In one (or more) of D. Thomas Lancaster’s sermons on the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews, he talks about the difference between the “letter of the Law” and the “spirit of the Law”. In traditional Christian teaching, this usually means that “the letter kills but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). In other words, the Law is bad because it promotes a legalistic method of attempting to attain justification before God, while acting in the Spirit of God, that is, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit we receive when we confess Christ as Lord, brings life, for only faith and grace can justify, not works. But this is a complete misunderstanding of the text and what the “letter” and the “spirit” really means.
According to Lancaster, the letter is the actual wording and literal meaning of a commandment while the spirit is the principle behind that commandment. Limiting a commandment to its literal meaning not only restricts our understanding of God’s intent for us, but may lead to either abandoning large portions of the Bible as anachronistic or attempting to drag those anachronisms into the 21st century. Let me give you an example from last week’s Torah Portion:
If you build a new house, you shall make a fence for your roof, so that you will not place blood in your house if a fallen one falls from it.
–Deuteronomy 22:8 (Stone Edition Chumash)
Now let’s take a look at the commentary for this verse referenced in the Chumash:
The Torah requires a Jew to erect a fence or other form of barrier around his roof. This commandment applies also to any dangerous situation, such as a swimming pool or a tall stairway (Rambam, Hil. Rotzeach 11:1-5).
This is an excellent example describing the letter and the spirit of the commandment. The literal meaning is to build a fence or barrier around the edge of your roof so that no one on the roof will fall off by accident. It’s your house and your roof, so you’re responsible. Except few of us have flat roofs on our houses (at least in the typical American suburb) that allow people to go up and stand on them, thus risking a fall. However, as the commentary suggests, the spirit, that is, the general principle behind the specific commandment, has a much wider focus. As property owners (if we own a home and the land it is on), we have a responsibility to assess any potential dangers on our property and take steps to improve safety and thus avoid household members and guests incurring injuries due to our carelessness.
The example of a swimming pool for instance, is a good one, since accidental drownings, particularly of children, are not unknown. Many years ago when my family and I lived in Southern California, we had a swimming pool. My children were quite young at the time, and we wanted to make sure they would be safe around the pool. We had a pool cover installed that ran along a motorized track. When the cover was closed, it was impossible (especially for a child) to pull back the cover since it was secured in place by the track, and the only way to remove the cover was to insert a key into a spring-loaded locking mechanism and hold the key in the “on” position as the motor retracted the cover. In this sense, it could be said that my wife and I “fulfilled” this particularly mitzvah in relation to our swimming pool.
But why should you care about all this?
As I was studying Torah Portion Ki Tetzei on Shabbat (yesterday as you read this), it occurred to me that almost all of the commandments and statues listed could be thought of in terms of the letter and the spirit of the Law.
For instance, Deuteronomy 21:10-14 describes how an ancient Israeli soldier should behave toward a beautiful woman he has captured while battling and defeating an enemy population. The history of war tells us that part of what conquerors do is to abuse and rape the women of the enemy. The Torah doesn’t forbid the capture of these women but does issue the rather strange command that one must wait a full month before actually marrying the woman and engaging in sexual relations with her as a wife. In that one month time period, the man cannot touch her, and she shall shave her head and let her nails grow and weep for her lost parents. At the end of that time, the soldier can either marry her or set her free, but he must not sell her as a slave. Critics of ancient Israel and the Bible say this is still a horribly barbaric practice, but I think I can see a hidden motive of God’s in these verses. Part of the Chumash commentary states:
According to either interpretation, the purpose of the long delay is so that the captor’s desire will evaporate in the interim and he will set her free.
In other words, God anticipated human lust during a war in which a soldier would impulsively desire to sexually assault or even permanently possess a captive woman. While God does not attempt to directly forbid taking women captive, perhaps because it would have set up far too many of the Israeli soldiers to sin in the passion of the moment, He permits capture but forbids any sexual contact for one month. A month is certainly long enough for such passion to dissipate, particularly when the woman is commanded to set aside certain matters of hygiene and grooming.
