On Considering Christian Halachah

birds“If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young.”Deuteronomy 22:6 (JPS Tanakh)

Rural areas have both advantages and disadvantages, even in terms of observing mitzvos. One of the advantages is bonafide opportunities to fulfill the mitzvah of shiluach hakein, sending away the mother bird to take the eggs or chicks discussed in the last chapter of Chullin, which begins with today’s daf. One of the strange things about fulfilling rare mitzvos is that that one has no experience of exactly how to fulfill the mitzvah or various details relevant to it.

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
“A New Mitzvah Opportunity”
Chullin 138

The Beraisa teaches that there is no requirement to search for
a nest in order to fulfill the mitzvah of sending away the mother
bird from its nest. This mitzvah is only incumbent upon a person
if he happens to come across a nest.

Is there an obligation to pursue other mitzvos, or are we expected
to fulfill mitzvos only when they come our way?

Daf Yomi Digest
Distinctive Insight
“Is one required to pursue finding a nest, or does it apply only when one comes across a nest?”
Chillun 139

I often include quotes in my blog posts that no doubt seem strange, mysterious, or perhaps even ridiculous to a Christian. Comprehending Jewish Rabbinic teachings, opinions, and rulings is something that is generally disregarded in the church and considered the “wisdom of men” working in opposition to the Word of God. While I don’t want to debate such a broad topic in today’s “morning meditation”, I do want to see if we Christians can take away anything from some of these teachings (and I wouldn’t be writing about this unless I thought it was possible).

Christians believe that we should do good, as we were taught by Jesus. That we should give people who are hungry and thirsty food and drink, visit the sick and the prisoner, and clothe those without adequate clothing is clearly illustrated in teachings such as the one we find in Matthew 25:31-46. In fact, Jesus states that seeing a person in need and failing to help them will result in our being sent to “eternal punishment”, so just “believing in Jesus” in our minds and hearts is hardly enough to “save” us.

However, are we only to perform such acts of kindness if the opportunity comes our way, or are we, as Christians, to actively seek out situations where we can do what we have been commanded to do? Let me give you another example.

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. –Matthew 28:19-20

This directive of Jesus to his Jewish disciples is commonly referred to as “the Great Commission”. Entire churches and religious organizations are dedicated to fulfilling this commandment by evangelizing to not only people in our lives, but entire nations and people groups. There are specific missions devoted to evangelizing the Jewish people (much to the consternation of many Jews). Churches regularly send representatives to third-world countries to teach the Gospel of love and salvation to the people living there.

In other words, as far as “the Great Commission” is concerned, a significant percentage of the body of Christ deliberately and actively seeks to fulfill the commandment, rather than waiting for some opportunity to arise where we can perform evangelism.

While Christianity doesn’t provide an organized list of our duties, Judaism very specifically codifies the responsibilities of each Jewish person as 613 commandments. A few days ago, I quoted Rabbi Shmuley Boteach as saying:

There are 613 commandments in the Torah. One is to refrain from gay sex. Another is for men and women to marry and have children. So when Jewish gay couples tell me they have never been attracted to members of the opposite sex and are desperately alone, I tell them, “You have 611 commandments left. That should keep you busy.”

He seemed to be saying that, even if you cannot obey all of the commandments, there is much merit in obeying some or even most of them. This defies the common Christian criticism of “the Law” in that Torah obedience is supposed to be an all or nothing affair. Christians believe that no human being can always keep the Law and that no one, except Jesus, ever perfectly obeyed the mitzvot. It also appears to indicate that the various commandments stand alone or are contained in distinct “silos” of activity so that a Jew can be doing good by obeying some of the mitzvot while not obeying others. Additionally, there’s the idea that each mitzvah is unique and has some sort of individual value not carried by the others. Sort of like obeying the mitzvah of visiting the sick carrying a wholly different merit than the mitzvah of (for a Jew) praying with tefillin.

