In addition to Tanakh, we as Messianic Jews have another authoritative source for the making of halakhic decisions: the Apostolic Writings. Yeshua himself did not act primarily as a Posek (Jewish legal authority) issuing halakhic rulings, but rather as a prophetic teacher who illumined the purpose of the Torah and the inner orientation we should have in fulfilling it. Nevertheless, his teaching about the Torah has a direct bearing on how we address particular halakhic questions. As followers of Messiah Yeshua, we look to him as the greatest Rabbi of all, and his example and his instruction are definitive for us in matters of Halakhah as in every other sphere.
In addition, the Book of Acts and the Apostolic Letters provide crucial halakhic
guidance for us in our lives as Messianic Jews. They are especially important in
showing us how the early Jewish believers in Yeshua combined a concern for
Israel’s distinctive calling according to the Torah with a recognition of the new
relationship with God and Israel available to Gentiles in the Messiah. They also
provide guidelines relevant to other areas of Messianic Jewish Halakhah, including
(but not restricted to) areas such as distinctive Messianic rites, household relationships,
and dealing with secular authorities.
-from “Standards of Observance”
Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council (MJRC)
Section One: Halakhah and Messianic Judaism
1.1 Halakhah: Our Approach (pg. 2)
This series isn’t taking the direction that I thought it would. At the end of Part 4, I really thought I’d return to a high-level view of the evolution of Judaism, perhaps lightly going over the development of the Talmud. This would mean doing a bit of reading and probably delaying Part 5 (this part) of the series for a while.
Then, on a whim, I decided to read “Standards of Observance,” which is the MJRC’s treatment of “Messianic Jewish halakhah;” certainly a controversial subject given the responses I’ve been fielding in Part 3 and Part 4. Thus, another “meditation” was born.
As I’m writing this, I haven’t gotten past page 2 of the 39 page MJRC document, but when I read the portion that I quoted above, I got to thinking. I generally consider halakhah to be a matter of how Jewish people operationalize their observance of the 613 mitzvot, which is how contemporary Judaism codifies the commandments to Israel in the Torah. But if “the Book of Acts and the Apostolic Letters provide crucial halakhic guidance for…Messianic Jews,” by definition, it must also provide relevant halakhah for the non-Jewish believing community as well.
This is complicated by two potentially competing positions: the halakhah as it is presented in the New Testament (NT) Gospels, book of Acts, and Epistles, and how the MJRC chooses to conceptualize, organize, and apply that halakhah. Actually, even within the context of the New Testament, how we view the relative authority of this halakhah upon the daily lives of non-Jewish Christians depends on whether or not we see this NT halakhah as fixed, static, pronouncements that were intended to be inflexibly binding on all Christians everywhere across time, or whether at least some of this halakhah was specific to individual congregations, situations, and other contextual factors, and was meant to be adaptive across time, to the point in some cases, of not applying significantly or at all to Christianity in the 21st Century.
I’ll give you an example.
Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. –1 Corinthians 11:4-7 (ESV)
Taken literally and in its simplest form, Paul would seem to be saying that when men pray, our heads should not be covered, but when a woman prays, her head must be covered (presumably in a public setting such as communal worship). According to the notes for vv 5-13 at BibleGateway.com, “the Greek word gunē is translated wife in verses that deal with wearing a veil, a sign of being married in first-century culture.” This adds some context to what Paul is saying that we would miss by reading it in English. The head covering that is to be applied to women is specific to their marital status in specific cultures as they existed nearly 2,000 years ago. There are no immediately available notes for why a man’s head must be uncovered, but this would seem to go against the later tradition that men wear kippot when in the synagogue, although, of course, Paul is addressing non-Jewish believers in this case (keep in mind that any blanket declaration of halakhah forbidding men to cover their heads in prayer directly contradicts the modern practice of Gentile men in Messianic, One Law, and Two-House congregations to wear kippot).
My example seems to show us that it is certainly possible and likely that not every single pronouncement of halakhah that flowed from Paul’s pen was supposed to apply generally across all churches everywhere and “everywhen.” That is, we can believe that some “Messianic halakhah” as it applies to non-Jewish believers was never originally intended to be permanent, fixed, static standards of practice religious practice.
Which means we’re going to have an interesting time trying to figure out which portions of the halakhah in the NT continues to have force today and how we are to observe said-halakhah in our local communities in the present age.