In modern military forces of the West, it is illegal for soldiers to rape women in war and it would be unthinkable for a soldier to capture a woman and take her home to be a wife. Arguably, this commandment, like most of those we find in the Torah, would only apply in modern times to the Jewish people, but in the present nation of Israel, we don’t find reports of IDF soldiers capturing women in Gaza and taking them home as potential spouses. So what is the principle behind the literal commandment, or is there one anymore? After all, the practice of capturing women as sex slaves during war has become so abhorrent that it is virtually unthinkable.
Has the spirit of this law, even among non-Jewish nations, triumphed over the letter or has something else happened? Has this law become obsolete because the practice among the armies of civilized nations has become extinct (and I recognize that there are forces among uncivilized and brutal peoples where rape during war is still practiced)? That leads to a rather uncomfortable thought; the thought that there are some portions of the Torah that no longer apply and that may never apply again. Let’s take a more extreme example:
You shall not wear combined fibers, wool and linen together.
–Deuteronomy 22:11 (Stone Edition Chumash)
To the best of my knowledge, only Orthodox Jews observe this commandment today. It would be a difficult commandment to observe for most of us given the nature of the clothing typically sold at retail outlets with their mixed natural and artificial fabrics. The Chumash commentary on this verse goes back to Leviticus 19:19 which says in part:
The prohibitions not to cross-breed or to wear mixtures of wool and linen are the quintessential decrees, i.e. commands of the King for which man knows no reasons (Rashi). Ramban clarifies the above point. God surely has reasons, but since man cannot know them, he cannot feel the same satisfaction in performing these decrees that he has when he performs precepts that he feels he understands.
In other words, this class of commandment is to be observed simply because “God said so,” not because (from a human standpoint) it makes any particular sense or seems at all purposeful. There is a literal meaning to this commandment but no apparent underlying principle.
Which brings me to what it is to observe the Torah commandments, particularly for those people who believe it is possible to observe only the literal, Biblical mitzvot of the Torah without any Rabbinic interpretation and binding halachah being involved. As I mentioned, fulfilling the mitzvah of not wearing clothing made of mixed fabrics is something (again, to the best of my knowledge) performed only among Orthodox Jews. And particularly for those non-Jews who feel led in some manner or fashion, to live “Torah-observant” or “Torah-complient” or “Torah-submissive” lifestyles, is it actually possible to do so?
There are three reasons why I think not. The first has to do with the differences between the letter and spirit of the commandments. Most of you, as I said before, don’t have a flat roof on your house so you cannot observe the literal, Biblical commandment. You can only observe this mitzvot if you take the Rabbinic interpretation of its underlying principle into account.
The second has to do with commandments for which we are not likely to ever have the opportunity to fulfill. This goes beyond whether or not we have a flat roof (for instance, the three-story building where I work does have a flat roof where people have access and it does have a barrier to prevent people from falling off), and goes into a realm where, for example, even if we serve in a military organization and find ourselves in battle, it would never even occur to most of us to capture a woman and particularly not to ship her home thousands of miles away with the idea of making her a wife. This may at one time have been an all too common practice during war (at least the initial rape of enemy women) but for American soldiers in the modern era, it’s no longer even on the radar, so to speak. The third has to do with commands like not wearing mixed fabrics. This is a literal command that can possibly be observed (for after all, Orthodox Jews observe it), and it is a Biblical commandment, so those non-Jews who say they only obey the written or literal Torah can (and by their own value system should) obey it, and yet I know of no one in my past experience among Hebrew Roots and One Law congregations who has ever attempted to observe this mitzvah. So what does all this mean?
As part of my studies last Shabbat, I read the commentaries for the weekly Torah Portion in Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s book Growth Through Torah. As I was reading, it occurred to me that Rabbi Pliskin, in his commentaries, was indeed describing the principles behind each of the mitzvot he was addressing. R. Pliskin cited numerous Rabbinic teachings in relation to the beautiful woman captured in war (Deut. 21:13-14), some which commented directly on the situation, but most of which extrapolated the various principles behind the literal, Biblical meaning. The following is just one sample:
Rabbi Chayim Zaitchyk commented that we see from here that to really change a trait it takes a thirty day period of intensive work. This is the principle of the month of Elul which is a time for us to focus on our behavior and traits in order to make major improvements on ourselves. -R. Pliskin, p. 435
That particular principle probably doesn’t seem like it should reasonably be extrapolated from the plain meaning of the text, and so most of us (at least if we’re not Orthodox Jews) tend to disregard it. On the other hand, the Jewish people have been the keepers of the commandments of God, including the observance of Shabbat and the knowledge and practice of ethical monotheism, for untold centuries before the rest of the world even heard of a single God. Who is to say that God did not give the leaders and teachers among the Jews, ancient and modern, the authority to study and to derive underlying principles from the surface meaning of the commandments and to integrate those principles into the practice of daily living for their communities?
