Tag Archives: grafted in

What is the Romans 11 Olive Tree?

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?

Romans 11:17-24 (NASB)

I’m writing this “morning meditation” just to preserve something I know I’ll forget if I don’t document it (as I get older, I find that my memory is becoming somewhat “leaky”).

I want to talk about trees.

Actually, I want to talk about one specific tree, an olive tree, the one Paul mentioned in the above-quoted portion of his Holy epistle to the Romans.

What in the world does that tree represent? Some of the common responses are “Israel,” “Judaism” or the “Jewish people,” or maybe “Jesus,” although that last suggestion doesn’t exactly make sense from the Jewish point of view given that the tree has existed for as long as the Jews have existed if they are natural branches.

ancient_olive_treeI discovered (or maybe rediscovered, given the “leakiness” of my memory) a plausible answer, one that is in fact more plausible than any I’ve suggested above.

The first element to understand is that this tree represents all those who share faith in HaShem, who trust Him. Verse 20 is the key that shows the definition of this tree, because unbelief is the mechanism that breaks a branch off of the tree, and faith is the mechanism by which one remains on the tree. At one time, the only branches on that tree were the natural native ones, which is to say Jews. The cultivation of that tree represents the principles of the Torah covenant that inculcated faith into the entire culture of the Jewish people – thus Jews were a people who had been acculturated to the notion of faith or trust. Being broken off of the tree refers to a loss of faith or a rejection of it. Being grafted onto the tree represents acquiring faith (or regaining it if it had been lost or rejected). Wild branches represent non-Jews from cultures that were not acculturated to faith in HaShem. They were not naturally accustomed to it, but they could learn faith by means of the teachings of Rav Yeshua and thus be “grafted” onto the tree of faith to which they were not native, “contrary to nature” (meaning by means of deliberate intervention by a gardener). The sap of the tree must then represent the nourishment of Torah knowledge, perspective, and insight that Jews have cultivated for many centuries to elaborate the meaning of a life of faith. The root of the tree is thus the source of this nourishment, the Torah.

-a comment of Proclaim Liberty from
June 15, 2015 at 4:06 a.m on my blog post What am I, Chopped Liver?

That’s only part of PL’s rather lengthy missive, but it does serve to illustrate that, from his perspective, the Romans 11 tree isn’t Judaism, the Jewish people, or even Israel. The olive tree is a metaphor for faith and trust.

I provided a link above that points directly to PL’s comment so you can read the content in full (or re-read it given the current context). Frankly, I’ve puzzled over the nature of this tree for more hours than I care to think about without coming to a conclusion. I ended up setting the matter aside, figuring the answer would land in my lap eventually.

I think it finally has.

Of course, given the mention of the Torah being the nourishment the tree provides both to the natural (Jewish) and grafted in (Gentile) branches, what’s to prevent someone from concluding that both types of branches are equally obligated to the mitzvot?

PL responses to this in part:

Now, this analogy doesn’t quite answer the questions about Torah observance for non-Jews, though Acts 15 offers a starting point to differentiate between two discipleship types, and perhaps it also explains Rav Shaul’s reference to two different versions of gospel: one addressed to the circumcised, and the other to the uncircumcised (viz:Gal.2:7), neither of which is to be dismissed as merely so much “chopped liver”. [:)] It may be suggested, however, that an acculturation to faith certainly does occur as wild branches reside on the tree and absorb Torah nutrients, and receive treatment from the Gardener (e.g., pruning) comparable to that given the native branches. Moreover, by faith does it become possible to set aside insecurities, so as to enable facing the discomfort of working to distinguish between applications of Torah which apply to everyone (including wild branches) and those which apply only to someone else (i.e., only to the native ones). We can also consider what might be the implications for this analogy in the present era when so many wild branches come from cultures that have been already at least partially accustomed to the notion of faith in G-d, even if that faith has been contaminated with views that are contrary to Torah or Jews or Judaism or related notions.

