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Is Judaism a "Religion of Law"? 

by Michael Bugg

This letter began with a couple of paragraphs of introduction, which I have removed in order to avoid shaming a teacher that I have immense respect for and have learned from over the years.  Here is where we get into the meat of the matter:

However, my own studies in the sacred Word and my own calling by the Spirit has led me on a somewhat different path than you might hope.  I am a Messianic Jew.  You have been somewhat critical of the Messianic movement of late, though you haven’t gone into details as far as I know.  In a way, I certainly understand:  We do tend to attract the granola (the flakes, fruits, and nuts), and unfortunately, many Messianic and Hebrew Roots congregations don’t do their due diligence.  You and I would agree, for example, that Two House theology, also called Ephraimite theology—that theory that the ten “lost tribes” migrated into Europe—is in error. 

However, you have also at times accused Messianism of being legalistic and of wanting to put everyone “back under the Law.”  I won’t deny that there are Messianics that fall into this category.  In fact, it seems to be a regular phase that a new Messianic goes through in discovering a love and zeal for God’s Torah, in particular its Feasts and the rest of the Sabbath.  Out of that love often comes an impatience with those who don’t share that zeal, and out of that impatience, judgmentalism.

Of course, such judgmentalism is hardly absent from Christian fellowships.  I know believers who have been told that they are going to hell because they happen to smoke, or enjoy a drink now and then.  A year or so back I was in a debate with a Christian on whether the Bible had moved or annulled the Sabbath and was told that I wasn’t saved because I love the Sabbath and the other Feasts of the Lord.  That same person has written that women who pray without a head covering will likewise go to hell if they don’t repent.  Should I judge all of Christianity on the basis of those who don’t understand God’s grace?  Or should I rather make a distinction between what Christianity teaches and what individual Christians may or may not believe?

However, I am not writing today primarily to offer a defense of the Messianic movement, but rather one of traditional Judaism.  This may sound strange; why should I, a disciple of the Messiah Yeshua (Christ Jesus, if you prefer), defend those who have rejected Him?  The answer is simple enough:  God has commanded us not to bear false witness against another.

What is this false witness that I am concerned about?  In [citation removed], you or one of your staff wrote in the article on Yom Kippur, “Since the loss of the Temple in 70 A.D., the God-centered observances of the Torah have tragically been replaced with a man-centered, good works system of appeasement through prayer, charity, and penitence.”  With all respect, to call Judaism “man-centered” or a “good works system” completely misrepresents—in fact, slanders—the Jewish people.  I realize that you would never knowingly bear false witness, so I write today to offer you some information that you may not have had access to before to resolve a misunderstanding, not to rebuke you for sinning.

Let’s start by dealing with the accusation of man-centeredness.  The whole point of Judaism is to take every human activity and devote it to God.  For example, there is a blessing for just about every activity or event that a person could take part in.  There is a blessing for one’s meal, of course, but also blessings for starting and ending Shabbat, for each of God’s commandments, for seeing lightning and hearing thunder, for seeing a rainbow, for viewing the beauty of God’s nature, for hearing good news and bad, and even for smelling different fragrances . . .  The point is to thank God for everything in our lives.

The prayers of many Christians, in contrast, sound like the lists of children to Santa Claus, full of requests with hardly a word said for God’s greatness.  Should I judge all of Christianity on the basis of those who pray such selfish prayers?

Even the “legalistic” observance of what seem to Christians as niggling little rules that have nothing to do with God are in fact meant to direct the Jewish heart to the Holy One.  An Israeli friend named Moshe Kempinski explains this to a Christian pastor in his book, The Teacher and the Preacher (pp. 35-36):

Says the Preacher
[M]y impression is that most Jews are caught up in the intricate minutiae and details dictated by your rabbis.  I was in Israel on the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), and I watched as the Jewish people were buying the four species for the festival outlined in Leviticus 23—the palm branch, the myrtle branch, the willow branch, and the citron fruit.

