Struggling to Touch the Essence

Talmud StudyDuring the centuries following the completion of the Mishnah, the chain of transmission of the Oral law was further weakened by a number of factors: Economic hardship and increased persecution of the Jewish community in Israel caused many Jews, including many rabbis, to flee the country. Many of these rabbis emigrated to Babylon in the Persian Empire. The role of the rabbis of Israel as the sole central authority of the Jewish people was coming to an end.

This decentralization of Torah authority and lack of consensus among the rabbis led to further weakening of the transmission process. It became clear to the sages of this period that the Mishnah alone was no longer clear enough to fully explain the Oral Law. It was written in shorthand fashion and in places was cryptic. This is because it was very concise, written on the assumption that the person reading it was already well-acquainted with the subject matter.

So they began to have discussions about it and to write down the substance of these discussions…

…When you look at the page of the Babylonian Talmud today, you will find the Hebrew text of the Mishnah is featured in the middle of the page. Interspersed between the Hebrew of the Mishnah are explanations in both Hebrew and Aramaic which are called the Gemara.

The Aramaic word Gemara means “tradition.” In Hebrew, the word Gemara means “completion.” Indeed, the Gemara is a compilation of the various rabbinic discussions on the Mishnah, and as such completes the understanding of the Mishnah.

The texts of the Mishnah and Gemara are then surrounded by other layers of text and commentaries from a later period.

-Rabbi Ken Spiro
“History Crash Course #39: The Talmud”

My conversations with Pastor Randy are always very rewarding. We’ve taken to meeting somewhat regularly to discuss matters of mutual interest and specifically the world of believing Jews called “Messianic Judaism.” He lived in Israel for fifteen years and has many Israeli Jewish friends. He is well-versed in Biblical Hebrew and Greek, and his mind and heart are very open to Israel and the Jewish people.

But in our talks, it’s difficult to address how or if modern Messianic Jews are obligated to Torah, what exactly is meant by “Torah,” and the role of Talmud (Mishnah and Gemara) in the life of an observant Messianic Jew. For a Jew, including one in Messiah, is it even possible to comprehend a passage in Torah without Talmud?

I admit, I have few answers.

But since we both have questions, I thought this was the perfect topic to expose to the blogosphere and to present to my readership (and anyone else my readership wants to share a link to this blog post with minus a few “nudniks”). If the bottom line is the Word of God and the revealed Messiah, how can we say that the word of the Sages go beyond them? I disagree that history was frozen after the destruction of Herod’s Temple and I know that Judaism and Christianity continued to move forward and develop. If I may be allowed a conceit, I believe errors entered both Judaism and Christianity in the past 2,000 years that caused both (although Christianity began as a wholly Jewish sect known as “the Way”) religious traditions to “stray” from the intent of God and the footsteps of the Messiah to some degree (probably a really large degree).

And yet, we cannot recapture first century Christianity as Paul understood it and how it was expressed and lived within both Jewish and Gentile cultural contexts. We can only look at where we’re at now and attempt to return to the scriptures to “observe, interpret, and then apply” what we discover there (to quote Pastor Randy).

But if the Bible is the final word, what do we do with 2,000 years of Jewish history, law, discussion, and interpretation…just wad it up and toss it in the nearest (very large) trash can?  Do we have a right to take everything that it means to be a Jew and to lay it to waste, leaving behind only ruins?

Absolutely not! I don’t believe Messiah will do this upon his return (although, of course, this is just my opinion). Do we say that Jesus will wholeheartedly accept each and every judgement and ruling made by the sages without question? I don’t know if that’s true either, if for no other reason than because the discussion between the ancient sages that spans the centuries, does not come to a final agreement on many practical and legal matters.

And not all Jews and not all Jewish traditions follow the same interpretations. Which one do you choose, and having made a choice, do you realize that it is a human decision and not God’s decision? How can we reconcile this?

My wife told me something interesting just the other day. She told me that the local Chabad Rabbi and the local Reform Rabbi study Talmud together. That’s kind of surprising, and in a community with a large Jewish population, that wouldn’t happen. Chabad (Orthodox) and Reform Rabbis view the traditions and Talmud from very different perspectives. But in this little corner of Idaho, there just aren’t that many Jews and there are even fewer Jewish Rabbis. That fact acts as a bridge for these two gentlemen to meet and share what they have in common as well as their differences.

