praying

Unity in Messiah: A Commentary on One Law and Gentiles

As for the assembly, there shall be one statute for you and for the alien who sojourns with you, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; as you are, so shall the alien be before the LORD. There is to be one Torah and one ordinance for you and for the alien who sojourns with you.

Numbers 15:15–16

But does the Torah really make different laws for Jews and Gentiles? According to Numbers 15:15–16, there is to be only one law for both Jews and Gentiles.

This seems simple enough. According to these verses, there is one law for both Jews and Gentiles. Therefore, Gentile believers should keep the whole Torah.

But wait. It’s not that clear.

“One Law and the Gentiles”
Commentary on Torah Portion Shelach
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

I quoted from this article just the other day as an example of what sometimes provokes other believers to anger and how I want to avoid being excessively and needlessly provocative. While the “One Law” issue is a “non-event” for the vast majority of the Christian world, this is a “hot button” issue in certain small (relative to the overall body of believers worldwide) religious circles in the blogosphere.

But then, I’ve been thinking about an ad I received by email recently. Eichers.com has extended its annual Talis and Tzitzit sale to June 24th. As I read the advert, I found myself involuntarily pining for the days when I used to actually don a tallit to pray.

Then my reality check came in and I closed the ad, but not before I started pricing tallit gadolim (just “window shopping”).

Many years ago, my wife arranged for a friend who was visiting Israel, to purchase my first tallit at the Galilee Experience. It was a total surprise when it arrived from Israel by mail and my wife presented it to me.

But that was a long time ago, and to put it mildly, my wife’s attitude about Christians and tallitot has changed considerably. For that matter, so has mine.

I don’t really regret the “course correction” I’ve instituted in my life, but I do need periodic reminders of who I am and what I need to be doing that’s important to God in order to counterbalance my attraction to various aspects of Judaism as a worship practice. Really, if I had my “druthers” and it didn’t matter to God (or anyone else, especially the Missus) one way or the other, comparing evangelical Christian worship and study to a (Messianic) Jewish template, I’d probably choose Jewish practice.

In any conceivable way, nothing would be removed from my devotion to Yeshua (Jesus), but a richness in spiritual texture and connectedness to the people of God that extends all the way back to Sinai would be the platform and environment for that devotion.

I know that if any Hebrew Roots people with a bent for “One Law” ever read this, they’d probably say, “go for it!”

But, no. I have good reasons not to. It’s not my world and my practice. God chose the Jewish people for a reason and He gave them the Torah as the conditions of the Sinai covenant for a reason. Then He made it possible through the emergence of the New Covenant for Gentiles to be grafted in, and provided conditions for we grafted in Gentiles in a binding legal ruling that outlines a distinction in how Gentile disciples are obligated to the Torah.

I can live with that, knowing that we Gentiles have a unique role in supporting Messianic Jewish return to Torah and in perfecting the world in preparation of Messiah’s return.

women_praying_at_the_wallAlso, living with a Jewish wife and daughter, I have a special appreciation for their own uniqueness as Jews and how my mimicking Jewish behavior in some sort of evangelical Jewish cosplay cheapens who they are and totally misrepresents me and all other Gentile disciples of the Master.

It was also no coincidence (in my opinion) that Chabad.org’s “mitzvah minute” email was on Tzitzit: Fringe Judaism this past week.

Most people don’t think of Judaism as a fringe religion. Yet that’s our uniform. Under their shirts, Jewish men and boys wear a poncho called a tallit katan (literally: small cloak), with fringes hanging from each corner, just as the Torah prescribes (Numbers 15:37–40), “They shall make fringes on the corners of their garments . . .”

That’s “Judaism,” not Christianity that wears the fringes. I’m not a thief. I don’t take things that belong to someone else. Donning a Tallit Gadol for prayer belongs to someone else…Jewish people.

Jacob Milgrom contends that in the ancient Near East the ornateness of the hem was a mark of nobility. Hence the wearing of tzitzit denoted that all Israelites were members of a priestly nation with a universal mission. That status and its attendant obligations rest on God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery, as the passage makes clear at the end: “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the Lord your God.” (Numbers 15:41)

-Ismar Schorsch
“The Distinction between History and Memory,” pg 522 (June 16, 2001)
Commentary on Torah Portion Shelach
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

I assume D. Thomas Lancaster wrote the small article on “One Law and the Gentiles” and in referencing Numbers 15:15-16, he says:

First of all, the context deals not with the application of Torah as a whole, but specifically with the sacrifices. In other words, if an alien wanted to offer a sacrifice in the Temple he needed to follow the same Torah guidelines as the Israelite. The passage is not saying that all the laws of Torah apply equally to Jews and Gentiles.

