The reason for any lack of “overarching standards” for halakhah is that the rabbinical system was designed to be more flexible than that, and dependent on each generation of rabbis to apply a set of common standards from common principles. That having been said, the standards are a bit less ambiguous in the orthodox realm, which is still the standard by which other modern streams of Judaism must measure themselves even insofar as they wish to diverge from them to accommodate some perceived modern situation. I will refrain from offering any comment about how well or poorly they may achieve their goals, and I will offer the observation that Judaism has preserved in its literature numerous behaviors that may be deemed more or less applicable or enforceable in any given generation but that may be revived when appropriate. I have the greatest sympathy for the Jewish Christians in your church, though I would try to persuade them that the Hebrew-Christian model developed a century ago was a temporary accommodation whose purpose has passed, and that their well-being as Jews and contributors to the Jewish enterprise would be better served otherwise. History has shown that they will not survive as Jews in a Christian environment, certainly their children or grandchildren will not, and that they are contributing to the alienation of their Jewish families from the Messiah. If they have been mis-taught that these considerations are unimportant, I can only lament their loss.
The modern Reform and Conservative streams (not to neglect Reconstructionism and others) were formulated in response to historical circumstances, and modern MJ is still grappling with a selection of halakhot that meets its needs. One of these needs or desires is to somehow reclaim a first- or second-century CE outlook, while recognizing all the subsequent influences that have affected halakhic development so as to integrate as much of Jewish tradition as may be possible and applicable into our current circumstances. I suppose that characterizes them somewhere within the Conservative spectrum. At issue is not a “doing of religion” so much as the development of a lifestyle that incorporates and illustrates millennia of Jewish civilization. It is a practical corporate educational exercise that promotes the preservation of the Jewish people and our characteristic knowledge base that is still indispensible to understanding Rav Yeshua’s and Rav Shaul’s teachings. It remains to be seen whether the modern streams of Judaism will also become increasingly anachronistic, or if some of their insights may continue to be preserved. What is currently called Reform Judaism has become quite different from its origins, especially since the Holocaust and the resurgence of Israel, though it has not yet embraced halakhah. Conservative Judaism has always applied halakhah, though it tries to adjust it to modern circumstances. On the other hand, so does modern Orthodoxy, though with a stronger emphasis on maintaining historical connectivity.
Acts 15 is quite clear that the full body of Torah mitzvot is not incumbent upon non-Jews, though it was still recommended that they learn Torah in synagogues each Shabbat. This does carry some implications about what may be permitted for the more mature non-Jew to do voluntarily and without obligation, for all the extra merit that the rabbis assigned to non-Jews who pursue Torah even though it is not their obligation (based on Is.56, among other passages). Of course, Rav Shaul re-inforced en-passant in Gal.5:3 his view that Torah is fully binding upon Jews and circumcised proselytes (i.e., converts). In his time it was also especially important to emphasize to non-Jews not to allow coercive social forces to deprive them of that potential for extra merit by becoming circumcised, which is how the Acts 15 halakhah came to be formulated.
I know it’s a long quote but I just loved the “in-a-nutshell” summation ProclaimLiberty (PL) offered in reply to my blog post and my subsequent comments on the topic (and as a counterpoint to the topics I discuss in Part 1 of this article). Not only does PL succinctly describe the history and development of Jewish halachah over the centuries, but also brings in the issue of Gentile disciples as they entered “the Way” in the late Second Temple era and the Apostolic response to their presence. In reading the original comment, I felt as if a clear vision of a valid Jewish viewpoint in relation to how tradition and Torah obedience interrelate were presented to me. It’s difficult to work through a large set of tomes addressing my questions, and a few paragraphs that can reduce the arguments down to their basic essence is incredibly welcome.
