Tag Archives: rabbinic judaism

Jews Defining Their Own Relationship With God and the Torah

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

PhariseesIt’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.

-Kinzer, pp.6-7

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.

Matthew 23:1-3

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.”

Matthew 16:18-19

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.

Matthew 18:18

FFOZ Bind and LooseThe 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.”

Acts 15:19-21

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, p.27

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.

-ibid, pp.18-19

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.

Talmudic RabbisA 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.

-ibid, p.23

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.

Observing the Letter and the Spirit of the Torah

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.

despairIn 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. Calvin 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.

Ismar Schorsch
Ismar Schorsch

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 and Be 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.

TorahSo 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.

Did Canon Close for Christians and Jews?

Talmud Study by LamplightWhen we asked Major General Farkash why Israel’s military is so antihierarchical and open to questioning, he told us it was not just the military but Israel’s entire society and history. “Our religion is an open book,” he said, in a subtle European accent that traces back to his early years in Transylvania. The “open book” he was referring to was the Talmud — a dense recording of centuries of rabbinic debates over how to interpret the Bible and obey its laws — and the corresponding attitude of questioning is built into Jewish religion, as well as into the national ethos of Israel

As Israeli author Amos Oz has said, Judaism and Israel have always cultivated “a culture of doubt and argument, an open-ended game of interpretations, counter-interpretations, reinterpretations, opposing interpretations. From the very beginning of the existence of the Jewish civilization, it was recognized by its argumentativeness.

-Dan Senor and Saul Singer
“Chapter 2: Battlefield Entrepreneurs,” pg 51
Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle

Less widely appreciated, though, is the paradox that in Judaism the canon remained fluid even as it became fixed. The word of God, unlike the language of humans, was deemed to bear an infinity of meanings with the result that canon spawned commentary. Of all literary genres, commentary is the least appealing to the modern temperament with its penchant for speed, novelty, and self-expression. Yet it is the key to Judaism’s singular achievement: a canon without closure. Revelation proved to be expansive rather than restrictive. The right, indeed the obligation, of every Jew is to plumb the Bible for meaning kept the text open, pliant, and relevant in a conversation that spanned the ages.

-Ismar Schorsch
“Introduction,” pp xv-xvi
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

This is probably one of the fundamental differences between Christianity and Judaism: the belief that it is “normal” to not agree about religion and what the Bible says. Add to this, the belief that Biblical canon is not immutably fixed across time and in fact, that interpretations of the Bible must change across time in order to remain relevant, and you have a tremendous barrier between Christianity and Judaism as religious entities.

Well, sort of.

I’m talking about the various branches of Judaism vs. fundamentalism in Christianity. If you shift to the other end of the spectrum, the view becomes different.

Simply put, the desire for an original source document is one that we’ll likely never overcome because we’ve been taught that a “source” must always exist. We assume that in order for the written word to be valid, it must be verifiable, because we were raised in the era of book reports and footnotes. The Bible, however, is a not a term paper written to appease a persnickety professor. Rather, the Bible is a written collection of generations-old, evolving oral stories as they existed at the time they were written down. Someone chose to record a tiny piece of the evolving oral tales in writing, capturing one solitary moment in the life of the story. Even in cases where the works were copied from other documents, it is probably not proper to wonder where the “source” document is, because the source was the spoken word.

From what I’ve gleaned in the essay written by Fowler and other writers, we erroneously believe that the preservation of God’s Word is the same as preserving each string of words. We also erroneously equate preserving God’s Word with preserving an interpretation of the Word. We spend a lot of time chopping scripture into sound bytes and mining tiny details of our stories, but this is not how ancient storytellers and hearers engaged these stories… We differ in approach because our high level of literacy has made us letter-focused, rather than spirit-focused, when a more faithful use of the text would be to focus on the power of story to bring people together.

-Crystal St. Marie Lewis
“Our Literary Bias: What it is and How it Affects our Perception of Scripture”

BibleStorytellingThe blog author is commenting on an essay written by Robert M. Fowler called “Why Everything We Know About the Bible is Wrong.” I’d love to be able to read this essay myself. I commented on Ms. St. Marie Lewis’s blog asking for the source and she was gracious enough to supply the relevant link.

According to her brief bio, Ms. St. Marie Lewis says that she “writes from the perspective of a progressive Christian about religion and how it relates to the world around us,” which should tell you that she’s unlikely to reflect a fundamentalist Christian viewpoint. However, it’s her progressive perspective that is more likely to fold into, at least to some degree, the Jewish idea that canon is not rigidly fixed.

