Talmud study

Should Non-Jews Study the Torah?

“Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”

Acts 15:19-21 (NASB)

So, should non-Jews who are “Judaicly aware” and seek to honor the centrality of Israel and the primacy of the Jewish people in Messiah study the Torah?

For most of you, the answer probably seems like a no-brainer. After all, the Torah, at least in one sense, is the first five books of the Bible, and Christians study the Bible every day.

On the other hand, should we study the Bible using Jewish, including Messianic Jewish, published materials?

Again, that might seem like a ridiculous question to most of you. After all, there are Messianic Jewish publishing groups that produce a vast amount of Torah study materials aimed right at the non-Jew. At least some of these works are designed to reach traditional Christians in their churches and illuminate them regarding the aforementioned centrality of Israel, and how King Messiah will come first to redeem Israel (and not “the Church”) and through Israel and the Jewish people, the people of the nations of the world.

But then we enter the “blurry” area of the status of a non-Jew within Jewish religious and community space through the use of Jewish produced (though some of it is written by non-Jews working for Jewish publishers) educational materials.

Let me get something out of the way first. I frequently read and quote from articles at Aish.com and Chabad.org and both of these websites provide information that is exclusively written by and for Jews.

Nevertheless, I find the insights provided by both these organizations to be helpful from time to time, but again, I am not unmindful of the fact that they are not intended to be consumed by a non-Jewish audience, namely me.

So let us return to the above-quoted passage from Acts 15 with which I began this missive. It’s part of the larger “Jerusalem letter,” the legal edict issued by the Council of Leaders and Elders of the Jewish Messianic sect once known as “the Way”. It was meant to be a formal and binding decision of the status of Gentiles within Jewish communal and covenantal space, outlining, albeit briefly and with little detail, a Gentile’s responsibilities within that context.

Over two-and-a-half years ago, I covered the content and my understanding of this legal decision in my multi-part series Return to Jerusalem (you can start at part 1 and click through to part 6 for the details).

Rolling the Torah ScrollOf specific interest for this “meditation” is the rather mysterious meaning of verse 21, which I touched upon in Part 5 of the “Jerusalem” series:

“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

Although generally the Hebrew Roots movement interprets this single verse to mean that Gentiles should study the Torah and obey all of the mitzvot in the manner of the Jews, it’s not that easy to derive a definite and concrete interpretation from a single sentence.

Let’s consider not the Gentile God-fearers of that day who already were spending much time hearing Torah read and taught in their local synagogues, but the person who is a pagan Greek and who has just heard the good news of redemption though the Jewish Messiah. Many would have absolutely no background or appropriate context to even begin to fathom the teachings of Rav Yeshua or the Jewish apostles and disciples. They’d be clueless.

After all, it was in Lystra, where the population was largely ignorant of Jewish teachings, that Paul was considered to be Hermes and Barnabas Zeus because they did miracles. To counter this, Paul quickly gave the crowd a crash-course in ethical monotheism (see Acts 14:8-18), hoping to get them to see the light, so to speak.

To even begin to understand anything about what Paul was preaching, it was first necessary to have some sort of background in Judaism and the Torah. In fact, we see this example in the proselytes and Gentile God-fearers who heard Paul’s teachings on Messiah in the synagogue at Pisidan Antioch (see Acts 13:13-43).

Further, rather than just take Paul or any other Jewish teacher at his or her word, a knowledge of the scriptures was not only necessary, but vital. The Bereans (Acts 17:10-15) are the classic model of this principle. Of course, verse 10 does say that Paul and Silas went into “the synagogue of the Jews,” however verse 12 states “…many of them [Jews] believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men,” so it appears these prominent Greek women and men were at the synagogue, either studying the scriptures or listening to the Jewish Bereans do so, and thus benefiting from the study of Torah, including coming to faith because of these scriptural proofs.

But as I said above, Christians study the Bible every day, and yet (in my opinion) they do not always employ the correct hermeneutics that would render an interpretation of scripture largely consistent with what Paul intended to teach (or as close as we can get to it some two-thousand years later).

That’s why, like the Greeks in the Berean synagogue, it is not only helpful but necessary to study Torah with more knowledgable teachers who are familiar with a (again, my opinion) Messianic Jewish view of the Bible.

pathsBut Messianic Judaism isn’t a single entity. There are many different streams, and I’m not even including Hebrew Roots when I say this.

In the past, I’ve referenced quite a number of resources that the “Judaicly aware” Gentile may access including the MessianicGentiles.com website, so all you really have to do is search my blog and or click the link I just provided in order to get started.

But what about a non-Jew who has been studying from that perspective for a number of years and wants to dig a little deeper? After all, when an Orthodox Jew speaks of “studying Torah,” he or she is actually meaning “studying Talmud.” Is it permissible for a Gentile to study Talmud? While it’s not illegal, immoral, or even fattening, is there a benefit for us to study Talmud, especially when the sages wrote against Yeshua being Messiah and in some cases, wrote against Yeshua-believers?

