Vayeira: Those Whom God Has Blessed

abrahams visitorsThe Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot.

Genesis 18:1 (JPS Tanakh)

The Lord took note of Sarah as He had promised, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had spoken. Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken. Abraham gave his newborn son, whom Sarah had borne him, the name of Isaac. And when his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God had commanded him.

Genesis 21:1-4 (JPS Tanakh)

In this week’s Torah portion, Avraham is recovering from Bris Mila. Later, Isaac is born and has a Bris Mila. So, I thought to share a few insights on … Bris Mila!

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayeira

The vast majority of people in the Church don’t imagine that baby boys born into Christian families must receive a ritual circumcision, called a Bris or Brit Milah, on the eighth day of life. It’s one of those things that we think of as uniquely “Jewish.”

But if we who are in the body of Christ are called the spiritual Sons of Abraham (Romans 9:8), and if we are “one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all,” (Ephesians 4:4-6), then why are we too not obligated to be circumcised?

Then after an interval of fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along also. It was because of a revelation that I went up; and I submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but I did so in private to those who were of reputation, for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain. But not even Titus, who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage.

Galatians 2:1-4 (NASB)

Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. And a disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek, and he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted this man to go with him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those parts, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.

Acts 16:1-3 (NASB)

A great deal has been made about why Paul did not have Titus circumcised but he did so for Timothy. The only obvious difference between them in scripture is that Timothy’s mother was Jewish but both parents of Titus were Greek (presumably, since Luke refers to Titus as “a Greek” in Acts 16).

Brit_MilahToday, it is common in the various streams of Judaism to consider anyone Jewish who was born of a Jewish mother, regardless of whether or not the father was Jewish. In the days of Paul, this may not have necessarily been the case, but if Timothy wasn’t Jewish, we are at a loss as to why Paul made such a distinction between he and Titus.

But getting back to what I was saying before, should any distinction be made between Jews and Gentiles in the body of Christ. Aren’t we all one in Messiah with ethnic differences swept away by the hand of God as a scorching sirocco sweeps over the desert sands?

But wait a second.

The Almighty commanded Abraham, “… My covenant you shall keep — you and your descendants after you for all generations. This is my covenant which you shall keep between Me and you and your descendants after you — circumcise all males. And you shall circumcise the flesh of the foreskin and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And at eight days old every male shall be circumcised throughout all of your generations … My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant” (Genesis 17:9-13).

-Rabbi Packouz

This is the “ethnic” part of God’s covenant with Abraham and his physical descendants through Isaac, Jacob, the Children of Israel, and beyond. I previously said that in this portion of the covenant ratified by God with Abraham…

God promises to make Abraham a father of many nations and of many descendants and the land of Canaan as well as other parts of Middle East will go to his descendants. God declares that circumcision is to be the sign of the covenant for Abraham and all his male descendants and that this will be an eternal covenant.

But the blessings of the earlier portion of the Abrahamic covenant God makes with Abram are significant because that portion can be applied outside the ethnic, genetic, biological stream of Abraham and his offspring.

And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

Genesis 12:3 (NASB)

We have to access Paul’s midrash on Abraham to make better sense of this.

Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ. What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise.

Galatians 3:16-17 (NASB)

infant-jesus-templeThe “seed” is Messiah, Christ. He is the blessing, and this promise and blessing was established before the covenant was ratified and God required circumcision of Abraham and his offspring through Isaac, and through Jacob, and through all of Jacob’s offspring, and so on across the ethnic linkage that ultimately becomes the Jewish people.

In his letter to the churches in Galatia, Paul is strongly discouraging the Gentile disciples from being circumcised because, by that point in history, circumcision was the “shorthand” expression for ritual conversion to Judaism. If the Gentiles, through the blessings of Abraham’s seed (singular) and faith in Messiah, were already justified before God, and received the one Spirit, just as the Jews received that same Spirit, then for the purposes of justification, nothing else is required of the Gentile disciples.