The church I attend is Baptist and generally supports a dispensationalist point of view:

Dispensationalism is an evangelical, futurist, Biblical interpretation that understands God to have related to human beings in different ways under different Biblical covenants in a series of “dispensations,” or periods in history.

One of the most important underlying theological concepts for dispensationalism is progressive revelation. While some non-dispensationalists start with progressive revelation in the New Testament and refer this revelation back into the Old Testament, dispensationalists begin with progressive revelation in the Old Testament and read forward in a historical sense. Therefore there is an emphasis on a gradually developed unity as seen in the entirety of Scripture. Biblical covenants are intricately tied to the dispensations. When these Biblical covenants are compared and contrasted, the result is a historical ordering of different dispensations. Also with regard to the different Biblical covenant promises, dispensationalism emphasises to whom these promises were written, the original recipients. This has led to certain fundamental dispensational beliefs, such as a distinction between Israel and the Church.

History_of_Dispensationalism_Darby_IIIDispensationalist don’t see themselves as reinterpreting the Bible from a human standpoint to adjust to the requirements of different generations, but nevertheless, they do take the text and view it as becoming more densely packed with information as it progresses from past to future, making “the Church” the ultimate receiver of the highest and most “evolved” revelations of God, somewhat in contradiction to the level of intimacy that someone like Moses would have experienced at having spoken with God “face to face” (the level of intimacy implied here is that of a husband and wife) as it were.

If dispensationalists believe that God progressively revealed Himself up to the end of the Biblical period and then stopped, that’s one thing, but what if they believe that God’s progressive revelation progressed after the end of the Biblical canon and for many centuries to follow?

John Nelson Darby is recognized as the father of dispensationalism,[1]:10, 293 later made popular in the United States by Cyrus Scofield’s Scofield Reference Bible. Charles Henry Mackintosh, 1820–96, with his popular style spread Darby’s teachings to humbler elements in society and may be regarded as the journalist of the Brethren Movement. Mackintosh popularized Darby more than any other Brethren author.

As there was no Christian teaching of a “rapture” before Darby began preaching about it in the 1830s, he is sometimes credited with originating the “secret rapture” theory wherein Christ will suddenly remove his bride, the Church, from this world before the judgments of the tribulation. Dispensationalist beliefs about the fate of the Jews and the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Israel put dispensationalists at the forefront of Christian Zionism, because “God is able to graft them in again”, and they believe that in his grace he will do so according to their understanding of Old Testament prophecy. They believe that, while the methodologies of God may change, his purposes to bless Israel will never be forgotten, just as he has shown unmerited favour to the Church, he will do so to a remnant of Israel to fulfill all the promises made to the genetic seed of Abraham.

Um…whoa! As it says at Wikipedia, it seems as if progressive revelation continued to progress well past the Biblical period and into modern times. How else do you get doctrines such as progressive revelation, the rapture, and Calvinism that didn’t exist in Biblical times and were created closer to the 21st century than to the 1st century? Why did God “reveal” these concepts to Christians so much later in history (and after the Christian Biblical canon was theoretically closed) and how does all this compare to the basic viewpoint of Rabbinic Judaism?

The feature that distinguishes Rabbinic Judaism is the belief in the Oral Law or Oral Torah. The authority for that position has been the tradition taught by the Rabbis that the oral law was transmitted to Moses at Mount Sinai at the same time as the Written Law and that the Oral Law has been transmitted from generation to generation since. The Talmud is said to be a codification of the Oral Law, and is thereby just as binding as the Torah itself. To demonstrate this position some point to the Exodus 18 and Numbers 11 of the Bible are cited to show that Moses appointed elders to govern with him and to judge disputes, imparting to them details and guidance of how to interpret the revelations from God while carrying out their duties. Additionally, all the laws in the Written Torah are recorded only as part of a narrative describing God telling these law to Moses and commanding him to transmit them orally to the Jewish nation. None of the laws in the Written Law are presented as instructions to the reader.

