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Are Messianic Judaism and the Hebrew Roots Movement Talmudic?
by Michael D. Bugg
A frequent accusation by the opponents of Messianic Judaism and the Hebrew Roots movement as even being regarded valid expressions of faith in Yeshua is that our doctrine and practices are based on the Talmud, not on Scripture. In truth, there are certainly Messianic individuals and groups for whom this is true; in fact, it is not unknown for some Messianics to go so far as to convert to Orthodox Judaism. However, for most Messianics the place of the Talmud and other sources of Jewish tradition within a truly Biblical belief in Yeshua the Messiah, whether we term that faith Messianism or Christianity, is a matter of continuing discussion and debate. Since no system of belief should be judged on its abuses—and indeed, Christianity as a whole would fare very poorly were we to paint it with so wide a brush as some of my Sunday-brethren are wont to paint Messianic Judaism—it’s important that we understand the nature of and the variety of positions within this debate.
The first distinction that must be made is that between Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots. A Messianic, whether he comes from a Jewish or Gentile background, is generally committed to living a Torah-observant lifestyle after the fashion of our Lord and Savior, Yeshua HaMashiach. The understanding of what that entails varies from person to person and congregation to congregation.
While there is a great degree of overlap between Messianics and those in the Hebrew Roots, the latter are primarily characterized by an intellectual interest in the insights into Scripture that understanding their distinctive Jewishness opens up. They may worship with either a Messianic synagogue or a Sunday church—or both—but are not interested in reordering their lifestyle, or at least don’t feel called to do so. And that’s perfectly fine; we are all saved by our faith in the Messiah of Israel, whether we call Him Yeshua or Jesus, not by our adherence to Torah. Indeed, most Hebrew Roots Christians are to be commended for their earnest desire to know God through His Scriptures better.
Within the ranks of those who call themselves Messianics and seek to keep the Torah as best they can, there is a great deal of variety. Many Messianics—in fact, the majority, to the chagrin of some—were born and raised as Gentile Christians. They may have a Jewish parent or grandparent (and many who do not sadly spend a great deal of effort attempting to find a strain of Jewish blood in their genealogy), but were raised to celebrate Christmas instead of Hanukkah. Others were born and raised as Jews, whether from a Conservative, Reform, or Orthodox background.
The cultural mix of a congregation has a great influence on the strictness of its halakha, its traditions. Those with a greater percentage of members who were raised in Jewish tradition typically have a correspondingly higher regard for Jewish tradition, even believing in the concept of the Oral Torah (which we will discuss below). Some Messianic synagogues are virtually indistinguishable from Orthodox or Reform synagogues in liturgy and practice, save only that they believe in Yeshua the Messiah and read from the B’rit Chadasha (the Renewed Covenant, or New Testament). On the opposite end of the spectrum are Messianic congregations which are virtually indistinguishable from Sunday churches, save that they meet on Shabbat, observe the Feastdays, and use a little bit of Hebrew in their liturgy and music.
Beth HaMashiach, though originating as the latter kind of congregation, seeks to strike a balance between the two: Our liturgy, organization, and trappings are decidedly Jewish, but we have deliberately adapted them to reflect our emphasis on the Messiah in Messianic Judaism. Some would argue that we are “too Jewish,” while others would argue that we go too far in changing honored traditions. We will trust to our King to forgive all of the errors that we doubtless make on both sides of the equation.
Because Beth HaMashiach tries to walk a narrow tightrope between two extremes, the answers given here will obviously not apply to all congregations that call themselves Messianic or Hebrew Roots. Nevertheless, this article will attempt to answer the following questions:
What is the Talmud?
In a narrow sense, the word Talmud refers to one of two multi-volume collections of Jewish law, the Babylonian Talmud and/or the Jerusalem Talmud, which contain the Mishnah, the collection of oral tradition and law collected and codified by Yehudah HaNasi (Judah the Prince) and the Gamara, a sort of running discussion and debate among the rabbis which developed over the next several centuries. In format, the Talmud has a short section of the Mishnah followed by several pages of Gamara—which range from on-topic discussion to those which venture well off-topic—followed by the next section of the Mishnah. This is usually the definition one is using when one refers simply to the Talmud.
