Halakic Authority in the Life of the Messianic Community
First of all, I would like to express my thanks to those who have not refrained from making their voice heard in public. I would also like to thank those who refused to allow gossip and rumors to determine their agenda. I am also grateful to all those who were unwilling to let provocations sway their minds from the simple fact that Yeshua never called anyone to shed another people’s blood in the name of some “pure theology” but summons us to live in accordance with “you shall love your neighbor as yourself ” (Matt 22:39; cf. Lev 19:18). How simple a command, and how difficult to accomplish.
I want to start with a brief verse from the story of the creation of man, which tells us: “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness’” (Gen 1:26). This is a very strange statement, because up until this point we have only heard one voice: “And God said ‘. . . and there was light . . . and let the waters be gathered . . . let the earth sprout vegetation . . . let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures . . . let the earth bring forth living creatures.’” With the creation of man, however, we suddenly hear a conversation.
I will not attempt to solve the enigma here of whom God is consulting in preparation for the creation of man. The point I am trying to make here is that up until the creation of man there has only been a monologue. God does not speak with anyone else when he creates the heavens and the earth, the flora and fauna. Only when he is preparing to create humanity do we hear conversation for the first time, which leads us to conclude that humanity is the product of this conversation. Without it, humanity would not have been created. Equally, we will die without it.
In light of this, pay heed again to the first human tragedy: “And Cain told Abel his brother. And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him” (Gen 4:8). Reading according to the cantillation marks, the etnach guides us to understand that “Cain told [something to] Abel his brother.” Although no details about what Cain told Abel are given, we know one thing: following this conversation, they were no longer brothers. The end of the discourse was also the end of their fellowship. We learn from this that when dialogue ceases, when people are no longer willing to speak to one another, only death remains. The first murder in human history occurred as a consequence of the disappearance of dialogue.
In recent months, we have heard more than a hint that the cessation of dialogue is the proper course of action to resolve controversies. some people are convinced that censorship, silencing, intimidation, and boycotting are important and essential tools for the creation of a better human society. In my opinion, whoever calls for an end to dialogue leads—and I have to hope does so unwittingly—to an act of murder, which includes character assassination.
I would like to remind everyone of what led to the holding of this event was an email from May 25, 2008 announcing the opening of a course entitled “Introduction to Judaism.” The course was due to start ten days after the email was sent, on June 3. In response to the email, a leader of one of the largest congregations wrote that he would not forward that email because he was not prepared to participate in disseminating “the leaven of the Pharisees and sadducees.”
That person was not content with this step, however. He also issued an agitated call to “burn out from our midst the leaven which is . . . the teaching of the Pharisees and sadducees, before it spreads and takes us all over. Lest we be defiled, lest we become bewitched, lest we be cut off from the grace of Yeshua.” similar inflammatory letters were posted on the Internet, where one could read such things as “a bomb may kill the body; the teaching of the leaven [of the Pharisees] threatens our spirit.” Having said that, he then gave an ultimatum to those who hold dear the Jewish tradition: “If Yeshua’s words and warnings against the teaching/leaven of the Pharisees do not match your worldview, you have two options: one, to change your worldview and to make it fit the words and spirit of scripture; or two, to abandon Yeshua and his body.”
Before I examine what leads one to conclude that “the leaven of the Pharisees and sadducees” equals “Judaism,” I would like to turn your attention to a simple fact: Those agitated appeals to burn the “leaven” were made before the “Introduction to Judaism” course had even started. I would ask, how could anyone know that the “abhorred leaven” exists in classes that had not even been given?
Let us now venture to get to the root of “the leaven of the Pharisees and sadducees.” I will start by trying to understand the meaning of the phrase “the leaven of the sadducees.” To the best of my knowledge, the sadducees disappeared shortly after the destruction of the second Temple, following decades if not centuries of fierce controversy with the Pharisees. Therefore it should have been obvious that, if it existed at all, the “leaven of the sadducees” was only in the margins of the periphery of Judaism (as in “Karaism”). Moreover, since the substance of the controversy between the Pharisees and sadducees focused on the authority of Oral Law (that includes halakah), and since the sadducees rejected the authority of Oral Law, Messianic Jews who reject the Oral Law are taking a “sadduccean position.” This position, as should be obvious, was rejected by Yeshua. so even before clarifying the meaning of “leaven,” lumping together the teaching of the Pharisees and the sadducees and labeling it as “leaven” is a glaring misrepresentation of these two groups.
