If I Should Ever Forget Your Torah

Rescuing_torah_scroll_Beth_IsraelRashi on the Chumash (Devarim 31:21) comments and says that this verse serves as a promise that the Torah will never be forgotten from the Jewish people totally – ‫.לגמרי‬

There is a discussion among the commentators how to interpret the meaning of this promise. When the verse says that “Torah” will not be forgotten, Rashi understands that we are assured that the song of Ha’azinu will never be forgotten. This song will remain as testimony for the Jewish people for all generations, and its lesson of the trials and tribulations of the nation and its destiny will accompany them on their trek through history. However, there never was a promise that the rest of the Torah would be remembered forever. This, then, is what Rashi alludes to when he comments that the Torah will never be forgotten “totally”, because the song of Ha’azinu will always remain. This is also how Maharsha understands the statement of Rebbe Shimon ben Yochai in our Gemara.

Maharshal understands that the promise in the verse refers to the written Torah. However, it is the oral teachings that are vulnerable, and there is a danger of their possibly being forgotten. This explanation fits into the narrative of the Gemara, where we find that the day will come when a woman will take a loaf of bread and circulate among the shuls and batei midrash to find out if the loaf is tamei or tahor, but no one will be able to answer her question. The Gemara then asks how this can be so, for the halachah of tum’ah of bread is explicit in the verse (Vayikra 11:34)! Now, if the written Torah itself is not guaranteed to be intact and remembered, it would still be possible for the explicit information of the verses to be forgotten. It must be, explains Maharshal, that the Gemara knows that the written Torah will always be remembered.

Yet even according to Rashi, although the promise of continuity was only made in reference to the song of Ha’azinu, the halachah is that this shira cannot be written by itself (Rambam, Hilchos Sefer Torah 7:1). Therefore, if the song of Ha’azinu will remain forever, it will necessarily require that the rest of the written Torah accompany it in the same scroll. Therefore, the promise of Ha’azinu never being forgotten automatically indicates that the rest of the written Torah, as well, will never be lost.

Daf Yomi Digest
Gemara Gem
“The Torah will never be forgotten”
Shabbos 138

My father writes in one of his letters: A single act is better than a thousand groans. Our G-d lives, and Torah and mitzvot are eternal; quit the groaning and work hard in actual avoda, and G-d will be gracious to you.

“Today’s Day”
Monday, Adar Sheini 8, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

For the vast majority of Christians, reading what I’ve just quoted above won’t make a great deal of sense, especially when we focus on the sure promises we have through salvation in Jesus Christ, but since I’ve been talking about Jewish identity in the body of Messiah lately, I thought those words applied. More specifically, I think it’s important for we in the church to try to comprehend what a sense of identity as a Jew means to many Jewish people, including those who have accepted Jesus (Yeshua) as the Jewish Messiah. Most of Christian history has created a sort of “reflexive expectation” in the church that results in our anticipating that Jewish believers should look and act like the Gentile believers, and that the things of Judaism (lighting candles on Erev Shabbat, davening with a siddur while wearing a tallit gadol and laying tefillin, keeping glatt kosher, and so forth) should simply go “bye-bye.”

This is at the heart of much of the debate between the halachically Jewish members of Messianic Judaism, and the Christians in the church, as well as many Christians attending Hebrew Roots groups. We non-Jews keep asking ourselves and the Jews who revere the Master what’s the big rip-roaring deal about remaining distinctively Jewish? Didn’t Paul say it was no big deal for him?

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Philippians 3:4-11 (ESV)

paul-editedOK, Paul wasn’t saying that he exchanged his Judaism for his faith in Jesus Christ, since they are hardly mutually exclusive. He was saying that being Jewish, in and of itself, didn’t make him a “big deal” and didn’t hold a candle to everything he had gained since he had come to knowledge and faith in the Jewish Messiah. The Messiah is the goal, he opens all the doors, he holds all the keys, and compared to that, no matter who you are, it doesn’t mean as much as everything Messiah means.

But it also doesn’t mean that Paul thought being Jewish was nothing, either. He never stopped being Jewish, never stopped acting Jewish, never stopped eating, sleeping, walking, and breathing Jewish until the day he died.

