Tag Archives: apologetics

Questioning Paul

Read today’s article, where you, in part, again defend Paul. Obviously, I have to come to read him very differently and would like to run something by you. Can you give me your thoughts on the following words of Paul, namely in Galatians 4:21-26 (and a bit beyond, in Galatians 5-1)?

“21 Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. 23 But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. 24 This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenantsone proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children WHO ARE TO BE SLAVES; she is Hagar. 25 Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children26 But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. “

“It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5-1)

Here Paul, although supposedly speaking figuratively, plainly says that the covenant on Mount Sinai produced slaves (even though the opposite actually happened there – Jews were freed from slavery there, becoming servants of G-d). According to Paul, Jews who are still bound by Torah and the Mosaic covenant are not the spiritual children, but the children of the flesh and are born not of Sarah, but of Hagar. Christians (primarily his Gentile audience), however, are Sarah’s true children, who are free. Following Torah as given on Mount Sinai, according to Paul, is a yoke of slavery from which Christ came to set humanity free (Galatians 5-1).

Would love to hear what you thought of the above. May be the billions of Christians over the many centuries didn’t misread Paul after all but received much of their view of Judaism from him?

-from a private email discussion

There’s a lot more to this conversation. For a little background, the person asking the above-quoted questions is a Jewish friend of mine who believes that Paul was anti-Torah and anti-Judaism.  He very gently but firmly is questioning my faith and our exchange, from my point of view, has reached something of an impasse. Not being a theologian or a historian, especially within the context of Messianic Judaism, I don’t always have all the convenient answers at my fingertips.

A “normative” (i.e. not Messianic) Jewish person has a wide variety of resources to draw from, such as Jews for Judaism, in questioning the validity of the “Christian texts,” while in response, all I’ve got is me.

For obvious reasons (obvious to my regular readership), I can’t really rely on traditional, Evangelical Christian apologetics, since I’m often a critic of Evangelical Christian theology.

To add a bit of dimension, where I “stalled” in the conversation, my friend questioned whether one could look at Paul’s letters in the same fashion as the writings of Moses. Moses received direct revelation from God while Paul was writing letters. Can his letters be elevated to the point of scripture inspired by the Holy Spirit? Moses knew he was recording the thoughts of God. Could Paul have imagined that his letters would also be included in canon?

In the body of believers, we tend to see deep theological meaning in Paul’s letters. Further, we (or at least I) believe that there are messages “encoded” within said-letters that are difficult to understand without a “Rabbinic” comprehension of the text. Scholars such as Mark Nanos and Roy Blizzard have written erudite works unpackaging the “hidden” meanings within Paul’s writing. But the Sages in more normative Judaism across the long centuries and into the modern era, reading the letters of Paul from a Rabbinic perspective, see nothing but a condemnation of Jewish people and Judaism in Paul’s writings. If Paul’s letters are so “Jewish” that most Christians don’t “get” Paul, why don’t most Jewish sages “get” Paul the way we do when peering through a Messianic Jewish lens?

The Jewish PaulIn line with the above, I’ve attempted to answer the “Hagar and Sarah” question with my own commentary based on Ariel Berkowitz’s paper A Torah-Positive Summary of Sha’ul’s Letter to the Galatians. However my explanation of more hidden meanings doesn’t seem to pass the “pshat test,” whereby the plain meaning of the text is still the primary meaning, even if there are other more hidden and even mystic meanings contained within.

Finally, many if not most of Paul’s letters were written to a primarily Gentile audience, with many or most of them having limited literacy (according to my source) and for those fresh out of paganism, virtually no apprehension of Judaism, Jewish thought, Hebrew idiom and word play, and Jewish symbolism. If Paul were writing to a bunch of Rabbis or other learned Jews, we could understand Paul crafting letters with great amounts of complicated theological detail, but wasn’t he trying to get his ideas across to mostly common Greek-speaking people?

