What I Know About the Purpose of Torah So Far

Path of TorahThe Torah, or Jewish Written Law, consists of the five books of the Hebrew Bible – known more commonly to non-Jews as the “Old Testament” – that were given by G-d to Moses on Mount Sinai and include within them all of the biblical laws of Judaism. The Torah is also known as the Chumash, Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses. The word “Torah” has multiple meanings including: A scroll made from kosher animal parchment, with the entire text of the Five Books of Moses written on it; the text of the Five Books of Moses, written in any format; and, the term “Torah” can mean the entire corpus of Jewish law. This includes the Written and the Oral Law.

-from “The Written Law – Torah”
Jewish Virtual Library

Tonight, I’m having my usual Wednesday evening meeting with Pastor Randy. Our agenda includes discussing Chapter Eight of D. Thomas Lancaster’s book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians, “The Antioch Incident: Galatians 2:11-14”.

Here’s the relevant scripture:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?

Galatians 2:11-14 (NASB)

That’s going to be interesting since, on the surface, it seems as if Paul is accusing Peter of being two-faced in his observance of Torah, living “like the Gentiles” when among Gentiles (which is commonly interpreted as Peter scarfing down plates of ham and shellfish with the goyim), but pulling back from his Gentile friends when “certain men from James” (probably Jewish believers sent to Antioch by James, the leader of the Jerusalem Council and who likely didn’t approve of Gentile inclusion into “the Way”) came around to see what was going on.

However, there is an underlying issue involved in our discussion of Galatians. What is the purpose of Torah in New Testament Judaism? I’ve spent some time this past week looking into that question in three separate blog posts (so far, not including this one) and they have elicited some interesting responses. It’s those responses, more than anything I’ve written, that are helping me begin to pull together some sort of answer.

Today, I want to gather some loosely associated points or statements that point in the direction of an answer. I don’t want to say that they are the answer, but perhaps they form the container in which the answer resides. Although this should be an easy topic to address, in fact, it is enormously difficult to grasp and define.

Here’s what I’ve got so far. I’m going to mine the comments I’ve received on all three blog posts more or less in the order they were submitted.

Starting with the comments in Part 1:

According to Rabbi Carl Kinbar, the Christian tendency to separate the Torah into ritual/ceremonial law and moral law originated with the church fathers and was perpetuated by the reformers, but does not have a basis within the Bible itself. That is, the Bible doesn’t categorize the Torah mitzvot into those two containers. They are a convenient method of defining why the “ceremonial” laws were killed by Jesus but why Christians must still maintain the “moral” laws.

altruistico suggests that the Torah, which for him includes all of the authoritative and sacred texts in Judaism, has functionally preserved Judaism as an entity and the Jewish people as a unique and distinct people group for the last two-thousand years or so, particularly in the absence of the Jewish homeland, Temple, Priesthood, Sanhedrin court system, and Messiah King. Without Torah observance on some level and a halachic lifestyle (although many Jews today are non-observant and non-responsive to such), the Jewish people and Judaism would have gone the way of the Hittites and the Canaanites long ago.

ProclaimLiberty (PL) says that the purpose of Torah is very simply expressed and contained in Psalm 19 and that the teachings of Jesus as well as his death, resurrection, and ascension have changed none of that purpose for the Jewish people, Messianic or otherwise. Jesus himself said that until Heaven and Earth passed away, the Torah would remain, as stated in Matthew 5:17-18. In fact, PL says that verses 19 and 20 illustrate the Messiah’s encouraging better performance of the mitzvot for his Jewish listeners.

Proceeding to the comments in Part 2:

rabbis-talmud-debateCarl Kinbar says that as a Messianic Jew who studies the Rabbinic writings every day, he finds them “illuminating and nurturing” but presents the opposite side of the coin in saying that he weeps “over the gaping absence of the Master from their pages.”

ProclaimLiberty and Carl Kinbar engage in a lengthy discussion in the comments section of this blog post regarding how the Rabbinic writings should be considered by Messianic Jewish people. PL seems to have a more traditional viewpoint about the authority and binding nature of Rabbinic rulings, and while Carl Kinbar also esteems the Rabbis, he notes that their viewpoint would discount the reality of Yeshua as Messiah, even if a Divine Voice from Heaven should declare the truth.

I know you are probably thinking at this point that I’ve strayed from my original question, but for observant Jewish people, except in rare circumstances, one does not separate Talmud from Torah and in fact, studying Talmud is studying Torah. It would be best for you to review the full text of PL’s and Kinbar’s conversation, since any attempt to condense it here would likely do them both an injustice.

Moving on to Part 3:

At my request, Carl Kinbar gave me his understanding of how Matthew 23:2-4 can be interpreted relative to the Noel Rabinowitz paper (see the body of the blog post for the link or go to my Books page). In his series of comments, Kinbar specifically addresses the legal aspects of Torah which are not easily, if at all, enacted in the modern world due to the lack of an appropriate Sanhedrin or other court body. Except in Orthodox Jewish contexts, there are no judges to rule on matters of halachah and to issue judgments binding on the Jewish people involving such legal cases.

However, Kinbar did offer one other nugget for consideration that addresses the variability we see in both ancient and modern Jewish practice. One of the problems in defining what “Torah” is and how it is observed is the inconsistency across different Jewish communities (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and so on). Kinbar notes that in ancient times including during the “earthly ministry” of Jesus, Judaism had a common core (common Judaism), which was defined as the basics of Torah observance according to the prevailing customs of the time, but that different communities, synagogues, sects kept their own unique set of “specifics.” Most synagogues did not have a centralized leadership and did not recognize the authority of other sects (including the Pharisees) to impose other laws on their groups.

