Jews for Jesus

Posts Tagged 'torah'

The Authority of the Torah and the Authority of Jesus

Sholem Asch stated (see Jesus in Jewish Art) that in his view, the authority of Y'shua was only for the gentiles because the Jewish people were already under the authority of the Torah. The dogma that the Torah is unchangeable, and forever binding to the Jewish people is commonplace in Orthodox Judaism. (The doctrine is called "the immutability of the Torah.") However, a number of factors suggest that the Torah was never intended to be an unchanging monolith, and that the authority of Y'shua is therefore a live option for Jews. Consider this:

1. The Torah itself shows changes from one situation to another. For example, Leviticus 17:3-7 states:

Any man from the house of Israel who slaughters an ox, or a lamb, or a goat in the camp, or who slaughters it outside the camp, and has not brought it to the doorway of the tent of meeting to present it as an offering to the LORD before the tabernacle of the LORD, blood guiltiness is to be reckoned to that man. He has shed blood and that man shall be cut of from among his people. The reason is so that the sons of Israel may bring their sacrifices which they were sacrificing in the open field...and sacrifice them as sacrifices of peace offerings to the LORD.... And they shall no longer sacrifice their sacrifices to the goat demons with which they play the harlot. This shall be a permanent statute to them throughout their generations.

Torah scrolls

In other words, animals which were killed to provide meat for a family had first to be brought to the tabernacle and offered as a peace offering. In this way the Israelites would not utilize them in worshipping pagan goat demons. But in the book of Deuteronomy, where the situation has changed from wandering in the wilderness to being settled in the land, a different provision exists:

However, you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your gates, whatever you desire, according to the blessing of the LORD your God which He has given you....If the place which the LORD your God chooses to put His name is too far from you, then you may slaughter of your herd and flock which the LORD has given you, as I have commanded you; and you may eat within your gates whatever you desire.
Deuteronomy 12:15,21

Here, allowance is made for such animals to be killed at home, since the distance to the central sanctuary--"the place which the LORD your God chooses to put His name"--was often too great. Thus God's requirements can situationally change.

2. Sometimes it is said that the phrase "permanent statute" or the like indicates that the laws of Torah will never change. This is a misunderstanding of such expressions. The example above showed a change in a regulation--even though the Leviticus passage declared the regulation "a permanent statute to them throughout their generations" (v. 7). Another example is found in Exodus 21:16 concerning slaves: "And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently." Obviously, he was only able to serve his master for the rest of his life, not forever! The Tenach does not have a concept of "forever" as the New Testament does, and such expressions should be taken to mean "to be continually observed" and as phrases underlining the importance of the particular commandment.

3. There are suggestions in rabbinic writings that some thought the Torah would be changed or even abrogated in the Messianic Age or in the Age to Come.

The Lord permits the forbidden (Ps. 146:7). What does this mean? Some say that in the time to come all the animals which are unclean in this world God will declare to be clean, as they were in the days before Noah. And why did God forbid them [i.e. make them unclean]? To see who would accept His bidding and who would not; but in the time to come He will permit all that He has forbidden.
Midr. Ps. on CXLVI, 7(268a Sec. 4)

R. Phinehas and R. Levi and R. Johanan said in the name of R. Menahem of Gallia: In the time to come all sacrifices will be annulled, but that of Thanksgiving will not be annulled, and all prayers will be annulled, but [that of] Thanksgiving will not be annulled.
Leviticus Rabbah 9:7

4. The prophet Jeremiah in particular looked to a day when aa new covenant would be observed in Israel:

"Behold, days are coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them," declares the LORD. "But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days," declares the LORD, "I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD, 'for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them," declares the LORD, "for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more."
Jeremiah 31:31-34

It would seem that Jeremiah himself did not see the Torah as an unchanging monolith.

5. At the Last Supper (a Passover seder) Y'shua said that in his death this new covenant would be ushered in:

And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, "This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood."
Luke 22:20

Jesus' crown of thorns

Moreover, Jesus, with authority, required that his disciples obey his own commandments:

"If you love Me, you will keep My commandments."
John 14:15

"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another."
John 13:3

Could it be that as the Messiah, Y'shua had the authority under the "new covenant" to give a "new Torah?"

The Law of Moses itself allowed for change, "permanent" statutes notwithstanding. Jeremiah anticipated some kind of new covenant, and some rabbis also took a stand against the "immutability" of the Torah. Sholem Asch claimed too much for the authority of the Torah and not enough for the authority of Jesus. Those who believe that Jesus vindicated his claim to be the Messiah also accept his authority as binding upon Jew and gentile alike.

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About Torah Observance

It's been a long time coming but The Messianic Movement: A Field Guide for Evangelical Christians from Jews for Jesus is finally in print. One of the eleven chapters explores Torah observance among Jewish believers in Jesus. (We've slightly abbreviated it here for space considerations.) Torah observance is a "hot button" for many as it touches on important matters of theology. Whether or not you struggle with this issue personally, it is one that very much affects the Messianic movement, as well as how we are seen by the larger body of believers. After reading this, if you have any comments to add, we'd love to hear from you.

Introduction

Among those groups that are sometimes considered part of the Messianic movement are those organizations and congregations that call themselves "Torah-observant," or that emphasize obedience to the Law of Moses by another term. These groups can vary from the theologically orthodox regarding the person of Christ and the Trinity, to theologically aberrant. Essentially, these groups present themselves as following the Old Testament Law of Moses, thereby living a life they believe more closely resembles that of first-century followers of Jesus, or is more in keeping with God's will for today.

Looking at the Law

Martin Luther once observed that no sooner does someone fall off a horse on the right side, than they get back on and proceed to fall off on the left side. The Torah-observant groups are in part a reaction against negative views of the Law found in some Christian circles. It is the unfortunate case that in much of evangelical Christianity the Old Testament is hardly taught, rarely preached on and little understood by the average congregant. Where the Law is mentioned, it is often portrayed as merely a burden from which Christians are now free.

The biblical picture of the Law is quite different. The Law in the Old Testament is spoken of as a gift from God, a guide to life, something to be cherished and enjoyed, as well as something to be obeyed under penalty of punishment for disobedience. It is intimately bound up with the covenant wherein God graciously reiterated His relationship with His people.

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul reminds us that the Law is good.1 The idea of obedience is continually highlighted, from the Sermon on the Mount to Jesus' words in John's Gospel2 and in the epistles.3 In fact, nine of the Ten Commandments are explicitly reinforced in the New Testament.

The Law itself is not bad; it is sin, the misuse of the Law, and the way that human traditions can end up supplanting the Law, that are bad. The principles of the Law, especially the Ten Commandments, have become the bedrock of Western civilization and of the Church itself—even those churches that portray the Law negatively.

Having said this, the Christian Church has universally recognized that the Law of Moses is not meant to be kept as a body of law by Christians today.4 The Law of Moses was part of a covenant that God made with Israel at a particular time and in a particular place. With the coming of Christ, the New Covenant prophesied by Jeremiah has come into effect and we are no longer under the Old Covenant.

The fact is that for the past two thousand years it has been impossible to observe all the commandments of the Law of Moses because so many of them depend on the existence of a Temple, a priesthood, animal sacrifices and living as a theocratic nation within the Land of Israel. Orthodox Judaism recognizes this, and when the Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, Judaism was reconstructed as a religion without a Temple or a priesthood, a religion dependent on the authority and decisions of the rabbis. Reform Judaism, a recent movement of the past 250 years, views the Law as often antiquated and outdated, but useful as a reminder of our history, a symbol of our people and a source of ethics.

It is, however, equally important to note that the recognition that we are not intended to keep the Law of Moses today does not mean that Christians believe in lawlessness! The specific commands of the Law of Moses each reflected something of the nature of God, and behind each commandment is a principle. Those principles, reflecting God Himself, are still incumbent on all Christians today.

A Response to Torah-Observant Groups

In evaluating the Torah-observant groups within the Messianic movement, there are several things worth considering. To be sure, the exact nature and function of the Law of Moses are debated among Christians, but with an understanding that the Church, including both Jewish and Gentile members, is not mandated to keep the entire Law of Moses. The following, then, is not intended as a final word by any means (as if it were possible in just a few paragraphs!), but is meant to give food for thought, and hopefully pause to those who would rush into attempting to observe the Law of Moses today.

