Tag Archives: traditions

Kareth and Messianic Judaism

At the core of the pluralism issue is the debate over whether there’s “More than one way to be a good Jew.” Indeed, there have always been divergent streams of observance – like Chassidic, Sefardic vs. Ashkenazic, and even the Talmudic arguments between the Talmudic academies of Shammai and Hillel.

And yet, historic precedents show that there are limits to pluralism, beyond which a group is schismatic to the point where it is no longer considered Jewish. For example, everyone considers Jews for Jesus as outside of the legitimate Jewish sphere. The disagreement, then, lies in defining exactly what are the acceptable limits of divergence.

-from “Ask the Rabbi”

I’m continuing my email conversation with my Jewish friend as I described in yesterday’s meditation, and this “Ask the Rabbi” column seemed to fit right in. As you just read, there are a whole bunch of divergent streams of Judaism, but how far can you diverge and still be Jewish? According to the Aish Rabbi, being “Jews for Jesus” is going too far.

I should say at this point that “Jews for Jesus” is how most Jews see Messianic Judaism, thus Messianic Judaism isn’t viewed as a “Judaism” at all. One problem is, as a private communication revealed to me just recently, even many staunch Jewish disciples of Messiah aren’t all that observant. For instance, one Messianic Jewish conference (I’m deliberately concealing identifying information for obvious reasons) was scheduled during a major Jewish fast day. At another conference, the conference leaders ate the local hotel (non-Kosher) fare, and the very few Jewish attendees who kept kosher were forced to have catered kosher meals brought in or to drive some distance to a kosher eating establishment. And driving on Shabbat for the Jewish conference organizers and attendees wasn’t considered a big deal at all.

Why do I say all this?

Historically, any Jewish group which denied the basic principles of Jewish tradition – Torah and mitzvah-observance – ultimately ceased to be part of the Jewish people. The Sadducees and the Karites, for instance, refused to accept certain parts of the Oral Law, and soon after broke away completely as part of the Jewish People. The Hellenists, secularists during the Second Temple period, also soon became regarded as no longer “Jewish.” Eventually, these groups vanished completely.

-the Aish Rabbi

One of the big issues that may inhibit halachically, culturally, and religiously observant Jews from recognizing Messianic Judaism as a Judaism is, based on the quote above, the lack of consistent Jewish observance in Messianic Judaism. Except for in a few small corners of the movement (at least from an Orthodox Jewish perspective), Messianic Judaism presents the appearance of being not a Judaism (there are many other issues, such as the deification of Jesus and the supposed worship of a man, but I’m choosing to focus on the matter of community and observance right now).

tallit-prayerIt’s a terrible thing for a Jew to be cut off from his or her people.

For those of you who don’t know, the concept of Kareth or “cutting off” is a consequence of a Jew committing certain offenses, such as having a forbidden sexual relationship or worshiping a deity other than Hashem (known as Avodah Zarah). Messianic author and teacher Derek Leman even wrote an article on the topic a few years back.

Should a Jew in Messianic Judaism feel cut off from larger Judaism? Is that a consequence of being a Messianic Jew? Not according to Rabbi Stuart Dauermann in his article “The Jewish People are Us – Not Them,” which he wrote for the Fall 2013 issue of Messiah Journal (and which I reviewed), however, R. Dauermann admits that this has been a consequence of Messianic Judaism historically due to its associations with Evangelical Christianity. Evangelicals believe that once a Jew becomes a disciple of Messiah through the Messianic movement (or by converting to Christianity), they have more in common with Gentile Christians than non-Messianic Jews.

That’s a terrible burden to lay on any Jew’s shoulders.

But does it really have to be that way? Has it always been that way?

Early Christians were the original “Jews for Jesus.” They accepted the Divine revelation of the Torah, but not the eternal, binding nature of the commandments. Initially, these Jews were reliable in their kashrut, and counted in a minyan. But the turning point came when Paul, realizing that Jews wouldn’t accept the concept of a dead Messiah, opened up membership to non-Jews. At that point, these “Jews” experienced a total severing of Jewish identity.

Now that’s a glaring assumption by the Aish Rabbi. Let’s look at that again:

But the turning point came when Paul, realizing that Jews wouldn’t accept the concept of a dead Messiah, opened up membership to non-Jews. At that point, these “Jews” experienced a total severing of Jewish identity.

