The law, stiff with formality, is a cry for creativity; a call for nobility concealed in the form of commandments. It is not designed to be a yoke, a curb, a strait jacket for human action. Above all, the Torah asks for love: “thou shalt love thy God; thou shalt love they neighbor” (Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18). All observance is training in the art of love. To forget that love is the purpose of all mitsvot is to vitiate their meaning. “Those who think that the performance is the main thing are mistaken. The main thing is the heart; what we do and what we say has only one purpose: to evoke the devotion of the heart. This is the essence and purpose of all mitsvot: to love Him wholeheartedly.” (Hachayim, ms. Munich, in Otsar Hasafrut, vol. III, p. 66.)
-Abraham Joshua Heschel
God in Search of Man : A Philosophy of Judaism (p.307)
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”–Matthew 22:34-40
It seems as if Rabbi Heschel and Jesus have something in common: their understanding about what is most important about the Torah, which is love of God and love of human beings. A few days ago, I quoted some of Heschel’s criticisms of Christianity as compared to Judaism, but then Rabbi Heschel was focused on the teachings of Paul and not Jesus himself. I’ve heard more than one Jewish person say they have nothing against Jesus, but Paul and what Paul did to the teachings of Christ is another matter.
Unfortunately, both Judaism and Christianity for the most part, misunderstand Paul the same way, believing he taught against “the Law” and replaced the Torah with a religion of grace, and no behavioral components.
To be fair, there is a general misunderstanding, even among many Jews, as to the nature of the Torah and the mitzvot. Fortunately, Heschel clarifies this.
The translators of the Septuagint committed a fatal and momentous error when, for lack of a Greek equivalent, they rendered Torah with “nomos”, which means “law”, giving rise to a huge and chronic misconception of Judaism and supplying an effective weapon to those who sought to attack the teachings of Judaism. That the Jews considered Scripture as teaching is evidenced by the fact that in the Aramaic translations Torah is rendered with “oraita” which can only mean teaching, never law. (p. 325)
The error Heschel describes was transmitted to the Greek used in our earliest texts of the New Testament, so whenever the Torah is referenced, the word “nomos” is used and thus in English is read as “law” (the next time you are reading one of Paul’s letters and come across the word “law”, mentally substitute the word “teaching” and see how the meaning changes for you).
When Heschel says “an effective weapon to those who sought to attack the teachings of Judaism”, I can only imagine he’s referring to Christianity, and I’m sure he’s right. Christians tend to see Judaism as a religion of acts and behaviors but no faith and spirit. Heschel tries to correct this misconception.
It is a distortion to say that Judaism consists exclusively of performing ritual or moral deeds, and to forget that the goal of all performing is in transforming the soul. Even before Israel was told in the Ten Commandments what to do, it was told what to be: a holy people. (p. 310)
Jesus said something very similar:
Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. –Matthew 5:48 (NASB)
Obeying God is simply the means by which we act out who we are as people of faith. This is just as true for the Jew as for the Christian. In another recent blog, I quoted Heschel when he says, a “mitsvah is an act which God and man have in common”, and my response was “I realize that the mitzvot belong to Him and well as us and that when we obey God, we are also working with God.”
When a Christian observes a Jew praying with tefillin, observing the Shabbat by not driving, separating meat and dairy dishes, the Christian could easily conclude that following Judaism is a matter of performing the mechanics without feeling, without heart, and probably without God. This is a terrible mistake, for only God can see inside the individual’s heart of intent. What if the Jews is thinking and feeling this?
The main function of observance is not in imposing discipline but in keeping us spiritually perceptive. Judaism is not interested in automations. In its essence obedience is a form of imitating God. That we observe is obedience; what we observe is imitation of God (see Sotah 22b). (p. 310)
Halacha must not be observed for its own sake but for the sake of God. The law must not be idolized. It is a part, not all, of the Torah. We live and die for the sake of God rather than for the sake of the law. (p. 326)
I criticize Christians for misunderstanding the intent of the observant Jew and seeing only a people who obey halacha for its own sake, but Torah obedience has been devoid of life at times in Israel. A lack of kavanah has been one of the greatest mistakes within Judaism and it has resulted in terrible consequences.
Why was Jerusalem destroyed? Because her people acted according to the law, and did not act beyond the requirements of the law (see Baba Metsia 30b.). (p. 327)
They failed to fulfill it (Torah) “for its own sake”, for the sake of God. The land was destroyed because there was no kavanah, no inner intention. It was in the spirit of such a radical demand for inner purity that the word of the Psalmist (119:113), “I hate those who are of a divided mind”, was applied to those who serve the Lord out of fear rather than out of love. We must always remember the words of Isaiah 29:13. “This people draw near with their mouth and honor Me with their lips, while their hearts are far from Me, and their fear of Me is a commandment of men learned by rote.” (p. 328)
I find the last quote to be especially illuminating, since Isaiah 29:13 is also quoted by Jesus (Matthew 15:8-9) and his words are used by the church (and some Messianics) to condemn observance not only written Torah, but particularly halacha. Reading Heschel shows me (and hopefully others) that Christ was criticizing neither Torah nor halacha, but rather rote obedience of commands.
Heschel goes on (p. 329) to say that we can call Judaism a religion without faith only if we intend to forget Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac at the Akedah (Genesis 22:1-24) and “Job’s avowal, “though He slay me, yet will I trust Him” (Job 13:15). Both Paul (Romans 4) and the writer of Hebrews (Hebrews 11:8-9) cite Abraham as the author of faith for the Jewish people and for the rest of us, and Abraham is Heschel’s example and prototype for Jewish faith as well.
It seems as if, after a little digging, that Heschel’s understanding of the intent and meaning of Torah, halacha, and observance is more like what Jesus, Paul, and the Hebrews writer understood than we previously would have imagined. Said a different way, how Heschel, a modern Jewish Rabbi, understands the complex interweaving of a Jew with Torah, halacha observance, and God, is very much like how Second Temple period Jews such as Jesus, Paul, and the writer of Hebrews understood those same concepts, behaviors, and intentions.
The part that we as Christians should take from all this, is that our understanding of the Christ, our Savior and Lord, needs to adjust to take on this more accurate perception of Jesus as an observant Jew. We cannot claim love for the Jewish Messiah and at the same time disregard the modern Jew as lost, and his faith and observance dead and irrelevant. Perhaps some individual Jews do simply go through the motions but so do some individual Christians. We cannot condemn Jewish observance of halacha, Talmud study, and the very faith of Judaism as dead and at the same time believe that the grace and love of Jesus Christ is alive. Jesus and grace were and are perfectly consistent and harmonious with the Torah and halacha.
If you see a Jew, especially a Jew who professes faith in Jesus (probably calling him “Yeshua”) as the Jewish Messiah, and who continues to observe the traditions of his fathers; this Jew is not confused, lost, or “under the Law”. I believe he is doing what Jesus advocated, living out his faith by imitating God. This Jew is joining God as a partner in building a sukkah, lighting candles on Shabbos, and laying tefillin with Him, not just in response to the Torah, but for the sake of God. A Jew living by the Torah is living a life doing not only what God wants him to do, but is also doing what God is doing. Jesus did this, too.
Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” –John 5:19