For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
–Acts 15:21 (NASB)
This single verse is among the most mysterious and probably the most misunderstood in the entire Bible. For many in the Hebrew Roots movement, it is one of the justifications for believing that the Jewish Apostles intended for the Gentile disciples to not only learn the Torah but to observe the full body of the mitzvot in the manner of the Jews, even though Peter said “Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?”
I’ve often said that it is impossible to understand what Jesus taught unless you understand how he understood the Torah, Writings, and Prophets, the Bible that existed in the days of the Apostles. Sending new Gentile disciples of the Master to the synagogue to hear the Torah read and interpreted by the teachers each Shabbat was one way to help them understand the principles and even the nuances behind the literal commandments and teachings. It’s not just the words, but the context, the language, and the world view of the original intended audience. The original intended audience of Jesus were Hebrew/Aramaic speaking Jews living in Israel.
The Gentile disciples came from a number of different nations and cultures, none of which would have given them the educational background and specific mindset of the people to whom Jesus was originally teaching. The Gentiles could only gain that perspective and thus eventually learn what Jesus was really teaching by studying among Jewish teachers, probably for many months to many years, because the teachings of the Bible are heavily embedded in culture and experiential living as well as language, religion, and history.
Now take a bunch of Americans (or whoever you are) two-thousand years removed from all of that. Compared to the Gentile disciples being addressed in Acts 15, we might as well have just arrived from another planet in terms of our ability to grasp what they were asked to study, and it was a challenge even for them. I don’t believe that either then or now, non-Jewish disciples of Jesus were or are expected to emulate the Jewish disciples beyond a certain subset of observances and underlying principles, but it is those underlying principles that may capture the secret to what it is to be a (so-called) “Torah-observant Gentile.”
Going back to building fences on roofs or putting covers over swimming pools, I don’t think anyone, Jewish or Christian, would think it was a bad idea to improve safety conditions on our property and to protect our family and friends from accidental injury. It’s not just a “Jewish thing”. In fact, we have a body of penal and civil laws in the U.S. that speak to just those concerns so it can be said our local and national governments, to one degree or another, mandate or command that we behave as responsible citizens by taking proactive steps to provide a safe environment in our communities.
Thus we can say that there is more than meets the eye to the Apostolic decree in regards to the Gentile disciples we find in the Acts 15 letter but it may be more layered and nuanced than the simple assumption that there is only a single expectation for everyone everywhere that is contained in the Torah. Ismar Schorsch, in his 2005 commentary on this past week’s Torah portion, as recorded in Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries (p. 610) and referencing Eshet Hayil (“A Woman of Valor”) based on Proverbs 31:10-31, said:
Words carry more than their surface meanings. To fixate on their literal meanings turns a deep channel into a shallow trough.
Is it possible that some of us in believing and even attempting to practice a literal, Biblical Torah, have turned the “deep channel” of God’s intent for our lives into “a shallow trough?” The rather lengthy title for one of Rabbi Pliskin’s commentaries on Deuteronomy 22:5 which prohibits the wearing of garments meant for the opposite sex is, Each person should feel joy in fulfilling his or her unique role in life. He states (p. 438):
Targum Yonoson states that the garments of a man include tzitzis and tefilin. Rabbi Chayim Shmuelevitz commented on this that we see the principle that each person has his own mission in life. The same thing that for one person is “holy of holies,” for another person who does a similar thing, but it is not his life’s task, it is an abomination. Each person should feel joy in carrying out his life’s mission and should not try to do things that he was not meant to do.