  1. It is no longer possible to keep all 613 (if we accept the traditional rabbinic enumeration) laws because we no longer have a Temple, or a priesthood, or live as a theocracy in the Land of Israel. Because of this, the Torah-observant groups end up being extremely selective in their "lawobservance." For the most part, the emphasis is on holy days, Sabbaths and festivals, with perhaps some attention given to other parts of the Law. In essence, these are not so much Torah-observant as festival- observant groups. And since the Temple and priesthood are gone and a majority of Jews live in the diaspora (outside the land of Israel), even the festivals, for instance, must be observed differently than they were in biblical times. Perhaps without their realizing it, Torah-observant groups must either depend on rabbinic tradition, which is distinctly post-biblical, or must construct their own traditions. For instance, members of such groups do not send their men to appear before the Lord in Jerusalem, as required in the Law of Moses, nor do they offer sacrifices. So there can be no question of this being an authentic, first- century way of observance.

    Moreover, among the commandments of the Law are penalties for its violation, including the death penalty in many cases. Torah-observant groups do not apply the death penalty to those who are not Torah- observant. Indeed they cannot, for if they did, they would be subject in modern society to criminal charges in a court of law! We no longer live in a theocracy subject to the penalties of God's Law.
  2. One gets the impression that, far more than they emphasize faithfulness to Christ, the Torah observant groups emphasize Torah-observance as their distinctive, and in fact imply that they are being more obedient to God, or have a deeper spirituality, than other believers in Jesus. Perhaps they would argue that their obedience to the Torah is faithfulness to Christ, but there is a distinct imbalance in their approach. Inadvertently, perhaps, they have created a two-tier system of believers: the more spiritual ones who observe the Law and the less spiritual ones who do not. This is not only unbiblical, but it also separates these groups from the rest of the Body of Christ in an unhealthy way.
  3. Since much of the Torah-observant movement is a reaction to negative teaching about the Law, there is likewise a failure on the part of this movement to recognize that large segments of the Church take a very positive view of the Law. This is particularly true of Reformed and Presbyterian churches, which include a positive emphasis on God's Law within their confessional statements, and in their preaching and teaching. What they mean by God's Law, however, is not the specific 613 commandments of the Law of Moses—which was part of the Mosaic covenant intended for that time in redemptive history—but the principles that God intends for us and commands us to live by. For many of these churches, those principles are embodied especially in the Ten Commandments, which comprise the standard for all Christian obedience.
  4. Actually, the obedience required under the New Covenant is more radical than that under the Old Covenant. For instance, in Deuteronomy 22:8 it is required for one to build a parapet around the roof, a safety feature in a time when the roof functioned as both a living room for entertaining and a bedroom. I doubt that the Torah-observant groups require such parapets. But under the New Covenant, much more is required. That particular commandment is an example of how to follow the general rule to love our neighbor, and is an outworking of the sixth commandment, "You shall not murder." In principle, its application today would range from preserving safety for our family and guests all the way to working for national security or in public policy. The New Covenant broadens and deepens the requirements of the Law of Moses: "For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required" (Luke 12:48). To stress obedience to the Law of Moses without stressing the fuller applications of the principles embodied in those laws is to miss the point (Galatians 3:24).
  5. The Torah-observant groups justify their position on the basis of selected verses, while ignoring others. Much is made of the term "forever" used in regard to some Old Testament laws, while verses such as Hebrews 8:13 that speak of the first covenant as being "obsolete," are not dealt with. Further, they ignore what theologians commonly call the "history of redemption," the progress of God's dealings with humankind throughout history. Jesus has indeed brought something new, but the Torah-observant groups minimize the newness that the coming of the Messiah has meant. In addition, they minimize the way much Old Testament law functioned to distinguish Israel from the nations. While there is indeed distinctiveness to the Jewish people, not all the Old Testament distinctions apply. For example, one can make a good argument that the food laws were intended to symbolize the separation of Israel from the nations. Under the New Covenant, Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus become one in the Messiah (Ephesians 2:14) in a way not realized under the Mosaic Covenant. As a result, one can build a good case that the mandatory keeping of kosher laws is no longer required for a Jewish believer in Jesus.5
  6. Many in Torah-observant circles are not Jewish. Thought should be given as to why non-Jews are so eager to observe a law never intended for them, and to the New Testament teaching on the place of the Law of Moses in the lives of Gentile Christians.

Conclusion

Questions arise about whether or not particular Jewish observances are proper for a follower of Jesus, and these questions have been debated among Jewish believers. One problem is that it is often hard to separate cultural from religious expressions. For an Orthodox Jew, celebrating Passover is a fulfillment of a divine command, and is done in accordance with the accretions of 2,000 years of rabbinic tradition and rabbinic law. For a Reform or secular Jew, celebrating Passover is often simply an opportunity to enjoy doing something Jewish: having a get- together with the family, going through a few traditions familiar from childhood and sharing a meal. Is Passover then a cultural expression or a religious one? Similar questions arise pertaining to other aspects of Judaism, because Judaism today is not a monolith when it comes to religious and cultural expression.

Therefore, a word needs to be said about the place of the Law of Moses in the life of a Jewish believer. Some Messianic congregations have a Sefer Torah, a scroll of the Law. Many, even if they do not own a Sefer Torah, incorporate readings from the Torah that correspond to the passage being read that week in synagogues in their services. Many Jewish believers choose to celebrate the holidays or keep kosher. Usually, though, this is something quite different from the intentions of the Torah-observant groups. For instance, all the above examples might be done to show solidarity with the rest of the Jewish community, to express worship in a Jewish manner, to be a testimony to other Jewish people, or simply as a mark of personal Jewish identity. If done voluntarily, without a belief that one accrues higher favor with God for doing so, there is freedom in Christ to do these things. However, the emphasis of Torah- observant groups is on mandatory law- keeping as an expression of greater obedience to God. So in their case we are dealing with something quite different.

A word also about churches that enjoy such celebrations as Passover: this is also something quite different from the Torah- observant groups. Churches that have an annual Passover Seder generally do so as a teaching and worship tool, with fulfillment in Christ as the focus, and an emphasis on enriching the observance of Communion. In such circumstances, it is not done as part of a mandatory requirement to observe the Law of Moses. As such, this activity should be encouraged.6

In summary, if you hear of a group calling themselves "Torah-observant," keep in mind the above responses and remember that it was never the Law, only its misuse, that the New Testament criticizes.

Notes

  1. Romans 7:12, 16.
  2. "If you love me, you will obey what I command" (John 14:15).
  3. For instance: "But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does" (James 1:25); "If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, "Love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing right" (James 2:8); "What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?" (James 2:14).
  4. Many divide the Law into civil, ceremonial and moral laws. Whether those are valid distinctions is another matter, but it is instructive that no one insists that we need to keep them all. Most Christians who view the Law along those three divisions accept an ongoing validity to the moral law, particularly as embodied in the Ten Commandments. A minority view is that of Theonomists, who believe that the civil law with its penalties should continue to function in some way today.
  5. For a good discussion of the laws of kosher food in Leviticus, see Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Eerdmans, 1979).
  6. See Bruce J. Lieske, "Jewish Feasts in Gentile Congregations".
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Parsha BaMidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)

 
The Yeshiva of Hard Knocks
BaMidbar (“In the Wilderness”) Numbers 1:1-4:20
Rabbi Glenn
The Torah portion for this Shabbat is BaMidbar, meaning “In the Wilderness”. It marks the beginning of the book of Numbers. As many of you know, the Hebrew names for the books of the Torah are derived from the key word in the opening sentence of each book. This one is called Sefer BaMidbar because it begins with these words: Adonai spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai...

Numbers is not exactly a cheerful read. It shows our people Israel at our very worst, consisting of a series of rebellions against God and against Moses. One of the things that separate histories from mythologies is the honesty of an account. Legend and mythology almost always present their heroes as flawless, and exaggerate their exploits and the numbers.