It’s possible that no one can answer these questions or at least that no one will be willing to answer these questions on my blog, so I may continue to be stuck until subsequent investigation (which experience tells me could be months or years) helps me to understand where the answers lie (or, Heaven forbid, that there are no answers to give to my Jewish friend). I should say that my primary goal isn’t to “convert” him or otherwise convince him to become “Messianic.” My goal is to show why any intelligent and reasonable person could accept the writings in what the Church calls “the New Testament” as scripture at all and why we would go jumping through all of the hoops we have been in order to refactor Paul as pro-Torah and pro-Judaism after nearly two-thousand years of Church doctrine has been teaching the exact opposite?

I plan to put links to this blog post in the relevant groups in both Facebook and Google+. I’d like to encourage the readers there to post your responses here so my friend (and any other interested parties) can read them. If they’re “trapped” in closed groups on either of those social networking platforms, then they will not be available for my audience here.

Thank you.

The Failing Light

Candle in ObsidianIn some naïve areas of Christian consensus people imagine that Jews obey Torah because they believe that this will save them. However, a simple conversation with the average religious Jew, or reading in books by religious Jews will demonstrate this to be a fantasy. And which of us has not heard the proposition that Judaism is a religion of law and Christianity a religion of grace, with Judaism being pictured as Mount Sinai covered in thunderbolts, and Christianity, the grace of Jesus dying on the cross. People forget, or never seem to get, that it was on that very same Mount Sinai that God revealed himself as “the LORD, the LORD, merciful and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”

-Rabbi Dr. Stuart Dauermann
“The Foundational Reason Jews, Including Messianic Jews, Should Obey Torah”

There are times when I think I’m going crazy. No, not hallucinating, voice-hearing, I-need-my-meds crazy, but when the world of Messiah that I see being constructed around me is roundly and soundly contradicted in every detail by people I respect and admire, I feel crazy.

I had the “crazy” experience last night in my weekly meeting with my Pastor. I had several weeks to “get my ducks in a row,” so to speak, to present my side of the story about why Jews remain obligated to Torah, but there’s a difference between walking into your Pastor’s office with half a dozen books in hand plus a bunch of notes, and being a Pastor who has decades of experience interpreting scripture, a Master’s degree in the subject, and someone in a Doctoral program in religious studies.

I’d need about twenty years to catch up and he’d always have the same amount of time to stay ahead of me.

I used to be amazed that I seemed to be able to “hold my own” in our little debates, but last night was proof positive that I’ve definitely been “fighting out of my weight class” all along.

As a “Messianic apologist,” I’m terrible.

But when I read commentaries such as Dr. Dauermann’s or many of the resources produced by First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ), what they say seems to make so much sense, and they don’t require “retrofitting” the Tanakh (Old Testament) with later interpretations to make the Messianic prophesies work alongside what the Apostolic Scriptures say about Yeshua (Jesus).

They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Yeshua said to them, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham.”

John 8:39

Deeds are a natural response to faith. In fact, one can’t exist without the other. Messiah’s brother knew this all too well.

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.

But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

James 2:14-26 (NASB)

abraham-covenant-starsI see a completely clear line leading from Abraham to his physical son, the only son he had that was promised the inheritance, his son Isaac, and that line extends to Isaac’s son Jacob (but not Esau), and then to Jacob’s offspring, whose descendants are the twelve tribes of Israel, with that line extending out of Egypt, to Sinai, to the Torah, to the Mountain of God, to the Land of Israel, to the Messianic promises, to Messiah.

Unfortunately, I can’t verbally articulate that line and all of its details, at least not convincingly. Sure, I can write and write and write, but as you can see, over a thousand blog posts later, I’m still writing, I’m still exploring. I’m still trying to understand.

But I still can’t explain why it seems so simple and so reasonable and so Biblical that Jewish people, past, present, and future, and yes, Jewish people in Messiah, are obligated to observe the mitzvot, not as a condition of salvation, but because of the continual stream of ratified covenants God made with Israel and only Israel (name a covenant God made that wasn’t with Israel) and as a definition of the relationship Jewish people have with each other, with the Land of Israel, and with God.

The LORD appeared to Isaac just as He had appeared to Abraham. He told him, “I will establish the oath which I swore to your father Abraham” (Genesis 26:3). He restated the promise to multiply his descendants, to give them the land and to bless all nations through them “because Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws” (Genesis 26:5). Isaac was inheriting the Abrahamic blessing because Abraham had merited God’s favor.

