Learning the Traditions of Our Fathers

Talmudic Rabbis“We keep the customs of our forefathers.”

Shabbos 35b

The Gemara here notes that we keep the customs of our forefathers, even when the rationale behind the custom no longer applies. One such custom is the recitation of Kedushah in U’va LeTzion. Why do we repeat Kedushah if it has already been recited during Birkas Kri’as Shema and Chazaras HaShatz?

The origin of this recitation is recorded in Shibolei HaLeket (ch. 44). There was a time when the gentiles banned the Jews from reciting Kedushah and would send a representative to sit in shul through Chazaras HaShatz to guarantee that it was not recited. Once Chazaras HaShatz was completed, the representative felt confident that his job was finished and he would leave. Only later, when the gentiles left, were the Jews able to say Kedushah. They therefore inserted Kedushah into U’va Letzion, in Hebrew and Aramiac, to replace the two times they were not able to say Kedushah, in Birkas Kri’as Shema and Chazaras HaShatz. Although we are now able to say Kedushah without fear of being harmed by gentiles, we continue to recite Kedushah in U’va Letzion based upon the principle of “Minhag Avoseinu Biyadeinu” — “The custom of our forefathers remains in our hands.”

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“Keeping the customs of our fathers”
Commentary on Shabbos 35b

All denominations or sects of Christianity of which I’m aware have a problem with the relationship between religious Judaism and its traditions and customs. As we see from a Christian point of view, the function of traditions in Judaism seems to exceed what we would consider practical utility and common sense. Certainly all cultures and groups engage in various traditions and as such, there’s no problem in this, but why participate in a custom or tradition that has outlived its usefulness and may well (though not in this case) contradict the Word of God?

Christianity, and particularly the Protestant church, sees itself as relying solely on the Word of God as we have it in the Bible without the “traditions of men” getting in the way (Sola scriptura), while we tend to see Judaism as relying primarily on their traditions (which we see growing and growing, even when some of them have outlived their original purpose) as equal or even superior in authority to what God has said to Israel. But does that really reflect the reality of what we do (and you probably know where I’m going with this)?

To define sola scriptura without academic terminology might sound something like this: The Bible is the only authority in the believer’s life; it is never wrong about anything; it touches on every aspect of life; it needs no outside help to be correctly interpreted; it never disagrees with itself; it can be understood by anyone of average intelligence; and it applies to everyone in every situation.

I only use the example of translations to illustrate the fact that in a very practical sense, the Scriptures in their original languages are, for most Christians, not enough – tools such as translations, concordances, the Masoretic vowel points, and commentaries are required in order to understand the text. Of course, the goal is to understand the original text, which in itself is not an objection to the doctrine of sola scriptura – until one realizes that every translation, every commentary, and even the textual tradition itself are all based on traditions along with the divine written revelation. It is simply impossible to get away from these traditions and study the Bible in isolation.

-Jacob Fronczak
“The Five Solas: Sola Scriptura”
Messiah Journal, Issue 111 (pp 47, 52)

If you read my recent blog post, Chayei Sarah: Oil for the Lamp, you recognize the quotes from Pastor Fronczak. You also remember the meaning behind those words: that Catholic and Protestant Christianity does not understand what the Bible is saying apart from our own traditions. That is to say, no one of us has raw, unfiltered, unmediated, uncommentaried access to anything the Bible is telling us. We all read the Bible while wearing the moral and intellectual equivalent of “rose-colored glasses.”

Not only do we find that we must accept the wisdom of the “traditions of the Christian elders,” but we must also accept the wisdom of the “traditions of the Jewish elders.” Why?

Consider the Old Testament. About two-thirds of the Christian Bible is made up of the Old Testament. Who wrote the Old Testament? Jews (It’s important to realize that Jews also wrote the New Testament, but that’s a discussion for another time).

The organization of books, chapters, verses, and insertion of vowels and punctuation all come from Jewish sources, and have been altered very little if at all by Christian translators in most cases. Without realizing it, the vast majority of Christians, when reading nearly any part of the Old Testament, are tacitly accepting Jewish tradition in how it is translated and presented to us.

Right now, you might be saying, “So what. I still believe the Bible is the highest written authority and no Rabbi, Pastor, or scholar is going to have an opinion or judgment that overrides scripture.” Well, that’s not exactly true.

