For clarification, by the word “Torah,” I do not just mean the Torah, as in the Five Books of Moses, but to all Jewish religious texts such the Hebrew Bible, rabbinic and halakhic texts, and kabbalistic and hasidic texts.
-Rabbi Joel E. Hoffman
“Why I Learn Torah Daily” Aish.com
This somewhat dovetails with what I wrote in The Torah Without Judaism, and particularly the brief exchange I had in the comments section of that blog post with reader ProclaimLiberty.
The question for the Messianic and particularly the “Messianic Gentile” or “Talmid Yeshua” is what the word “Torah” means to us.
There’s probably no one answer, since depending on the given disciple, Jewish or Gentile, the perspective is going to vary.
What do I mean by “Torah?”
This is just my personal opinion. I’m not trying to tell anyone what to do. But I think it’s a helpful question we should all ask ourselves periodically, rather than just assume that our answer is “the answer.”
From my point of view, “Torah” includes the whole Bible, and by that I mean the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets, the Writings, and the Apostolic Scriptures. However, I also habitually read articles and commentaries found at Aish.com and Chabad.org, mainly to get a Jewish viewpoint on what I’m studying.
Granted, I am doing a lot of mental editing when I read content from those resources, since those sites and their information are written by and for Jews, not Gentiles, particularly not for Christians, and absolutely not for anyone with my unique conceptualization of scripture, Messiah, and Hashem.
I don’t typically read traditional Christian resources, even though they are far more Yeshua (Jesus) focused, because, frankly, I just don’t relate to them. I’ve always had a problem with “Christianese,” even when I first became a believer about twenty years ago.
There have been other resources I have heavily consumed in the past, and they still guide the majority of my thinking and beliefs, but for a variety of reasons, I’ve chosen not to pursue them further, at least to any significant degree.
I know that there are some “Messianic Gentiles” who at least suggest the path of the Noahide is an appropriate journey for them/us as well, and I’ve written on this before.
I think there are some things we might take from that example, but it’s also filled with trap doors and land mines. It’s far too easy for some of us to confuse our faith in Hashem and devotion to our Rav with the practice of Judaism or Noahidism. Hence the fact that we see some non-Jews in our communities as well as in churches leave Yeshua-faith and either join the ranks of the Noahide or convert to (Orthodox) Judaism.
It would almost be better for believing Gentiles to stay in their churches rather than take such a risk.
But then, in my opinion, their perspectives regarding what the Bible really says about Israel, the Jewish people, the redemption of the world, and yes, about Judaism, would remain limited if not misguided.
As with many other questions I bring up, I don’t have a hard and fast answer for you. Interestingly enough, this brings us back to Rabbi Hoffman’s brief essay:
I learn Torah every day because it gives me a cohesive set of answers to all of the ultimate questions.
I suppose, from Rabbi Hoffman’s perspective, it does, but it doesn’t work that way for me. I still have far more questions than I do “ultimate” answers.
But here’s another wrinkle R. Hoffman introduces:
I learn Torah every day because it connects me with the millions of other Jews worldwide who also learn Torah every day.
That works if you are a religious Jew, but not so much for we non-Jews, even Noahides, I suspect. After all, how Torah applies to the Ger is remarkably different from how it applies to the Jew, at least in the details, although keep in mind that I also previously mentioned a private Jewish school in Utah that teaches Jewish values to a student body made up of 75% non-Jews.
And that’s one of the reasons, maybe one of my top reasons, for studying the Torah as I understand it. To seek a common ground where I as a non-Jew can stand and learn who God is and who I am to Him through a Jewish lens.
But I craft that “lens” to fit more my particular “eyesight” requirements, since I’m not a Jew and I consider myself more than a Noahide.
The one advantage I have is that I stand outside of actual, face-to-face Jewish or Christian community. Neither one can have too strong a pull on me, although the Pastor at the church I attended for two years certainly tried as hard as he could to turn me into a good Baptist.
But since, as I’ve admitted, I find Jewish thought more appealing, I suppose if I were constantly exposed to Jewish community of the non-Messianic variety, I’d be putting myself at risk of being influenced to the point of challenging my faith. I don’t know if it would go that far, but why take the chance?
That may be why so many of us are unaffiliated, although there are plenty of other reasons.
If I study Torah as I understand it and don’t adopt the praxis of Judaism, I can’t be as strongly influenced to confuse Judaism with my identity and role as God created them for me. I also can’t be accused (as sometimes occurs) of misappropriating the things unique to the covenant relationship between Hashem and the Jewish people, such as Shabbat, Kosher, the prayers, donning a tallit gadol, or laying tefillin.
I am getting interested in Judaism – reading the Bible, and trying to practice its many laws. But I am having a hard time accepting the Talmud and all its laws. Isn’t it enough just to do what’s written in the Bible?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
Thank you for writing. This issue has bothered people throughout the ages, and in fact many break-away Jewish groups (Karaites, Sadducees, and even the Christians) did so over this very point.
But it is a huge mistake.
-from the “Ask the Rabbi” column
“Validity of Oral Law: Tefillin Example” Aish.com
I know I’ve been spending a lot of time writing about how (or sometimes “if”) non-Jews can have a place within social and communal Messianic Judaism, but I think it’s time to return to the Jewish perspective (as best I can perceive it, my not being Jewish) for a bit. Maybe it’s there that we non-Jews can find some illumination if not orientation.
I know a lot of non-Jews (and some Jews) within both Hebrew Roots and Messianic Judaism have issues with the Oral Law and the wisdom and rulings of the Rabbinic Sages. The argument seems to center around sola scriptura and the sufficiency of scripture vs. recognizing the authority of the Sages to make halachic rulings for their various branches within Judaism, which apparently even Yeshua (Jesus) did.
The Aish Rabbi I quoted above undoubtedly agrees that the Oral Law is “a thing” and that the Jewish Sages were well within their God-given rights to set standards of observance and behavior for the various Jewish communities historically, and said-rulings are still considered authoritative among certain streams of Judaism today (it’s actually a lot more complicated than that, but a full examination of the Talmud and its influence on observant Judaism is well beyond the scope of this blog post).
But how does all that work in Messianic Judaism which, as Derek Leman says, is “a Judaism committed to Yeshua” and “…a Judaism [with the] core purpose…[of] provid[ing] a home for Jewish followers of Yeshua where we may live out our covenantal relationship with God based on the Abrahamic promise, the teaching from Sinai, and the revelation of God which is in Messiah Yeshua”?
Jewish movements such as the ancient Sadducees and the modern Karaites reject Rabbinic authority, so Jewish recognition of such authority isn’t universal. Given that Messianic Judaism is a Judaism that embraces Messiah Yeshua (whose multitude of Gentile members have historically rejected not only Rabbinic authority but Judaism as a valid religious and faith expression), what can we believe about the relationship between Messianic Judaism and Rabbinic halachah?
I know what you’re thinking. No, I don’t really, but it’s my favorite line of dialog from the old, 1980s TV show Magnum, P.I.. That said, I suspect some of you may be thinking that since historically the Sages have rejected any and all claims of Jesus possibly being the Messiah, and have treated any Jew who came to faith in Christ as an apostate, how could Messianic Judaism embrace, in any sense at all, what the Jewish Rabbis have to say, let alone consider the Talmudic rulings as having authority over the lives of Jewish disciples of Yeshua?
