Tag Archives: evolution

Consider the Days of Old

New WorldOn the verse, “Consider the days of old, the years of the many generations (Deut. 32:7),” the 13th century scholar Nachmanides explains that “Consider the days of old” refers to the Six Days of Creation and “The years of the many generations” refers to the time from Adam forward.” Many leading rabbis who lived centuries before Darwin understood that when Adam appeared on the scene, the universe might have already been much older. Most notably, this is the opinion attributed to Rabbi Nechunia Ben Hakana who lived some 2,000 years ago, which is quoted by many mainstream, medieval commentators such as Rabbenu Bechaya, the Recanti, Tzioni, and the Sefer HaChinuch. Rabbi Yitzhak M’Acco, a student of Nachmanides, suggested based on kabbalistic calculations that the universe is thousands of millions of years old.

With regard to humans arriving on the scene, the Talmud (Chagiga 13b) states clearly that there were 974 generations prior to Adam. The famous Tifferes Yisrael commentary to the Mishnah wrote in 1842 (prior to publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species): “In my opinion, the prehistoric men whose remains have been discovered in our time and who lived long before Adam are identical with the 974 pre-Adamite generations referred to in the Talmud, and lived in the epoch immediately before our own.”

Of course, the key point where Torah and evolutionists diverge is on the question of “accident versus design.” Evolutionists say that life happened by accident; Judaism says that God made it happen.

from the “Ask the Rabbi” column
“Evolution and the Bible”

I know I’m going to get “heck” for this, at least from conservative Christians and Orthodox Jews. Evolution and Creation are supposed to be incompatible in both religion and science, but the Aish Rabbi crafts a response to the question of Evolution that allows for both.

Up to a point.

I just finished re-reading Gerald L. Schroeder’s book Genesis and the Big Bang (and just started reading his more recent book The Hidden Face of God ) and Schroeder seems to believe something similar (also, see my previous blog post For God Rolled the Dice and the Universe Came to Be for more).

One of the problems comes along with trying to reconcile the six days of Creation in the Bible with the 13.7 or so billion years science says the universe has been around. According to present scientific theory, the Earth has been in existence for about 4.5 billion years.

How do six days fit into billions of years and vice versa?

Schroeder suggests a rather complicated interplay involving time dilation and relativity to explain that, from the Earth’s point of view, billions of years passed, but from God’s perspective, it was only six days. Schroeder spent an entire chapter laying the foundation for his belief and I can’t find any way to compress it into a paragraph or two in this blog post and still have it make sense. Suffice it to say that both science and the Bible are right as Schroeder sees it.

But what about life and evolution? According to the Bible, God created all living things as they are known today, including human beings, in just a few days. There were no previous and less developed forms of life, that became more complicated over time as they adapted to environmental changes, resulting in the creatures we have on our planet right now.

The Aish Rabbi refers to the Talmud which states that “there were 974 generations prior to Adam” and that those generations describe the lives of those beings we refer to as “prehistoric man.” Presumably, during that time, other creatures were also created, existed, and faced extinction.

It all makes a sort of sense, but I’m still struggling with seeing Genesis as being able to wholly map to the observations and interpretations we have about our universe based on astronomy, geology, and paleontology.

ancient_skyI admit, that whether you believe the Earth is ten thousand years old or 4.5 billion years old, devotion to God and love and charity to human beings shouldn’t be impacted to any degree in the life of a Christian or observant Jew. Still, it’s a compelling issue because the extreme literal stance on Creation taken by conservative Christians is one of the barriers to evangelizing more educated secular atheists. Educated unbelievers can’t be past the “Christians are ignorant buffoons” factor and I myself feel embarrassed when I hear a Christian trying to convince someone that Earth is a mere ten thousand years of age.

Christians aren’t likely to take the Talmud as an authority but it’s telling that “the famous Tifferes Yisrael commentary to the Mishnah” was written in 1842, prior to the publication of Darwin’s famous “Origin of Species.” Darwin, like the stream of Judaism the Aish Rabbi represents, believes in some sort of evolutionary process but that it was not random. God was always the causal agent, the Master Designer.

According to Dr. I. Prigogine, recipient of two Nobel prizes in chemistry: “The statistical probability that organic structures and the most precisely harmonized reactions that typify living organisms would be generated by accident is zero.”

Darwin himself wrote in Origin of Species: “…If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications — my theory would absolutely break down…”

The jury is still out regarding the sequencing of how life developed, over what time period, and the mechanics God employed. I believe God made human beings independently and as we are now without prior evolutionary forms, but what about animal life, which was never intended to have the unique position of man?

The Bible is well aware of evolution, although it is not very interested in the details of the process. All of animal evolution gets a mere seven sentences (Genesis 1:20-26). Genesis tells us that simple aquatic animals were followed by land animals, mammals, and finally humans.

That is also what the fossil record tells us, albeit with much more detail than these few biblical verses provide. The Bible makes no claims as to what drove the development of life, and science has yet to provide the answer.

In paleontology’s record of evolution, first came the discovery that life appeared on Earth almost 4 billion years ago, immediately after the molten globe had cooled sufficiently for liquid water to form. This contradicted totally the theory of gradual evolution over billions of years in some nutrient-rich pool. The rapid origin of life remains a mystery.

Then we learned that some 550 million years ago, in what is known as the Cambrian explosion, animals with optically perfect eyes, gills, limbs with joints, mouths and intestines burst upon the fossil scene – with nary a clue in older fossils as to how they evolved. It is no wonder that Darwin, in his “Origin of the Species,” repeatedly implored his readers (seven times by my count) to ignore the fossil record if they were to understand his theory.

The overwhelming weight of evidence tells us that something exotic certainly happened to produce life as we know it. Historically one of the most compelling arguments regarding the existence of God comes from the precision design found in nature. Design implies a designer, and Darwin’s proposal that evolution could have occurred without a Designer (by means of natural selection through random mutations) changed things.

The Aish Rabbi’s opinion is certainly controversial when considered from a fundamentalist Christian position and likely when seen from an Orthodox Jewish viewpoint (my wife says the local Chabad Rabbi believes the Earth is roughly 12,000 years old).


I’m writing all this, not to yank anyone’s chain (though I’m sure it will) but to explore my own thought processes on this matter. I didn’t become a believer until I was past forty years old, so all of my educational foundation is based on Earth being very old and that the basic process of scientific examination of our environment is sound and designed to produce more or less reasonable results (although history has shown that those results aren’t always correct upon subsequent examination).

Religion, for its part, has had to make up some rather fanciful stories to explain the fossil record, to explain our understanding of the size and therefore the age of the universe, to explain our understanding of the age of various geological formations on our own planet, and to explain a myriad of other findings from the world of science that seems to radically contradict an absolute literal reading of the Bible’s Genesis account.

I really enjoy reading about the sciences, though I’m quite the amateur. I enjoy astronomy. I like hearing about the latest “adventures” of the various robotic probes on the surface of Mars. I have an interest in reading about the journey of Voyager 1 at the edge of interstellar space. I think God created us with an insatiable curiosity about the universe around us and a drive to explore it with the intelligence he created in us.

Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”

Genesis 2:15-17 (NASB)

It is said that there was no death before the Fall (which happens in Genesis 3) so how could there have been life on a long-term scale before Adam and Eve? How could life in some form or another have existed for hundreds of millions of years before Adam and there not be death?

When God describes the consequences of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, how did Adam know what “die” meant? How could the serpent convince Eve she wouldn’t die (Genesis 3:1-5) from eating the fruit if dying was unknown to her? Why would she fear death and why would she have to overcome that fear in order to eat?