While R. Pliskin is a Jew writing to other Jews, I think I can reasonably extrapolate an extended principle that applies to non-Jews who feel compelled to take on board a role which is not assigned to us, a Jewish role. I posted a link to a recent “meditation” called Torah and the Christian: An “In-a-Nutshell” Explanation on Google+ and a Jewish person responded:
As a Christian, saved by grace, who happens to have a Jewish heritage, I try to avoid the discussion of what Jews and Gentiles should and should not to do because it has a tendency to lead to division. However, Yeshua already provided the answer, which we would do well to remember: “For he himself is our shalom — he has made us both one and has broken down the m’chitzah which divided us by destroying in his own body the enmity occasioned by the Torah, with its commands set forth in the form of ordinances. He did this in order to create in union with himself from the two groups a single new humanity and thus make shalom, and in order to reconcile to God both in a single body by being executed on a stake as a criminal and thus in himself killing that enmity. Also, when he came, he announced as Good News shalom to you far off and shalom to those nearby, news that through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:14-18 CJB).
It’s one of the expected responses from both a traditional Christian and classic Hebrew Roots perspectives, although both groups identify the practices of “one new man” quite differently. It also cites the usual issue of promoting identity specific roles as “causing division,” and my response would be to suggest that a Kohen having a specific role in the Temple did not “cause division” among the different classes of Israelites (apart from the Korach rebellion of course). We simply have our own roles assigned to us by God based, among other things, on who we are in terms of gender, nationality, and covenant connectiveness.
When writing on Deuteronomy 22:7 and 22:10, R. Pliskin crafted commentaries called Even when engaged in a mitzvah be sensitive to the feelings of others and Be careful not to cause others to envy. The underlying principles being expressed here are applicable both to Jewish people observing the mitzvot and Gentiles who think they should do so in the manner the Jews are commanded.
One of the things I must (sorry to say this) criticize J.K. McKee for was a statement he made in his book One Law for All: From the Mosaic Texts to the Work of the Holy Spirit about the issue of Jewish distinctiveness in the Messianic community of believers. I don’t recall the exact quote, but he made what I consider to be some rather snarky remarks about these Jewish people being exclusivist and even petty in desiring to have their covenant role as Jews recognized and respected.
And yet we see there’s a principle in Torah observance that recognizes distinctiveness of roles and even that a person whose role does not include the performance of particular mitzvot can actually hurt or inflict pain upon others. While we Gentiles may believe Jews are deliberately provoking us to envy because of their status before God, we, for our part, when we claim mitzvot that are not consistent with our role, are being injurious to the very people and nation we claim to love.
So what’s the answer? I don’t think there’s an easily understood one. I hope I’ve established in this short essay that the Torah is not a simple list of “Dos” and “Don’ts” but rather a highly complex and nuanced collection of lifestyle elements that define a Jew’s obedience to God as the conditions of the Mosaic Covenant. I also hope you can see that understanding how non-Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah fit into the covenantal landscape, in our case exclusively through the New Covenant blessings as they apply to us, is not an easy task. It wasn’t an easy task when James and the Council of Apostles and Elders issued their binding halachah upon the first Gentile disciples and it certainly isn’t now two-thousand years later.
Pastor Randy, the head Pastor at the church I attend, is in the process of presenting a sermon series on the Ten Commandments and how he believes they apply to Christians today. To do this, he has to dig into various portions of the Torah to lay his foundation, and my Sunday school teacher, who creates lessons based on Pastor’s sermons, is challenged with trying to comprehend how the underlying principles behind the Torah are “Christian”. And that’s where I think the answers for Gentile disciples lie, not in attempting to look and act “Jewish” by donning the outward apparel (tallit, tefillin, kippah) that would make people think we’re Jewish (which seems very much in line with the prohibition for a man to wear woman’s clothing as well as the reverse), but by studying and then practicing the underlying principles behind as many of the mitzvot as make sense for us to approach.
The answer, for me anyway, is not to believe I can obey God by looking like I’m Jewish, but to behave in a manner that applies the principles of the Torah within the context of who I am as a Christian and a Gentile, to live a life of faith, trust, charity, all in obedience, for there are many of us in our various roles and lifestyles, but only one God.