How did Abraham keep God’s charge, commandments, statutes and laws? The commandments of God’s Torah—His divine law—had not been given yet. Did Abraham know all the laws of the Torah given through Moses at Mount Sinai? If not, how could he be said to have kept them?

Rashi claims that this means Abraham kept the entire Torah and the oral traditional law of Judaism. That seems like a stretch, but what does it really mean? What laws did Abraham keep?

-from “Abraham’s Torah”
Commentary on Torah Portion Toldot

The Torah and the Prophets never really talk about salvation the way the New Testament does, so it’s hard to make comparisons. People like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Joshua didn’t seem to worry or fret over their own salvation or the personal salvation of others. They worried about listening to God, and obeying God, and encouraging others to obey God, lest they become disobedient and as a consequence, die physically (their ultimate spiritual fate was never discussed).

So how can I compare the importance of obedience as we see in the case of Abraham above, when we have to deal with Paul?

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one.

Romans 3:21-30 (NASB)

practicing_faithFaith has to be the common currency for salvation, otherwise non-Jews could never be justified before God without converting to Judaism and observing the entire Torah. Faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness, and so it is with us, but then why does God commend Abraham, not for his faith, but for obeying God and keeping his “commandments, statutes, and laws?” (Genesis 26:5). In fact, in verse 3 of the same chapter, God says that it’s because of Abraham’s obedience that he re-established this promise with Isaac to multiply Abraham’s descendants, to give those descendants the Land of Israel, and “bless all nations through them.” It’s because of Abraham’s faith and obedience to God’s commandments, statues, and laws that we, the people of the nations, are blessed through Abraham’s seed, that is, Messiah.

I don’t want to quote from too much of Dr. Dauermann’s article, but commenting on the siege of Jerusalem by Babylon recorded in Jeremiah 35, he says:

What point is the Holy One Blessed be He making here? Just this: that the Jewish people have failed to show to Him the honor and respect due him. While the Rechabites show honor to their father Jonadab by obeying his rulings, the people of Israel dishonor God by not obeying his Torah.

And THAT is the reason we as a people, and as a movement, should be far more concerned with Torah living—because we honor God when we do so, and we dishonor him when we do not.

This very closely mirrors something the Master said to his disciples and his critics among the Jewish people:

Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:19 (NASB)

Jewish people, and especially Jewish teachers, who annul (fail to obey or disregard) the least of the commandments of God (Torah), will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven, the Messianic Age. But those who keep and teach the commandments, statutes, and laws of the Torah will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. A Jew annulling the Torah is dishonoring God and as a result, will be least, but a Jew who keeps the Law and teaches other Jews to do so, is honoring God and as a result, will be great.

If this makes so much sense to me, why can’t I communicate that convincingly to someone else? Really, I’m not making all this up, it’s in the Bible. If the primary matrix with which you interact with God is your intellect, and your primary tool for doing so is the Bible, shouldn’t you at least consider the possibility that this explanation has merit, even if it conflicts with your current tradition of Biblical interpretation?


smallI’m ranting. It’s been a frustrating week. I have to keep reminding myself that no matter what happens to me, if I get tossed out on my ear into the street tomorrow, it won’t affect God or His promises to Jewish Israel in the slightest. The fate of the world doesn’t rest on my shoulders.

So why am I here? Why do I matter? Do I matter?

In principle, the Bible seems to say so, but in the face of an infinite God, I always feel so terribly small and insignificant.

After reading some commentaries written by Christian blogger Tim Challies about MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference, I posted this on Facebook and Google+:

I was just thinking of MacArthur and his “Strange Fire” conference again (reading a Fundamentalist blogger my Pastor recommended). It occurred to me that MacArthur would no doubt view the Messianic movement as “strange fire” as well. I got to thinking that if MacArthur were aware of my existence, he might “come after” me, too. Then I realized I’m just small potatoes and I would be totally beneath his notice. I also realized in the same moment that I am never beneath God’s notice. What an odd situation. I can be too small to be noticed by a big-time famous Christian Pastor but I’m never too small to escape the notice of God.