So how did it get the English name Numbers? It’s because God commanded Moses to take a census, tribe by tribe, of all men, twenty years of age and older, for the purposes of military readiness, as well as to take a census of the Kohanim and Leviim. This is what occupies chapters one and two. That verb to sum (add up) is, in Greek, αριθμεω-number; Hence, Numbers. They came up with an impressive total: 603,550 men fit for war. We also learn in this passage that the Levites were exempted from military service, as God set them apart to serve in the Tabernacle and at the Tent of Meeting.

Speaking of numbers, it is sadly ironic that out of those 603,550 men, only 2 – Joshua and Caleb, would ever be allowed to enter the Landof Canaan. That generation of unbelievers was destined to die in the wilderness. And why were we in the wilderness? After all, the book of Deuteronomy opens by saying that it was only 11 days’ journey from Horeb (Sinai) to Kadesh Barnea - the gateway to the Land of Promise. So why do we read in the very next verse of Deuteronomy 1 that forty years later we were still out there wandering bamidbar (in the wilderness)? Were our people the forerunners of the guy who adamantly refuses to stop and ask for directions? In one sense, the answer is yes! When we decided to do things our own way; when we took it upon ourselves to re-interpret God’s instructions, that arrogance and stubbornness consigned a generation to dwell Bamidbar.

The Midbar, the wilderness, is not only an identifiable geographic location, but serves as a motif, a symbol of what it means to rebel against God. When we attempt to circumvent His teaching and instruction, that’s precisely where we’ll find ourselves: in a desolate place. But the Midbar can also teach us something positive and necessary - it serves as a picture of complete and total reliance upon God. You don’t really think we survived those forty years in a scorching desert through our great ingenuity, do you? No, it was because God Himself met our needs. He provided water from a rock, manna from heaven, and quail from out of nowhere!

The Midbar, the wilderness, can also teach us what it means to repent; to admit failure, to learn from it and then to press on. It also teaches us about God’s heart of forgiveness and His desire to reconcile us to Himself. The Haftarah reading which corresponds to BaMidbar is Hoshea, chapter 2. After indicting Israelfor her disloyalty, her spiritual adultery, God speaks tenderly to Israel, with the idea of wooing her back to Himself in repentance, with these words:

Therefore, behold, I will allure her, bring her back into the wilderness, and speak kindly to her. Then I will give her vineyards from there, and the valley of Achor as a door of hope. And she will sing there as in the days of her youth, as in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt.

I believe the lesson of the Midbar is that God leaves open wide the doors to repentance. God was, and is, summoning men and women who find themselves in the midst a wildernesses of their own making, to return to Him and be healed. For our Jewish people today, that repentance consists of softening our hearts, and recognizing that Messiah has come - Yeshua of Nazareth. Until such time, our people will remain b’midbar - in a spiritual wilderness, outside the blessings and outside the Promise.

It’s always less painful to learn from others’ mistakes than to have to learn first-hand. We are expected to learn from Israel’s failures in the wilderness. This is why the Psalmist warned, Today if you would hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers tested Me ... For forty years I loathed that generation and said they are a people who err in their heart, and they do not know My ways. Therefore I swore in My anger, truly they shall not enter into My rest (Psalm 95:8-11).

Similarly, the Great Emissary Paul warned the believers in Corinth: For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea;2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea;3 and all ate the same spiritual food;4 and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Messiah.5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness…Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come (1 Corinthians 10:1-5, 11).

Failure is a normal part of the human experience. But failure is compounded by sadness when we don’t learn from it. Have you failed in some area of your own life, spiritually or morally? Will you learn from it? If so, you will have been bettered by it. Thomas Edison failed literally thousands of times in his pursuit to develop the light bulb; He welcomed each failure as a means by which to refine the process in order to eventually arrive at success. The writer of Proverbs assures us …for though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again (Proverbs 24:16). Let me encourage you not to give up when you fail. With God’s help get up, turn and press on. Learn from Israel’s failure, so you yourself don’t end up in the wilderness of an unteachable heart.

Parsha Nitavim-Vayyelech (Deuteronomy 29:9 - 31:30)

 
Stand and Affirm!
Nitzavim-Vayyelech (Those Taking a Stand / And He Went)
Deuteronomy 29:9 - 31:30
Rabbi Glenn
The parashot for this week (two of them) are entitled Nitzavim, a word meaning “Those taking a stand” and Vayyelech, meaning "And he went". The word used for "stand" is different from the common Hebrew verb for “standing” (omayd). The Torah reading begins with our people appearing before Adonai, taking a formal stand, with Moses as their liaison, their intermediary, in order to confirm the Covenant.
In the previous parasha, Moses prophesied that we would eventually violate the Covenant God made with us, and suffer severe consequences. In these chapters, however, God makes a beautiful promise – a promise of restoration, renewal, and a return to the land. A second chance! This is where the Torah (Deuteronomy in particular) parts ways with the conventions of the ancient Near East. God offers grace and forgiveness - something no Hittite king would ever have offered to a conquered nation!

God promised not only that He would re-gather us to Eretz Yisrael, but also that He would circumcise our hearts (30:6). It’s a rather strange sort of imagery - performing a bris upon one’s heart. What we’re supposed to understand is that the heart of man is hard and only through God’s intervention can our hearts become teachable and tender, and we come to a place of repentance. I believe that in a real sense this passage anticipated the future giving of the New Covenant - the Covenant spoken of by the prophet Jeremiah, and brought to fulfillment through the person of Messiah Yeshua. What we learn from this parasha is that those who try to please God by their own efforts are guaranteed to fail and become disillusioned. Yet, all along, God promised that He Himself would do the necessary work to make us righteous, if we would just humble ourselves and receive salvation as His gift, rather than proudly insist on it as wages due for work performed.

Last week’s parasha represented the ratification of the Covenant (blessings and curses pronounced for obedience or disobedience). This week’s section is the summoning of witnesses. Moses declares in chapter 30, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving Adonai your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which Adonai swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give them.’

In parasha Vayyelech, Moses reminded us that he would not be accompanying us into the Landof Promise. He and Joshua were summoned to the Tent of Meeting, where Moses commissioned Joshua to be Israel’s next leader. Just as Israel was assured that God would be with them, Joshua was now assured that God would be with him.

The Haftarah readings (Hosea 14:2-10, Joel 2:11-27, Micah 7:18-20) all have the theme of restoration. When Israel broke covenant with God and was defeated by enemies, those nations credited themselves and their gods for the victory. They also presumed that God was finished with the Jewish people. But God says that it is He Himself who delivered Israel up, and He Himself would restore her. In fact, God turned around and punished those nations that treated Israel harshly. There is a lesson here: you do not want to gloat over Israel’s failure, for God intends to restore her, and then where will that leave you?

Rabbi Paul had this in mind when he cautioned the Gentile believers in Rome not to gloat over the fact that Israel, for the most part, failed to acknowledge Messiah Yeshua. Some might be tempted to say, Branches were broken off, so that I might be grafted in. Paul warns them, saying, If some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them… do not be arrogant toward the branches… and he culminates his remarks this way: For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own estimation, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and thus all Israel will be saved (excerpted from Romans 11:19-26).

Let me conclude with this: In the course of your life, you will be called upon, perhaps on several occasions, to take a stand. Some stand on tradition rather than truth, some stand on their own pride, rather than admit wrongdoing or mistake. One may take a stand for a noble cause. We at Congregation Shema Yisrael take our stand on the fact of the Messiahship of Yeshua and the truth of God’s Word. Where do you stand? Choose this day whom you will serve. To declare your allegiance is to take a stand. Israel’s history teaches us that there are consequences for our actions and sometimes arising from our inaction. May the Lord grant us courage to stand, and wisdom to choose well who and what to stand for.

Torah, the Best Merchandise

Once upon a time a ship carrying merchants and merchandise sailed over the sea, and among the passengers was a great scholar. The merchants began to converse about the wares which they carried with them, and what they intended to buy. Finally they asked the scholar what merchandise he had, and he answered: I carry all my goods with me." The merchants searched the whole ship for his wares, for they thought that he had precious stones, but they could find nothing. So they jeered at him and said that he had no merchandise at all. The scholar replied: "Why are you laughing at me? The goods which I carry are of greater value than any which you have in the ship's hold."

