Torah Fundamental #2

The Torah is a code which assumes a community tradition to fill in its gaps. That is, the Torah does not spell out how to carry out many of its commands. The details of procedure are often left to the people. And the intention of Torah is clearly not to arrive at a situation like that in the book of Judges, where “every man did what was right in his own eyes.”

In matters of legal judgment, the Torah’s gaps were to be filled in by judges and by a sort of high court (Deut 17:8-13) and the people are not to turn to the right or to the left from the rulings of Israel’s judges. In matters of worship procedure and liturgy, the Levitical priests are the ones who determine the practice of the community.

The problem with Torah Fundamental #2 is that modern readers of the Bible tend to prefer the “every man does what is right in his own mind” ethic of our time. Tradition is a bad word. Authority in the hands of a group of people, such as the rabbis, is deemed oppressive and false. The Bible means what it means to me and no one should dictate procedure or tradition. How does Israel’s tradition work and how can those who want to know Torah respect the tradition?

Here is a problem that occurs often in our time: a person discovers Torah coming from a free church tradition and becomes “Hebraic” or “Messianic” and they read Torah as a free thinker descended from the Enlightenment. The people who fall into this trap generally don’t realize that they are reading Torah in a modernist mode. They think they are being true to the Bible.

The common error of this type of reading is to think it is the job of their tiny community to make up its own practice and ignore the Tradition of Israel. That is why we see so many “Messianic” websites and personalities — I’m embarrassed to say this — declaring their own dates for Passover and other festivals and new months. I cringe when I read about some self-authorized leader who sends to his followers an email, “I have sighted the new moon in Jerusalem and I declare that such and such is the start of the month of Nisan.” And, sadly, thousands of people read and follow these recommendations.

The calendar of Israel was fixed in the time of Hallel II in about the year 360 CE (and likely there were adjustments with the final system of a 19-year cycle being perfected by 700 CE). This is the tradition of Israel. It is fixed by the judges of Israel, the rabbis. And those who say they follow Torah should follow Deuteronomy 17:8-13, turning neither to the right or the left.

There are many other examples of Torah Fundamental #2. The point is you cannot follow Torah from the written Torah alone. This goes against the grain of many people from a Christian background who have the assumption of sola scriptura (scripture alone). Scripture alone does not tell you how to do everything God commands. Therefore the people of Israel developed traditions. Here are some examples:
-Lighting candles on Friday night with blessings over bread and wine.
-Lighting a havdalah candle and observing a ceremony of ushering out the Sabbath on Saturday night.
-The liturgy at the Temple with Psalms and processions which we see reflected in the book of Psalms (the Siddur of the first and second Temple).
-The traditions of the festivals such as the Passover Seder, the night of study at Shavuot, the series of shofar blasts at Rosh HaShanah, the fasting customs of Yom Kippur, the specifications for a Sukkah, the advent of Hanukkah and the requirement of Hanukkah lights, and so on.
-The procedures of the mikvah (immersion for purification).
-The communal prayers of Israel in the Siddur (Amidah, Shema, Kaddish, etc.).

The Torah is not sola scriptura. It is a code that leaves many gaps for the community to fill. To follow Torah as a Jew means to participate with other Jews according to the traditions. There is much flexibility in the traditions. But there are also boundaries in the traditions.

To follow Torah as a non-Jew (most people in the Messianic and Judeo-Christian streams are not Jewish) should mean to keep Torah alongside Israel. To disrespect the traditions of the people of Israel, of the rabbis, is to disdain Torah itself. Those who wish to take up Torah voluntarily and to practice it with the Jewish people should not be deceived by silly, self-defined Torah customs.

Torah is about bringing a people together to be near to God as a community. It is communal in nature. And traditions about how to fulfill broad commands are required. Let us keep Torah together with the historic community of Israel and that is the only valid Torah there is.

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27 Responses to Torah Fundamental #2

  1. Drake says:

    You and I have had our disagreements in the past, but here is a point where I agree with you 100%. People need to respect the halacha just as Yeshua did as much as possible. It’s fascinating to see how Torah permeated a people and gave little outgrowths of application. It seems like a rich tapestry of folkloric pride, and to negate is to kill the soul of Judaism.

    Now, I know according to BE, the next logical step would be to say “go back to church or take off them thar fringes.” But I like to think it’s somehow magically OK by you fellas. *sigh*

    In the World to Come, I can have my skycake and eat it too. 🙂

    -The Drake

    • “Now, I know according to BE, the next logical step would be to say “go back to church or take off them thar fringes.”

