Reviewed by Adam Millson
One of my favorite ways to spend my free time is in deep and friendly discussion of serious topics. Digging into the subject, examining our assumptions, pushing the boundaries of our understanding together—every part of the experience is delightful. Imagine my pleasure, then, when I picked up At the Foot of the Mountain: Two Views on Torah and Spirit and found that authors Lessard and Rosner were engaged in that exact pursuit. This book is an important study of the well-tread topic of practicing Torah today and the less well-tread topic of a Messianic Jewish pneumatology. The former has been the center of debate since the beginning of the Messianic movement and has essentially defined the various streams contained in it; the latter is core to some of those streams but is significantly less explored by others. Both still require more discussion, but it is important to pursue Hashem’s will for our movement and to pursue unity in our camp while discussing such significant topics. Honest, thoughtful, prayerful, and respectful dialog is core to both aims, and this book is full of such dialog.
At the Foot of the Mountain is an unusual book because it wasn’t intentionally composed from start to finish. This book began as an email conversation, not a painstakingly perfected academic argument. It is a dialog between a rabbi who focuses on a Spirit-led faith and a professor who focuses on a faith informed by rabbinic tradition. These two participants represent two sides in an ongoing dialogue concerning the direction of the Messianic Jewish movement. I particularly like the book because of its organic origin—it came out of actual interactions between two people and was not planned out as an academic exercise. Lessard took a theology course from Rosner and heard some ideas on which he disagreed with her, so he reached out and began an email conversation to clarify points and strive for better mutual understanding. Consequently, this book models the dialogues that members of the movement can have with each other.
Since the arguments in At the Foot of the Mountain are advanced in a conversation, they are developed slowly. Both participants initially state only what they think is necessary and then double back to clarify misunderstandings, develop points, and dive deeper into issues that are raised in the discussion. Where a standard academic book would methodically build its case, point by point and chapter by chapter, Lessard and Rosner’s arguments flow and change as the conversation develops. This growth gives the reader time to consider each point and evaluate the points and counterpoints as they are ironed out in the dialog. The book opens with each author setting out positions that will be quite familiar to anyone who is actively involved in this debate in the wider movement. The authors soon move past those positions, however, and begin to build their positions into fresh concerns. Watching them develop responses to each other’s challenges, navigate confusion, and get bursts of inspiration from some phrase that the other uses is enlightening and demonstrates the benefits of sincere, Hashem-honoring debate. There are multiple points where one misunderstands or makes assumptions about the other. In our polarized age, that is the moment where dignified argument frequently goes off the rails. In this book, however, Lessard and Rosner simply correct the misunderstanding and move on in the debate, secure in their trust in the other’s faithfulness. This book is an invitation to sincerely enter a faithful dialogue about the shape of our movement, and it models the honest disagreement combined with a desire to understand each other that is necessary for that dialogue to go well. Both authors also argue out of an earnest desire to see the movement grow in the most righteous manner, not to see themselves proven right. The reader should bring that same attitude, seeking to identify parts of each argument that are strong and parts that seem incorrect or unhelpful for the spiritual wellbeing of Messianic Judaism. Both authors have something to teach every reader; both have considered this topic deeply and prayerfully.
On one side of this exchange is Joshua Lessard, an IAMCS rabbi. Lessard aims to defend the “revivalist spirit” that Messianic Judaism originated from; therefore, he questions the traditions of both supersessionist Church and traditional rabbis. Lessard’s concerns are also clearly shaped by his ministerial calling; he is often focused on the individual lives of people, both allowing for their individual calling and expressions of faith and looking at the transformation that can be found in individual lives. Consequently, Lessard does not want to base faith on prior religious tradition. Instead, he desires to draw from the history of renewal movements in both religions, and seeks to pursue a Spirit-led faith. He is interested in a movement that demonstrates the deep transformation found in the grace of Yeshua and that unites both gentile and Jew in worship filled with the life of the Spirit. Lessard desires for the Messianic Jewish movement to “follow the Spirit in all matters.”
Where some would reexamine their interpretation of Torah if it contradicted science or logic, Lessard would reexamine his personal interpretation of Torah if he felt the Spirit were leading him in another way, and he wishes to extend that freedom to everyone, including people who feel led to practice differently than him. It is important to note that Lessard does see the Bible as personally interpretable. Since the Spirit is directly available to all serious believers and since the Spirit knows the truth of Scripture, any believer operating with a complete faith in the sovereignty of the Spirit can have a direct understanding of the truth of Scripture. Tradition, including rabbinic tradition, is unnecessary and often restricts the truth to that which is acceptable to that tradition’s presuppositions, so it is better to attempt to cast off the box that tradition places and understand the Bible through the direct instruction of the Spirit.
Through advocating for a Spirit-led movement, Lessard seeks to embody the fullness of new creation in Yeshua. He sees such renewal in our days as the core purpose of the coming of Yeshua:
For me, if there is not some line of human representation of truly transformed humanity by the Spirit, then the mission of Yeshua to usher in the fulfillment of the prophets has failed. Thankfully, there is such a line even if it was and may remain a minority of those who call themselves followers of Yeshua.