As they continued traveling on the high seas, they were attacked by pirates, who robbed them of all the merchandise which they had in the ship. When they landed, they found themselves quite poor and had nothing to eat or drink or any clothes to put on. The scholar, however, went into the town and entered the bet ha-midrash. When the people heard what an important man he was, they at once brought him clothes and gave him a large amount of money. Moreover, the good people of the town followed him out of the city.

When the merchants saw the great honor which was shown to the Jew, they begged his pardon for having laughed at him, and asked him to request the townspeople to give them something to eat so that they might not die of hunger, for he had seen that they had been robbed of their property.

And the scholar replied: "Did I not tell you that my merchandise was more valuable than yours? For you have lost your property, but mine is still with me. Furthermore, one who buys and sells does not always gain, sometimes he gains and sometimes he loses, and even when he gains he is not sure that the profit will remain with him, but the Torah remains forever, in this world and in the next. I was right, therefore, about the goods which I had with me."

National Jewish Welfare Board. A Book of Jewish Thoughts, p. 221. Bloch Publishing Company, New York, 5703-1943.

"I have rejoiced in the way of Thy testimonies, As much as in all riches. I will meditate on Thy precepts, And regard Thy ways. I shall delight in Thy statutes; I shall not forget Thy word."

Psalm 119:14-16

The Word of God is indeed a treasure. When a man has the Torah in his heart he can never be poor, but though a man be as wealthy as King Midas, he can possess nothing of value. In the New Testament, the Messiah Jesus is shown to be the Word of God (John 1:1). In Him we become heirs of the riches of the kingdom. He is a treasure which no man can take from us. He is the living Torah and the fulfillment of the promises made by God in Torah.

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Parsha Re'eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17)

Re’eh(“See!”)
Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17
Rabbi Glenn
 
The parasha for this Shabbat is entitled Re’eh (“See!”) and takes us from Deuteronomy 11:26 through 16:17. This reading consists of commandments governing everything from worship to dietary prohibitions; from finances to festivals. It also contains a series of warnings, principally that we not imitate the horrific practices of the Canaanites.

It is important we remember that these words were spoken while Israel was still east of the Jordan. There, yet outside the Land of Promise, Moses names the location of G’rizim and Eval inside the land, describing them as דֶּרֶךְ מְבוֹא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ,toward the direction of the sunset. Moses declared that upon those two opposing hills Israel had a pending appointment with Adonai for the purpose of reaffirming her commitment to the Covenant. There was a collective choice to be made, with attendant consequences. Moses said, “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you listen to the commandments of the Lord your God… and the curse, if you do not listen…”

 

Included in this section of the Torah is a repeat of the prohibition against eating blood; a reminder that blood is sacred, carrying with it the life of each creature. Modern medical technology has enabled us to know more than we ever have before about the properties of blood. Yes, it is essential to life, and the loss of too much of it brings death. But more than that - in even one drop of your blood is contained every bit of information, every infinitesimal genetic code determining everything from the color of your eyes and hair to your innate strengths and weaknesses, susceptibility to allergies, attraction to certain colors and combinations of colors; even your particular yen for a piece of gefilte fish! How sadly ironic, then, that we know so much about life, yet have so little regard for it. Our legalization of abortion-on-demand in 1973 is every bit the modern-day equivalent of the Canaanites’ ancient practice of child sacrifice.

In chapter 12, we were commanded to utterly destroy every vestige of Canaanite worship; their altars, idols, sacred pillars; and warned in the most serious of terms never to follow their false gods. Moses said, “beware that you are not ensnared to follow them (nor) inquire after their gods… You shall not behave thus toward the Lord your God, for every abominable act which the Lord hates they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods” (12:30-31). Also, we were not to imitate their habit of building altars wherever they felt like it – “on every high hill and under every green tree…” Rather, Israel was to worship only in the one place of God’s designation. Briefly that was Shiloh, but the place which Adonai ultimately chose to establish His name was Yerushalayim (Jerusalem). The principle is this: you may not worship the Living God any old way you like. You can worship a rock or a piece of wood any way you like, because they are lifeless things; but God is real, and He is personal, and He chooses, and He has standards for what is and what is not acceptable.

If we have perhaps lost something in our emphasis in stressing a personal relationship with God as opposed to mere religious formality, it is the sense of the holy.  God declares some things sacred and other things profane. I suggest we need awareness of God’s love and compassion but also awareness of His infinite holiness and majesty. Neglect the one and you’re left with lifeless ritualism. Neglect the other and you’re left with religion governed by one’s own fickle emotions and the pursuit of sensationalism.

We are warned at the outset of chapter 13 not to follow any so-called “prophet” or even a miracle-worker if they entice us to follow other gods. Capital punishment was prescribed for such instances, even if it involved your best friend, your wife or your family member. Say what you will, deterrent works. Known consequences for certain wrong actions are very effective in keeping us on the straight and narrow. This also reminds us that God must absolutely come first – even before friends or family!

But there’s another principle here: supernatural manifestations are in no way a barometer of truth. Satan is not divine, but he is supernatural, and if our faith is not rooted in the Scriptures, we are vulnerable to being deceived by false displays of power. For example, Revelation 13 says the false prophet who serves antichrist will miraculously call fire down out of heaven in public view (just like Elijah did), and will deceive many people. Just make sure you’re not one of them!

In chapter 15 we are commanded to have a release of debts at every seventh year. The Sabbatical Year was to be a time of forgiven debts and the setting free of slaves. It might mean financial hardship to forgive debts, but there are more important things than money. The accumulation of wealth is not the purpose for which God placed us on this earth. People are more important than money!

Speaking of money, in chapter 16 we were commanded that three times each year every Israeli man was to appear before God: at Passover, at Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks) and at Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles); and we were not to show up empty-handed! Tithing of our produce, our income, was never a matter of our feelings. It was a commandment. Today some argue that because we are under the New Covenant, the laws governing tithing no longer apply. Assuming, for arguments’ sake that’s true, are we really to believe that in the New Covenant the standard has been lowered? If anything, shouldn’t we want to give all the more, and all the more cheerfully because we are all the more grateful for His having marvelously saved us in Yeshua?

In summary, what do all these commandments in parasha Re’eh have in common? I believe the idea connecting all these things is worth.  To what do you assign value? The word “worship” comes to us from old English and has the idea of worth. Worship is not merely bowing down and saying prayers. Worship reflects assigned value. The measure of what you value can be gaged by the things, the people and the causes to which you give your time, your attention, your energies and your money. Worth is also reflected in what we are willing to cast aside, to throw away. Let us be sure we are valuing the things God values, detesting the things God detests, and cherishing the things God cherishes.

Varied Jewish Thoughts on Torah

When Moses was on high, he found the Holy One decorating the Torah's letters with coronets. He asked the meaning of this, and the Holy One said, After many generations, a man by the name of Akiba will expound heaps and heaps of laws on each of these tittles." Moses went and sat down behind eight rows of disciples listening to Akiba's discourse, but he was unable to follow the discussion. At one point, the disciples asked, "Whence do you know it?" and Akiba replied, "It is a law given to Moses on Sinai." Said Moses, "Lord, Thou hast such a man, and Thou givest the Torah by me?" God replied, "Such is My decree!"

-Rab. T. Menahot 29b.

What brief verse contains the whole substance of the Torah? Proverbs, 3.6, "In all thy ways acknowledge God, and He will direct thy paths."

-Bar Kappara. T. Berakot 63a.

I believe with perfect faith that the whole Torah, now in our possession, is the same that was given to Moses our teacher.

-Maimonides, Commentary to Mishna: Sanhedrin, 1168, 10.1. Thirteen Principles, #8.

Allegiance to the authority of the rabbinic tradition is binding upon all sons of Israel.

-Z. H. Chajes, Mebo HaTalmud, (1845) 1954, ch 1, p. 4.

Think not that I came to destroy the Law…I came not to destroy, but to fulfil. Verily, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or tittle shall in no wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled.

-New Testament, Matthew, 5.17f.

Where two meet in Torah, the Shekina is present.

-Hanina b. Teradion. Mishna Abot 3.2

Enlighten our eyes in Thy Torah that we may cling to Thy commandments.

-Union Prayer Book, i. 118. DPB, ed Singer, 40.

The cord of God's ordinances and Law are suspended from heaven to earth, and whoever lays hold of it has hope.