And for nearly 2,000 years, the vast, vast majority of Christianity has required, demanded, insisted, and red-in-the-face screamed at the Jewish people desiring to come to Messiah to stop being Jewish as a condition of becoming a “Christian.” (and I put that word in quotes because of how it has been used against the Jewish people who are just as Jewish as their King). If we demand that they forget the Torah, that they set aside their halachah, that they extinguish their Shabbos candles for the sake of Moshiach, how are we any different from all those generations of Christians who came before us and demanded the same things or worse?

But there’s something more to consider.

Sitting at a table in a non-kosher restaurant is a problem of “marit ayin,” which means that we have a responsibility to avoid creating a situation where others may draw the wrong conclusion – i.e. a passerby might see you and think that the restaurant is really kosher and it’s okay to eat there. Or others might think that since you (who purports to keep kosher) are lax in observance, then somehow it’s okay for them, too.

-From Ask the Rabbi
“Eating in Non-Kosher Restaurant”

Sounds a little bit like this sort of problem…that is, if the Jewish person in question was a believer.

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.

Galatians 2:11-13 (ESV)

You’d think that Peter would have gotten past this problem after his staying in the household of the Roman Cornelius back in Acts 10, but he still seemed to be worried about what some important Jewish men from James might think if they saw him eating with the non-Jewish brothers of the faith. Was it because Peter was enjoying a nice, big, juicy cut of pork or maybe a steaming hot bowl of prawns? Probably not, but that’s just a guess because the Bible doesn’t say what was on the menu. It’s more likely though, that whatever was being eaten was acceptable under the laws and accepted halachah involving kashrut, even if Peter was just having a salad, and he thought not all of the emissaries from James were totally on board with this whole “It’s OK to have table fellowship with the Gentile believers” thing.

kosher-in-los-angelesPaul, for his part, was completely OK with it and the fact that these were supposed to be “important men” cut no ice with him at all (v. 6). As the Aish “Ask the Rabbi” writer says, Peter may have been concerned with “a problem of marit ayin.”

I recently read David H. Stern’s book Restoring the Jewishness of the Gospel (2nd ed.) and one of the points Stern made was that a Jewish believer must continue to observe the mitzvot including the accepted halachah. Another of his points was that Jewish reluctance to share a meal with a Christian must not stand in the way of unity in the larger body of Messiah which includes both Jewish and non-Jewish “body parts.”

That’s a tough one, especially depending on the level of kashrut the Jewish believers are observing (I’ve seen some variability). Of course, it also depends on the level of kashrut being observed by the Gentile believers, but keeping kosher (in my opinion) is optional for non-Jews but (again, in my opinion) mandatory for Jews (particularly Jews considering themselves observant within the Messianic framework).

I should say at this point that it’s pretty cheeky of me to even suggest that I know what observant Messianic Jews should or shouldn’t do, except that I’ve been told on numerous occasions by a number of Jewish Messianic believers that this is how they think about kashrut as well.

In this particular blog post, I’m not going into what I think are the specific differences between how Torah should be applied to believing Jews vs. believing Gentiles, but I do want to suggest (again) that we Christians cannot expect or demand that Jews stop being observant Jews because we may not know how to operationalize “kosher” (for instance) or that we have issues with some of the halachah involved in kosher (or many other Jewish practices). Jews should be allowed to observe halachah as long as such practices don’t fly completely in the face of how the Bible describes the proper behavior for a disciples of Christ (and I realize I’m opening the door to various interpretations of “Biblically proper” here).

At this juncture, I can’t help but be reminded of this, particularly since it’s part of the blessings associated with the Birkat HaMazon.

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!

Psalm 137:5-6 (ESV)

And then, there’s this particular mitzvah.

In order that you remember and perform all My commandments.

Numbers 15:40

Now we’re right back where we started: the commandment for the Jewish people not to forget the Torah. Of course, it’s not as if there haven’t been gaps when the Torah was not remembered let alone studied.