In the 1994 film True Lies, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis, the character Simon, played by Bill Paxton, delivers this line when he erroneously thinks he’s going to be killed by Schwarzenegger’s character:

Oh God, no, please don’t kill me. I’m not a spy. I’m nothing. I’m navel lint!

Compared to all the Christian Pastors, and Christian bloggers, and Christian theological instructors, a guy like me “on the ground,” just praying, and studying, and worshiping day by day is pretty much “navel lint.” Compared to an infinite and cosmic God, I absolutely am “navel lint,” and actually, far, far less.

So why am I here? Why do I matter? Do I matter?

Why do I feel like God expects something out of me and that I have some sort of job to do…and if I fail, it won’t be a good thing…it will matter if I fail?

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.

-Edith Wharton, American writer

I don’t know what’s going to happen. I know that Israel was called to be a light to the nations by God (Israel 42:6). I know that Jesus, as Messiah, the firstborn son of Israel said he was the light of the world (nations) (John 8:12), and he said that his disciples (presumably including all future disciples such as me) are the light of the world (nations) (Matthew 5:14). If all that is true and it filters down to the level of the individual, that is to say, me, then I’m supposed to be a light to the world around me.

As Edith Wharton rather aptly states, I can be a candle or a mirror. I guess either will do. The worst thing that can happen is that I can go dark, either because I’ve been blown out or I’ve been shattered into tiny pieces.

walking-into-churchFortunately, Messiah’s light can never go out, and his light isn’t dependent on me. In the parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-12), five let their lamps go out, so I guess it’s not impossible for my light to fail as well, at least while it’s in my charge.

But if I have failed, then what use am I? Of the billions of “second chances” God has already given me, does He have one more, or is it all over?

I don’t know. I guess all I can do is keep showing up until I find out one way or another.

Why I Can Eat a Cheeseburger and Not Feel Guilty

A friend of mine mentioned to me via Facebook, that the so-called Dr. Laura letter is making the rounds on the Internet by way of email again. For those of you lucky enough to have escaped this collection of errors up until now, this letter was supposedly sent to Dr. Laura Schlessinger, probably sometimes around the year 2000, in response to “anti-gay” comments she made on her radio show. According to snopes.com, which uses their report on the letter to take various shots ar “Dr. Laura” but not to correct the letter’s obvious fallacies, the letter refuted the general argument of “homosexuality is wrong because the Bible says so” by illustrating how “ridiculous” other so-called “eternal truths” of the Bible cannot possibly apply in this day and age. The idea here is that, if many of the commandments given to the Israelites at Sinai are unobservable today, why shouldn’t that include any prohibitions regarding homosexual behavior?

Since Snopes created their web page in such a way to not allow copy and paste, I’m taking the letter from another source:

Dear Dr. Laura:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate.

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God’s Law and how to follow them.

1. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness – Lev.15: 19-24. The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

4. Lev.25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?

5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2. The passage clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination – Lev.11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there ‘degrees’ of abomination?

7. Lev.21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev.19:27. How should they die?

9. I know from Lev.11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? – Lev.24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev.20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.

How do I know that the writer of this letter believes they are more clever than they actually are? First some general info.

And God spoke all these words:

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. –Exodus 20:1-2 (NIV)

Who is God talking to? Moses? No, He’s talking to the Children of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who were enslaved in the land of Egypt for centuries and who Moses, at the direction of God, freed from servitude with the intent on fulfilling God’s promises to the Israelites.

He also said to him, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.” –Genesis 15:7

That’s the core scripture but for the full context, including that it is all of Abraham’s descendants through Isaac and Jacob who will inherit, you probably want to read all of chapter 15. You’ll also want to see Genesis 26:1-6 for God’s confirmation that Isaac’s descendants will inherit the Land, and Genesis 35:11-13 for God’s confirmation that it is Jacob’s descendants who will inherit Israel. This leaves out inheritance by Ishmael’s descendants (Isaac’s brother) and Esau’s descendants (Jacob’s brother).

Now you might be asking “what land” did God promise Abraham and his descendants?

Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the LORD showed him the whole land—from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea, the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. Then the LORD said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.” –Deuteronomy 34:1-4

This is only one of the places in Torah where the borders of ancient Israel are defined (they aren’t always defined in exactly the same way, however).

So we’ve established that God promised Israel specifically to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and that at Mount Sinai, God, through Moses the Prophet, gave the specifications of the Torah to those very descendants, the Children of Israel. But what does all this have to do with the Dr. Laura letter? Plenty. I have to “set the stage” so to speak, in order to explain why the points brought up in this letter are utter foolishness, written by someone who has absolutely no idea about how to study the Bible (actually, the letter writer may be deceptively clever, but I’ll get to that).

All of the points in the Bible are specifically drawn from the Torah which in this case means, the Pentateuch or the first five books of the Bible. They’re also called the Books of Moses because supposedly God “dictated” their contents to Moses for him to record in a series of scrolls. The validity of this being literally true is hotly contested in religious and scholarly circles, but regardless of how you weigh in on this issue, the Torah is considered the foundation for Jewish (and arguably Christian) religion and theology.

I want to say at this point, that no modern religious Jew would rely on just the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings (otherwise known in Judaism as the “Tanakh”, which Christians call “the Old Testament”) as the sole arbiter of their religion. For an observant Jew, it would be impossible to understand what the Bible is saying without close and careful study of the Mishnah, Gemara, and the Talmud. These learned rulings and opinions are the interpreters of the meaning of the various portions of Torah and define how a religious Jew is to respond to its commandments in what has become known as the 613 mitzvot. I’m not scholar enough to present my counter argument from this perspective, but I can tell you that in Judaism, the full response to the fallacy of the Dr. Laura letter could not be given apart from a Talmudic understanding. That said, I believe I can effectively refute the points of the letter without resorting to Talmud.

(For those of you who are clueless about the Talmud but want to understand a little more about it, an excellent and easily read beginner’s guide is The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Talmud by Rabbi Aaron Parry.)

To cut to the chase, so to speak, I propose that the reason the Dr. Laura letter is a waste of everyone’s time as far as a serious criticism against God’s commands in the Torah is that the writer of the letter completely failed to take it in its context (I realize that the writer’s main purpose was not to defame the Bible in general, but that’s the letter’s secondary effect). The vast majority of Torah commandments are meant to only be enacted in the ancient Nation of Israel! Is that enough emphasis for you? In other words, the Torah comprised the full body of civil and criminal laws as well as ethical and moral guides for all of the Israelite citizens in the Land. It’s like the U.S. Constitution, except that covers not only the legal basis of national sovereignty, rights, and freedoms, but all aspects of religious and social living. For Israel, there was no “separation of church and state” and originally, until Saul was anointed as King by the Prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 10), God was King of Israel in the world’s first and only functioning Theocracy.

Where do we find this? I don’t want this blog to be a thousand pages long. Here are a few examples:

“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you. –Exodus 20:12

Worship the LORD your God, and his blessing will be on your food and water. I will take away sickness from among you, and none will miscarry or be barren in your land. I will give you a full life span. –Exodus 23:25-26

I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way. But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land. –Exodus 23:28-30

“I will establish your borders from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the desert to the Euphrates River. I will give into your hands the people who live in the land, and you will drive them out before you. Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods. Do not let them live in your land or they will cause you to sin against me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you.” Exodus 23:31-33

In these few examples, we see obedience to God’s Torah being applied to the Children of Israel taking possession of and living in the area then known as Canaan and subsequently as Israel and Judea centuries hence. A full inventory of each of the connections between Torah obedience and the context of Israel are beyond the scope of his blog post, but I think you get the idea. The Torah commandments, including those referenced in the Dr. Laura letter, were only meant to be enacted within the national borders of ancient Israel and not outside of those borders nor even in the modern age (HINT: This is the letter writer’s real point).

Now let’s take each point one at a time.

1. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

The Stone Edition Chumash commentary for Leviticus 1 outlines the specific conditions for the various offerings that were first enacted in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the desert, and later in both Solomon’s Temple and Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem. In general, these offerings could only be made where “God had placed His Name”.