In a broad sense, however, the Talmud can include the whole of Jewish tradition as it is currently accepted and debated within a community—their halakha, they way they walk. Obviously, this tradition can vary widely between synagogues, particularly those of different “denominations”—a Reform synagogue will have vastly different customs, and a different idea of Talmud, than a Hasidic synagogue, for example.
Wrapped into an understanding of the Talmud is an understanding of the concept of the Oral Torah. Jewfaq.org explains the Oral Torah as follows:
In addition to the written scriptures we have an "Oral Torah," a tradition explaining what the above scriptures mean and how to interpret them and apply the Laws. Orthodox Jews believe G-d taught the Oral Torah to Moses, and he taught it to others, down to the present day. This tradition was maintained oly in oral form until about the 2d centuryC.E., when the oral law was compiled and written down in a document called the Mishnah.
Here we must walk very carefully between the Christian tendency to throw aside all Jewish tradition—as well as the Torah himself!—and the belief held by many modern Jews that the whole of the Talmud is the Oral Torah that God gave to Moshe (Moses) on Mt. Sinai.
On the one hand, in defense of Judaism it must be noted that there are indications in the Scripture and other historical sources that there was indeed an oral tradition on certain matters that was handed down from Moshe. For example, in Deu. 12:21 (NASB), we read,
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.
The use of the phrase, “as I have commanded you” (Heb. ka’asher tziuitheka כאשר צויתך), indicates that there was a prior command instituted by God that He is referring back to. For example, in Jos. 13:6, the same phrase is used by G-d to refer Y’hoshua (Joshua) back to His earlier commands to take the whole of the Promised Land for Israel. An equivalent phrase, “according to all which I have commanded you” (Heb. k’kol asher tziuithi othekhah ככל אשר צויתי אתכה) appears in Exo. 29:35 to turn the reader’s attention back to the several commands given about the consecration of Aaron and his sons, and other similar phrases appear throughout the Torah with the same intent. Here, however, there is no previous command or set of commands on slaughtering animals for meat away from the Temple to refer back to. In fact, this is the first place where a mention is made of slaughtering any food animal away from the Tabernacle—all previous commands on the subject were that all meat was to be brought to the Tabernacle and sacrificed to ADONAI before it was eaten (Lev. 17:1-5). The change in the command was because of a coming change of circumstances—instead of all living within a half-mile or so of the place of worship, the people of Israel would soon spread through a land that would take them days or weeks to traverse in order to reach the Tabernacle, and later the Temple. Therefore, they would be permitted to slaughter (lit., to sacrifice, zavach זבח) their animals on their own land so that they could eat meat more than just a few times a year.
Now, since the word for “sacrifice” is used, it might be supposed that the laws of sacrifice are being referred to. However, this same passage is clear that true sacrifices can be made in only one location (Deu. 12:11-14), so the written Torah’s commands about the altar, ritual purity, etc. obviously are not in view.
The only other possibility is that God had shown them a particular way of slaughtering animals, one that may have been connected with the correct way to slaughter a Tabernacle/Temple sacrifice. In Judaism across the world, this method is the same: The animal is hung by its hind legs and its throat is cut. Not only does this result in the maximum amount of blood being removed from the meat (in accordance with the command not to consume blood; Lev.17:10ff, Acts 15:29), but it is humane to the animal as well, since it goes into shock almost immediately and doesn’t register the pain before losing consciousness.
We also have evidence that long before the rabbinic period, it was understood that there was a certain way that the sacrifices were to be offered that was not completely covered in the Torah. Chuck Missler and Bob Cornuke point out in their briefing pack Seat of Mercy (available through Koinonia House’sbookstore) that we have a collection of papyri from Elephantine Island in Egypt that date to the mid-7th Century BCE, and which were found in the ruins of a building that exactly matched the scale of Solomon’s Temple and where the Ark of the Covenant may have been hidden at one point. Among these papyri is a letter written to Jerusalem asking for information on the correct way to conduct sacrifices. It would be highly dubious to claim that these Israelites in exile, who apparently fled the persecutions of Manasseh, did not have a copy of the Torah available to them—rather, they were seeking instruction about the sacrifices beyond that contained in the Torah.