Let’s start with this:
Though the Sages of the rabbinic tradition are legitimate bearers of halakhic authority, they are not the only leaders with such competence. As the embodiment of heavenly Wisdom and the living Torah, Yeshua himself is the ultimate earthly source of halakhic authority. While he acknowledged the authority of some leaders in the wider Jewish community, he also formed his own messianic subcommunity and bestowed upon its designated leaders – the Apostles – the authority to bind and loose (Matthew 16:16–19; 18:18). In doing so, Yeshua was authorizing the Apostles to regulate the life of the messianic community according to their Master’s interpretation of the Torah and according to the guidance of his Spirit who writes the Torah on the hearts of his disciples (Matthew 28:18–20; John 14:26; Jeremiah 31:33; 2 Corinthians 3:2–3).
So we know that not only did Yeshua affirm that the Pharisees of his day were the proper heirs, in some sense, of Moses and thus had valid authority to make halachah for their communities, but that he also conferred halachic authority to James and the Jerusalem Council, making their legal decisions binding on the Jewish and Gentile disciples of the Master. We see a clear example of the Council issuing a binding legal decision in the form of Gentile status within the ancient Jewish religious stream of “the Way” (Acts 15), which they only could have done through the authority of their Master, their “Rebbe” Yeshua.
Unfortunately, that chain of Messianic Rabbinic authority was broken early on as ancient Messianic Judaism went underground and finally disappeared for nearly two-thousand years.
The same web article goes on to say:
The disappearance of a messianic ekklesia within the Jewish people also damaged the halakhic and prophetic capacity of “catholic Israel” – which remains incomplete without the presence of Jewish disciples of Yeshua at its very heart, and without a living connection to the multinational ekklesia which has been joined by the Messiah to Israel as its extension among the Gentiles. Nevertheless, in their many diverse historical expressions and traditions, the Jewish people and their recognized leaders have retained their legitimate halakhic authority, and God continues to operate among them and through them in order to shape their life in accordance with the Torah.
This seems to imply that the MJRC, representing a Judaism devoted to Messiah, also recognizes the historic Jewish leaders and their halachic authority as legitimate, at least in certain areas.
But in the next section of the article, “Halakhic Authority and the MJRC”, we find:
Within the context of the Messianic Jewish movement and its prophetic role, the MJRC sees itself as called to serve a particular halakhic function. The MJRC does not view itself as the only halakhic authority in the Messianic Jewish movement, nor does it claim to be the movement’s highest halakhic authority. It does, however, believe that it has halakhic authority for its own immediate sphere and for those beyond that sphere who look to it for guidance. The MJRC believes that its role is to be a pioneer in the development of a halakhic way of life among Messianic Jews, and thereby to stimulate serious halakhic thinking and practice within the movement as a whole.
So “yes” to Messianic Jewish halachah, at least for those synagogues and even individuals within the direct sphere of influence and authority of MJRC. I agree that there is no one central authority for all Jews in Messiah, but then again, there’s no one central authority for any of the other Judaisms as well. As one of my readers sometimes says, “Judaism has no Pope.”
Now here’s something interesting:
As is the case for the authority of our movement as a whole, the legitimacy of our claims cannot be determined unequivocally in the present but awaits a divine judgment to be rendered in the course of future events. If our claims are justified over time, then we are an integral part of a process in which the bilateral halakhic authority of the apostolic tradition is being restored, the bilateral ekklesia is being healed, and a corporate Torah-faithful witness to Yeshua is restored to the Jewish people.
This is a very wise statement. There’s no absolute claim of authority but rather a provisional one. While it seems the Rabbis involved in the MJRC are acting in good faith, only Yeshua, upon his return, can lend full legitimacy to MJRC halachic authority and the decisions they make for their communities.
But then again, I suspect that will be true of all the different streams of Judaism, both ancient and modern, as one of the things Messiah is supposed to do is to teach Torah correctly. Since, for most observant Jews, “Torah” includes both the Written and Oral Law as well as the entire compilation of Talmudic literature, Yeshua will likely make many rulings on the decisions arrived at by the legitimate Rabbinic authorities across the ages and what those rulings mean for Jews and even non-Jews in the Kingdom of Heaven.
However, that last quote also spoke of healing the “bilateral ekklesia,” that is, healing the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in Messiah, presumably clarifying our relationship and roles regarding one another.
And this is what I’ve been attempting to write about over the past several blog posts.
The MJRC article on halachah concludes:
We cannot know how the bilateral ekklesia would have developed had its Jewish corporate expression survived and thrived. Similarly, we cannot know how Jewish tradition would have developed had the Jewish disciples of Yeshua been accepted and respected by our entire people at an early stage of the development of Halakhah. We do not strive to articulate or re-create what might have been.
However, we cannot avoid engaging in the task of shaping today’s Messianic Jewish practice from the textual sources and other resources available to us today. This task places enormous demands on Messianic Jewish leaders, requiring of us a serious devotion to study, prayer, discussion, and corporate decision-making in a spirit of humility and charity. At the same time, we believe that the resurrected Messiah dwells among us and within us, and we rely upon his ongoing guidance as we seek to carry on his work of raising up the fallen tent of David within the people of Israel (Acts 15:14–18; Amos 9:11–12).
That conclusion isn’t particularly satisfying in terms of mapping out how this healing of the Jewish and Gentile bilateral ekklesia is to come about, but then again, it’s very likely that they just don’t know.
And so it comes back to that same troubling question, what does this all mean for us, the Gentiles in or near Messianic community (I say “in” or “near” even for those of us who do not directly have “Messianic community” but who nevertheless choose to study from that perspective)?
Our Master Yeshua took the loaves and fish. He told the twelve, “Have them sit down to eat in groups of about fifty each” (Luke 9:14). “The Gospel of Mark reports that the people “sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties” on “the green grass” (Mark 6:39-40). “There was much grass in the place” (John 6:10). The green grass confirms that the story occurred in the spring when the slopes of the hills around Lake Galilee are still green. The scene invokes the Psalm of the Good Shepherd: “I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures” (Psalm 23:1-2).
The Master had the people recline as they might do at a formal banquet or Passover Seder meal: “He commanded them all to recline (anaklino, ἀνακλίνω).” The reclining posture suggests the messianic banquet when the righteous will “recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11). For those with eyes to see, the miraculous feeding of the multitude was a foretaste of the messianic banquet. Not unlike the miracle of transforming the water to wine, Yeshua offered a preview of the kingdom and God’s miraculous provision.
I certainly hope the folks at FFOZ don’t mind my lifting this quote from their newsletter, but I find it quite valuable in illustrating that both Jews and Gentiles are invited to the formal banquet in the Messianic Kingdom.
On another one of my blog posts someone commented that he’d like an invitation to join that banquet, to which I replied that we have such an invitation. It was quoted above but I’ll repeat it here for emphasis:
I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven…
–Matthew 8:11 (NASB)
Of course, the Master was looking at the endgame, so to speak, when all has been accomplished according to prophesy, but what about in the meantime?
That’s the tough part. Like the MJRC article said, if Messianic Rabbinic authority had continued unbroken throughout history, and it stood with the same God-given authority as the other Rabbinic sages and their rulings, things would look very much clearer.
But while the MJRC Rabbis and other organizations within larger Messianic Judaism recognize the need for healing between Jewish and Gentile disciples of the Master within (and beyond) Messianic Jewish space, we really are stuck in figuring out what that should look like in the here and now.
