Clearing Up Some Confusion About Torah Keeping and Spiritual Status

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Two Facebook notes. Two conflicting perspectives. One big issue bouncing around a religious landscape like a pinball flying off the flipper.

The issue has to do with Torah obedience for Jews and non-Jews.

One correspondent, Lynn, is a Jewish woman, a Yeshua believer, who is well socialized into the church world. Smart. Spiritually avid. And honest. She says this:

As a Jewish believer (in Yeshua), I have been trying to figure out “how then shall we live as Jews”. The sermons and the subsequent answers give me a headache. Before I became aware of the Messianic Movement, God only spoke to me about Passover. I celebrated it as a time when God took me out of my personal Egypt and brought me into the promised land. It consisted of worship and the sharing of each other’s testimony in the hearing of our children and believers and non-believers. I have many stories about what happened at these times. The other issues remained non-issues until “The Movement”. I saw a lot of pride, many gentiles finding menorahs in their closets and exacting precision on each other — oh what these eyes have seen. I see your point and it almost provokes me but then — I think about it and it gives me a circular headache. Love your teachings tho.

The other correspondent, Stephanie, is an intelligent non-Jew, able to say a mouthful in just a few words, appears to be involved in or at least influenced by the One Law/Hebrew Roots/Sacred Name Movement which sees Torah as the legacy of everyone (One Law) and insists on calling the Messiah Yahshua (referencing the four letter name of God, which they emphasize in various ways and for various reasons). She references a favorite proof text used in that movement.

 There is One Law for the stranger and the home born. There is only One God and One Law.” If you love me keep my commandments! Is Paul your Messiah? Yahshua ( Jesus) said he didn’t come to change the Law!

 You will notice that she seeks to shove Paul out the back door. Not a good idea. One way many people in that movement hold on to their pet conviction about the Law (that is, in their thought, the Torah way of life) is to ignore or in this case, even discount the Apostle to the Gentiles. Gentiles ignoring or dismissing Messiah’s Apostle to the Gentiles!!  NOT a good idea.  

BTW, these are the verses used to prop up the One Law doctrine favored by such people.  Le 17:10. 19:34. 24:22; Ex 12:49. Nu 9:14. 15:15, 16, 29. If you will look them up you will see they all pertain to how the people of Israel and the mixed multitude that came up out of Egypt with them were to conduct themselves in their wilderness wanderings.  The Jewish people, to whom the Law was given, have never, in 3500 years, applied this concept as a rule of thumb for a non-differentiated relationship to Torah for Jews and Gentiles. Never. And I think that the Jewish people, to whom the Law was given, have a senior voice in the meaning and application of such texts.

There is a lot more I could say about this subject, and fine papers have already been written. But for today I want to limit myself to one key principle: The Principle of Status. Here it is in two parts:

The Principle of Status states: (Part A) Jews are to endeavor to obey Torah because of their status as Jews. But (Part B) obeying Torah should never be treated as a means of gaining or altering status by Jew or Gentile.

A quick analysis.

(Part A) The Torah way of  life was given to Israel by God as a holy etiquette whereby they would collectively honor him and distinguish themselves among all other nations.

Of many texts teaching this, consider this one from Deuteronomy, chapter four. Notice especially the intended audience (the people of Israel) and the intended contrast between the nation of Israel and the other nations:

[5] See, I have taught you [that is, the people of Israel] statutes and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you [the people of Israel][ should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. [6] Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples [notice the contrast, Israel and the surrounding peoples], who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’[Israel is here to be marked out as a great nation and wise an understanding people through its adherence to Torah. Three times this unique nationhood of Israel is mentioned] [7] 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? [8] And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today? [Israel is that great, marked out, distinct nation. And we are to teach this way of life to our children]. [9] “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—[10] how on the day that you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, the LORD said to me, ‘Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so.’ (Deuteronomy 4:5–10, ESV)

As Mark Kinzer says it, the Torah way of living is the pathway of “Israel’s national holiness” in the sense of how God wanted Israel to be set apart from the other nations.

Paul also emphasizes Israel’s unique Torah calling:  Here are just two places where he highlights this. Notice, he is writing this as a corrective to the Gentiles in Rome.  

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. (Romans 3).