Translating dead languages (ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek are all dead languages and only somewhat associated with the modern-day “living” counterparts) into the land of the living so that English speakers (for example) can read the Bible is no small thing and it’s hardly an exact science. The art of Biblical analysis and translation is highly specialized and it’s not a matter of simply saying, Word A in Hebrew means word B in English.

Even with the Masoretic traditions, though, many English readings of the Scripture can be divined from a single Hebrew text. Translation committees have to pick one. Many times readings are chosen to emphasize some Messianic prophecy which appears to point to Jesus Christ, while a Jewish translation committee might choose a different readings for the exact opposite reason. Both readings might be technically correct. However doctrinal presuppositions dictate which reading is chosen. In effect, then, when Christians have only an English Bible and no other tools, they are completely unable to interact with the Scripture – the original Greek and Hebrew texts. They are completely dependent on the work of the translator.

-Fronczak (pg 52)

Let’s go through that again. Two separate translations of the Hebrew (or Greek) text can both be technically correct, but actually render opposite meanings, depending on the doctrinal presuppositions of the translation committees involved.

I’d love to just copy and paste the entire text of Fronczak’s article into this blog post because I think every Christian (and Jew) should read it, but that’s highly impractical. You’ll just have to purchase a copy of Messiah Journal to read all of his write up (and even if you disagree with Fronczak, you’ll still have to read the complete content in order to craft a rebuttal that contains any validity at all).

But beyond apparently trying to shoot down the doctrine of sola scriptura, why am I bothering to write this and why should you care?

The vast majority of Christians do not interact with the rabbinic tradition at all. As a consequence, it is poorly understood and even attacked. Modern Jews have not forgotten the Christians who burned copies of the Talmud in Europe. Even many in the Hebrew roots movement disparage the teachings of the rabbis and ancient sages, without realizing that in many ways, we rely on these very teachings in order to interpret the Bible.

First Fruits of Zion has been vehemently attacked for this very reason – we rely on rabbinic traditions and other extra-biblical literature to illuminate and explain the text of the Scripture. Like any reputable translation committee or research institution would do, we consider a lot of evidence before coming to a conclusion on what a Bible passage means. Unfortunately, people who do not understand the importance and usefulness of this literature continue to disparage the ministry of First Fruits of Zion, even though they, as explained above, are equally reliant on traditions and extra-biblical evidence for their own interpretations of the Scripture. The continuing attacks on traditional Jewish literature such as the Talmud and Zohar betray anti-Judaic and perhaps even an anti-Semitic spirit on the part of many of our detractors.

-Fronczak (pg 53)

The focus of my point for this blog post and for the existence of my blog in general, overlaps Fronczak’s and First Fruits of Zion’s (FFOZ’s) message, but my overall scope is beyond the confines of Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots (and all of the variants those two groups contain). This is a message that should concern every Christian and every church, regardless of denomination or affiliation. We all share a common Bible (relative to translation), a common Jesus, and a common God. The origin of the core faith in Christ of the church can be traced directly back to ancient Israel and the Second Temple period, and the origin of everything Jesus taught as we have it recorded in the New Testament, every bit of it, travels deeply back into the Old Testament, to David, to Moses, to Jacob, Issac, and Abraham, and indeed, back to before Adam and the creation of the world by God. Not one word of what Jesus said wasn’t Jewish, nor was any of it disconnected from the Jewish reality of the Bible.

Add to that the fact that we in the church rely just as much on our traditions (and some Jewish traditions) to understand all of what God is saying, and we have a very poor case for tearing apart Jewish reliance upon tradition to understand themselves and God.

It is really, really important to view the struggle of Christianity trying to comprehend Judaism as not a specialized or niche perspective or movement. It’s not just for those few people who are affiliated with those entities we call “Messianic Judaism” or “Hebrew Roots.” This is the struggle, the mission, the challenge for everyone who calls themselves a Christian.

If the church has any hope of understanding itself, it (we) must come to terms with not only where we came from, but the people and nation God granted the ability to give us life in Him, the Jews. We cannot afford to keep living in an isolated silo pretending that those connections are forever severed or relating to our “Jewish roots” as if the last 2,000 years of Jewish and Christian history, culture, custom, and tradition simply never happened.