For Lessard, the promised renewal has already come. While the transformation is not necessarily instantaneous, true faith in Yeshua leads to an ontological status change in believers. They are not merely forgiven or better able to keep the law or transformed now and not yet—that is, transformed partially at the coming of Yeshua with the full transformation awaiting his return. In Lessard’s view, someone who is properly reborn in Yeshua is transformed by the Spirit to such a degree that sin is usually far from their minds, with or without rules. They no longer have any pressing need for the laws of Torah because they have internalized the attitudes of Yeshua and simply do not consider immoral or sinful thoughts except for rare exceptions. In Lessard’s view, this is the ideal that Yeshua believers should pursue as faithfully as they can, trusting in the Spirit and the transformative power of the grace of Hashem to make them new.
In line with his general focus on renewal, Lessard sees Jewish identity as a part of the New Man described in Ephesians 2:14–16, not as based on a rabbinical model. He sees nothing in the promised transformation of the Spirit that requires rabbinic tradition and some things in that transformation that rabbinic tradition hinders. Rabbinic Judaism has missed the eschatological ship of Yeshua’s coming. Since the rabbis remained under the operation of the past paradigm, their teachings have missed the transformative effects of the revelation of the Spirit that resulted from the resurrection of Yeshua and consequently cannot be authoritative. Lessard does not oppose the practice of rabbinic tradition per se but does not see it as necessary for Jewish identity or for following Yeshua, and opposes considering it authoritative or necessary for everyone in the Messianic Jewish movement. Lessard does see value in maintaining some distinction between Jews and gentiles but largely sees maintaining that distinction as the calling of particular Jews. In his view, it is imperative for some Jews to be distinct, but he expects distinctly Jewish believers to be outside the norm in the Body of Messiah. In general, he strongly opposes any sort of categorical separation between Jew and gentile, but instead emphasizes their unity.
Throughout the book, Lessard develops his conviction that Messianic Judaism must center on the Spirit to receive the full transformation of Yeshua’s grace. He explores the consequences of that transformation, and finds rabbinic tradition (and tradition in general) to be broadly unhelpful for this pursuit. It may aid some who are called to it, but it can also be a false path that does not lead to true transformation on its own and can actually lead away from that transformation for those not called to it. It is important to recognize, however, that Lessard does not condemn those who do pursue practice in line with rabbinic guidance. He simply argues that it is inappropriate as a standard for the movement as a whole and that anyone who does not wish to take it up should not be compelled to. It is also important to recognize that Lessard does not hold with the old supersessionist idea of abandoning Torah for freedom in Christ and the Spirit; instead, he believes that Torah ought to be practiced through the lens of that freedom as both are given by Hashem.
Jennifer Rosner is a professor of systematic theology at Fuller Seminary and teaches classes at multiple Messianic Jewish institutions. She maintains close connections with many in the UMJC and the MJRC. Her career is reflected in her focuses in At the Foot; Rosner often operates on the broader levels of organizations, movements, and sociological trends that are more easily analyzed from an academic level. She evaluates the general effects of faith rather than focusing on the potential for changes in particular individuals and seeks to find a way to construct a consistent systemic understanding of a Messianic Jewish theology of Spirit and Torah that guides the movement as a whole. Rosner puts greater emphasis on how the Spirit has moved in both Jewish and Christian traditions and in the development of the movement than on spiritual revelation or guidance to individual Yeshua believers.
Like Lessard, Rosner is critical of both Christianity and Judaism, but she places Messianic Judaism in the middle of both traditions instead of rejecting both. Our movement’s place at the juxtaposition of the traditions of church and synagogue gives us a mission to identify the flaws of each and critically integrate them into a holistic Yeshua-faithful Jewish practice. Many of Rosner’s arguments reflect the New Pauline Perspective, a comparatively recent school of thought that seeks to integrate Paul’s Jewish identity and his role in Christian theology. She emphasizes that Paul was a Pharisee and a Torah-faithful Jew who can be understood to have encouraged Jews to keep the Law and gentile believers to not take it upon themselves. Rosner argues that Paul is best interpreted through the Law-inclusive lens of the practice of Peter, James, and Paul himself in Acts, which canonically precedes his writings.
Based on the precedent formed by this perspective on Paul, Rosner desires for Jewish Yeshua-believers to resume the covenant lives that the Church had separated them from in the early years of its formation. She argues that Torah observance was simply assumed in the original community of Yeshua-believers and so did not need to be imposed on them again in the Apostolic Writings; this expectation would extend to Messianic Jews today as a pillar of our covenant with Hashem. Consequently, Rosner primarily aims to construct a legitimately Jewish, legitimately Yeshua-centered movement that is wholly dedicated to our covenant responsibilities with Hashem. In her view, a modern integration of Christian and Jewish tradition is the key to this aim.
I view rabbinic tradition in much the same light as church tradition; both movements have been led by God, and both movements are deeply flawed. One of the great challenges of the Messianic Jewish movement is that we must carefully discern how, where and when to submit ourselves to each, and how, when and where we must take a stand against each.