I’m not saying there isn’t any possible rebuttal from Christianity or the other “Judaisms,” but at least we have a firm starting point as to how (and why) Messianic Jews must continue to live as observant Jews, and how halachah can be appropriately part of the modern expression of “the Way” within Jewish communities. It seems like there’s a certain amount of latitude regarding how each Jewish tradition (including the modern Messianic tradition) may select halakhot (although as PL says below, a great deal of selection may not be required) that meets its needs without running roughshod over the authority of the written Bible.
But PL has more to say:
Halakhah is the human response in the conversation with HaShem that begins with His Torah instructions. It is a re-iterated conversation that continues throughout our generations, so of course it is varied and flexible. Judaism is not constrained by a concept of “the Bible as the final sovereign word of G-d”. We view a hierarchy that begins with the Torah above all, followed by the authoritative interpretations of Torah from Israel’s appointed leaders and teachers, in the Torah-defined role of the “shoftim v’shotrim” (judges and magistrates). The Prophets decry failures to live up to the standards of Torah, but they do not contribute to any new interpretation of it. The Writings provide additional illustrations of how this plays out in history or even in hypothetical scenarios (as some might view some of the literature). The inter-testamental apocryphal writings take that farther, including some material that could be viewed virtually as “fantasy” (since it was a bit too early in history to consider science fiction), though even that period included historical records such as the Maccabbean revolt and the miracle of Hanukah. Subsequent to that we have a variety of Rabbinic literature and Responsa, of which the Rav Yeshua messianic writings are a fitting example, though a bit earlier than other Rabbinic codifications. So MJ is not required to choose a particular stream of tradition, though most of its current contributors to halakhic formulation have been influenced by the Conservative movement and its particular flexibility. The only “complication” for messianists is the desire to integrate the views of Rav Yeshua and Rav Shaul into their compilation of halakhah for a Jewish community that honors them at least as well as other rabbinic views are honored. Since there is not really any incompatibility here for the discerning halakhist, that need not present difficulty or disconnection from other halakhic compilations in other Jewish streams.
As to the difficulty of recapturing the 1rst-2nd-century worldview, more data seems to become available continually, but it is fair to say that MJ has devoted more attention to this than any other form of Judaism has done, because of its need to understand the teaching context of its primary rabbis. But from a modern halakhic standpoint, the issue is somewhat moot because of all that has happened in the past two millennia. So “… when [he] comes, will he find faith in the earth? (Luke 18:8). The linguistics of this also allow a more narrow colloquial reading asking whether he will find those who trust him in the land of Israel. Will he have any difficulty recognizing his sheep, either because of their halakhah or in spite of it? As long as MJ halakhists keep this question in mind, I’m reasonably confident of a positive response.
There is a midrash that depicts Moshe Rabbeinu as being carried by an angel across time and space to visit the Jewish Talmudic Academy of Babylon. He is terribly perplexed by the argumentation, of which he cannot make any sense. He is then consoled by its reference to the Mishnah and its quotation of the words of Torah from the mouth of Moshe. Now, while we know nothing of the conversation that occurred on the “Mount of Transfiguration” between Rav Yeshua, Moshe, and Eliahu, in some future midrashic conversation Moshe might council Rav Yeshua to be patient with his modern disciples for exactly similar reasons. And we would be similarly well advised.
I apologize for inserting large blocks of copied and pasted text, but the alternative would be for me to rework what PL has written and present those ideas in my words, and really, what’s the point? Better that you read what was presented in the original comments rather than risk my messing up the meaning or intent. All I really want to present are these ideas and my impressions of them.
Part 1 of this article was my continued understanding of how Torah does and doesn’t apply to Gentile Christians, including Jewish halachah. In this second part of my missive, I’m trying to show the opposite side of the coin, not so much about why Torah applies to Jews, because by definition, the entire body of Torah must apply, but how we can see the rulings and traditions of the sages as a natural extension of Torah, which includes the authority of the accepted teachers in Judaism to make such rulings.