To understand the meaning of this “leaven,” which scares the daylights out of some people here, I will take just one verse from an abundance of new Testament verses quoted in those inflammatory letters. In Matthew 16 (the word “hypocrites” does not appear in the standard Greek text used today), Yeshua twice calls his disciples to beware of the “leaven of the Pharisees and sadducees” (vv. 6, 11). These two admonitions follow the miracles and wonders which he had just performed in the sight of thousands of people. When the Pharisees and sadducees approach him “to test him” (v. 11), Yeshua correctly sees this as impudence of the highest order, and responds accordingly: “[Hypocrites,] do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky but cannot discern the signs of the times?” (v. 13). This means that Yeshua is labeling his opponents hypocrites because of their pretence to see one more sign while in fact all they wanted to do is to accuse him. They did not care for the signs but pretended they did. needless to say, all Jewish factions throughout the ages unanimously rejected such behavior. Therefore, we find that Yeshua condemns it, as does R. shlomo Ephraim of Luntshitz, who says: “The hypocrite always has his own praise in his mouth to exalt himself ” (Kli Yakar to Exod 25:14). Accordingly “hypocrite” is a pious or righteous person in appearance only, one whose “outside” does not match his “inside.” This understanding of the term explains why Yeshua could say without contradicting himself: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe; but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things, and do not do them” (Matt 23:2–3).
In the context of our present discussion, two things are important to note here. First, Yeshua does not refer to the Sadducees as sitting on Moses’ chair. This suggests that he does not accept their view of the Oral Law that leads them, among other things, to say that there is no resurrection from the dead. second, the “teaching of the Pharisees” reflected in later rabbinic texts strongly denounces hypocrisy: “Fear not the Pharisees and the non-Pharisees but the hypocrites who ape the Pharisees; because their deeds are the deeds of Zimri but they expect a reward like Phineas” (b. Sota 22b). This Pharisaic stand sheds light on Yeshua’s instructions to obey the “teaching of the Pharisees” while rejecting hypocrisy with both hands.
This should make it perfectly clear that the “leaven” of the Pharisees is hypocrisy, and in case one still hesitates about the meaning of “leaven,” let the words of Yeshua clarify it: “He [Yeshua] began saying to his disciples first of all, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1). It follows that a responsible exegesis of the new Testament should lead to the conclusion that “the leaven of the Pharisees” refers to human behavior worthy of denunciation—not to the conclsion that “hypocrisy” is “Judaism.” Even the Roman Catholic Church at the second Vatican Council denounced the view that sees the Pharisee as the archetype of all Jews. This old view is rightly condemned today as anti-semitic.
In light of this, from where does the hostility towards the “leaven of the Pharisees” come? From reading those letters, I think that it comes, among other things, from identity crises, since in one of the letters I read: “Our roots are not in rabbinic Judaism. That is a lie which must be put to rest!” Consequently the call is to dig out this root: “The issue is the leaven of the Pharisees which has penetrated to our roots. The time has come to stand firm and to put an end to it.” now, if some Messianic Jews say their roots are not within Judaism but are deep in another soil, I have to accept their own sense of identity.
Contrary to that, I say my roots are deeply in Judaism—and I deliberately omit “rabbinic” because there is no Judaism apart from rabbinic Judaism. When someone says that his roots are not in rabbinic Judaism, he is effectively saying that his roots are not Jewish. I stand here today due to my forefathers, who kept faith with their tradition and refused, even at the cost of life, to exchange it for another religion. I owe them my existence. so it is insolent—and a violation of “honor your father and your mother”—to say that my roots are not in the Judaism that I inherited as a holy heritage from my father and mother, from survivors of Titus, the Inquisition, pogroms, and the Holocaust.
The “merit of the Fathers” that I inherited is not accidental. It was not pure chance that I was born to offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It was not a cosmic mistake that I was born in Eretz Israel, on a kibbutz, in 1955—just as it was not a mistake that I have been privileged to see Yeshua crowned in glory and majesty. In this case, too, I am part of a long chain that has not been broken of Jews who refused to sell their birthright for a pot of Christian pottage. Although most of them—like Joseph in his generation—looked completely foreign, there were some among them who knew very well where they had come from, and knew, too, the significance of the awful secret hidden in the estrangement of the Jewish people from “that man,” whose very name they did not dare to put on their lips.
These figures had the great courage to endure the suffering both of the Jewish people and of the Messiah. They did not understand what “they” and “us” mean. They knew only the reality of “us.” For those who want to learn something about this, I recommend reading “The story of the Monk Anastasus” in shlomo Kalo’s book Behold Here it Comes—an account of a Jewish convert who was executed at Auschwitz because he took upon himself the guilt of his bunkmate who hated his guts. This monk was filled with a true love for Israel—not this fiction that hates Judaism but loves the Jews.