Ending MacArthur seriesEvangelical Christianity believes that Paul broke with Jewish identity shortly after he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus (see Acts 9) and that the extinguishment of Jewish identity in Messiah was by design. The Aish Rabbi says Paul may not have originally intended to break with Judaism and tradition, but when he couldn’t convince other Jews to “worship a dead Messiah,” Paul switched the object of his proselytizing from Jewish to Gentile populations and cut loose anything Jewish from devotion to Jesus.

No wonder so many Jewish people really hate Paul.

As Paul and Barnabas were going out, the people urged them to speak about these things again the next sabbath. When the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who spoke to them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.

Acts 13:42-43 (NRSV)

I invite you to read the larger context which is captured in Acts 13:13-52, but basically, after Paul’s discourse in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch, on how Jesus was indeed the Messiah, his Jewish audience was extremely eager for him to return next Shabbat to say more. Apparently the issue of a “dead Messiah” wasn’t a problem. The problem was this:

The next sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy; and blaspheming, they contradicted what was spoken by Paul.

Acts 13:44-45 (NRSV)

A certain number of God-fearing Gentiles generally attended this synagogue on a regular basis, so the huge crowds of non-Jews who showed up for the subsequent Shabbat to hear Paul must have been the result of word getting out and large crowds of idol-worshiping pagan Gentiles entering the Jewish community space.

The Jewish PaulSo like I said, the “dead Messiah,” at least in this case, didn’t seem to be the problem, nor, as we know from many of Paul’s other letters as well as the record in Luke’s Acts, did Paul totally abandon his people or Jewish practice in order to invent a new, Law-free, religion exclusively for the Gentiles. As the Aish Rabbi himself stated, the early Jewish disciples ”accepted the Divine revelation of the Torah” and ”these Jews were reliable in their kashrut, and counted in a minyan.” I do not believe that ”these Jews” denied ”the eternal, binding nature of the commandments” nor that Paul taught Jews to neglect the Torah.

Paul said in his defense, “I have in no way committed an offense against the law of the Jews, or against the temple, or against the emperor.”

Acts 25:8 (NRSV)

Paul continued to deny that he had committed any offense against the Torah or against Roman law for the rest of his life and unless we want to believe he was just lying to try to save his skin (didn’t do him very much good if that was his ploy), then we have to consider that the Aish Rabbi, representing the general Jewish view of Paul, and Evangelical Christianity, are both wrong about the Apostle to the Gentiles.

So we have some history that tells us the very first Jews who belonged to the Messianic stream of Judaism called “the Way” continued to be observant Jews and continued to be considered Jewish by the other branches of Judaism in the late Second Temple period.

But why can’t we have that now? Why can’t Messianic Jews be considered Jewish, even within Messianic Judaism? Why should a Jew in Messianic Judaism be considered cut off from his or her people in larger Judaism?

The Aish Rabbi ends his article this way:

I can’t predict what will happen to the various streams within Judaism today, but I do believe that the best bet for a strong Jewish future is to remain loyal to our faith and traditions.

I promise that the Rabbi was not considering Messianic Judaism in this opinion but I believe we should. What that means, is the Jewish people in Messianic Judaism, in order to ensure a strong Jewish future, must too remain loyal to Jewish faith and traditions. That’s why I wrote the blog post The Necessity of Messianic Jewish Community. That’s exactly why Messianic Jewish community is necessary, important, vital, critical.

There’s a lot more I could say about this, but for the sake of length, I’ll back off for now. It will probably be fuel for another blog post fairly soon. I don’t see this issue going away.

synagogue_arkI know it’s odd for me, a non-Jewish person studying within the context of Messianic Judaism, to be so passionate about Jewish identity for Jews in Messiah. I suppose it all comes back to my own (Jewish) family who aren’t Messianic but who I believe really need to be even better at connecting with Jewish community. There’s a huge danger as each generation passes, of Jewish people simply fading away, not assimilating into Christianity necessarily, but just drifting into secular oblivion.

