Jesus, Halakhah, and the Evolution of Judaism, Part 1

The ever present studentMoses received the Torah from [G-d at] Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] would always say these three things: Be cautious in judgment. Establish many pupils. And make a safety fence around the Torah.

-Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) 1:1

Our first order of business must be to determine the meaning of the phrase “the Seat of Moses”… The precise meaning of the term remains a subject of much debate among scholars. Resolving this question is important, because it has direct bearing upon our understanding of the Pharisees authority and influence in Second Temple Judaism. If Jesus uses “the Seat of Moses” pejoratively, this weakens the argument that the Pharisees exercised any real, or at least any legitimate, authority within the religious and social life of Israel. If, however, he uses the term positively, or as a statement of fact, this strengthens our conviction that the Pharisees had become the authoritative interpreters of the Torah and that their halakhic decisions were accepted by most people within Israel.

-Noel S. Rabbinowitz
“Matthew 23:2-4: Does Jesus Recognize the Authority of the Pharisees
and Does He Endorse their Halakhah?”
Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 46:3 (September 2003): 423-4 (PDF)

Yes, I know…another series. But this has been on my mind for awhile and during the Rosh Hashanah celebration, I decided to put it into words.

I’m hoping some of my loyal readers who are educationally equipped to examine this information will comment on this topic as it is quite complex and controvertial. Keep in mind, that’s not a promise that I’ll always accept whatever is posted as a response. Your priorities and perspectives may not agree with my own. For example, I reject the common Christian viewpoint that Jesus dismissed all Jewish oral tradition and halakhah of his day, as well as the Torah outright, and replaced it with grace. You’ll see support for my opinion in a minute.

This blog post quotes heavily from Noel Rabbinowitz’s paper “Matthew 23:2-4: Does Jesus Recognize the Authority of the Pharisees and Does He Endorse their Halakhah?” which was published in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 46:3 (September 2003): 423-47. I want to acknowledge that I first found this paper linked to the Rosh Pina Project blog post, “Did Jesus Recognize Halakhah?” Although I don’t frequently visit their site, Rosh Pina has a good reputation in the Messianic Jewish space and they’re considered a good and fair source of information.

Why am I writing this?

There have been numerous suggestions on the web that there is no validity in the authority of the Talmudic sages to establish halakhah that would apply to the Messianic Jewish community. By “Messianic Jewish,” I specifically mean a form of Judaism, in its ideal expression, that is wholly “owned and operated” by people who are halachically Jewish (having at least a mother who is Jewish) and (again, ideally) raised in a Jewish home, possessing of a Jewish education, and who are fully identified as ethnically, culturally, and religiously Jewish.

OK, that’s a tall order, since even in the most “Jewish” of Messianic Jewish congregations, the majority of members, and probably a good number of the leaders, are non-Jews. But the idea is that people who come from a very Jewish lived experience and who have come to faith in Yeshua (Jesus) as the Jewish Messiah King, must have a completely appropriate synagogue setting at which to worship, daven in a minyan, celebrate the holidays, and be part of a fully Jewish community that is dedicated to the Jewish Messiah.

A Rabbi TeachingThe problem is that a significant number of non-Jews who are loosely associated with the Messianic Jewish movement via Hebrew Roots, One Law, and Two-House groups, mildly to vehemently oppose any authority outside of the written Torah, as having the ability to dictate religious and ritual practice. This sort of makes sense given the fact that all of the non-Jews and most of the Jews who make up any portion of Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots entered the movement through the church. There’s an enormous perceptual and conceptual hold over from the church in the minds of these folks that says Jesus replaced, if not the Law, halakhah and oral tradition with a type of “grace” and pure interpretation of the Torah that doesn’t require Rabbinic judgments or rulings.

But if you’re Jewish in a fully lived and experiential sense and it is your complete identity, then one does not simply do away with the Talmud with a bit of theological slight-of-hand. My dear wife keeps trying to tell me that it’s impossible to understand and interpret the Torah apart from the traditions. For a Jew, this is obvious. For a Christian (and I include Hebrew Roots in this category), it is practically heresy.