It makes a certain amount of sense that there were certain details of the ritual commands that were not recorded in the Torah, details that were best passed on by demonstration (i.e., orally) rather than in a written form. Remember that every copy of the Torah had to be hand-written, using expensive materials (such as the lambskin parchment); it was therefore in everyone’s best interest that it be as succinct as possible. (These same considerations shaped the decisions of the Apostolic writers as to what to include and what to assume their audience knew.) Explaining in text and without diagrams (which would be more prone to error in re-copying) the correct way to cut an animal’s throat so that it suffered as little as possible and to remove the most blood would take a page or more of text or a large number of technical terms whose meanings could be lost in later centuries due to lack of common use, whereas teaching one’s children the correct way would take but a few demonstrations and a few more times letting them do it under supervision.
Therefore, the concept of an Oral Torah that had its origins at Mt. Sinai does rest on solid Biblical, historical, and logical ground. However, that is not to say that the whole body of tradition which is currently considered Oral Torah comes from Moshe. Nor does this prove that the whole of even the Mishnah is this Oral Torah. In fact, the Talmud itself argues against it.
For example, it is a tradition to ritually search the house for leaven before the Passover, and the Mishnah actually contains details on just how one should go about this search, where one should search, etc (Mishnah Pesahim, chapter one). However, R. Nahman bar Isaac, explaining why it is not necessary for a rabbi to approve that a given house has been properly searched out provided that the owner or renter testifies that it has been, says,
It is assumed to have been searched, and here with what situation do we deal? It is a case in which we assume that it hasn’t been searched, but persons of the stated categories say, we searched it. Now you might say, rabbis didn’t accord credence to their testimony? So we are informed that, since the inspection of the house for leaven derives from the authority of rabbis, since, by scriptural law, it would be quite sufficient merely to nullify ownership of the leaven, rabbis accorded them credibility in respect to a rule that rabbis themselves have made. (b. Pesahim 4b)
So then, even the sages of the Talmud (R. Nahman lived in the 4 th Century CE) recognize that the Mishnah contained rabbinical rules that went beyond the Scriptural commandments. In another place, where the subject of whether one may violate the Sabbath—that is, violate the Mishnah’s definition of work, which includes using any utensil for the purpose for which it is normally made outside of certain permitted uses (Mishnah Shabbat chapter 17)—to rescue an animal from a pit is at hand. The Talmud concludes,
He takes the view that the consideration, he nullifies a utensil so that it cannot be used for the purpose for which it is ordinarily designated, derives from the authority only of rabbis, while the prevention of cruelty to animals derives from the Torah, in which case the rule of the Torah comes along and overrides the rule made by rabbis. (b. Shabbat 128b)
The Rules of the Rabbis
It is not necessary, however, to defend the concept of an Oral Torah handed down unchanged from Mt. Sinai in order to defend the Talmud per se. When God gave the Torah, He gave Israel’s leaders the right to make halakha, rulings on how one should walk and apply the Torah:
If a case comes before you at your city gate which is too difficult for you to judge, concerning bloodshed, civil suit, personal injury or any other controversial issue; you are to get up, go to the place which ADONAI your God will choose, and appear before the cohanim (priests), who are L'vi'im, and the judge in office at the time. Seek their opinion, and they will render a verdict for you. You will then act according to what they have told you there in that place which ADONAI will choose; you are to take care to act according to all their instructions. In accordance with the Torah they teach you, you are to carry out the judgment they render, not turning aside to the right or the left from the verdict they declare to you. Anyone presumptuous enough not to pay attention to the cohen appointed there to serve ADONAI your God or to the judge - that person must die. Thus you will exterminate such wickedness from Isra'el - all the people will hear about it and be afraid to continue acting presumptuously. (Deu. 17:8-13, CJB)
This authority was of course dependant on Israel’s leaders making all of their rulings based on God’s Torah. Not even a prophet was permitted to either add to or take away from the Torah (Deu. 12:32-13:5 [13:1-6]); how much less could a noble or a rabbi? For example, no Jew—or Christian—would argue that God’s granted authority went so far as to permit Ahab and Jezebel to lead Israel into idolatry, taking away the command to have no other gods before ADONAI! However, within the framework of the Torah, one is to respect and obey the rulings of those in authority.