Reading the various consequences God visited upon Adam, Eve, and the rest of Creation as listed in Genesis 3, none of them say that all life was immortal before the Fall and suddenly became mortal afterward.

Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”

Genesis 3:22 (NASB)

Gateway to EdenIt seems as if the two humans in the Garden were mortal (along with all other forms of life) and only by taking and eating from the tree of life would they become immortal! The presence of death wasn’t dependent upon the Fall. All life in the Garden was mortal.

Why couldn’t any life that may have existed as created within the span (as the Aish Rabbi suggests) described in Genesis 1:20-26 (the millions and millions of years prior to the creation of modern human beings) have been born, lived, and died, and born, lived, and died, and born, lived, and died?

Yeah, I expect to get some static over this blog post, but I’m writing it to explore my own thinking process in this area and also to (hopefully) inspire others to think as well. We need to take a look at the evidence presented by our environment, take a look at the Bible, take a look at our dogma, and struggle with what all that is supposed to mean.

I believe God created us to think, to explore, and to struggle with the meaning of everything we see. I think He wanted us to wonder and to experience wonder. I don’t think He wanted the Bible to be some sort of cosmic solution machine spitting out all the answers to all the questions in bite-sized chunks, like eating from a bowl of Christian-Jewish fortune cookies.

We don’t have to get all the answers from the Bible. God gave us other tools to use as well. Telescopes, microscopes, and the Large Hadron Collider aren’t the enemies of the Bible. They complement it. They are the lens through which we examine the world which reveals God, just as the Bible is the story of the relationship between God and human beings.

The Evolution of Judaism, Part 6: Evolutions

ancient_jerusalemThe best evidence that the temple was the locus of prayer during the First and Second Temple periods is the book of Psalms. Virtually all the biblical psalms, even those that lament personal or national catastrophes or that hail a king at this coronation, are hymns of praise to God. They range in date from the period of the monarchy, if not earlier (some of them are Israelite versions of Canaanite or Egyptian hymns), to that of the Maccabees.

All these texts imply that the recitation of prayers was a prominent feature of Jewish piety, not just for sectarians like the Jews of Qumran but also for plain folk. Jews who lived in or near Jerusalem prayed regularly at the temple. This is the plausible claim of Luke 1:10, “Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside [the temple],” and Acts 3:1, “One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon.”

By the third century BCE, diaspora Jews began to build special proseuchai, which literally means “prayers” but probably should be translated “prayer-houses.” Instead of “prayer-houses,” the Jews of the land of Israel had synagogai, which literally means “gatherings” but probably should be translated “meeting-houses.” Whether they prayed regularly in their “meeting-houses,” which are not attested before the first century CE, is not entirely clear.

The history of this (Amidah or Eighteen Benedictions) prayer is immensely complicated, but its basic contours were established no later than the second century CE, and its nucleus certainly derives from the latter part of the Second Temple times. It bears obvious similarities to the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4).

…by the end of the Second Temple period, sections of the Torah were read publicly in synagogues every week.

The purpose of all these rituals was, as the Torah repeatedly says, to make Israel a “holy” people (Exod. 19:6; Lev. 19:2; Deut. 7:6). To better achieve this objective, the Jews of the Second Temple period developed new rituals, broadened the application of many of the laws of the Torah, and in general intensified the life of service to God.

After the destruction of the temple, the petition was changed from a prayer for acceptability of the sacrifices to a prayer for their restoration, and the petition entered the Eighteen Benedictions. In rabbinic times, the prayer was still in flux.

This practice is based on the idea that God can be worshiped through the study of his revealed word.

-Shaye J.D. Cohen
Chapter 3: The Jewish “Religion:” Practices and Beliefs
From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, 2nd Ed.

Forgive the rather lengthy history lesson from different portions of this chapter in Cohen’s landmark book, but as I’ve continued to read from his work, I’ve been struck by how Judaism developed significantly in practice and in its comprehension of a life of devotion to God from the days of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the desert to the post-Second Temple era. Some time ago, I began a series of blog posts intended to outline the evolution of Judaism as it applies to Yeshua (Jesus), halakhah, and the “acceptability” of the various Judaisms in any given age and across time to the God who established Israel as a nation. You can follow the link at the end of Part 1 of the series to review all of my comments to date, which ends at Part 5. I had intended for Messiah in the Jewish Writings, Part 1 to be the “sixth” part of the series, but it was pointed out to me that certain “weaknesses” in the scholarship of the material from which I was quoting made it unsuitable for that purpose.

Before proceeding, you should probably review Noel S. Rabbinowitz’s paper “Matthew 23:2-4: Does Jesus Recognize the Authority of the Pharisees and Does He Endorse their Halakhah?” which can be found as a PDF as published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 46:3 (September 2003): 423-47. That, along with reading the other “Evolution” blog posts in this series, should provide the foundation for continuing (and ultimately concluding) the discussion here.

In providing the series of quotes from Cohen’s book, I intended to illustrate how what was acceptable Jewish practice in worship, Temple sacrifice, and prayer developed over time and was never a single, static set of religious rules and procedures that perfectly reflected the intent of the Torah and God in the life of Israel. Sometimes in certain corners of Christianity and its variants, we find people who sincerely are seeking a more authentic method of practicing their faith, based on some sort of idealized and perfect template or model that was established, either by Moses or Jesus. Somehow that particular set of behaviors is believed to be what God wants us to do and is the only valid model by which we should construct our faith practices in the present age.

But as the title of this series implies, perhaps the human practice of worshiping God can never be static nor was it ever intended to be a single set of rigid rules and concrete regulations that never modified in the slightest across the long centuries between Sinai and the present.

I don’t mean that right and wrong don’t have timeless value and that God changes His requirements for humanity at a whim, but humanity changes, circumstances change, and what seems right to do at one point in human history seems very much different at another point on the timeline of existence. Surely how Solomon viewed what was proper worship differed greatly from what the Rambam might have considered right Jewish practice, and yet can we say that either one of them (or both) was wrong? They were both certainly convinced that they were doing what God required, but who they were, where they lived, and the demands of history upon both of these men (and the untold scores that lived before and since) were radically dissimilar.

But while you may understand this relative to the history of the Jewish people, what at all does this have to do with believers in Jesus and who we are in Christ?

Agrippa’s first full year as king over Judea (41/42 CE) was a Sabbatical year. Drought had already begun to hamper the land. The people were gathered for Sukkot to pray for rain and to hear the new king read from the Torah (see Deut. 31:10-11). The apostles and the disciples of Yeshua were present along with the rest of the pious of Israel to witness the historic event. Their hearts burned within them, jealous for the Master. They longed for the day when King Messiah will stand in the Temple and read the Torah aloud to the assembly of Israel.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Torah Portion Shemot (“Names”) (pg 329)
Commentary on Acts 12:1-24

Yom Kippur prayersLancaster is no doubt taking a bit of poetic license in describing whether or not the hearts of the apostles were “burning” on this occasion, but it does cast the early Jewish disciples of “the Way” in a light that integrates them with overall Jewish religious and social participation. In the church, we tend to think of the “early Christians” as a body wholly apart from the various Judaisms that surrounded them, but as I’ve mentioned before, the Jews who were devoted to the Messiah as part of “the Way,” were just as much a valid sect of Judaism as any of the other Judaisms (Pharisees, Essenes, and so on) with which they co-existed.

In fact, the Jewish disciples of the Master in the days recorded by Luke in the book of Acts can only be separated from overall, normative Judaism anachronistically.

The King James Version of Acts 12:4 translates the Greek “pascha” as “Easter.”