And when the king heard the words of the Law, he tore his clothes. And the king commanded Hilkiah, Ahikam the son of Shaphan, Abdon the son of Micah, Shaphan the secretary, and Asaiah the king’s servant, saying, “Go, inquire of the Lord for me and for those who are left in Israel and in Judah, concerning the words of the book that has been found. For great is the wrath of the Lord that is poured out on us, because our fathers have not kept the word of the Lord, to do according to all that is written in this book.”

2 Chronicles 34:19-21 (ESV)

But then again, it’s always been rediscovered, and Israel has always repented and returned to God and the Torah.

Rolling the Torah ScrollWhether we Christians always understand it or not, there is a bond between God, the Torah, and the Jewish people. That bond has existed for thousands of years, in spite of every effort of the nations opposing Israel and those persecuting the Jewish people to destroy that bond (often by burning synagogues, Torah scrolls, volumes of Talmud, and sometimes Jewish people). So when we Christians attempt to loosen the bond between Jew and Torah, which includes halachah, we can expect to see some resistance and even some push back. Expecting a Jew to forget Torah, at least because we’ve said they should, is like expecting a mother to forget her only child.

Memory is a unique Divine gift. Indeed, to this very day, neuropsychologists have not discovered the secret of exactly how memory operates. The turnover of the chemicals in our bodies is such that after a period of time not a single atom remains in the brain that was there several months earlier, yet a person’s brain retains memories for years, decades, a lifetime.

This unique gift should not be abused. Many times the Torah tells us what we should remember and cautions us against forgetting. The concepts and events that we must retain are goals that are vital to our spiritual well-being. Most siddurim list six verses of the Torah that we should recite each day to remind us of who we are and to caution us against idolatry and lashon hara (harmful talk).

However, if we use this wonderful gift to remember those who have offended us and to harbor grudges against them, or if we remember the favors we have done for others and expect them to be beholden to us, we are abusing this Divine gift.

The key to discerning what we should remember and what we should forget is contained in the above verse: “In order that you remember and perform all My commandments.” Any memory that does not assist us in working toward the ultimate goal of serving God does not deserve being retained.

Today I shall…

…try to retain in my mind only those things that contribute to my devotion to God, and dismiss those things that may deter me therefrom.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Adar 8”

I know someone out there is going to tell me how unfaithful the Jewish people have been to God throughout their history. I know someone is going to tell me that the majority of the world’s Jewish population is completely secular. Be that as it may, that doesn’t justify Christians requiring the believing Jews in our midst to also forget the Torah when they believe with great zeal that God has called them to always remember the mitzvot, to love God, and to obey Him, as He has long since taught His people Israel to do.

17 thoughts on “If I Should Ever Forget Your Torah”

  1. An excellent post (as usual), James.

    I’d like to add a personal comment. Since my beginnings as a Yeshua-believer four decades ago, knowing God and experiencing Messiah more deeply has been at the core of my desires in life. Along the way, I became increasingly aware of the place of Torah, more or less as you have described. For me, it was a slow process because my community was not heading in the same direction. not recognize the place of Torah. But slowly, slowly, as I searched the Scriptures and began to study classic rabbinic writings, I began to “see” Yeshua differently. For him, Torah is not only an external body of instruction but a fully integrated, internal reality.

    (While I am not in a position to evaluate my own progress in that regard, I know that the promise of an internalized Torah is at the heart of the New Covenant; see Jer. 31:31 and Heb. 8:10).

    Anyway, I realize now that I have gotten to know Yeshua far more intimately than when I thought of him as a Torah-less Messiah. I recognize that believers who reject the relevance of Torah (or those who except it but don’t see his internal integration of it) may know him far better than I in other ways. But, I have gotten to know far more of the very fabric of his being than I did before and to understand his words more fully. It has changed my life.

    When Yeshua spoke the new commandment (which I call “the new mitzvah”) to “love one another as I have loved you), he was making fresh Torah. I am sure that he used the language of Torah (“commandment” or “mitzvah”) very intentionally in order to connect our relations in the Body of Messiah with the Torah as a whole. This, too, is meant not only as a guide to external actions but is meant to be internalized. Over time, this has changed my relationships with fellow Yeshua-believers, Jews and Gentiles, regardless of their views on the Torah.I count those relationships as extremely precious and I cannot imagine my life without them. .

