Is there such a thing as a “Torahless” Jew? Can one still be a Jew without observing the edicts and ethos of Torah in his daily life? Jews defy all conventional definitions of a “people” or “nation.” We lack a common race, culture or historical experience. While we all share our eternal rights to the Land of Israel, for all but a few centuries of the last 4,000 years the overwhelming majority of Jews have not lived or even set foot in the Jewish homeland. What define us as Jews is a relationship and commitment. We are Jews because the Almighty chose us to be His “cherished treasure from all the nations… a kingdom of priests and a holy people.” We are Jews because the Almighty chose us to implement His purpose in creation: to orientate our lives in accordance with His will, and to develop a society and world community that reflect His goodness and perfection. from “The Third Link: G-d, Jew and Torah, The dynamics of a relationship” Commentary on Pirkei Avot 1 Tammuz 18, 5773 * June 26, 2013 Chabad.org The relationship between the Torah and Jewish people, especially Messianic Jews, was the topic of my conversation with Pastor Randy last Wednesday evening. When I walked into his office, he smiled and said, “Well, this is the big one,” which told me I should be a little nervous. I don’t think of us being able to establish once and for all what the Torah means to the Jewish people by our weekly conversations. I didn’t anticipate us coming to a final conclusion that night. Having previously looked up Calvin’s purposes for the Law, Pastor gave me his list as expressed in his own words.
- The Law shows us the Holiness of God and is a standard of Holiness: It is the basis of our fellowship with God.
- The Law defines sin.
- The Law condemns sinners and is the basis for judgment.
- The Law points man to the holiness of Messiah and Messiah is the goal of the Law.
I should say before proceeding, that Pastor holds the ten commandments as somewhat separate of the full 613 commandments of Torah and believes that, unlike the complete Torah, they have a universal application (he presents somewhat involved answers to questions such as “What about Shabbat?” and the first commandment being, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt to be a God to you”). When Pastor crafted his list, he had the ten commandments in mind. I, however, can’t quite divorce the ten words given at Sinai from everything else God presented to the Children of Israel, so I’ll continue to apply the list above to the entire Torah. The function of showing the holiness of God and the function of Torah as a standard of holiness were and are a purpose of Torah that carries forward in time for all of us. I have to be careful when saying that “Torah is a standard of holiness,” because it wasn’t Pastor’s intent to declare that the 613 commandments are applicable to the Gentile believer in the same manner as to the observant Jewish person. Although our conversation was supposed to be related to a portion of Galatians 2 as described and discussed in D. Thomas Lancaster’s book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians, Pastor Randy brought in a portion of Galatians 3 to support his belief that vast sections of the Torah had either stopped functioning or were put “on hold” for an extended period of time:
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.” For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed. For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.” –Galatians 3:1-10 (NRSV)
My counter to this portion of scripture as Pastor is interpreting it, is that expecting sheer obedience to the Torah mitzvot without faith in God is all but pointless and an effort in futility. For the Jewish people, a Torah lifestyle must be intricately joined with faith in God. My opinion (and I’m probably getting into hot water now) is that the “curse of the Law” no longer applies for those who have faith in God through Messiah. A person is only cursed if they believe that mechanical performance of the mitzvot without faith can provide justification before God. Messiah removed the curse of the Law for the Jews, not the Law itself. Then Pastor Randy drew my attention to the following:
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. –Galatians 3:23-26 (NRSV)
This certainly makes it sound as if the Torah was in effect until Jesus but then once Jesus arrived, we were justified by faith and not the Law. Except the Law never justified anyone, it was always by faith. Abraham is the father of the Jewish people and the model of faith for them. Abraham, according to Paul, is also the model of faith for we Gentiles and we become his “spiritual offspring,” so to speak, when we come to faith in his “seed,” in Jesus. However, in my opinion, Abraham’s faith does not cancel the obligations of the Torah for the Jewish person, who is both the physical and spiritual descendent of Abraham in Messiah. I did agree with Pastor that I believed in the present, there are a large number of the mitzvot that cannot be observed, not just because of the absence of the Temple, the Priesthood, and the Sanhedrin, but because some portions of Torah were not applied consistently across time.