I can’t give you a recipe for inviting a personal revelation. The emissary Yacov wrote (Jam.4:8): “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you doubtfully-minded.” However, the most famous revelations depicted in the scriptures were instigated by HaShem. Moshe wasn’t looking for a revelation, as far as we know, when he noticed an odd phenomenon on a desert mountainside, that turned out to be a bush that burned but did not burn up, whence the voice of HaShem began speaking to him. Rav Shaul had other things on his mind until a bright light spooked his horse to throw him before reaching Damascus, whence another revelation ensued. You can find other such examples for yourself. Regrettably, my own example will not likely help either, because I wasn’t looking for revelation when HaShem confronted me one night; and if someone could have warned me in advance what it would entail, I might just have tried very hard to be someplace else rather than to go through that experience. But subsequent experience lets me suspect that those who seek diligently and honestly to enter into the kingdom-of-heaven mindset, meditating on the teachings of Tenakh and on apostolic reflections of them, may just begin to experience similar insight. Who can tell what visions or dreams might ensue.
Sometimes God finds us when we’re not looking for Him. However, it is more likely we’ll recognize that encounter if we invite Him, rather than sit around waiting for His invitation to arrive in our mailbox, so to speak.
Formal halachah for the Gentiles will just have to wait. However, if we turn to Him, He will turn to us.
“You ask how can you be bound (m’kushar) to me when I do not know you personally…”
“…The true bond is created by studying Torah. When you study my maamarim, read the sichot and associate with those dear to me – the chassidic community and the tmimim – in their studies and farbrengens, and you fulfill my request regarding saying Tehillim[*]and observing Torah-study times – in this is the bond.”
-from “Today’s Day” for
Sunday, Sivan 24, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan Chabad.org
This sort of relates to the rather lengthy discussion taking place in the comments section of my What am I, Chopped Liver blog post. It speaks of one person being bound to another, even if they don’t personally know each other and even if they are separated by great distances (and maybe even by time).
In this case, it’s the bond between a Chassid and his (or her) Rebbe, and it’s established and maintained by the Chassid studying the informal and formal teachings of their Rebbe, as well as associating with current and former students of the Rebbe.
Yes, this is discussing a very specific relationship in the Lubavitcher community, however, I think I can adapt it for a somewhat different but related connection.
We’ve been discussing the status and halachah of non-Jews who are in some manner associated with the Messianic Jewish community, if only through how and what we study.
For instance, in reading, studying, and reviewing the Nanos and Zetterholm volume Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle, I’m attempting to gain a greater understanding of the Jewish Apostle Paul as applied to both the ancient and modern community of Jews and Gentiles in Messiah. In this, it can be said that I’m associated or connected to the Messianic Jewish community by my choice of study materials and how I’m allowing the essays in the aforementioned volume to modify and shape my understanding of the Apostolic Scriptures.
Actually, it’s not just the foundation of the Bible that’s Jewish but the entire collection of books.
So what am I doing?
Adapting the quote above, I’m studying the teachings of my Rebbe (and all of the related teachings) in order to bind myself to my Master, even though he and I are separated by culture, nationality, history, and even death. Not that he’s dead of course, but I must go through death and resurrection one day as his disciple.
According to the second requirement, I must also associate with his students. That’s a tough one. Who do I associate with? The most obvious answer would be other Messianic Gentiles, but I only regularly see one in my little corner of Idaho and we don’t always speak to each other on matters of faith.
Can there be association via the Internet? If the answer is “yes,” then I regularly associate with Messianic Gentiles and a few Messianic Jews via conversations on this blog spot.
Again, this is a rather loose adaptation of a very specific process among the Chassidim.
Why do I bring this up?
Because it gives us a loose set of guidelines as to how we are to relate to Yeshua and to each other. Chances are, just about everyone reading these words, or at least my regular readers, are already doing these things. We are already reading the Bible, including the Torah and the Prophets, studying the teachings of Yeshua in the Gospels, and of his disciples and apostles in the Epistles and Apocrypha. We also study related commentaries that offer additional insight into Jewish thought, not with the idea that we are obligated to take up all of the mitzvot, but to attain greater closeness to our own “Rebbe”.
In all likelihood, we are all, in some way, associating with other students of our Master, in the face-to-face or virtual worlds or both. Technically, we could go to a traditional church and associate with the Master’s students, but their understanding of his teachings are sometimes radically different from our own, so much so, that it seems as if we are speaking different languages to one another.
So I’m using some snippet of information from the Jewish world, applied very specifically to Chassidic Jews and adapting it for potential (or actual) use by Messianic Gentiles.
While periodically our bond with Messianic Jews, some of them anyway, can seem rather tenuous, based on the needs of the Messianic Jewish community, the bond between any disciples and their Rebbe, whether Jew or Gentile, should never come into question. It definitely should not come into question because we are “just” Gentiles.
For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.
–Galatians 3:26-29 (NASB)
Of course Paul is not obliterating the covenant distinctions between Jews and Gentiles anymore than he is destroying gender distinctions between men and women, but he is saying that we all have equal standing in the ekklesia of Yeshua. We are all “clothed in Messiah,” as it were, so that regardless of our social roles in the Messianic community, we can all consider ourselves as belonging to Messiah and descendants of Abraham’s based on God’s promise to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations.
Gentiles are not heirs of the Sinai covenant, as are the Jews, but we are all Abraham’s children spiritually, though the Jews are also physical descendants through Isaac, and then Jacob, and then all of Jacob’s offspring.
Even if you don’t always feel close to the Jews in the Messianic Jewish community, or for that matter, some of the non-Jews, the words of Paul attest that we can and are close to our Master, the mediator of the New Covenant promises, he who through God’s mercy and the Master’s faithfulness, brings those of us who were once far off to be close to our Master for the glory of Hashem.
I just wanted you to know that.
1. The bond between Chassid and Rebbe is termed hitkashrut (see Elul 10). 2. Informal talks, as distinct from maamarim which are formal dissertations of chassidic philosophy. 3. Present as well as former students in the Lubavitcher yeshivot are known as “Tmimim. *. “At the time this letter was written, it had not yet become widely known about the establishment of the practice to study Chumash with Rashi daily, and to study Tanya as apportioned for every day of the year.” Footnote 4, Page 328, Sefer Hamaamarim Basi Legani.
As the discussion that follows will demonstrate, I would not argue on behalf of all that Rabbinic authorities have asserted about Oral Torah. For example, I would not advocate the view that the teaching now found in the vast Rabbinic corpus was revealed to Moses at Sinai. Still, I would contend that the term is useful, for it rivets our attention on the central issues we must confront: Does the Written Torah require an ongoing tradition of interpretation and application in order to become a concrete reality in daily Jewish life? Does the tradition of interpretation and application of the Written Torah developed and transmitted by the Sages have any kind of divine sanction?
-Mark S. Kinzer
from “the 2003 Hashivenu Forum Messianic Judaism and Jewish Tradition in the 21st Century: A Biblical Defense of “Oral Torah,” pp.1-2
found at OurRabbis.org (PDF)
I assume that at least some of you who read my previous blog post about the “Oral Law” also clicked in the link I provided and read Dr. Kinzer’s paper. After I read it, I found myself pondering certain matters brought up by Kinzer, namely whether or not whatever we consider to be “Oral Torah” is at all authoritatively binding on the Jewish people as a whole or conversely, specific local communities of Jews.