But to delete the Talmud or even to substantially alter it such that it becomes more palatable to Christian Gentile theology and doctrine (again, I’m including Hebrew Roots here), results in the deletion of anything “Jewish” in that theology and doctrine. Jews get a little nervous when someone comes along and tries to invalidate their entire religious and cultural lifestyle.

The detractors and “enemies” of Talmudic authority say that they only recognize Jesus Christ has having authority to interpret Torah and establish a type of “Messianic halakhah” for at least Gentiles and maybe Jews in the modern Messianic movement. But doing away with Jewish “Rabbinics” to define Jewish (including Messianic) practice means that these detractors must discover or recover a complete understanding of how the First Century CE church was organized and operated…

…and we don’t have that. Right from the start, recreating the Church as it actually was in the day of Peter, Paul, and James is doomed to fail.

But maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s OK for the Judaism and Christianity of today to not be exactly the same as it was 2,000 years ago. Maybe it’s even impossible to work from a twenty century old model of these ancient religious forms.

What if we don’t have to?

One of the problems with accepting modern Jewish halakhah as authoritative, is the question of whether or not Jesus even accepted the halakhah that existed in the Second Temple era. That’s where Rabbinowitz’s paper comes in. I intend to use his work to address the question of whether or not Jesus was likely to have accepted even some of the halakhah of his day. If he was, my next question (which will be the subject of a future “meditation”) will be whether or not, at his second coming (assuming it occurs within the reasonably forseeable future) he might accept modern Jewish halakhah. I know, that requires speculation and more guesswork than I probably should consider, but it’s a compelling question.

This also addresses a larger and related topic: Do religions evolve and is that acceptable to God? Yes, we know that Christianity today isn’t the same as it was when Paul was planting his first churches. Modern Judaism as well is, by requirement, practiced in a different manner than when the sacrifices could still be offered in the Temple of God.

But is “evolution” of religion reasonable, expected, and acceptable to God? I suppose there’s no way to know this in an absolute way, but we can take a stab at it. The first step is an examination of Rabbinowitz’s paper, “Matthew 23:2-4: Does Jesus Recognize the Authority of the Pharisees and Does He Endorse their Halakhah?”

The first question we look at in the paper is whether or not Jesus accepted the scribes and the Pharisees legitimately possessing the authority to interpret the Torah for the Jewish population and to establish and enforce specific halakhah?

Rabbinowitz suggests (pp. 429-30) that “the scribes and Pharisees were the authorized and legitimate teachers of the Torah.”

But even if authorized, did Jesus endorse the Halakhah of the Pharisees? What did Jesus mean when he said, (Matthew 23:3 ESV) “…so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do.”

When Jesus said to practice what the Pharisees taught, did he say this in reference to their teachings regarding the Torah or was he referring to Pharisaic halakhah as well?

-Rabbinowitz (p. 435)

What’s really interesting, and perhaps exceptionally relevant to our conversation, is the footnote (62) for this text:

“It is unlikely that any group of early Christians ever acknowledged without further ado the authority of non-Christian teachers.” On the other hand, they insist that “the extra-canonical halakhah on tithing is neither dismissed nor belittled but affirmed” (Matthew 3.269–70, 295).

Further commentary adds illumination to whether or not it was even possible for Jesus to have separated Torah from halakhah.

Stein states that disciples were to practice what the Pharisees taught regarding the OT but not regarding their “oral traditions.” We must ask, however, is such a bifurcation possible? Can exegesis be so neatly separated from application and practice?

…Jesus’ own observance of oral tradition creates a very strong argument that “all things” includes at least some halakhic traditions. Even though Matthew is unrelenting in his criticism of the Pharisees, he nevertheless presents Jesus as adhering to the halakhah of his day. Contra Banks, Moo is most certainly correct when he states that “the verdict that there is no evidence that Jesus kept any of the oral law cannot be sustained.”

