The Purpose of Torah in New Testament Judaism, Part 3

world-to-comeRabbi Simeon said: If a man looks upon the Torah as merely a book presenting narratives and everyday matters, alas for him! Such a torah, one treating with everyday concerns, and indeed a more excellent one, we too, even we, could compile. More than that, in the possession of the rulers of the world there are books of even greater merit, and these we could emulate if we wished to compile some such torah. But the Torah, in all of its worlds, holds supernal truths and sublime secrets…

Thus the tales related in the Torah are simply her outer garments, and woe to the man who regards that outer garb as the Torah itself, for such a man will be deprived of portion in the next world.

-Zohar, III.152 as quoted in
The Garments of Torah by Michael Fishbane
Chapter 3: The Garments of Torah – Or, to What May Scripture be Compared?, pg 34

(If you haven’t done so already, please read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.)

I mentioned previously that there is a strong temptation to take the Torah into mystical and spiritual realms since it seems that’s where it comes from. I also previously mentioned that Pastor Randy believes there is a pure and perfect Word of God that exists in the Heavenly Court and that the Bible we possess in our world, while it contains the Word of God, is not, in fact, the Word of God (ProclaimLiberty commented that indeed this isn’t a correct way to look at the Torah, though). As the Zohar states, we may consider our Bible to be merely a garment, an outer covering, but not the essence of its Holy contents.

Fishbane, in Chapter 3, compares and contrasts Torah as mystic vs. mundane, if I can apply such a word to Torah. This is his response to the current trend in Bible studies to address and consider the Biblical texts from a purely literary perspective. This is the sort of viewpoint we find in Richard Elliott Friedman’s book Who Wrote the Bible?.

Friedman carefully sifts through clues available in the text of the Hebrew Bible and those provided by biblical archaeology searching for the writer(s) of, primarily, the Pentateuch. He does so with clarity and engaging style, turning a potentially dry scholarly inquiry into a lively detective story. The reader is guided through the historical circumstances that occasioned the writing of the sources underlying the Five Books of Moses and the combining of these diverse sources into the final literary product. According to Friedman, the most controversial part of his case is the identification of the writer and date of the Priestly source. This book is neither comprehensive nor unduly complex, making it a good introductory text for beginners and nonspecialists. Recommended for all academic libraries. –Craig W. Beard, Harding Univ. Lib., Searcy, Ark.

Copyright 1987 Reed Business Information, Inc. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

-as quoted from

Many modern Bible scholars are in love with the “JPED” theory of Old Testament (Tanakh) authorship, but in this approach, said-scholars all but remove God from the equation and reduce the Bible to a book written for political, religious, and personal motivations, rather than to impart the history and message of God’s interaction with human beings.

However, mysticism is an equally difficult realm in which to thrust the Bible as it far exceeds mere “inspired Word of God” and goes into structures of comprehension that are supposed to transport us into the upper chambers of the Almighty. I personally know some people in the Hebrew Roots movement who immediately become offended and incensed at the mere mention of the “K-word” (Kabbalah) and the quote from the Zohar above is not likely to earn me any points with them.

I’ve admitted before that I’m not mystic. I appreciate and enjoy some of the Jewish mystic writings as metaphors for certain spiritual truths, but I don’t take them as literal experiences. In fact, in an effort to understand something of the Christian mystical perspective, I recently read John A. Sanford’s book Mystical Christianity: A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John, however Sanford’s attempt to analyze this gospel from the perspective of Carl Jung and Jungian psychology seemed anachronistic and distracting rather than spiritually revealing.

I do agree though, that if we look at the Bible just as a book, even a Holy and inspired book, and see only the nuts and bolts narrations, our understanding of the message God is trying to deliver to humanity will be extremely limited. The problem is, digging any deeper than the literal meaning of the text presents the danger of getting lost in either mystical byways or just our own imaginations.

I started writing this series as an effort to explain what “keeping the Torah” means to the Jewish disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) but the “question behind the question” is “What is Torah?” That’s an amazingly difficult question to answer.