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:1-6 (NASB)

One body, one Spirit, one justification, one salvation, a unity of Spirit still doesn’t have to mean a uniformity of identity.

There’s a saying that goes, “everyone’s unique but no one is special,” but I don’t know if I can buy into that. I’m all for equal access to job opportunities and equal pay for equal work, but God did some really unique things. He chose the ethnic Jewish people, that is, those who were physically descended from Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Jacob’s sons, and the children of Jacob’s sons, who were all of the people led by Moses to Mount Horeb in the Sinai to receive the covenant and ultimately all of the promises, including the Land of Israel.

We can discuss the “mixed multitude” who eventually assimilated into the tribes after several generations and disappeared from the face of history, a process that cannot be anachronistically applied to modern times or even the time of James, Peter, and Paul. We can discuss ritual conversion to Judaism which existed in the time of James, Peter, and Paul and which exists today. I agree that you can’t “convert” to a tribal affiliation (which is why the ancient “gerim” in Torah were not converts). Judaism has long allowed for a few, select outsiders to join them, not because of ancestry, but by choice. But then, one choses to go “all the way,” so to speak, not retaining Gentile identity while living as a Jew. If we accept that God granted the Jewish community the authority to establish legally binding customs since antiquity, then we can accept Jewish converts.

But according to Paul and ultimately the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), circumcision (conversion) is not required of the Gentile disciples of Messiah. We are one in Spirit and “co-inhabit” the body of Messiah. The body of Messiah is like the human body, which has different organs and structures, all of which are required for a healthy living person, and just like the body of Messiah, actually requires different parts.

abraham1All of this was set into motion thousands of years ago with Abraham and it is a blessing that the whole world isn’t required to convert to Judaism in order to be reconciled to God. No stream of Judaism I’m aware of requires conversion and circumcision in order to be right with God. The Bible and God have always presupposed a world made up of Jews and Gentiles who are reconciled before our Creator. Messianic Judaism is the living example of a Judaism that recognizes the spiritual equality of Jews and Gentiles in Messiah without compelling circumcision and full Torah observance upon the Gentiles in the body (not that we can’t take on board more of the mitzvot voluntarily).

I know this won’t satisfy the Hebrew Roots Gentiles who believe in uniformity in the Messianic body, nor the traditional Christians who also require uniformity. But those alternatives either rob the uniqueness God gave to the Jewish people through circumcision, the Torah, and Israel by having Gentiles say “it belongs to us too,” or strips that uniqueness away, defying God’s will by Christians telling Jewish people they must cease their ethnic and religious uniqueness and performance of the mitzvot if they wish to worship Moshiach, requiring that Jewish believers live like the Gentiles in the Church.

Why has this mitzvah survived in strength while so many other mitzvot have fallen to the wayside by otherwise minimally observant Jews? Perhaps the answer is found in the 2,000 year old words of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, “Every mitzvah that they (the Jewish people) accepted upon themselves with joy … they still perform with joy.” (Talmud, Shabbos 130a). Deep in our collective psyche we know that the Jewish people is eternal, that we have a mission to be a “Light Unto the Nations” and to perfect the world, that the Almighty loves us and watches over us — and that it is our great joy and privilege to be a part of that Covenant!

-Rabbi Packouz

However you choose to view this in terms of being Gentile members of the body of Christ, the creation of “the Church” didn’t eliminate the promises God made to Israel. Paul said (Galatians 3:17) that “the law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise.” So too the work of Messiah did not annul the covenants previously established by God, but rather, Messiah was and is the crystallization of prophesy, the perfect expression of all of the covenants, the doorway allowing both people who are uniquely Jewish and those of us who are uniquely Gentile, to enter into relationship with God, co-inhabitants in a body that does require the heart, liver, lungs, spleen, stomach and many other organs, as opposed to being a single body, with a single organ, and a single identity, and a single function. A human being with only a stomach and no other parts couldn’t possibly live, so demanding absolute uniformity and canceling diversity within the body of Messiah kills the body.