  2. Thank you for all that, Carl. I was feeling a little insecure about writing and publishing this particular blog post because I don’t have a “lived Jewish experience” with which to internalize Torah and the Messiah and then to express outward. The only thing I can say (and I suppose it’ll sound a little silly) is that this sort of thing just “calls” to me in a way I can’t articulate. I can’t get past the drive, the need, the importance of what is behind the words I put in this blog, not because they’re my words or because I think I’m some sort of big deal, but exactly because of what you’ve said, Carl. There’s a Messiah out there we in the church may not know very well. There’s a Torah being written on each person’s heart as we are trying to encounter God. God is weaving each of us into the fabric of His existence and all of His Creation, and if even one thread is out of place, it means the tapestry can’t be complete.

    Like you said the other day, we need to “dial things down just a bit concerning truth-claims” and start listening to God and to each other with open minds and open hearts. Sometimes the truth isn’t found in what we say, but how well we hear.

  3. Thanks James. It’s interesting, you mentioning that Christians will point out that Jews are mostly secular today. But it’s RT and vitriol shown to them that is an enormous reason for it. Seems Gentiles have done a good job convincing the Jewish people they needn’t , and shouldn’t honor their covenant.
    It makes me shudder, since upholding them and their convent to God is an aspect of our calling.

  4. I’m not really sure of all the reasons for the lack of or minimal attendance to the mitzvot among the worldwide population of Judaism, but I suspect it’s a tad more complex than what we could describe here. That said, I do think that one of the unique missions of the non-Jewish believers is to provoke zealousness of the Torah to the Jewish people and particularly to those who are Messianic. We also need to lovingly communicate that mission to others in the church who may struggle with that understanding.

  5. “I’m not really sure of all the reasons for the lack of or minimal attendance to the mitzvot among the worldwide population of Judaism”

    This appears to be changing. There’s a growing hunger among younger Jews to reconnect with G-d and Judaism, with more becoming observant.

  6. That’s good news, Gene.

    Actually, I was responding to the suggestion by Ruth that Christianity and Replacement Theology was primarily (or very significantly) causing the lack of Torah observance we see among much of the world’s Jewish population. I don’t really have my finger on this pulse so I can’t comment, but I suspect that the causal factors are rather complex.

  7. I’m speaking historically too. The pressure (to put it mildly) to acculturate into the various societies Jews found themselves in made it seem as an act of survival to only “be a Jew at home.” Along with various laws that deliberately forced poverty, and public education, having Jews “abandon the Torah” was the goal of non-Jewish societies who had Jews in their midst, not just the religious leaders upon conversion.

  8. “Christianity and Replacement Theology was primarily (or very significantly) causing the lack of Torah observance”

    I think that it has played a role, but in a weird way. In some ways, it actually gelled Jews together and helped Judaism survive. When Jews were persecuted in Christendom and many were murdered or forcibly converted, when were we forced into ghettos, not allowed into a Christian society, a few Jews left the faith to escape persecution and limitations on their lives. However, just as with early Christianity, the Jewish life often flourished under persecution. Fast forward to our times, and in countries where Jews were allowed greater freedoms and were more accepted, especially during the Enlightenment era, they were more and more apt to leave their religion and community.

    “Christianity and Replacement Theology” greatest effect on lack of Torah observance is not on the Jewish community as a whole, but on the Jewish followers of Jesus who have bought into anti-Torah/Replacementist teachings. Few Jews in the mainstream Jewish world consider such teachings in the decisions for or against living a Jewish life.

  9. That makes a lot of sense, Gene. The irony is that when a nation or society welcomes the Jewish people with open arms and makes them feel welcome, the danger is highest for assimilation into the surrounding culture. And yet it is a horrible thing to persecute a people in order to maintain their distinctiveness. I think that’s why Christianity has to actually encourage the Jewish people toward Torah observance, reversing our traditional trend of doing the opposite.

  10. Quite a beautiful picture, James. (The man carrying the scroll out from the flood water)

    Truly does paint a thousand words.

  11. Thanks, Nate. Unfortunately Hurricane Sandy destroyed more than one Torah scroll which is a terrible loss. On the other hand, please do read my “thousand words” (or so). 😉

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