Believe it or not, this week’s message was not inspired by the fact that the Catholic Church has chosen a new Pope; it just offers a convenient contrast. As you probably know, there is, in their beliefs, a doctrine of papal infallibility. When the Pope teaches the rules, he is always right.
It is natural to assume that Judaism has something similar. This is especially true, given the Torah’s demand that we listen to the Rabbis and Judges, and not deviate “right or left” [Deut. 17:11] from what they say.
-Rabbi Yaakov Menken
“Everyone Makes Mistakes”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayikra
I’ve been hesitating about writing this particular “meditation” because it has the potential to be rather controversial. As part of my conversations with Pastor Randy, we’ve been discussing what is Torah? That’s an amazingly difficult question to answer. It’s not just the Five Books of Moses, and I believe that it should be at least the entire Tanakh (Old Testament). I believe a great deal of the New Testament and certainly the epistles of Paul should be considered midrash on Torah, specifically in relation to the teachings of Messiah.
As I’ve said before (and will say again when I publish “Four Questions, Part 4” tomorrow), Pastor Randy believes that the Torah is too difficult to observe perfectly and in fact, has always been too difficult to observe. This is pretty much what most of Christianity believes, and along with that, the church sees the primary purpose of Torah as always pointing to Jesus. Once Jesus came, the purpose of Torah expired and grace was substituted.
I don’t happen to believe this, and my understanding is that Jewish people, including those who are disciples of the Master, remain obligated to the Torah of Moses.
But I’m not here to talk about the Torah as such (I’ll do that tomorrow), but rather how it is applied through Rabbinic interpretation and authority. This is the really touchy part. As Rabbi Menken writes, there’s a tendency to view the sages in a manner similar to how Catholics view the Pope, as infallible and that all Rabbinic rulings are automatically correct. But is that really true? Rabbi Menken continues.
We see from this week’s reading, though, that this is definitely not the case. The Torah prescribes special atonement for when the High Priest, the King, or the Sanhedrin [Lev. 4: 13-21], the High Rabbinical Court, makes a mistake. In other words, the Torah highlights for us that it is possible for the Sanhedrin to be mistaken.
This is not about a small matter, either. The commentaries say that the mistake described here is one in which the Sanhedrin teaches that it is permitted to do something, and the Sanhedrin later realizes that the behavior is prohibited — so much so that a person committing the act deliberately would suffer the punishment of Kares, spiritual excision [the exact definition of this is disputed, but severe]. Even in matters of religious law, where the Sanhedrin’s supreme authority is undisputed — even there, they could make a mistake.
So why, then, does the Torah tell us to listen to them? They could, after all, be leading us in the wrong direction!
That is an extraordinarily good question. It’s also the question that comes to the minds of just about all Christians, including many people in the Hebrew Roots movement who believe that the Bible contains everything necessary for a Jew to observe Torah without relying on external interpretation or additional instructions.
Based upon a proof from a Baraisa, the Gemara had concluded that a lechi post is not valid if it is not recognizable from the inside, although it is visible from the outside. Yet, the Gemara proceeds to inform us that the halachah is that such a lechi is valid. Immediately, the Gemara asks, “We have disproven the validity of such a lechi, and yet the halachah rules that it is valid?!”
The Gemara continues to resolve this halachic conclusion, based upon yet another Baraisa which validates such a lechi.
This give and take, where the Gemara proves one point of view, and then immediately concludes the halachah according to the opposite opinion is relatively uncommon. A computer check reveals that it appears only five times in Shas (here, Kesuvos 41b-twice, Bava Kamma 15b-twice, Bava Metzia 22b).
Daf Yomi Digest
“It is disproved – but yet it is the Halachah!”
That didn’t help. I admit, the complexities of Talmud escape me most of the time and yet religious Judaism in all of its variants, depends on these rulings, laws, and judgments for so very much.
My question is basic. Is literally every single ruling, judgment, halachah, and word of every sage everywhere across time valid and binding in religious Judiasm, or is it possible that at some point, the sages have gone too far?
Kapparot is a custom in which the sins of a person are symbolically transferred to a fowl. It is practiced by some Jews shortly before Yom Kippur. First, selections from Isaiah 11:9, Psalms 107:10, 14, and 17-21, and Job 33:23-24 are recited; then a rooster (for a male) or a hen (for a female) is held above the person’s head and swung in a circle three times, while the following is spoken: “This is my exchange, my substitute, my atonement; this rooster (or hen) shall go to its death, but I shall go to a good, long life, and to peace.” The hope is that the fowl, which is then donated to the poor for food, will take on any misfortune that might otherwise occur to the one who has taken part in the ritual, in punishment for his or her sins.
-Richard Schwartz, Ph.D.