-Maimon b. Joseph, Letter of Consolation, 1160

The essence and aim of the whole Torah is love for God and devotion to Him.

-Katz, Toldot Jacob Joseph, 1780. q HLH 1, 32.

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The Torah: God's Indestructible Book: But It Can Be Broken

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the original Torah of God in his hands, he found out that his people had broken one of its commandments. For the Torah he held in his hands said, Thou shalt not make unto thee…any manner of likeness, of any thing that is…in the earth…Thou shalt not bow down unto them, nor serve them…" Our people transgressed this command and, as a result, there was no need for the whole Torah, for we have the record which says, "And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing; and Moses' anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and broke them beneath the mount." (Shemot—Exodus 32:19.) One command was broken and, therefore, there was no need for the rest of the commandments, for the Torah is one. The Torah was transcribed again but only after full repentance, punishment and restitution was fellowship with God restored.

The Torah Is One

According to rabbinic reckoning, there are 613 commandments in the Torah: 248 positive commands, i.e., what we should do; and 365 negative commands, what we should not do. The positive commands correspond to the number of separate parts in our body and the 365 negative commands correspond to the days of the year, so that, throughout the year, we are commanded to do all the commands with all the joints and parts of our body.

Yet we are told that all these commands can be reduced down to one. This was done already by the famous Hillel (a contemporary of Jesus) of whom we are told that, when a Gentile came to him and asked for conversion to Judaism on condition that Hillel would teach him all the Torah while he stood on one foot, Hillel agreed and told him the whole Torah is summarized in one command. "What is hateful to you do not unto others. The rest is commentary." A fuller exposition is found in the Babylonian Talmud (Makkot 23-24):

Rabbi Salmai gave the following exposition: 613 commandments were given to Moses; 365 negative commands to correspond with the days of the year and 248 positive commands to correspond with separate pieces of man's body…Then came David and made them compact into 11 commands as it is written in Psalm 15, "Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? Who shall dwell in thy holy hill? (1) He that walketh uprightly, and (2) worketh righteousness, and (3) speaketh the truth in his heart. (4) He that backbiteth not with his tongue, (5) nor doeth evil to his neighbor, (6) nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbor. (7) In whose eyes a vile person is condemned, (8) but he honoreth them that fear the Lord. (9) He that sweareth to his own hurt and changeth not. (10) He that putteth not out his money to usury, (11) nor taketh reward against the innocent. He that doeth these things shall never be moved. "…Then came Isaiah and reduced them to six commands (Isaiah 33:15)…Then came Micah the prophet and reduced them to a compact three (Micah 6:8): "He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, (1) but to do justly, and (2) to love mercy, and (3) to walk humbly with thy God."…Then came the prophet Habbakuk and reduced all the commands to one, as it is written (Habbakuk 2:4), "The just shall live by his faith. "

One Mitzvah* Equals the Whole Torah

Clearly it was the official teaching of the rabbis that one mitzvah equals the whole Torah. Thus we have it in Midrash Rabbah Exodus 25:16. "Rabbi Levi taught, 'If Israel should keep the Sabbath as it ought to be kept, even for once, then the Son of David (Messiah) would come. Why? Because it is as they would have kept the whole Torah.' " Rabbi Elazar, son of Abina, goes on to explain in the same context that this can be proved in a threefold way from the Torah, the prophets and the writings.

In the same Midrash we have the exposition on Exodus 22:24, "Come and see: he that is well to do and gives charity and does not take usury on his loans, it is as he would have kept all the commands of the Torah."

Should the objection be made that these are extra-important commands and therefore one of them is equal to the whole, the highest talmudical authority warns us saying, "Be careful to perform a minor mitzvah just as well as a major one, for you do not know the reward for each mitzvah." (Aboth 2:1, printed in Daily Prayer Book, Birnbaum's translation.)

God, Torah and Israel

The Hassidic saying that, "God, Torah and Israel are one," has its origin in hoary antiquity. Right in the first book of the Torah we are told how our ancestor Jacob became Israel, taking on the name of one God, El, and receiving the blessing of the mysterious Person who struggled with him. After it, Jacob said, "…I have seen God face to face…" (Genesis 32:31.) Our ancestor Jacob is joined to God by rulership and by struggle and now carries the name El, God, in his own name. Possibly the best summary is given by Moses in Devarim—Deuteronomy 30:19,20. He had told his people that the command (singular 30:11) is nigh to the Jewish people in their mouth and heart to do them. Summarizing the covenant, he warns us saying:

I call heaven and earth to witness this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thee and thy seed may live: that thou mayest love the Lord thy God, and that thou mayest obey his voice, and that thou mayest cleave unto him, for he is thy life, and the length of thy days…

Summary

The situation we have before us can be summarized as follows: God is one. Rebellion against the angel of the Lord is rebellion against God. "Behold, I send an angel…Beware of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not…for my name is in him." (Exodus 23:20-21.) Rebellion against God's prophet is again rebellion against God (Deuteronomy 18:18-19). The same is the case with rebellion against the Holy Spirit, as is seen in the inspired record, "But they rebelled, and vexed his holy spirit: therefore he was turned to be their enemy, and fought against them." (Isaiah 63:10.) All aspects of God's manifestation are One.

The same applies to the Torah. One cannot eliminate or change even a letter of the Torah or of the prophets without hurt to God Himself. This is clearly taught in the Talmud and Midrash:

Rabbi Levi said: Even little things which are only end of letters are actually mountains that can destroy the whole creation: It is written, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One." If you change the letter daled in Echad so that it becomes a resh, you destroy everything. Another example, "Thou shalt not worship another God." If you make a daled of the resh it will come out, "Thou shalt not worship the One God." Thus you will destroy the whole creation. A third example: It is written in Leviticus 22, "And ye shall not profane my Holy Name. " If you change the letter het in profane and make it a hey, it will say, "and ye shall not praise my Holy Name," and so you will destroy the world. A fourth example from Isaiah 8. It is written, "And I will wait for the Lord." But if you change the het in wait to the letter hey, it will come out, "I will smite the Lord." Thus you destroy the world.

—Midrash Rabbah Song of Solomon 5

Y'shua (Jesus) the Messiah expressed this thought a long time before in the sermon on the mount: "For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the Torah (Law), till all be fulfilled." (Matthew 5:18.)

The same applies to Israel. Israel is one people. He that toucheth one Israelite toucheth all of Israel. This is well summarized in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 37a.

Therefore was man created alone, to teach you that he who destroys one Israelite, Scripture considers him as if he would have destroyed the whole world. But he who preserves one Israelite it is as if he would have preserved the whole world.

What Does It Mean to Me?

Yaakov (James), the apostle and brother of Y'shua, the Messiah, reminds his Jewish brethren of the well-known, sacred principle that God is One; the people of Israel are one; the Torah is one. Hence the warning, "For whosoever shall keep the whole Torah (Law), and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all." (James 2:10.) Destroy one part of any of them and you destroy the whole. Preserve and keep one part and you keep it all.

What it comes to is simply this: man by himself constantly stands condemned before a holy and righteous God. Man has no choice but to admit with Moses (who himself was forbidden to enter Israel because of his sin at the Waters of Strife as recorded in Numbers 20:12), "'…Oh, this people have sinned a great sin…' And the Lord said unto Moses; 'Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book.'" (Exodus 32:31,33.)

With Isaiah we must intone saying, "Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips…" (Isaiah 6:5.) Solomon in Ecclesiastes 7:20 warns us, "For there is not a righteous man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not." And Eliphaz scores a point when he says, "What is man, that he should be clean? And who is born of a woman, that he should be righteous? Behold, He putteth no trust in his holy ones; yea, the heavens are not clean in his sight. How much more he that is abominable and filthy, man who drinketh iniquity like water?" (Job 15:14-16.)

The question is, are we aware of it? The answer must be a resounding YES! Books would have to be written to quote from our Jewish sources, even if we limit ourselves to the most outstanding references to human sin in general and to Israel's sins in particular. The references in one tractate of Berakhot would be too many to quote. Rabbis one after the other admit that the sufferings they endured and/or the Jewish people endure is a result of some transgression of the Law at one time or another. Only one rabbi stands and claims that his ten fingers kept the ten commandments. But the very boastful claim shows that he is a transgressor in the matter of humility.