There is an excellent example of this in the Preface to The Concise Book of Mitzvoth: The Commnandments Which Can Be Observed Today as authored by Israel Meir Kagan and translated Charles Wengrov. Preface writer Ben Zion Sobel discusses the commandment to compensate a hired worker within a specific time frame:

Now, one who is not an employer might think that he has no opportunity to fulfill this commandment and be rewarded for it. But if he were to examine his everyday activities, he would realize that in fact, this mitzvah comes his way more often than he imagined.

For example, whenever one hires a painter to paint his house, or a handyman to build or repair something, or a plumber to fix a leak, he is required to pay the hired worker on time. Moreover, whenever one rides in a coach (or in our times, in a taxi), he has actually “hired” the driver to transport him to his destination, and he is thus responsible for seeing to it that the driver’s wages are paid promptly. Before paying, he is to take a momemt to say to himself, “I am about to perform the commandment of my Creator, Who instructed us to pay a worker on time.” Then he would deserve the full reward for having fulfilled a mitzvah of the Torah.

Pouring waterAs I mentioned before, this is a very different way for a Christian to think about performing acts of charity and righteousness, especially the “reward” part. And yet being rewarded for obeying God and doing good deeds is not alien to Christianity.

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. –2 Timothy 4:6-8

Paul was a Jew and he conceptualized the world around him, including God, the Messiah, and the mitzvot, as a first century Jew. It’s no mystery that what he wrote actually fits into how later, Talmudic period Jews conceptualized their role in relation to the Torah. As 21st century Gentile Christians, do we allow this “intersection” of the New Testament, the Torah, and The Concise Book of Mitzvoth to get in our way or to provide a lens of clarity? Was Paul’s statement in 2 Timothy 4 “too Jewish” for us to understand and thus do we ignore it, deferring only to NT writings that are more palitable to the non-Jew, or do we start to realize that there is something in Judaism that provides context, understanding, and focus to our lives as disciples of the Master?

Returning to the mitzvah of shiluach hakein, there are apparent contradictions in the interpretations regarding this particular commandment and on the whole, Christians would rather not be bothered with having to puzzle through our responsibilities to God and our duties to Jesus. When we think of ourselves as “free from the Law”, we imagine we are free from having to put much time and effort into understanding who we are and what our God desires from us.

However, maybe God has, in some way, built complexity into His desires for us on purpose. Maybe we are supposed to actually think and not just feel about a life of faith, compassion, and holiness. If we engage more of who we are and more of our internal and external resources into living a life conforming to God’s will, more of who we are is involved in that holiness. We are forced to consider even the most trivial of actions in relation to what God wants us to do and how He wants us to do them.

I’m not saying that Christians should emulate Jews in every small detail. Far from it. But I am saying that we can take the “light” that Judaism shines on God and His Word and use that light to see how we can be better disciples and servants of both our Creator and his beloved creations.

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7 thoughts on “On Considering Christian Halachah”

  1. Hi James. At your request I’m posting my email to you as a comment here, with slight revisions.

    Today you wrote, concerning 2 Timothy 4:6-8 that “Paul was a Jew and he conceptualized the world around him, including God, the Messiah, and the mitzvot, as a first century Jew.” Of course. Paul was a Second Temple pietistic Jew, a Pharisee (though he also seems to have been influenced by other kinds of Jewish thought of that period).

    You followed with, ” It’s no mystery. . .” I suspect that you use “it’s no mystery” rhetorically to say that it’s simple “to see how 2 Timothy 4:6-8 fits into how later, Talmudic period Jews conceptualized their role in relation to the Torah.” If that’s what you’re saying, can I suggest that it’s far from clear how, it fits into Talmudic thought about the mitzvot. Let me explain.

