R’ Moshe Feinstein (in his Darash Moshe) explains that greatness is not defined by a person’s accomplishments, but rather by the person’s success in fulfilling the tasks for which Hashem equipped him and sent him to this world. Every person enters the world with unique abilities and a specific set of tasks to accomplish. Some are given tremendous ability, and are expected to achieve a great deal, while others are endowed with lesser abilities, and correspondingly, smaller tasks. But every person’s job is identical — use the skills you have been given to the utmost, to accomplish as much as you can.
-from “A Torah Thought for the Day,” p.75
Tuesday’s commentary on Parashas Va’eira
A Daily Dose of Torah
From a rationalist’s point of view it does not seem plausible to assume that the infinite, supreme Being is concerned with my putting on Tefillin every day. It is, indeed strange to believe that God should care whether a particular individual will eat leavened or unleavened bread during a particular season of the year. However, it is that paradox, namely, that the infinite God is intimately concerned with finite man and his finite deeds; that nothing is trite or irrelevant in the eyes of God, which is the very essence of the prophetic faith.
-Abraham Joshua Heschel
from “Does God Require Anything of Man?” p.102
Man’s Quest for God
You may not think the two quotes just above have much to do with one another, but bear with me. The former is addressing how each human being is placed on earth to fulfill his or her specific potential understanding that we all have different potentials, and the latter is discussing, not generally human response to God, but a Jew’s response to Hashem through performance of the mitzvot.
There are many problems which we encounter in our reflections on the issue of Jewish observance. I would like to discuss briefly several of these problems, namely, the relation of observance to our understanding of the will of God; the meaning of observance to man; the regularity of worship; inwardness and the essence of religion; the relevance of the external deeds.
“To Obey or to Play with the Will of God.” p.102
Is Heschel using “man” and “Jewish” as interchangeable terms, or can we infer that he means that all human beings are responsible for obeying God, and then drawing out Jewish observance as distinct from God’s expectations for the rest of us?
I doubt Heschel meant to include that meaning into his writing but I’m going to “force” the issue based on my particular perspective.
You see, not only do I believe that each individual human being was placed here in life for a purpose that has been assigned to us by God, but I believe that God has placed the Jewish people and the Gentile nations here to fulfill specific purposes depending on which corporate body we are born into (aside from some Gentiles converting to Judaism).
In other words, there are specific tasks God placed Jewish people here to perform, and we Gentiles have specific tasks we also are here to perform, all in the service of God.
But those Jewish and Gentile tasks aren’t necessarily the same (though there’s probably some overlap).
I know that will ruffle a few feathers out there, but I’ve said this often enough and in so many different ways, it shouldn’t really surprise anyone by now.
As for the “equality” of women in Torah, a great deal depends on what you think “equality” means. In Torah, it does not mean that every member of the community is authorized to perform the identically same roles and tasks. Leviim may not perform some tasks reserved for Cohanim. Other Jews who are not in these categories may not perform the tasks reserved for priestly categories (with some rare and constrained exceptions). Men may not bear children nor are they exempt from time-critical tasks required of them (the men, not the children [:)]). Women may not perform certain tasks required specifically of men. Children are constrained from performing adult tasks and are not to be relied upon to perform adult responsibilities (though their training will include learning by doing, emulating such tasks). None of these categories are less to be valued because of what they may not do; and each is to be highly valued for what they *are* given to do. They are all equally valuable and honorable; but they are not identical in their assignments nor may they trade off their specific responsibilities, though some tasks may be shared by more than one of these categories.
-from a comment made by “ProclaimLiberty”
on my blog post Jews Defining Their Own Relationship With God And The Torah
While the conversation was about male and female equality of roles within Jewish religious and communal space, I chose to expand the concept to include Jewish and Gentile roles within that same space and particularly within Messianic Judaism.
Individuals are granted potentials to fulfill and so are people groups, namely Jewish and Gentile. After all, the Torah was given to Israel at Sinai, not all of the human beings living on the Earth. So if there were a Gentile “mixed multitude” also standing at Sinai saying as one man, “all that you have said we will do” (Exodus 19:8; 24:3), those from outside Israel either assimilated into the tribes, losing their Gentile heritage forever, or they left without so much as a “by your leave” to return to the rest of the nations, probably the lands from which they came.
But what about the rest of us? I mentioned that I thought the nations had specific tasks hard-coded into our potential as well. I suppose I could start with Genesis 9 which is the basis for what in Judaism is referred to as The Seven Laws of Noah, but I can go further than that.
“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.”
–Acts 15:19-21 (NASB)
But concerning the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.”
It would seem, at least from my point of view, that the Bible presupposes a distinction in the duties human beings have to God depending on whether or not you’re Jewish.
Yet we all wholeheartedly accept Micah’s words: “He has showed you, O man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). If we believe that there is something which God requires of man, then what is our belief if not faith in the will of God, certainty of knowing what His will demands of us?
“Does God Require Anything of Man,” p.103
But from a “Messianic Gentile’s” perspective, what is the “certainty of knowing what His will demands of us?” The overly simplistic answer some have selected is that “one size fits all.” In other words, there are 613 commandments that Jews are obligated to perform (though many of them are in abeyance since we are without a Temple, a Levitical Priesthood, and a Sanhedrin in Israel), and God has only one standard of piety and righteousness for the whole human race, that is, the aforementioned 613 commandments, the Torah.