The Greek word “pascha” (which transliterates the Hebrew “pesach”) occurs 27 times in the New Testament. In every instance except Acts 12:4, the King James translators rendered it as “Passover.” In Acts 12:4, they retained William Tynsdale’s anachronistic, Christian rendering and translated it as “Easter.”

The translation betrays a theological bias. It assumes Christianity replaced Judaism. Christ cancelled the Torah, and the Christian Jews would not have been keeping Passover any longer. In reality, the apostles had never heard of a festival called Easter. They had no special Christian festivals. They kept the Passover along with all Israel in remembrance of the Master, just as He had instructed them… (Luke 22:19)

-Lancaster, pg 338

Lancaster continues in his commentary, explaining that the separate Christian observance of Easter wouldn’t be established until the Second Century CE as the Gentile believers in Rome began to neglect observing Passover, but began to revere the Sunday that fell during the week of Unleavened bread as the day of Christ’s resurrection. As you can see, the passage of time and the demands of history have resulted in both Judaism and Christianity evolving and changing how they practice their divergent methods of worshiping God. In fact, the divergence of “the Way” from the rest of the Judaisms post-Second Temple is likely part of those historical requirements.

Is all this desirable? Probably not. That is, it would be great to have a Christianity that actually remained a normative part of Judaism and was able to include Gentile practitioners who came to faith in the Messiah, but such was not to be.

Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.

Romans 11:25 (ESV)

Paul seems to be telling us that the schism between the Gentile and Jewish believers was inevitable for the sake of the Gentiles and that, referencing Isaiah 59 and Jeremiah 31, by doing so, all Israel will be saved. (see Romans 11:26-27)

If Judaism was practiced differently and in fact, in radically different ways between the ancient times of Moses, David, and Solomon, the time of the Babylonian exile, the time of Herod, the Second Temple, and the rise of “the Way,” and in the post-Second Temple rabbinic period, can we say that all of these Judaisms are “valid?” I don’t think we have much of a choice but to say that they are. If you disagree, then you have to point to some place in history and say “here’s where the Jews made their big mistake.” I know that many Christians will point to Jesus and say that the Jewish rejection of their own Messiah caused them to become lost and gave rise to the “age of the Gentiles,” but be careful. For the first fifteen years post-ascension, only Jews were disciples of Jesus Christ. Even after Peter’s fateful meeting with Cornelius and the subsequent mission of Paul to the Gentiles of the diaspora, Jews remained in total control of the “Jesus movement” within Judaism until the fall of Jerusalem and the scattering of the vast majority of the Jewish population among the nations (there has always been a remnant of Jews living in the Land). It is rumored that there were Jews in synagogues acknowledging Yeshua as Messiah into the second, third, and possibly even up to the fifth century CE or later.

Rabbi Joshua Brumbach wrote a blog post called Rabbis Who Thought for Themselves which records the lives of a number of prominent 19th century Rabbis who all came to the knowledge and faith of the Messiah in the person of Yeshua (Jesus), and we know of a remnant of Jews in the 21st century who also have come to faith and yet have lives that are completely consistent with modern Jewish halakhah.

At no one point in history will you find the quintessential moment where you can say “that is the true Judaism” or for that matter, “that is the true Christianity.” Humanity in all our forms has been struggling with our relationship with God, what it means, and how to live it out since the days when God walked with Adam in the Garden. We never get it quite right because we live in a broken world and our vision of who we are, who God is, and what it all means is fractured and distorted, even with the Spirit of God residing with us as a guide.

staring-at-the-cloudsWe can look at the mistakes we have made and are making even now, but we cannot say that “at such and thus time, we got it all right.” We never got it right, we just made different mistakes. But faith and devotion have been a constant thread running through the tapestry and that is what we can find tied to our own heartstrings. We can then grab hold of that thread and pull ourselves along the line, touching the lives of the saints and tzaddikim who came before us, who like us, got some things right and some things wrong, but who like us, did their very best to serve the God of Heaven.

It’s easy to point a finger at history and at men who have been dead for hundreds or thousands of years, and vilify them in order to make ourselves look better, but in reality, they were no different from us in the important ways of how human beings work. Our only constant is love of God and of each other. We look to God to be the unchanging part of our own ever-changing universe. And we wait for the day when King Messiah will stand before Israel in Jerusalem and before the body of believers from the nations, and read the Torah aloud, and we will all hear his voice, and we will all know that we are his.

Jesus, Halakhah, and the Evolution of Judaism, Part 5

The RabbiIn addition to Tanakh, we as Messianic Jews have another authoritative source for the making of halakhic decisions: the Apostolic Writings. Yeshua himself did not act primarily as a Posek (Jewish legal authority) issuing halakhic rulings, but rather as a prophetic teacher who illumined the purpose of the Torah and the inner orientation we should have in fulfilling it. Nevertheless, his teaching about the Torah has a direct bearing on how we address particular halakhic questions. As followers of Messiah Yeshua, we look to him as the greatest Rabbi of all, and his example and his instruction are definitive for us in matters of Halakhah as in every other sphere.

In addition, the Book of Acts and the Apostolic Letters provide crucial halakhic
guidance for us in our lives as Messianic Jews. They are especially important in
showing us how the early Jewish believers in Yeshua combined a concern for
Israel’s distinctive calling according to the Torah with a recognition of the new
relationship with God and Israel available to Gentiles in the Messiah. They also
provide guidelines relevant to other areas of Messianic Jewish Halakhah, including
(but not restricted to) areas such as distinctive Messianic rites, household relationships,
and dealing with secular authorities.

-from “Standards of Observance”
Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council (MJRC)
Section One: Halakhah and Messianic Judaism
1.1 Halakhah: Our Approach (pg. 2)
OurRabbis.org (PDF)

This series isn’t taking the direction that I thought it would. At the end of Part 4, I really thought I’d return to a high-level view of the evolution of Judaism, perhaps lightly going over the development of the Talmud. This would mean doing a bit of reading and probably delaying Part 5 (this part) of the series for a while.

Then, on a whim, I decided to read “Standards of Observance,” which is the MJRC’s treatment of “Messianic Jewish halakhah;” certainly a controversial subject given the responses I’ve been fielding in Part 3 and Part 4. Thus, another “meditation” was born.

As I’m writing this, I haven’t gotten past page 2 of the 39 page MJRC document, but when I read the portion that I quoted above, I got to thinking. I generally consider halakhah to be a matter of how Jewish people operationalize their observance of the 613 mitzvot, which is how contemporary Judaism codifies the commandments to Israel in the Torah. But if “the Book of Acts and the Apostolic Letters provide crucial halakhic guidance for…Messianic Jews,” by definition, it must also provide relevant halakhah for the non-Jewish believing community as well.

This is complicated by two potentially competing positions: the halakhah as it is presented in the New Testament (NT) Gospels, book of Acts, and Epistles, and how the MJRC chooses to conceptualize, organize, and apply that halakhah. Actually, even within the context of the New Testament, how we view the relative authority of this halakhah upon the daily lives of non-Jewish Christians depends on whether or not we see this NT halakhah as fixed, static, pronouncements that were intended to be inflexibly binding on all Christians everywhere across time, or whether at least some of this halakhah was specific to individual congregations, situations, and other contextual factors, and was meant to be adaptive across time, to the point in some cases, of not applying significantly or at all to Christianity in the 21st Century.

I’ll give you an example.

Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. –1 Corinthians 11:4-7 (ESV)

Taken literally and in its simplest form, Paul would seem to be saying that when men pray, our heads should not be covered, but when a woman prays, her head must be covered (presumably in a public setting such as communal worship). According to the notes for vv 5-13 at BibleGateway.com, “the Greek word gunē is translated wife in verses that deal with wearing a veil, a sign of being married in first-century culture.” This adds some context to what Paul is saying that we would miss by reading it in English. The head covering that is to be applied to women is specific to their marital status in specific cultures as they existed nearly 2,000  years ago. There are no immediately available notes for why a man’s head must be uncovered, but this would seem to go against the later tradition that men wear kippot when in the synagogue, although, of course, Paul is addressing non-Jewish believers in this case (keep in mind that any blanket declaration of halakhah forbidding men to cover their heads in prayer directly contradicts the modern practice of Gentile men in Messianic, One Law, and Two-House congregations to wear kippot).

My example seems to show us that it is certainly possible and likely that not every single pronouncement of halakhah that flowed from Paul’s pen was supposed to apply generally across all churches everywhere and “everywhen.” That is, we can believe that some “Messianic halakhah” as it applies to non-Jewish believers was never originally intended to be permanent, fixed, static standards of practice religious practice.

Which means we’re going to have an interesting time trying to figure out which portions of the halakhah in the NT continues to have force today and how we are to observe said-halakhah in our local communities in the present age.

I want to make certain that I communicate the following clearly. Whatever definitions that the MJRC has produced relative to “Messianic halakhah” can only apply to Messianic Jews who are members of congregations affiliated with the MJRC. This is certainly in keeping with halakhah in any other Jewish community, regardless of scope, since, for example, how halakhah is applied within the context of Chabad is most likely different from its application within Conservative or Reform Judaism. For all I know, there may be variations within specific local synagogues that are “contained” within the same sect of Judaism.

That means that not only does the MJRC understanding of halakhah not apply to wider Christianity (and you wouldn’t expect it to, since it seems to be written specifically for its Jewish members), but it doesn’t apply to any other organizations of Messianic Judaism and clearly not to any of the groups contained within “Hebrew Roots.”

(Arguably, and I haven’t read the entire MJRC document yet, any halakhah developed by the MJRC would have some sort of impact on the non-Jewish membership of each affiliated congregation, but I don’t know yet what the scope of that impact might be. However, if you are a non-Jewish believer and you choose to attend an MJRC affiliated congregation, you agree to become subject to their authority. Keep in mind that even in the most “Jewish” of Messianic Jewish congregations, the majority of members and perhaps a few folks in leadership, are non-Jews).

The next question is whether or not it is appropriate and desirable for groups of non-Jewish believers to also attempt to organize a sort of “Christian halakhah” from the NT that would apply to churches and Hebrew Roots groups.

I suppose Christians have been doing that ever since the invention of movable type and the first mass printing of the King James Version of the Bible (probably well before, but availability of the Bible prior to that time was severely limited, and the common man had no ready access to the written Word). In other words, developing “Christian halakhah” is an old story for Christianity, they (we) just don’t call it “halakhah.”

Of course, the result is what we see before us…about a billion (I’m grossly exaggerating) different Christian denominations covering the face of the earth, each with their own special take on what the Bible is trying to tell us, at least at the level of fine details of practice. Hebrew Roots organizations are no different, they just re-introduce the word “halakhah” into the mix. Viewed at in this light, it is understandable that the various Gentile expressions of Hebrew Roots including One Law/One Torah and Two-House, either formally or informally establish a set of accepted religious and lifestyle practices based on various parts of the Bible including the New Testament “halakhah.”

However, where it might get a little strange is when/if such Gentile organizations access the larger body of Jewish halakhah that extends well beyond the pages of the NT and into the writings of the Mishnaic Rabbis. While I can understand why organizations that are formed by Messianic Jews as a resource for Messianic Jews and Messianic Jewish congregations would want to delve into the accepted body of Talmudic thought, it’s puzzling why a Gentile would choose to do so. And yet, we see Gentile groups forming “Beit Dins,” wearing tzitzit and laying tefillin in accordance with traditionally accepted Jewish halakhah, and performing other Jewish religious practices that cannot be found in the NT and indeed, practices that weren’t codified (such as wearing kippot) until many centuries after the writers of the NT books and letters had died and their bones had turned to dust.

I made an observation in the previous part of this series that was never answered by any of the relevant parties:

My final note for this missive is one of irony. If written Torah, the Christian Bible, and Jesus are the only valid authorities for religious practice and lifestyle in the Hebrew Roots movement (including One Law/One Torah, and so on), then why do all of their groups and congregations follow a modern Jewish synagogue model when they worship? Why do all the men where kippot? Why do all the men wear tallit gadolim with tzitzit that are halalically correct? Why do they daven with modern Jewish siddurim? Why, in less than a week, will they construct their sukkot according to Rabbinically prescribed specifications?

It is completely understandable why any Christian church or congregation of Gentile believers in Jesus, regardless of their emphasis, should want to carefully study the NT documents and to derive whatever practical knowledge it contains for Christian religious practice in the modern era. On the other hand, it’s rather mysterious what some Hebrew Roots groups believe they will get out of studying the extra-Biblical Rabbinic texts and applying practices and concepts related to a Beit Din, Farbrengen, Ritual purity, Shmita, and so on.

If halakhah has the ability to evolve over time within the Jewish context, we can expect Jewish communities to practice one of the current forms within their local boundaries. The same can be said for Christian religious and lifestyle practice relative to the various Christian churches and denominations. I would never expect a Christian church to borrow significantly or at all from any Jewish halachic source in establishing accepted Christian religious behaviors. Why then, as I’ve asked before, should Gentile Hebrew Roots organizations desire to borrow heavily or almost exclusively from post-Biblical Jewish halachic practices, especially if said-groups only recognize the “written Torah” and New Testament as their only legitimate authoritative documents?

I know all this sounds like I’m trying to pick a fight, but given all of the “resistence” to the Talmud registered by Hebrew Roots people and how they say they don’t consider Talmud as an authoritative guide, the fact that virtually all such groups model their worship practices on modern Jewish synagogue services is truly baffling.

This series continues in the blog post: Messiah in the Jewish Writings, Part 1

Jesus, Halakhah, and the Evolution of Judaism, Part 4

Her unifying thesis is that modern Jewish thinkers invented the notion that Judaism is a religion in response to the distinctive challenges of European modernity. In the pre-modern period, “it simply was not possible…to conceive Jewish religion, nationality, and what we call culture as distinct from one another.” This was because Jewish communities were corporate entities whose authority over their members was recognized by the state. The community collected taxes, adjudicated civil disputes through rabbinic courts, and enforced halakhic norms by punishing religious deviants through fines, corporal punishments, or excommunication.

-Michah Gottlieb
“Are We All Protestants Now?”
from his review of Leora Batnitzky’s book
How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought
at Jewish Review of Books

Why Native American religions, when scholars acknowledge that Native American tribes do not traditionally distinguish between religion and the rest of life?

-William T. Cavanaugh
Chapter 1: “The Anatomy of the Myth”
The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict

When I was reviewing Part 3 of this series, (which inspired a very spirited conversation) I realized that there were actually two overlapping topics involved. The first I’ve already attempted to address, which is whether or not Rabbinic authority is Divinely sanctioned or inspired. The second is implied but you have to be paying attention to see it. Is Judaism a “religion?”

Gottlieb’s review presents Batnitzky’s understanding of “the Protestant conception of religion” this way:

  1. “Religion denotes a sphere of life separate and distinct from all others” such as “politics, morality, science and economics.”
  2. Religion is a “largely private affair, not public.”
  3. Religion is “voluntary and not compulsory.”
  4. Religion is about “personal belief or faith,” which she contrasts with the view that religion is primarily about ritual practice or “performance.”