The oral law was subsequently codified in the Mishnah and Gemara, and is interpreted in Rabbinic literature detailing subsequent rabbinic decisions and writings. Rabbinic Jewish literature is predicated on the belief that the Torah cannot be properly understood without recourse to the Oral Law. Indeed, it states that many commandments and stipulations contained in the Torah would be difficult, if not impossible, to keep without the Oral Law to define them — for example, the prohibition to do any “creative work” (“melakha”) on the Sabbath, which is given no definition in the Torah, and only given practical meaning by the definition of what constitutes ‘Melacha’ provided by the Oral Law and passed down orally through the ages. Numerous examples exist of this general prohibitive language in the Torah (such as, “don’t steal”, without defining what is considered theft, or ownership and property laws), requiring — according to Rabbinic thought — a subsequent crystallization and definition through the Oral Law. Thus Rabbinic Judaism claims that almost all directives, both positive and negative, in the Torah are non-specific in nature and would therefore require the existence of either an Oral Law tradition to explain them, or some other method of defining their detail.

bible_read_meI know that Christian progressive revelation in the post-Biblical period and the development of Rabbinic Judaism in the post-Second Temple period don’t seem particularly related, but look at the core of what they both accomplish. They both state that the various authorities in each of these religions take the Bible as the base source material and interpret it (either via the Holy Spirit in Christian understanding or under the authority God gave the Rabbinic sages) across time in order to meet the requirements of each generation. Although Christianity likes to believe it has closed the canon at the end of the book of Revelation, the fact that many doctrines have been created in post-Biblical times that would have been alien to Jesus, Peter, and Paul attest to the opposite.

Judaism, if anything, is more upfront with what it has been doing. The Bible may be a fixed document, but it’s how we interpret it at any given point in history that gives it a lived meaning in the Christian and Jewish worlds. Are any of us truly living “Biblical lives” or are we actually living “Doctrinal lives” as interpreted by our different denominations, sects, and movements?

Who is Worthy of God’s Word?

To some, G-d is great because He makes the wind blow.

For others, because He projects space and time out of the void.

The men of thought laugh and say He is far beyond any of this, for His Oneness remains unaltered even by the event of Creation.

We Jews, this is what we have always said:

G-d is so great, He stoops to listen to the prayer of a small child;

He paints the petals of each wildflower and awaits us there to catch Him doing so;

He plays with the rules of the world He has made to comfort the oppressed and support those who champion justice.

He transcends the bounds of higher and lower.

He transcends all bounds.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Greatness Unlimited”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Indeed, the prayer of the community was born the very instant the prophetic community expired and, when it did come into the spiritual world of the Jew of old, it did not supersede the prophetic community but rather perpetuated it. Prayer is the continuation of prophecy, and the fellowship of prayerful men is ipso facto the fellowship of prophets.

-Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
from Chapter VII of his book
The Lonely Man of Faith

Rabbi Soloveitchik says a very interesting thing. He links the age of the prophets to the post-Second Temple world of Rabbinic Judaism. This may seem strange to most Christians, since we are taught a good many things passed away with the ascendency of Christ and the demise of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. In fact, Christianity tends to discount the early Rabbinic period forward in the history of Judaism and “replace” it with the grace of Jesus Christ.

Of course Rabbi Soloveitchik as an Orthodox Jew, would not offer any sort of acknowledgement of Christ, but I think we can take his words, and those of Rabbi Freeman’s and try to apply them to the world of prayer among all men. While the prophets of old were unique and (as far as I can tell) no man has the “gift of prophesy” today as did Jewish men such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel, we all have the capacity to engage God in the realm of prayer. This makes no man a prophet in the manner of those I have just mentioned, but the ability of humanity to connect, through faith, with God was not ended when the Second Temple was destroyed. Nor did it end with the life, death, life, and ascendency of Jesus. As Rabbi Freeman tells us, God is so great that “He stoops to listen to the prayer of a small child.”

And yet, from a Jewish point of view, prayer is not the exclusive property of the individual as Rabbi Soloveitchik notes:

No man, however great and noble, is worthy of God’s word if he fancies that the word is his private property not to be shared by others.

Judaism sees its relationship with God as largely corporate as indeed, is the Sinai covenant between God and the Israelites. Yet each Jew living today is also to consider himself as having stood personally at the foot of Mount Sinai as God gave the Torah through Moses. By comparison, Christianity, though the “body of Christ,” exists conceptually as a large collection of individuals, and each believer interacts as a unique personality, almost exclusively independent of the community of the church.

We see this most often in how we, as Christians, pray. It’s an almost irresistible temptation to pray about me, myself, and I, and Jesus did not prohibit this. And yet, he also told us to pray for others, even our enemies, and to petition God for the welfare of our leaders, our neighbors, and our oppressors. Rabbi Soloveitchik echos this when he writes “Man should avoid praying for himself alone…When disaster strikes, one must not be immersed completely in his own passional destiny, thinking exclusively for himself, being concerned only with himself, and petitioning God merely for himself.” To do so would be to imagine that God is little more than Aladdin’s genie and we alone are the one holding onto the lamp.