      There them Jewish rednecks again!

      • Drake says:

        Shalom, y’all. Wear mah tassels from a belt buckle. Ah gots me a shofar; I call it Mossberg. Mossberg is a Jewish name.

        Geet ‘er done… away weeth!

        -Drake

  2. James says:

    You’ve aptly described how some factions of “Messianic Judaism” read, understand, and implement the Torah mitzvot in their communities and in their personal lives. To be fair though, more liberal sects of traditional Judaism tend in this direction as well.

    That said, how Judaism understands the mitzvot (at least in my opinion) is developmental. I think you’ve even mentioned before that as social and technological changes occur over time, the Jewish authorities must reinterpret how scripture is applied. After all, when Moses came down from Sinai, the automobile and microwave oven hadn’t yet been invented so, for example, *someone* had to decide if they could be used on the Shabbat.

    As you may or may not know, I recently wrote a blog post on the possible “evolution” of Orthodox Judaism relative to sexual orientation and marriage within the Orthodox community. Admittedly, this is a controversial subject, but it also represents a challenge in terms of how modern Orthodox authority intends to interpret Leviticus 18:22 and the related Rabbinic rulings and commentaries.

    • Joshua says:

      “To be fair though, more liberal sects of traditional Judaism tend in this direction as well.”

      Yes, it is so that more liberal sects of Judaism have deviated from long held traditions and orthodoxy, but Orthodox Judaism has changed also. Here is a really great article on the subject: http://www.lookstein.org/links/orthodoxy.htm

      However, liberal Judaism does not operate with the same independence from Jewish tradition that some messianic groups do. I would never expect to see a reform Jew celebrate holidays on their own calibrated calendar, or a conservative Jew wear tzitzit from the belt loops. There is a stubborn and almost rude ignorance of Jewish norms among some in the messianic world. Most Jewish group, even if liberal, have a set of norms to follow, whether based on family tradition, or some organization of authority such as the Rabbinical Assembly for conservative jews which makes halachic rulings and the URJ for Reform Jews. The messianic world is still lacking a strong tradition of organizational and sound halachic ruling, but such has begun with the the MJRC – Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council. I do not completely agree with all decisions of that body, but it is a big step in the right direction for the MJ world.

      • Andrew T. says:

        Thanks for the link to that extremely informative. I found the following particularly eye-opening:

        “Did these mimetic norms—the culturally prescriptive–conform with the legal ones? The answer is, at times, yes; at times, no. And the significance of the no may best be brought home by an example with which all are familiar—the kosher kitchen, with its rigid separation of milk and meat—separate dishes, sinks, dish racks, towels, tablecloths, even separate cupboards. Actually little of this has a basis in Halakhah. Strictly speaking, there is no need for separate sinks, for separate dishtowels or cupboards. In fact, if the food is served cold, there is no need for separate dishware altogether. The simple fact is that the traditional Jewish kitchen, transmitted from mother to daughter over generations, has been immeasurably and unrecognizably amplified beyond all halakhic requirements. Its classic contours are the product not of legal exegesis, but of the housewife’s religious intuition imparted in kitchen apprenticeship.”

        Here I was thinking that every single those stringencies had a firm basis in Talmud! Of course, gedolim would opine that they really are binding on all Jews because that is the common and accepted practice. So we see that in Chareidi and even modern Orthodox Judaism, the focus on chumras (heavy stringencies) have been so amplified as to eclipse the legal requirements. From my isolated and un-Jewish point-of-view, what seems to be preferable is a vision of halakha stripped of the excesses of da’as Torah, making an informed distinction between Torah mi-Sinai, the capital-T Tradition of the Mishnah, and mere tradition. As far as I can tell, only the tiny UTJ (Union for Traditional Judaism) is dedicated to that particular vision of halakha.

        • Andrew T. says:

          Of course, I may be ignorant enough to be shooting myself in the foot with my comments. Gene, what’s your take?

          • I have no issue whatsoever with “heavy stringency” in Judaism IF people are willing to take these observances upon themselves. I don’t see too many people flocking out of OJ because it’s too hard. Their numbers stay consistent in our modern times and have grown in recent years. A mitzvah is considered a blessing to perform and the whole thing is a way of life. Some indeed long for a more secular life and opportunities the world provides – it’s their choice.