Adding a Fence?
Since the Second Temple era, the greater temptation for the rabbis has not been to take away from the Torah’s commands (though that has inadvertently happened at times), but to add to them. Again, fromJewfaq:
A gezeirah is a law instituted by the rabbis to prevent people from accidentally violating a Torah mitzvah. For example, the Torah commands us not to work on Shabbat, but a gezeirah commands us not to even handle an implement that you would use to perform prohibited work (such as a pencil, money, a hammer) without a good reason, because someone holding the implement might forget that it was Shabbat and perform prohibited work.
It is important to note that from the point of view of the practicing Jew, there is no difference between a gezeirah and a Torah mitzvah. Both are equally binding; neither can be disregarded on a whim. The difference is generally in the degree of punishment: a violation of Shabbat was punishable by death under Torah law, while a violation of the gezeirah would result in a less severe punishment.
Another difference between a gezeirah and a mitzvah is that the rabbis can, in rare appropriate circumstances, modify or abrogate a gezeirah. Rabbis cannot change the Torah law that was commanded byG-d.
On the surface, putting a fence around God’s commandments so that one won’t accidentally violate them is not necessarily a bad idea, especially if one is weak in an area. For example, while the Bible certainly permits drinking alcohol provided that one does so in moderation, a believer who struggles with alcoholism would be wise to “put a fence around the Torah” and avoid drinking altogether to avoid losing control and getting drunk. A believer who struggles with pornography might “put a fence around the Torah” by putting safeguards on their computer which prevent them from accessing pornographic sites. A workaholic might well want to put fences around the Sabbath, refusing to even go near his computer or home office on that day lest he start trying to catch up on his work. All of these personal fences go beyond the actual Biblical commandments as they are written, but we would all agree that those taking precautions in areas where they are weak so as to not give the Adversary a foothold is wise.
However, even within Christian circles we often find it difficult to avoid the temptation to add to God’s commands by making our personal fences everyone else’s yoke. The matter of alcohol is perhaps the most prominent example, leading to the old joke, “Jews don’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah, Protestants don’t recognize the authority of the Pope, and Baptists don’t recognize each other in line at the liquor store.” Some will go so far as to claim that Yeshua never drank alcohol. “That was new wine that they had at the Last Supper, grape juice,” they will claim. Right. One wonders where they were getting this unfermented “new wine” six months after the previous grape harvest and two thousand years before the advent of modern refrigeration.
Or take smoking. Certainly, no one would argue that smoking is good for you—but neither does Scripture define smoking as a sin. Yet how many Christians assume that if you smoke, you aren’t saved? Or if you are, then you’re not being a very good Christian, are you?
The point is that adding to God’s commands as given in the Scriptures and then judging others on their adherence to our man-made rules is not a uniquely Jewish vice. It’s one that we all have the tendency to fall into and need to guard against. Personal fences in an area in which one is weak are good. Personal and societal standards of behavior in areas in which the Scriptures are silent are fine. But judging others based on their adherence to those fences and traditions most certainly is not.
Yeshua the Pharisee?
When Yeshua challenged the Pharisees on the basis of their traditions, it was never for holding themselves to a very high standard. Indeed, there are strong evidences that Yeshua Himself lived and operated largely within the tradition of the Pharisees.
First, we note that Yeshua spent the vast majority of the time that He spent with Israel’s leaders with the Pharisees. While His discussions with them are often antagonistic, this must be understood within the Ancient Near Eastern culture of 1st Century Judea: You argued more with those who were closer to you, and argued most of all with those whom you considered family, or virtual family. The Pharisees were all united in their rejection of the Sadducees and Sadducean control of the Temple (the name Pharisee, or Perush, means “separated one,” and referred to a separation from the Temple, which they saw as corrupt), but their fiercest words were reserved for each other.
An element of this remains in Jewish culture. For example, in Fiddler on the Roof, we see Tevye being standoffish and stiffly polite with the Gentile Russians, argue loudly with Lazar, and storm and rage only at his own family. Those closest to him provoke the greatest response. (Conversely, he is the primary target of his own wife’s rapier tongue.)