This leads me to conclude that the Jewish religion has preserved the Jewish people in their long wanderings in the desert of the Gentiles. some will say that it is not Judaism which has preserved the Jewish people, but God’s grace. They should rest assured. God has indeed preserved the Jewish people, and he has done so by securing them in this “ark” that is called the Jewish religion. The Jewish religion therefore constitutes a revelation of God’s grace towards the Jewish people. This religion, which arose from the smoky ruins of the Temple and which people so love to hate, is the primary instrument through which God has preserved the Jewish people. because of it, there are Jews in the world today.
That there are Jews today leads me to the next conclusion, that lack of commit- ment to our Jewish heritage leads to Jewish cessation. God has not preserved the Jewish people for no reason. nor has he done so in order to show Christians how he punishes God-killers. He has preserved the people of Israel because he chose them to bring redemption to the world; because as long as the Jewish people exist, the world will also. Conversely, we can say that if Israel’s enemies succeeded in destroying the last Jew, at that moment the world would return to chaos.
Some may say that it is Yeshua who brings redemption to the world, not the people of Israel. Again, they can rest assured. Yeshua brings redemption to the world—but who is Yeshua? We read: “‘behold, my servant, whom I uphold; my chosen one in whom my soul delights. I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations’” (Isa 42:1). now who is God’s “servant” here, if not the Messiah and Israel? And if there is any doubt, the same prophet says: “Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I have formed you, you are my servant, O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me’” (Isa 44:21). We can say similar things about the “son of God.” Does scripture not say about Israel: “Israel is my son, my first-born” (Exod 4:22)? In referring to these verses I am not asserting that Israel is the Messiah. What can be said is that Israel bears a messianic task which was not completed with Yeshua’s coming.
Despite the fact that, at times, it appears as though a complete correspon- dence exists between Israel and the Messiah, it is true that the Jewish people form the Messiah’s womb. They have always carried him within them. This means that Messiah exists because the people of Israel exist. This means that he is duty-bound to preserve them. Therefore, if for this reason alone, Yeshua’s commitment to the Jewish people is absolute: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he said to the Phoenician woman (Matt 15:24).
Yeshua is committed to the Jewish people because he knows—as Israel is also supposed to know—that the complete redemption will only come when “all Israel will be saved, just as it is written” (Rom 11:26). Have we not already said: There is no redemption for the world apart from Israel’s redemption? Consequently, as Paul says, the Gospel goes out “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16)—and he is not talking about chronological order here. His worldview says that if the Jews do not believe in Yeshua, neither will the Gentiles. In this light, it is reasonable to assume that if Messiah’s advent into the world was dependent upon the perspective which not a few Messianic Jews insist on holding, that which sanctifies the abolishment of Torah and have no problem with assimilation—if his coming had been dependent upon this attitude, he could never have come.
On the premise that we can agree on the necessity of Israel’s existence, it must mean that Israel is distinguishable from all other nations. If the Jews cannot be distinguished as a people, their existence is meaningless. From this we understand why the majority of the commandments were given to Israel and not to the nations. This is also the reason why, when they were called upon to decide whether or not the Gentiles should keep the Torah, the Apostles necessarily determined that the Gentiles were not so obligated (Acts 15). The opposite decision would have led to the disappearance of Israel. The later idea, developed by the Gentiles, which calls on the Jews to live like them, is foreign to the new Testament.
Because it is obvious that some people nevertheless interpret scripture to mean the contrary—that Yeshua in fact came in order to abolish Torah, and consequently Israel—let me remind you once again that which has been heard a thousand times and still has not been absorbed: “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Torah until all is accomplished” (Matt 5:18). It is difficult to understand how such a clear statement can be so misinterpreted as to assert the precise opposite, but we cannot argue with the facts. some will say that the Torah was fulfilled by Yeshua. However, unless I am mistaken, there is still earth under my feet and heaven above my head and therefore Torah is still valid. some will say that no one can fulfill the Torah, which is why Yeshua fulfilled it for us. If this is true, why does Luke insist on writing that at least the entire first generation of Yeshua’s disciples continued to observe Torah and the teaching of the fathers (Oral Torah).
Although Paul writes in one place that he “counts all things loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing the Messiah Yeshua” (Phil 3:8), he emphasizes the sig- nificant word “compared to.” Everything is worthless in comparison with knowing Messiah who is the embodiment of Torah, the teacher of Torah, the one who cannot be understood apart from Torah. This same kind of statement is found elsewhere: “The Torah which a man learns in the world is nothing compared to the Torah of the Messiah” (Kohelet Rabbah 11:8). In the “messianic age” Messiah is the ultimate authority for interpretation of Torah, not the one who terminates it. And if someone thinks that Paul, the “Pharisee of Pharisees” truly taught that the Torah should be abolished, how is it that he said to the leaders of the Jewish community in Rome at the end of his life: “brethren, [though] I had done nothing against our people, or the customs of our fathers” (Acts 28:17).
