Who Needs Oral Torah? On Living a Jewish Life

January 8, 2015

I know plenty of Jews who believe in Jesus who use the term “the rabbis” in a negative sense. I know plenty of Jews who believe in Jesus who believe that the Oral Law needs to be critiqued and discredited. I know plenty of Jews who believe in Jesus who are in the grip of western individualism and don’t have a clue as to what it means to be part of the covenant people known as the Commonwealth of Israel. In fact, sometimes it appears that when it comes to being part of Israel, these people just may not give a damn.

It makes me want to scream! But instead, I think I will write. Take the following points and put them in the order that makes most sense to you.

  • Jews should obey God’s Torah. And this is not about “getting saved,” or racking up a perfect score, or being “in bondage to the law,” God forbid. Instead it is all about one thing: honoring God.

This point is made clearly in Jeremiah 35, the story of the Rechabites, who refused to drink wine when offered some by Jeremiah because they were honoring the command of their ancestor Jonadab. God then draws a lesson from their behavior: “The command that Jonadab the son of Rechab gave to his sons, to drink no wine, has been kept, and they drink none to this day, for they have obeyed their father’s command. I have spoken to you persistently, but you have not listened to me.”

Jews keeping Torah is all about Jews honoring God their father, or neglecting to do so. That is why God lambasts the priests through Malachi in these terms.

“A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’ By offering polluted food upon my altar. But you say, ‘How have we polluted you?’ By saying that the LORD’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the LORD of hosts.

God compares himself to a father, and excoriates the priests for neglecting the stipulations of Torah in their handling of sacrifices. And he makes it a matter of dishonoring him.

So for us Jews, obeying Torah is a matter of honoring the God who brought us up out of Egypt, or of just not bothering to do so, thank you.

  • Jews should obey God’s Torah in a unified, even if not in all points identical manner as a matter of bringing collective honor to God.

We read this in Torah:

See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?

“Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children.(Deuteronomy 4:5-9 ESV)

Notice that it is as the Jewish people keep these laws in particular, and in a united manner, that we become a collective signpost pointing to the God who delivered us from Egypt and gave us such laws. There is a communal grandeur about millions of people following the same body of laws in concert with each other simply because God told them to. It brings honor to God, and that is my point—and Jeremiah’s, Malachi’s, and God’s point as well.

  • Jews should obey God in a unified manner in keeping with Jewish historical precedent.

The Bible has a bone to pick with our contemporary values. While in contemporary Western culture, “every person doing what is right in his/her own eyes,” is looked upon as a non-negotiable good, the Bible disagrees. From the Bible’s point of view, and therefore, that of the God of Israel, “every person doing what is right in his/her own eyes” is rebellious refusal to honor God by failing to do what he prescribed.

For us to decide to do “what is right in our own eyes” and to, as a rule, depart from Jewish communal consensus, deprives Torah obedience of its collective communal God-honoring character. For us to obey Torah in ways that consistently differ from those of our people is for us to disrupt and destroy the unity of Israel because we think we have “a better idea.”

This is tragic. Unless and until one finds that obeying Torah in Jewish ways involves rank sin and unrighteousness, we should adhere to these norms out of respect for the people to whom the Torah was given, the Jewish people, and our people’s long history of grappling with its meaning and implications. The Torah is not a book we found in a bookstore: it is the legacy of a people. And to ignore or repudiate that people’s experience with and interpretations of that book seems to me at least to be evidence of contempt and chutzpah, especially for Jews who ought to know better.

Talmudic scholar David Weiss-Halivni speaks of private truth and public truth. Faithful Jews are allowed, even encouraged, even required to be honest about the ways they differ from accepted the interpretations of the wider Jewish community. The ways in which you see things, whether in agreement or disagreement,  is your private truth. But if you are a loyal member of that community, you are not thereby justified in disruptiing communal practice and cohesion because you think you know better. That would be to disrupt and destroy public truth and communal cohesion. It is better to preserve group cohesion than to show everyone how bright you are.  Yes, in the words of Rabbi Spock, "the good of the many outweights the good of the one."  (And yes, of course I know that in matters of sin, one should always break ranks).

  • If we are going to obey Torah in concert with other Jews, this requires a respect for, acquaintance with, and adherence to Oral Torah.

The body of Oral Law is a highly stylized record of centuries of discussion on this issue: “What does it mean for us to obey God in this situation? In that one? Under these circumstances? Those?” This is not just the Talmud and the Codes, but also later Jewish discussion. This doesn’t mean we will always agree: but where it does not involve sin, we should at least attempt to conform. And if we are going to disagree, it would be nice if we knew what we were talking about. However, this is not the general practice of Messianic Jews, who don’t know the difference between the Mishnah and the Mishneh Torah, and who yet feel entitled to jettison “The religion of the rabbis.”