“The Custom of Kapparot in the Jewish Tradition”
The Torah, particularly the book of Leviticus, provides an extremely detailed description of the various sacrifices to be given at the Temple in Holy Jerusalem, and under what circumstances a Jew must present said-sacrifices. To the best of my knowledge, none of them involve the use of a chicken as described by the modern rite of kapparot. Dr. Schwartz details some of the Jewish objections to this practice.
Some Jewish leaders felt that people would misunderstand the significance of the ritual. The belief that the ceremony of kapparot can transfer a person’s sins to a bird, and that his or her sins would then be completely eradicated, is contrary to Jewish teachings. For, if the ritual could remove a person’s sins, what would be the need for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement?
The Mishneh Brurah, an eminent contemporary commentary on Rabbi Joseph Caro’s classical codification of Jewish law, explains the significance of the ritual. Judaism stresses that a person can’t obtain purity from sin, and thus obtain higher levels of perfection, without repenting. Through God’s mercy, we are given the Divine gift of repentance, so that we might abandon our corrupt ways, thereby being spared from the death that we deserve for our violation of the Divine law. By substituting the death of a fowl, one will (hopefully) appreciate G-d’s mercy and be stirred to repentance. By no means, however, does the ritual and the slaughter of the bird eradicate one’s misdeeds, even though the bird is donated to the poor.
If a Jewish person is a disciple of the Master and has studied and accepted the teachings in the Apostolic Scriptures, he or she understands that this particular ritual is not meaningful or necessary. The sins of anyone, Jew or Gentile, who has accepted Jesus (Hebrew: Yeshua) as Savior, Lord, and Messiah, have been forgiven. He died, paying the price for our sin as the ultimate atonement, and when we repent (and we must repent) of our own sins, turning away from them, and turning to God, we are forgiven once and for all without the need for further sacrifices.
So how are we to reconcile the rulings of the sages in relation to the kapparot involving chickens during Yom Kippur and the reality of the Messiah? The better question is, how are Messianic Jews to reconcile this along with any other Jewish practices that seem to contradict the teachings and life of the Master?
The Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council has established official halachah for its member synagogues and individual members, but that’s hardly a universal standard. On the other hand, how halachah is applied across the rest of the religious Jewish landscape is not entirely consistent either. For example, we can point to the radically extreme differences between how the Haridim vs. Reform Judaism live out Jewish lives they believe are consistent with observing Torah.
It’s obvious that Messianic Judaism has to make a few “adjustments” to how some of the Rabbinic rulings are applied, but even given that, are we to understand that all of the remaining body of Mishnah is fully correct and fully valid? If we accept that the Torah doesn’t change (and there are those who debate even that), can we accept that Jewish interpretation is adaptive and evolutionary across time and culture? I had a recent Facebook conversation that included the following:
There are enduring realities in the Torah…the Shema is one…The pursuit of Justice is another…however there are changes in the way Torah is embraced…David recognizes that G-d wants a contrite and broken heart, not burnt offerings (Psalm 51) Micah gives the same notion (Micah 6)…so there is an evolutionary understanding of the nature and character of G-d that takes place…
David is specific…”burnt offerings you do not desire”…but a contrite broken heart….quite removed from the harsh Levitical code of bloody sacrifices…and those scriptures reflect evolving understanding of the nature and character of G-d…Jesus in the John 8 narrative lays aside the penalty that the Torah prescribes and challenges the lack of personal holiness/integrity of the woman’s accusers…
Part of the problem is that we can “interpret” the Bible to mean just about anything. If we give the Rabbinic sages (or anyone) carte blanche to establish binding interpretations and halachah for their specific streams of Judaism, are they always consistent with God’s intent for the Jewish observance of Torah?
There’s no way to know for sure. Well, there’s one.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.
–Matthew 23:1-4 (ESV)
Even as Jesus confirmed that the scribes and Pharisees did indeed have the authority to create binding halachah upon the Jewish people of his day (see the paper Matthew 23:2–4: Does Jesus Recognize the Authority of the Pharisses and Does He Endorse their Halakhah? (PDF) by Noel S. Rabbinowitz, JETS 46/3 (September 2003) 423-47 for details), he also criticized them for failing to follow their own rules. However, he didn’t agree with each and every one of their rulings.
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.
–Mark 3:1-5 (ESV)
Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
–Mark 7:1-8 (ESV)
So what does all this mean?
- There are some modern Jewish rituals and customs that contradict the reality of the risen Messiah.
- Jewish ritual and tradition is not applied with universal consistency across all religious Jewish communities and across time.
- Historically, Jesus affirmed the right of the ancient Pharisees and scribes to establish binding halachah for Jews.