Paul’s vow is but one example of his approach to Torah and halakah. The vow’s purpose was to disprove the rumor that he was inciting Jews to forsake Moses and the traditions of the fathers. by this action “all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Torah” (Acts 21:21–23). Accordingly, those who accuse Paul of not keeping Torah, and teaching others to annul it, were giving false testimony, plain and simple.
Whoever claims that a Jew is not obligated to observe Torah because this is what both Yeshua and Paul teach can be compared to that same incited crowd that attempted to lynch Paul because someone had spread a false report that he was not keeping Torah. Despite the fact that, ultimately, Paul paid with his life for this false report, some people try to convince us that this same “false rumor” was in fact true, that Paul did in fact teach the abolishment of the Torah. All of this leads to my unambiguous conclusion is that the new Testament does not teach us to abandon Torah, nor the tradition of the fathers (at least that which was known during that period). Consequently, however we understand Paul’s epistles, the guiding exegetical principle for interpreting his letters must be that he remained an “observant Jew” to the end of his life—and not merely as a “missionary tactic” to win souls for Christ.
What I have attempted to say here is that Christianity has understood Paul’s epistles in such a way as to sanction the creation of a new religion, one contradictory to Judaism. For its part, Judaism has jumped on this misinterpretation as on a “pearl of great price” because it understands that Christian exegesis of the Pauline epistles constitutes a powerful weapon in its rejection of Yeshua. And yet, today there are Messianic Jews who insist on holding onto this same mistake with all their might. One must wonder about this since, after all, if Yeshua and the apostles abolished Torah, in light of the command that prohibits listening to anyone who is calling for the abolition of Torah, whoever he may be, Judaism is right in its claim that he and the apostles were inciters and beguilers? It is therefore not a coincidence that the final verses in the Tanakh command us to remember the Torah of Moses, because if we do not, God will strike the earth with a curse (Mal 4:4–6).
If this is so, is not the pronouncement that Yeshua abolished Torah a kind of declaration that he is a false Messiah? Does it not necessarily contain the seeds of calamity leading to the complete cessation of the Jewish people? And in this light, is there indeed no truth to the claim that Messianic Jews work against the existence of the Jewish people? We must ask ourselves honestly how Messianic Jews can say that they love the Jewish people at the same time as they are unfazed (in the best case) by mixed marriages? Does this not constitute an expression of lack of care for the future of the Jewish people? And how can Messianic Jews who praise God with their mouths compel others to recognize them as Jews when the two-edged sword is in their hands to “cut off” anyone amongst them who seeks to keep Torah and the teaching of the fathers?
On the assumption that most Messianic Jews do acknowledge the necessity of Israel’s continued existence, why does this attitude not find expression in the practical observance of the covenant between the people of Israel and their God, which is repeated and confirmed in the new Covenant consecrated in the blood of Messiah? As people who declare that they have taken upon themselves the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, must not love of God and love of Israel express itself in the observance of Torah? should the marks of our identity as Jews not be expressed through keeping Torah rather than by way of such secular elements as army service and obedience to the law? And talking about civil obedience, how is it that there are those amongst us who raise the banner of obedience to the law of the state of Israel at the same time as advocating “disobedience” to God’s law? How is it that so many take even the Decalogue lightly? Let us not deceive ourselves that such lightness only relates to the “Old Testament.” Are there any amongst those who abolish Torah who observe the apostolic ordinance to refrain from blood or strangled meat? Abolishing Torah, I am trying to say, inevitably leads to the annulment of all the commandments.
It is not hard to imagine what would have happened if the apostles had taught that we should remove the yoke of Torah. My guess is that no one would have lis- tened to them, either in Jerusalem or in the synagogues in the Diaspora. Can anyone even imagine that Paul would have been invited to teach in the synagogue had he not observed shabbat? Would anyone have listened to Peter if he had even remotely indicated that Yeshua has released us from the obligation of circumcision? If such had been their understanding, Yeshua would have been consigned to oblivion.
In the past, when people like Antiochus before Yeshua or Hadrian after him sought to wipe out Israel, they would issue decrees of prohibition of circumcision, observance of shabbat and Torah study. In generations which experienced such per- secution, even at risk of loss of life, Jews were keeping the shabbat and continued to study Torah. In contrast, the majority of Messianic Jews today profane shabbat, some even teaching that it is forbidden to keep it. Is it any wonder, then, that the name “apostates” continues to cleave to us?
