supernal torah

The Torah Without Judaism?

The article got me thinking; why don’t we create a 30-Day Challenge for Jewish things like mitzvot to help Jewish people undertake a new level of commitment? After all, Judaism is not an all or nothing religion. Whatever steps a person takes to follow the mitzvot, no matter what level or station of life they are at, that is always a plus and to be applauded and celebrated. If you don’t observe Shabbat but decide to light candles, then good for you! That’s a great positive step. Doing that one thing is better than doing nothing. Judaism is a journey that is taken one step at a time.

-Rabbi Tzvi Nightingale
“The 30-Day Jewish Challenge”

It’s Friday afternoon at the McGillis School in Salt Lake City, and students from the third through fifth grades are gathered for the weekly Shabbat celebration.

They read and discuss a passage about humility by former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Then a blond girl with braided hair prepares to light the candles. A hush falls over the room as the flames are kindled, and the students recite the practiced benediction in unison:

“As we bless this source of light, the warmth these candles bring reminds us of times we gave light and received light,” they sing, followed by a recitation of the traditional Shabbat candle-lighting blessing in Hebrew.

The ceremony is not dissimilar from weekly Shabbat celebrations held in Jewish schools across America.

Except for one thing: The student lighting the candles isn’t Jewish. Nor is the one who follows her to recite the kiddush blessing over grape juice. Nor the one after that who recites Hamotzi over the challah bread.

-Uriel Heilman
“With 75% non-Jewish students, Utah’s Jewish school seeks to universalize Judaism”
Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA)

I had a good conversation with a friend of mine over coffee last Sunday. However, things became a bit “pointed” when the discussion turned to “Judaism vs. Torah.” I know that’s a strange thing to say, but bear with me.

I actually haven’t talked with anyone on this topic in quite some time…maybe for years. It’s the same old saw I used to see wheeled out when I was active in the Hebrew Roots movement; the idea that one can be obedient, or subservient, or compliant to the written Torah without having any sort of involvement with the Talmud or otherwise, the “oral Law”.

My friend referenced two groups of Jews in Israel he has some familiarity with…well, he’s familiar with one group more than the other.

synagogueHe says one group is active in encouraging Messianic Jews in the Land to start attending synagogue services within normative (probably Orthodox) Judaism as opposed to meeting with Messianic Jewish congregations. I don’t know how true this is since I’m getting it third hand, but it’s something to consider.

The other group (I’m purposely not naming names), the one my friend is more familiar with, are Messianic Jews who live their lives observing the written Torah and only the written Torah as they understand it.

Granted, from an outsider’s point of view, many of the customs of say, the Breslovers may seem archaic and odd, but I just don’t see how one can observe the mitzvot without consulting the Rabbis, at least to some degree. This is because the written portion of the Torah doesn’t always describe how to perform the mitzvot. Apart from the Karaites, all religious Jews rely on Rabbinic rulings and traditions to help them navigate the Torah, although according to the Wikipedia page I just referenced:

Karaite Jews do not object to the idea of a body of interpretation of the Torah, along with extensions and development of non-Rabbinic Halakha (Jewish law) that strives to adhere to the Tanakh’s straightforward meaning. Several hundred such books have been written by various Karaite Ḥakhamim (sages) throughout the movement’s history, although most are lost today.

This begs the question of whether or not modern Rabbinic Judaism is an absolute requirement for Jewish (or non-Jewish) Torah observance. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

My friend has certain problems with modern Judaism, such as why the majority of religious Jews aren’t trying to be a light to the nations.

He says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Isaiah 49:6 (NASB)

I did mention that The Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, actively promoted Noahidism among the Gentiles. Granted, this probably isn’t what my friend meant when he said Israel is commanded to be a light to the nations, but from the Rebbe’s point of view, that’s exactly what he was doing.

The RebbeOn the other hand, the article published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency shows at least one Jewish school being that light:

“We have Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and LDS students,” said head of school Matt Culberson, using the acronym for Latter-day Saints, or Mormons. “But this school takes Jewish culture as its foundational point. We start with Judaism first.”

The outgrowth of a JCC early childhood program that morphed into an independent K-8 school about 15 years ago, McGillis may be the only American Jewish school of its kind. The vast majority of its students – 75 percent – are not Jewish, by the administration’s reckoning. And though McGillis teaches Jewish values, Jewish holidays and Hebrew, it does not teach Judaism as a religion.

And what are Jewish values without the Jewish religion as such?

Practically everywhere you turn, identical blue posters advertise the school’s guiding Jewish values: tzedakah (translated as “giving to others”); tikkun olam (“repairing the world”); gemilut hasadim (“doing good and kind deeds”); derech eretz (“having respect for all”); limud l’shma (“learning for the sake of learning”), and kehillah (“our community”). Students, teachers and administrators constantly reference these values, albeit sometimes straining to pronounce the Hebrew.