James and the ApostlesActs 15:21 hints at the responsibility for non-Jews to learn Torah, even after it had just been clarified that their legal obligations to specific performance were very limited. Why then to learn? I would suggest that making the distinctions I described in the above paragraph requires a depth of Torah understanding, because even common principles of Torah might result in different praxis for Jews and for non-Jews to obey. For example, I recently was looking closely at the text of Is.56 (vs.2&6) to consider the characteristics of how the “foreigner”, who is being commended by HaShem for clinging to His covenant, actually approaches the Shabbat. He is described only as keeping from profaning it; whereas Jews are elsewhere commanded to actually sanctify it and guard it. This suggests some sort of difference in the specific behaviors associated with it. I’m still grappling with what that may mean, and how gentile obedience and compliance to this may thus differ from what I know as my Jewish responsibilities and praxis. But it does show that what constitutes obedience for one may be disobedience if another tries to do the same rather than what is appropriate to his or her categorical situation.

I know this is really long by Internet standards, but there is a lot of good information to absorb here. I think (my opinion) that PL is describing how complex and nuanced the Gentile’s “grafted-in-ness” is. There’s no easy black-and-white answer as to who we are and what we’re supposed to be doing as non-Jewish disciples, except that it’s not identical to what observant Jews are supposed to be doing.

We have clues, hints, and starting points, but I think it’s up to us to struggle with how we’re going to build our lives on the foundation of the Bible, and particularly how the Apostolic Scriptures present the lives of non-Jews in Messiah.

I just didn’t want to lose track of the very concept of the Romans 11 tree as a metaphor for Faith and Trust. Lack of faith may get a natural branch knocked off the tree temporarily, but it doesn’t turn a Jew into a non-Jew. Nothing can do that. Being grafted into the tree does not turn a Gentile into a Jew. We’ll always be Gentiles. It also doesn’t turn us into Israelites. Only Jews are Israel.

But being grafted in means we’ve come to faith in Hashem, the God of Israel, and we are nourished by the principles of Torah as applied to the Goyim.

faithI’m not writing this to present an answer or declare some amazing Biblical insight (particularly because the insight isn’t even mine). I’m just putting this here as another piece of the puzzle of our lives in God that may help to fill in the picture.

Oh, one more thing:

For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written,

“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.”
“This is My covenant with them,
When I take away their sins.”

From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.

Romans 11:25-29

Immediately after writing “if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?”, Paul goes into how Israel’s “hardening” is only partial, that is, temporary, and will only last until “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” Then “The Deliverer will come from Zion” and “remove ungodliness from Jacob” so that “all of Israel will be saved.”

This is clearly New Covenant language and, as I’ve said many times before, I believe God will truly redeem all of Israel just as He promised. Paul was telling the Gentiles not to let being “grafted in” go to their (our) heads. The olive tree of faith has belonged to the Jews from the beginning. Any of the natural branches knocked off temporarily for the sake of the Gentiles, for our sake, will all be rejoined to the tree by Messiah. Even in being knocked off, temporarily losing the “faith connection,” it was done for the sake of the nations, so we owe a debt of gratitude, even to those Jews who currently reject the notion that Yeshua could possibly be the Messiah. That’s the majority of Jews across the past twenty centuries. Without their temporary absence from the root (and who is to say how absent they are since they cleave with great faith to Hashem), there would be no room for us.

Any Christian or non-Jew who calls themselves a “Messianic Gentile” or “Messianic whatever” who also disdains non-believing (let alone believing) Jews is guilty of ingratitude, not only to Israel but to God who arranged it all. Remember, the “promises are irrevocable.”

Let that sink in.

The Many Paths of God

It is very difficult to fathom how two opposing opinions can both be correct. The Ritva explains this in a wondrous manner: “When Moshe received the Torah at Sinai, God provided him with forty-nine perspectives to declare a matter pure, and forty-nine to declare it impure. Moshe Rabbeinu asked, ‘Master of the universe, why are these necessary?’ God answered, ‘So that they should be transmitted to the sages of every generation, that the law will be determined by them in accordance with the needs of their time.'”