Because the new Testament teaches Yeshua’s followers to observe Torah, it also necessarily teaches to keep the tradition of the fathers, or the Oral Law. I understand that many here today are deeply suspicious of this concept. nevertheless, we must understand that the Oral Law is also part and parcel of the new Testament. I have already indicated that Yeshua’s outlook was close to that of the Pharisees, since he didn’t accept the position of the sadducees that the Tanakh must only be interpreted on a strict literal meaning of the text. Yeshua did not know Martin Luther and was not influenced by the Reformation cry: sola scriptura—“scripture only.” That this is the case we can learn even from his criticism of the Pharisees in Matthew 23: “‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others’” (v. 23).
In order to explain what Yeshua is doing here I will quote David Bivin (Bar-Yona):
The Pharisees broadened the biblical commandment to tithe grain, wine, and olive oil in order to include all the crops used for food. Yeshua’s criticism of the Pharisees does not relate to the keeping of the halakhah itself but to the neglect of the weightier commandments in favor of the ‘minor’ or ‘light’ ones. Moreover, it would be a mistake to think that all the Pharisees, or even the majority of them, didn’t keep the weighty commandments.2
In other words, Yeshua did not consider halakah—or the “authority of the Rabbis”— to be irrelevant or dangerous. He did not see this authority as constituting “the leaven of the Pharisees and sadducees” which must be burnt. His rebuke was not addressed to the makers of halakah of his generation but to those who put the “light” commandments before the “weighty” ones.
There are more examples of places in the new Testament where Oral Law is found. Yet most obvious is that the Gospels are themselves Oral Law since Yeshua never wrote down one word of his teaching. The evangelists wrote them down and transmitted them and we have received them. “Transmission” and “tradition” therefore form the foundation of our faith that Yeshua is the Messiah.
When, if only for the sake of the argument, resentment of the Oral Law is put aside, one quickly realizes that without it Israel cannot be distinguished. Take the calendar as an example. The Jewish calendar follows the lunar rather than the solar system. Consequently, the determination of the lunar calendar requires eyewitnesses rather than astronomers—and indeed, in ancient times the beginning of each month (rosh chodesh) was fixed by a rabbinical court. The determination of the new moon/ month initiates the Hebrew calendar, without which it would be impossible to ob- serve Torah. Without a calendar there could be no way of knowing when shabbat begins, when to celebrate Pesach, when to begin counting the Omer, when the “year of release” falls, and so forth.
And yet, the maintenance of the Hebrew calendar is entirely a product of Oral Law. so, however strange it may sound, the crucifixion itself could not have taken place if the “rabbis” had not determined the precise date of Pesach. Likewise, Yeshua’s promise of the gift of the Holy spirit could only be fulfilled because the “rabbis” had fixed the exact day on which the counting of the Omer begins. Most significantly, we have to acknowledge that without the “authority of the rabbis,” most likely the Tanak as we know it today would not have been preserved. This point alone should have been enough to convince those who regard the bible as the word of God to treat the “rabbis” with more respect, and to credit them for allowing those who revere the new Testament to know Yeshua who cannot be known apart from the Hebrew bible.
One might think from everything I have just said that no difference exists between the authority I attribute to Yeshua and that which I attribute to the rabbis (Jewish tradition). However, it is self-evident that not only is Judaism unwilling to listen to the possibility that “that man” is the Messiah, but it also refuses to recognize those who accept him as such as Jews. This leads the majority of Messianic Jews to conclude that any attempt to merge Judaism with Yeshua necessarily leads to the denial of Yeshua. This may be the reason behind statements such as “our roots are not in rabbinic Judaism.”
Such a position, however, leads to the creation of another type “Judaism”— maybe “biblical Judaism” or “evangelical Judaism”? Yet in this case the word “Judaism” is misleading, because in truth, apart from the name, there’s not much similarity between the prevailing Messianic Judaism and Judaism. Consequently, and in my opinion correctly, the Israeli supreme Court has determined that Messianic Jews in fact belong to “another religion.” We need to pay attention here to the fact that the supreme Court did not define Messianic Judaism as a Christian sect but simply as “another religion.”
In the article she wrote for Yediot Ahronot, Techiya barak gave an excellent description of this phenomenon: “Like a mass in church, the believers stand in a line to receive the holy bread and wine. but in this very ceremony the leaders of the congregation also wear prayer shawls and take the Torah scroll out of the Ark.”3 This is merely one example which corroborates the supreme Court’s ruling that Messianic Jews are effectively members of another religion.