This very much reminds me of a significant point Cavanaugh made in his book about the problem in defining religion as a separate entity from other social, political, and cultural realms. Prior to the rise of the modern, western culture, it was impossible to separate religion (Christian, Jewish, Islam) from those other entities. More specifically, for the Jewish people historically, being “Jewish” wasn’t just a matter of what you believed but rather, it was an individual’s full, lived, experience and identity, biologically, culturally, ethnically, nationally, and communally.

The fact that Judaism has multiple expressions, both in ancient and modern times doesn’t change this understanding. Each community established and maintained its own local, internal standards across the boundaries of politics, social norms, morality, legality, spirituality, and more. Most likely, before a certain point in human history and development, so did Christianity, at least according to Cavanaugh.

While none of this speaks to the idea that the Rabbinic sages ever had “Divine authority” to establish binding halakhah for their communities, it does address strongly the right of Judaism to define itself biologically, conceptually, ethnically, culturally, educationally, communally, and behaviorally.

In Part 3 of this series, I presented a challenge to the Divine authority of the Rabbis as offered in a paper written by Tim Hegg: What Version of the Mishnah did Paul Read? (PDF). Hegg doesn’t specifically address the Jewish right to self-definition or self-government, but, for the Messianic Jewish believer, he does say that “there is no historical nor biblical case for accepting oral Torah as divinely sanctioned. Nevermind that all that encompasses the Talmud cannot simply be reduced down to the concept of “oral Torah,” as the initial writings of the Talmud (Babylonian and Jerusalem) and their subsequent commentaries, arguments, and judgments cross multiple expressions and sects of Judaism over nearly 2,000 years and are incredibly vast and complex. The question isn’t whether or not ancient oral Law is Mishnah. The question is whether or not the Mishnaic Rabbis have Divine authority to write Mishnah.

But setting aside the Biblical implications and matters of “Divine inspiration” for a moment, let’s take a look at Talmud in a different manner (I’m going to be compressing a lot of history into just a few sentences, so please be forgiving). After the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile of most (but not all) Jews from “Palestine,” Jews, as a people, were at dire risk of dissolving and assimilating into the surrounding cultures. The very heart of Judaism up to that point, the Temple in Holy Jerusalem, had been leveled and pillaged. The majority of the Jewish people had once again been exiled; barred from the Land that was the home and lifeblood of every Jew. What most defined Judaism and Jewish people was now gone and within a few generations, everything that history had once recognized as Jewish would follow.

The “salvation” of the Jewish people was that compilation of texts, wisdom, and rulings that we consider the Talmud. No, it was not an immediate “fix” and in fact, it would be centuries before the Talmud would become the central feature in Jewish life.

But it did become that central feature, replacing, in some manner, the Temple and the sacrifices with prayers and charity. Instead of Jews making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover or Sukkot, they fervently beseeched God to bring the Messiah and to restore all that was lost. Judaism was functionally reorganized to exist and in many instances, to thrive, as locally internal communities which both adapted to historical and environmental imperatives and preserved the essence of Judaism, the practice of the Torah and the mitzvot, and the worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, both as individual and communal faith.

But as we’ve seen, it was impossible to separate the religion from the people. The definition for everything that was (and is) Jewish was (and is) encapsulated in that expansive collection of tomes known as the Talmud.

No one in their right mind is going to dispute the Jewish right to self-identification and self-definition. No Christian is simply going to walk into a synagogue and start lambasting the Rabbi, the Cantor, and the worshipers for following “man-made traditions” while ignoring the Bible.

However, the world of Messianic Judaism is unique. There are few halalaic Jews currently occupying Messianic Judaism, but their number is growing. Imagine being Jewish in that fully lived, experiential, educational, cultural, communal, ethnic (and so on) manner I previously described. Now imagine that fully lived Jew coming to faith in Jesus (Yeshua) as the one, true Messiah of God. This is not a Jew, like so many in the past, who has converted from Judaism to Christianity, leaving Mishnah and Torah in the dust. This is a Jew who has come to faith in the Jewish Messiah and who sees no dissonance in remaining fully and completely Jewish and acknowledging that the “Maggid of Natzaret” is the prophesied Moshiach.

Why can’t this Jew continue to live out the same Jewish experience he or she always has? Why can’t this person remain a Jew in every sense of the word, including all those words I used above to define a Jew? The Talmud, the historic and ancient Rabbis, the judgments, rulings, experiences, and everything else that is wrapped up in what is Jewish, cannot be separated out and compartmentalized for observant Jews (yes, different Jewish religious traditions do minimize certain aspects of that identity and Jews who are atheists may remove major portions of it altogether). For a Gentile and/or Christian individual or entity to demand that a Jew remove, discount, eliminate, or modify Talmud, halakhah, the mitzvot, and so on would result in removing Judaism from the observant Jew (Messianic or otherwise). What defines Judaism as Judaism would be gone.

Now, why in the world would Christians, including One Law, One Torah, and Hebrew Roots Christians, want to tell a Messianic Jew that, in order to be accepted by them and (in theory) by God, they had to do away with everything that made them Jewish?

If the Gentile Christians in these varied “Hebraic” Christian congregations and movements choose not to employ the Talmud or halakhah into their worship practices or lifestyles, it is probably for the best since they are not Jewish. But it is the height of presumptive arrogance to declare that any Jew who has faith in Yeshua as Messiah must dispense with the Talmud, and thus their Jewish identity, as well.

Whether the Talmud is an expression of the Divine will or not, it is illogical, unreasonable, and perhaps even a little cruel to demand that a Jew stop being a Jew in order to worship the Jewish Messiah. But by requiring that Messianic Jews devalue the Talmud, that’s exactly what many Gentile Christian pundits in the Hebrew Roots space are doing.

I’ve been accused of being overly concerned with the issue of Supersessionism, (I think “supersessionoia” was the term that was coined to describe me) but if you look at the dynamics I’ve been illustrating in this blog post, it seems rather plain that, even unintentionally, certain elements in the Hebrew Roots (One Law, One Torah, Two-house, etc…) movement are suggesting that the “Jewishness” of Jews in the Messianic movement be diminished in order to fulfill a Christian imperative.

My final note for this missive is one of irony. If written Torah, the Christian Bible, and Jesus are the only valid authorities for religious practice and lifestyle in the Hebrew Roots movement (including One Law/One Torah, and so on), then why do all of their groups and congregations follow a modern Jewish synagogue model when they worship? Why do all the men where kippot? Why do all the men wear tallit gadolim with tzitzit that are halalically correct? Why do they daven with modern Jewish siddurim? Why, in less than a week, will they construct their sukkot according to Rabbinically prescribed specifications?

In other words, why are you guys trying so hard to look and act Jewish when you’re not?

How can you disdain the authority of Jewish halakhah and Talmudic practice when virtually every religious act you diligently perform comes from the rulings and decisions of the Talmudic Rabbis?

Part 5 will continue with investigating the concept of “Messianic halakhah” and whether or not any of it apply to non-Jews within the various contexts of Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots.

Jesus, Halakhah, and the Evolution of Judaism, Part 3

The title I have chosen for this study is a “tongue-in-cheek” attempt to highlight something that seems to be missed by many, namely, that the Mishnah did not exist as a written document in the pre-destruction era, so it is quite obvious that no one, including Paul, could have possibly read what is known in our day as the Mishanh (sic). In fact, as we shall see, the Mishnah was not widely read by Jewish communities in the centuries immediately following the destruction of the Temple (70 CE) either, for the Mishnah was not “published” as a written document until much later.