Second, by the time of the apostles, the word translated as “alien” (ger, גר) was no longer understood as just a Gentile non-Jew. The Hebrew word had shifted its semantic value to refer specifically to a Gentile who had gone through a full, legal conversion to become Jewish, i.e., a proselyte. That conversion process included circumcision, immersion, and a sacrifice. That’s how the Greek version of the Torah (lxx) translates the word too. That’s probably how the apostles would have understood it.

Interestingly enough, Lancaster (I presume) says the Didache actually agrees with the surface reading of Numbers 15:15-16:

If you are able to bear all the yoke of the Lord [i.e., Torah], you will be perfect; but if you are not able, do as much as you are able to do. (Didache 6:2)

Wait a minute! What just happened? Did Lancaster say that the Didache supports an identical application of the Torah mitzvot on both Jewish and Gentile disciples of Jesus?

The Didache agrees with Numbers 15:15–16. There is not supposed to be a different Torah for Gentile believers. The Gentile believers are not supposed to have a different type of worship or religion. There is only one Torah for God’s people. The only question left open is to what extent the Gentile believer is obligated. Most of the laws of the Torah apply equally to Jewish and Gentile disciples of Yeshua.

On the other hand, Gentile believers are not obligated to keep all of the ceremonial laws as the Jewish believers such as circumcision and other distinct markers of Jewish identity like the calendar, the holy days, the dietary laws, and so forth. Despite that, the Bible does not create alternative Gentile versions of these institutions.

In the days of the apostles, the Gentile believers kept most of those things along with the Jewish believers as part of their participation in their shared religion.

The Torah, the conditions for the Sinai covenant, are the same conditions for the New Covenant. God didn’t re-write the conditions, just the material upon which they are written, on paper and tablets formerly, but later, on the human heart.

sefer-torahSo Torah applies to all who come under the New Covenant. The only question is how the roles and applications differ between those who entered into covenant with God at Sinai vs. those of us who were later grafted in, that is, between Jews and Gentiles.

Lancaster ended his small write-up by saying that in the apostolic era, it was likely the Gentile disciples, especially those embedded in Messianic Jewish synagogues in the diaspora, would have appeared much more Jewish than we Christians do today. Their practice and observance would have been modeled on their mentors, and as Lancaster mentioned, the Didache seems to support this view and was formally taught to newly-minted non-Jewish disciples.

So where does that leave me? Right where I am.

If I lived in a different environment, if my wife was Messianic, if a thousand other things were changed, how I outwardly worship God would probably not look the same as it does now. But there are no “what ifs” in God’s creation, there is only here and now and what is real.

What matters about discipleship and devotion to the Master is doing the will of God. I pray. I study. I worship in fellowship. I perform many of the mitzvot in the Torah such as giving charity to the poor, providing food for the hungry, visiting the sick, comforting those who grieve.

The message of the Good News of Messiah changes not at all for the Jew or the Gentile, and the coming of the Kingdom alters not one little bit for the descendants of Israel or the people of the nations. In fact, being a devoted Gentile who has fully apprehended a Messianic world view and perception of the Bible makes me a lot more valuable to the cause of Christ for Jewish and Christian people than if I felt that I would only be on God’s “approved list” if I looked and acted “Jewish”.

I know parts of what I’ve written will make certain people unhappy, but please remember, I’m not telling you or anyone else what to do, I’m just talking about who I am and what I need to do. I can’t allow how others view me to affect what I must do and refrain from doing before God.

The Kotzker Rebbe said that the mistake of the spies was in the words “and so we were in their sight.” It should not bother a person how others view him. (Otzer Chayim)

A person who worries about how others view him will have no rest. Regardless of what he does or does not do he will always be anxious about receiving the approval of others. Such a person makes his self-esteem dependent on the whims of others. It is a mistake to give others so much control over you. Keep your focus on doing what is right and proper.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
from his commentary on Torah Portion Shelach (pg 330)
Growth Through Torah

There is “one law” but it is applied differently, even within formal Judaism, depending on who you are. It’s applied differently also for the Gentile. There is One God who is God of all. There is one Messiah who brings salvation to the world. There is one Kingdom waiting for the devoted to enter. There is one world to come where we will return to the Garden, because that’s where it all began.