Within Messianic Judaism, many of the leading Jewish teachers and promoters are themselves intermarried, and if the mothers of their children aren’t Jewish, then neither are their offspring.  If, as I stated above, there is a “crisis” of minimal or inconsistent observance of the mitzvot which further weakens the Jewish nature of Messianic Judaism and thus any connection with larger Jewry, will Jews be found within Messianic Judaism in twenty or thirty years?

Christmas at Arm’s Length

Interfaith and InclusiveAs always, as an interfaith community, our aim is not to meld, mash-up, mix, water-down or confuse our two religions. Instead, we strive to celebrate each holiday, whether Jewish or Christian, with full respect and all the trimmings. So how and why are these celebrations different from those you would find in any church or synagogue? Often, we begin and end a celebration by reciting our interfaith responsive reading, which is not a statement of creed, but a recognition that some of us are Jews, some of us are Christians, some of us have interfaith identities, and we are all equal members of this community. For me, simply knowing that we are an interfaith community changes my perception of any event: ancient rituals, songs and prayers, shimmer with the newness of radical inclusivity.

-Susan Katz Miller
“Lessons and Carols: Interfaith Community”
On Being Both

It’s Sunday morning as I write this and I’m avoiding church until January. Why? Because of Christmas.

Wait! Let me explain.

While Susan Katz Miller belongs to a community that can honor the different religious observances of its members, I’ve been attending a more traditional Baptist church. I remember hearing about how some of the church members participated in an anti-abortion rally at a new Planned Parenthood building some months back. Among the protesters were people from local Mormon and Catholic churches. My Pastor spoke of the event, but I don’t recall if it was from the pulpit or in a personal conversation with me. He said that a Catholic Priest was one of the speakers at the event and the Priest addressed the group with words something like, “We are all believers” or “We are all Christians.”

The point my Pastor had to make, representing the general perspective of our church, is that, because of the significant theological differences involved, he doesn’t consider Catholics and Mormons as “fellow believers” but rather, as those who are outside the Christian “camp.” Sure, they all came together at the event because of a common purpose, but the barriers constructed between those different faith communities, as far as he was concerned, were firm and inviolate.

I don’t say this to speak poorly about my Pastor or the church I attend. I consider him and the people I worship with to be truly devoted to God and desiring to serve Him in all that they do. However, there are distinct boundaries that contain the church and one may cross those barriers only at their own risk.

Almost a month ago, I called myself a Christian who studies Messianic Judaism. What that means in a nutshell, is that I am a non-Jewish believer in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, and that I choose to study the Bible within a framework that takes into account the Jewish environment, perspectives, customs, and culture in which the Bible was authored, using that as a lens in filtering my view of Jesus.

As you might imagine, that somewhat crosses one or more of the barriers that contains my church’s theology and doctrine. My periodic meetings and conversations with my Pastor attest to the differences between us, and we’ve been honest that we are both trying to convince the other of our individual points of view.

I must say, I’m learning a lot, not only about church history and the development of fundamentalism in Christianity, but about my own opinions and where they come from. You never learn more about what you believe and why than when you are required to defend it.

Children's Christmas PageantPastor and his wife are spending the rest of the month (or most of it) in Florida to celebrate Christmas with his family. It will certainly be warmer than the December I’ve been experiencing here in Idaho. But that leaves behind Christmas at the church and today (as I write this) there won’t even be Sunday School.

There will be the Children’s Christmas Pageant. The kids have been practicing for about a month and I’m sure they’re looking forward to their big moment.

But that was several days ago as you read this, even though as I am writing, it is still before dawn on Sunday morning.

My family and I left Christmas behind about ten years or so ago and we’ve never looked back. That’s pretty much a given for my wife and kids since they’re Jewish. My married son’s wife is very much into Christmas and while my son doesn’t resist her efforts to put up a tree, lights, and decorations, he doesn’t participate either. The rest of my family just tries to ignore the season, although one of my sister-in-laws has been sending email Christmas cards of a humorous nature to the missus.

I quoted Miller’s blog post because it is a portrait of not blending together different faith traditions into a mixing bowl, but rather, interfaith families choosing to honor each other’s traditions and celebrations without having to surrender anything about their own.