However, a much greater bridge is required to link a Messianic Jew to any other observant Jew, particularly an Orthodox scholar, although this too has recently occurred. But what is the relationship between a Messianic Jew “keeping Torah,” a state of righteousness before God, and faith in Yeshua (Jesus) as the Jewish Messiah King? Can a Messianic Jew choose how to keep Torah within a particular traditional framework of halachah? Upon making such a choice, whose choice is it, the person’s or God’s?

Torah is not to be regarded, however, as an academic field of study. It is meant to be applied to all aspects of our everyday life – speech, food, prayer, etc. Over the centuries great rabbis have compiled summaries of practical law from the Talmud. Landmark works include: “Mishneh Torah” by Maimonides (12th century Egypt); “Shulchan Aruch” by Rabbi Yosef Karo (16th century Israel); “Mishnah Berurah” by the Chafetz Chaim (20th century Poland).

“Torah versus Talmud?”
-from “Ask the Rabbi”

Torah is meant to be applied, but how it is applied in the life of an observant Jew is very much dependent on that person’s tradition and the branch of Judaism to which they are attached. I heard a story of a Reform Rabbi who made aliyah. According to the storyteller, when a religious Jew makes aliyah and enters the Land, they either become more religious or become secular. In this case, the Rabbi began studying to become an Orthodox Rabbi.

The differences in halachah between a Reform and Orthodox lifestyle must be enormous. I say this because the Rabbi once had a conversation with the storyteller expressing his frustration at attempting to live out the Torah according to Orthodox halachah. He cried out that he sometimes gets so confused that he doesn’t know which foot to step out of bed with in the morning as a proper way of getting up.

I don’t have a lived Jewish experience to which to compare that statement, especially within the Orthodox, so I don’t know how to respond. I don’t know how to respond when applying all that to the words of James, the brother of the Master:

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.

James 2:10 (ESV)

Granted, breaking one of the mitzvot does not invalidate the entire Torah nor does it make a Torah lifestyle futile and meaningless, but then what does it mean? A traditional Christian interpretation won’t be revealing here. Is the Jewish person guilty? If he or she is Messianic, what is the role of grace? For that matter, if he or she isn’t Messianic, what is the role of grace?

I know of no Messianic Jew who believes they are made righteous and “saved by the Law.” Messiah is the “way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). It isn’t enough for Messianic Jews to say “we have the Torah and the Gentile believers don’t” (and that is a gross oversimplification to be sure). Messiah is the bridge that not only links the Messianic Jew to his Jewish brothers and sisters but to the Gentile believers as well. As Boaz Michael once said, “Yeshua is the boss.” If Messiah isn’t the center of all things, the focal point, the goal of Torah and of the will of God for the redemption of the world, then what do we have?

These are the questions that my conversation with my Pastor brought into view last night. We spoke until there was no one left in the church but us. All the lights were out except for those in the Pastor’s office. All the doors were locked. If we had allowed it, our talk could easily have taken us into the middle of the night as we explored not only these questions, but everything else.

touch-the-essenceI don’t know what the answers are. I don’t know that there is any one answer. There really isn’t any one “Messianic Judaism” even as there isn’t any one “Christianity,” where a single set of interpretations and applications defines the entire group. But I believe the questions are important. I believe that discussion between all of the relevant parties is important, not because Christian Gentiles should have anything to do with defining Judaism, but for the sake of our mutual faith in Messiah.

Who is the Christian and the Messianic Jew when they each stand apart and who are we when we stand side-by-side? How are we to understand one another and in the light of scripture, how are we to understand ourselves?

The Master once said, “for where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20) Granted, his audience at that moment was a Jewish audience, but I don’t discount the possibility that he will also be among two or three Gentile Christians when we gather in our Bible studies and in prayer. I long for the day when two or three (or more…many more) Jewish and Gentile believers in Messiah gather together (Matthew 8:11) and we can talk about all these things. I long for the presence of Messiah among us, that he may teach wisdom and reveal understanding.

The angels are jealous of the one who struggles in darkness. They have light, but we touch the Essence.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Jealous Angels”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

I struggle in darkness to touch the Essence of Light.

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