Of course, why should I care? I’m not Jewish. Nothing we could consider a “Rabbinic ruling” was ever intended (perhaps with rare exception) to apply to a Gentile and particularly a disciple of Yeshua (Jesus).
But as I’ve mentioned before, Christians have used the Talmud and the wider concept of the Oral Law as one of their (our) clubs or blunt instruments with which we’ve battered, bruised, and bloodied (both literally and figuratively) the Jewish people across the history of the Church. If nothing else, it behooves us to take a closer look at our own behavior and whether or not we are actually opposing God in opposing Jewish traditions.
I know the concepts of “Oral Law,” “Jewish Tradition,” “Talmud,” and other similar labels are not exactly synonyms but they all point to the central question of whether or not the Torah contains all that a Jew needs to know to obey God and live a proper Jewish life. I’m not even arguing for the idea that the traditions as we find them today in Judaism were delivered whole to Moses on Sinai. I began this blog post quoting Kinzer who also does not believe such a thing.
What I want to explore is whether, both in ancient and modern times, those who lead or rule the Jewish people have the right, as appointed by God, to interpret the Torah and then to have those interpretive rulings be binding for general or local populations of Jews.
This idea probably seems a little ridiculous to many Christians, but I think Kinzer made a good point that it is at least possible that leaders in Israel have had and do have the divine right to issue halachah and expect that halachah to be adhered to, with penalties for non-compliance.
According to the terms of the law which they teach you, and according to the verdict which they tell you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside from the word which they declare to you, to the right or the left. The man who acts presumptuously by not listening to the priest who stands there to serve the Lord your God, nor to the judge, that man shall die; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel. Then all the people will hear and be afraid, and will not act presumptuously again.
–Deuteronomy 17:11-13 (NASB)
This is one of the foundational scriptures that establishes a divinely appointed right of the Priests in Israel to issue authoritative rulings with consequences if their rulings are disregarded.
However, authority was not limited to the Priests:
The Lord therefore said to Moses, “Gather for Me seventy men from the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and their officers and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. Then I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit who is upon you, and will put Him upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you will not bear it all alone.
So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord. Also, he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people, and stationed them around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him; and He took of the Spirit who was upon him and placed Him upon the seventy elders. And when the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do it again.
–Numbers 11:16-17, 24-25
It’s important to note that, as was established earlier (Exodus 18:17-26) these judges were to hear the common disputes among the individual tribes and clans of the people and issue binding rulings, and only the most difficult cases were to be brought to Moses. This means there were many local judges who had the authority to make legal decisions and establish binding procedures, resolving disputes, including any over how a particular mitzvah (commandment) was to be carried out.
It’s critical to realize that these seventy elders or judges were not relying only on their human wisdom, nor were they only appointed by Moses. We saw in the Numbers 11 passage these elders being appointed and approved of by God as evidenced by the Holy Spirit resting upon each of them.
Now that’s authority.
The importance of this central judiciary and its role as the latter day expression of the Mosaic office becomes clearer with a careful study of the pericope. The passage begins by directing that certain types of cases should be brought from the local courts to the central court. These are cases that are “too difficult for you (yipalay mi-mecha),” and that involve homicide (beyn dam le-dam), personal injury (nega), or disputes over the appropriate law (din) to apply (Deuteronomy 17:8). The meaning of this last type of case (beyn din le-din) will become clear in a moment. The central court shall hear the case, and render a decision. The persons involved are not free to disregard this decision, but “must carefully observe all that they instruct you to do” (ve-shamarta la’asot ke-chol asher yorucha) (Deuteronomy 17:10). The words “carefully observe” (shamarta la’asot) appear frequently in various forms in Deuteronomy, always enjoining obedience to the words of the Torah itself. Here they enjoin obedience to the high court.
Thus the Priests and Judges were divinely empowered to interpret the Torah and to issue what amounts to extra-Biblical halachah as to how to perform the mitzvot, and these rulings were legally binding for the immediate situation and across time.
We can certainly see where the later Rabbis get the idea that God authorizes all leaders and teachers of the Jewish people to be able to issue binding halachah.
But you are probably saying that in the Apostolic Scriptures, we only see the Holy Spirit being granted to disciples of Yeshua (Jesus). Doesn’t this mean that, even if this authority continues to exist, it is only available and effective within the Church?
If the answer to that question is “yes,” then God has abandoned the Jewish people, national Israel, and every single promise He made as part of the Sinai Covenant. But as you know, I don’t believe that the Sinai Covenant was rendered void because Yeshua inaugurated the very beginnings of the New Covenant, nor to I believe one covenant ever replaces another.
So if the Sinai Covenant remains in effect, then God’s relationship with all Israel remains in effect, both with Messianic and all other branches of Judaism. I’ve also said before that a Jew is the only person automatically born into a covenant relationship with God, whether he or she wants to be or not. You don’t have to be a religious Jew to be a part of the covenant, you just have to be a Jew.
So if under the Sinai Covenant, God established that Judges and Priests have the authority to issue binding rulings upon the Israelites, we can at least suggest that authority moved forward in time and across ancient and modern Jewish history.
But does having authority automatically make you right?
Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.
I’ve previously referenced Noel S. Rabbinowitz’s paper (PDF) as evidence that Yeshua, though he had specific disagreements with the Pharisees, recognized that they had the authority to issue binding rulings on the Pharisaic community (and Yeshua’s teachings were very much in keeping with the Pharisees generally). If the Master acknowledged Pharisaic authority, this suggests that what once rested upon the Priests and Judges of ancient Israel was passed down to later authorities, and these authorities would eventually evolve into what we now call Rabbinic Judaism.
Yeshua didn’t always consider the rulings of the Pharisees correct, and even when he did, he recognized that they didn’t always obey their own decisions, so they could have authority and yet wield it imperfectly…but they did have authority
We even see Yeshua granting his own apostles that same authority; the ability to issue binding rulings upon the Jewish and Gentile disciples in “the Way”.
I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”
Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.
The concept of binding and loosing isn’t always well understood among some Christians. For an excellent treatment of what these legal terms mean in Judaism, please see the First Fruit of Zion (FFOZ) video teaching on binding and loosing which I reviewed some time ago. The video is only about thirty minutes long and well worth your time in helping you understand this important concept and how it applies to the current conversation (the image above isn’t “clickable” but the links in this paragraph are).
As far as how the ancient Messianic community applied this authority, the most famous example can be found in Acts 15.
Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
Here we have James the Just, head of the Jerusalem Council of Apostles and Elders, issuing a legal ruling after the Council had heard testimony, deliberated, and cited Biblical proof text. This ruling established the requirements and limitations regarding the entry of Gentiles within Messianic Jewish community, specifically exempting them (us) from having to undergo the proselyte rite and convert to Judaism as a requirement of admission.
The importance of this text for our purpose cannot be underestimated. Yeshua here employs the same verse to justify the halakhic legitimacy of the Pharisaic teachers as is later used in Rabbinic tradition to justify the halakhic legitimacy of the Rabbis. As we have seen, such a reading of Deuteronomy 17:10 suits well its original function within the Pentateuch. Though Matthew 23 proceeds to castigate those very same Pharisees for their unworthy conduct, this fact only throws the initial verses into bolder relief. In effect, the Pharisaic teachers have authority to bind and loose – even as the students of Yeshua have authority to bind and loose.