The prohibitions against a Gentile studying Talmud (Torah) are from more traditional Jewish sources and not necessarily from any of the Messianic Jewish groups. Still, I found an interesting discussion on the topic in a closed group on Facebook (I can’t post a link both because you have to be invited to join and I don’t have the permission of the participants to do so).

Unless you are already a qualified scholar and have studied Talmud previously with a qualified scholar, you are going to get a very limited understanding from Talmud. Also, unless the tractates being read are speaking to the non-Jew, it’s again a matter of reading material written by Jews for Jews. In other words, even if you are at the educational level to comprehend what you are reading (which usually also requires fluency in Hebrew), the Talmud, for the most part, has nothing to do with you.

Of course, you could say that about the vast majority of the Bible, since most of it was written by Jews for Jews, but going back to the examples I’ve already presented from Luke’s “Acts of the Apostles,” we see that some form of study of the Jewish scriptures is absolutely necessary in order to understand the teachings of Rav Yeshua and of the Apostle Paul and how they apply to we non-Jewish disciples.

So although in-depth study of Talmud for the Gentile may be somewhat up in the air depending on education, circumstances, and communal context, more general study of all of the Jewish scriptures (and even the Apostolic Scriptures should be considered Jewish scriptures, although they include significant mention of Gentile initiates and disciples) seems not only warranted, but absolutely required.

So we’re back at what to do with a Gentile who finds it necessary to learn in a Messianic Jewish context? How is said-Gentile to be integrated, and more importantly, how does that Gentile not get swept up in Jewish practice and identity, but instead is able to establish and maintain an identity of their own, one that does not result in self-denigration or diminished esteem?

That is a question that has been under discussion for years, probably decades, and as far as I can tell, has no current, practical resolution. The emphasis in Messianic Judaism on Judaism, the centrality of Israel, and the primacy of the Jewish people in God’s redemptive plan is good and correct, but it contains the problem of what to actually do with the majority of the world’s population.

praying aloneWhich is why Gentiles need to find a way to study the Bible through a Messianic lens, so to speak, but also find a way to learn how and why we are important and loved by God, too.

I know this must seem like I’m beating the proverbial dead horse, but to the degree that non-Jews do sometimes feel alienated in Messianic Jewish space, to the degree that some factions of Messianic Judaism find it necessary to be a movement by and for Jews, and to the degree that some Gentiles become so confused between the goals of Judaism and the Messianic Kingdom that they choose to abandon Yeshua and convert to (usually Orthodox) Judaism to resolve their dissonance, I think the issue is significant.

Gentiles need to find a way to study the Bible in a manner honoring to the Jewish people and Israel and at the same time, one that renders a message of the value of non-Jews in God’s redemptive plan as well.

Ultimately, we can’t let a movement define who we are to God. We need to study the Bible and find out what we mean to God from Him…if we can.

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8 thoughts on “Should Non-Jews Study the Torah?”

  1. Sometimes people create offensive titled as bait. Sorry. This time, bait taken.

    You’ll forgive my boldness, but a great number of your articles seem piqued with an allure towards Judaism and then laden with accompanying guilt, like porn or falling off at AA. Every Aish article you cite, you always toss in the obligatory “although this is for a Jewish audience…” Ahem… James? Cringingly apologetic much?

    What right does Heschel have to study Plato and Socrates? That’s wisdom he is hijacking from the Greeks! What right does Rabbi Forhman have to utilize Kierkegaard or Rene Descartes? Piggybacking on European philosophical labors? Should Genesis chaps. 1-10 co-opt other people’s creation mythos with such profligacy? Posting up a “Gentiles Only” sign at a university would sound bigoted in reverse, because it would be.

    “…but also find a way to learn how and why we are important and loved by God, too.”

    And speaking of Heschel, he said that for non-derivable answers, there is no substitute for revelation. I know G-d owes humanity nothing, but such a question seems like something that a Deity is supposed to tell his followers…maybe mention it somewhere. Not something you “figure out,” or “make up.” Just a thought. A frustrating one.

    I understand and respect how a Jew can be uncomfortable with Gentiles observing Torah in a likewise fashion. I’m loathe to do certain things in a synagogue setting. But going to the extreme (and it is an extreme) of academic occlusion (ie; we don’t want the trog-races to so much as view our literature, lest their mere knowing it would sully its glory) is simply beyond the pale and seems the inverse of Isaiah 2.