The stipulations of Torah have never existed apart from a community discussing, “How are we going to do this?” And as soon as you have such a discussion, you have Oral Torah. This may trouble you, but get used to it. It is inevitable.

  • Messianic Jews will and should adjust their practice and interpretation through responsible and obedient interaction with the Apostolic Witness (the Newer Testament) and dialogue with the historical discussion of its meaning, application and implications.

There will be ways in which Messianic Jewish thought and halacha (practice) differs from that of other Jews. But the necessary differences will be surprisingly few.

  • I am advocating that Messianic Jews return to Jewish practice, responding to Torah in the way the Jewish tradition has come to understand it, manifesting our covenantal solidarity with wider Israel.

We are either part of the remnant within Israel or part o the remnant from out of Israel. The difference is huge and it is crucial. Which will it be for you?

  • While the Torah has much to say to Gentiles who love Yeshua, out of respect for the Jewish people’s unique calling and their historical experience, generally Gentiles should refrain from obeying Torah in Jewish ways.

God did not call you to become imitation Jews. For example, the Torah says: “You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.” Jews understand this to mandate the wearing of tefillin (also called Phylacteries). While Gentiles can and should respond to this text as well, they are not called to understand the text in Jewish ways—therefore, Gentiles wearing tefillin is excluded. Otherwise things get strange, the unity of Israel is disrupted, and one insinuates that the non-Israel nations are second rate, as are their people. To say as much is to disparage the God who made all the nations, and to show contempt for the non-Israel peoples he created. It is also to misrepresent the gospel which makes Gentiles to be the people of God without requiring they become Jews.

And of course there are Gentiles who are involved in supporting Jews in their observance, and this is a good thing. This is especially so in intermarriages, where the Gentile partner supporting the Jewish partner and the family in honoring Jewish life and community is surely something honorable.  And in Messianic Congregations, where there are Gentiles who likewise support Jews in conforming to Jewish life, this is also good. But I gently point out that such Gentiles should not see their task being to modify or redraw that way of life. Nor should they feel it to be the elite religion that everyone should practice, It is not. "“Moses charged us with a law, A possession for the assembly of Jacob" (Dt 33:4). 

  • Messianic Jews should not expect the Jewish world to believe in their Jesus when they themselves show contempt for the Jewish tradition.

Not everyone will agree with me on what I say here. In such matters, I have learned to take the words of Paul as my watchword, and I suggest you do the same.

“Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (Romans 14:4 ESV).

Let us walk in respect for each other, and with our Jewish people even when that is respectful disagreement. But as for me and my house—what I have laid before you here is what I aspire to stand in and stand for.

For additional brilliant insight on these issues, see this article by Rabbi Dr. Mark Kinzer, from the website of the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council www.ourrabbis.org

The article is to be found at http://ourrabbis.org/main/documents/Oral_Torah_Kinzer.pdf

One comment on “Who Needs Oral Torah? On Living a Jewish Life”

  1. I generally agree with everything you write on this site. However, in the issue of whether or not gentiles should observe Torah in "Jewish ways," I have a a questions. (i will use the term "those who are grafted in" instead of gentiles, for reasons I won't get into here).

    Do you believe those grafted in should keep the written Torah, just not in traditional Jewish ways?

    It seems from some of your other writings as well that you do not believe that those grafted in, not Jewish by blood, should not, or at least are not required to, keep the Torah of Moses?

    If this is incorrect, please clarify. But, if it is correct, how would you respond to a few of these following points?

    In Acts 15 the apostles determine that the gentiles who are coming into the kingdom can learn the Torah of Moses in the synagogues, how would you interpret this, if not that the gentiles are to learn to keep the Torah of Moses.

    Also, how about the numerous references to the "stranger who joins himself to you" (different from a stranger who is just "among you") in the Tanakh, who is instructed to keep the commands just as the Jews do. To me this parallels the gentile believer in Yeshua who is "grafted in." If he or she is not grafted into the Law of Moses, which is the very definition of Jewish faith, what exactly is he or she "grafted" into? Is it a covenant separate and apart from numerous covenants made with the Jewish people?

    Furthermore, even the most staunch anti-jewish christian would agree that probably 50-75% of the rules of the Law of Moses are essential rules for living for a genuine christian faith. So, to say that those grafted in should not keep the Torah needs further elaboration. (For example, should a grafted-in believer in Yeshua follow the ten commandments?)

    I appreciate your response if you can find time to give one.

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