I saw several using rulers to determine if the palm branch was perfectly straight or not.  I saw another using a magnifying glass to see if the citron fruit had any little black blemishes on it.  Now G-d does not care about those things.  Your rabbis have created a whole rabbinic faith based on details and minutia that have nothing to do with G-d.  Perhaps these details move your people away from G-d.

Says the Teacher
I cannot determine as easily as you what G-d does or does not care about.  I only know what He clearly states to us as His desire.  These are my gifts to   G-d, and I will take great pains to be as detailed as I can in the fulfillment of those desires.  I listen to every nuance of His words to make the gift as close to G-d’s desire as possible.  I may even add more details to my gifts because, in essence, they are my gifts to my Beloved.

So I want that palm branch to be the most perfect palm branch in the world, and I want that citron fruit to be the most beautiful.  The whole rabbinic system is essentially about how to fulfill the will of G-d in the best and most loving way that I humanly can.

What G-d does care about and what He wants is our heart, a heart that is turned towards Him, a contrite heart.  And therein is the secret to our relationship with G-d.

Do Moshe’s words sound like those of a man who is self-centered to you?  If a man takes a jeweler’s lens with him when he goes to buy an engagement ring for his wife, is that evidence of self-centeredness, or of his love for his wife? 

Now certainly, we can argue whether the rabbis go too far in their proscriptions, and no one would deny that Jews being frail humans like everyone else, there are many who go through the show of inspecting their citron to be seen like men—just as there are Christians who make a show of piety in church.  Should I judge Christianity as man-centered because of those few?

Indeed, Moshe’s response to his Christian friend belies the accusation that Judaism is legalistic, at least if we define legalism as the belief that one is justified by “the works of the law” per Gal. 2:15-16.  This most common and most damaging of misperceptions about Judaism needs to be put away.

This is not just the defensive response of a Messianic, but the considered response of many Christian commentators who have taken the time to learn what Judaism believes as well.  For example, Marvin Wilson writes in Our Father Abraham:

There is a common belief in today’s Church that Judaism—whether in Paul’s day or our own—teaches salvation by works of the Law, whereas Christianity is a religion of grace.  Such an understanding of Judaism is in reality far more a caricature or misrepresentation than the truth.  Indeed, as one Christian scholar explains, “to the extent that we propagate this view in our preaching and our teaching, we are guilty of bearing false witness.” . . . (cit. Carl D. Evans, “The Church’s False Witness Against Jews,” Christian Century (May 5, 1982): 531)

The common teaching of first-century Judaism—although one might not always get this impression by reading certain sections of Paul’s letters—was that “election and ultimately salvation are considered to be by God’s mercy rather than human achievement.” (cit. E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, p. 422)  Pinchas Lapide, a Jewish scholar of New Testament studies, concurs: “The rabbinate has never considered the Torah as a way of salvation to God . . . [we Jews] regard salvation as God’s exclusive prerogative, so we Jews are the advocates of ‘pure grace.’” (cit. Lapides and Stuhlmacher, Paul: Rabbi and Apostle, pp. 37-39)  He concludes by stressing that all masters of the Talmud teach that salvation could be attained “only through God’s gracious love.”  Historically, it is true that Judaism has not placed the same emphasis upon faith that Christianity has.  It is important for today’s Christians community to understand, however, that Judaism does not teach that participation in the olam ha-ba, “the coming world,” is achieved by works, but through the gratuitous mercy of God.  (Abraham, pp. 20-21)

This concept of salvation by grace received by faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is rooted deep in Judaism, coming out most clearly in the ancient liturgy.  I could cite pretty much the entire Amidah, the Standing Prayer which was the common liturgy in Yeshua’s own time.  I am in the course of writing a full commentary on it at www.hebrewroot.com/Articles/Messiah_in_Prayer.htm.  For now, however, let me cite the Thirteenth Benediction in particular:

On the righteous and the saintly,

On the elders of Thy people, the house of Israel, and on their surviving scholars,

On the true proselyte and on ourselves,

Let Thy compassion flow, O Lord our God.

