Jewish Believers in Yeshua and Halachic Torah Observance: Foundational Principles (Part 1 of 3)

I have identified nine foundational principles I find helpful to keep in mind when thinking soberly and responsively about Messianic Jews and halachicly informed Torah observance.  Today let’s look at the first three of these.

First, the Torah God gave to Moshe, together with its mitzvot, chukkim, and mishpatim, is the inheritance of the children of Jacob and is not similarly addressed to the other nations of the world. Ample evidence supports this point: “Moses commanded us a law, as a possession for the assembly of Jacob,”[1] and this unambiguous word “He declares his word to Jacob,
his statutes and rules to Israel. 
He has not dealt thus with any other nation.”[2] The New Covenant similarly affirms this perspective stating that the first advantage of the Jews is in having been “entrusted with the oracles of God.”[3] In the Apostolic Witness (the New Covenant Scriptures), we see James operating from this perspective in Acts 21:17-26 when he urges Paul to demonstrate that he remains Torah observant (v. 24), while parenthetically commenting, “But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality” (v. 25).  By speaking in this way, he indicates that Gentiles are not expected to adhere to the same Torah standards as Jews.

This flies in the face of a Christian theological preference. Due to Platonic assumptions, the Church has developed a reflexive conviction that truths are purer and more enduring depending upon how high up the ladder of abstraction one goes, and how much one moves toward the universal and away from the particular.  These assumptions lead to a dismissal of Torah’s claims on Jewish believers in Yeshua (JBY) due to the assumed superiority of universal rather than particularist truth.  And because we have been conditioned by these assumptions, Scripture’s testimony that Jews and Gentiles in Messiah have a differentiated relationship to Torah (Acts 21:24-25) feels suspect to many of us. Yet Scripture makes clear that Jews and Gentiles when living in their respective communal settings, should have differentiated livestyles, and have differentiated final consummations–the fullness of Israel, and the fullness of the nations are not collapsed into each other.[4]

Second, the Torah is best interpreted in concert with the historical stream and transgenerational discussion of that people to whom it was given. Torah is not something we found in a book which we are then free to interpret however we choose starting today, ignoring the layers of meaning and interpretation interwoven with the text through centuries of devout discussion and contemplation.  Torah is no set of golden tablets  found by supposed angelic guidance in a hill near Palmyra, New York, nor, like the Koran, allegedly something come down from heaven whole and entire. Torah is the transgenerational living legacy of a people. It was not given to the Jewish people simply as a book to be read, but as a life to be lived.  To interpret the Torah while isolated or in categorical opposition to the Jewish communal stream and historical discussion seems prideful and naïve once one stands back and considers the nature of mattan Torah—not simply the giving of a book, but the transmission of a mandated way life to a particular transgenerational community.

Third, we tend to misunderstand Torah because we subconsciously default to individualism. On the heels of some streams of the Reformation and due to post-Enlightenment presuppositions, we gravitate to individualistic assumptions. This makes us deaf to and distrusting of the voice of community and tradition.  G.K. Chesterton shines a spotlight on this problem:

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Simon and Brown, 2011:65).

Our “Amen” to Chesterton should include a refusal to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of the autonomous self.  Following on the heels of Descartes, Kant, and Hume, even those of us who have never read these men show ourselves to be infected with their presuppositions whenever we assume that private opinion naturally and by rights ought to trump the voices of community and tradition, which is community extended from the past to the present.  Most of us tend to adopt a hermeneutic of suspicion concerning any received tradition. But we need to ask why someone is likely wrong simply because he is dead, while the living generally have something valuable and insightful to say.  We need to ask whether it is logical to simply assume oneself to be right because he or she is alive, and exercising what he or she deems to be personal discernment with the help of the Holy Spirit, as if the prior community ought to be assumed wrong until proven right (to us) and is assumed to have been less guided by the same sovereign Spirit. In the words of Paul, “was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” It is a big step worth reconsidering to imagine that for two millennia the Spirit of God entirely absented himself from the historical processes and discussion of the Jewish community.

Reducing Torah observance to merely a matter of personal conscience imposes an alien individualistic grid on what is essentially the communal calling of klal yisrael.  Even if viewing the call to Torah as a communal calling for all of klal yisrael creates boundary problems for some, this does not make the principle false or unwise. True, Scripture warns about traditions that make void the commandments of God. But surely this is not true of all traditions. Rather, the Bible exhibits deep respect for tradition and community. To assume that because traditions are sometimes misleading, we would do well to categorically distrust and avoid them is reactionary and ill-conceived.

Remember this: all of us have traditions and communities that shape us and our view of Scripture. What’s yours and how pristinely objective is it?  And is it really better qualified to interpret Torah than that community to whom Torah was entrusted?

[1] De 33:4

[2] Ps 147:19-20

[3] Ro 3:2

[4] This should not be seen as “rebuilding the middle wall of partition.” The middle wall spoken of in Ephesians chapter two is a dividing wall of status.  The middle wall has indeed been torn down in that Gentiles are no longer categorically outsiders to the people of God.  But this truth and this passage do not in any manner negate the differentiation between Jews and Gentiles, any more than Pauls’ word about there being neither male nor female undermines gender differentiation.

[5] TB Megillah 29a. See also TJ Ta’anit 1:1; Zohar 1, 120b, 211b.

About Stuart Dauermann

The blog of Rabbi Dr. Stuart Dauermann, teacher, mentor, radio talk show host, denizen of Los Angeles, and a visionary with a long career in Messianic Jewish activism. You can hear Rabbi Dauermann as he hosts Shalom Talk, a weekly radio show, and even listen online at Rabbi Dauermann spends time traveling nationally and internationally, and throughout the year is in Israel as a Scholar in Residence at the MJTI Jerusalem Center. He has plenty to say about Jewish-Christian relations, the need for shalom in the world, and the agenda of Messiah, the Son of David.
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4 Responses to Jewish Believers in Yeshua and Halachic Torah Observance: Foundational Principles (Part 1 of 3)

  1. Excellent, thank you, Rabbi. Looking forward to the next 2 parts.

  2. Joshua says:

    I concur. Beautiful.

  3. Pingback: URL

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