It is obvious that Messianic Jews have an identity crisis, and that they have to perform their own ceremonies despite the fact that they do not exist in Judaism. However, the substantial and significant difference between me and those who oppose my views lies in the fact that I do not think that we have to empty Judaism of its content and to reinvent it before Yeshua can find his place in it. I do not advocate the revolutionary path that demands that the “old world must be razed to its foundations.” My approach is that Yeshua’s faithfulness to the Jewish people also expresses itself in the fact that he did not come to create a new religion. In other words, he did not come to bring a substitute for the Jewish people. He did not come to form his own Church.
This demands that I say something more about Yeshua’s faithfulness to the Jewish people. The prevalent view, it seems to me, is that because the Jewish people rejected Yeshua, Yeshua is no longer in their midst. He will only return when they say to him “blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Ps 118:26; cf. Mark 11:9 et al). This view is a distorted picture that internalizes Christian criticism of the Jewish people. I assume that no one here thinks that God has abandoned his people—despite the evident reality of faithlessness that characterizes most of the Jewish people today. In other words, God’s faithfulness to the Jewish people is not conditional; he is always present in their midst.
If this is true of God, it must also be true of Yeshua. Despite the fact that Israel rejected the Messiah, the Messiah has not rejected the people of Israel. If so, then he is in their midst, which means that he is also to be found in the way of life of the Jewish people, including their religion and culture. True, we cannot easily discern this presence, just as we cannot easily discern God’s presence in the midst of the Jewish people. but it does exist, even if it is hidden and concealed from those without faith.
If we really wish to reveal the true controversy that has recently erupted once again, it is to be found precisely here: that I believe that, in his love for the Jewish people, Yeshua allowed the development of Judaism as we know it today. I have already said that I do not see the religion of my fathers as an enemy but as a unique type of covenant ark, which has preserved the Jewish people. If so, what is necessary is not to get angry at Judaism and to demolish the ark but to reveal—to ourselves first of all—that Messiah’s light is concealed in this vessel called Judaism.
We can only understand this truth, however, if we live a Jewish life that has been shaped by Jewish tradition. Only if we pray the prayer for Rosh Hashanah can we say the following prayer:
May it be your will that the blowing of the shofar, which we perform before you, be woven from a cloth by the one appointed (Tartiel) just as you accepted it from Elijah may his memory be blessed and Yeshua the Angel of his Presence and from Metat and may you have mercy upon us.
This is but one visible example to the concealed presence of Yeshua in Judaism. This hidden presence erupts from time to time and comes to the surface. Uri Zvi Greenberg, perhaps the most important Hebrew poet of our times, hints at this when he writes: “Truth-truth-truth which my elders pronounce: the dead in the churches isn’t our brother, but Yezus” (from “In the Kingdom of the Cross”). Greenberg’s elders, among them the great rabbis of Polish Hasidism, tell him about “our brother Yeshu.”
All of this leads me to conclude that for the most part the Jewish rejection of Yeshua is not “theological” but polemical. Further, as Greenberg says plainly: Two contradictory traditions exist side by side in Judaism. The official tradition that re- jects Yeshua and the unofficial tradition that accepts him. This perhaps can explain why Chabad can talk about its rebbe in terms that appear to have been taken from the new Testament. The real argument should be therefore whether one particular historical figure fits the Messianic matrix.
In light of the stormy history between Judaism and Yeshua, this claim may sound ridiculous. However, in case the Chief Rabbi of Israel ever accepts Yeshua as the Messiah, he will not need to change his religion. He will not become a priest, and he will not replace Pesach with Easter. Yeshua’s good news to the people Israel cannot be something that calls them to convert to Christianity, since the whole essence of the divine promise is to guarantee life to the Jewish people, and thereby to the whole world.
Most surprisingly, Yeshua’s good news is hinted at in the same Rosh Hashanah prayer cited above. On the day on which God sits on the Throne of Judgment, Yeshua will bring Israel’s prayers before him and intercede on their behalf. In this way, even in Jewish tradition Yeshua appears to continue praying the same prayer he uttered moments before his death: “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34). Good news of this sort cannot come from the mouth of those who are angry at Judaism and speak of it in derogatory terms. From the new Testament’s perspective, Yeshua is Israel’s defense lawyer (sanegor) not her prosecutor (kategor).
What I have said up until now embodies my position regarding “the authority of the Rabbis.” I have already said in different ways that rejecting rabbinic authority, an authority bestowed by the Torah itself, leads to the destruction of Jewish life. “Rabbinic authority” is not something which can be dismissed lightly, even if only for the reason that most Jews do not have a real problem with eating rabbinic matzah, using a rabbinic haggadah, and so on. On the other hand, those who do reject rabbinic authority must find another authority to marry them, bury them, and tell them to eat on Yom Kippur.
