A Thought about Halachah

If Messianic Judaism claims to be a Judaism within the wider Jewish Community, than it behooves us to consider the place of halachah in our midst. Messianic Judaism is more than just a form of “Biblical Judaism.” To make such a claim denies the history of the Jewish people over the last two-thousand years, and the fact that other forms of Judaism are also “Biblical.” Such a perspective also fails to acknowledge the role Rabbinic Judaism has played in determining Jewish life, teaching and practice; as well as the preservation of us as a people throughout recent history.

We should understand halachah for what it is, and what it is not. What has been lost in the strictest forms of Orthodox Judaism in recent years is the fluidity of the halachic structure and the innovation out of which it was birthed. Gordon Tucker, of the Jewish Theological Seminary, helps to point out:

“The body of Jewish law is not uniform in texture, but is rather composed of materials which fall into two main categories, usually referred to as de-oraita(biblically ordained) and de-rabbanan (rabbinically developed). That which isde-oraita can be considered to be the very core of the system, which holds it in place and provides a frame of reference. It therefore must be treated as inviolable. Tampering with that which is de-oraita is tantamount to destroying the core of the Jewish pattern of life as it has existed for millennia…The much greater (that is, in terms of volume) overlay which is de-rabbanan, on the other hand, comes with procedures for change and development. What isde-rabbanan can develop, is in fact meant to develop, as the conditions of the Jewish community change. That is what ensures the vibrancy and the continuity of the halakha as the coordinate system which roots all Jewish communities.”

Jewish law was never meant to be static, but rather to be reinterpreted in every generation. Rabbi WayneDosick describes halachah as “ever-developing” and “ever-evolving.” Halachah is derived out of evolving case law, which is based on prior precedent. As such, it is developed by wrestling with texts, the practicalities of daily life, and the teachings of previous leaders in order to decide halachic matters. It is a process. A process that is not set in stone, and not without inerrancy. However, while engaging with rabbinic texts and decidinghalachah, Professor Tucker guides,

“Development in the domain of de-rabbanan must not be abrupt or discontinuous, [but] must be rooted in traditional exegetical methodologies, and above all, must be ratified by the community of the committed and informed.”

This is exactly what the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council (MJRC) seeks to do – to wrestle with halachah in a way that is responsible to our history as Jews, to the halachic process, the inspiration of the Ruach, and the additional consideration of the Gospels and the Apostolic Writings. The MJRC is truly on the forefront of Messianic Jews who are re-engaging our texts, traditions, and the application of Torah in our lives today.

This is actually a historical moment! Although there have been significant rabbis who have come to faith in Yeshua over the last two millennia, and remained faithful to halachah and Jewish life, there has not been a body of Messianic Jewish leaders and rabbis engaging our tradition on this level since the earliest centuries. We as Messianic Jewish rabbis have a significant voice to add to the Jewish conversation of the last thirty centuries. As a body of ordained and educated rabbis, we are once again adding a voice for Yeshua within our tradition that has remained largely dormant for over 1,500 years.

Messianic Jews are obligated to engage in knowledgeable discussion with Jewish law. At times we may interpret it differently, especially in light of New Testament understandings. Yet, that does not mean we can just “do as we see fit.” We have a responsibility to ourselves and the larger Jewish world to engage in halachah through a knowledgeable and informed process.

About Rabbi Joshua

I'm a Rabbi, writer, thinker, mountain biker, father and husband ... not necessarily in that order. According to my wife, however, I'm just a big nerd. I have degrees in dead languages and ancient stuff. I have studied in various Jewish institutions, including an Orthodox yeshiva in Europe. I get in trouble for making friends with perfect strangers, and for standing on chairs to sing during Shabbos dinner. In addition to being the Senior Rabbi of Simchat Yisrael Messianic Synagogue in West Haven, CT, I write regularly for several publications and speak widely in congregations and conferences. My wife is a Southern-fried Jewish Beltway bandit and a smokin' hot human rights attorney... and please don’t take offense if I dump Tabasco sauce on your cooking.
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10 Responses to A Thought about Halachah

  1. Ben says:

    This is great guys! I especially appreciate the recognition that there is something significant about the halachic process that is lost when the Oral Torah becomes "fixed" like in the Shulchan Arukh. This is not to insult or undermine the dedication and devotion that went into codifying Jewish law. Nevertheless, the Messianic Jewish community can learn much from its opportunity to be a voice in the halachic discussion with others who are also willing to keep discussing. It is us who engage that can really be a part of the growth Am Yisrael. The trick is, as you persuaded so beautifully in this post, GET IN THE DISCUSSION!