(pp. 435-6)

This is the same today in modern Judaism where one cannot properly read and interpret the Torah apart from halakhah and the traditions. Rejecting halakhah is only conceivable in religious groups existing wholly outside the ancient and modern structure of Judaism.

Rabbinowitz further nails his point home with the following:

The very fact that Jesus even engages Pharisaic halakhah implies that it possessed a certain legitimacy in contradistinction to other traditions. He acknowledges the authority of the Pharisees but rebukes them for violating the very law they claimed to protect (Matt 15:1–6). Jesus does not reject Pharisaic purity laws concerning the eating of food (Matt 15:10–11) or the washing of vessels (Matt 23:24–25), but he does excoriate the Pharisees for their moral and ethical failure to understand the Law’s true intent. Likewise, he upholds Pharisaic halakhah regarding the tithing of herbs but repudiates the Pharisees because they have stressed that point and neglected the Law’s emphasis upon justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matt 23:23).

(p. 437)

According to Rabbiniowitz, Jesus didn’t have a problem with the fact that authority to interpret Torah was legitimately in the hands of the Pharisees, nor did he object to their halakhah, his problem was “for they do not practice what they preach.” (Matthew 23:3 NIV)

Interestingly enough, to those critics of Rabbinic Judaism who accuse the Talmudic scholars and judges of continuing to be afflicted with the “leaven of the Pharisees,” it should be noted that Rabbinic Judaism is also critical of the Pharisees.

Our final observation concerns rabbinic Judaism’s own critique of Pharisaic hypocrisy. Weinfeld demonstrates that Jesus’ accusations of Pharisaic hypocrisy are identical to charges of hypocrisy leveled against the Pharisees in the rabbinic material. To cite but one example, the rabbinic literature condemns the arrogant demonstration of piety by the Pharisees. Regarding the midrash on Eccl 4:1, we find the following condemnation of “Pharisaic pea-cockery”…

(p. 441)

The problem that most Christians (and probably some Jews) have with understanding Jesus upholding Pharisaic halakhah is encapsulated by Rabbinowitz:

To the modern reader, halakhic regulations regarding minute aspects of the Law may indeed seem legalistic and onerous. This perception, at least in part, arises out of the fact that the Torah is no longer the central structure around which we organize our daily lives. We no longer ask the all-important question, “How do I fulfill these commandments today?” But for the messianic Jews of Matthew’s Gospel, this was a very real and very practical question.

(p. 443)

Actually, in modern Judaism and especially among the Orthodox, this is a question that is very prominent, very real, and very practical today. Why shouldn’t it be a real and practical matter for some Messianic Jews as well?

Now that we’ve seen evidence that it is reasonable to believe Jesus could have accepted Pharisaic authority to establish ancient halakhah and that he not only upheld portions of that halakhah but practiced it as well, (see the full text of Rabbinowitz for details) Part 2 will examine the “reasonableness” of Christianity and Judaism evolving or developing from ancient to modern forms. After examining that point, we shall try to see if it is even possible for a returning Jewish Messiah King to accept the halakhah that will exist on the day of his return to Jerusalem.

Is the continuing authority of Talmud sustainable in 21st century Judaism? I’m not a Jew so I’m probably not qualified to respond, but maybe the following makes the most sense, given the context:

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

Anais Nin


14 thoughts on “Jesus, Halakhah, and the Evolution of Judaism, Part 1”

  1. Perhaps the main weakness of virtually every treatment of Mt. 23:2-4 is that they ignore the scribes, whom Yeshua actually mentions before the Pharisees in 23:2. The scribes were an independent group affiliated not only with the Pharisees, but also with the Sadducees, Chief Priests, and elders. In fact, in Matthew, a quick check shows that 10 references to the scribes relate them to the Pharisees and 10 to other groups!