Having said that, I hope that nothing I have said so far creates the impression that I am idealizing Judaism. I am not calling on anyone to put on a streimel or to wear a wig. On the contrary, Judaism is as full of problems as a pomegranate is with seeds. Judaism has always been full of controversies over various issues. Weighty differences in attitude and approach exist between the Rambam and the Ramban, between Chasidim and Mitnagdim, between the national religious and the Orthodox, and so forth. This has never led to complete rupture.
In the same way, our quarrel over Yeshua’s messiahship, as fierce, heated, and deep-rooted as it is, cannot end with rupture and new religion. I can listen to a Torah study given by a rabbi about the sages’ interpretation about “the leech has two daughters, saying, ‘Give,’ ‘Give’” (Prov 30:15) and at the same time disagree with his words about Yeshua in the very same lesson. This holds true also regarding other issues. so, for example, one can critique a ruling of R. Ovadia Yosef, but to decide a priori that he teaches “the leaven of the Pharisees and sadducees” leads to rupture. It says that nothing good can come out of his mouth.
In light of it all, the question that needs to be asked, therefore is: Under what circumstances rabbinic authority can be overruled? not, should we recognize rabbinic authority? As I have already said, in Israel at least, very few people are not subject to this authority in one way or another. Those who demand that we reject this authority are actually calling for the rejection of our Jewish identity. Considering such an alternative, the obligation to overrule rabbinic authority is imposed on us only when it is clearly and unambiguously opposed to Yeshua, his teaching, and that of the apostles. Otherwise nothing should prevent us from acting in accordance with Jewish tradition, which embodies the wisdom of thousands of years.
Let me clarify this point with one or two examples. There is halakah that says that new Testament is not saved from a fire, which means that it is not sacred. The Torah scroll, on the other hand, must be saved even at the risk of losing one’s life (b. Shabbat 116a). Our halakah, if we will ever have any, must rule that the new Testament must be treated in the same way as the Torah scroll. The significance of such a halakah is that it recognizes the new Testament as part of Jewish Holy scriptures. In the context of the discussion of rabbinic authority, this means that we don’t have any argument whether we should save the Torah scroll from a fire. The dispute is only over whether the halakah also applies to the new Testament.
Another example is taken from the story of Yaakov of sikhnin who sought to heal ben Dama in Yeshua’s name when the former was bitten by a snake. R. Ishmael refused his nephew’s request that Yaakov be allowed to heal him (b. Avoda Zara 27b). While we should note here that Yeshua’s disciples cannot accept a halakah which rules out healing in Yeshua’s name, we should nevertheless accept the halakah which forbids healing by means of contagious magic or charms.
These brief examples bring me to my conclusion. Even if I have not answered all the questions and queries about the centrality of rabbinic authority in the lives of Jewish followers of Yeshua, I hope that I have succeeded in clarifying at least one point: The new Testament gives no one the authority to reject Yeshua’s explicit statements that his disciples, in principle, should observe halakah as long as it is not opposed to him, his teaching, or that of the apostles. In saying this, I want to point to a path that reduces the controversy between ourselves and “Rabbinic Judaism” to one thing only, namely, that Yeshua is the Messiah. John the baptist’s question, “are you the coming one, or shall we look for someone else?” (Matt 11:3) was answered two thousand years ago. What remains for his disciples to do until he returns is to resurrect the model of the first century community in the sense that “myriads of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20).
In conclusion, let me make one brief point with respect to the Christians living in our midst, because probably there is someone who will distort things and claim that the position I have proposed here leads to hatred of the Gentiles. Let me say here that I warmly welcome every Christian—on the condition that he or she does not attempt to impose his or her religion on me. I regard very seriously the behavior of some Christians living in Israel who have the gall to malign the Jews living in the state of Israel merely because they refuse to be evangelicals, Lutherans, or baptists. God-fearers from all nations are welcome to participate in the Jewish service of God as long as they do not speak against Israel, Torah, and Judaism. I do not agree with the attitude that says that in order to achieve unity with our Gentile brethren, we should remain Jews but reject Judaism. I consider this assertion as nothing less than complete and utter foolishness. God’s grace is not revealed in uniformity that almost always takes the form of American Evangelicalism. Meaningful fellowship comes through our ability to accept the other as he or she is. Therefore, while a Christian can serve the God of Israel in Church, he does not have the right to do anything that leads a Jew to abandon his heritage and tradition. since every person should know that the Jewish people are both a religion and a people, not a few Christians create the impression that the punishment of karet (being cut off from the people of Israel) is in fact a sort of blessing. My request, therefore, is to remind you here today of Peter’s words, which indicate the complete opposite: “And it shall be that every soul that does not heed that prophet shall be utterly destroyed [cut off] from among the people’” (Acts 3:23, quoting Deut 18:19). We need to understand from Peter that Yeshua came to guarantee the future of the Jewish people, not their demise.
