Written by Joel Heller
When people are introduced for the first time to the concept of Torah observance among New Testament believers, they sometimes ask, “Then why not convert to Judaism?” That is a very good question. I hope to provide an answer, though not the only possible answer.
Judaism is not monolithic. There is a spectrum from Orthodox to Reform, essentially from the kind of traditional that Tevye from Anatevka would recognize to left-wing, shrimp-eating, working-on-the-Sabbath Jews. We cannot overly generalize, however. There are Reformniks who keep kosher and Orthodox who only keep kosher at home and eat ham in restaurants. Also, while there are exceptions, most Jews would never consider the notion that Rabbi Yeshua bar Yosef, the Maggid of Nazareth might be the Messiah because of the abuses they have historically suffered, allegedly in his name.
Orthodoxy tends to add rules upon rules, regulations upon regulations. There are rules about putting on your shoes. There are rules about how far a man may walk with his head uncovered. There are rules about hand washing and candle lightings. I once saw a rabbinic ruling that it is permissible to pick one’s nose on the Sabbath, provided that one is careful not to pluck a nose-hair while doing so because halkakhah, Jewish Law, prohibits plucking a hair on the Sabbath. While the claim is commonly made that these extrabiblical rules are derived from Torah, none of these rabbinic rules are to be found in the Torah.
The Reform movement tends to eliminate rules, even those recorded in Torah as delivered by God to Moses. In its 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, the Reform movement repudiated all dietary laws, whether rabbinic or mosaic, because they no longer resonate with modern Jews. The movement finds Reward and Punishment theology repugnant to modern sensibilities. Any restrictions on sexual activity between or among consenting adults is seen as stemming purely from bigotry and hatred. Where there is a conflict between the biblical text and modern sensibilities, modern sensibilities take precedence.
There are also Heredi Jews who are more strict in their practice than Orthodox, and Humanist Jews who are completely materialist in their worldview, but who identify as ethnically Jewish. I am only concerned here with the main center of the bell-shaped curve from Orthodox to Reform.
First of all, living according to the instructions of Torah is not now, and never has been, a means of earning salvation. Salvation is and always has been “by grace through faith.”1 Remember that Abraham, the “father of all those who believe,”2 trusted God and it was accounted to him as righteousness.3 The instructions in Torah teach us how to live in this world, not how to earn a place in the world to come.
Next, Torah does not mean “law” as we use the term nowadays. Closer in meaning to Torah is the word “instruction.” The laws of physics are the Creator’s instructions to the physical universe on how to operate. The law of gravity instructs us that if you step off a cliff, you will fall down. Gravity does not care whether you meant to step off, or you stepped off through negligence or whether you “feel like” falling. There is no policeman waiting to write you a ticket for violating the law of gravity. Such a violation cannot happen.
Moses tells us that no one has the authority to add to or subtract from any of the commands which God gave him to pass on to the People.4 Yeshua’s most ignored instruction to his disciples is, “Don’t think that I have come to abolish the Torah . . . Whoever relaxes the least of the commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called the least in the Kingdom of God.”5 Moses also tells us that the Torah is given “for [our] good,”6 and is not too difficult for us.7
What is too difficult is the accretion of human devised rules and regulations piled upon God’s instructions through millennia of interpretation, resulting in traditions which make Torah ineffectual.8 Orthodox Rabbinic literature frequently contains passages to the effect of “the Torah says ‘X,’ but the Rabbis changed it to ‘Y.’” And ‘Y’ is always more restrictive than ‘X.’ Reform Judaism, like its counterpart “Progressive” Christianity, typically jettisons both rabbinic and mosaic rules, seeing such rules as superseded by “modernity.”
It is not that the Rabbinic Sages set out to put people in bondage. They have a healthy fear of sin. In order to be certain that they do not transgress Torah, they draw the boundary line of their rules a distance back from the border. This is called “making a fence around the Torah.” It is a wise thing to do. The trouble is that eventually people begin to see the “fence” as the border of Torah and build a new fence a safe distance back from the new border. I call this phenomenon “fence creep,” like the “mission creep” that affects governmental agencies.
The dynamic can be seen in Christian circles, as well. Claiming to be liberated from the burden of Torah, they invent other rules to fill the void. When Paul tells us, “Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess,”9 many Christian denominations prohibit drinking wine at all, to be safe. This keeps their people safe from drunkenness but deprives them of the positive uses of the fruit of the vine. Remember that Yeshua’s first recorded miracle was to provide high quality wine to a wedding reception.10
There is not a generally recognized name nor a central organizing committee for the movement of Torah observant followers of Yeshua. I think that this is a good thing. As I was writing my book on the subject, Neither Yavne not Antioch: Recovering Nazarean Judaism,11 I asked a Messianic Rabbi friend to review my manuscript. He was not able to squeeze in into his busy schedule, but expressed the opinion that the Messianic movement is the true heir of the Nazarean movement. Had he had the free time to read what I had written, he would have seen that my perception of the Messianic movement is that they try to believe all of the traditional doctrinal errors that came out of the “ecumenical councils,” and observe all of the man-made Rabbinic rules which Yeshua went out of his way to violate. In short, they have the worst of both worlds. If there were a name for the movement of people coming out of traditional environments and into Torah keeping, existing organizations would appropriate the name and claim to be the “true” whatever-it’s-called, while clinging to their traditional errors.
Without a central human authority, people are free to adopt Torah practices according to their best understanding and adjust their practice as their understanding grows. Once a central authority makes a decree on how to keep the Sabbath, for example, the people are no longer free to apply their own understanding. People who discover that Torah is relevant to their lives, who simply read the Bible and then do what they read, typically find, like King David, that the Torah is a delight, not a burden.
The danger of lack of central authority is the tendency commonly seen among “progressive” denominations for the laity to get lazy and base their opinions on how they happen to feel. It is the duty of lay believers to search the Scriptures like Bereans12 to see whether what they are being taught is accurate. We may not substitute the decrees of councils of bishops, nor the takkanot and ma’asim of the Rabbis, nor our own feelings for the authority of Scripture.
Gentiles who come to Yeshua the Messiah are “grafted in”13 to a metaphorical olive tree representing the “Commonwealth of Israel.”14 There is no need for them to join the tribe of Judah through conversion to Judah-ism. They are already “fellow citizens with the set-apart ones.”15 They are the “mixed multitude,”16 the scattered of Ephraim, “the redeemed out every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation.”17
New Testament believers who endeavor to live according to Torah typically have left the Platonist philosophy which has infected the Church for centuries and the Rabbinic accretion of rules and regulations contained in the “[human] handwriting of ordinances.”18 They seek the “simplicity which is in the Messiah”19 and the Abrahamic faith once delivered to those who are set apart from the world.20 We don’t need to adopt an “–ism.”
There is much wisdom in traditional Christian and Rabbinic writings. We ought not simply dismiss them out of hand. But we cannot let traditional doctrines and creeds displace the plain meaning of Scripture as our ultimate authority.