  2. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Ben-Absolutely! Thanks for your comment and for checking out our blog.

  3. Matt says:

    Rabbi Joshua: How is it that to claim MJ is a form of Biblical Judaism is to deny the history of the Jewish people over the last two-thousand years, or deny that other forms of Judaism aren’t also perhaps also “Biblical” in their own sense? Even more perplexing to me, how does naming MJ as "Biblical" necessarily disregard the role Rabbinic Judaism has played in determining Jewish life, specifically its role in preserving our people throughout history? If there is a tight implication that I am missing, then doesn't it seem like the name "Messianic Judaism" itself would fall by the same problem? What I mean is that we do not want to imply other Judaisms have no important Messianic concepts, or that they may not themselves believe in a specific Messiah. Also, more to the point perhaps, it seems like newer terms like “Yeshua Judaism” or “Yeshuic Judaism” may by that same token be equally inappropriate as distinctive names, provided one believes that Yeshua is mystically present in majority ‘Rabbinic’ Judaism.

  4. Amanda says:

    I have always said that it is important for MJ's to know what they are rejecting before they reject it with regards to Halacha. Rabbinic ordinances were put in place (many before the time of Jesus) for a reason, and through the guidance of G-d ordained leaders of Israel. The problem is that it becomes difficult to have a discussion about something when you don't understand the language of what is being discussed. And I don't necessarily mean Aramaic here, but rather the give and take that has happened over the millenia of Jewish thought, the history of why we do what we do, who disagreed with it (plenty of that!) and why what was popularly adopted came into place. I think the same is true of New Testament thought. You can't just jump in and say, "I think it means this" without understanding how the previous generations have understood it, particularly those closest to the original sources (like Polycarp)

  5. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Matt,My point is a response to the use of the term "Biblical Judaism" by much of the Messianic Movement.Many Messianic organizations and congregations use the term Biblical Judaism to describe Messianic Judaism as a description in opposition to other forms of Judaism – i.e. "Messianic Judaism is 'Biblical Judaism,' whereas other forms of Judaism are (FILL IN THE BLANK)."The myth largely behind this false dichotomy explains that somehow MJ is a return to the 1st Century, to a more simplified and pure religion before Rabbinic Judaism, and that MJ is the true religion of the earliest followers of Yeshua.This mindset is hugely problematic. And this particular use of the term Biblical Judaism is evident on websites across the Messianic spectrum.Even the term "Biblical Judaism" is problematic. What does one mean by the use of this phrase? Does one mean the religion as practiced in Biblical times? Does one mean a religion based on the Scripture? Does Biblical Judaism mean other Judaisms are not Biblical? How do you then define "Biblical?" Messianic Judaism is "Biblical" no more and no less than other forms of Judaism. There is just as much "tradition" in what is practiced across Messianic congregations the world over as there is in many other non-Messianic synagogues. We live 2,000 years after Yeshua. We are not somehow mystically back in the 1st Cent. Plus, to make such a case denies that G-d has been at work within our people for the last two thousand years. Additionally, what is practiced today is NOT "Biblical Judaism" (if the term is meant a return to the 1st Cent.). We are not able to worship in the Temple, offer sacrifices, etc. We, like other forms of Judaism, have to wrestle with how to apply the Biblical text to our modern age.Plus – there is nothing we do that is "purely Biblical." I've spent much time thinking about this. People try to point to "purely Biblical" practices like tzitzit, or bowing the shofar, or observing the holidays. But all of our ways of practicing each of these observances is purely traditional. Torah states to wear Tzitzit. Fine. But the same people then wear tzitzit according to our TRADITION. The written Torah does not actually tell us how to tie them, what they should look like, etc. The written Torah tells us to blow a shofar on Rosh HaShanah. It does not describe what it should look like, how it should be blown, the sounds we are to make, etc. THIS IS ALL TRADITIONAL.We cannot pretend that have somehow returned to the first century and are practicing a Judaism devoid of "traditions of men." Anyway, I hope you can see my point. This is why it is important for Messianic Jews to be knowledgeable of our tradition, and engage with it. Whether we recognize it or not, we are a part of this same ongoing life and tradition of our people that goes back thirty centuries, and will extend into the future. We can either add a knowledgeable and informed voice to the ongoing conversation, or choose to separate ourselves from the life of our community. And if that is the case, then what kind of real impact can we have on our people? (See my Borough Park paper) Myself and many others would rather contribute our voice to the conversation.