But if we lack wisdom by considering a mitzvah as just a text on paper narrative (the commandment to visit the sick) or as a simple behavioral act (visiting a sick friend in the hospital), do we gain wisdom and insight and the deeper meaning of Torah by considering the study and performance of a mitzvah as a transcendent act that intimately connects us to God?

“Such a man,” says another Zoharic text (II.99a-b). “is…a ‘bridegroom of the Torah’ in the strictest sense…to whom she (divinity as beckoning Bride) discloses all her secrets, concealing nothing.”

-Fishbane, pg 35

transcendent-shechinahHere, I see a poetic image of the Torah in her “garments,” chaste before her bridegroom, and approaching the act of intimacy, she sheds her clothing, revealing herself to her beloved and finally, she holds back no secrets from the spirit of her cherished one. Fishbane, in discussing the bride, presents both the narrative or legal form of the Torah, the bride in her garments, and the expression of divinity, the inward truth of God, the veiled body of the bride in the process of disrobing as the groom not merely studies Torah but occupies himself (“osek”) fully in Torah:

Said Rabbi Joshua the son of Levi: Every day, an echo resounds from Mount Horeb, proclaiming and saying: “Woe is to the creatures who insult the Torah.” For one who does not occupy himself in Torah is considered an outcast, as is stated “A golden nose-ring in the snout of a swine, a beautiful woman bereft of reason.” And it says: “And the tablets are the work of G-d, and the writing is G-d’s writing, engraved on the tablets” ; read not “engraved” (charut) but “liberty” (chairut)—for there is no free individual, except for he who occupies himself with the study of Torah. And whoever occupies himself with the study of Torah is elevated, as is stated, “And from the gift to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to The Heights.”

-Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) 6:2

As Fishbane progresses in his writing, he temporarily sets aside the mysticism of Torah to “put matters in a fuller historical and hermeneutic perspective.” (pg 36) Fishbane characterizes the Torah being viewed in ancient Israel as “the divine voice” spoken directly or indirectly through a number of “filters” (Prophets or more indirect signs and wonders). God’s revelations are expressed in the text as legal and ethical teachings presented across an epic narrative of the history of Israel and her relationship with God.

However, if the text is treated too much like “text,” there is a danger of swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction and stripping the Torah of its divine origins and worse, reducing it to a set of anachronistic tribal laws that do not “travel well” going forward in time.

Of considerable importance in the sanctification of Scripture is that the prestigious literary canon of divine teachings had become a “closed literary corpus” – one culturally reopened only through human textual exegesis.

-Fishbane, pg 37

This leads us to Fishbane’s commentary on the early Pharisees and their comprehension of the “paradoxical and dialectical” nature of the scriptures. According to Fishbane, their resolution to the ambiguities presented in the Bible and in an effort to prevent Torah from becoming a “dead letter,” was to search the text “in every possible way for every possible prolongation of the original divine teachings in new times,” thus making “the old written Torah (into) a ‘living Torah.'”

So we stand between preserving the divinity of scripture as a romanticized mystical text and hermeneutically extending the Torah in order to adapt its divine truths to a constantly changing environment.

I can imagine that neither perspective will be particularly appealing to most readers.

I once criticized John MacArthur because I mistakenly believed he said that, in defining “Biblical sufficiency,” the Bible was literally the only book anyone would ever need to understand any topic.

I’ve since learned that “sola scriptura” doesn’t quite work that way, though I’m still not a big fan of this method of considering the Bible. Fishbane however, explains that Rabbinic commentary takes the idea of “the Bible contains all there is” to a level that would make even MacArthur balk.

…the early Pharisees revealed unexpected possibilities in the original divine communication. It was gradually claimed that “all is in it” (Mishna Abot v.25) – or better, that all could be recovered from it if one but had the appropriate hermeneutic key.

-ibid, pg 38

heurmenutic-keyIn considering my commentary on Boaz Michael’s teaching “Moses in Matthew,” I can only believe that under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the apostle Matthew “had the appropriate hermeneutic key” in extracting and applying portions of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings to the life of Messiah in ways that had not originally been presupposed (Hosea 11:1 to Matthew 2:15 for instance). However, unless we assume that the Pharisees and the later Rabbinic Sages also had access to the same influences of the Spirit, can we believe that their “hermeneutic key” is just as “appropriate” as Matthew’s, and that it unlocked the same doors?

