor vs. major mitzvos) of caring for impoverished and elderly parents (and one of these days, I’d love to research how Jesus probably did practice the halacha of his day).

For the vast majority of Christians, what I’m saying now probably seems like so much nonsense. Christianity tends to put a great deal of value on being “Spirit-led” when trying to understand the Word and the Will of God in their lives and will only rely on local authorities (for the most part) such as a trusted Pastor or teacher to help interpret the Bible. In other words, the Bible is understood on an almost exclusively individual level, though most Christians in the same church or denomination probably share many of the same opinions about what the Bible says. Interpretation for the person though, remains primarily part of the relationship between the individual and the Spirit of God (though this has rather obvious potential pitfalls).

By contrast, Judaism has a vast repository of knowledge commonly referred to as the Talmud, that contains the discussions, arguments, and rulings of a long list of sages stretching back across the centuries to before the time of Jesus. Christianity, with the exception of branches such as Catholicism, has no such tradition. The dictates of the Church fathers and the commentaries of renowned teachers and spiritual leaders, both historical figures and modern men and women, while highly valued, are not considered perpetually binding legal rulings over the lives of the devout of Christ. Rulings, authorities, and judgments in Judaism, particularly among the Orthodox, are much more defined and delineated.

Even for those parts of Christian theology that are considered binding (belief in the Trinity, belief in the resurrection of Christ, belief that people who are “saved” go to Heaven when they die, and so on), it’s hard for the collective church to imagine that “legal rulings” could continue to be issued across the passage of time and into the modern era. What new interpretation of the Bible would be necessary today that didn’t already exist in the time of Jesus and the Apostles (and I know I might be unfair in saying this since “progressive revelation” is part of the Christian belief structure)?

Consider the following:

Do not light a fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day. –Exodus 35:3

Based on this commandment in the Torah, observant Jews, to one degree or another, do not light a flame on the Shabbat. Back in the days of the Exodus, this was understood in a particular way. No candle lighting, no lighting a fire in a home or at a camp, and so on.

Netilat YadayimBut no one ever thought of things like the invention of the automobile, the electric light bulb, and the microwave oven. How does the commandment to not light a flame apply to these technologies? Can an electric spark be considered “igniting” something? Once the question comes up, who gets to answer the question and decide how it is applied and to whom? After all, if you’re a devout Jew who doesn’t want to violate the Shabbat, you’ll need to know if you can start your car, warm up a cup of coffee in the microwave, or pop on a reading lamp when it gets dark on the Shabbat (and as it turns out, the ruling is that an observant Jew can do none of these things without violating the commandment).

In religious Judaism, your life is orchestrated in a beautiful but somewhat complicated dance as you progress through the days and months and years. The Torah is both instruction book and part of the mystic presence of God in your life, but who can understand the Torah and all that it instructs? The average Jew may not have the time, the mental discipline, or the necessary intellectual capacity to study the Torah and the sages in depth and thus understand his or her responsibilities to God in all matters of living. Yet there is halacha and tradition upon which a Jew can count to guide his or her steps in this dance with God and with life. These traditions, rulings, and judgments have provided continuity and consistency in Jewish communities all over the world for thousands of years. Perhaps the Torah and the Talmud have been the instrument by which God has preserved the Children of Israel, when many other people groups from the days of Moses and before have simply ceased to exist.

The Torah may be from heaven but it is not in heaven. God gave it to the Children of Israel from the hands of angels to Moses, not because God wants to control the actions of each individual Jew, but because God loves his Chosen People and wants to take care of them. And while the Mosaic covenant and thus much of the Torah is not applied to the “grafted in” Christian, the Torah was always intended to “go forth from Zion” (Isaiah 2:1-4) and to be a guide and a protector, not only of the Jewish people, but for all the people of the Earth, if they will only turn to and walk with God in faith and trust.

Why am I saying all this? Why should you care?

Perhaps, as a Christian, you don’t care and you don’t think it matters and you believe that the Torah and the Talmud is best left to the Jews. If you happen to be Jewish, you may not care about the potential applications of Torah and Talmud to Christianity. For my part, as a Christian married to a Jew, I can see great value in studying not only the Bible, but the judgments, rulings, and insights of the sages, from Hillel and Shammai to Rambam and Rashi. Unless we understand how Jewish Rabbis and learned scholars read and understand the Torah and God, how can be begin to comprehend the Jewish sage and apostle Paul and what he wrote and taught? Indeed, how can we begin to comprehend the mind, the teachings, and the actions of the Jewish Messiah, the Christ…Jesus, as he was on Earth and as he is in heaven?

Without this understanding, while we may think we understand the sacred writings of the New Testament as they are “in plain English”, we eventually must face the reality that when we Christians read the Gospels, the Epistles, and the Apocalyptic writings, we are reading a deep mystery with very few clues, and peering into a wine-dark glass, seeing only dim shapes of what God is trying to illuminate on the other side. The Talmudic scholars can be our guides into ways of seeing God and His Word that would otherwise be missing hues in our color palettes. What might we perceive if we only chose to open our eyes and look?

A true master of life never leaves this world
—he transcends it, but he is still within it.

He is still there to assist those who are bonded with him with blessing and advice, just as before, and even more so.

Even those who did not know him in his corporeal lifetime can still create with him an essential bond.

The only difference is in us:
Now we must work harder to connect.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Connecting”
Chabad.org

2 thoughts on “Not in Heaven”

  1. “how can we begin to comprehend the mind, the teachings, and the actions of the Jewish Messiah, the Christ…Jesus, as he was on Earth and as he is in heaven?”

    But to do so authentically, we must find the Heavenly as well as the Earthly “guides into ways of seeing God and His Word”.

    It is not sufficient to acknowledge that “Perhaps the Torah and the Talmud have been the instrument by which God has preserved the Children of Israel, when many other people groups from the days of Moses and before have simply ceased to exist.”

    Before and beyond any scholarly Rabbi or Paul is the Spirit of God that Jesus reclaimed and bequeathed to all Humanity as The Gentile’s Covenant.

    Like a rainbow in ‘the people’s sky’ it is directly available for all to see.
    However we are blinded by spiritual ignorance and ‘unnatural’ prejudice from understanding the essential divinity of nature’s template.

    For as you clearly state: ” Without this understanding, while we may think we understand the sacred writings of the New Testament as they are “in plain English”, we eventually must face the reality that when we Christians read the Gospels, the Epistles, and the Apocalyptic writings, we are reading a deep mystery with very few clues, and peering into a wine-dark glass, seeing only dim shapes of what God is trying to illuminate on the other side.”

    And so then: “What might we perceive if we only chose to open our eyes and look [into ‘the people’s sky’]?

    Then can we authentically claim: “A true master of life never leaves this world
    —he transcends it, but he is still within it.”

  2. If you can acknowledge that the Spirit works through us as individuals, then it is certainly acceptable that it would also work through gifted teachers and sages. In this, we are not relying solely on human wisdom but on the wisdom of God as imparted to those who are responsible for preserving His Word.

    That said, there are plenty of sources of information out there that are not particularly trustworthy and we must be versed well enough in the Word and through the power of the Spirit to tell the difference between a good teacher and a bad one. What we don’t want to do however, is rely totally on either an outside source or totally on ourselves. The former can easily fool the unwary and the latter can easily fool himself.

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