Not long ago, I wrote another blog post called Intersection. There are a small group of Christians and Jews who are approaching a point of intersection where we going to realize we are, in some mysterious or even mystic way, interdependent on one another for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven (which has nothing to do with “going to Heaven” and everything to do with enacting and progressing God’s plan for humanity on Earth). What may now appear as minority religious groups, variant Christian and Jewish sects, and even (Heaven forbid) cults, may well actually be part of the resurgence, the restoration, and the re-establishment of God’s intentions and design for His people Israel and the other nations of the Earth.

I believe when those Jewish and Christian people arrive at the intersection, this will happen.

“Thus says the Lord of hosts: Peoples shall yet come, even the inhabitants of many cities. The inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, ‘Let us go at once to entreat the favor of the Lord and to seek the Lord of hosts; I myself am going.’ Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favor of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’”

Zechariah 8:20-23

No, I don’t believe Christians will be turned into Jews or Jews will be turned into Christians (and a Jew being Messianic is not the same as being “Christian” as we comprehend the concepts and lifestyles), but we will all flow to “the mountain of the house of the Lord” and the people of many nations will say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” (see Micah 4:1-2)

Many Christians, including those in the Hebrew Roots movement, are fond of quoting from Ephesians 2 (particularly verse 15) and saying that differences and distinctions between Jews and Christians were all obliterated (along with the Torah, Talmud, shabbat, Passover, and anything even remotely referring to a Jewish identity and life) in Christ, “nailed to the cross,” so to speak.

And yet the unity that we see described in Zechariah 8 and Micah 4 requires no melding into uniformity between Gentile and Jew in order to achieve the prophesied unity between Israel and the nations. What is required is a sense of humility and recognition, the humility to “take hold” of the tzitzit on the tallit of a Jew, and to ask him to guide us to the mountain of the house of the Lord, the holy Temple in Jerusalem (which apparently will exist again) so that even we non-Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah King may be taught his ways and walk in his paths. (Zechariah 8:23 “says take hold of the robe of a Jew.” Is that any Jew or only one, the firstborn son of Israel…Moshiach?)

We’re all doing our best right now to do that; to walk in his paths. But we can do better. We must do better. Let us hurry to the intersection and meet together, Christian and Jew, we who share the Messiah and honor the One God. Time is short. There’s a lot of work to be done, starting with learning how to listen to one another, and comprehend the wisdom of the customs of our fathers, both the Jewish and Christian fathers.

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4 thoughts on “Learning the Traditions of Our Fathers”

  1. nice article. I am a Jewish and tried messianic Judaism for a few years but since I didnt fit in the box there so i left. I go to an orthodox shul now and since I am in a mixed marriage its not a big deal. many of my friends say i am denyng Yeshua. I tried for many years to study the new testament but I do not believe it is “holy and infallible” so that was not acceptable to messianics. I believe a lot of it is historical and I believe Yeshua is moshiach just not HaShem…I understand the whole Son of Man thing and I am not trying to get in a debate about it, I am just telling you my story. I am happy and so is my family. My shul knows my husband “believes in Yeshu” and they dont care. It is not a big deal. The reason i feel more at home there is that you dont have anyone trying to teach you their point of view. you can have different beliefs and its ok. we will all stand before HaShem one day and He will judge us. Shabbat Shalom!

  2. Hi Alexa,

    I won’t debate you if that’s not your intent and I’m all about people being allowed to tell their stories (I tell mine often enough).

    I agree with you that many Christians don’t understand how Jews can gather together and yet have a number of “variable” beliefs between them. Even a Jewish atheist can be part of a minyan if he so desires. From my (non-Jewish) perspective, a lot of being a Jew is who you are, a matter of identity and community, not necessarily what you think and feel at the level of theology.

    We all walk our own paths on the journey between where we are and where God wants us to be. Each of us negotiates our own relationship with Hashem. While I could take one point of view and discuss what I think that means, I’m not going to try and put that on another person unless they’re interested in listening. Perhaps once we make listening to each other more important than “getting our point across,” then we’ll be able to actually hear each other’s stories and learn what God is saying to us in each of them.

    Good Shabbos.

  3. Sure. Just click on “Who am I” on the menu under the banner image. Then, on the Who am I page, fill out the contact form and click Submit. Only I will see your email address and I’ll be able to respond via email.

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