I previously wrote a multi-part commentary based on the paper “Matthew 23:2-4: Does Jesus Recognize the Authority of the Pharisees and Does He Endorse their Halakhah?” written by Noel Rabbinowitz for the Journal of the Evangelical Society (PDF). In his paper, Rabbinowitz concluded that not only did Jesus recognize the halachah of the Pharisees but he acknowledged that they had the authority to establish valid halachah in Israel!

This may be a bit of a stretch for most of you reading this, but if we allow Matthew 23:2-4 to act as a bridge between the inspired authority of the gospel and other New Testament writers and the subsequent Rabbinic authorities in Judaism, we may somewhat reasonably conclude that halachah established after the New Testament canon was closed was still tacitly approved from Heaven.

This interpretation has tons and tons of problems (Rabbi Carl Kinbar posted a wonderfully insightful comment on this matter), not the least of which are the pronouncements of the Rabbis which are in direct opposition to Jesus and faith in him as Messiah, however dismissing this perspective out of hand denies not only the stated word of Messiah in the Bible, but the opportunity to view post-exile Judaism as possessing leaders who indeed did speak to and hear from God (which is historically what Christianity has done in the development of supersessionism for the past nearly twenty centuries).

Returning to Fishbane and connecting him (temporarily) with Matthew, I believe that Matthew “encoded” certain information in his gospel that could only be decoded or unpackaged by an audience with the “appropriate hermeneutic key,” one that provided the traditional associations and interpretations to older sections of the Holy text. In addressing scripture, the Pharisees and the Jewish sages who followed them attempted to continue to unlock the pages of the scriptures using (inspired?) hermeneutic keys and amazingly, Fishbane acknowledges that Christianity has done the same thing.

Surely you will have caught here more than a faint Jewish echo of the well-known “interpretatio Christiana,” by means of which Virgil and other pagans were accommodated by the Church Fathers into the normative Christian fold insofar as their writings were shown to “anticipate” the real good news — albeit through a glass darkly.

-ibid, 39

OK, so it doesn’t sound like that much of a compliment, but it does compare the interpretative activities and methods of the Pharisees to the early church fathers conferring, if only by inference, the authority to said-church fathers to develop valid Biblical interpretations. Of course, I have to deliver the same caveat for some of their hermeneutic gymnastics (especially those that discount Israel and denigrate the Jews) as I do certain conclusions, rulings, and pronouncements by the Rabbinic sages that discount the Messiahship of Yeshua.

So where does all this leave us?

…and thus to regard the uniqueness of Scripture as its capacity to teach simultaneously at various cognitive levels; the esoteric tradition of Judaism was concerned to encounter the presence of God, and thus to see the special sanctity and uniqueness of Scripture in its being at once a hieroglyph of the divine Logos and divine Reality itself. God is not merely present in Scripture through a kind of verbal displacement. God and Scripture are, in fact, one mysterious and inseparable Truth.

-ibid, pg 42

simhat-torahWhat is Torah and how is it applied in the lives of New Testament Jews, both in the first century CE and today? The answer seems to travel in different directions. Torah is a bride and the Jewish people are the bridegrooms, and at the intimate urgings and involvement of the bridegroom, the bride begins to doff her garments and reveal her deeper mysteries and truths. Torah is a multi-layered, encapsulated, encoded set of pronouncements that at once present the details of moral, ethical, and legal standards and that, properly read, reveal the divine meaning lurking behind the words on the page, allowing the performance of each mitzvah not simply to be a “good deed” but an act of loving intimacy and devotion of the Jewish people to God.

Mystic or hermeneutic pathways both leading to the same goal: the desire to draw nearer to the Creator.

In this, I don’t mean to say that only Jews desire intimacy with God or that Christians cannot deeply occupy themselves in Torah and benefit from the experience, but the focus of this series has to do with the purpose of Torah in the lives of the Jewish disciples of Messiah. Thus, my focus must be on Torah as applied specifically to Jewish people.