Grant a good reward to all who sincerely trust in Thy Name;

Place our lot with them forever and let us not be shamed,

For in Thee do we trust.

Blessed art Thou, Lord, the support and security of the righteous.

“Grant a good reward to all who sincerely trust in Thy Name; Place our lot with them forever . . .”  Place our lot with whom forever?  The antecedent is clearly those who have put their faith in the Name—the reputation, the character—of the Holy One.  Therefore, we pray not that God count us among those who were saved by their own righteousness, but among those saved by His righteousness. 

A couple of illustrations will serve to drive this point home.  The first comes from a traditional song sung during the Yom Kippur (Kol Nidre) service in synagogues all across the world, the Avinu Malkeynu.  The song calls upon God to show us a father’s mercy, despite our own shortcomings:

Ase emmanu, tzedakka v’chesed,
Ase emmanu, tzedakka v’chesed,

For we don’t have with us any righteous deeds or lovingkindness,
For we don’t have with us any righteous deeds or lovingkindness,
Save us!

Does this seem like the prayer of a person counting on earning heaven by being “a good person”?

Another illustration comes from a story in the Talmud, a midrash on Isa. 1:18.  The Holy One tells sinful Israel to go to their fathers to be rebuked.  Israel balks, stating that the Patriarchs did not seek mercy for them when told that Israel would be afflicted by Egypt and Edom. 

“So to whom should we go now?  Rather, let the Lord say!”  The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to them, “Since you have thrown yourselves on Me, ‘though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.’”  (b. Shabbat 89b)

If Judaism doesn’t teach salvation by works, then why did Paul expend so much ink trying to dispel that notion?  There are two possibilities, either or both of which might be true:  First, simply because a religion teaches something does not mean that all of its followers will understand correctly.  If so many Christians are confused about the source and obtaining of their salvation, why should we expect there to be no misunderstanding about the tenants of Judaism by any Jew? 

But secondly, remember that Paul was writing primarily to a Gentile audience, especially in the book of Galatians.  In Greek mythology, the gods were demanding, spiteful supermen who took pleasure in smiting those who stepped out of line.  It was these Gentiles that Paul was trying to steer away from the notion of salvation by works, not primarily the Jews.  Most translations muddle this fact.  For example, Galatians 2:15-16 is rendered in the NASB:  "We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus . . .”  The word “nevertheless” is completely interpolated, suggesting that Paul thought it abnormal that the Jewish believers would understand salvation by grace received in faith.

It should rather read, as it does in the KJV:  “We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ . . .”  Translated without extra words, the passage makes it clear that Paul expected those who were born and raised Jewish to understand this simple fact of salvation.

The difference between the traditional Jew and one who knows the Messiah Yeshua is not a matter of works vs. grace.  Rather, those who know Yeshua know how God’s grace and atonement have been put into effect.  While this is no small distinction, we should not slander Judaism by misrepresenting its beliefs.

And by the same token, if Judaism understands fully that it relies on God’s gracious love for her salvation rather than on her own deeds, and yet can pursue those deeds with a great fervor even for the minutiae, then it follows that there is no inherent contradiction between Grace and Torah, and being a Messianic with a zeal for the Torah no more makes one legalistic than to be a Christian with a zeal for the Sermon on the Mount.

My brother and mentor, I have written these several pages out of love, both for your ministry, which is a bastion of light and truth in an increasingly darkening world, and for my own people.  There is no greater barrier today to Jews coming to Yeshua the Messiah than the attacks that Christianity has made upon the Jewish people.  In days past, those attacks even reached the level of burning synagogues and murdering Jewish women and children.  You and I both abhor that such things were done in the name of the King of the Jews.  We also need to turn back the misrepresentations of Judaism and the Jewish people that led to such attacks. 

I don’t ask you to believe me—I ask that you do your homework on what Judaism teaches (as opposed to what individual Jews may or may not believe).  In particular, you may find that Avi Lipkin will be an excellent resource.  I would also be honored to discuss this matter, or any other relating to Judaism and the Messianic movement, with you further.


Your brother in Yeshua (Salvation)



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