  6. Matt says:

    I agree that "Biblical Judaism" (BJ) is problematic when used the way you are describing. While it is correct to speak of past Judaism(s) of the “Biblical era,” we all live in the present and not that era. We'd confuse this historical use if we use BJ to say "we are what the true 1st century (or older) congregation looks like." This historical sense can more broadly refer to being "based on the Bible” i.e. a tradition working out the sacred text in our time, but as you say this would apply to all Judaisms. But might we be throwing the baby out with the bathwater? BJ can be used of Messianic Judaism, not in an historical sense, but rather in ways that can address either (present-tense) methodology or theology. Consider two other possible senses of BJ.1) it can pick out how one conceives final authority for what is true in faith and practice. Yes, Messianic Judaism has tradition. Clearly, we also have Rabbis (or teachers, “spiritual leaders” or whatever one wants to call them). We may also value to some degree the Talmud (that degree is of course under discussion). We have many things like Torah-arks and mezuzot and kippot and tzitzit and holiday celebrations all informed mostly by tradition, which is indispensable in conceiving how we express our faith. However, what carries final authority in determining what is true are the Scriptures. Thus, "Biblical Judaism." Judaism which treats Oral Torah for example as having ultimate authority shouldn't be called "Biblical" in this sense. This does not mean that other forms lack the Bible, but rather that the final authority rests elsewhere. (I'll leave open how this is or isn't like "Karaite")2) it can pick out the claim that Yeshua is the Messiah according to the Scriptures. This tracks closely with ‘Messianic’ itself (in a way the first may not). In this sense “Messianic Judaism is Biblical Judaism” means that Messiah is the One of Whom the Scriptures spoke, and in fact, the goal of the texts. The Scriptures do not have a different goal. So ib this basis, post-Yeshua Judaisms which deny Him would also implicitly deny the Scriptures. They are in that sense not Biblical. 

  7. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Hi Matt,Thank you for your reply. I really appreciate your reading of our blog, and our dialogs that often follow.Although I can see where you are coming from in not wanting to "throw the baby out with the bath water" in regard to the term Biblical Judaism, I am still not convinced that its use is still any more helpful.For example, in regard to your first point:"What carries final authority in determining what is true are the Scriptures. Thus, "Biblical Judaism." Judaism which treats Oral Torah for example as having ultimate authority shouldn't be called "Biblical" in this sense."Traditionally, the process of Halachic development also rests solely on the written Torah, and that anything in the Oral tradition (mitzvah de'rabbanan) cannot contradict or do away with a concept directly from the Torah (mitzvah de-oraita).So, in this definition, the term "Biblical Judaism" as you have outlined above does not further clarify Messianic Judaism from other traditional forms of Judaism.Additionally, in your second point:"In this sense “Messianic Judaism is Biblical Judaism” means that Messiah is the One of Whom the Scriptures spoke, and in fact, the goal of the texts."IMHO, the term "Biblical Judaism" is still problematic here as well. For it denies that other messianic claims and positions are NOT Biblical (or based on Biblical interpretation).I believe, along with you, that there is solid textual support for our Messianic understanding. With that said, we must recognize that it is also a particular understanding. It is a particular interpretation of particular Biblical passages no more "Biblical" than other plausible readings. In fact, much of our understanding is really midrashic – a way of interpreting and making sense of various messianic Biblical passages. Let me again emphasize that I agree there is solid support for our particular understanding. However, my point is just that we have to recognize that it is just one of any number of different possible ways one could read and interpret the same texts.So although many within the Jewish community may run with one particular interpretation, or particular details within one interpretation, by doing so they are also neglecting (and ignoring) other possible, and sometimes more plausible, readings at the same time.So in my own humble opinion, the term "Biblical Judaism" is still no more helpful in trying to clarify our particular form of Judaism. This is because all language has a level of ambiguity to it. For example, there are even problems with the term "Messianic Judaism." However, I think it has less ambiguity than the term "Biblical Judaism" and is more helpful in identifying our particular KIND of Judaism within the wider Jewish community. It boldy says two things: 1) We are a Judaism;2) and a Judaism of a particular kind – we are "Messianic," for we follow a particular Messiah – the historical Yeshua of Nazareth.

  8. Pingback: Yeshua, Halachah, and the Sermon on the Mount | Yinon Blog

  9. Ted Allen says:

    I would value your citing quotes for further research and to understand the context cited from, ex. cited Rabbi Tucker, but no reference to where the two quotes came from. Thank you for your consideration of this request.

    • Rabbi Joshua says:

      Shalom Ted,

      The Tucker quotes are from:

      Tucker, Gordon. “Final Report of the Commission for the Study of the Ordination of Women as Rabbis.” The Ordination of Women as Rabbis, ed. Simon Greenberg. (New York: JTS Press, 1988), 5-30.

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