I want to make certain that I communicate the following clearly. Whatever definitions that the MJRC has produced relative to “Messianic halakhah” can only apply to Messianic Jews who are members of congregations affiliated with the MJRC. This is certainly in keeping with halakhah in any other Jewish community, regardless of scope, since, for example, how halakhah is applied within the context of Chabad is most likely different from its application within Conservative or Reform Judaism. For all I know, there may be variations within specific local synagogues that are “contained” within the same sect of Judaism.
That means that not only does the MJRC understanding of halakhah not apply to wider Christianity (and you wouldn’t expect it to, since it seems to be written specifically for its Jewish members), but it doesn’t apply to any other organizations of Messianic Judaism and clearly not to any of the groups contained within “Hebrew Roots.”
(Arguably, and I haven’t read the entire MJRC document yet, any halakhah developed by the MJRC would have some sort of impact on the non-Jewish membership of each affiliated congregation, but I don’t know yet what the scope of that impact might be. However, if you are a non-Jewish believer and you choose to attend an MJRC affiliated congregation, you agree to become subject to their authority. Keep in mind that even in the most “Jewish” of Messianic Jewish congregations, the majority of members and perhaps a few folks in leadership, are non-Jews).
The next question is whether or not it is appropriate and desirable for groups of non-Jewish believers to also attempt to organize a sort of “Christian halakhah” from the NT that would apply to churches and Hebrew Roots groups.
I suppose Christians have been doing that ever since the invention of movable type and the first mass printing of the King James Version of the Bible (probably well before, but availability of the Bible prior to that time was severely limited, and the common man had no ready access to the written Word). In other words, developing “Christian halakhah” is an old story for Christianity, they (we) just don’t call it “halakhah.”
Of course, the result is what we see before us…about a billion (I’m grossly exaggerating) different Christian denominations covering the face of the earth, each with their own special take on what the Bible is trying to tell us, at least at the level of fine details of practice. Hebrew Roots organizations are no different, they just re-introduce the word “halakhah” into the mix. Viewed at in this light, it is understandable that the various Gentile expressions of Hebrew Roots including One Law/One Torah and Two-House, either formally or informally establish a set of accepted religious and lifestyle practices based on various parts of the Bible including the New Testament “halakhah.”
However, where it might get a little strange is when/if such Gentile organizations access the larger body of Jewish halakhah that extends well beyond the pages of the NT and into the writings of the Mishnaic Rabbis. While I can understand why organizations that are formed by Messianic Jews as a resource for Messianic Jews and Messianic Jewish congregations would want to delve into the accepted body of Talmudic thought, it’s puzzling why a Gentile would choose to do so. And yet, we see Gentile groups forming “Beit Dins,” wearing tzitzit and laying tefillin in accordance with traditionally accepted Jewish halakhah, and performing other Jewish religious practices that cannot be found in the NT and indeed, practices that weren’t codified (such as wearing kippot) until many centuries after the writers of the NT books and letters had died and their bones had turned to dust.
I made an observation in the previous part of this series that was never answered by any of the relevant parties:
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?
It is completely understandable why any Christian church or congregation of Gentile believers in Jesus, regardless of their emphasis, should want to carefully study the NT documents and to derive whatever practical knowledge it contains for Christian religious practice in the modern era. On the other hand, it’s rather mysterious what some Hebrew Roots groups believe they will get out of studying the extra-Biblical Rabbinic texts and applying practices and concepts related to a Beit Din, Farbrengen, Ritual purity, Shmita, and so on.
If halakhah has the ability to evolve over time within the Jewish context, we can expect Jewish communities to practice one of the current forms within their local boundaries. The same can be said for Christian religious and lifestyle practice relative to the various Christian churches and denominations. I would never expect a Christian church to borrow significantly or at all from any Jewish halachic source in establishing accepted Christian religious behaviors. Why then, as I’ve asked before, should Gentile Hebrew Roots organizations desire to borrow heavily or almost exclusively from post-Biblical Jewish halachic practices, especially if said-groups only recognize the “written Torah” and New Testament as their only legitimate authoritative documents?
I know all this sounds like I’m trying to pick a fight, but given all of the “resistence” to the Talmud registered by Hebrew Roots people and how they say they don’t consider Talmud as an authoritative guide, the fact that virtually all such groups model their worship practices on modern Jewish synagogue services is truly baffling.
This series continues in the blog post: Messiah in the Jewish Writings, Part 1