This teaches that there are many valid paths to genuine Torah observance, all of which were received by Moshe on Sinai. But of course not all statements made are the words of the living God. As we find on today’s daf, sometimes a statement thought to be a mishnah is no mishnah at all. This means that sometimes what appears to be part of the chain of tradition is actually not and needs to be clarified as such.

Rav Menachem Mendel of Rimanov, zt”l, explains how the baalei mishnah reached a state in which they could draw down an authentic mishnah. “The baalei ha’mishnah explain how the oral Torah emerges from the written Torah. They could only draw down a genuine mishnah by completely nullifying all of their physical senses and immersing themselves absolutely in learning Torah. Once they reached this state they touched the inner essence of Torah and could determine the halachah and set down various mishnayos. When the sages perceived that a certain statement was not reached through this arduous process they declared it incorrect.

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“This is Not a Mishnah!”
Bechoros 56

Ohmygosh! What did I just say?

This teaches that there are many valid paths to genuine Torah observance, all of which were received by Moshe on Sinai.

That statement is bound to cause something of a stir in various religious circles. It is doubtful that Christianity will accept that there are many valid paths to genuine obedience to God since we have the Master’s own words saying that there is only one way to the Father, and that is through the Son (John 14:6). Of course this is midrash we’re talking about, so it’s not as if we have to believe the “conversation” between Moses and God actually took place as recorded in our “story off the daf”. I seriously doubt that many people participating in the “Messianic” movement will be enthusiastic about this midrash either, since most of the arguments I see in the blogosphere are about obeying the Torah in only one possible way.

That, of course, doesn’t make a lot of sense from a Jewish perspective, because there really is more than one way to perform a mitzvah, depending on various circumstances. For instance, how Askenazi Jews perform some of the mitzvot and how Sephardic Jews perform those mitzvot may vary drastically. And while there may be some debate between those two groups, no one is suggesting that the Ashkenazi are the only ones who “do it right” and that the Sephardic Jews “do it wrong”…or vice versa. And frankly, even if that suggestion exists, it’s not enough to compel one group or the other to change their traditions. How a Jew performs the mitzvot and understands his or her duty to God is largely based on tradition.

But how can the midrash dare to quote a conversation between Moses and God that, in all likelihood, never took place? Remember what I said in The Rabbinization of Abraham. In order to carry the Torah forward with Judaism in the centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple, Talmudic Judaism found it necessary to “refactor” the past, projecting the view of the Rabbis of the Common Era back onto Abraham and Moses. You and I may not find this “refactoring” to be accurate or factual, but if you understand the function and purpose of Chasidic Tales, you’ll understand that many great and important truths can and must be transmitted without necessarily being based totally on fact. Christians have a tough time understanding this, but it is also likely that not everything (hold on to your hats) in the Gospel accounts of the days of Jesus is literal fact.

Did that surprise you? If you think about it for a few minutes, it probably won’t.

(I should say that this point that when I realized this, I went into a crisis of faith and struggled a great deal with the idea that my faith was based on a book that was neither a legal document in full, or a newspaper reporter’s account of the “facts”).

If you don’t believe me, pop over to Derek Leman’s blog and read this write up, Passover, Last Supper, Crucifixion: 2011 Notes, Part 2. Leman illustrates in no-nonsense terms how the different Gospel versions of the Master’s death cannot be reconciled with each other, no matter how much literary and scriptural “slight of hand” you choose to employ.

So why shouldn’t we use midrash to understand mishnah and scripture? Perhaps they are useful tools after all.