Part 4 of this series should return to this topic and confront something a little less “mystical.”


13 thoughts on “The Purpose of Torah in New Testament Judaism, Part 3”

  1. Hi James – This is a fine post, as usual. Text-critical, literary, and mystical readings of the Torah all have their adherents. There are two other approaches that have been commonly used among Jews: rationalist (esp. Maimonides) and midrashic. IMO, midrashic hermeneutics explains more about Matthew’s use of Hosea than any other approach. Yeshua and Israel are irrevocably connected because they are both the first born son of God, each in a different but related way. Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 points to this connection. It has been said that Yeshua is the “one-man Israel.” I would prefer to say that the very existence of Messiah Yeshua always points to Israel and Israel’s existence points to Messiah Yeshua. The are inextricably tied to each other but are not mystically equal to each other.

    If I get time later today, I’ll comment on the common but crucial omission of “the scribes” in most discussions of Mt 23:3-4 and point out a couple of things about “the seat of Moses” that are often overlooked.

  2. @Dan: I’m trying to answer my Pastor’s question about what role the Torah and Torah observance plays in the lives of Jewish people who are disciples of Yeshua. The title of this series is supposed to be reflective of my goal. I’m sorry if it seems misleading.

    You might better understand what I’m doing if you read parts 1 and 2. I just added links to both of those blog posts at the top of this page. Thanks.

    @Carl: Thanks for the clarification. I’m sort of working my way through this investigation, using Fishbane’s book as one of my resources. Needless to say, what I’m attempting is rather challenging. I look forward to your future comments and appreciate you taking the time to help me learn.

  3. It’s my pleasure, James.

    Mt. 23:2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they teach you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.

    If I remember Noel Rabinowitz’s article, he mentions that the “seat of Moses” may refer to unique synagogue seats found in some ancient synagogues. There is also one reference to the “throne of Moses” in midrash (I don’t have the reference at hand), where it is connected with kingly rule and not perverting right justice. So the “seat of Moses” may have been the place where legal cases were heard. It is likely to be the place where civil suits and other matters were voluntarily brought before a judge.

    I want to propose an interpretation of Mt. 23:2-3 that I believe deserves some consideration.I am interested in what you pastor might say about it.

    Yeshua refers to two scriptures: Ex. 18:13 and Deut. 17:8-13. In Ex. 18:13, “Moses sat to judge the people.” This is one of three Torah references to Moses sitting and, IMO, the only one that Yeshua could be referring to. Moses sat to judge cases of law.

    Deut. 17:8-13 also refers to judging cases of law.

    8 “If any case arises requiring decision between one kind of homicide and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another, any case within your towns that is too difficult for you, then you shall arise and go up to the place that the HASHEM your God will choose. 9 And you shall come to the Levitical priests and to the judge who is in office in those days, and you shall consult them, and they shall declare to you the decision.

    So the authority to judge the most difficult cases is delegated to those who are qualified to handle them. What happens next?

    10 Then you shall do according to what they declare to you from that place that the HASHEM will choose. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they direct you. 11 According to the instructions that they give you, and according to the decision which they pronounce to you, you shall do. You shall not turn aside from the verdict that they declare to you, either to the right hand or to the left.

    In other words, a teaching accompanies the verdict (tit is an explanation of the verdict and how it must be carried out). This passage does not envision the judges giving teachings that are unrelated to their verdicts. Also, this could not refer to a general teaching ministry because the only reason people come before these judges is to bring difficult cases to them.

    In Matthew 23:2, Yeshua virtually summarizes the Deuteronomy passage in a few words:
    2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they teach you.

    Notice that Yeshua does not mention only Pharisees, but also scribes. The Pharisees were a sect but the scribes occupied a profession. A simple word study will show that the scribes were associated with the Pharisees, Sadducees, elders, and (if I remember correctly) priests. It seems that Yeshua was simply saying that only the scribes and Pharisees were knowledgeable enough about the Torah to judge court cases. Listen to their explanation and follow their instructions explicitly.