D. Thomas Lancaster explains:
This explains why Yeshua was sharply critical of the religious of His day. He regarded them as the healthy and the righteous of Israel. Therefore, He held them to a much higher standard and was quick to point out hypocrisy and pretense. His criticisms, however, were not a rejection of the religious. Rather, they were corrections and rebukes.
On the other hand, when He was among the irreligious, He did not rebuke them as He did the Pharisees and teachers of Torah. The irreligious were outside of the domain of Torah. It does no good to rebuke someone for disobeying a law he or she does not believe in. Therefore He sought to first entice people to repent and return to obedience to the Father. He needed to bring them into the kingdom before holding them up to the standards of the kingdom. . . .
How then do we explain the rancor with which Yeshua attacks the Pharisees in the Gospels? His scathing rebukes are best understood as an internal criticism of Pharisaic Judaism. Notice that He never offers similar rebukes to the Sadducees or the Herodians, who were far more wicked than the Pharisees. The matter may be compared to a mother who rebukes her own children with harsh words and an occasional swat on the seat, but turns an indifferent eye to the misdeeds of the neighbor’s children. The neighbor’s children are of no concern to her. They are not within her purview. It is because Yeshua is so close to the Pharisees in theology and practice that they fall under His immediate concern. (King 77, 79)
Second, and the other side of the coin, we notice the interest the Pharisees took in Yeshua. They are nearly as constant companions to Him as His own talmidim. We see Him approached with deference by Nicodemus (John 3), who is likely the man known in the Talmud as Nakdimon ben Gurion, who tried to provide Jerusalem with food and water during the siege. He was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, another Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin (Luke 23:50f) who was actually Yeshua’s talmid in secret (John 19:38). A group of Pharisees warned Him when Herod began taking too close an interest in His ministry (Luke 13:31). Indeed, He was invited to eat with Pharisees on more than one occasion (Luke 11:37, 14:12).
The latter was particularly important because of what being willing to eat with a person meant in that culture: It was a sign of fellowship, that you considered the other to be “ritually pure” enough to eat with. A Jew would not enter the house of a Gentile, let alone eat with them (cf. Acts 10:28). This is why the Nazarines’ willingness to have table fellowship with Gentile believers in the Messiah was so revolutionary—and why Kefa’s (Peter’s) withdrawal from sharing the table with Gentiles required an immediate and public response from Sha’ul (Gal. 2:11ff). It was tantamount to saying the Judaizers, those who said that one could not be saved unless they were Jewish (circumcised) were right, and the Gentile believers were not fit for fellowship.
By the same token, a Pharisee would never eat with a person not of his sect; indeed, many Pharisees would not scruple to eat with another of their sect who did not maintain their own standards of ritual cleanliness. That means that they considered Yeshua to be one of their own, even though He had not been formally trained—which means in turn that He kept the greater part of their traditions.
For example, in Mat. 23:5, we see the Lord criticizing those who make a show of being religious when they “make their t'fillin broad and their tzitziyot long.” Wearing tzitzit is a direct command of the Torah, given in Num. 15:38. Tefillin, or phylacteries, on the other hand, are not spelled out in Scripture, but are derived from the command to “bind them [God’s Words] as a sign upon your arm, and as frontlets between your eyes” (Deu. 6:8). Since this binding of God’s word is elsewhere associated with keeping His Passover (Exo. 13:12, 16), it is evident that the wearing of the Tefillin is merely a rabbinical interpretation of the command, not the command itself. And yet Yeshua, by pairing it with the command to wear tzitzit, was in essence treating it as being just as valid.
For another example, being immersed in water (mikveh) as a sign of repentance and being “born again” into the House of Israel was neither a command of the Torah nor invented by Yochanan HaTivlei (John the Baptist), but was rather a rabbinical tradition that Yochanan and Yeshua took and adapted so as to fill it with new meaning. For yet another example, the Torah nowhere mandates the ritual use of wine at the Passover, but Yeshua took this tradition and filled it with new meaning when He took the cup after the dinner (Luke 22:20)—the third cup of wine, the Cup of Redemption—and invested it with yet greater meaning and the strength of a command of God when He said, “This is My blood of the New Covenant.”