But if we accept that, then we must accept that God first chose Israel to be a light to the nations, then at some point, “unchose” her, and instead, chose all followers of Jesus Christ (Yeshua HaMashiach). Except that’s exactly what the Christian Church believes. Christians believe that God “unchose” Israel and the Torah and then chose “the Church,” the worldwide body of believers in Jesus. Hebrew Roots generally (but not universally) believes that (again, please bear with me) God “unchose” Israel and then chose all followers of Messiah Yeshua and applied the Torah to his latter selection in the same manner as He did with His former selection (and as I’ve said before, I don’t for a split second believe that Gentile disciples actually become “non-Jewish Israel”).
It is so difficult from a western egalitarian mindset to imagine that God would be so “unfair” as to have different standards and different expectations for different people groups. And yet, He is God and His will be done.
Heschel calls observing the mitzvot “the Jewish way of life,” (p.105) and he takes Christian theology and specifically the writings of the Apostle Paul to task for emphasizing that a man is justified by faith apart from the Law (p.108 citing Romans 3:28), which he doesn’t consider to be a particularly Jewish attitude.
The highest peak of spiritual living is not necessarily reached in rare moments of ecstasy; the highest peak lies wherever we are and may be ascended in a common deed. There can be as sublime a holiness in fulfilling a friendship, in observing dietary laws, day by day, as in uttering a prayer on the Day of Atonement.
“There is No Exterritoriality,” p.111
I agree, however Heschel seems to have missed this:
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.
Of course James (Ya’akov or Jacob), the head of the Council of Apostles and Elders and brother to the Master was (and is) also Jewish so it stands to reason that he and Heschel might have some common insights on a Jewish response to God.
One of the questions I am asked when I bring up this subject is what specifically does God expect of the Gentile in Messiah? I’ve tried to answer that question on multiple occasions over the past several years, most recently in The Duty of Messianic Gentiles and Christians to the Jews, Messianic Judaism for the Rest of Us and Gentiles Studying Torah for the Sake of Doing. But in reading Heschel another detail came to mind.
While not prescribing a diet — vegetarian or otherwise — or demanding abstinence from narcotics or stimulants, Judaism is very much concerned with what and how a person ought to eat. A sacred discipline for the body is as important as bodily strength.
So God isn’t concerned about what a Gentile ought to eat?
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.
–1 Corinthians 6:19-20
No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.
–1 Timothy 5:23
The Kosher laws aren’t exclusively a list of “health foods” and in fact, some of the dietary requirements God has for the Jewish people defy logic, but let’s say God does care what we eat (he cares about everything we do, but I’ll use this as an example). Since the Jewish people, God’s nation Israel, has been called out forever from the rest of the nations, which includes the people of the nations who have come to faith in Yeshua, His list of expectations maps to what he has “wired” into them as a set of “potentials”. That goes to every little detail in life, as Heschel alluded to above, including food.
Now let’s say that God also has dietary expectations for the rest of us but that those requirements are less stringent. What if the specific examples we see Paul issuing in his epistles all come down to a general principle (or a few of them if you include the Jerusalem letter) of “eating right?” After all, Paul in his missives seems to be mainly concerned on matters of health, probably for the sake of the Gentile disciples honoring God by behavioral performance (praying, doing good deeds), which is better done if you aren’t sick.
I’m limiting this to food but there’s a lot of things we can do with our bodies to either sanctify or desecrate the Name of God.
What I’m getting from all this is that God’s behavioral expectations of the Jewish people are much more specific and strict than His expectations for the rest of us because that’s the role He assigned them in this life. He assigned the Gentiles a more “generic” but no less important role and thus the expectations attached to our role are more “relaxed” as reflected in the quotes from Acts 15 and Acts 21.
This isn’t to say that a Gentile disciple can’t go “above and beyond” as a matter of personal conviction. After all, God allowed Jewish people to go “above and beyond” by taking a Nazarite Vow (Numbers 6). However, we are no more required to behave beyond our basic assigned requirements than a Israelite was required to undergo the Nazarite ritual (with notable exceptions such as Samson, Samuel, and John the Immerser who were all life-long Nazarim).
It’s not that the Jews have the Law and the Christians (all non-Jewish believers in Messiah) have Grace. We all have Law and we all have Grace. It’s just that the “Law” for the Gentile disciple isn’t as highly specific as it is for the Jew. There’s more flexibility built into our lives than there is for the Jewish people. God expects them to uphold a higher standard and they bear a greater responsibility. Being “chosen” isn’t always a walk in the park.
That’s not the end of the discussion and there are a lot more details involved, but for those, I’ll refer you to Review of the Gentile Believer’s Obligation to the Torah of Moses and The Gentile Believer’s Obligation to the Torah of Moses Revisited.
I know this won’t satisfy some of you out there, but I don’t expect to be able to do so. This is just me refining my understanding of who I am as a Messianic Gentile and my duties to God as a disciple of the Master, may he come soon and in our day.