It is my contention that even within the Messianic Jewish sect of “the Way,” there were sub-groups that disagreed with the halachah issued by the leadership of the Jerusalem Council, principally around the mechanism of allowing Gentiles entry into their Jewish religious space.

Whether in ancient or modern times, it seems clear that there has been a long-standing pattern within the overarching entity we call “Judaism” of many individual communities operating off of a varying religious and cultural praxis, all of them considered “Jewish,” and yet with no one group having any influence on the observance or behavior of any other group. Many communities within both ancient and modern Judaism do not even have a centralized leadership, allowing for variability between the practice of different synagogues occurring within the same sect of Judaism.

Thus the “function” of Torah or rather how (or in some cases “if”) it is lived out, differs across the variety of Jewish communities in the ancient and modern worlds. This includes how Torah functions within modern Messianic Judaism. No one group has the corner market in defining what “Torah” is and how it works.

I do want to point to a few additional details.

reading-of-the-torahOne function of Torah from a Christian perspective, is to point to the Messiah. It has been a tutor or custodian of the Jewish people, keeping them “contained” within a certain moral/ethical boundary (Galatians 3:23-25) until such time as the Messiah arrived. However, if we do away with the Torah as custodian or pointer after the first generation of Jews is born post-ascension, what is left to point subsequent generations of Jews to Moshiach, especially those who do not have an awareness of Jesus as Messiah? I know Christians would say “the church” is the new pointer, but seeing as we have the majority of Jews defining themselves as Jewish primarily because they don’t believe in Jesus, we might want to reconsider our position. We should let the Torah be the pointer for the majority of Jews on Earth, allowing Torah to continually fulfill this purpose.

Even setting Talmud aside for the moment, nothing defines the Jewish people more than the Torah. We can indeed see that during every exile, the Jewish people have maintained their identity and distinction because of their religious and cultural observances as defined and provided by Torah. Without Torah observance, the Jewish people would long ago have assimilated into the cultures among which they were exiled. It’s always a danger and is a particular threat in the modern world where so many Jews are secular. Only a slender thread of DNA and a few ethnic leftovers prevent a person now known as a “Jew” from vanishing, if not from the sight of God, then at least from the human cultural consciousness.

So much for the entire Sinai event and the promises God made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and every subsequent generation of Jews as spoken by the Prophets that a Messiah would come to restore the Jewish people, restore Israel as a nation, and inspire unprecedented zeal for the Torah.

That’s what I’ve got so far. No definitive answers, just a list of important points to consider. Most of them can’t even be said to be “the inspired word of God,” at least not as how Christianity would see it.

You need not, like withered leaves, fall away from your ancient stock, or deny parents or nationality; you need not be unfaithful to the God of your fathers, on account of reverence rendered to the Son, for only when you do him homage are you a true Jew, a genuine son of Abraham, not only after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

-Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein
from “Points of Contact between Evangelical and Jewish Doctrine” (1895)
as quoted in “The Story of Rabbi Issac Lichtenstein”
by D. Thomas Lancaster, pg 32
The Everlasting Jew: Selected Writings of Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein

If you want to add anything to this summary before tonight, now would be a good time.

2 thoughts on “What I Know About the Purpose of Torah So Far”

  1. There is one aspect I’d like to clarify about the “enforcement” of Torah. In the discussions of your Part 3, Rabbi Kinbar mentioned that few issues are brought before Batei Din nowadays. This is true, but to focus on Batei Din is to focus on juridical enforcement only. One of the features of Judaism’s development during the second exile, while there has been no operational Temple or Levitical system and no Sanhedrin, is that the lack of centralized judicial enforcement has been compensated with positive social behavioral reinforcement and a degree of social sanction against halakhic violations. It is a different sort of enforcement mechanism, moral rather than legal, and particularly subject to variability because it is so decentralized. Even the common core represented in Jewish literature is only upheld thoroughly by the orthodox, though it is upheld theoretically by the Conservative movement subject to modern reinterpretation and application. The lack of even this degree of enforcement in other modern Jewish movements, including MJ, threatens a penalty of excision from the identifiably Jewish people. Indeed, some have theorized that the demise of the original MJ movement after no more than about 5 centuries may have been related to their separation from the community that enforced halakhic norms and their insufficient internal enforcement. The modern Reform movement originally eschewed various Jewish identity symbols and practices, and in recent years has re-instituted a number of them because they recognized the negative long-term effect on their community. The much younger movement MJ has demonstrated some of the same social tendencies, but so far only a subgrouping has pushed for greater halakhic observance. There is a saying that reflects this notion: “More than the Jewish people have kept the Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.”, mirroring the notion of Torah observance as a protective custodian. This function would, of course, be in addition to the effects of Torah described in Ps.19.

    I think you were a little too hard on Yakov and the folks who came to Antioch from his congregation. Just because Kefa/Peter was afraid of what they might think or report does not mean that one may presume that they had any agenda other than to investigate what was happening and quash any rumors. One cannot rightly assume that they were the ones insisting on the doctrine that non-Jews must become circumcised (viz: Acts 15:1). They are not the surreptitious “false brethren” mentioned in Gal.2:4, about whom Mark Nanos offers an explanation in his book: “The Irony of Galatians”.

  2. I think you were a little too hard on Yakov and the folks who came to Antioch from his congregation.

    That’s probably true, PL. Unfortunately, in the absence of any clarification, it’s difficult to tell who these men from James were and what exactly they were thinking and doing. All we have (and this is second hand from Paul) is Peter’s reaction to their presence and how he led other Jewish disciples to follow his activity of drawing away from the Gentile believers. We know that Paul was very critical of Peter (my impression of Paul is that he never pulled any punches) and that Peter’s response was threatening to undo all of Paul’s work. The Bible is silent on the “men from James,” except to say that they were associated with the “circumcision party.”

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