Rabbi Packouz says the Jewish people are eternal. Circumcision is one of the signs of that eternal and unique existence before God. Opposing this is opposing God’s will. We can only be one in Messiah and possess the One Spirit of God by living in accordance with that One Spirit and that One God.

Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.

John 5:19 (NASB)

I’ve often heard that we should imitate our Master, but I don’t think in this case it means so much what we eat or what we wear, but rather, how we treat those who God has uniquely blessed. If we bless the Jewish people, we too are blessed by Israel and by Messiah. Of course, there is the converse.

Good Shabbos.

13 thoughts on “Vayeira: Those Whom God Has Blessed”

  1. But if we who are in the body of Christ are called the spiritual Sons of Abraham (Romans 9:8),
    and if we are “one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were
    called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all,” (Ephesians 4:4-6), then why
    are we too not obligated to be circumcised?

    One might argue that spiritual offspring of Avraham ARE required to be circumcised, albeit SPIRITUALLY — that is to say, circumcised of heart. Now the physically Jewish offspring of Avraham also are required to circumcise their hearts in this metaphorical manner, as noted in Deut.10:16, Deut.30:6, and Jer.4:4 — but in addition to their requirement of physical circumcision as physical offspring.

  2. The problem with writing off Abraham’s offspring as purely spiritual does not address the very literal promise made to Abraham, He will literally, not just spiritually, be the father of a multitude of nations. This is not to say that gentiles blood changes, or they become ethnic sons of Abraham, that would be ridiculous, however it does imply an adoption, a very literal adoption. Also if we write off gentiles in the Messiah, as purely a spiritual connection and not any literal connection, gentiles have non tangible faith, which is purely platonic. Ultimately when I read your understanding, I see no difference between a gentile who has come to Messiah and one who has not, as if Messiah has had no realistic effect on gentiles.

    The other points to address, is why was the council in Acts 15 and Paul particularly against Proselyte Conversion, was it simply because Gentiles did not need to be circumcised and keep the Torah, or was it because it conflicted with the Gospel message. Seeing that the conclusion in Acts 15, is solved with how both Jews and Gentiles are saved, and Paul also in Galatians, saying that anyone who seeks justification by proselyte conversion is cut off from the Messiah, puts the context not on the commandment of circumcision, but on the Proselyte ritual, which put salvation into Jewish identity, also known as Covenantal Nomism. In other words, gentiles cannot be justified by taking on Jewish identity, anymore than a Jew can be justified simply because they are Jewish. If that is the context, which fits more appropriately, it speaks nothing to gentiles’ actual requirement to keep God’s commandments.

  3. I see no difference between a gentile who has come to Messiah and one who has not, as if Messiah has had no realistic effect on gentiles.

    I think you’re missing things like “faith” and “the Holy Spirit.” Righteousness was accounted Abraham due to faith and our faith in Messiah, the “seed” of Abraham, is counted to us as righteousness. None of presupposes that we then must be physically connected to Isaac, and then Jacob, and then the Patriarchs, and then Moses, and then the Torah, which is a different branch. That branch is all bound together as a unique unit, the Children of Israel. We aren’t them.

    In other words, gentiles cannot be justified by taking on Jewish identity, anymore than a Jew can be justified simply because they are Jewish.

    I agree wholeheartedly up to this point (though Jews aren’t kicked out of Israel and when they don’t have faith in Messiah). On the other hand, being saved doesn’t automatically make a Gentile a Jew or “Jew-like” or otherwise obligated to the Torah in the exact manner of Jewish people, who are the inheritors of Sinai.

    I believe on yesterday’s blog post, I recommended some links that would explain my position on Acts 15 more completely. You might want to have a go at them (if you haven’t already) to see if they answer any questions you have of me.

    As I’ve said before, we are unlikely to agree as our perspective on scripture and particularly covenant is quite different.

    I’m spending the day with my grandson so I won’t be online, just to let you know.