- Historically, Jesus refuted some of the halakhic rulings by the Pharisees and scribes and offered correction and criticism when necessary.
- At least one modern Messianic Jewish body has offered an adaptation to Jewish halachah that is more consistent with the reality of the risen Messiah.
Oh. We know one more thing:
The nations will send their emissaries to the King Messiah, and the King Messiah will teach the world how to live in peace, and how to want to live in peace. Then, everyone in the world will enjoy eternal peace, for as long as this world will last. The great Rabbi, Rav Shlomoh Freifeld, of blessed memory, said in a talk he once gave that I attended that the Messiah will be a great teacher.
-from “What is the Messiah Supposed to Do”
He will restore the religious court system of Israel and establish Jewish law as the law of the land (Jeremiah 33:15).
-from “Mashiach: The Messiah”
It is my understanding that one of the things many Jewish people believe the Messiah will do is to teach Torah, to teach the correct interpretation of Torah and how it is to be lived out. According to BeingJewish.com, as we saw above, he will even teach the Gentiles peace.
So what am I getting at?
This is Rabbi Menken’s solution to understanding the puzzle.
One answer has to do with the power of unity. Different customs and practices are wonderful, but there has to be underlying agreement on “the basics.” One of the problems with calling different Chassidic groups “sects” is that a sect is “a dissenting or schismatic religious body.” Chassidic groups may be led by different Rebbes, but they don’t rewrite the rules. The disagreements of today are disagreements about shapes of branches on individual trees within a massive, unified forest.
And there is another answer, which requires still more humility. It is all well and good to say that everyone is fallible — but who is more likely to be making a mistake? The Torah gives leadership to people who dedicate themselves completely to Torah study, to learning the Torah’s “way of thinking.” Such people are inherently less biased by the latest news reports and the wise opinions of the chattering class, as we are. We recognize that it is much less likely that they will make a mistake, and that is why we trust their guidance.
Is there a “unified forest” of Torah? I think there must be, otherwise there is nothing for Jews to observe except traditions (the shapes of branches on the individual trees); there is no root, no foundation, no sense of an absolute God who has core standards that are as unchanging as He is. Beyond a certain point, we can’t simply re-invent the Bible to fit our modern sensibilities so that they agree with whatever “politically correct” causes that may be popular this week, this month, or this year. If we did, our faith (and our God) would be no more consistent or eternal than the shifting viewpoints of a political party or social agenda.
Rabbi Maurice Lamm says in “What is Torah” published at Aish.com:
In fact, far from being enslaved by the law, Jews were enamored of it. We cannot take our leave of the subject of Torah without expressing this most characteristic sentiment of Jewish literature – the love of Torah.
You may ask: can a people “love” a law? Yet, that is the exquisite paradox inherent in the concept of Torah – it is respected and studied and feared, while it is loved and embraced and kissed. All at once. There is no good in this world – no ideal, no blessing, no perfection, no glory – unless it is associated with the law.
To Jews, the Torah is “light”; it is the “glory of the sons of man”; it is the energizing sap of life for “the dry bones” (Ezekiel 37:4) which symbolize the “people in whom there is not the sap of the commandment.”
To Jews, the law is mayim chayim, refreshing, life-restoring, living waters to Jews; the sweetness of honey and milk, the joy and strength of wine, and the healing power of oil. It is an “elixir of life” that brings healing to all.
In Acts 15, Peter called the Law a burden but in Acts 21, Paul defended his observance of the Law. We also see in that same chapter that many of the Jews in Messiah were zealous for the Law.
And God, through Moses, said this about the Torah.
“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”
I think that for the Jewish people, there is an “ideal” Torah, a Torah that God intends for His people Israel. As we’ve seen in the record of the Bible, all things being equal, human beings will mess up a free lunch. We take everything God gives us and turn it on its side, we fold, spindle, or mutilate it, drag it through the mud, drag it through our biases, prejudices, and personalities, drag it through our theologies, our doctrines, our translations, and eventually on the other side, we come out with some approximation of what God wants us to say, do, and be.
How close are all of our approximations to the desires of God, how near is our fidelity to the original? Opinions vary widely. It’s not that we are dishonest and it’s not that we don’t want to do His will as opposed to our will (most of the time, anyway), but we are human beings. Everything we are as flawed, mortal beings gets in the way of everything He is as a perfect, immortal God.
That’s where Messiah comes in. Being human and divine, he can provide (and has provided) the correct “interface” for us. He is a teacher. When he comes, whatever we’ve gotten wrong, he’ll help us understand correctly.
If there’s an answer to how the Law is infinitely accessible, and a delight, and a light, and to be loved by those who have received it from Him, that answer comes on the clouds with Messiah. God is a teacher.