On the other hand we have the oft-quoted story of Yohanan ben Zakkai who was visited by his disciples while he was sick. They found him crying and weeping. When they said to him, "Rabbi, you are the light of Israel, the pillar on which we lean, the hammer that crushes all heresy. Why should you weep?" He sincerely confessed and said he was afraid to die because he was not too sure whether he would end up in heaven or hell; enjoy the light of God or be thrown into the darkness of Satan and his host (Berakhot 28, Babylonian Talmud).

Who of us is not acquainted with the Siddur and Mahzor and with the constant confessions and admissions of our guilt and sin? In the Amidah, the Shemoneh Esreh (18 benedictions), we implore God: "Forgive us, our Father, for we sinned; blot out our sins, Our King, for we transgressed."

Who of us has not been to synagogue and constantly smitten our breasts listing all possible sins we might have committed and then summed it in the Hebrew alphabetic confession,

"Ashamnoo, Bagadnoo, Gazalnoo…We are guilty; we are unfaithful, we robbed; we spoke unseemly; we were perverse and we are guilty; we rebelled, we robbed; and we spoke lies…"

Even on the most joyous occasions of the three pilgrim festivals, we remind ourselves in the special Shemoneh Esreh prayer that it was "because of our sins that we were driven out from our country and were removed far from our land. Therefore we cannot ascend to Jerusalem to offer the sacrifices for the forgiveness of our sins…"

Yet there is a problem. Sometimes when non-Jewish believers or even when Jewish believers try to share their experience in Jesus with Jewish people and remind them of their sins, there is a strong reaction which usually goes like this: "We haven't sinned. We haven't killed Gentiles, but they have killed us." This defense is justified for the Jewish person wants to say just this: "You being a Christian should identify yourself with all the wrongs Jews have suffered from the hands of so-called Christians and should come and speak softly to us. First confess your sins, the sins of Gentile Christianity; then later you will be able to tell us of what we sinned to God, but not to you."

The whole world stands condemned by a righteous and just God. The whole world can be saved only by the Korban of Messiah Jesus!


*The literal Hebrew translation for mitzvah is command. However mitzvah has two meanings today. The common usage has to do with any act of charity performed. The more traditional meaning refers to fulfilling any of the 613 commandments according to the rabbis.

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Study Torah With Us!

You may have seen our weekly Torah portion whirlwind YouTube channel, Parsha in 60 seconds, but have you gotten a chance to read the commentaries from our friend, Rabbi Glenn Harris? It takes longer than a minute, but is well worthwhile! Both are available in the Judaica section of our website under "Parsha." Check out this week's here.

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The Torah of God: Road Back or Road Block? A Look at Law in Judaism and Christianity

Through the centuries, one of the major areas of misunderstanding between the Jewish and Christian faiths has been the issue of the nature and role of the Torah as revelation from God. Judaism, on one hand, insists that no revelation supercedes that of the Torah revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Some Christians, on the other hand, interpret the Bible to mean that there is such a radical discontinuity between the Torah and Jesus that there is no relationship between them at all.

The Nature and Role of Torah

It is necessary to uncover some theological ideas and concerns common to both faiths pertinent to the human condition without which there would be no basis for discussion. The first is that God is God and there is no other like him. From the side of Judaism, as Israel struggled to emerge from the polytheistic morass from which it arose, a progression can be traced. The Hebrew Scriptures show that the mighty God that delivered the children of Israel from their bondage in Egypt is not only more powerful and greater than other gods, but, in his ineffable greatness, is revealed to be the only God. His reality renders all other objects of worship worthless, null and void. To this day, this confession is enshrined in the Shema, the liturgy of Judaism: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One," and in the common formula of blessing, "Blessed art Thou O Lord our God King of the universe." The holiness and transcendence of God seems to be one of the few things the rabbis unanimously agree upon.

From the side of Christianity, the transcendent majesty of God has been no less strenuously upheld. Jesus' teaching itself testifies to a strong determination not to undermine the authority and "wholly otherness" of God. "Why do you call me good? No one is good, except God alone," (Luke 18:19) and "I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can only do what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does," (John 5:19) are only two of many instances of Jesus' confession of the kingship of God the Father.

In its early struggle with the polytheistic culture of the first century, the Jewish apostles zealously defended the oneness of God as the reality upon which the gospel of Jesus rested. See Paul's and Barnabas' words and actions at Lystra, recorded in Acts 14. Mistaken for gods by the residents of Lystra, Paul and Barnabas tore their clothes in protest as any good Jew would under the circumstances, and hastily assured the crowd, "We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them" (Acts 14:15).

Moreover, as Christian confession began to sort itself out in the early centuries of its existence, the early creeds witness to the determination of the church to preserve the confession of one God, the Almighty, from 1 Corinthians 8:6: "Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live…" to Nicea in 325: "We believe in one God, the Father, all governing Creator of all things visible and invisible."1

So far, this brief overview has shown that the confession of one God, distinct from the created universe, is foundational to both the Jewish and Christian faiths.

The second area of common ground that is necessary to establish between Judaism and Christianity is that human beings are dependent on a gracious God. On one hand, a merciful and gracious God loves, nurtures and preserves humanity through his covenant faithfulness, and on the other hand, beckons us into right relation with him. It is this idea, almost as much as the idea of one holy and righteous God, that is Judaism's gift to the understanding of humanity's place in the economy of God's creation. In no other ancient Near Eastern literature is there anything like it. Both the creation story in Genesis 1 and the more particular promises to the patriarchs speak of a God whose concern for us is expressed through his saving acts and by providing a means by which we could respond in the context of close relationship with him.

The Christian proclamation of John 3:16—"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life"—could not have been made without this prior understanding of God's desire to cherish his creation and his desire for creation to respond to him. And it is in this area, the means by which humanity is brought into right relationship with God, that the difference between the Jewish and Christian faith are most vividly revealed.

The gap between a holy and transcendent God, unknowable through merely human initiative, and a humanity that stands in need of a bridge to span that awful abyss is acknowledged by both faiths. Both faiths posit that God's revelatory self-disclosure is necessary for the distance to be bridged. But where are the blueprints for the bridge? Of what material is it to be constructed? It is these issues around which the centuries-old conflict between Judaism and Christianity is joined: How does God come to us, and how do we come to him?

The Function of Torah in Judaism

The word "torah," taken from the Hebrew verb yarah, means to throw or shoot, or point in a direction. In its Hiphel form, it means to direct or teach. The literature it refers to is first the Pentateuch, then the whole Bible and thirdly any authoritative teaching. Rabbinic interpretation of Exodus 34:27 posited the existence of an oral as well as a written law, and opened the door for the "whole corpus of Jewish traditional law from the Bible to the latest development of the halachah" to come under the rubric of Torah.2 It is also worth mentioning that the translation of the word torah to nomos in Greek, law, and from thence to lex, which is Latin for law, has perpetuated the unhappy myth that Torah necessarily means legalistic observance.

As to the function of Torah in Jewish life; it is manifold. Even within the Bible itself it is evident that its place in the community and worship of Israel is far more than just the set of regulations received by Moses by which Israel was to order its religious and social life. In the Psalms especially, the Torah is revered as a sign of God's loving watchcare over Israel. Psalm 119 refers to the Torah as "complete and unblemished." It particularly extols the Torah as being full of wonderful things, as bearing God's grace, as precious, and as carrying with it the blessing of God's peace to those who love it. Such expressions of devotion should put to death once and for all the notion that the law is nothing more than an impersonal taskmaster whose task is to make us bleed and give us nothing in return. Rather, the praises of the psalmist indicate a genuine joy on the part of the worshiper, and a deep appreciation of the privilege of obeying the law of God. It is interesting to note that within this love psalm to God, the persistent theme of the relationship between Torah and salvation crops up in vs. 166: "I wait for your salvation, O Lord, and I follow your commands" and in vs. 174: "I long for your salvation, O Lord, and your law is my delight." Conversely, lawlessness is tantamount to separation from God's promise, as vs. 118 demonstrates: "You reject all who stray from your decrees, for their deceitfulness is in vain."