    So, what about the scribes and rabbis who came later? The authority to judge cases came to them, not because they were given it as a gift but because they were knowledgeable in the Torah. The same authority to judge cases would apply to others who are qualified to do so.

    But there is nothing in any of these verses to indicate that the scribes, Pharisees, or the later rabbis had unquestioned authority in any other sphere of life.

    The Deuteronomy passage concludes:

    12 The man who acts presumptuously by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the HASHEM your God, or the judge, that man shall die. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. 13 And all the people shall hear and fear and not act presumptuously again.
    God would not allow the disorder that would result from individuals refusing to obey the highest court in the land.

    In Mt. 23, Yeshua makes it clear to his disciples and the crowd that Israel needs qualified judges in “New Testament” times. If my reading is correct, the law by which they are to judge is the Torah. So the Torah and the judges are linked. As long as you have one, you need the other.

  4. In Mt. 23, Yeshua makes it clear to his disciples and the crowd that Israel needs qualified judges in “New Testament” times. If my reading is correct, the law by which they are to judge is the Torah. So the Torah and the judges are linked. As long as you have one, you need the other.

    I have a feeling Pastor Randy will say that we (including Messianic Jews) don’t have the Torah and therefore, don’t require judges (or Rabbinic sages). That we should rely on the Word of God contained in the Bible as our final decider of right and wrong.

    As I write this, I realize that the logic is a bit circular since if we’re depending on the Bible as our final and absolute guide, it contains the Torah as laws and statutes for the Jewish people which, according to your statement, requires judges.

    But in following your and PL’s conversation in part 2 of this series, who can we say are the judges since as you have said, “delegated authority” on earth is neither absolute nor irrevocable.

    I’m reasonably convinced that Yeshua did recognize and approve of the authority of the Pharisees and scribes to issue judgments binding in Israel at that point in history. I can also believe that, based on the “binding and loosing” statement to Peter, Yeshua allowed the apostles to issue rulings binding in the Messianic community, including the participating Gentiles (Acts 15 being the most outstanding example).

    But if we bring Messianic Jewish Torah observance forward in time beyond the apostolic era, and again referring back to the exchange between you and PL, who are the judges? If we say the body of Rabbinic sages across post Biblical Jewish history, then how to we understand their authority, particularly when they contradict faith in Yeshua as Messiah?

    1. Hi James – You ask “who are the judges?” The day is long gone when Jews brought their cases to religious judges. Most Jews simply accept the authority of civil and criminal courts. Even in Israel, where the authority of religious courts is enforced by the state, that authority is limited to a few areas of law and slowly, very slowly, non-orthodox rabbis are becoming part of that system.

  5. When I asked that question, I was referencing your statement:’

    So the Torah and the judges are linked. As long as you have one, you need the other.

    If one requires the other and the judges of the Jewish people are not present, then what can we say about Torah?

    1. Concerning my statement that “the Torah and the judges are linked. As long as you have one, you need the other, you asked, “If one requires the other and the judges of the Jewish people are not present, then what can we say about Torah?”

      I am making the claim that Mt. 23:1-4 is speaking about [civil and criminal] court cases. Such cases require Torah as a legal code and judges to render verdicts on the basis of Torah. If there are no judges, then the Torah is of no effect. It would be the same if there were no judges to administer trials or render appeals verdicts in the U.S. U.S. law would exist but it would be of no effect.

      Likewise, if there were judges but no Torah, there is no basis on which they can render verdicts.

  6. OK, so how does this affect (or does it?) Jewish Torah observance today? And getting back to the focus of this series and the core question it asks, how does this affect (or does it?) Messianic Jewish Torah observance?

    1. James, I’m referring to specific areas of Torah (civil and criminal law). We cannot legally judge criminal cases, but we could judge civil cases if both parties voluntarily submitted their case to a Messianic Jewish court. This is done regularly in the Orthodox world. However, I don’t believe we have any such courts, so that part of the Torah exists but it is of no effect.