Yes, I can certainly see those values being universal in scope and not restricted to the Torah, the Jewish people, and Judaism, although these values are exemplified in Judaism.

They probably are in Christianity as well, at least most of them, but I’m sure Christians would have different names for those values and activities.

And I did tell my friend that if he believes Judaism is a poor reflection of the Torah as it was originally understood and lived out by the ancient Israelites, then Christianity is just as poor a reflection of the teachings of Rav Yeshua (Jesus) and his emissary to the people of the nations, Rav Shaul (the Apostle Paul).

So should we attempt to reconstruct the Torah observance of the ancient Israelites and the devotion to Rav Yeshua of the very early non-Jewish disciples? I’m not sure how we could do it with any hope of accuracy. Too many Hebrew Roots people who think they have done so marshal a whole lot of chutzpah and much too little respect, and occasionally march into synagogues to tell the Rabbi that he is doing it all wrong.

I have a rather unique view of my local Jewish community through the eyes of my wife, so I’m quite aware of how Jewish people take to such bold intrusions into their space.

PogromI tried to explain to my friend that after nearly two-thousand years of persecution, pogroms, maimings, and murder committed upon the Jewish people by their non-Jewish neighbors (most often Christians), I can see why Jews aren’t falling all over themselves to share their version of the “good news” of the Torah with the rest of the world. Jewish insularity and Talmud have gone a long way to preserve the Jewish people and Judaism, when the rest of us were trying to wipe both from the face of the Earth.

He reminded me that there have been groups of Christian missionaries who have been wiped out by indigenous people in far off corners of the world, at least historically, who have then been followed by more missionaries, risking their own lives, who eventually did share the salvation of Christ with the folks who had butchered their predecessors.

And while I admire the courage of these missionaries, and do not in the slightest demean their accomplishments, it’s one thing for a single, isolated people group to kill one party of missionaries, and another thing entirely for the vast majority of this planet’s population to continually attempt genocide against the Jewish people as a religion and a race.

And if God intends on judging the Jewish people along with the rest of us, that’s God’s privilege, not mine.

Apart from small groups of Messianic Jews (or non-Jews) who believe they can disregard Rabbinic Judaism out of hand and practice a greater fidelity to the Torah and to God by doing so, the majority of religious Jews, Messianic and otherwise, observe the mitzvot and serve Hashem within the religious, cultural, social, and historical context of Judaism.

As we saw in the JTA article, Judaism can successfully transmit universal moral values to non-Jews without necessarily transmitting Judaism as a religious construct.

When brings me back to Rabbi Nightingale’s 30-Day Jewish Challenge, as well as to the idea of a Torah observance without Judaism.

Whether you care to admit it or not, your worship of God operates within a specific religious, social, cultural, and community context. Even if you are alone in your faith as I am, you get your understanding and interpretation of the Bible from somewhere, and your praxis was probably not invented just by you.

Some sort of organized body or bodies imparted all that upon you, and you continue with it because it makes sense to you, even if your religion and practices don’t always make sense to others.

Within the various streams of mainstream Judaism, Judaism makes sense to religious Jews. The same can be said for the numerous denominations of Christianity. That an outside observer can criticize and point to portions of the Bible that seem to contradict the activities within those branches and denominations, doesn’t mean it’s seen the same way from the inside.

McGillis School
Head of School Matt Culberson says the McGillis School tries to inculcate the school’s guiding Jewish principles across the curriculum. (Uriel Heilman)

No system is perfect, and a lot of systems are dysfunctional, but when you say that Judaism is broken because it treats the Talmud as more authoritative than the Torah, you are making that statement from inside some system, not from a 100% objective understanding of the Torah.

If you say that Judaism is biased in a particular way, so are you. We all are. No one exists without bias, without a perspective, without an interpretation.

I’m not in any shape to be tilting at windmills. I’ve got enough to deal with in my own life. Sure, sometimes I take a stab at religious criticism, but I don’t like to make a habit of it.

If I have to judge, I guess I’ll start with myself. If, in any sense, I can be successful in practicing charity, repairing the world, doing good and kind deeds, having respect for all, and learning for the sake of learning (I don’t have a kehillah or community, so that one’s out), then maybe I’m not doing so bad (although a 30-day challenge or some other form of “upping my game” wouldn’t hurt).

If I look at other communities and they’re doing the same thing, maybe they’re not doing so bad either.

Final word. In case you’re wondering, I’m not trying to bang away at my friend. We don’t always agree on everything, but we do get along, and I cherish our relationship. He’s a kind, intelligent person who I believe is close to the Spirit of God and who walks in the footsteps of our Rav.