    As soon as we grant the scribes the same place that Yeshua does in Mt. 23:2, it seems that Yeshua was not promoting the idea that one group should be in control of the halakhic process. Rather, he acknowledges the vital role of Torah teachers but criticizes them as part of his teaching on humility (read to verse 12).

  2. That’s a terrific point, Carl. What that would mean, if I understand you correctly, is that Yeshua was upholding the authority of all of the Jewish leaders to interpret Torah and establish halakhah. It’s interesting since the Pharisees and Sadducees were not in agreement on various points, but then, in modern times, different “Judaisms” (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and so on) don’t agree on all points either…and yet, no one disputes that each group within Judaism has the right to establish halakhah as it applies within their own group.

    The question then is, upon his return, will Yeshua uphold the different modern Judaisms’ authority to interpret Torah and establish halakhah in the same way he did of the Pharisees, scribes, and so on? I don’t know if there’s any way to answer that question, but it is certainly a compelling one, and draws into question those opinions out there who say all religious judgments and rulings were “frozen” at the time of Yeshua, and that the last 2,000 years of Jewish religious thought, philosophy, and rulings don’t matter.

  3. Carl, that’s a great point.The scribes are always left out, but their inclusion gives us a different angle on the whole authority thing. The question many must ask themselves, of course, is why were the powerful Sadducees, the original “sola scriptura” gang, left out of the “you must obey them” equation?

  4. To me this is related to the authority that the Messiah left His people in Matthew 18:15-20. We have been given a certain amount of authority to “bind and loose”. G-d’s will is a highway, not a tight rope. He says “on this day celebrate!” but leaves it up to us as to how to celebrate. He says “humble yourself” but leaves it up to us to decide how best to do that. We all carry a certain authority to interpret the Scriptures into our lives and (if we lead) into the lives of our charges. This is what the Oral Torah is to me. It certainly carries the weight of authority that the words of the wise always have. Having said that, the Spirit-inspired Scriptures trump them should the the words of the wise contradict the Word of God.

    Thank you for an excellent article that is very well written.

  5. Shalom James,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments on my blog today–especially the link to the Rabbinowitz article. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

    Yeshua endorsed the institutional authority of the Torah teachers of His day. We all know that the Pharisees were more of movement than an actual sect and that the scribes held a VARIETY of different offices. It would be silly to read “Moses’ Seat” as merely a literal seat. After all, Yeshua references plural scribes and Pharisees and only a single seat. This militates toward a reference to broad, institutional authority.

    Now, as I’ve explained on my post A Refutation of the Divine Command Theory of Rabbinic Authority, the codification of halachah brought about a FINALIZATION of the halachah. The Codes are rigid, monolithic. The halachah of Yeshua’s day was pluralistic, dialogic. Hence, Yeshua was able to argue for alternative approaches to halachah when faced with certain Pharisees.

    Yeshua was very respectful of the halachah of His day. You’ll note His approach was not to say “You guys have no authority! I’m gonna do what I want!” Rather, He persuaded them that He had a legitimate ALTERNATIVE. How did He do this? By QUESTIONING them.

    How can you question a book of Code? Hmm? A Code is not a conversation. But it IS law. And the Codes did not exist in first century. Yeshua would never have been able to argue for a different approach if the Codes HAD existed at that time. They would have Him! He would be an outlaw!

    So this is what we must take away from Matthew 23: Yeshua endorsed only the pre 70 C.E. pluralistic halachic system. He did NOT endorse the monolithic system of Code employed today.

    Anyway, thanks for addressing this topic on your blog James. I have a new level of respect for you. I look forward to future posts with great interest.

    Shalom my friend and blessings to you in Yeshua,


  6. Hi Peter,

    Thanks for the complement.

    You said, “So this is what we must take away from Matthew 23: Yeshua endorsed only the pre 70 C.E. pluralistic halachic system. He did NOT endorse the monolithic system of Code employed today.”