Along the same lines, it is a methodological error to speak of “1st Century Judaism,” for no such monolithic Judaism existed. We must rather speak of “Judaisms” (plural) in the pre-destruction era. Granted that a variety of Judaisms extant in the 1st Century surely had some things in common (Shabbat, circumcision, Tanach, etc.), it was nonetheless their clear and (in some cases) radical differences that produced the variegated Judaisms of that era.

Unfortunately, the presupposition of some in the Messianic movement is that the later corpus of rabbinic literature presents a monolithic, historically accurate description of “the Judaism” practiced by Yeshua and His disciples.

-Tim Hegg
from the Introduction (pg. 1) of
“What Version of the Mishnah did Paul Read?” (2012)

Since writing Part 2 of this series, I’ve been pondering how to proceed, since, as I’m sure you’ve gathered if you read the questions I’ve been posing, the scope of my inquiry is rather ambitious. Then the answer landed firmly in my lap. I’m indebted to Peter at Orthodox Messianic Judaism (something of a misnomer given the theological nature of his blog) for providing a link to Tim Hegg’s article. I read it through once, meaning to go over it again and eventually write something about it, but as I was getting into the shower, I had an “epiphany” and quickly rushed to my computer (I put a robe on first) to compose the paragraphs that are the heart of this missive (we’ll get to those by the by).

I should say at this point that I like Tim Hegg. He has been very gracious to me. I’ve spent Erev Shabbat in his home, I’ve been treated well by his family and his congregation, and I admire and respect him as a leader and a scholar. All of which added to my surprise when I realized in reading the Introduction to the above-quoted paper, that he had made some glaring and erroneous assumptions.

I can’t think of anyone in Messianic Judaism who believes that the Mishnah we have today is a direct reflection of how Judaism (or “Judaisms”) functioned back in the late Second Temple period, when Jesus walked among his people Israel. I have no idea, even after reading Tim’s paper in full, where he got that idea. Certainly my drive to investigate the evolution of Judaism as it relates, both to the ongoing authority of Judaism to define itself across time, and whether or not First Century halakhah and modern halakhah can be considered equally valid for the Judaism of their times, doesn’t assume a fixed, static, and non-adaptive set of applications of Torah over a 2,000 year span.

Also, his point that in the day of Jesus, that there were multiple “Judaisms” (Pharisees, Essenes, Sadducees, and so on) is hardly a revelation. Again, I don’t know anyone in the Messianic Jewish movement who would deny the “multi-sect” nature of First Century Judaism. On the other hand, if we look at modern Judaism or modern Christianity, we could say the same thing. If there was no, one unified “Judaism” in the day of Jesus, there must certainly be no one, monolithic, unified modern Christianity either. The fact that the Christian church exists as perhaps hundreds of denominational models and their variants, (including One Law or, if you will, “One Torah”) establishes this firmly. Nevertheless, no one balks at talking about “Christianity” or “Judaism” in the 21st Century as if they were specific, unified entities, since at their cores within each individual religion, they contain a basic, common set of theologies, doctrines, dogma, and the like that identify them as either “Christian” or “Jewish.”

It’s as if Tim constructed a very well written and organized paper based on faulty assumptions about Messianic Judaism. It’s never been about the Judaism of late Second Temple times being one unified entity, and it certainly has nothing to do with the belief that the Talmud, (which is comprised of Mishnah, Baraita, Gemara, Halakhah, and Aggadah) as we understand it, having existed as the same body of information in the days of Jesus and the Apostles as it does today.

(The evolution of the Oral Torah and halakhah of Christ’s day into what eventually became known as the Talmud is well beyond the scope of this article, but the seeds of what became Talmud certainly must have existed in some form in the Second Temple period and before. What we know of Hillel and Shammai is recorded in Pirkei Avot, which is the “ethical teachings and maxims of the Rabbis of the Mishnaic period,” and yet both Hillel and Shammai pre-dated Jesus by a generation, and the formalization of Mishnah by centuries.)

In the Conclusions section of Tim’s paper (pg. 23, point 5), he states:

We see, then, that there is no historical nor biblical case for accepting oral Torah as divinely sanctioned. Even the suggestion itself is ill-founded, for it both presumes a monolithic “oral Torah” and that the rabbinic authorities who formulated and compiled the current corpus of rabbinic literature did so by the leading of God.

Point 7 of his Conclusions (pp 23-4) states:

As we avail ourselves of the wealth of rabbinic literature and gain value from the study of it, we must also keep in mind that it is the product of men and not that of divine revelation. It does not come to us with any sense of divine imprimatur nor should the rabbinic literature be considered as having sacred value greater than the works of non-rabbinic authors or sources. All the writings of men must be equally scrutinized in the light of the eternal word of God, the Bible.

There’s a certain irony in Tim’s statements if you fix your gaze, not on the Rabbinic writings that are encapsulated in Talmud, but on another “Rabbi’s” writings, which we find in “the light of the eternal word of God, the Bible.”

We take it on faith that the Bible, the Holy Scriptures of God, are Divinely inspired and not merely the writings of human beings, but even then, most of us don’t believe that God simply dictated the Bible to myriads of human beings over several thousand years of history, and that the authors involved were only human word processors. In fact, how much of the personalities and viewpoints of all of these authors made their way into our Holy Scriptures is a hotly debated point among religious scholars and worshipers.

Add to that the suggestion that the New Testament Epistles, which make up the majority of the Christian texts, were actually letters written mostly by Paul, with smaller contributions by a handful of others, to various early Christian churches, and you begin to wonder about the nature of “Divine inspiration.” More than one source has said that the New Testament letters could be of a “lesser authority” than the Torah, for example, and may indeed be Paul’s midrashim or commentaries on Torah, the Messiah, and on the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and New Covenants. If this is true, then the barrier between “Divine authority” and “human agency” in many of our holy writings is a lot thinner than most Christians (perhaps including Tim Hegg) would be comfortable with.

What if there’s merit to the idea that the Talmudic writings and subsequent commentaries, judgments, and rulings have a “Divine authority” involved, at least to a degree? If we can say that Paul’s letters are “Divine” in some manner or fashion, and yet were written by Paul with his mind and emotions fully engaged, (and who knows how “Divine inspiration” does and doesn’t work) then in Galatians, Ephesians, or Colossians, where does Paul leave off and God begin? There’s no way to know. Maybe God just “wired” Paul’s brain to write letters in a way that reflected His will and intent within the context of Paul’s personality, the place and time in which Paul was writing, who he was writing to, and the issues at hand that prompted the letter in the first place.

How is that different from the acknowledged and legitimate Rabbinic authorities issuing rulings, based on and extrapolating from Torah ideals and principles, and then applying them to their local populations?

Who can say if the Mishnaic Rabbis were Divinely inspired or not. How do you measure “Divine inspiration?” I suppose you can, as Tim says at one point, compare the Rabbinic rulings to the canon of Scripture and where they agree, you can say the Rabbis have produced value. Where they disagree, you can say they produced error. Detractors of the Talmud, as applied to Messianic Judaism, say that since “Rabbinic Judaism” does not recognize Yeshua (Jesus) as the Jewish Messiah, it invalidates everything produced by that “Judaism” including the Talmud as a whole (as far as Messianic Jews are concerned, anyway). On the other hand, as my friend Gene Shlomovich said recently in this blog comment:

If you want to believe, as much of Christianity and Islam does, that G-d has virtually abandoned the Jewish people by leaving them to fend for themselves without authoritative leaders and teachers because “they rejected Jesus”, that the Jewish people corrupted the interpretation of scriptures and have lost their right to interpret them, that G-d has removed his Spirit from my people, it’s your prerogative. You would not be the first or the last.