    You seem to be equating Paul’s approach with Sobel’s comment about “the full reward for having fulfilled a mitzvah of the Torah.” For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that Sobel’s comments actually reflect the Talmudic period. The problem with equating Paul with Sobel is very complex. Insofar as Sobel does represent Talmudic thought, he is not talking about the same kind of reward that Paul. Just to give an example of how differently “rewards” can be viewed Jewishly can be found close to Paul’s time: “The reward of a mitzvah is [the opportunity to fulfill another] mitzvah” (Mishnah Avot 4.2). This is only one of many perspectives about reward and punishment that are later found in the Talmud – and none of them are necessarily authoritative in themselves.

    That said, there is another way to look at Paul’s statement – as aggadah rather than as a doctrinal statement. In other words, perhaps we should read Paul is Jewish categories (aggadah and halakhah) rather than Christian ones (doctrine and practice). Reading Paul’s every thought as doctrinal can be called into question at its weakest point – Paul’s expectation that Yeshua would return in his lifetime. Paul’s expectation clearly didn’t line up with reality. If taken as doctrine, Paul’s statement represents a false eschatology that could even call into question even his revelatory statements about eschatology. If taken as aggadah (that is, non-halakhic, non-binding statements) Paul’s error is entirely in line with the errors of other sages of the time – strongly felt and argued, but not necessarily true.

    Why should we believe that this is the only place where Paul misses the mark (in the area of aggadah, that is)? When Paul speaks personally, such as he does in 2 Timothy 4:6-8, he clearly bases his expectations on an underlying ideology. But I don’t see where Paul asks Timothy (or us) to accept that ideology as the only way to look at the issue of rewards. If Paul’s comment is aggadic, then it fits in with later Talmudic approaches as one of several competing and somewhat compatible perspectives. Then it could be said that Sobel has something like Paul’s approach in mind, along with other approaches, when he uses the term “full reward.”

    This has written much too quickly, so forgive the highly condensed argument. As always, I appreciate your blog immensely.

  2. I agree that we should follow examples of good, and so far, I haven’t seen anything in the 613 commandments that is contrary to Christianity. Although I do have to admit that the whole “give up bacon” thing is one of the most difficult commands to follow (at least for me). To be truthful, I don’t ever expect to find anything in the 613 that I can’t do and still remain in Messiah. In fact, to be really honest, I believe that the deeper I grow into living in the Holy Spirit, the more my life will reflect the 613 commandments as they are truly meant to be displayed.

    Unfortunately, I don’t keep them all. Some of them I don’t keep very well at all. Some of them, I’m a complete and total failure, even after walking with the Lord for over 30 years. So it’s a good thing that my eternal salvation doesn’t depend on how well I keep them or even upon how “good” I am at any given moment. Because trust me, there are moments when I am not good at all.

    Do I believe in Jesus? Absolutely! Do I always act like I believe in Jesus? Not so much. For me, this realization brings with it the truth that if my salvation at any point depends on whether or not I am good at any particular moment, then I am lost.

    So what about the sheep and goats in Matthew? I’ve heard many sermons about this. Some of them, quite frankly, were what I call “beat the sheep” sermons. These are based on “if you don’t …” and usually followed by a call for funds for some worthy cause. Usually the cause is quite worthy, but still.. I’ve also heard that the sheep and goats are nations, and it depends on how the nation acts. I’ve seen this lead to the idea that salvation is collective and not individual, and then you get into the whole…your actions are a detriment to our collective salvation and you should go off to a “reeducation camp”. Oh yeah, that really works. Not!

    Here are some of my thoughts about the subject. It starts with “what is belief?” We seem to have this schizophrenic definition of belief. There’s the belief in spiritual truth (I believe in Jesus) and then there is the belief in the laws of physics (I believe in gravity). Which one of these beliefs actually affects behavior? Well they both should, but more often then not the only one of the two that affects our behavior is the belief in the laws of physics. No one ever asks “do you believe in gravity?”, because the evidence of that belief is obvious to all. Even people who jump off of 10 story buildings usually do it with the idea that gravity will pull them down to the pavement below in a spectacular bid to end their lives on a permanent basis. I contend that belief in Jesus should be the same kind of belief. The kind of belief that saves you is the kind of belief that changes your behavior. Either you have become a new creation or not. If you are a new creation, then life is different than it was before you were a new creation. I contend that people shouldn’t have to ask whether or not you believe in Jesus because it will be obvious to everyone around you. So when someone says, you can be saved by believing in Jesus, I would say that is a true statement. In fact, I would say that this belief is the only way you can be “saved”. But I would also contend that this belief will change your life…completely.