Neither stream of tradition can be trusted wholesale; Christianity and Judaism are both scarred by the wounds of the Parting of the Ways and the slow process of defining themselves in contradiction to the other that led to it. Both cast off essential parts of the religion of Yeshua to distinguish themselves from each other, and Rosner argues that we are tasked with excising the scar tissue and regrafting the parts that were lost. She challenges the idea that anyone can operate free of the influence of tradition and argues that one must recognize the tradition one is influenced by to critique it. In response to Lessard, Rosner identifies charismatic Yeshua-believing movements as being heavily inspired by Protestant tradition, despite their desire to separate themselves from that heritage; consequently, it is as necessary for the charismatic branch of Messianic Judaism to criticize their adoption of Church tradition as it is for the traditional branch to criticize rabbinic tradition. Both sides must be careful to identify and wrestle with the sources of their traditions, practices, and hermeneutical frameworks.
Rosner does critique rabbinic tradition; while she argues that the rabbis and sages were still guided by the Spirit to some degree, she also argues that modern Judaism does not live up to its potential. To a point, Rosner agrees that traditional Judaism did miss out on important transformative aspects of the coming of Messiah. Her vision of an Israel transformed by the Spirit involves the arrival of shalom between the people of Israel and the nations which, when combined with a new ability to better observe the precepts of Torah, would allow Israel to fulfill its role as a signpost to Hashem for the nations. Israel’s transformation would therefore be a major step towards the core eschatological goal: the total renewal of creation. Rosner does not eschew personal transformation but does find it insufficient in the face of that goal. For Israel to be a signpost, Israel must be clearly distinct, so it is important to Rosner that a general distinction between Jew and Gentile is maintained, even in the body of Yeshua. This distinction also creates the need for rabbinic tradition; since the Church suppressed Jewish Christianity in its early centuries, the rabbinic standard is the only remaining base for the Jewish side of that distinction.
Because Christianity quickly became overtly and unrelentingly anti-Jewish, the Christian tradition has left us with no living model of how to follow Yeshua and live faithfully as Jews. Quite the opposite; Christian tradition has all too often echoed Ignatius, insisting that any ongoing adherence to Jewish custom or practice is antithetical to following Yeshua. I believe that God’s covenant with Israel is irrevocable, and that the ketuba between God and Israel is Torah. I see it as our unique heritage and legacy to live out the distinctive calling of our people and be a witness to God in the world by doing so . . . in living out this calling as the people of Israel, we are indelibly bound to the rabbis.
Rosner argues that all Yeshua believers must forge their own path to an extent, but Jewish believers must rely on extant Judaism as a basis for establishing a firm Jewish identity. This identity is necessary because it is crucial that Jews maintain their covenant responsibilities even as Yeshua believers. This has been difficult in the antinomian supersessionist Church and Jewish believers must continue to guard their identities. Rosner also argues that it is important that Messianic Jews be recognizably Jewish in the modern era, both to take part in the wider Jewish world and to provide a Jewish witness to Yeshua that counteracts the harm done by the Church. Rosner argues that a new movement like ours, barely recognized as Judaism by anyone, cannot create a new definition of Judaism that runs contrary to current definitions and have it be recognized by anyone. Consequently, she sees a unity between the questions of how the Spirit leads and how halakha would have us live because the Spirit of the God of Israel has directed Israel to live under halakha and Messianic Jews must live as part of Israel. Rosner clarifies that she does not see a need for Messianic practice to match Orthodox standards. In her mind, the pursuit of a Messianic Jewish place in the realm of halakha will likely not go that far for most, but will reveal spiritual wealth for all.
At the Foot of the Mountain is an important and timely book in a number of ways. In it, the authors grapple with some of the key questions of the Messianic Jewish movement; importantly, they do so in a way that emphasizes mutual understanding and moves to reconcile the division in the movement. Their book is valuable because it exemplifies how respectful, honest, and serious discussion can be had on topics that frequently raise hackles. It is also valuable because it recognizes that answers do not have to be found quickly. At the end of the book, Lessard and Rosner have a better understanding of their own positions and each other’s, but they reach no conclusions and do not try to wrap things up neatly or shoehorn in some tentative agreement beyond their mutual commitment to the Trinity and the Messianic movement. Instead, they leave the door open for their readers to pick up the arguments, sort out their own starting positions, and begin discussing the direction and future of the movement together.
1 Joshua M. Lessard and Jennifer M. Rosner, At the Foot of the Mountain: Two Views on Torah and the Spirit (Eugene, OR: Resource, 2021), 3.
2 Lessard and Rosner, 42–43 and 62.
3 Lessard and Rosner, 50.
4 Lessard and Rosner, 59.
5 Lessard and Rosner, 60.
6 Lessard and Rosner, 35 and 84.
7 Lessard and Rosner, 11.
8 Lessard and Rosner, 45–46.
9 Lessard and Rosner, 34–35.
10 Lessard and Rosner, 84.
11 Lessard and Rosner, 44.