Blessed is the person who does everything in his power to guarantee the future of the Jewish people, because the Redeemer for whom we are waiting will not come to Aelia Capitolina or to Al Kuds. He will come back to Jerusalem. Maranatha.
My interlocutor’s position as presented in his lecture was based on sixteen examples that ostensibly teach that Yeshua rejected the “tradition of the elders” or “the leaven of the Pharisees and sadducees.” One such “proof ” is found in: “Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Yeshua from Jerusalem, saying, why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread” (Matt 15:1–2). Does Yeshua categorically reject the “tradition of the elders” here—or does he in fact only object to a particular position? If Yeshua actually teaches the rejection of this institution known as “the tradition of the elders,” how could one of his most devout disciples say, “now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah, that you keep aloof from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us” (2 Thess 3:6).
I assume that many will say that the apostolic tradition is fine, but that of the Pharisaic, no way. In this lecture, I have made the attempt to show that Yeshua did not reject the tradition of the elders but actually confirmed it. He said: “These are the things you should have done [Torah] without neglecting the others [Oral Torah]” (Matt 23:23). If this is true, it would appear that Yeshua’s controversy with the Pharisees was not about halakah itself but over whether a specific halakah correctly interprets a commandment. The washing of hands (netilat yadayim) falls within a different category because it is one of the “seven rabbinical commandments” and is not therefore halakah. While it is not clear whether Yeshua rejected the commandment itself, it is evident that he didn’t accept the reason for it. Moreover, we know from the Talmud (primarily from b. Chulin 105–107) that the washing of hands is required only when the person dining intends to say the hamotzi (“blessed be he who brings forth bread from the earth”). If a person is only eating greens or meat, he is not bound to wash his hands prior to eating. From the Gospels, we can understand that the Pharisaic tradition (which is not mentioned in the Talmud) was to wash hands before all meals.
At any rate, whether we are talking here about a rabbinic ordinance or halakah, there are no occasions on which we can say that the halakah was determined without a long and penetrating discussion, which sometimes even degenerated into physi- cal violence. We are all familiar with the fierce controversies between the houses of Hillel and shamai, before, during, and after the time of Yeshua. This is why Yeshua says, “your tradition”—i.e., the tradition which that particular group of Pharisees presented before him. According to this understanding, the “tradition of the elders” is not a manual of halakot but is composed of various traditions transmitted orally from generation to generation. At times, these traditions contradicted one another, and the controversies over how to settle the disputes sometimes went on for hundreds of years. This also accounts for the sages’ expectation that when the Messiah comes, among all the other things he will do, there will be a determination of halahkic controversies (which Yeshua in fact did), many of which are still unresolved today. For this reason, I called Yeshua “the greatest Tanna [early rabbinic sage] Israel ever had.”
The difficulty inherent in the “tradition of the elders,” which, as we have indicated, the Messiah is supposed to resolve, can be seen in another of the examples that were given as “proofs” that Yeshua dismissed the “leaven of the Pharisees and sadducees” out of hand—the healing of the man blind from birth on shabbat: “now it was shabbat on the day when Yeshua made the clay and opened his eyes” (John 9:14). Ostensibly, this verse also points at a clear case in which Yeshua rejected the “tradition of the elders.” Precisely here, however, we can see that the Pharisees’ complaint against Yeshua—that he was profaning shabbat and despising the “tradition of the elders”—can be perceived as a false accusation. We can see this from the reaction of the Pharisees themselves to the claim that some of them made against Yeshua’s alleged profanation of shabbat: “Therefore some of the Pharisees were saying, ‘this man is not from God, because he does not keep shabbat.’ but others were saying, ‘how can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And there was a division among them” (9:16). The arguments presented in opposition to mine therefore, sounded erringly similar to the arguments presented in the new Testament by those who objected Yeshua on the false pretence that he treated with contempt the authority of the elders.
- This article is an adaptation of a lecture given to Messianic leaders in Israel on september 5, 2008, which was the final cord of a debate between those Messianic Jews who teach to live according to Jewish tradition and those who view this tradition as “the leaven of the Pharisees and the sadducees.” Daniel Yahav was asked to represent the negative approach to Judaism, and I was asked to represent the positive one. The title given to the lectures was “rabbinic and halakic authority in the life of the Messianic Community in general and the messianic believer in particular.” The debate was held before what is called the “assembly of Israeli elders.” About 100 people were in attendance.
- David bar-Yona, “Yeshua VeHatorah Shebe‘al Peh” (Hebrew), Kivun 61 (July-August 2008): 16.
- Techiya barak, “The Messianic Code,” Yediot Ahronot, August 8, 2008: 24.