    Here is another point that I will add (for free). I would also contend that if you see someone who is a “new creation” by action, though they might not be by confession, they are either acting in concert with the Holy Spirit, or else they are awfully close. I am not the judge of another’s position with regards to their salvation. However, in the last few years, I have been privileged to meet people who I believe are saved even though their “confession” is not the same as mine. There is only one way to salvation that is Jesus, however, what if you know Him, but not in the “Christian” way? That’s the question I’ve been wrestling with, and it seems to be that the only answer is that my God is bigger than my understanding and if He wants to save people differently than I think He does, He is perfectly capable of doing so. He always surprises me.

    Thanks Jim, for posting your blog because it makes me reach inside and think about these things.

  3. Thanks Carl for your kind and measured response to today’s blog post and your willingness to share your comments here. There is just a ton that I don’t know and that I don’t understand and unfortunately, I’m going to stick my foot in a bear trap from time to time. I know I’m risking offending both Jews and Christians with my comments, but there are just some things I can’t learn any other way. I probably won’t be able to figure it all out, but the alternative is to remain in total ignorance. I’m very glad you are willing to point out what I’ve gotten wrong and where I could be better in my comprehension.

    Dree, I think we both struggle at the intersection of Christianity and Judaism as well as within our own individual lives of faith. How far can we stretch God’s attribute of mercy vs. confronting our own imperfections and failures? I don’t know. I do know that we all depend on God being more forgiving than we deserve so that we can continue to have a relationship with Him and the hope of a life in the world to come. I know I’ve been a “battered sheep” on more than one occasion and it’s not a fun place to be. Sometimes I think that life would be better if it only consisted of a connection between God and me with no other distractions and interference. But that’s not how He designed the world.

    As far as pursuing God by pursuing deeds of righteousness and charity, it can seem very complicated but I suspect it’s very simple. As you said in your quote of Mishnah Avot 4.2 Carl, “The reward of a mitzvah is [the opportunity to fulfill another] mitzvah.” Maybe it’s even simpler. Maybe the reward of a mitzvah is to serve God and to fulfill the reason He created us in the first place. Maybe doing good is what puts us and keeps us on the right path.

  4. Rabbi Carl,

    That is a wonderful perspective on Paul you have. Indeed, Paul was glaringly off the mark in expecting Messiah’s return to be just around the corner (who could blame him for his hope) Interpreting “very soon” as within the next couple thousand years certainly stretches credulity. I would say he was equally in error in expecting the return of Messiah to be this grandiose event in which all believers meet him as he descends from the sky. No such thing will ever happen.

  5. James, the way the Church has actually interpreted Matthew 28:19-29 is thus:

    Therefore go and make converts of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (and without precedent, conflate all three as being co-equal members of one Godhead), and teaching them to mostly ignore everything I have commanded you and focus on the theology of Paul instead. Or else they burn in Hell.

  6. I more or less agree with your analysis of how the church interprets “the Great Commission” and the dissonance between the teachings of Jesus and Paul. The irony is that both Christianity and traditional Judaism believe Paul took Christ’s teachings and twisted them into a new religion. Lancaster’s Galatians book does a good job at illustrating how Paul say his mission to the Gentiles and his understanding of the Messiah relative to the Jerusalem Council and those men who actually walked with Jesus.

  7. Peter predicted that lawless (e.g. without Torah) people would twist Paul’s words. And this is what happened, well beyond the extent he imagined.

    Paul had no idea his letters to individuals and churches would one day be considered holy scripture by much of the world. If he did, he would have been more careful with his words.

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