You must not worship the LORD your God in their way. But you are to seek the place the LORD your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go; there bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, what you have vowed to give and your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks. There, in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your families shall eat and shall rejoice in everything you have put your hand to, because the LORD your God has blessed you. –Deuteronomy 12:4-7

Here we see that burnt offerings, and any of the other offerings, could not be sacrificed just any old place, not even within the borders of Israel. They had to be offered in either the Tabernacle (prior to the Israelites taking the Land) or in the Temple in Jerusalem. The fellow who wants to have a barbecue in his backyard might cook up a mean steak, but it has no relationship to Leviticus 1:9. Dr. Laura letter fail. Next.

2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

According to the Chumash commentary for Exodus 21, this set of laws deals primarily with civil and tort law within the nation of Israel. Right here, we see that our fellow in point 2 who wants to sell his daughter is out-of-bounds, because he doesn’t live 3500 years ago in ancient Israel. Also, slavery in ancient Israel is not the entity we understand it to be in a larger context. Israel had no welfare system or other means to take care of the poor, so people could sell themselves into indentured servitude as a means of satisfying their debts or to avoid starvation. The Chumash specifically states regarding Exodus 21:7-11:

Until a girl reaches puberty, the Torah gives her father the right to “sell” her as a bondswoman, but, as the passage itself and the teachings of the Sages makes clear, this right is given him for her benefit. He is permitted to “sell” her because the sale is expected to result in her marriage to either her master or his son. In fact, if neither of the two marries her, the Torah regards it as a betrayal of the girl.

If the marriage contract is not fulfilled, then the girl goes free upon reaching puberty, at the end of six years, or upon the advent of the Jubilee year. This is a commandment that cannot be understood by the plain text alone and that must be interpreted through additional sources (in this case, the relevant sections of Talmud are Kiddushin 18b and Kiddushin 41a). When the writer of the Dr. Laura letter asks, in “this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?” he immediately disqualifies himself from being able to sell his daughter, for such a thing isn’t possible in this day and age outside the confines of ancient Israel and without a proper court system established by God (Numbers 11:16-30).

It should be noted that the Chumash commentary says a father should not enact this particular right but sometimes may to ensure a proper “match” for his daughter. This form of “slavery” amounts to an arranged marriage, and such arrangements are known across history and in many cultures up until modern times (hasn’t anyone ever seen Fiddler on the Roof?). They may not be politically correct in our day and age, but they’re not effectively slavery and in any event, this particular form of slavery cannot be enacted and enforced in even modern Israel, let alone anywhere else in the world.

Sorry. Dr Laura Letter fail #2.

3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness – Lev.15: 19-24. The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

Oh brother. This one seems amazingly ridiculous to me, but let’s have a look at the source text. In fact, let’s see what happened when a man in ancient Israel did come in contact with a woman’s “impurity”.

“‘When she is cleansed from her discharge, she must count off seven days, and after that she will be ceremonially clean. On the eighth day she must take two doves or two young pigeons and bring them to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting. The priest is to sacrifice one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. In this way he will make atonement for her before the LORD for the uncleanness of her discharge. –Leviticus 15:28-30

This sort of contact was only a problem if the man intended to offer a sacrifice or otherwise enter into the Temple. He was considered ritualistically unclean and unable to perform various religious rites. As far as his day-to-day life, it had no impact. Obviously, if the writer of the Dr. Laura letter is living in modern times and thus (even if he’s a Jew, and if he is, he should know better than to engage in such a foolish letter) sitting on the same sofa where a menstruant woman recently sat has absolutely no effect on his life. In modern times, the only issue a Jewish man would have with a menstruating woman would have to do with the niddah or law of separation. This forbids a husband from having sexual relations with his wife during her period. This is observed primarily within the Orthodox Jewish community and may not even be observed by Reform or non-religious Jews. This restriction is not binding on Christians or anyone else in any way, so Dr. Laura letter fail for point #3.

4. Lev.25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?

The Chumash commentary for Leviticus 25:44-46 states:

Having said that an owner’s rights over his Jewish slaves are severely limited, the Torah states that one may purchase slaves from among the surrounding nations. Such slaves become the property of their owners.