I view Judaism as we know it today as valid and authoritative for the Jewish people. I also agree with Yeshua own words (in Matthew 23:3) that whatever (“everything”) those sitting in the seat of Moses (Jewish leaders) bid Jews to observe is bound on all Jews. He didn’t make an exception for Jewish disciples of Yeshua, but in fact was speaking to them when he said those words. He believed in the leadership of Israel, even if he condemned those who were hypocrites.
I’ve spent a great deal of time attempting to establish and confirm the validity and the authority of the ancient and more modern Jewish sages to establish halachah in Judaism including Messianic Judaism, such as in my recent blog post The Moshiach and the Rabbis, so I won’t go into a long tirade and repeat myself again at length, but I do want to try and tie together as many loose threads as possible.
If God is God over all and Jesus is the Jewish Messiah King and the Divine in the flesh who dwelt among us and who will do so again, then what are we to do with the post-Second Temple sages and the ancient and modern Jewish traditions and interpretations? Apparently, if you’re a Gentile Christian, you don’t have to do anything with them. As I have said on numerous occasions over the past few years, a Christian, in my opinion, is free to observe a wide variety of the mitzvot on a voluntary basis as a personal conviction and in solidarity with his or her Jewish fellows, as long as issues of Jewish identity don’t get stepped on, let alone walked all over. Saying all that, we don’t have to perform those mitzvot in obligatory obedience.
Since it’s impossible to observe the kosher laws, wear tzitzit, lay tefillin, or even daven from a siddur without encountering the sages and their judgments, any Gentile Christian who chooses to go down that path will have to make decisions about tradition as well (should I bind my tefillin by the Ashkenazi or Sefard tradition, or use the Chabad or another method?) Halachah, in this case, is unavoidable, even for the Gentile.
But for the observant Jew, it’s not a matter of whether or not to walk the steps of halachah, but to “grapple with a selection of halakhot that meets his or her needs.” God’s Word, in the final analysis, is absolute, but not necessarily halachah (of course, if you ask an Orthodox Jew about it, you might get a different answer).
Pastor Randy asked me recently if I thought it was possible for anyone to observe Torah perfectly? No, I sincerely doubt it, only because we human beings are bound to make mistakes sooner or later. So if Jews can’t keep the Torah perfectly, what’s the point of keeping it at all (James 2:10)? That’s like asking a Christian if he were to find himself looking at a woman in lust even on a single occasion, should he give up on remaining faithful to his wife, throw the Bible to the winds, and let himself be consumed by his desires for other women. It’s not about having perfect behavior, since no person is perfect, it’s about “perfecting” ourselves, continually turning away from sin, and turning more completely to God.
For a Jew, that includes striving to become more spiritually elevated by correcting transgressions and continuing to master the mitzvot one at a time in order to honor God as a Jew and to sustain a Jewish presence and identity today and for future generations.
I hope this makes some sort of sense to both my Jewish and my Christian readers. I don’t have a Jewish lived experience, so I suppose I’ve made a thousand mistakes and if so, I trust I’ll be gently corrected. As far as my Christian readers go, I don’t doubt you will have many points of disagreement, if only because especially in Protestantism, tradition and Bible generally don’t mix. But we aren’t looking at how Christians walk as disciples of the Jewish Messiah, we’re looking at how Jews walk as disciples, and if we are to honor the uniqueness of their relationship with HaShem, then we must also honor how Jews are to be Jews, both in their communities, and in the presence of God.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside waters of rest.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of deep darkness,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Only goodness and steadfast love shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I return to dwell in the house of the Lord for length of days.
–Psalm 23 (ESV)
This conversation will continue in an “extra mediation” later today, based on some correspondence with PL whose insights I’m learning to appreciate. I hope I’ve laid a sufficient foundation upon which to base a dialog on these matters. The sheep are out of the pens and gathering together as a flock in the green meadow with our Good Shepherd. It is his voice we must listen to, and if we are his, we will follow where he leads.
One last thing I’d like to add is a short video made of Boaz Michael presenting the Gospels as the oldest written record of some of the Jewish oral traditions. I hope you’ll find this information as compelling as I do.