This brings us back to the idea that there may be more than one way to obey God. This brings us back to the idea that there may be one way for a Jew to obey God relative to the Messiah and Torah, and a different but still correct way for a Gentile disciple of the Master to obey God. Are these two covenants? That suggestion is usually viewed with horror, especially if taken to the extreme and seen as “the Jews have Moses and the Gentiles have Jesus.” I’m not suggesting that (although the dynamics involving religious Jews who are not “Messianic” is certainly complex). I’m suggesting that for Jews who are disciples of Jesus and for Gentiles who are disciples of Jesus, there may be two paths to obedience based on identity and “covenant connection” (Jews were at Sinai and any Gentiles who were also present were absorbed into the Children of Israel, probably within three generations). The Jews have the Mosaic covenant connection which was not designed to accommodate non-Jews except for those Gentiles who were on the “multi-generational conversion track”. The Messianic covenant is unique in that it accommodates Jewish identity, allowing “Messianic Jews” to remain Jews (this is all heavily flavored by my opinions here) and also it allows Gentiles to enter into a covenant relationship with God, being “grafted in” as “wild branches” onto the “civilized tree” (note that the grafted in wild branches remain wild for the lifetime of the tree and don’t “morph” into civilized branches) and they can still remain Gentiles…forever.

Now we come back to the key phrase in today’s midrash.

This teaches that there are many valid paths to genuine Torah observance, all of which were received by Moshe on Sinai.

If you’re a non-Jew and you’re upset with how someone else is interpreting Gentile “Torah obedience”, figuring your way is right and their way is wrong, hold up a minute. First off, you Gentiles may not have any sort of “Torah obedience” based on the Mosaic covenant, so you may be traveling on the wrong path all together. Second, even within Judaism, as I previously mentioned, there is more than one accepted halacha to performing the mitzvot.

Hopefully, this will shake up someone’s moral certitude the next time they get into an Internet argument about how the Torah is supposed to be obeyed. If you continue to do your studying and are honest about it, you may find your assumptions challenged. The great Hillel was the master of teaching this lesson to potential converts, as recorded at SaratogaChabad.org.

Let us use the famous story of Shammai, Hillel and the three converts (Shabbos 31) to demonstrate the fusion of Halacha and Aggadah,: A gentile once came to Shammai, and wanted to convert to Judaism. But he insisted on learning the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai rejected him, so he went to Hillel, who taught him: “What you dislike, do not do to your friend. That is the basis of the Torah. The rest is commentary; go and learn!” Another gentile who accepted only the Written Torah, came to convert. Shammai refused, so he went to Hillel. The first day, Hillel taught him the correct order of the Hebrew Alphabet. The next day he reversed the letters. The convert was confused:”But yesterday you said the opposite!?” Said Hillel: “You now see that the Written Word alone is insufficient. We need the Oral Tradition to explain G-d’s Word.” A third gentile wanted to convert so he could become the High Priest, and wear the Priestly garments. Shammai said no, but Hillel accepted him. After studying, he realized that even David, the King of Israel, did not qualify as a cohen, not being a descendant of Aaron

The convert was not just acting silly by standing on one foot; he was actually symbolizing his quest for true unity. This gentile had left behind a confusing plethora of pagan gods and multiple deities. He searched and finally found Monotheism, One Torah and One G-d, wanting to live by a single unifying principle, the ‘one foot’ on which all else stands. Hillel taught him that the underlying principle that unites all is Jewish Love. The second convert, had rejected the other man-made religions as human concoctions, was attracted to the Divine Torah, which consisted solely of G-d’s word. He was shocked to find that we follow a Rabbinical tradition. He wasn’t being rebellious, but sincerely asking a valid question; “I wish to observe G-d’s word alone, not any human additions.” Hillel creatively showed him that the two Torahs are not two separate systems, but are one and the same. The written word and the oral traditions complement each other. It is as basic as the Aleph Bais, where you can’t have one without the other. Indeed, the Torah itself bids us to follow the enactments of the sages. The third convert, disillusioned with pagan shallowness, aimed for a higher meaning to life. He yearned to reach the highest level, assuming that being a High Priest is the ultimate spiritual fulfillment.

Hillel didn’t just chase these would-be converts away, he (seemingly) accepted them on their own terms but allowed them to study and discover their own errors. Once they did so, they put aside their original assumptions and realized that in order to convert, they had to accept the Torah as it was within the Jewish framework of their day.

May God grant us the ability, wisdom, and will do to the same.