One of the most stimulating apects of blogging is the comments, . . . . well, at least sometimes! This is one of those times. In response to my recent post, “Lessons from a Jewish Familly ‘Preunion,'” my Facebook friend Keri asked some questions that I then answered in the comments secion of that blog post. You can see that post here. The post dealt with the prioirty of Jews returning to lives of Torah.
However, since many of you don’t read those comments, and since I thought her questions might have been your questions too, I thought to post our discussion her, “above the line” so to speak, as a blog post in its own right.
Now this is fresh meat, so to speak. questions quickly asked, and answers quickly given. But I think many of you will find it all interesting.
So here are Keri’s questions, and my answers, and like I said, all fresh meat.
Do you make a distinction between being Torah-observant and living according to the teachings of the rabbis?
Well, I try and follow the teachings of Yeshua who said, “2 “The Torah-teachers and the P’rushim sit in the seat of Moshe. 3 So whatever they tell you, take care to do it. But don’t do what they do, because they talk but don’t act!” As Yeshua told us to do, I try and do whatever they tell us to do, because it is THEY who have the authority to interpret Torah, while not imitating their bad example, which he chronicles in that chapter. I don’t consider the term “the rabbis” to be a swear word or a negative category, and like I said, Yeshua says they have the authority to interpret Torah and that we should “take care” to “do whatever they tell [us],” while not following their example when they fail to practice what they preach.
By the way, this is not slavish obedience, but rather respect for their right to teach the Jewish people about what Judaism is. There is respectful interaction and even disagreement, a very Jewish thing.
I am curious: what do YOU do with this passage from Matthew? And do you see how when Messianic Jews avoid “the religion of the rabbis” we build a barrier between ourselves and our people?
Isn’t Yeshua the fulfillment of the Torah, and, by imitating His life we are pleasing to G-d?
Shalom Keri, and thanks for your question which I will answer in a Jewish way by asking some questions of my own, beginning by quoting the passage your reference in your question above.
- Does your question do justice to the context of the text you allude to? Here is the context: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20 ESV). Does simply doing our best to imitate Yeshua cover what he says here about not relaxing one of the LEAST of these commandments and teaching others to do the same?
- And does your suggestion that we simply do the best we can to imitate Yeshua make sense when compared with what we read of James/Ya’akov when he tells Paul that in the Jerusalem congregation, 14-21 years after the crucifixion, “You see, brother, how many tens of thousands of believers there are among the Judeans, and they are all zealots for the Torah?” Acts 21:220). Should they not instead have simply been imitators of James’ brother Yeshua?
- And what shall we say about James’ admonition to Paul at that time, asking him to refute rumors that he was telling Jews it was OK to abandon Torah, Jewish life, and circumcision, in this way: “do what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow. 24 Take them with you, be purified with them, and pay the expenses connected with having their heads shaved. Then everyone will know that there is nothing to these rumors which they have heard about you; but that, on the contrary, you yourself stay in line and keep the Torah” (Acts 21:23-24). So notice that 14-21 years after the crucifixion these Jewish Yeshua believers were still keeping Temple rituals, and Paul participated with them to prove that he too, the Jewish Apostle to the Gentiles, “stayed in line and kept the Torah” like a good Jew should. Does your alternative explanation cover these bases?
- And what shall we say to what James says about how there is a different standard for Gentiles than for Jews, when he adds to his previous comments, “25 However, in regard to the Goyim who have come to trust in Yeshua, we all joined in writing them a letter with our decision that they should abstain from what had been sacrificed to idols, from blood, from what is strangled and from fornication.” These were the house rules they asked of the Gentile churches, so as to not gross out the Jewish believers–but they did NOT ask them to keep Torah in Jewish ways. In fact. Paul was emphatic that this was NOT God’s will for Gentiles.
- And what shall we make of Yeshua’s statement to the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:23 – “You pay your tithes of mint, dill and cumin; but you have neglected the weightier matters of the Torah — justice, mercy, trust. These are the things you should have attended to — without neglecting the others!” Notice–they are not to major in the minors, but neither are they to neglect minute rituals, which by the way are purely traditional.
Does your admonition for us to simply imitate his life comport with these passages?
The answer is obvious, isn’t it?
The Jews AS A PEOPLE should live Torah lives in concert with other Jews for the reasons stated, for example, in Deuteronomy 4:5-9, which deals with how it glorifies God when Jews live the same way–in a uniquely JEWISH way as outlined by Torah. Here is what it says there: “5 Look, I have taught you laws and rulings, just as Adonai my God ordered me, so that you can behave accordingly in the land where you are going in order to take possession of it. 6 Therefore, observe them; and follow them; for then all peoples will see you as having wisdom and understanding. When they hear of all these laws, they will say, ‘This great nation is surely a wise and understanding people.’ 7 For what great nation is there that has God as close to them as Adonai our God is, whenever we call on him? 8 What great nation is there that has laws and rulings as just as this entire Torah which I am setting before you today? 9 Only be careful, and watch yourselves diligently as long as you live, so that you won’t forget what you saw with your own eyes, so that these things won’t vanish from your hearts. Rather, make them known to your children and grandchildren.”
On the basis of the New Testament as well as the old, I find it impossible to say that these guidelines have expired.