PrayingBut what is prayer and how is it somehow connected to perpetuating the continuation of prophecy?

Who is qualified to engage God in the prayer colloquy? Clearly, the person who is ready to cleanse himself of imperfection and evil. Any kind of injustice, corruption, cruelty, or the like desecrates the very essence of the prayer adventure, since it encases man in an ugly little world into which God is unwilling to enter. If man craves to meet God in prayer, then he must purge himself of all that separates him from God.

God hearkens to prayer if it rises from a contrite heart over a muddled and faulty life and from a resolute mind ready to redeem this life, In short, only the committed person is qualified to pray and to meet God. Prayer is always the harbinger of moral reformation.

So who can pray? On the one hand, it seems as if prayer is reserved for the person who is passionately dedicated to removing all sin and evil from his being and who longs to engage God in a realm of purity. On the other hand, what man, no matter what his condition, is completely clean and pure except that God has made him so?

Even an unbeliever can pray and be heard by God, otherwise no one could ever come to faith and be accepted by God. No one would ever be able to come to faith in God through Jesus Christ and be cleansed, healed, and reconciled with his Creator unless God was willing to hear the prayers of people covered in filth. It’s the desire to have the mantle of sin be removed from our shoulders, not the success of that removal whereby God is willing to hear us. In that sense, we do possess a “specialness” that was experienced by the prophets of old in that they too were willing, though still mortal and imperfect men.

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” –Isaiah 6:4-5 (ESV)

As I mentioned before, the prophets didn’t consider God’s revelations to them to be their exclusive property but rather, they shared God’s word with all, even as they were commanded to do. Should we, in our own human need, keep prayer just for us and not share it with all of God’s creations?

But since we are all imperfect and perhaps never, even for a moment, attain a purity that allows a true connection to God, how does God hear? What of the person so damaged and injured in his spirit, that he only knows to cry out but is unable to shed his “skin of evil?”

Likewise, we encourage the sinner to pray even though he is not ready yet for repentance and moral regeneration, because any mitzvah performance, be it prayer, be it another moral act, has a cleansing effect upon the doer and may influence his life and bring about a complete change in his personality.

It seems as if I’m wandering further and further away from the prophets or rather, Rabbi Soloveitchik did when he penned these words. On the other hand, the Rav seems to be saying what he did before; that prayer isn’t the exclusive property of the pious and the holy and the righteous. Even sinners can and absolutely need to connect to God. Jesus was criticized for eating with sinners, prostitutes, and tax collectors, yet he said this:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” –Luke 5:31-32 (ESV)

Thus access to the heart of God is available to all, not just to the perfect and those who sit in clean suits and dresses in pews on Sunday morning.

But going back to the very beginning of today’s “meditation,” we as Christians see that God is accessible not just to us and not just to “sinners,” but to all Jews everywhere, whether they are in the Messiah or not (and I am not lumping the Jewish people in with “sinners”).

I know it’s strange. Do I speak blasphemy? Do I ignore John 14:6? I suppose it looks that way. But I’m not willing to throw post-Jesus Jews under a bus because Christianity (and many in the Hebrew Roots movement) think “Rabbinic Judaism” is a dirty word.

I’ve sat in synagogues on Shabbat and during the Shema, have felt God enter as a tangible presence. I’ve sat in churches during prayer and singing and felt as if the room were completely empty. This is not to say that all synagogues possess God’s presence and all churches contain only God’s absence. Far from it. I am only saying that the 21st century church is not the only receptacle for the spirit of God. God is present where all men who desire Him are gathered, and resides in the heart of each individual, no matter who he is, who longs for the lover of his soul.

Who is qualified to engage God in the prayer colloquy? The person who is ready to cleanse himself certainly, but more than that, even the person who is at present unable or unwilling to be clean may still cry out. The very act of calling God’s Name may not “command” God to listen, but it may require the person praying to change his heart in acknowledgement of Him.

Thousands of years before the coming of Christ, while most of our non-Jewish ancestors (I’m speaking to Christians right now) were dancing around the pagan fires and worshiping “gods” of stone and wood, the Jewish people were turning their hearts to the One God. True, they also turned away many times, but God called them back and they returned. Otherwise, there would be no Christians today, for there would have been no Judaism by which the Messiah entered the world (and will enter it again).

Whoever you are reading this, know that God is not your exclusive property. God is a God to all or He is a God to none. While He has a special and unique relationship with the Jewish people which is perpetual and unable to be broken, He sent His only begotten Son for the rest of us, too. The rest of us just need to make sure that we don’t try to “take over” and restrict God to only ourselves.