            However, if the stringencies are vigorously exercised while love, kindness, basic human decency and morality are all put on the back burner – this becomes a major problem. And that’s the primary issue that Yeshua addressed with his fellow observant Jews. Be stringent all you want even with tiniest of minutiae for G-d’s sake, but be a mensch first!

  3. Derek Leman says:

    James:

    And so I am to the left of Orthodoxy on matters of adapting Torah practice to the realities of modern life. This is where I see the room for flexibility within the tradition functioning. Torah adapted within biblical history (from no profane slaughter of meat in Lev 17 to profane slaughter allowed in Deut 14 and from Levites as carriers to Levites as musicians and gatekeepers in the reign of David, etc.).

    So, I follow the MJRC (Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council, ourrabbis.org) guidelines which reflect flexibility and adaptation of Torah practice to modern realities.

  4. Derek,
    Great topic. I agree with you very much! as a family coming from a non-Jewish background, it is very difficult at first to learn and adapt to all the traditions of praxis, but a very necessary step. Great post!

  5. David says:

    Derek, what would you say to the “Hebrew Pentecostals” (both Jew and Gentile), who, as you previously mentioned, often disrespect the traditions of k’lal yisrael? I have many friends in that category and I’ve found it impossible to persuade them that their behavior is wrong. They seem to feel that their freedom in Yeshua means they can do whatever they like with Torah.

    • “what would you say to the “Hebrew Pentecostals”

      In my experience, reasoning with Pentecostals doesn’t accomplish much (no offense, Penties!) Not reasoning is a big part of that faith tradition.

  6. Andrew T. says:

    “Torah is about bringing a people together to be near to God as a community.”

    That is a great point. Torah unifies Israel, it is the glue that holds Israel together.

  7. Derek Leman says:

    David:

    I hate to say it, but I agree with Gene. Of course people in irrational movements can change. But they usually don’t. I sat here on the comment screen for about 5 minutes trying to think of something you could say to a Hebrew Pentecostal and everything I thought of would not work. The problem is they undercut all authority with a sort of the-Spirit-shows-me-the-answer approach. They put faith in their “anointed” leaders and the interpretations they hear from them. If “anointed” leaders can sell people on mishegas like slaying in the Spirit or “healing is in the atonement,” then they can sell anything. Pentecostals have had the same rate of heart attacks and cancer as every other group and yet it has not occurred to them that healing is not by faith. So why would they listen to reason?

  8. Derek Leman says:

    Rather than saying “always bunk,” I’d say that people who think healing is guaranteed if we have faith are in for disappointment. Prayer does sometimes change a decree from heaven. I won’t deny that. But by “faith healing” I meant rather the kind where people are called to the front and the leader acts like a prophet-apostle-messiah.

  9. Drake says:

    Maybe you should invent Karaite Messianic Judaism to winnow out the Pentacostals.

  10. Derek Leman says:

    Drake:

    “Mossberg is a Jewish name.” LOL.

    Most of my Jewish friends won’t get that, having no idea what a Mossberg is.

  11. Drake says:

    They are our modern chariots. We put our faith in them.
    -Dw>>

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  13. James says:

    However, liberal Judaism does not operate with the same independence from Jewish tradition that some messianic groups do. I would never expect to see a reform Jew celebrate holidays on their own calibrated calendar, or a conservative Jew wear tzitzit from the belt loops. There is a stubborn and almost rude ignorance of Jewish norms among some in the messianic world.

    @Joshua: I agree. I think part of what Derek is trying to say is that the Gentile majority of the “Messianic Jewish” movement tend to really “mess up” the “Jewish” part, largely because of a lack of perspective. For the past three days on my own blog (I don’t want to post another link and test Derek’s patience), I’ve been exploring my own lack of perspective or inadequate understanding of the Jewish viewpoint. Without being able to see and comprehend through that particular lens, Gentile Christians are invariably going to misinterpret what the Bible is trying to tell us or at least, what the Torah is trying to tell the Jewish people. This only confirms how correct my decision was to leave the “Messianic” (in my case, One Law) movement. It’s times like this that I feel really dumb.

    I remember reading in Milton Steinberg’s novel “As a Driven Leaf” how the protagonist explores a group of Jews who came to faith in Jesus as the Messiah and a separate group of Christian Gentiles (the novel is set within the first several decades after the destruction of the Temple). Steinberg depicted the organizational structure and even the details of each group’s belief system as dissimilar, presumably because Jews and Gentiles conceptualize matters of God and faith in fundamentally different ways (this makes me wonder how Gentiles who convert to traditional forms of Judaism ever manage to navigate their path). From Steinberg’s understanding, the “original” Messianic Jewish and non-Jewish communities never were alike. The challenge for me as a Gentile trying to comprehend a Jewish faith in the Messiah has gone from a fence to try and look over, to the “Great Wall of China”. It’s just huge.