To sum up, even a cursory study of the Hebrew Scriptures reveals the Torah as not only "letter," but as object of genuine devotion akin to that of lover to beloved. It is to the growing identity and role of Torah, especially as saving agent of God we now turn as we trace its development through the rabbinic writings.

The Torah and the Rabbis

As we have found, there is a movement within the canon of Scripture that speaks of a parallel development of both the identity of the Torah in terms of object of love, and the role of Torah in terms of agent of salvation. Both of these developments became much more pronounced and intensified in the rabbinic writings and played a large role in detaching Judaism from its biblical moorings.

The first quantum leap beyond Scripture was the rabbinic idea that the Torah was identified with preexistent, personified Wisdom of Proverbs 8.3 The wedding of these two concepts is best expressed in the apocryphal wisdom of Ben Sirach:

Wisdom was created before all things, and prudent understanding from eternity. The source of wisdom is God's word in the highest heaven, and her ways are the eternal commandments. (vs. 4-5).4

Although not accepted by all rabbinic authorities, this idea has gained a strong foothold in Judaistic thought. R. Joshua b. Levi said:

When Moses went up to God, the angels said, "What has a son of women to do among us?" God said, "He has come to receive the Law." Then they said, "The beautiful Torah, which Thou has hid away since creation, and for 974 generations before creation, cost Thou purpose to give it to one of flesh and blood? " (Shab. 88b).

Akiva called the Torah "the precious instrument by which the world was created" (Avot. 3:14).5 Although later philosophical movements within Judaism tended to at least downplay this idea, the Cabalists retained this notion in their system, identifying the Torah with Hokhmah (God's wisdom), the second Sefirah, Tiferet (God's beauty), the sixth, or Malkhut (God's kingdom), the tenth.6

Judah Halevi spoke of the Torah as preceding the world by design, arguing that because God had the Torah in mind when He created the world, and "the first of thought is the end of the work," the Torah is said to have existed before the world (Kuzari 3:73).7 Solomon Schecter expands on this concept:

…the Torah, having been long destined to become a main factor in God's government of the world, its creation must have been predestined before He called the world into existence.8

Philo, who sought a synthesis of Hebraic and Greek thought form, wrote of the pre-existence and role in creation of the Word of God (logos), and identified the Word of God with the Torah.9 It is not difficult to see how the Gospel of John enlists this concept in its proclamation of Jesus as Word of God.

Along with pre-existence, the rabbis endowed the Torah with another trait that must be classified as personal identity. In speaking of the fear the children of Israel felt at Sinai, R. Levi said: "But the Torah interceded for them with God, saying 'Does a king, when he gives his daughter in marriage slay the sons of his house? All the world rejoices and Thy sons are dying!' At once their souls were restored, as it says, 'the Torah of the Lord is perfect, it restores the soul' (Ps. 19:7)."10 This intercessory role is repeated as we find the Torah called upon to bear witness against Israel at the destruction of the Temple but refuses to, at the insistence of Abraham, who said, "My daughter, were not my children the only ones that received thee, when thou wast rejected by other nations?"11

But the personification of the Torah goes far beyond its role as pre-existent agent of creation, daughter of king, or even intercessor for the people. As Schecter observes, "As soon as the Torah was identified with the Wisdom of Proverbs, the mind did not rest satisfied with looking at it as a mere condition for the existence of the world. Every connotation of the term Wisdom in the famous eighth chapter (of Proverbs) was invested with life and individuality. The Torah, by the same process, was endowed with a mystical life of its own, which emanates from God, yet is partly detached from Him."12 As the personified individuality of the Torah grew under the authority of the rabbis, it is only natural that the role of Torah as agent of God would grow also, particularly as the ineffable transcendence of God began to be more greatly stressed. This was partly in response to Christian teaching. This handing over of activity from God to Torah is particularly evident with respect to doctrine of salvation.

Soteriology and Torah

For the purpose of this paper the issue of salvation may be thought of as occurring within the framework of God's summons to Israel through the prophet Malachi: "Return to me, and I will return to you" (3:7). Both act of God and response of man are necessary. This is true of both Judaism and Christianity. However, as we shall now see, there is a vast difference between what Judaism teaches about what these two factors are and how they are related, and evangelical thought. We will turn first to the question of whether the Torah functions as saving agent in rabbinic thought, and if so, how.

We have seen so far that in rabbinic thought the Torah began to take on aspects of status and role that might almost be seen to parallel New Testament claims made by, or on behalf of, Jesus. The Torah was seen to be pre-existent. John 1:1 teaches: "In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." The Torah was personified by the rabbis. John 1:14 tells us: "The Word became flesh.…" The Torah was thought to be an agent of creation. John 1:3 informs us: "Through him all things were made.…" It is interesting to note how closely John's use of the Greek concept of Word (logos) to describe Jesus parallels Philo's use of the same concept to describe the function of Torah. To this add the intercessory role we have already seen ascribed to the Torah by the rabbis. The question arises, can we go so far as to say that the Torah, as perceived by the rabbis, functions with respect to salvation in Judaism in a similar way to Jesus' role in the Christian faith?

In order to frame this question adequately, some basic differences in Judaism with respect to doctrine of sin and doctrine of man, need to be brought out. First, although Judaism and Christianity both teach that man was created in the image of God, and both teach that there is sin, they differ in describing man's created nature and its relationship to sin. And this difference, in turn, leads to a different understanding of man's need for and God's way to salvation.

Although there are roughly 20 words for sin in the Hebrew Scriptures, the most common, hata, carries with it the meaning, "to miss" or "to fail."13 So, if the word torah means to "shoot at" God's will, the word hata means to fail to hit it. The Hebraic concept of sin refers not primarily to man's condition, as will be seen presently, but as in specific failures and offenses against God's law.

The most important difference between rabbinic teaching about the nature of sin and evangelical thought is that in rabbinic literature there is no doctrine of original sin. The Encyclopedia Judaica states unequivocally, "The much discussed question of whether there are any parallels to the Christian doctrine of original sin in Rabbinic literature can be disposed of by simply noting that there are no such parallels."14 Although the philosopher Philo, influenced by Hellenistic thought form, distinguished between Pristine Man, and the first historical man, and between him and his descendants, the rabbis did not.15 According to their thought, the story of the sin in the garden is meant simply to establish the relationship between transgression and punishment.16 R. Akiva maintains that from the first, man was placed under the yoke of the commandment, and was given permission to choose between the way of life or death. This right was not abrogated, and remains within man's power to this day.17

Rabbinic writings disclose the belief that the propensity to sin was intrinsic to the created nature of mankind, and not the result of a fall from a formerly uncorrupted state. R. Berediah said,

In the hour when God was about to create the first man, He saw that both righteous and wicked men would issue from him (Gen. R. Bereshit).18

R. Tafdai said in the name of R.Aha:

The upper beings (the angels) are created in the image and likeness of God, but they do not increase and multiply. The lower beings (the animals) increase and multiply, but they are not created in the image and likeness of God. So God has said, "…behold, I will create him with something of the natures of both; if he sins he shall die, if he does not, he shall live" (Gen. R. Bereshit).19

The propensity to sin, known as the Yetzer Ra, or evil inclination, is conceived in rabbinic thought as a deeply seated tendency toward rebellion to God that rests in the heart and imagination of people, and is manifested most frequently in the areas of idolatry and lust. There is much in rabbinic literature on the subject. However, the activity of the Evil Yetzer was neatly summed up by R. Simon b. Lakish, who said:

Satan and Yetzer and the Angel of Death are One.20

However deeply lodged the Evil Yetzer is in humanity's makeup, it is important to reemphasize the fact that according to rabbinic thought, it is not the product of original sin, but part of the original human creation.

God regretted the evil inclination and He said, "What damage have I wrought! I regret I have created it in my world"(Tan. d. b. El p. 62).21

Without the burden of original sin, and with sin conceived primarily as transgression against God's law, it is a relatively easy leap to a perception of Torah as the remedy for sin. There is ample rabbinic evidence that the Torah is the means by which the people of God are rescued from the Evil Yetzer. Raba said:

Though God created the Yetzer ha-Ra, He created the Law as an antidote against it (Bab. B. 16a).22

Also,

So God says to the Israelites, "I created you with the Evil Yetzer, but I created the Law as an antidote. As long as you occupy yourselves with the Law, the Yetzer will not rule over you. But if you do not occupy yourselves with the Torah, then you will be delivered into the power of the Yetzer, and all its activity will be against you."23

These teachings very clearly teach two things:

  1. the Torah stands in a protecting role between man and the consequences of sin proceeding from the Evil Yetzer, and
  2. the protection is efficacious only if the law is carried out by man.