If that’s not unity in Messiah, what is?

intermarriageFinal note: distinctiveness in identity and practice does not mean dissolution, disagreement, or disconnection. My wife and I are obviously different as man and woman, and we are different as Christian and Jew. Nevertheless, we are a family together with our children and grandson, and we share strong connections within that context. The same can be said for the Messianic community of Jews and Gentiles. We form a unity not in spite of our differences, but because of them. That is the beauty of “one new man” (Ephesians 2:15). You are changed, not in terms of ethnicity, nationality, or obligation, but because, men and women, Jew and Gentile, no matter how one differs from another, we are all interconnected in Messiah, may he come soon and in our day.

Addendum: See the “sequel” to this “meditation”: Walking in the Dust of the Footsteps of Moshiach.

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3 thoughts on “Unity in Messiah: A Commentary on One Law and Gentiles”

  1. James, happy Father’s Day my friend. Although we don’t know each other well I consider you my friend. From your blog I know more of your thoughts than probably anyone I know. 🙂

    I love this blog. We had quite a bit of discussion about the article you reference in our small group that meets on Erev Shabbat and on Shabbat to study Torah. I also assume the article is by D. Thomas Lancaster? We sort of picked up on some of the same key words in the article that you did. It’s clear (to me anyway and I think to most in our group) that the obligation to Torah is not the same for Jew and gentile.

    I love when he says: “When discussing the question of how much Torah a Gentile is obligated to keep, the Didache recommends keeping all of it, but leaves the matter up to an individual’s capacity”. Capacity. It’s according to our ability to keep it. And then of course the Didache goes on and says: “If you are able to bear all the yoke of the Lord [i.e., Torah], you will be perfect; but if you are not able, do as much as you are able to do. (Didache 6:2)” What a great privilege we gentiles are given. We can respectfully participate in keeping the Torah as we recognize the difference in obligation between Jew and gentile.

    I know I’ve repeated much of what you said in your blog. But I have wrestled with this some time on a personal level. At one time I began praying with a tallit in the privacy of my room and it really helped me feel more of a connection to our Master and to the early believers. But then I started reading about respecting the particularity of the Jewish people and their practices and felt like I was doing something wrong. So I quit the practice. But I have really missed it. I think this article that Lancaster wrote and your blog about it helped encourage me to try praying as a was in private. I still have reservations about doing anything like that is public although I have occasionally visited a Messianic Jewish congregation led by a Jewish rabbi where all the men are invited to come forward and pray the blessing before donning a tallit if they want. Maybe in that environment it is ok, but I don’t want to do anything in public to make it appear to be Jewish when I’m not.

    I also really like what you quoted by Rabbi Plishkin: “A person who worries about how others view him will have no rest. Regardless of what he does or does not do he will always be anxious about receiving the approval of others. Such a person makes his self-esteem dependent on the whims of others. It is a mistake to give others so much control over you. Keep your focus on doing what is right and proper.” What an encouragement. I am going to save that quote and hopefully try to practice it.

  2. Thanks, Mel. I consider you a friend as well. Yes, I draw a lot of my material from Lancaster (hopefully, I’m properly attributing credit to my source). I wrote the base article days ago and then yesterday, when doing my traditional Torah study, I came across the quotes from Schorsch and R. Pliskin and they fit right in, so I inserted them.

    I think there can be a difference between the limits of our obligation to Torah and what we choose to adopt in addition. Certainly some form of Shabbos observance and kashrut aren’t out of the question, and if a Gentile should choose to don a tallit and lay tefillin privately during prayer, I don’t believe anyone is harmed. I have personal (family) reasons for setting those practices aside, but there are Gentiles who observe certain ceremonial practices when davening that are usually attributed to Judaism.

    Certainly the non-Jewish disciples in the mid to late first century and perhaps into the second looked a lot more “Jewish” than most modern Christians would imagine, but then “Christianity” in that day was actually “Judaism,” so it would make a lot of sense for Gentile disciples to emulate their Jewish mentors.

    My personal opinion is that in the Messianic age, there won’t be “Christianity” as such and there won’t be something called “the Church,” but rather, Gentile believers will attach themselves to Israel and to the God of Jacob as they (we) did of old.

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