    It’s one thing to tell Gentiles that G-d gave them no covenants, no times, no texts, no national foundations, and zero commandments, and that their entire religion is a co-opted fabrication. It’s quite a blow. But going so far as to question their legitimacy in merely approaching the textual source of their faith really makes that “equal co-heir” language (which gets bandied about so freely here) seem evermore irreal. Not even learning now!? How little can one be left with in this life before “co-heir” and “sharing equally in blessing” means absolutely nothing? It’s one thing to say to billions that their religions are false and that G-d offers them no religion to replace them; it’s irresponsible to then utterly bar them from examining the right one while telling them that they will be judged by its truths.

    The Talmud is open source, it sits in libraries, and is currently a best-seller in South Korea. Dr. Instone-Brewer and others read and study rabbinics to apply it Christian marriage and divorce, liberating women from the crushing legalism of Christian attitudes on remarriage. Regardless of Torah and Talmud’s applicability to some, many, or few, I feel anyone can study it without compunction if they act in good faith, humility, and are willing to wade through reams of insider jargon.

  2. Drake, sometimes titles are a tad “dramatic” just to get the attention of an audience.

    As you saw from my conclusions, of course we are not only allowed, but required to study the Torah. How else can the teachings of Rav Yeshua make any sort of sense to us. In fact we must study Jewish sources, because, lacking that, we’ll lack the proper contextual reference points necessary for correct learning.

    However, Messianic Judaism is focused on Judaism, and what I’m trying to do with all this is carve out some sort of place for non-Jews who have our specific perspective.

    Messianic Jews seem to be having a tough enough time figuring out the type and level of observance appropriate for them (as you can see in this example). It seems harder still to understand the place of Gentiles within that community.

    Which is why I’m dodging the community, so to speak, and taking it right to God. We understand that salvation comes from the Jews meaning, in this case, that the Gentile nations will not necessarily be redeemed for their own sake but for the sake of Israel through Messiah.

    But on an individual level, since we too have been created in the image of God, and since “God so loved the world,” I’m investigating what it’s supposed to be like in the relationship between the Gentile believer, using myself as an example, and the Almighty.

    That my position seems exaggerated is to make a point. In Christianity, Gentiles are in the catbird seat, so to speak, and we got that way early on (think “Church fathers”) by removing Jews and Judaism from “Christian worship”. Having put the Judaism back in Messianic Judaism, now we (or at least I) need to figure out how best to have a relationship with the Almighty just as who I am, the goy living in Idaho.

    The short answer is that I already do, every time I pray or read the Bible. Some non-Jews come to these realizations not feeling very good about their status, but it’s tough to feel relevant when the focus of everything around you is on Judaism. What should a group of “Judaicly aware” Gentiles do in an exclusively Gentile community or even as individuals?

    I’m not all that worried about my praxis since I don’t see myself as poaching on Jewish tradition, nor to I feel at all tempted to convert to any form of Judaism. Paul in Galatians says we’re good just the way we are. It’s about time someone said that out loud.

    Oh, I’m aware that Talmud is taught in a variety of non-Jewish spaces. Even Microsoft offers Talmud classes for any interested employee. I thought about mentioning all that, but I’m attempting, somewhat slowly, to establish the value of the Gentile as a Gentile in the present and future Kingdom of God.

  3. My headspace is too clogged with the unpleasant materials of a nasty cold to offer much in the way of opinion. Just wanted to say that I’m glad to see your words again coming up in my reader feed.

  4. Studying the Talmud as a Gentile brings one immediately to the task of learning someone else’s history, customs and traditions, and why they think the way they do, in order to understand the Tanakh and Brit Chadashah from that other person’s point of view, and then use what is good therein for oneself. It is just as difficult to digest and apply the apparent desires of G-d for mankind in a non-Jewish manner as reading the Church Fathers about who they thought Believers should be, and what they should do, absent the Jews and all things Jewish.

    I value the Talmud for the insights found there, and gingerly handle the Christian writings for other, very different insights from a non-Jewish position. Unfortunately, it leaves me still in the middle, valuing what is good in both, and tending to rely on the relative simplicity of the Tanakh and the Brit Chadashah. If we distill the principles and ideas stated in the Scriptures, we can apply them to our lives, but of necessity it can only be in a very simple and sparing manner to stay away from both Jewish and Christian practices.

    I am a Messianic Gentile, and glad to be one, no longer drowning in the myriad views of Evangelical, Fundamentalist, Reform and Catholic Christianity, nor attempting to emulate Messianic Judaism by practicing it in a Jewish way. The laws that pertain to Jews in the Diaspora are fairly easy to carry out, once having removed the Jewish manner of observance, and such specific commandments as laying Tefillin, or donning a katan gadol with tsit tsit, or wearing a yarmulke that are not transferable to a non-Jewish observance. One need not kasher one’s kitchen, but limit oneself to eating only clean foods. The Moedim can be carried out in remembrance of Yeshua or in anticipation of the Kingdom of G-d, while Shabbat is a set apart time to spend with G-d, enjoying all that has been created, completed and made ready, resting from the more secular activities of the rest of the week.