[4] They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. [5] To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Messiah, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. (Romans 9:4–5, ESV)

It really cannot be any clearer. Status is PRIOR to Torah obedience. It is because  of their status as Jews that Jewish people have a unique calling with respect to Torah. It is Jewish status which gives us a unique relationship to Torah, it is not embracing Torah which gives us that status. Jewish status should lead us to Torah obedience. It is not Torah obedience that leads us to this unique status.

 And for other passage talking about Israel’s unique calling see for example Deuteronomy 7:6, 14:2, 32:8; Psalm 33:12, 147:19-20; Isa 43:20, 65:22; Amos 3:2.

(Part B) Obeying Torah should never be treated as a means of gaining or altering status by Jew or Gentile.

Many texts clarify this point. We will restrict ourselves to one, from Galatians chapter 3.

Be assured, then, that it is those who live by trusting and being faithful who are really children of Avraham. Also the Tanakh, foreseeing that God would consider the Gentiles righteous when they live by trusting and being faithful, told the Good News to Avraham in advance by saying, “In connection with you, all the Goyim will be blessed.” So then, those who rely on trusting and being faithful are blessed along with Avraham, who trusted and was faithful.

Paul is clear that status as God’s people does not come through obeying Torah. In fact, as we approach Shavuot, Paul would remind us that Israel was adopted as God’s son-nation prior to their ever getting to Mount Sinai!  Sonship status does not come through obedience to TorahL: not for Jews, nor for Gentiles.

Paul then addresses those who have this wrong.

10 For everyone who depends on legalistic observance of Torah commands [as a means of gaining and maintaining status with God] lives under a curse, since it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not keep on doing everything written in the Scroll of the Torah.”  11 Now it is evident that no one comes to be declared righteous by God through legalism [that is, through seeking to achieve or maintain status through Torah obedience], since “The person who is righteous will attain life by trusting and being faithful.” 12 Furthermore, legalism is not based on trusting and being faithful, but on [a misuse of] the text that says, “Anyone who does these things will attain life through them.” 13 The Messiah redeemed us from the curse pronounced in the Torah by becoming cursed on our behalf; for the Tanakh says, “Everyone who hangs from a stake comes under a curse.” 14 Yeshua the Messiah did this so that in union with him the Gentiles might receive the blessing announced to Avraham, so that through trusting and being faithful, we might receive what was promised, namely, the Spirit.

Paul is clear—intimate filial relationship with God comes through trusting faithfulness, not through Torah obedience. In fact, those who try to leverage that status through Torah obedience trap themselves, because, in Paul’s view, if you try to play that game you will always lose because failing to get a perfect score means you fail.

It is NOT Jewish Torah obedience which he disparages!!  God forbid! No, he disparages reliance on Torah obedience as a means of gaining or maintaining filial status and the promised blessings of God, here, the blessings of the Spirit.

Paul is not telling Gentiles “hands off the Torah!”  That is not his emphasis. There is much that Torah has to teach the nations. If they would honor the God of Israel, who gave the Torah to that people, non-Jews should maintain a different relationship to Torah: different modalities of Torah responsiveness. God is not in the business of creating imitation Jews. Neither should we be.

Paul warns his non-Jewish disciples not to seek to improve their status through Torah obedience. This is not only a misuse of Torah: it is also an implied disparagement of the work of Messiah who grants to Gentiles equal status with his Jewish people through his death, resurrection and ascension.

You cannot improve on that. Don’t even try.

Jews are to endeavor to obey Torah because of their status as Jews. But obeying Torah should never be treated as a means of gaining or altering status by Jew or Gentile.

In my next blog, I will return to address Lynn’s concerns about what she, a Jewish believer in Jesus in the church world,  is to do about honoring Torah from her status as a Jew

1 Comment

  1. W O W! Saw your testimony on YouTube, wanted more, search took me here! I’m a believer who was active in Messianic movement because I’d always wanted to know more about the Judaism of my Jewish Messiah. Stopped fellowshipping after several years due to conflict I was having with what looked to me like pride in Torah following legalism choking out the Spirit…
    Recently discovered my mother has nearly 10% Sephardic DNA, and have wondered if this has any weight on a life-long interest and heart toward Israel? Felt God leading me to get both hers & mine tested, yet hesitated because I wanted certainty it was God leading and not my flesh in any way. I too show Jewish ancestry, and have discovered that many people groups I’ve had a heart for I seem to likewise share DNA with!
    Alll things considered, this article r e a l l y brought some clarity! Thanking y o u, Rabbi for sharing your testimony a n d teaching!

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