Summing up, we have seen so far that although rabbinic thought differs from Christian teaching in its perception of the condition of mankind and the nature of sin, it recognizes the problem of sin and asserts the Torah as a crucial factor in sin's remedy. The questions we are now ready to ask are what is the role of human response with regard to salvation in the area of Torah obedience, and what was Jesus' relationship with Torah?

In commenting upon the role of Torah in life, Jacob Neusner has this to say, "For Judaic tradition the way is absolutely central…The purpose of revelation is to create a kingdom of priests and a holy people. The foundation of that kingdom, or sovereignty is the rule of God over the lives of men."24 It is to the question of how this way provides a human response by which people are reconciled to God that we now turn.

Part of the answer to this question lies in the Jewish concept of atonement through the sacrificial system provided by God, as the Scripture bears witness. The sacrifice was not meant only to cover specific sins, but also to renew the covenant fellowship between God and his people. However, with the destruction of the Temple, such sacrifice was no longer possible. Confronted by a need to find a substitute for what God had ordained, rabbinic teaching "solved" the dilemma by elevating Torah obedience to the status of sacrifice, as if sacrifice were not part of that same Torah. "The Law acts as surrogate for the Temple. Where sacrifices would have atoned certain classes of sins, now that the Temple has gone, the Law, if Israelites occupy themselves with its study, serves as an equivalent."25

This represents another major departure in rabbinic thought from scriptural basis. It shifts the burden of reconciliation from the gracious provision of God effected by the sacrificial system to human attitudes and actions that are under the aegis of the Torah. Under the rabbinic interpretation, the things that ought to accompany sacrifice, themselves became the means through which atonement is made. It is for this reason teshuvah (repentance) has gained such a prominent role in Judaic thought.

Repentance, which was originally meant to accompany sacrifice, must now do the work of sacrifice, now that sacrifice can no longer be made. R. Jose ben Tartos said,

"Whence can it be proved that he who repents is regarded as if he had gone up to Jerusalem, built the Temple and the altar and offered upon it all the sacrifices mentioned in the Law? From the verse, 'The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit' (Ps. 51:17) (Lev. R., Zaw, VII, 2)."26

The concept of human act as atoning sacrifice is not restricted to repentance. Suffering and death are also means through which forgiveness may be achieved. To these add prayer, good works and all fruits of godliness that were originally meant to proceed from a right relationship with God, but could not themselves produce such a right relationship.

It is at this point that the difference between Judaism as it is promulgated by the rabbis and Christianity is most acute, particularly in the writings of Paul. Even as the first Jewish believers in Messiah sought to define themselves within the context of first century Judaism, the question of whether righteousness could be achieved through works done under the law was a pressing issue, particularly as more and more gentiles were believing in the Jewish Messiah. Paul's writings in Romans and Galatians, and Luke's account of the council at Jerusalem in Acts 15 attest to this. At the core of this issue is the relationship of the sinner to the Torah, and while rabbinic literature presents the Torah as the cure, Paul speaks of it as the problem. And the resolution of the issue of where humanity stands in relation to the Torah of God can be discovered only in the relationship of Y'shua himself to the Torah.

Y'shua and Torah

The relationship of Jesus to Torah is best expressed in Matthew 5:17-18. Although these verses appear in the context of Jesus' teaching on the Kingdom, Jesus clearly teaches that there is to be no "end run" around the Torah. "Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished."

How is this to be understood? The answer is found in Jesus himself. Acting on behalf of Israel and all of us, he does what Israel would not or could not do: obey God, and in doing so fulfill the law. Dietrich Bonhoeffer observes," Jesus, the Son of God, who alone lives in perfect communion with Him vindicates the law by coming to fulfill it."27 In doing so, now Jesus, and not the law, stands between us and God as living Torah, revealing God to us from on high, and acting for us from below, including us in his perfectly obedient response to God.

Returning to an earlier theme, Malachi's summons, "Return to me and I will return to you," is fulfilled by Y'shua from both sides. As God's Torah, Jesus summons us to return. As the perfect, Torah-keeping man, he returns on our behalf, and includes us in his teshuvah, as we believe in him.

It is for this reason that the believing person's relationship to the Law has changed so radically. R. Kearsley writes: "…Paul gives recognition to the Torah's power both to provoke disobedience and to produce condemnation…he also announces a radical break with the law both as it concerns the individual believer and the redemptive economy."28 Put simply, Messiah's work does not change the law's relationship to us, but our relationship to it, replacing the rabbinic idea of Torah and Torah keeping as a means to salvation with faith in Jesus who is, as Romans 10:4 has it, "the end (telos) of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes." The word telos does not merely indicate the point at which a thing is complete, but rather the goal toward which the process was pointing all along. Put another way, the goal toward which the Torah pointed all along is Jesus the Messiah, and his Kingdom. Reflecting on the significance of this, O. Kvarme writes: "The Torah is to be realized in a new righteousness, and this righteousness belongs to the Kingdom of God, the new salvific realm in which the Torah is fulfilled by Jesus."29

Footnotes

  1. Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, III vols. 6th ed. (New York and London: Harper Brothers Pub. 1877, reprinted New York and London Philip Schaff 1919) 1:27.
  2. Encyclopedia Judaica ed. 1971, s.v. Torah.
  3. Ibid.
  4. C. G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, A Rabbinic Anthology ( New York: Schocken Books 1974), 169.
  5. Encyclopedia Judaica ed. 1971, s.v. Torah.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Solomon Schecter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (New York: Schocken Books 1961), 128.
  9. Encyclopedia, s.v. Torah.
  10. Montefiore, Anthology, 677.
  11. Schecter, Aspects, 129.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Encyclopedia, s.v. Sin.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ephriam Urbach The Sages, Their Concepts and Beliefs Jerusalem: Magnes Press 1975), 227.
  16. Ibid, 421.
  17. Ibid, 263.
  18. Montefiore, Anthology, 87-88.
  19. Ibid, 421.
  20. Schecter, Aspects, 244.
  21. Montefiore. Anthology. 87-88.
  22. Ibid, 295.
  23. Ibid, 296.
  24. Jacob Neusner, The Way of Torah: An Introduction to Judaism (Belmont: Dickenson Publishing Co., Inc. 1970), 25.
  25. Montefiore, Anthology, 118.
  26. Ibid, 317.
  27. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: MacMillan Co., Inc. 1963, reprinted. New York, 1976), 138.
  28. R Kearsley, "Paul, the Law and the Covenant" (Mishkan 4, 1986), 5.
  29. O. Kvarme, "Jesus, the Kingdom and the Torah" (Mishkan 4, 1986), 32.

Bibliography

  • Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1963; reprinted ed. New York, NY, 1976.
  • Encyclopedia Judaica ed. 1971 s.v. Sin.
  • Encyclopedia Judaica ed. 1971 s.v. Torah.
  • Kearsley, R. "Paul, the Law and the Covenant" Mishkan 4 (1986).
  • Kvarme, Ole Chr. M. "Jesus, the Kingdom and the Torah" Mishkan 4 (1986).
  • Montefiore, C. G., and Loewe, H. A Rabbinic Anthology. N Y: Schocken Books, 1974.
  • Neusner, Jacob. The Way of Torah: An Introduction to Judaism. Belmont: Dickenson Publishing Co., Inc., 1970.
  • Nouwen, Henri J. M. The Wounded Healer. Garden City: Image Books, 1979.
  • Schaff, Philip. The Creeds of Christendom, 3 vol., 6th ed. New York and London: Harper and Brothers Publishers 1877, reprint ed.
  • New York and London: Philip Schaff, 1919.
  • Schecter, Solomon. Aspects of Rabbinic Judaism. New York: Schocken Books, 1961.
  • Urbach, Ephriam E. The Sages, Their Concepts and Beliefs, 2 vols. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1975.
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