Still other examples can be found even in the criticisms of the Pharisees: They criticized Yeshua’s talmidim for gleaning a snack on the Sabbath (Mat. 12:1ff) and for failing to ritually wash their hands before eating (Mark 7:1ff). Notice that they do not level these same charges against Yeshua Himself, which indicates that He was keeping these traditions for His part.
It must be noted that Yeshua certainly didn’t believe that violating these traditions was the same as violating the written Torah, which is to say, a sin. In fact, He later makes a point of not ritually washing His hands at a meal with a Pharisee just to make this point (Luke 11:38) and could still say, “Which one of you convicts Me of sin?” (John 8:46). So while largely keeping the traditions of the Pharisees, enough so that they (at least initially) considered Him one of their own, we see that Yeshua did not regard the Oral Torah as God-breathed and a plumb line for determining sin.
The Galilean Factor
Indeed, while there is good evidence that Yeshua largely agreed with the theology of the Pharisees and joined in many of their traditions, unlike them, He did not choose only disciples of a Pharisee background. Simon the Zealot is one example of a talmid from a non-Pharisee background. All of the talmidim from Galilee were likewise non-Pharisees; indeed, they were not keeping many or most of the Pharisaic traditions and halakha.
The Galileans were fiercely loyal to Judaism. They undoubtedly were meticulous in fulfilling the essential demands of Judaism, such as Sabbath observance. The Pharisaic scholars of Judaism, centered in Jerusalem in Judea, found the Galileans insufficiently concerned about the details (emphasis mine) of Jewish observance—for example, the rules of Sabbath rest. The Talmud says that Yohanan ben Zakkai, a great Pharisee of the first century, was assigned to a post in Galilee during his training. In eighteen years he was asked only two questions of Jewish law, causing him to lament “O Galilee, O Galilee, in the end you shall be filled with wrongdoers!” (Jerusalem Talmud Shabbat 16:7, 15d). The Pharisaic criticism of Galileans is mirrored in the New Testament, in which Galilean religious passion in [sic] compared favorably against the minute concerns of the Judean legal scholars. There was rivalry between Galilee and Judea, the former representing a passionate approach to religion, the latter an intellectual approach. (Wylen, Jews 64)
This same rivalry is reflected especially in John’s Gospel account, where he constantly refers to the Ioudaioi as opposing Yeshua. Ioudaioi can be translated “the Jews,” as in world Jewry in general, and is thus translated in most Bibles, but it can also be translated “the Judeans,” and I think this is the Galilean Apostle’s intent, contrasting Yeshua’s popularity among the Galilean common-folk with the antagonism He experienced at the hands of the Judean leadership.
Indeed, the observance of the Galilean Jews was so different from the strictness of the Judean Pharisees that when he corrected Kefa for distancing himself from the Gentiles, Sha’ul made a point of saying that Kefa “live[d] as a Gentile” (Gal. 2:14)—that is, Sha’ul was reminding Kefa that by the standards of his own sect, Kefa was not fit for table-fellowship with Sha’ul.
The Talmud and the Messianic
Therefore, we can rightly say that theEkklesia as a whole is not required to keep all of the commands and traditions of the rabbis who have rejected Yeshua’s Messiahship and that failing to keep or recognize the Oral Torah is not a sin. After all, some of those rulings are in direct contradiction to a New Covenant faith, and there is a point at which one must say, as Kefa (Peter) and Yochanan (John) did to the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God, not men” (Acts 5:25). Secondly, Yeshua gave this same authority to make halakhaic rulings to His Apostles when He gave them the authority to bind and loose (Mat. 16:19, 18:18).
Now it is interesting to see just how the Apostles used that authority. They did not use it to “loose” themselves from all of Jewish tradition or any of the Torah—indeed, we see inActs 15 that the subject of whether Jewish believers should keep the Torah and the traditions never even came up. Rather, they “loosed” the Gentile converts from having to take on the yoke of the rabbinical interpretations of the Torah, not least of all the interpretation which said that only Israelites had a place in the World to Come.