Again, context, context, context. We are talking about ancient Israel and the surrounding nations. In the ancient near-east, slavery was common and legal. We’ve already seen an example of how “slavery” was more a matter of indentured servitude when one Jew owned another, but when an Israelite bought a slave from a neighboring country, they indeed were a slave. They had certain rights, but not nearly the rights of a born Jew. Having said all that, nothing in the context of this passage gives our (supposedly American) writer the legal leverage to buy a Canadian. In this case, the various laws of the U.S. and Canada apply and if said-writer ever seeks to buy another human being, he’ll end up doing a long stretch in prison. Letter fail for point #4.

5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2. The passage clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

According to the Chumash commentary for this verse, violation of the Shabbat was the equivalent of idol worship, which also carried the death sentence. However, it’s not a matter of a mob grabbing the offender and doing away with him as many people seem to imagine. The offender had to be observed violating the Shabbat by at least two reliable witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15). The case was adjudicated in front of a court system and once the witnesses testified, the court considered the matter and issued a verdict. If the verdict was guilty, then the primary witnesses were obligated to “cast the first stones” (Deuteronomy 17:7).

Barbaric? Sure sounds that way. Stoning was a horrible way to die. Notice though that (again) this particular law only applied to Jews (non-Jews were and are not obligated to observe the Shabbat) in ancient Israel. Even modern Israel as a nation, does not have a unified law obligating all of its citizens to observe the Shabbat, though some sects within religious Judaism are lobbying for this. Our supposedly American letter writer has no legal right to enforce an ancient penalty out of its context, even if his “Shabbat breaking neighbor” happens to be Jewish. Dr. Laura letter Fail #5.

6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination – Lev.11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there ‘degrees’ of abomination?

This is the real reason the Dr. Laura letter writer submitted his wee missive; to illustrate that homosexuality cannot be considered an “abomination” by God according to the Bible unless all of the other Torah commandments remained equally valid. So who shouldn’t eat shellfish? The Leviticus 11 kosher laws are specific to the Children of Israel. This set of laws is a tad different, because it applies to Jews regardless of where they live and regardless of when in history they live. Modern observant Jews keep kosher within both the confines of Leviticus 11 and the specific rulings of the Talmudic sages. This additionally specifies how meat animals are to be slaughtered in a kosher manner. Observant Jews can’t just buy a pound of ground round from Albertsons to satisfy their dietary requirements. There are also rulings that require that the kitchen used to prepare food must be kosher (kashering a kitchen is a rather involved process), and meat and dairy products cannot be served and eaten together.

These restrictions are observed mainly in the Orthodox Jewish community and varying degrees of kosher are kept by Conservative and Reform Jews. Most secular Jews do not keep any form of kosher, just as Christians do not and certainly no other people group (actually, Muslims have their own kosher laws which closely mirror the Jewish dietary restrictions). For the rest of us, it’s OK to eat a cheeseburger and not feel guilty. Bon appetit.

I don’t know how to compare the “degree of abomination” of eating a pork chop to performing a homosexual act relative to the Torah, so I have no response for this. Orthodox Jews still declare homosexual acts as immoral but Reform Jews are fully accepting of gays including the ordination of gay Rabbis and having gay members of the synagogue board and their various committees.

Greenberg_steve_rabbiThe attitude of Orthodox Judaism toward homosexuality may be changing, although rather slowly. About six weeks ago, I wrote a blog post called At the Intersection of Intolerance and humanity in response to what I understand is the first ever wedding of two gay Orthodox Jewish men by a gay Orthodox Rabbi. The story and the blog comments in response are very illuminating and I encourage you to have a look. As far as the letter writer’s query, it isn’t stated in such a way that a response is possible. I’m sure a Talmud scholar could render an answer as a matter of degree of offense, since both the kosher laws and restrictions against homosexual behavior remain observed in Orthodox Judaism, but I lack the qualifications to render an opinion. As far as my analysis is concerned, we’ll call it a draw on point #6.