Another member of our community confessed to me this week that he had bought his wife a Christmas present for the first time, after decades of marriage. A most loving and supportive husband, as a Jew he just had not been able to transcend the bitter history of religious conflict and wrap his head around the idea of a Christmas gift. He credited our interfaith community with his shift in thinking, and his ability to finally arrive, bearing a gift from afar.

I never said it was easy, but apparently, it’s possible. It requires a certain amount of willingness and a great deal of courage to overcome the fears and inhibitions of a lifetime. I don’t have a community like that either in my family or corporately, and even if I had access to a corporate community, attendance would conflict with my home life. I’m not even sure how my family tolerates my attending an “ordinary” church.

I’ve chosen a path that I believe is right and that I believe is right for me. In doing so, I have to walk away from all other paths. I suppose, from an outside observer’s point of view, it must look like I’m trying to walk both sides of the street, Christianity and Judaism. This actually isn’t the case. My wife and any Jewish person I’ve ever encountered, consider me a Christian, and so I am. A Christian is simply a person (typically non-Jewish) who has faith that the Jesus Christ of the Bible is the promised Savior and Messiah and the one who will return as the King of Israel and the world.

The only difference, and it’s a big one, is that my perspective of how I perceive God, Messiah, the Bible, and everything all that means, is substantially different from most of the traditional Church (big “C”). Most religious communities permit little or no permeability of their distinctive boundaries and barriers that contain who they are and keep out everyone else. The price of admission is to adopt the theologies, doctrines, and dogmas within their specific container and disavow everything else.

But my container is somewhat unique. Oh sure, a lot of other people occupy my container (more or less) but my container is virtual. It exists “in the cloud,” so to speak. The people who share a large portion of my understanding exist all over the world, but few, if any, are right here in “River City.” And as I said, even if we did get together, it would violate certain family requirements for me to participate in any significant or regular way.

Blogging is about as close as it gets and even that’s dicey sometimes.

One of the requirements contained within the church I attend is Christmas. It’s the day the vast majority of Christians choose to honor the birth of Jesus, and a great deal of custom, tradition, and fanfare surround not only that day, but the entire month in which it occurs.

But it’s not “me.” I don’t resonate with Christmas as a Christian. Watching everyone at church get really excited about Christmas (my Pastor was listening to Christmas music in his office even before Thanksgiving) just accentuates my sense of alienation, my “not-belongingness.”

Helping the HomelessI don’t disdain those who choose to celebrate Christmas. In fact, some Christians use this time of year to exceptionally demonstrate their desire to serve God by behaving more “Christ-like” in giving to charity and showing kindness to others. If Christmas is their inspiration for doing good, who am I to argue?

Unlike Miller, I’m not “both,” I’m just “me,” whatever “me” is. Actually, I’m getting a better and clearer picture of what “me” is all the time. The mist is dissipating and the sun is beginning to shine on the path I have selected from all of the paths I’ve considered.

It’s just a path that doesn’t hold very many fellow travelers. And almost none of them celebrate Christmas. I’ll see what church is like after the lights and decorations have come down next month.

Addendum: I just wanted to add that some traditional Christians also don’t celebrate Christmas for a variety of reasons, I for one am not avoiding it out of some sense of paganoia (a term coined by First Fruits of Zion teacher and author Toby Janicki) or the irrational fear that celebrating Christmas automatically makes you an idol worshiper. It’s a matter of personal conviction and taking on board a more Judaic view of the Messiah. It’s as simple as that.

Moshiach Rabbeinu

rabbeinu1Believe 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
Project Genesis

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
Distinctive Insight
“It is disproved – but yet it is the Halachah!”
Eruvin 10

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”

Solomons-TempleThe 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)

phariseesEven 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”
Judaism 101

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.

torah-tree-of-lifeIs 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.”

Deuteronomy 30:11-14

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.

According to the Traditions: A Primer for Christians


In his letters to the Thessalonians, Paul frequently referred back to the teaching he passed on to them. For example, he wrote, “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the traditions (paradosis) which you received from us.” (2 Thessalonians 3:6). In the New Testament, the Greek word “paradosis” refers to Jewish oral tradition. The gospels of Matthew and Mark use the same word to describe Jewish traditions such as washing hands before eating bread and so forth. Paul also used the word in the context of Pharisaic traditions.
Nevertheless, the “paradosis” Paul and Silas imparted to the Thessalonians did not consist of the type of halachic teachings that characterize the legal wrangling of Mishnaic law. Paul and Silas delivered to the community specific commandments in the name of the Master:

We request and exhort you in the Master Yeshua, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Master Yeshua.