Kinzer draws a line from the ancient Priests and Judges to the Pharisees and to Yeshua’s apostles as all having the authority from God to bind and loose, that is, to establish local interpretations that were not mere suggestions but had the force of law, even if those rulings were not explicitly stated within the written Biblical text. In fact, the purpose of “Oral Law” requires that it not be written or “hard-coded” into the mitzvot:
This view of the Oral Torah does not see it as a solidified code, given once for all to Moses on Sinai, and differing from the Written Torah only in its mode of transmission. Instead, it sees the Oral Torah as the divinely guided process by which the Jewish people seeks to make the Written Torah a living reality, in continuity with the accumulated wisdom of generations past and in creative encounter with the challenges and opportunities of the present. It thus presumes that the covenantal promises of Sinai – both God’s promise to Israel and Israel’s promise in return –remain eternally valid, and that the God of the covenant will ever protect that covenant by guiding His people in its historical journey through the wilderness.
I’ve heard the Torah compared to the United States Constitution. If the only Constitution we had was the original document from almost two-and-a-half centuries ago, it would be hopelessly archaic and incapable of dealing with many legal and social issues that exist in modern times but could never have been dreamed of by America’s Founding Fathers. If we didn’t have the ability to periodically amend the Constitution, we’d probably have to write new constitutions every so many years, just to keep the basis for our Government relevant.
So too with the Torah. Many of the issues facing modern Jews today could not have been taken into account when it was originally established. Even between the days of Moses and the days of Yeshua, hundreds, thousands, or more legal decisions and interpretations probably had to be made to address the shifting circumstances facing the Jewish people. After the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of Herod’s Temple, with the Jewish people facing a seemingly endless exile, the Torah had to continue to be interpreted and legal rulings issued to ensure Jewish survival in a hostile world and across the changing landscape of history.
But you may disagree with my assessment and feel I haven’t proven my case. I really am not trying to provide definitive proof but rather, to open the doors to possibility. For many more details on this topic than I can provide here, I refer you to Dr. Kinzer’s original paper. All I’m saying is that, given the “paper trail” I’ve attempted to lay down and my faith that God has not abandoned the Sinai Covenant or His people Israel, I don’t think that what He once gave them, a method of continually evolving Biblical interpretation, died on the cross with Jesus.
I don’t think that God gave Moses what amounts to our modern understanding of the Talmud on Sinai 3500 years ago. I do think, at best, God gave Moses some general principles by which to interpret the written Law and gave other Priests and Judges (not just Moses) the authority to establish traditional methods of observing the mitzvot that aren’t explicit or even existent in the written Biblical text.
If that authority extends to the present, then we have to take another look at Rabbinic authority within the different streams of Judaism and the large and complicated body of work we collectively refer to as Talmud.
A final note. Are all of the rulings of the Rabbis absolutely correct and is Talmud perfectly internally consistent? Probably not. To the degree that the Sages were human, then they were driven by human as well as divine priorities making them, like all men of authority (and all men everywhere) capable of all kinds of error. Yeshua, while he agreed (in my opinion) that the Pharisees had the authority to issue binding halachah, didn’t universally agree with their rulings (see Matthew 15:1-20; Mark 7:1-23 for example).
Even less often noticed is the fact that the ritual norms that Yeshua upholds in this text are not found in the Written Torah, but instead derive from Pharisaic tradition! The tithing of small herbs such as mint, dill, and cummin was a Pharisaic extension of the Written Torah. Yet, according to Matthew, Yeshua not only urges compliance with this practice – he treats it as a matter of the Torah (though of lesser weight than the injunctions to love, justice, and faithfulness). This supports our earlier inference that Yeshua’s teaching and practice encourage the Pharisees to think of him as one of their own. His criticism of the Pharisees (or, to be more precise, some of the Pharisees) is a prophetic critique offered by one whose commitments and convictions position him as an insider rather than an outsider.
Assuming I’m right about all this, I suspect when Yeshua returns, he will perform a similar function among his modern Jewish people, the nation of Israel, and encourage corrections and improvements on existing halachah and the traditions of Torah interpretation. I believe he will do so as a matter of his love for the Jewish people, not as a matter of criticism or censure. I believe we Christians, or whatever we call ourselves, dismiss God’s love for the Jewish people and His presence among them and their Rabbis at our extreme peril. Our redemption comes from the Jews (John 4:22) not the other way around.
In one (or more) of D. Thomas Lancaster’s sermons on the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews, he talks about the difference between the “letter of the Law” and the “spirit of the Law”. In traditional Christian teaching, this usually means that “the letter kills but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). In other words, the Law is bad because it promotes a legalistic method of attempting to attain justification before God, while acting in the Spirit of God, that is, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit we receive when we confess Christ as Lord, brings life, for only faith and grace can justify, not works. But this is a complete misunderstanding of the text and what the “letter” and the “spirit” really means.
According to Lancaster, the letter is the actual wording and literal meaning of a commandment while the spirit is the principle behind that commandment. Limiting a commandment to its literal meaning not only restricts our understanding of God’s intent for us, but may lead to either abandoning large portions of the Bible as anachronistic or attempting to drag those anachronisms into the 21st century. Let me give you an example from last week’s Torah Portion:
If you build a new house, you shall make a fence for your roof, so that you will not place blood in your house if a fallen one falls from it.
–Deuteronomy 22:8 (Stone Edition Chumash)
Now let’s take a look at the commentary for this verse referenced in the Chumash:
The Torah requires a Jew to erect a fence or other form of barrier around his roof. This commandment applies also to any dangerous situation, such as a swimming pool or a tall stairway (Rambam, Hil. Rotzeach 11:1-5).
This is an excellent example describing the letter and the spirit of the commandment. The literal meaning is to build a fence or barrier around the edge of your roof so that no one on the roof will fall off by accident. It’s your house and your roof, so you’re responsible. Except few of us have flat roofs on our houses (at least in the typical American suburb) that allow people to go up and stand on them, thus risking a fall. However, as the commentary suggests, the spirit, that is, the general principle behind the specific commandment, has a much wider focus. As property owners (if we own a home and the land it is on), we have a responsibility to assess any potential dangers on our property and take steps to improve safety and thus avoid household members and guests incurring injuries due to our carelessness.
The example of a swimming pool for instance, is a good one, since accidental drownings, particularly of children, are not unknown. Many years ago when my family and I lived in Southern California, we had a swimming pool. My children were quite young at the time, and we wanted to make sure they would be safe around the pool. We had a pool cover installed that ran along a motorized track. When the cover was closed, it was impossible (especially for a child) to pull back the cover since it was secured in place by the track, and the only way to remove the cover was to insert a key into a spring-loaded locking mechanism and hold the key in the “on” position as the motor retracted the cover. In this sense, it could be said that my wife and I “fulfilled” this particularly mitzvah in relation to our swimming pool.
But why should you care about all this?
As I was studying Torah Portion Ki Tetzei on Shabbat (yesterday as you read this), it occurred to me that almost all of the commandments and statues listed could be thought of in terms of the letter and the spirit of the Law.