7. Lev.21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

The Chumash commentary for this section of Torah states in part, “This verse forbids the blemished Kohen to perform the service…”. OK, the blemished Kohen. Kohenim (plural for Kohen) are a subset of the tribe of Levi and direct descendants of Aaron (the brother of Moses). By definition, they’re Jewish, so unless our letter writer is Jewish, a Levite, and a Kohen, he doesn’t have anything to worry about. Also, no Temple exists, thus no altar exists. This question is a red herring (they all are). No sale. Dr Laura letter fail on point #7.

8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev.19:27. How should they die?

I’m getting a little tired of writing long responses to silly questions. Remember the part in my response to #5 about the death sentence, court, judges, Israel, context, context, context? Apply that. Only the ultra-Orthodox and Chabad communities observe these restrictions in the modern age. If they violate them and try to remain within their communities, it’s up to the local Beit Din or rabbinic court to adjudicate the matter and their authority is only over their communities. The rest of us are free to have whatever haircut we choose. Dr. Laura letter fail on point #8.

9. I know from Lev.11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

“You shall not touch their carcass.” Here’s the Chumash commentary on this verse.

This prohibition applies only during the festival visits to the Temple, when everyone must be pure. At such times, no one may touch a contaminated carcass, because everyone is commanded to remain uncontaminated during the festival visits to the Temple.

While Jews around the world continue to celebrate festivals such as Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, because there is no Temple or priesthood, it’s impossible to celebrate in accordance to the descriptions we find in the Torah. Even if our letter writing friend were Jewish, unless he was planning on using his time machine to celebrate Sukkot in the days of Herod, he has no problem. Certainly as an American non-Jew, he can play football anytime he wants. Dr. Laura letter fail on point #9.

10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? – Lev.24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev.20:14)

Is his uncle Jewish? If so, does his uncle live in the land of Israel around 1000 B.C. or so? No? Then this, like the other points in this letter, is a “non-event”. Fail #10.

That’s 9 for 10 fails with a draw for point #6 and that’s only because of the way the question is worded and the failure of a consensus in even the Orthodox community.

Now here’s the real point. I realize that the letter writer is not really being so foolish as to think you can take bits and pieces of the Bible out of context and try to apply them to a modern, non-Jewish world. His (or her) real point was to attempt to illustrate that the Bible cannot be viewed as an absolute and timeless source of truth, since some any of its conditions have indeed changed across time, if for no other reason than the Temple in Jerusalem no longer exists (but reading the book of Ezekiel, we can expect a third Temple to be built at some future time). Thus the Torah prohibitions against homosexual behavior should not apply outside of the Torah context as well. I get that. Of course, since particularly Orthodox Jews do keep the kosher laws (and most religious Jews of the different sects do so to varying degrees), it’s up to each Jewish community to determine their tolerance level for homosexuals in their midst. I also realize that the letter (supposedly) was aimed at Dr. Laura in response to her comments against gays based on the Bible. If we keep the letter in that context, then the ten points I’ve just belabored have nothing to do with the rest of us.

However, if we were to believe that the letter writer were also attempting to discredit the Bible (and the Christians and Jews who consider it holy) because it commands behaviors that don’t apply in the modern world, then he (or she) has failed miserably. As I previously said, I can’t say the letter is a 100% failure only because of the ambiguity of how point #6 is worded, though there is probably an answer out there somewhere. Still, the letter is a 90% failure and even if I give it 10% credit for point #6, that’s still an “F” in any teacher’s gradebook.

I know this is a very long write-up and it could have been much, much longer if I had gone into exquisite detail, but frankly, I think I’ve proved my point. All that stuff in the Bible doesn’t apply to you if you don’t want it to apply to you. Any part of the New Testament only starts applying once you decide you want to be a Christian (God will sort it all out at the final judgment, so if you’re not worried, neither is God). If you’re not Jewish and don’t live in ancient Israel, you don’t have to give the Dr. Laura letter a second thought. If you’re Jewish and religious, any questions you may have about the proper level of your observance need to be directed to your Rabbi.

As a parting note, I apologize for all of the typos you’ve found in my rather long “meditation”. I haven’t had the time to properly edit it but will do so in the hours and days ahead (so if the wording changes here and there, no worries). If you have a comment or rebuttal (please be nice), feel free to chime in. To my friend Leo, I hope this fits the bill.