1 Thessalonians 4:1-2

What commandments did they transmit in the name and authority of the Master Yeshua?

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Torah Portion Terumah (“Heave Offering”) pg 496
Commentary on Acts 15:36-17:14

I’ve been spending a lot of time this week (and previously) discussing the important role halachah plays in Jewish religious observance, including in the practice of Messianic Judaism. I thought it only fair to give some time to the other side of the coin. What was halachah like for the non-Jewish believers in the Jewish Messiah?

In my Return to Jerusalem series, I spent some time going over Lancaster’s Torah Club commentary on Acts 15 and particularly on the halachah James and the Council of Apostles issued on behalf of the new Gentile disciples. James started with the “four prohibitions” (Acts 15:19-20) and added what some consider a rather cryptic comment that “from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues” (v.21), likely indicating that the details or foundations of what the Gentile disciples needed to know would be learned in a more lengthy manner by hearing and studying the Torah as it applied to them (and applies to us today).

Just as a refresher, let’s recall the moment when Jesus gave the apostles the authority to issue binding legal rulings on earth for the community of Jewish and non-Jewish believers:

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.

Matthew 18:18-19 (ESV)

Thus, just as other Rabbis did for their disciples, allowing them to issue and adapt halachah in order to “operationalize” Torah observance, Jesus issued such authority to his apostles, the difference being that the Messiah’s authority extends infinitely beyond any earthly teacher.

rabbinBut then we are left with the question about just exactly what was the halachah for the Gentile disciples relative to obedience to God? Often, the “four prohibitions” are criticized for being rather anemic about details and obviously lacking in addressing the “obvious” commandments, such as those involving murder, theft, coveting, and so on. Some Christians have suggested that, because of the lack of detail, the intent was for the Gentile disciples to observe the Torah and halachah in an identical manner to the Jewish disciples. On the other hand, we see in the words of Paul to the Thessalonians and in Lancaster’s take on them, that Paul (and presumably the other apostles who were ministering to the non-Jewish disciples) where issuing instructions to the Gentiles both in terms of general teachings and as particular situations came up.

I borrowed a quickie explanation of the role of halachah that should help us from someone on Facebook:

In every branch of Judaism you have set guidelines that those who are under that group agree to, at least on the face, but how and where they are applied varies. As to the rabbis giving rulings here are a few things to remember; 1) halakah is always being reviewed as times change to see the best way to apply the basics, 2) those who establish the halakah are usually well versed in the issues so they can make wise decisions. Think of it this way. Its like a Jewish supreme court. The principles remain the same. The rulings affect the community at large, and just like any court system, there will be times when we need to ‘ go back to the books” In this case Torah and rabbinic writings. For example; the basic halakah for observing Shabbat is to do no normal work that day. However, if your job is being a firefighter, policeman, etc. then what? The answer is that since saving a life outweighs all else working is not only ok but actually a mitzva.

So halachah isn’t necessarily supposed to be “timeless truth” that is immutable across all of history. It’s supposed to be a method of living out the commandments of Torah that are specific to a time, place, culture, and so on. Halachah can’t contradict the words of Torah but it can shape the nature of how to apply a commandment given some specific detail (should one drive their car to Shabbat services, for instance).

As Lancaster points out in his commentary, the Gospels hadn’t yet been written, so the teachings of the Master as we have them today did not exist in a documented form. If some missionaries were “planting a church” in a foreign land today and they were about to depart, the missionaries could leave copies of the Bible behind, including the Gospels, but that wasn’t possible in the days of Paul and Silas. Thus, from Paul’s perspective, the teachings of Jesus were considered paradosis, the operationalization of how to obey God and applied to a local community’s situation or circumstances.