May it be that way for all of us.

4 thoughts on “The Torah Without Judaism?”

  1. Well, I can reduce one third-hand report you cited above to a second-hand report, because I participate in a havurah in Jerusalem consisting of Jewish messianists who do encourage participants to attend ordinary local synagogues and to become integral members of these communities. This is an assertion of the view that Jewish messianists are, in fact, not to separate themselves from the Jewish community, but to be ordinary participants within it. One might suggest that this is really the only way to be “salt and light” therein.

    In my case, I also serve as Hazan for a local synagogue of MJs who are not dispersed among other synagogue communities, trying to contribute to their own collective sense of Jewish normalcy within the larger Jewish community. The contribution of “salt and light” by such an MJ synagogue is its very visible existence that demonstrates MJ pursuit of normative Jewish praxis.

    However, these are Jews with Torah and Judaism together as they ought to be, not really addressing your title topic for today’s essay.

    1. PL, I can see the matter from both sides. On the one hand, as Stuart Dauermann said, The Jewish People Are Us, Not Them, so Messianic Jews being Jews, they should stand with the larger Jewish community and with Israel. On the other hand, I know of at least one Jewish person who resolved his perceived dissonance between being a Messianic Jew and worshiping within an Orthodox Jewish congregation by abandoning Yeshua and joining normative Jewish community. This is also what happened to my missus some years ago, so I can’t discount the apparent dangers involved, at least for some.

      Also, we are seeing a rapidly growing population of non-Jewish Christians leaving the Church, not for any Messianic or Hebrew Roots community, but to become Noahides, either within an Orthodox synagogue or establishing their own Noahide congregations.

      For a time, maybe 15 years ago, my children and I attended the local combined Reform/Conservative shul here in Boise. At that point in my life, the environment was very difficult for me to adapt to, even though they were pretty “Gentile-friendly,” and I went for the sake of my Jewish children who were all near Bar/Bat Mitzvah age back then (only my daughter elected to have her Bat Mitzvah there…and all three of my kids had a variant of their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs in the little Hebrew Roots group we had been associated with).

      As I type this, I also recall a non-Jewish woman who was married to a Jewish fellow. They have one son together. Her husband was a fairly secular Jew and his wife and son attended the aforementioned Hebrew Roots group for awhile. Then, they also started going to the Chabad when they came to town. Ultimately, the wife chose to convert, which was officiated by the Rabbi at the Reform/Conservative shul (the Chabad Rabbi won’t support conversion locally because there is no local Beit Din and too small a Jewish community to support new converts). The son eventually converted as well.

      Being married is tough enough, but I can only imagine that being a disciple of Rav Yeshua and yet having your primary community be an Orthodox synagogue would make it really hard for some folks and put children in an almost impossible predicament.

      I don’t know the answer to all this. I don’t think that Messianic Judaism can dismiss Talmud and tradition out of hand, since that is part of being a religious Jew and, as I’ve said before, I don’t believe it’s possible to obey only the “written Torah” without Jewish interpretation. On the other hand, as I’ve said above, there are very real risks to diving head-first into normative Jewish community. It feels like Boaz Michael’s “Tent of David” in reverse, and in my case, we see how well that worked out.

      1. I’ve heard that refrain about “perceived dissonance” before, and it’s hard to argue with subjective perceptions, but my answer to that complaint is that I don’t buy it. If a Jew is perceiving dissonance between Rav-Yeshua messianism and normative traditional Judaism there is something they are not understanding correctly about one or both (not that misunderstandings are hard to formulate, but I view them as relatively easily corrected if analyzed thoroughly). Note that the misperceiving Jew may be the messianist or it may be one member or more of the supposedly normative community.

      2. That’s the problem. There’s an awful lot of static between a person and analyzing those misunderstandings. Some of it could be family, social, and community pressure, and a lot of it is overcoming a pre-existing theology and doctrine in order to examine what the Bible is really saying, and as you probably know, it’s not easy for most people to arrive at the correct conclusions. A person could otherwise be intelligent, well-educated, well-read, well-meaning, and kind, but threaten their sacred cow, and suddenly all bets are off and it’s time for a knife fight.

        In the missus’s case, she wasn’t raised in a Jewish home, didn’t even know her Mom (and thus she) was Jewish until she was about 20 years old, didn’t know what to do about it for a long time, become a Christian, transitioned to Hebrew Roots, and didn’t actually become part of Jewish community until she started going to the local synagogue, and then later to Chabad.

        For some Jews, having a Jewish identity and Jewish community under those circumstances means renouncing what came before so that they can conform to “what Jews believe” (as if the Chabad Rabbi represents all Jews everywhere).

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