  4. So I’m wondering, because as I keep saying I’m new to all this and don’t know much yet, which parts of Torah do you see as distinctly Jewish/Hebrew that the gentiles don’t have to observe?

    1. @genevievevictoria — I’m sure James will have his own answer to your question; but I was struck by a phrase you chose which seems to me worth clarifying: “don’t have to”. This implies a requirement and obligation. The halakhic decision presented in Acts 15 distinctly absolves non-Jews from any legal obligation to the requirements specified in Torah for the Jewish people with whom the covenant of Torah was established, except for four principles designed to help the non-Jewish community separate itself from its prior idolatrous habits. So non-Jews “don’t have to” do anything commanded in Torah simply because it is there commanded for Jews to observe. The four principles in Acts 15, coupled with three others that were already featured in the Greek and Roman common law of the period, correlate with a set of principles later labeled as the Noahide laws that were deemed incumbent upon all the descendants of Noa’h the ark-builder (i.e., all surviving humanity).

      Now, the release for non-Jews from any explicit obligation does not mean that they should ignore the Torah. Acts 15:21 implies that there was certainly an expectation that non-Jews would learn Torah each Shabbat in their local synagogues, as it was commonly taught from the Pharisaic perspective that Rav Yeshua had cited in Matt.23:1-3 as authoritative and worthy for his Jewish disciples to obey (with a note of caution, however). Thus non-Jews were given the freedom to learn and apply Torah principles at their own pace, and to become familiar with HaShem’s instructions for pursuing an abundant life by the gentlest means possible. Thus they too would be redeemed at the societal level, similarly to HaShem’s covenanted plan for Jews. Nonetheless, the covenant continues to assign certain distinctive responsibilities to the Jewish people, and consequently there are still aspects of Torah-based behavior that only apply to Jews as part of their distinctive identity. Physical circumcision of 8-day-old males is one example of such distinctives.

      1. Wow! Thanks for the awesome response.

        I guess I should be more careful about how I phrase things. I understand a little better now, at least on a more concrete rather than abstract. I guess I was wondering which parts of Torah are only for the Jews.

  5. @genevievevictoria: I made a comment on your blog that addressed this question somewhat. I can’t say that the Noahide Laws (Genesis 9) map to the 4 essentials we see listed in the Jerusalem letter (Acts 15). If all of humanity is bound to the Noahide covenant, you’d expect Gentile disciples of the Messiah to have a higher standard to uphold.

    I know I’ve said this a number of times before, but I’d suggest you read my six-part Return to Jerusalem series to get all of my thoughts on a Gentile disciple’s obligation to God.

    I agree that we are intended to learn Torah for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that, without such understanding, we can’t comprehend the teachings of Jesus. That’s part of the struggle the Church has today, since it has historically separated itself from any understanding that their (our) current faith is still based on a “Jewish” template.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a non-Jewish person studying Torah and even taking up some of the traditional practices, but as PL says, we are not obligated to observe the full range of mitzvot in the manner of the Jewish people. On the other hand, and as I said in my comment on your blog, Christians “observe Torah” in a lot of important ways, including when we feed the hungry, provide shelter to the homeless, welcome guests into our homes, donate clothing, visit the sick and those in prison, and comfort the grieving.

    Jesus said the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:37-40) are to love God with all of our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Within those two commandments are contained all of the others. When we truly love God, we will “observe Torah” by loving everyone around us, not just as an emotion, but as a lifestyle; with all of our actions.

  6. (The above was a reply to ProclaimLiberty)

    @James – Thanks for the link. I wasn’t sure which series of yours on the topic to read. I’ll check it out.

    (Everything else I have to say I said in my reply to your comment on my blog.)

  7. I guess I should be more careful about how I phrase things. I understand a little better now, at least on a more concrete rather than abstract. I guess I was wondering which parts of Torah are only for the Jews.

    Imagine how the non-Jewish disciples felt in the first century when they heard the words of Paul about the Messiah and realized that they too could become reconciled before the living God. Entry into the body of Messiah is only the beginning. It takes a lifetime to understand what there is to learn as a member of that body, Acts 15:21 is the command for us to learn Torah so we can understand the Jewish Messiah and the God of Israel, and then to understand our role in the community of believers.