In 1 Thessalonians 4:3-12, Paul mentioned the prohibition on sexual immorality, and he contrasted the standards of “the Gentiles who do not know God” against the sexual purity he expected from believers. He cited prohibitions on defrauding a brother and warned against moral impurity. He reminded the disciples about the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

Paul boasted, “You also became imitators of us and of the Master” (1 Thessalonians 1:6). In his second epistle to Thessalonica, he encouraged the disciples to “stand firm and hold to the paradosis which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

-Lancaster, pg 497

ancient-rabbi-teachingSo according to Lancaster, we can reasonably believe that Paul was issuing rulings of halachah to the newly minted Gentile disciples (both those who had been former God-fearers and those who had only recently been worshiping in pagan temples) based on the teachings of Jesus and adapted to the local communities he was addressing. I say “adapted” not to say that the teachings were changed, just “contextualized” for those receiving his message. For instance, Paul might take a specific teaching such as the prohibition against looking at a woman with lust (Matthew 5:27-28) and applied it to a community where a problem with extramarital affairs was apparent, citing circumstances that were specific to that community. That “halachah” may not necessarily apply in the same way to other communities or even to the same community in the future, assuming circumstances change.

It’s kind of a difficult thing to get your brain around if you are not used to thinking in these terms, but Paul had quite a job to do in educating the various non-Jewish “churches” on ethical monotheism, the teachings of the Master, their basis in Torah, and the Apostolic decree from Jerusalem.

And in looking back across history at all of this, we have a problem.

While reading the narrative in the Acts of the Apostles or the content of Paul’s epistles to his congregations, readers should keep in mind that we are without the vast body of the paradosis that Paul passed on to his communities. In general, his writings express concern only with issues which had arisen as problems within the communities or his perspectives that contradicted those other teachers. That narrow expression sometimes creates the false impression that Paul was at odds with Judaism in general and with the rest of the apostles specifically. The reader should remember that the larger body of unrecorded paradosis taught by Paul was consistent with the teaching of Yeshua, the twelve, the rest of the apostles, and the Jewish community.

-Lancaster, ibid

If someone could have pinned Paul down and had him write a book compiling all of the paradosis he taught and then we inserted that book into our Bibles, we might have a far different impression of what it is to be a Christian than we do today, and history between the Jewish and non-Jewish disciples might have charted a different course (well, probably not, but I can dream). But it didn’t happen that way, so it looks like we must exist with gaps in our knowledge, and experience an uncomfortable tension between who we are today in the church and how the first Gentile Christians in Paul’s communities understood who they were.

Originally, the Jewish Council of Apostles and their emissaries, which included Paul, were charged with guiding the Gentile disciples in the teachings of the Messiah including issuing halachah that had general scope across the entire body of believers, and sometimes a more specific scope within a particular community. But only Acts and Paul’s letters stand as witnesses to what that was and what it all meant. But if we have faith not only in God but in the Word that He left for us, then we must believe that the Bible is sufficient for our needs. I’ve heard some people weave this sort of “conspiracy theory” or that about how the Bible’s canon was manipulated to drive Gentile Christianity away from its “Hebrew roots,” but we can’t rewrite nearly 2,000 years of history.

two-roads-joinWe can however, chart a course into the future. I continue to maintain that relationships between believing Jews and believing Gentiles are slowly improving. Part of what contributes to that effort is the struggle to understand where we came from and what that means for us today. Christianity must look beyond its traditional doctrine and dogma and try to see the looming shadow of the Jewish Messiah King as he dons his sword, readies his steed, and prepares to return to the world we all live in. If we ever hope to truly understand the Messiah and King we call “Savior” and “Lord,” then we must try to understand not only the “Jewish Jesus,” but the apostles and emissaries he left to guide the first Gentile disciples into “Christianity.”

I’m not writing all this to answer questions but to pose possibilities. If there is halachot that applies to Jewish practice today, then there is something corresponding that applies to the church as well. We can’t fully recover everything Paul taught but we can acknowledge that the traditions regarding how the Jewish disciples understood the process of teaching and applying commandments aren’t so different after all, from what was taught to the non-Jewish disciples. I don’t intend to delete distinctions between Jewish and Gentile disciples, either historically or as they exist today. I only want to say that we may also have a few things in common. We share the same God. We share the same Messiah. And back in the day, we shared the same teachers who all taught application of commandments in terms of paradosis, according to the traditions.