Traditional supersessionism states that God withdrew His Spirit from the Jewish people and transferred it to “the Church” because Judaism rejected the Messianic claims of Jesus. Not only do I believe that theology represents a tremendous error in thinking, but it is a gross simplification of a very complex set of events that occurred over decades and even centuries.

The paper Matthew 23:2-4: Does Jesus Recognize the Authority of the Pharisees and Does He Endorse their Halakhah? written by Noel Rabbinowitz, which I introduced in Part 1 of this series, suggests that not only did Jesus acknowledge the legitimate authority of the Pharisees, but also of the scribes, who, as Carl Kinbar explains, were:

…an independent group affiliated not only with the Pharisees, but also with the Sadducees, Chief Priests, and elders. In fact, in Matthew, a quick check shows that 10 references to the scribes relate them to the Pharisees and 10 to other groups!

As soon as we grant the scribes the same place that Yeshua does in Mt. 23:2, it seems that Yeshua was not promoting the idea that one group should be in control of the halakhic process. Rather, he acknowledges the vital role of Torah teachers but criticizes them as part of his teaching on humility (read to verse 12).

In essence, it seems Jesus, to some degree, acknowledged the legitimate authority of the religious leaders in the various “Judaisms” of his day to have the right to establish halakhah for their communities. Of course the Mishnah as we have it today didn’t exist when the events in Matthew 23 were happening and later recorded, but if Jesus could recognize (and still criticize) Jewish religious leaders as having the right to establish religious practice for the First Century Judaisms, and if that authority was maintained across time as granted by God (I know…a big “if) and perhaps even as a function of an evolutionary process occurring within global Judaism and the local “Judaisms,” then maybe we can say that Jewish authority to legitimately define itself and it’s practice didn’t come to an abrupt end when it was “nailed to the cross with Jesus.”

No one is saying that the Mishnah existed in the days of Jesus, Peter, and Paul. But even Tim Hegg must acknowledge that some sort of halakhah did exist as established by the Pharisees and scribes. Factor in Rabbinowitz, and you have established that Jesus agreed in principle, that the Jewish religious authorities were legitimate and he acknowledged much of their halakhah. We can build on this to explore the possibility that God did not turn His back on all of His people Israel across the last twenty centuries, and that He maintained His presence among them. If God abandoned Judaism totally, and completely “threw in” with Christianity, then whatever the Rabbis came up with was inspired by human imagination alone. But if God is with all of His people, those of the Covenant of Abraham and Sinai, as well as those of us who benefit from some of the blessings of the New Covenant, then both Christianity and Judaism have a place in God’s heart and in God’s plan.

Have God’s blessings continued to be with the Jews as well as the Christians? Considering the fact that Jews even exist today, let alone retain the faith, practices, and traditions of their Fathers, with some teachings stretching back over 3,300 years, it would seem the answer is “yes.” Has He let them spin out of control, creating laws, rules, and statutes that are made up of wishful thinking and pipe dreams, while only showering His “Divine inspiration” on the laws, rules, and statutes of the unified Christian church (I hope you’re picking up on my attempt to be ironic)? I seriously doubt it.

Tim Hegg, in point 6 of his Conclusions (pg. 23) states:

Our conclusion is that, while rabbinic literature does have much value, it is not to be received as having divine authority in matters of our faith and halachah.

Tim may esteem Rabbinic literature in terms of its historic value, as well as for its insights into “the perspectives, beliefs, and worldview of modern Judaisms,” which “aids Messianic believers in appreciating and understanding the religious perspectives of observant Jews in our own day,” but for those “observant Jews,” Messianic and otherwise, the meaning of Mishnah is a great deal more. It doesn’t have to mean the same thing to us, including me or Tim, as it does to observant Jews, since the vast majority halakhah does not apply to Christianity.

Will Jesus Christ, upon his return and when he establishes his reign over the earth and his throne in Holy Jerusalem, recognize the authority of the Jews of that day as he recognized the authority of the Jews of 2,000 years ago? I don’t know for sure. But as we’ve seen, Jesus didn’t reject the Jewish authorities of ancient days out of hand, though he didn’t completely agree with them, either. Perhaps we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility of Jesus seeing modern Judaism in the same light, particularly because God doesn’t seem to have dismissed His Jewish people…ever.

Part 4 in this series will examine another aspect of the authority of the Talmudic sages and of modern Judaism. Does Judaism have the right to define itself, including Messianic Judaism? Find out in tomorrow’s “morning meditation.”

Jesus, Halakhah, and the Evolution of Judaism, Part 2

Who were the Jewish followers of Jesus?

The members of the Jesus sect were clearly religious Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. They could not have believed that Jesus was “god” and remained Jewish, as such a belief would have been complete idolatry in Jewish eyes and would have appeared closer to the Greco-Roman pagan beliefs where gods took on human form and had relations with humans.

At any rate, the Jesus sect, like numerous other sects in the Land of Israel, would certainly have died out even if its members had survived the revolts against Rome in the first and second centuries. (The Pharisees survived in part due to the vision of their leader, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai)

So where did all the Christians comes from? Indeed, where did Christianity come from?

For the answer, we must look at another colorful personality who appeared on the scene after the death of Jesus, and who is given the credit by virtually every historian of Christianity for spreading the message of Jesus worldwide, if not fashioning Christianity for the consumption of the pagan world.

He was a Jew—originally known as Saul—who became famous in Christianity as “Saint Paul.”

Rabbi Ken Shiro
“Seeds of Christianity”
#40 in the “Crash Course in Jewish History” series
Judaism Online: SimpleToRemember.com

Do religions evolve? That is, can we believe that it is reasonable and expected for any given religious structure to evolve over time in order to adapt to changes in the environment that affect the requirements of the religion’s followers? I asked that question in Part 1 of this series and it stands before me, taunting me, and perhaps even haunting me.

Among people of faith, Christians particularly tend to believe that the truths we possess about God and who we are in Christ are fixed, immutable, unchangeable information that exists and is applied universally in the same manner as when Jesus walked the earth.

That’s not actually true, of course. Over the past 2,000 or so, the Christian faith has metamorphosed tremendously. It’s extremely unlikely that the Apostle Paul, walking into a modern Baptist church, would recognize anything as familiar, even understanding that the church was for only Gentiles and that no observant Jews would be present. What would Paul make of Constantine? How would he perceive the ancient Holy Roman Catholic church? And what about Martin Luther and the reformation? How would Paul look at a 19th century American “fire and brimstone” preacher leading a tent revival meeting somewhere just outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma?

(If you want to get a sort of “snapshot” of the changes that Christianity has undergone over the long centuries, visit Wikipedia’s History of Christianity page)

Wait a minute. Doesn’t the title of this series say “the Evolution of Judaism?” Yes, it does. However, in trying to figure out how to write Part 2 of this series, it was easier for me to approach the evolutionary progression of Judaism by way of Christianity. After all Christianity started out as a small sect of Judaism and, through an extraordinary process, spread like wildfire through the Gentile diaspora world of the First and Second Centuries C.E. Since a large part of the audience for this series are both Jews who have come to faith in Yeshua (Jesus) as the Messiah, and non-Jews who worship Jesus and yet, in some manner or fashion, are attracted to Judaism, my decision to access Judaism by accessing Christianity makes sense to me (though you may not agree).

While the changes that have occurred within Christianity and it’s somewhat fragmented nature in the early 21st century are undeniable, are these changes actual developmental or evolutionary stages that are required of this, or any religion, in order to survive? After all, like many species of plants and animals, over the long centuries many religions and faith groups have died out. They existed once, even flourished for a time, but are no more.