How about you?
At the time that Yeshua said that, He was speaking to unsaved Jews. For any Jew pre-salvation, this would be the right thing to do. Post-salvation, we are called to be imitators of Messiah, and he did not live according to rabbinic teaching. He brought it into question instead.
If all we have to offer our Jewish brothers is what they already have, and which they have turned away from in droves, aren’t we doing them a disservice?
Your response, while based on evangelical reflexes, is hard or impossible to sustain against the testimony of Scripture. The problem is, while we say we believe Scripture, really, we tend to believe what we have been told. And sometimes, what we have been told about the Bible “ain’t necessarily so.”
It is a REACH to say that “When Yeshua said that (I am not sure what “that” is which you are speaking of), He was speaking to unsaved Jews. First of all, the comments have been sharing are from the Gospel of Matthew, which was written long after the resurrection, and disseminated among Yeshua believers. It is untenable that the comments recorded there expired long before and were not meant to apply to Jewish Yeshua believers—these things were recorded for the instruction of the communities among whom this Gospel was distributed and read. And this pre-salvation argument falls apart entirely when you consider the texts I quoted from Acts 21, recording events 14-21 years after Pentecost. The many thousands of Jews who believed in Yeshua there in Jerusalem were ALL zealous for Torah, all involved in the Temple, all living identifiably Jewish lives—halachic lives. As for Yeshua’s arguments with the Scribes and Pharisees, these were just like the arguments you find in the Talmud. They were discussions about the proper way for Torah to be applied, NOT dismissals of Torah. And these kinds of disagreements were and remain standard in traditional Jewish space. At any rate, you failed to deal with the text: he says to his disciples “the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat, therefore do whatever they tell you to do.” In the same Gospel, we read those comments I quoted about being diligent to obey Torah, even more rigorously than the Scribes and Pharisees. As for imitating Yeshua, YES, but he is the embodiment of Torah, and not its replacement.
The biggest problem about the “all we have to do is imitate Yeshua” argument is that it is entirely subjective. There are people who think they are loving who are not, who think they are moral, and are not, who think they are Christ-like and are not. In addition, the Apostles did not simply follow this line of reasoning. YES, Paul said, “be imitators of me as I am of Messiah,” but he ALSO said this when speaking to the elders of the Jewish community in Rome toward his life’s end: “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans. (Acts 28:17 ESV). The term “customs” is ethesi, the plural of ethos, a term for the traditional Jewish manner of life. He did not say “commandments,” as if limiting himself to Scripture, but rather, “customs,” a broader term including the kinds of halachic norms with which these Jewish leaders were well familiar.
So, it is NOT either/or but both/and: YES, “be imitators of Paul as he was of Messiah,” but also imitate him, who, even though he was the Apostle to the gentiles, lived a traditional Jewish life, as Acts 21 and Acts 28 bear out.
Also, your argument completely falls to the ground when we realize that the Prophets repeatedly said that God would bring the Jewish people back to Torah obedience at the end of days. Yes, the New Covenant is different, but the difference is that GOD will be the guarantor of the covenant, which will include a deepened relationship with God, faith in Messiah and a Jewish return to Torah in the power of the Spirit, and not simply a turn to some sort of subjectivized imitation of Messiah. See for example:
Ezek 11:17-20 – Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.’ And when they come there, they will remove from it all its detestable things and all its abominations. And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.
Dt 30:6 – And the LORD your God will circumcise your heat and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, that you may live. Jer 31:33 – I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts.
Jer 32:39 – I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me for ever, for their own good and the good of their children after them.
Ezek 36:27 – I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. (NB this is characteristic of the New Covenant)
Ezek 37:24 – My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes. [In this passage we see that the Prophets see the Jewish people turning to Messiah at the end of days and also returning to Torah. That’s the way I see it too. How do you deal with such passages?]
You speak of not doing our people a disservice. I agree. It is truly a disservice for us to fail to lead our people back to lives of Torah, in the fullness of the Spirit, in the context of Yeshua-faith, which is God’s clearly declared purpose for them—their destiny at the end of days. We in the Messianic Movement do a tremendous disservice to the Jewish community through our assimilated lives which make the claims of Yeshua ridiculous in their eyes. After all, what kind of Mashiach is this that makes goyim out of Jews? Even secular Jews would agree that if there IS a Messiah, he will make Jews into better Jews (and not just into better people in some generalized sense).
You might read two excellent articles if you want to see the Scriptural basis for my perspective. The first is by Dr. Rabinowitz, and it deals with the Matthew 23:23 passage indicating that we should follow rabbinical halachic norms.
The second is by David Rudolph, proving that Paul taught that Jews who believe in Yeshua should continue to live Torah observant Jewish lives.
The evidence is there: but the evidence is scary because it challenges what we have been told with which we have grown comfortable. Yes, you are right that our people have abandoned the Jewish way of life in droves. The Bible has a word for that. It is called sin. But I know you will agree that it is NOT our job to confirm our people in these wayward paths, but to first find our own way back to the paths of Torah, of which we read, “all its ways are pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.” And having returned ourselves, we must find ways to make such a return attractive and effective for our people. After all, Scripture is clear that this is where God is leading them.
Should we not follow? Indeed, should we not take the lead?