For instance, Deuteronomy 21:10-14 describes how an ancient Israeli soldier should behave toward a beautiful woman he has captured while battling and defeating an enemy population. The history of war tells us that part of what conquerors do is to abuse and rape the women of the enemy. The Torah doesn’t forbid the capture of these women but does issue the rather strange command that one must wait a full month before actually marrying the woman and engaging in sexual relations with her as a wife. In that one month time period, the man cannot touch her, and she shall shave her head and let her nails grow and weep for her lost parents. At the end of that time, the soldier can either marry her or set her free, but he must not sell her as a slave. Critics of ancient Israel and the Bible say this is still a horribly barbaric practice, but I think I can see a hidden motive of God’s in these verses. Part of the Chumash commentary states:
According to either interpretation, the purpose of the long delay is so that the captor’s desire will evaporate in the interim and he will set her free.
In other words, God anticipated human lust during a war in which a soldier would impulsively desire to sexually assault or even permanently possess a captive woman. While God does not attempt to directly forbid taking women captive, perhaps because it would have set up far too many of the Israeli soldiers to sin in the passion of the moment, He permits capture but forbids any sexual contact for one month. A month is certainly long enough for such passion to dissipate, particularly when the woman is commanded to set aside certain matters of hygiene and grooming.
In modern military forces of the West, it is illegal for soldiers to rape women in war and it would be unthinkable for a soldier to capture a woman and take her home to be a wife. Arguably, this commandment, like most of those we find in the Torah, would only apply in modern times to the Jewish people, but in the present nation of Israel, we don’t find reports of IDF soldiers capturing women in Gaza and taking them home as potential spouses. So what is the principle behind the literal commandment, or is there one anymore? After all, the practice of capturing women as sex slaves during war has become so abhorrent that it is virtually unthinkable.
Has the spirit of this law, even among non-Jewish nations, triumphed over the letter or has something else happened? Has this law become obsolete because the practice among the armies of civilized nations has become extinct (and I recognize that there are forces among uncivilized and brutal peoples where rape during war is still practiced)? That leads to a rather uncomfortable thought; the thought that there are some portions of the Torah that no longer apply and that may never apply again. Let’s take a more extreme example:
You shall not wear combined fibers, wool and linen together.
–Deuteronomy 22:11 (Stone Edition Chumash)
To the best of my knowledge, only Orthodox Jews observe this commandment today. It would be a difficult commandment to observe for most of us given the nature of the clothing typically sold at retail outlets with their mixed natural and artificial fabrics. The Chumash commentary on this verse goes back to Leviticus 19:19 which says in part:
The prohibitions not to cross-breed or to wear mixtures of wool and linen are the quintessential decrees, i.e. commands of the King for which man knows no reasons (Rashi). Ramban clarifies the above point. God surely has reasons, but since man cannot know them, he cannot feel the same satisfaction in performing these decrees that he has when he performs precepts that he feels he understands.
In other words, this class of commandment is to be observed simply because “God said so,” not because (from a human standpoint) it makes any particular sense or seems at all purposeful. There is a literal meaning to this commandment but no apparent underlying principle.
Which brings me to what it is to observe the Torah commandments, particularly for those people who believe it is possible to observe only the literal, Biblical mitzvot of the Torah without any Rabbinic interpretation and binding halachah being involved. As I mentioned, fulfilling the mitzvah of not wearing clothing made of mixed fabrics is something (again, to the best of my knowledge) performed only among Orthodox Jews. And particularly for those non-Jews who feel led in some manner or fashion, to live “Torah-observant” or “Torah-complient” or “Torah-submissive” lifestyles, is it actually possible to do so?
There are three reasons why I think not. The first has to do with the differences between the letter and spirit of the commandments. Most of you, as I said before, don’t have a flat roof on your house so you cannot observe the literal, Biblical commandment. You can only observe this mitzvot if you take the Rabbinic interpretation of its underlying principle into account.
The second has to do with commandments for which we are not likely to ever have the opportunity to fulfill. This goes beyond whether or not we have a flat roof (for instance, the three-story building where I work does have a flat roof where people have access and it does have a barrier to prevent people from falling off), and goes into a realm where, for example, even if we serve in a military organization and find ourselves in battle, it would never even occur to most of us to capture a woman and particularly not to ship her home thousands of miles away with the idea of making her a wife. This may at one time have been an all too common practice during war (at least the initial rape of enemy women) but for American soldiers in the modern era, it’s no longer even on the radar, so to speak. The third has to do with commands like not wearing mixed fabrics. This is a literal command that can possibly be observed (for after all, Orthodox Jews observe it), and it is a Biblical commandment, so those non-Jews who say they only obey the written or literal Torah can (and by their own value system should) obey it, and yet I know of no one in my past experience among Hebrew Roots and One Law congregations who has ever attempted to observe this mitzvah. So what does all this mean?
As part of my studies last Shabbat, I read the commentaries for the weekly Torah Portion in Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s book Growth Through Torah. As I was reading, it occurred to me that Rabbi Pliskin, in his commentaries, was indeed describing the principles behind each of the mitzvot he was addressing. R. Pliskin cited numerous Rabbinic teachings in relation to the beautiful woman captured in war (Deut. 21:13-14), some which commented directly on the situation, but most of which extrapolated the various principles behind the literal, Biblical meaning. The following is just one sample:
Rabbi Chayim Zaitchyk commented that we see from here that to really change a trait it takes a thirty day period of intensive work. This is the principle of the month of Elul which is a time for us to focus on our behavior and traits in order to make major improvements on ourselves. -R. Pliskin, p. 435
That particular principle probably doesn’t seem like it should reasonably be extrapolated from the plain meaning of the text, and so most of us (at least if we’re not Orthodox Jews) tend to disregard it. On the other hand, the Jewish people have been the keepers of the commandments of God, including the observance of Shabbat and the knowledge and practice of ethical monotheism, for untold centuries before the rest of the world even heard of a single God. Who is to say that God did not give the leaders and teachers among the Jews, ancient and modern, the authority to study and to derive underlying principles from the surface meaning of the commandments and to integrate those principles into the practice of daily living for their communities?
For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
–Acts 15:21 (NASB)
This single verse is among the most mysterious and probably the most misunderstood in the entire Bible. For many in the Hebrew Roots movement, it is one of the justifications for believing that the Jewish Apostles intended for the Gentile disciples to not only learn the Torah but to observe the full body of the mitzvot in the manner of the Jews, even though Peter said “Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?”
I’ve often said that it is impossible to understand what Jesus taught unless you understand how he understood the Torah, Writings, and Prophets, the Bible that existed in the days of the Apostles. Sending new Gentile disciples of the Master to the synagogue to hear the Torah read and interpreted by the teachers each Shabbat was one way to help them understand the principles and even the nuances behind the literal commandments and teachings. It’s not just the words, but the context, the language, and the world view of the original intended audience. The original intended audience of Jesus were Hebrew/Aramaic speaking Jews living in Israel.
The Gentile disciples came from a number of different nations and cultures, none of which would have given them the educational background and specific mindset of the people to whom Jesus was originally teaching. The Gentiles could only gain that perspective and thus eventually learn what Jesus was really teaching by studying among Jewish teachers, probably for many months to many years, because the teachings of the Bible are heavily embedded in culture and experiential living as well as language, religion, and history.
Now take a bunch of Americans (or whoever you are) two-thousand years removed from all of that. Compared to the Gentile disciples being addressed in Acts 15, we might as well have just arrived from another planet in terms of our ability to grasp what they were asked to study, and it was a challenge even for them. I don’t believe that either then or now, non-Jewish disciples of Jesus were or are expected to emulate the Jewish disciples beyond a certain subset of observances and underlying principles, but it is those underlying principles that may capture the secret to what it is to be a (so-called) “Torah-observant Gentile.”