When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. But if the slave declares, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out a free person,” then his master shall bring him before God.He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him for life. –Exodus 21:2-6 (NRSV)
By the time we get to the apostolic era, we don’t see this taking place, even though the Jewish people remain in their lands and the Temple and Sanhedrin were in existence (by the way, for more on slavery in the Torah, see Derek Leman’s article, How Torah Undermines the Very Slavery it Permits). We can see that moving forward past the destruction of the second Temple, much of what we find written in the Torah cannot be applied. Even observance of Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, and the Days of Awe are not conducted in accordance with the written Torah. So what’s left? According to Pastor Randy, it is those portions of Torah that apply to the observant Jew and Christian alike. Now hold on just one minute. That’s sort of like a “reverse One Law” for the Jew and Gentile, a universal “Torah” that has absent all aspects of a lived, national Israel. During the conversation, I added a fifth item to Pastor’s list:
The Law identifies and sets apart the Jewish people from the nations.
Because of Abraham, Pastor believes there remains a requirement for Jewish boys to be circumcised on the eighth day as physical descendants of Abraham, a requirement that is not passed down to the Gentile believers as “spiritual descendents.” I mentioned to Pastor that circumcision is also included in the Torah (Leviticus 12:3) as a practice of the Jews in their Land, so the Brit Milah is not easily (if at all) separated from the Torah. The Galatians 3 verses continued to haunt me in that the Law was in effect as a custodian until the coming of Messiah. But I’ve had some time to think about it and the Torah was a custodian of sorts, allowing the Jewish people, through the Temple service, to come before God and to atone for their sins. However faith in the Messiah, though it doesn’t cancel the Temple, allows Jewish and Gentile believers to have sins atoned for across time. I can agree that a particular “custodian” function may have come to fruition, but that’s only one item. It doesn’t cancel all other purposes of Torah out of hand (and who is to say that other generations of Jewish people don’t require Torah to guide them to Messiah?). There are aspects of the Torah that continue to function for the Jewish people in the diaspora and without Temple, Priesthood, and Sanhedrin. I didn’t think of them last Wednesday night, but on the drive home, the commandments for a Jewish person to wear tzitzit and don tefillin came to mind. These most definitely are identifiers and behaviors specific to the Jewish people and not assigned to Gentile believers. In one sense, observance of Shabbos is also an identifier, though I think in the Messianic age, we will all be observing a Saturday Shabbat. I also can’t get past this:
I write this as a Yeshua-believer who affirms the great value of traditions, despite the fact that they are flawed, and reject the “sola scriptura” (Bible only) approach that has led to a proliferation of conflicting interpretations and never-ending schisms. I also write as a Messianic Jew who studies rabbinic writings every day and find them illuminating and nurturing. They reflect genuine wisdom from God. They are, after all is said and done, part of my heritage. But I also weep over the gaping absence of the Master from their pages . –Rabbi Carl Kinbar
The Rabbi [Isaac Lichtenstein] viewed the Talmud and all Jewish law as a tutor and as a custodian or guardian that was established for such a time as this: a time when the Temple lies in ruins and the Messiah is not yet ruling from his throne in Jerusalem. -Jordan Gayle Levy from “Introduction: A Talmudic Jew,” pg 4 The Everlasting Jew: Selected Writings of Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein
Although it is unlikely for Pastor Randy or most other Christians to share the same point of view as Rabbi Kinbar and Rabbi Lichtenstein, their experiences are nonetheless valid and real for observant Jewish people including those who are Messianic. I mentioned before that I consider one of the functions of Torah as defining the Jewish people, and that summons the quote I put at the top of today’s blog post commenting of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). Certainly there are many Jewish people in the world today who are totally secular and yet they remain Jews. Whether they choose to believe so or not, they are Jews because they were chosen by God. The Torah is part of who they are whether they want to acknowledge that reality or not. But there is nothing so uniquely Jewish as a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the modern offspring of the ancient twelve tribes, who turns his or her heart to God in devotion and in observance of the mitzvot. A Jewish man who dons a tallit and lays tefillin isn’t just being obedient, he is declaring that he is a Jew standing before the Throne of the King. With every mitzvah he commits, the act of observance is also an act of connectedness. While Pastor Randy doesn’t believe it is possible for sinful man to really “fellowship” with a perfect God, it is through a loving heart and in acknowledgment of the Messiah King that a Jewish person is allowed to do so. And through such faith and devotion, although the Torah is not applied to the Gentile disciple in the same and unique way is it is to the Jewish person, we are also allowed to stand alongside our Jewish brothers and sisters at the Throne, as we do justice, love mercy, and walk in humility before our God. I need to say before closing that last Wednesday’s conversation covered a good deal more ground than I’m able to reasonably compress into a single blog post. I find these meetings with my Pastor to be both challenging and illuminating and I feel gratified and rewarded that God has chosen to have us interact on these topics during this time in our lives.