    The Commandments can be carried out as a fairly simple set of boundaries for life, and as the guide that Torah is supposed to be. No altar is needed, nor incense, nor bendings or ritual bowing, nor choral music. Instead, we need only make the attempt to do what is written in the Scriptures in a simple way, with the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, while spending a lot of time in conversation with the Deity seeking understanding.

    Are we Gentiles supposed to do more than attempt righteous behavior while delighting ourselves in the Lord?

  5. @Marie: Thanks. Scratched cornea here so I’m not looking or feeling my best either. Get well soon.

    Questor asked:

    Are we Gentiles supposed to do more than attempt righteous behavior while delighting ourselves in the Lord?

    Sounds like a pretty good place to start.

  6. I stumbled over Sanhedrin Tractate 59a, which covers the Gentile’s more or less saying that we are to study the Talmud to understand the Noahic Laws we are under, and not to put on Jewish Law, Shabbat, or Moedim in the same manner as the Jews unless becoming a Proselyte.

    However, the Act’s 15 Decree add’s quite a bit to the the need for halachic study of the matter, so I’l be taking a look at FFOZ’s examination of just what the Acts 15 Degree means in reality.

    Having said that, and adding on all of what we are to copy Yeshua’s teachings, and to become Disciples of him, I rather think the matter is moot, and we do need to follow Yeshua to the extent we can. However, knowing how the Jews have always felt about it, and what they teach, one should not take up the commandments in a Jewish way…which is what we have been saying.

    Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin

    Folio 59a

    Dilling Exhibit 60
    Begins
    But the precept of observing social laws is a positive one, yet it is reckoned? — It is both positive and negative.
    1 R. Johanan said: A heathen who studies the Torah deserves death, for it is written, Moses commanded us a law for an inheritance;
    2 it is our inheritance, not theirs.
    3 Then why is this not included in the Noachian laws? — On the reading morasha [an inheritance] he steals it; on the reading me’orasah [betrothed], he is guilty as one who violates a betrothed maiden, who is stoned.
    4 An objection is raised: R. Meir used to say. Whence do we know that even a heathen who studies the Torah is as a High Priest? From the verse, [Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments:] which, if man do, he shall live in them.
    5 Priests, Levites, and Israelites are not mentioned, but men: hence thou mayest learn that even a heathen who studies.
    6 the Torah is as a High Priest! — That refers to their own seven laws.
    7 ‘R Hanania b. Gamaliel said: [They were also commanded] not to partake of the blood drawn from a living animal.’
    Our Rabbis taught: But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat,
    8 this prohibits flesh cut from the living animal. R. Hanina b. Gamaliel said: It also prohibits blood drawn from a living animal. What is his reason? — He reads the verse thus: flesh with the life thereof [shall ye not eat]: blood with the life thereof shall ye not eat. But the Rabbis maintain that this reading teaches that flesh cut from live reptiles is permitted.
    9 Similarly it is said, Only be sure that thou eat not the blood: for the blood is the life,’ and thou mayest not eat the life with the flesh.
    10 But the Rabbis maintain that the verse teaches that the blood of arteries, with which life goes out, [is also forbidden as blood].
    11 Why was it first enjoined upon the sons of Noah, and then repeated at Sinai? — As the dictum, of R. Jose b. Hanina. For R. Jose b. Hanina said: Every precept which was given to the sons of Noah and repeated at Sinai was meant for both [heathens and Israelites]; that which was given to the sons of Noah but not repeated at Sinai was meant for the Israelites, but not for the heathens. Now, the only law thus commanded to the children of Noah and not repeated at Sinai was the prohibition of the sinew that shrank [nervous ischiadicus], and in accordance with R. Judah’s view.
    2 The Master (not Yeshua) said: ‘Every precept which was given to the sons of Noah and repeated at Sinai was meant for both [Noachides and Israelites]’. On the contrary, since it was repeated at Sinai, should we not assume it to be meant for Israel only?
    13 — Since idolatry was repeated as Sinai, and we find that the Noachides were punished for practising it,
    14 we must conclude that it was meant for both.
    ‘That which was given to the sons of Noah but not repeated at Sinai was meant for the Israelites, but not for the heathens.’ On the contrary, since it was not repeated at Sinai, should we not assume that it was meant for the Noachides and not for Israel?
    15 — There is nothing permitted to an Israelite yet forbidden to a heathen. Is there not? But what of a beautiful woman?
    16 — There it is because the heathens were not authorised to conquer.
    17 But what of a thing worth less than a Perutah?
    18 — There it is because the heathens do not forgive.
    19 ‘Every precept which was given to the sons of Noah and repeated at Sinai was meant for both [Noachides and Israelites]’.

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