Going back to building fences on roofs or putting covers over swimming pools, I don’t think anyone, Jewish or Christian, would think it was a bad idea to improve safety conditions on our property and to protect our family and friends from accidental injury. It’s not just a “Jewish thing”. In fact, we have a body of penal and civil laws in the U.S. that speak to just those concerns so it can be said our local and national governments, to one degree or another, mandate or command that we behave as responsible citizens by taking proactive steps to provide a safe environment in our communities.
Thus we can say that there is more than meets the eye to the Apostolic decree in regards to the Gentile disciples we find in the Acts 15 letter but it may be more layered and nuanced than the simple assumption that there is only a single expectation for everyone everywhere that is contained in the Torah. Ismar Schorsch, in his 2005 commentary on this past week’s Torah portion, as recorded in Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries (p. 610) and referencing Eshet Hayil (“A Woman of Valor”) based on Proverbs 31:10-31, said:
Words carry more than their surface meanings. To fixate on their literal meanings turns a deep channel into a shallow trough.
Is it possible that some of us in believing and even attempting to practice a literal, Biblical Torah, have turned the “deep channel” of God’s intent for our lives into “a shallow trough?” The rather lengthy title for one of Rabbi Pliskin’s commentaries on Deuteronomy 22:5 which prohibits the wearing of garments meant for the opposite sex is, Each person should feel joy in fulfilling his or her unique role in life. He states (p. 438):
Targum Yonoson states that the garments of a man include tzitzis and tefilin. Rabbi Chayim Shmuelevitz commented on this that we see the principle that each person has his own mission in life. The same thing that for one person is “holy of holies,” for another person who does a similar thing, but it is not his life’s task, it is an abomination. Each person should feel joy in carrying out his life’s mission and should not try to do things that he was not meant to do.
While R. Pliskin is a Jew writing to other Jews, I think I can reasonably extrapolate an extended principle that applies to non-Jews who feel compelled to take on board a role which is not assigned to us, a Jewish role. I posted a link to a recent “meditation” called Torah and the Christian: An “In-a-Nutshell” Explanation on Google+ and a Jewish person responded:
As a Christian, saved by grace, who happens to have a Jewish heritage, I try to avoid the discussion of what Jews and Gentiles should and should not to do because it has a tendency to lead to division. However, Yeshua already provided the answer, which we would do well to remember: “For he himself is our shalom — he has made us both one and has broken down the m’chitzah which divided us by destroying in his own body the enmity occasioned by the Torah, with its commands set forth in the form of ordinances. He did this in order to create in union with himself from the two groups a single new humanity and thus make shalom, and in order to reconcile to God both in a single body by being executed on a stake as a criminal and thus in himself killing that enmity. Also, when he came, he announced as Good News shalom to you far off and shalom to those nearby, news that through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:14-18 CJB).
It’s one of the expected responses from both a traditional Christian and classic Hebrew Roots perspectives, although both groups identify the practices of “one new man” quite differently. It also cites the usual issue of promoting identity specific roles as “causing division,” and my response would be to suggest that a Kohen having a specific role in the Temple did not “cause division” among the different classes of Israelites (apart from the Korach rebellion of course). We simply have our own roles assigned to us by God based, among other things, on who we are in terms of gender, nationality, and covenant connectiveness.
When writing on Deuteronomy 22:7 and 22:10, R. Pliskin crafted commentaries called Even when engaged in a mitzvah be sensitive to the feelings of others andBe careful not to cause others to envy. The underlying principles being expressed here are applicable both to Jewish people observing the mitzvot and Gentiles who think they should do so in the manner the Jews are commanded.
One of the things I must (sorry to say this) criticize J.K. McKee for was a statement he made in his book One Law for All: From the Mosaic Texts to the Work of the Holy Spirit about the issue of Jewish distinctiveness in the Messianic community of believers. I don’t recall the exact quote, but he made what I consider to be some rather snarky remarks about these Jewish people being exclusivist and even petty in desiring to have their covenant role as Jews recognized and respected.
And yet we see there’s a principle in Torah observance that recognizes distinctiveness of roles and even that a person whose role does not include the performance of particular mitzvot can actually hurt or inflict pain upon others. While we Gentiles may believe Jews are deliberately provoking us to envy because of their status before God, we, for our part, when we claim mitzvot that are not consistent with our role, are being injurious to the very people and nation we claim to love.
So what’s the answer? I don’t think there’s an easily understood one. I hope I’ve established in this short essay that the Torah is not a simple list of “Dos” and “Don’ts” but rather a highly complex and nuanced collection of lifestyle elements that define a Jew’s obedience to God as the conditions of the Mosaic Covenant. I also hope you can see that understanding how non-Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah fit into the covenantal landscape, in our case exclusively through the New Covenant blessings as they apply to us, is not an easy task. It wasn’t an easy task when James and the Council of Apostles and Elders issued their binding halachah upon the first Gentile disciples and it certainly isn’t now two-thousand years later.
Pastor Randy, the head Pastor at the church I attend, is in the process of presenting a sermon series on the Ten Commandments and how he believes they apply to Christians today. To do this, he has to dig into various portions of the Torah to lay his foundation, and my Sunday school teacher, who creates lessons based on Pastor’s sermons, is challenged with trying to comprehend how the underlying principles behind the Torah are “Christian”. And that’s where I think the answers for Gentile disciples lie, not in attempting to look and act “Jewish” by donning the outward apparel (tallit, tefillin, kippah) that would make people think we’re Jewish (which seems very much in line with the prohibition for a man to wear woman’s clothing as well as the reverse), but by studying and then practicing the underlying principles behind as many of the mitzvot as make sense for us to approach.
The answer, for me anyway, is not to believe I can obey God by looking like I’m Jewish, but to behave in a manner that applies the principles of the Torah within the context of who I am as a Christian and a Gentile, to live a life of faith, trust, charity, all in obedience, for there are many of us in our various roles and lifestyles, but only one God.
At the core of the pluralism issue is the debate over whether there’s “More than one way to be a good Jew.” Indeed, there have always been divergent streams of observance – like Chassidic, Sefardic vs. Ashkenazic, and even the Talmudic arguments between the Talmudic academies of Shammai and Hillel.
And yet, historic precedents show that there are limits to pluralism, beyond which a group is schismatic to the point where it is no longer considered Jewish. For example, everyone considers Jews for Jesus as outside of the legitimate Jewish sphere. The disagreement, then, lies in defining exactly what are the acceptable limits of divergence.
I’m continuing my email conversation with my Jewish friend as I described in yesterday’s meditation, and this “Ask the Rabbi” column seemed to fit right in. As you just read, there are a whole bunch of divergent streams of Judaism, but how far can you diverge and still be Jewish? According to the Aish Rabbi, being “Jews for Jesus” is going too far.
I should say at this point that “Jews for Jesus” is how most Jews see Messianic Judaism, thus Messianic Judaism isn’t viewed as a “Judaism” at all. One problem is, as a private communication revealed to me just recently, even many staunch Jewish disciples of Messiah aren’t all that observant. For instance, one Messianic Jewish conference (I’m deliberately concealing identifying information for obvious reasons) was scheduled during a major Jewish fast day. At another conference, the conference leaders ate the local hotel (non-Kosher) fare, and the very few Jewish attendees who kept kosher were forced to have catered kosher meals brought in or to drive some distance to a kosher eating establishment. And driving on Shabbat for the Jewish conference organizers and attendees wasn’t considered a big deal at all.