    That is a great point. Torah unifies Israel, it is the glue that holds Israel together.

    @Andrew T: Given the statement I just made, I find myself returning to the question of what, if anything, we can expect the Torah to teach “non-Israel”.

    Rather than saying “always bunk,” I’d say that people who think healing is guaranteed if we have faith are in for disappointment. Prayer does sometimes change a decree from heaven. I won’t deny that.

    @Derek: A dear friend suffered from cancer for many years as it progressed from one system in her body to another. She struggled terribly and at first, believed that God would grant her a full healing from heaven. Toward the end, she realized that this was not to be, and she depended on God to comfort her and most importantly, to take care of her husband and children after she was gone. She suffered great pain but amazingly, died with a kind of peace. To those out there who say that her death means she lacked faith, I respond by saying that such people are amazingly cruel and the compassion of the Messiah is not in them.

    • Andrew T. says:

      “I find myself returning to the question of what, if anything, we can expect the Torah to teach “non-Israel”.”

      I have befitted enormously from the study of Torah and Jewish things. How much better off the Jewish world would be if more at least had Israel and Judaism on their radar. Observance of mitzvot, that’s another issue entirely.

  14. Andrew T. says:

    “From Steinberg’s understanding, the “original” Messianic Jewish and non-Jewish communities never were alike.”

    This is an over-simplification. I expect there to have been wide divergences from community to community (much like today’s MJ, ha!). I presume some Gentile Christian communities, remote from the apostolic headquarters in Jerusalem and with little or no Jewish community locally, hardly knew the first thing about Tanach. As uncomfortable as it is for us to admit it, they probably found a very poignant and heart-rending version of the old “dying and rising saviour-god” myth in the story of Jesus that they had heard, and that was the crux of their faith. On the other hand, the community in Galatia that Paul wrote to was demographically Gentile but very Torah-informed and observant, had not taken to the apostolic theology of justification in Messiah, and some members were on the verge of halakhic conversion (Paul opposed the latter two things vehemently).

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  16. Patrick says:

    “To follow Torah as a non-Jew (most people in the Messianic and Judeo-Christian streams are not Jewish) should mean to keep Torah alongside Israel. To disrespect the traditions of the people of Israel, of the rabbis, is to disdain Torah itself.”

    Absolutely… Wrong.
    To follow the Torah as a non-Jewish (or Jewish for that matter) messianic means to keep Torah as written, where the Jews have replaced Torah-observance with talmud-observance. While the two observances seem to overlap in many areas, at the heart is who you consider your master and teacher, YHWH or the rabbis. It cannot be both.

  17. Derek Leman says:

    Patrick:

    You’ve decided to make a strong declaration. You’ve set yourself up as an expert. Not only do you know better than me about this subject, but you know better than the whole thousands-of-years-old Jewish tradition. Cool. Hope you can back up your dogmatism with knowledge.

    So, do explain how you keep Exodus 12:48?

    Oh, and what does it mean to “deny yourself” on Yom Kippur (see Lev 23:29)?

    What does it mean to “sanctify the Sabbath” and how exactly do you do it?

    How do you determine the dates for the holy days so that all the people can worship at the same time?

    Much that is in the Torah is case law, specifying on the broad case. Deut 17:10-13 says Israel must set up judges to further specify the cases, including “one kind of legal right or another.” And the people are told “you shall not turn aside from the verdict they declare to you either to the right or the left.” Who are these judges, if not the rabbis of Israel? Who set all these case laws which you, as a non-Jew follow?

    And apparently, when you read the Bible, you want us to believe no interpretation is involved. You have a direct line to God’s intent and meaning. I’m calling bull on that one. The truth is, you’re proud enough to think you have the answers and ignorant enough not to know you’re in over your head.

    You may want to take Matthew 23:1-2 into account and decide what it means.

    Oh, and do tell us about the Talmud. You say the rabbis make the Talmud go against Torah. What is in the Talmud? Is it really set up as a rival authority to the Bible? If you think so, can you write an essay defending your position? I’d like to read it.

    Here is what I think: you can list a few links to articles you’ve read on the internet (probably the total extent of your learning is internet reading). But you could not articulate answers to these questions in your own words. Prove me wrong. I’m ready.

    Derek Leman

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