I can’t say that they ceased to exist because they failed to adapt, although that’s certainly an interesting thought. I can’t really find much (at least that’s readily available online) to support what I’m trying to say, but a site called TED.com (Technology, Entertainment, Design: a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading), presents the following questions:

Have religious belief systems evolved over time?

While many religious believers do not accept the theory of evolution in regards to the development of life, from a historical perspective it seems religious and spiritual belief systems themselves have evolved and developed over time.

From the earliest Venus figurines, cave paintings, early burial sites, naturel and ancestor spirits, polytheistic beliefs to the monotheistic, to deist and others.

Do the strongest survive? Do they adapt? Do they interbreed and influence each other? Do they go extinct? Is there some natural selection process that passes on religious ideas memes, and sees others become extinct?

What properties help a religion survive and thrive? Invisible gods perhaps. Evangelical rather than hereditary. Religions linked to economically and militarily strong cultures perhaps. Do religions have a symbiotic relationship with their host cultures – making them stronger and more united supporting development and progress and hence protecting the religion itself.

What are the greatest challenges to the survival of different religions today, and what will help them survive and thrive?

from “Do religions evolve?”

I could probably study for years and eventually write a paper trying to answer those questions. But maybe the seeds of the answer are found in Judaism:

“I think sometimes Christians read the Bible and think, ‘Oh, this is what Judaism is,’” he says. “Judaism is a living tradition that continues to grow and adapt and change well beyond the Biblical age.”

-Greg Johnson quoting
Rabbi Mike Uram, director of Penn Hillel
“Tracing the Talmud’s journey”

Rabbi Uram is describing the point that I’m trying to make: that religions, particularly Judaism, aren’t fixed and static entities with wholly unchanging rules, commandments, and practices that are frozen across history, geography, and culture. The Talmud and how it is studied and understood in Judaism helps us (well, it helps me) comprehend how religious structures can purposefully adapt and change over time and across sub-groups of the religion, in order to better serve the needs of each generation of followers.

PogromNaturally, I can’t say that all changes across Christianity and Judaism have always been beneficial and productive. Certainly the schism between the church and the synagogue that occurred in the early centuries of the common era has resulted in tremendous harm to the Jewish people. The church is guilty of a long list of crimes against the Jews, including the pogroms, the inquisitions, the burning of synagogues, the destruction of Torah scrolls and volumes of Talmud, and quite horribly, the wholesale slaughter of Jewish men, women, and children. All committed in the name of Christ.

But all of that is rapidly (relative to the speed of history) changing. There is more interfaith cooperation between many Christians and religious Jews. It is common to find Christians supporting Israel and Jewish Israeli causes. If the church is currently evolving, it definitely does seem beneficial in terms of its current viewpoint toward Judaism.

The dark side of suggesting that religions evolve is that such change may be at the cost of the enduring truths of the Bible and the will of God. Such change may be solely for the purpose of fitting in with the surrounding culture, while throwing principles, morals, and ethics under a bus.

I can’t say that hasn’t happened in either Christianity or Judaism.

But I can’t say that all change is bad, either. It seems, especially in the case of Judaism, that a fine balance must take place between adapting to environmental changes and protecting the inner core of the faith. I believe that, more than anything, that is exactly the function of the Talmud in Judaism. In spite of overwhelmingly hostile attempts to eradicate Judaism and exterminate anything that might appear distinctively Jewish (including the people), not only do Jews remain in the world today, but a significant portion of the practices established in the Torah 3,300 years ago continue to be performed in some manner.

Jewish men still wear fringes on their clothing. The Shabbat rest is still observed. Prayers are still offered while facing Jerusalem. Meats are still slaughtered in the customary fashion, and prepared in accordance to the traditions. Men still daven in minyans and their prayers are spoken in Hebrew and Aramaic.

Why am I writing this? I live in the world today, so why should I be concerned about whether or not the church has evolved? The church is what it is today and I live in today, so why does it matter? Here’s what I said in Part 1 that’s relevant to these questions.

Now that we’ve seen evidence that it is reasonable to believe Jesus could have accepted Pharisaic authority to establish ancient halakhah and that he not only upheld portions of that halakhah but practiced it as well, (see the full text of Rabbinowitz for details) Part 2 (although I’m not sure when I’ll write it) will examine the “reasonableness” of Christianity and Judaism evolving or developing from ancient to modern forms. After examining that point, we shall try to see if it is even possible for a returning Jewish Messiah King to accept the halakhah that will exist on the day of his return to Jerusalem.

I have no way to really prove that religions evolve or develop forward in time in a productive and beneficial manner. There are hints that how Talmud and tradition is applied in Judaism is both adaptive and stabilizing, and that this is what has enabled religious Judaism and Jews as a people to be preserved throughout their history.

But what does God think about it all?

I have no idea and I don’t believe anyone can know.

But we can speculate (and speculate and speculate, the blogosphere is full of speculation). In Part 1, I presented some information that seems to support how Jesus upheld the authority of the Pharisees (and the larger structure of religious Judaism) to establish and apply halakhah, and how Jesus even advised his Jewish disciples to follow the halakhah of the Pharisees.

But the Rabbinowitz paper (PDF) also said that the authority of the Pharisees was destined to pass away. Eventually, it would no longer be valid. So what would replace it, not just among the small sect of Jewish “Nazarenes” who followed Jesus, but for all of Judaism in its various divisions, both during the life of Jesus and well beyond?

If Jesus established a distinctive halakhah for his Jewish disciples, it died with the passing of ancient “Messianic Judaism”. The Gentile church moved far, far away from anything even remotely Jewish, so they wouldn’t have carried his halakhah forward, and the descendants of the Jews who were disciples of Jesus fell away in only a few centuries or less. After that, only a Judaism that did not recognize Jesus as Messiah remained to establish law, interpretation, tradition, and halakhah for the Jewish people.

the-teacher2All we have of the teachings of Jesus are what is recorded in the Gospels. The early days of the First Century church are seen mainly through the eyes of Paul and a small group of other disciples. We aren’t even sure of who really wrote most of the New Testament, but if there was a “halakhah of Jesus” that deviated from the halakhah established by Second Temple period normative Judaism, only tiny bits and pieces survived in what became canonized into our Bibles.

I’m not proposing any answers today. I just need to throw some large, sweeping concepts out into the open, because I can see them better there than inside the swirling maelstrom of my thoughts.

Ultimately, the questions are:

  • Do religions naturally evolve in productive ways, both to preserve the core faith and to adapt to external changes in history, geography, and culture?
  • Can we see and trace the evolutionary mechanisms and stages in order to differentiate between productive, expected changes and developmental dead ends?
  • Has Christianity evolved in a productive manner and can we identify the benefits (local or global) of that evolutionary process today in the church?
  • Has Judaism evolved in a productive manner and can we identify the benefits (local or global) of that evolutionary process today in the synagogue?
  • At the coming/return of the Messiah (your specific viewpoint on this depends on whether you’re a normative Jew, Messianic, or a Christian), how might the Messiah view and judge Christianity and Judaism relative to how they have changed in the past 2,000 years?

I guess I should have added one last question: “Do I have a prayer of even beginning to answer those questions in a meaningful way?

Probably not, but as I’m fond of saying, this blog is more about chronicling whatever I’m thinking about at any given point in time than actually doling out satisfying answers to complicated questions.

That said, Part 3 of this series, which will be tomorrow’s “morning meditation,” takes an extremely interesting direction, leveraging the opinions of a particular and well-known (in some circles) “One Torah” scholar who believes that Mishnah and “Divine authority” have nothing to do with each other.