Why do I say all this?
Historically, any Jewish group which denied the basic principles of Jewish tradition – Torah and mitzvah-observance – ultimately ceased to be part of the Jewish people. The Sadducees and the Karites, for instance, refused to accept certain parts of the Oral Law, and soon after broke away completely as part of the Jewish People. The Hellenists, secularists during the Second Temple period, also soon became regarded as no longer “Jewish.” Eventually, these groups vanished completely.
-the Aish Rabbi
One of the big issues that may inhibit halachically, culturally, and religiously observant Jews from recognizing Messianic Judaism as a Judaism is, based on the quote above, the lack of consistent Jewish observance in Messianic Judaism. Except for in a few small corners of the movement (at least from an Orthodox Jewish perspective), Messianic Judaism presents the appearance of being not a Judaism (there are many other issues, such as the deification of Jesus and the supposed worship of a man, but I’m choosing to focus on the matter of community and observance right now).
It’s a terrible thing for a Jew to be cut off from his or her people.
For those of you who don’t know, the concept of Kareth or “cutting off” is a consequence of a Jew committing certain offenses, such as having a forbidden sexual relationship or worshiping a deity other than Hashem (known as Avodah Zarah). Messianic author and teacher Derek Leman even wrote an article on the topic a few years back.
Should a Jew in Messianic Judaism feel cut off from larger Judaism? Is that a consequence of being a Messianic Jew? Not according to Rabbi Stuart Dauermann in his article “The Jewish People are Us – Not Them,” which he wrote for the Fall 2013 issue of Messiah Journal (and which I reviewed), however, R. Dauermann admits that this has been a consequence of Messianic Judaism historically due to its associations with Evangelical Christianity. Evangelicals believe that once a Jew becomes a disciple of Messiah through the Messianic movement (or by converting to Christianity), they have more in common with Gentile Christians than non-Messianic Jews.
That’s a terrible burden to lay on any Jew’s shoulders.
But does it really have to be that way? Has it always been that way?
Early Christians were the original “Jews for Jesus.” They accepted the Divine revelation of the Torah, but not the eternal, binding nature of the commandments. Initially, these Jews were reliable in their kashrut, and counted in a minyan. But the turning point came when Paul, realizing that Jews wouldn’t accept the concept of a dead Messiah, opened up membership to non-Jews. At that point, these “Jews” experienced a total severing of Jewish identity.
Now that’s a glaring assumption by the Aish Rabbi. Let’s look at that again:
But the turning point came when Paul, realizing that Jews wouldn’t accept the concept of a dead Messiah, opened up membership to non-Jews. At that point, these “Jews” experienced a total severing of Jewish identity.
Evangelical Christianity believes that Paul broke with Jewish identity shortly after he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus (see Acts 9) and that the extinguishment of Jewish identity in Messiah was by design. The Aish Rabbi says Paul may not have originally intended to break with Judaism and tradition, but when he couldn’t convince other Jews to “worship a dead Messiah,” Paul switched the object of his proselytizing from Jewish to Gentile populations and cut loose anything Jewish from devotion to Jesus.
No wonder so many Jewish people really hate Paul.
As Paul and Barnabas were going out, the people urged them to speak about these things again the next sabbath. When the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who spoke to them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.
–Acts 13:42-43 (NRSV)
I invite you to read the larger context which is captured in Acts 13:13-52, but basically, after Paul’s discourse in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch, on how Jesus was indeed the Messiah, his Jewish audience was extremely eager for him to return next Shabbat to say more. Apparently the issue of a “dead Messiah” wasn’t a problem. The problem was this:
The next sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy; and blaspheming, they contradicted what was spoken by Paul.
–Acts 13:44-45 (NRSV)
A certain number of God-fearing Gentiles generally attended this synagogue on a regular basis, so the huge crowds of non-Jews who showed up for the subsequent Shabbat to hear Paul must have been the result of word getting out and large crowds of idol-worshiping pagan Gentiles entering the Jewish community space.
So like I said, the “dead Messiah,” at least in this case, didn’t seem to be the problem, nor, as we know from many of Paul’s other letters as well as the record in Luke’s Acts, did Paul totally abandon his people or Jewish practice in order to invent a new, Law-free, religion exclusively for the Gentiles. As the Aish Rabbi himself stated, the early Jewish disciples ”accepted the Divine revelation of the Torah” and ”these Jews were reliable in their kashrut, and counted in a minyan.” I do not believe that ”these Jews” denied ”the eternal, binding nature of the commandments” nor that Paul taught Jews to neglect the Torah.
Paul said in his defense, “I have in no way committed an offense against the law of the Jews, or against the temple, or against the emperor.”
–Acts 25:8 (NRSV)
Paul continued to deny that he had committed any offense against the Torah or against Roman law for the rest of his life and unless we want to believe he was just lying to try to save his skin (didn’t do him very much good if that was his ploy), then we have to consider that the Aish Rabbi, representing the general Jewish view of Paul, and Evangelical Christianity, are both wrong about the Apostle to the Gentiles.
So we have some history that tells us the very first Jews who belonged to the Messianic stream of Judaism called “the Way” continued to be observant Jews and continued to be considered Jewish by the other branches of Judaism in the late Second Temple period.
But why can’t we have that now? Why can’t Messianic Jews be considered Jewish, even within Messianic Judaism? Why should a Jew in Messianic Judaism be considered cut off from his or her people in larger Judaism?
The Aish Rabbi ends his article this way:
I can’t predict what will happen to the various streams within Judaism today, but I do believe that the best bet for a strong Jewish future is to remain loyal to our faith and traditions.
I promise that the Rabbi was not considering Messianic Judaism in this opinion but I believe we should. What that means, is the Jewish people in Messianic Judaism, in order to ensure a strong Jewish future, must too remain loyal to Jewish faith and traditions. That’s why I wrote the blog post The Necessity of Messianic Jewish Community. That’s exactly why Messianic Jewish community is necessary, important, vital, critical.
There’s a lot more I could say about this, but for the sake of length, I’ll back off for now. It will probably be fuel for another blog post fairly soon. I don’t see this issue going away.
I know it’s odd for me, a non-Jewish person studying within the context of Messianic Judaism, to be so passionate about Jewish identity for Jews in Messiah. I suppose it all comes back to my own (Jewish) family who aren’t Messianic but who I believe really need to be even better at connecting with Jewish community. There’s a huge danger as each generation passes, of Jewish people simply fading away, not assimilating into Christianity necessarily, but just drifting into secular oblivion.
Within Messianic Judaism, many of the leading Jewish teachers and promoters are themselves intermarried, and if the mothers of their children aren’t Jewish, then neither are their offspring. If, as I stated above, there is a “crisis” of minimal or inconsistent observance of the mitzvot which further weakens the Jewish nature of Messianic Judaism and thus any connection with larger Jewry, will Jews be found within Messianic Judaism in twenty or thirty years?
"When you awake in the morning, learn something to inspire you and mediate upon it, then plunge forward full of light with which to illuminate the darkness." -Rabbi Tzvi Freeman