      So the mitzvot that relate to civil and criminal law, as well as mitzvot that relate to the Temple, cannot be practiced in the MJ movement. A very rough guesstimate is that this would leave less than half of the 613 mitzvot. These are divided into positive mitzvot (the violation of which incurs no penalty) and negative mitzvot, which would likely require batei din (law courts) to determine. We don’t have those, so those mitzvot exist but they are of no effect. By this I mean that their violation has no legal consequences.

      Yet, in practice, among those who observe the mitzvot, there may be social and congregational consequences for overtly violating both positive and negative ones. But, to complicate matters, different social groups and congregations often have their own versions of Torah that they enforce in these ways. Obviously, this situation is far from ideal.

      Fortunately, God is (in my considered opinion) not a perfectionist. Even as he calls us to holiness, he understands the limitations that surround us. For the most part, then, Torah observance is essentially voluntary and variable rather than compulsory and uniform. In fact, this is exactly the situation that existed in Yeshua’s, when the vast majority of synagogues were “unaffiliated” and most Jews practiced what has been called “common Judaism.” In common Judaism, Jews kept the basics of Torah observance according to their customs but did not acknowledge the authority of the sects (including the Pharisees) to impose additional laws.

      BTW, this situation persisted for several centuries after Yeshua, when, as Lee I. Levine wrote, “The synagogue always retained its indigenous roots, thereby reflecting its own particular needs, desires, and proclivities. The rabbis were but one of a number of elements of Jewish society of late antiquity which had a hand in shaping the course and destiny of this central Jewish communal institution.” (Lee I. Levine, “The Sages and the Synagogue in Late Antiquity.” in The Galilee in Late Antiquity. Edited by Lee I. Levine. New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1992), 201-222.”

  7. OK. Light dawns on Marblehead, so to speak. For some reasons, I wasn’t “getting it.” It’s like why people in Israel aren’t stoned for violating the Shabbat (a dramatic example, I know). Answer is that there is no judicial system in place to enforce the Torah laws.

    I must still be asleep from last night not to have understood what you were saying. I guess I was focused more on the applicability of Torah observance upon Messianic Jewish people and I wasn’t focusing down to the appropriate level. Mea culpa.

    Fortunately, God is (in my considered opinion) not a perfectionist. Even as he calls us to holiness, he understands the limitations that surround us. For the most part, then, Torah observance is essentially voluntary and variable rather than compulsory and uniform. In fact, this is exactly the situation that existed in Yeshua’s, when the vast majority of synagogues were “unaffiliated” and most Jews practiced what has been called “common Judaism.” In common Judaism, Jews kept the basics of Torah observance according to their customs but did not acknowledge the authority of the sects (including the Pharisees) to impose additional laws.

    Now that is interesting. I just read a paper written by Larry Hurtado today about diversity within the Yeshua movement in the first century between Jews who spoke Aramaic/Hebrew vs. Greek, as well as what he calls trans-local diversity, which would describe variability of understanding and practice based on ethnic, cultural, and social differences between populations across the diaspora.

    It makes me wonder if there could have been variability in now Judaism was practiced in the different communities of believing Jews. Just a thought, but understanding this may help us understand the current state of development in Messianic Judaism relative to Torah observance and Jewish practice across different populations that operate under the MJ umbrella.

    1. You wrote, “It makes me wonder if there could have been variability in now Judaism was practiced in the different communities of believing Jews.”

      I have the Hurtado queued up to read.

      As far as I know, there isn’t a single trained scholar who doubts that Second Temple Judaism had a common core with variable practices. The sects differed from one another, trades often had their own synagogues, and there were neighborhood synagogues. Only the sectarian synagogues had something of a centralized leadership, but that was a relatively small percentage.

      There was somewhat centralized leadership among MJs (think James and the Jerusalem elders), but there isn’t an evidence that they were concerned about existing variability in practices. So yes -if the wider community was somewhat variable in its practices, it makes sense that MJ was as well.

  8. So yes -if the wider community was somewhat variable in its practices, it makes sense that MJ was as well.

    Which opens the door in the present for variable practices within different expressions of Messianic Judaism.

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