    Of course, it would have been impossible for Yeshua (Jesus) to have said something like, “I will endorse the Rabbinic rulings and authority for the next 2,000 years,” so we don’t know what he (or God the Father) thinks about all the state of present-day Judaism (at least not directly). At some point I’m going to write a “Part 2” of this series to see if we can even entertain the idea that, upon his return, Yeshua might recognize the current Rabbinic authorities as legitimate interpreters of Torah and those who properly establish halakhah for their Jewish communities. Granted, there can be no hard and fast answers, but I think it’s a direction worth exploring.

    As I said on your blog, the Talmudic rulings and judgments were never intended to function as rigid, static regulations, but to be able to “flex” and “adapt” to meet the needs of each generation, and to some degree, different communities of Jews. Does Judaism, or for that matter Christianity, evolve? I suspect so. It may take me some time to come up with a way to address these issues, but I’m sure to try someday soon.

    Thanks again.

  7. James,

    Re: “As I said on your blog, the Talmudic rulings and judgments were never intended to function as rigid, static regulations, but to be able to “flex” and “adapt” to meet the needs of each generation…”

    The codification of halachah into the Codes renders the prior Talmudic rulings and judgments moot. For example, the Shulchan Aruch carries the force of law. This means you don’t need to review all of the conflicting opinions contained in the Talmud–you have the opinion of a single man now that must be followed. This is the nature of code.

    And we know that Yeshua disagreed with the Codes. I’ve cited examples in my post Yeshua Violated MODERN Rabbinic Halacha. Plus, Yeshua authorized His disciples to make halacha. And the decisions they rendered also conflict with contemporary Rabbinic halacha. Acts 15 shows that the Disciples considered the uncircumcised gentiles to be included in the covenant (e.g. “a people for His name”) which is in direct conflict with Rabbinic halacha. As I’ve cited previously, Shulchan Aruch specifies who is considered to be in the covenant. And nowhere does it say that an uncircumcised gentile is to be considered part of the covenant family. Also, Peter the Apostle, seeing that Cornelius was accepted in the covenant, violated contemporary halacha by immersing Cornelius in a mikvah. Cornelius was uncircumcised!

    You like to say that Yeshua didn’t say anything about the contemporary halachah. But this misses the point. He authorized the rejection of contemporary codified halachah when He granted halachic authority on His disciples.

    If you follow Rabbinic authority then you MUST accept the Divine Authorization of the Codes, which means you REJECT the authority of the New Testament (because the NT conflicts with the Codes in MANY areas as I’ve noted).

  8. Peter, if I try to respond to all of your points here, I’d be taking away from what I want to say in the continuation of this series. Since it will require a bit of reading on my part, I probably won’t get to it before next week sometime. Patience.

    Breathe, everyone.

  9. James,

    I understand. I’ll just add one more thing since you posed a new question on my blog. You asked where Yeshua granted halachic authority on the Messianic community. Here’s the response (which I think you’ll find helpful):

    “Yeshua gave halachic authority in passages such as Matthew 16:19, the expression “bind and loose” referring to prohibiting and permitting, a halachic concept. You also see this in Matthew 23. Yeshua refers to the Pharisees/scribes authority to “bind” grievous burdens upon the people.

    Halacha is a political concept and so we don’t actually see the disciples establishing halacha until the New Covenant community is established as a political entity as described in the book of Acts.”

  10. Messiah is supposed to sit at the head of the Sanhedrin when he reestablishes Israel’s Kingomd. There is definitely excpected to be debate and changes in Halakha. Just as a banal example, the repetition of the Amida for example, which was instituted for the sake of those who didn’t know the prayers, nowadays everybody has access to a siddur, but we have no court to change this previous ruling. So definitely I think Messiah will uphold many rulings, as the sages had the authority to make those rulings, yet for sure there may be changes, why not? Judaism evolves (sometimes for good, sometimes for bad)
    gmar hatima tova to all!

  11. Greatings, ensayosde1vagabundo. Welcome to my blog.

    That’s an interesting point of view, but could you tell me where you found this information? I don’t believe I’ve heard that the Messiah was to be the head of the Sanhedrin before.


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