    As far as what parts of Torah are only for the Jews, opinions vary. My opinion is that anything that makes you look overtly like a Jew, but that’s not always easy to define. Chances are you’re not going to wear a kippah, tallit, or lay tefillin. Eating a Leviticus 11 diet isn’t really “kosher” in and of itself, so that’s OK. Not working on Saturday? I don’t see a problem with a voluntary keeping of Shabbat, though it’s more involved than just not going to work. Praying at the fixed times of prayer? Praying with a Siddur? Learning Hebrew? Those are all OK for a non-Jewish person, I think.

    My guess is that you aren’t crossing any significant “identity” barriers as such. However, if people start mistaking you for Jewish, you might want to see what gives them that impression. It’s always good to clarify what you’re doing and why when people ask. Also, anything that we do must be for the glory of God and not for ourselves, otherwise, we’re probably just trying to impress other people with how “Holy” we are.

    Do what you believe is right, but just like when you fast, don’t make a big deal out of it. We have been taught to even pray in secret, so no one will think we’re being “holier than thou.”

    1. James said: “Eating a Leviticus 11 diet isn’t really “kosher” in and of itself, so that’s OK.”, as if to imply that really keeping kosher might be somehow suspect because someone might mistake you for being Jewish, thus diminishing the aspect by which kashrut distinguishes Jews from the nations. I’m of the opinion that non-Jews who try to keep kosher are actually accomplishing at least two positive effects. One is to provide commercial incentive for the production of kosher products, which helps Jews to keep kosher. The other is to demonstrate that non-Jews who affiliate with the Jewish Messiah are also distinct from non-Jews who do not; in other words there exists a distinct non-Jewish ecclesia alongside the Jewish one, both of which are distinct from the “unwashed masses”. Of course, non-Jews using kosher products could still remain distinct from Jews by refraining from the rabbinic prescriptions to separate milk and meat and the dishes and utensils thus associated. On the other hand, if Jews are to be guests for public congregational “table fellowship”, as in numerous first-century congregations, maintaining full standards of kashrut to accommodate them is entirely appropriate. Whether that might extend to any given private non-Jewish home is another matter dependent on individual circumstances.

  8. Thanks for the advice James. I’ll remember to keep that in mind, and make sure that I am seeking God, not a “Jewish” or “Christian appearance of myself.” Also, I finished reading through “Return to Jerusalem,” and I learned a lot but I’m also a little more confused, but I think that’s a good place to be. I’m learning to be open to how unclear things are, even when they seem clear. But as I said, I’m going to continue to seek God, not religion. Thanks so much. Shalom!

  9. Also, I finished reading through “Return to Jerusalem,” and I learned a lot but I’m also a little more confused…

    First of all, thank you for managing to get through all that material. That’s a lot of reading.

    I wrote the series as an extended review of the portion of First Fruits of Zion’s Torah Club Volume 6 that addressed the Acts 15 decision of the Council of the Apostles. I studied this Torah Club volume during the last Torah cycle. Often, I write, not to present my “wisdom” on a particular topic, but to process what I’m learning as I’m learning it. Composing these “meditations” helps me to better grasp what I’m reading and make sense of it inside of my head. I’ve found though, that when I try to make sense of something for me, it sometimes helps others as well, which is why I make my “thinking out loud” public on the Internet.

    Acts 15 and the formal legal ruling of the Gentiles in the Jewish religious stream of “the Way” is a special interest of mine, and I return to it periodically with more insights and questions. In understanding the process by which the apostles and elders in Jerusalem were able to assign a status to the Gentiles so we could be admitted into “the Way” as equals without having to convert to Judaism helps us understand who we are today as believers in the Jewish Messiah.

    I hope you’ll continue to ponder and meditate upon this matter and come to your own understanding of who you are in Messiah through it.


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