But for themselves, they continued to keep the whole of Torah, and many believers continued to keep the Torah after the rabbinical traditions of the Pharisees (Acts 15:5), including Rabbi Sha’ul, aka the Apostle Paul. He even took a Nazrite vow (Acts 18:18) and completed it in accordance with Jewish law (Acts 21:23ff) in order to demonstrate that he was not "teach[ing] all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children neither to walk after the customs" (v. 21; see our article on Acts 21). Thus he was able to honestly say at his trials, “I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees” (23:6), “I have committed no offense either against the Law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar” (25:8), and “I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers” (28:17).
To be sure, Sha’ul did not see keeping the rabbinic rulings as the path by which one reconciled with God, holding fast to the belief that both Jew and Gentile were saved only by trusting in the Lord Yeshua HaMashiach. So why then did he himself continue to walk the difficult path of the Pharisee, the precursor of the Orthodox Jews? Simply put, to show his people that faith in the Messiah did not make one less righteous, even by the rabbinical standards of righteousness, so that more would be willing to come to faith (1 Co. 9:20-23).
Messianics from a Jewish background, particularly those who were raised in an Orthodox home and synagogue, often feel led to follow the Oral Torah in all respects in which it does not conflict with the Bible (including the Apostolic Scriptures) for a variety of reasons. Some have simply so ingrained the traditions that they are a matter of habit. Others are making a deliberate show of solidarity with their people, to show that coming to a belief in the Messiah makes one more Jewish, not less. These are perfectly valid reasons—in fact, these are among very reasons why Sha’ul remained a Pharisee and held to such a strict standard of Torah (1 Co. 9:20)—and God bless them for their love and dedication for their people. As long as they avoid the trap of judging others on the basis of tradition, they are exempt from the charge of legalism.
Others, generally those of Jewish ancestry who were not raised Jewish by their parents, those of a more liberal Jewish background, and Gentiles like this author, do not feel as bound by the Talmud. This is not to say that we reject all Jewish tradition; simply that we recognize it as tradition under the authority of Torah, not a second Torah, and subject to being adapted freely to reflect our New Covenant belief.
For example, the traditional recitation of the Shema has two parts. The first is a recitation of Deu. 6:4, “Hear O Israel, the L-rd Our G-d, the L-rd is One.” The second is not a direct quote from Scripture, but is a summation of numerous Scriptural passages: “Blessed be the name of His glorious Kingdom for all eternity.” To this we, and many other Messianic synagogues, add a third line: “Yeshua, He is the Messiah, and He is L-rd over all!”
For another example, we keep the tradition of lighting two candles at the start of the Sabbath, but we have changed the prayer for a very particular reason. The traditional prayer reads, “Blessed are You O L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us by your commandments and has commanded us to kindle the Sabbath lights.” There’s just one problem with that prayer: There is no command to light the Sabbath candles anywhere in Scripture. In order to pray it, we would have to concede to the rabbis that their traditions, Oral Torah, are from the lips of God every bit as much as the Written Torah. Our King did not, as we have already seen, and we must follow His example. Therefore, we have amended the prayer to, “. . . and who has commanded us to be a light to the nations, and has given us Yeshua our Messiah, the Light of the World.” Thus we both avoid adding to the Torah (claiming as a commandment what is not given as such) and elevate Yeshua.
For us, the Talmud (in the broad sense of the word as well as the narrow) is not a Law, but a commentary and a resource, just like (for example) the works of the Early Church Fathers, the commentaries of Martin Luther, or the apologetic works of Norman Geisler. The rabbis are often wrong, particularly on matters touching the Messiah, but they often have marvelous insights into the text of the Scriptures, particularly the Torah, as well. Moreover, the Talmud is a useful historical resource that gives us insight into the practices and debates in early Judaism—and therefore into the issues that the Messiah and His followers wrestled with as well. Therefore, like any historical resource, it must be used carefully, but should not be rejected out of hand.
A Blind Commentary?
“But,” many object, “the Bible can only truly be understood by one with the indwelling Holy Spirit, because the natural man doesn’t receive the things of God (1 Co. 2:14). Furthermore, Paul says that Israel has been blinded (Rom. 11:7) and that their eyes are veiled (2 Co. 3:14ff). It is foolish to trust the interpretation of uninspired men.”
Indeed, it would be foolish to blindly trust the interpretations of non-believers about the Scripture. For that matter, it is foolish to blindly trust the interpretations of professing believers and even true believers; in all cases, we are called upon to be like the Bereans, who received the Gospel that Sha’ul brought with all readiness of mind, but who also searched the Scriptures daily to see if the things he taught them were correct (Acts 17:11). Now think on that for a moment: Luke commended the Bereans, who were not yet believers and had not yet received the Spirit, for testing the words of an Apostle against the Tanakh, the only Bible they had!
It should be noted that the Torah itself denies that special revelation is needed to understand and carry out its teachings:
For this mitzvah which I am giving you today is not too hard for you, it is not beyond your reach. It isn't in the sky, so that you need to ask, 'Who will go up into the sky for us, bring it to us and make us hear it, so that we can obey it?' Likewise, it isn't beyond the sea, so that you need to ask, 'Who will cross the sea for us, bring it to us and make us hear it, so that we can obey it?' On the contrary, the word is very close to you - in your mouth, even in your heart; therefore, you can do it! (Deu. 30:11-14, CJB)
The phrase, “this mitzvah . . . is not to hard for you” (lit. “too wonderful for you”), Keil & Deilitzch understand to mean, “is not too hard to grasp, or unintelligible (vid., Deu. 17:8).” Likewise, Matthew Henry writes, “They could never plead in excuse of their disobedience that God had enjoined them that which was either unintelligible or impracticable, impossible to be known or to be done (Deu. 30:11): It is not hidden from thee.” God is not so poor a communicator as some would make Him out to be!
So what then does Sha’ul mean? As Geisler and Nix explain, “Illumination as described in Scripture (1 Cor. 2:14-16; Eph. 1:18) does not refer so much to the understanding of the meaning of a passage but to the application of the significance of its truth to one’s life” (A General Introduction to the Bible, p. 41, emphasis original). Sha’ul was struggling with the issue of why, if the Tanakh so manifestly points to Yeshua, so many—including himself at first—were unable to see Him there. The issue was not an intellectual one, but a spiritual one. Therefore, Sha’ul and his colleagues in the Jerusalem Council had no problem sending new Gentile believers into the synagogues to learn about the Torah of Moses (Acts 15:21—see our discussion here), since they knew that the Torah was written in plain language and could be taught without supernatural aid.
Of course, since the Messiah is the goal of the Torah (Rom. 10:4), not being able to see the Messiah inevitably means misinterpreting the Torah. But that does not prevent the rabbis from having anything of value to say.
It is interesting that many who criticize Messianics for looking into the Talmud as a historical resource do exactly the same thing with the writings of Josephus (particularly those in the preterist camp)? If it is appropriate to study one Pharisee for historical insight, why not others?
Yeshua HaMashiach, though He kept many Pharisaical—which is to say, rabbinical—traditions and even invested many with new meaning, was careful to always maintain a distinction between tradition and the actual mitzvot (commandments) of God. He made a point of drawing His talmidim, His disciples, from a wide cross-section of the Judaisms of the 1 st-Century, from rigid Judean Pharisees to the less-traditional though still Torah-observant Galileans. Likewise Sha’ul, though remaining a Pharisee and keeping their traditions himself, was the foremost proponent of not imposing such traditions on other believers, particularly those of a Gentile background.
Ever since the Protestant Revolution, all Christendom has competed for the title of “Apostolic”—that is, believing and practicing as the Apostles, those who learned from the Messiah Himself, did. Therefore, like the Apostles, we should expect and encourage differing traditions of belief in the Messiah, provided that all are within the framework of the whole of Scripture, including the least commandments of the Torah (Mat. 5:17-19, Acts 20:27, 2 Ti. 3:16f). Those who believe in the Messiah and who practice an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle may neither look down on others nor be looked down upon by those with a more “liberal” tradition any more than a Chinese believer should be distanced from his American brother.
If it is Talmudic and Judaizing to choose (without imposing that choice on others) to keep Jewish traditions which do not directly contradict the Bible and a New Covenant understanding of it, then the Son of God Himself was a Talmudic Judaizer! Those who reject such slander should likewise reject the same against Messianics who only want to follow in the footsteps of our Lord.
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