Sunday, September 26, 2010

Messianic Negation of Torah

Emerging almost entirely within a Protestant-Evangelical context, Messianic Judaism or Christianity (hereafter Messianic or Messianism), in its diversity of expressions, generally begins and operates with distinctively Christian Protestant assumptions and definitions. "One Law" or "One Torah" Messianics esteem the Torah, understood as the Pentateuch or the five books of Moses, as incumbent on Christians today. Using a post-Princeton, Protestant-Evangelical iteration of the doctrine sola scriptura Messianics operate, however artificially, with definitions and concepts inorganic to the very document which they esteem to be authoritative and so express a most basic form of anti-Semitism.

The Torah in Judaism is not just a document—it is not just the Pentateuch. For Jews of all sects and of all time, Torah is a process. The Torah as the Pentateuch is an authorized text and also an authorizing text—granting teaching and interpretive authority to the covenantal community who carries the torch from one generation to the next. To deny the covenantal continuity from the biblical era to the Jews of today is to deny the ethnic and pious experience of generations from the priest and the prophet to the scribe to the legal scholar to the rabbis. Such a denial is to deny the religiosity and piety of generations of Jewish people heralding from a diversity of historical-cultural locations yet within a unified and unfettered stream of transmission. Such a denial is itself the basest form of anti-Semitism.

As already indicated, Torah is more than Pentateuch. Deuteronomy 17:8ff, in commissioning the existence of a centralized authority structure, presents the priests and judges as authorized agents of interpretation. Regarding their verdicts in matters of legality and tort, Deuteronomy 17:11 states,

According to the torah (הַתּוֹרָה) which they shall teach thee, and according to the judgment which they shall tell thee, thou shalt do; thou shalt not turn aside from the sentence (הַמִּשְׁפָּט) which they shall declare unto thee, to the right hand, nor to the left.

The didactic role of the priests (cf Deut 33:10) and the judges is authorized here. The people are to learn torah/instruction from within the covenantal context—not alone in a supposed vacuum of private interpretation. Malachi 2:7 expresses a similar legal priority:

For the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.

Torah/instruction is not to be sought from a book, from the Pentateuch but from a person. This chain of command, if you will, ensures the integrity of covenantal continuity and the passing of the torch not of a dead letter but of a living tradition. Messianics today attempt to keep Torah as a document. They import concepts of scriptural authority onto the text, concepts which deny the experience of the Jewish people and attempt to artificially construct the Pentateuch into a document that can stand alone, without authoritative interpretation. As a result of their confused amalgam between the Pentateuch and Protestant piety, the end result is an insult to Judaism and an impossible matrix of observance with such fundamental differences of observance as to preclude enduring community. Yet, frankly, to accept the authenticity of Jewish religiosity from the biblical era to today would necessarily negate their identity today.

Much has not been said here. I have left a lot undefined and undefended, and I hope that more will be fleshed out in any replies or in further posts. I group this topically in post-modernism as it expresses the importance of historical-cultural location awareness.

25 comments:

Tandi said...

I read this with interest and will reply by email so Fizlowski will not have to endure my "idiocy".

Peter said...

Hey Tandi,

Don't forget, this is my "sandbox." If Eric pushes you unfairly, I may have to chastise him.

Fizlowski said...

Thanks for the post, Peter.

Tandi said...

"Yet, frankly, to accept the authenticity of Jewish religiosity from the biblical era to today would necessarily negate their identity today."

A puzzling statement. Can you explain your thoughts further?

Peter said...

Hello Tandi,

If Jewish religiosity is authentic -- or at least as authentic as Christian religiosity -- then the Evangelical Messianic must concede that centuries of pious Jewish understandings of Torah are innocent and correct until shown otherwise. Hence, your driving on Shabbat is as gross a violation of Torah as homo eroticism.

Tandi said...

I am convinced that your objective is to discourage me, rob me of my faith in God and the Bible, and drag me into the atheistic bleakness and darkness in which you find yourself. I am no longer impressed with your intellectualism and learning, for it led to a dead end......a place I have no interest in going.

Very saddened.

Andrew T. said...

He makes a good point, Tandi. It is strictly forbidden to light a fire on Shabbat...for a Jew, anyway.

Peter said...

Hey Andrew,

It amazes me how Messianics so thoroughly trivialize Scripture.

On the one hand, they will use Scripture as a blunt with which to criticize the Church for changing the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, the rabbis for any number of legal minutia (often regarding Shavuot or the calendar), and the popular culture for accepting alternative lifestyles. However, when Scripture is brought to bear on the matter of fire on Shabbat related to driving they will assert, “Oh, Torah was not talking about driving—that does not apply to us.” I tell you, the depth of hypocrisy is appalling. They might as well hold up a sign saying, “We make up our own rules” as they pretend to herald Scripture as the source of their moral codes.

Additionally, they reject the patriarchal gender ethics of the Pentateuch. Actually, most are just simply unaware of the said ethics…and instead rely on their culture to inform them of their gender-based ethics.

This all said, Messianics are more inconsistent and trivial with Scripture than the churches from which they herald.

Andrew T. said...

Peter, I wish you wouldn't paint the, Messianic movement all in one color. It's a very young movement and its mainstream hasn't really solidified yet (First Fruits of Zion offers the nearest thing to a Messianic mainstream, in my opinion). There is no generally accepted Messianic sidur and few credible institutes. Two different Messianics can have polar opposite views on halakha (remember your opposition to Brian Tebbitt a few years ago?). Moreover, the multifaceted difficulties of transitioning to a Torah-observant lifestyle for a gentile that was raised with no awareness of Torah whatsoever (like myself) cannot be understated. Cut 'em some slack.

You're correct about the absence of patriarchalism in the Messianic movement. Mekhitzas and hair coverings are few and far between. But let me remind you that not only is the Messianic movement very young, but Judaism grows and adapts. Perhaps it was HaShem's will for the animal sacrifices and capital punishment to have been abolished.

I believe that there is actually room in halakha for driving on Shabat to worship services if one does not live within reasonable walking distance. Trekking 3 miles to fellowship on Shabat in rainy weather isn't rest, it's gritty exercise. It defeats the spirit of Shabat.

I find it perennially fascinating how apt you are at criticizing something you once identified with. :)

Peter said...

Hey Andrew,

It is easiest to criticize areas that one understands. And, in the case of the Messianic movement, I have an inside perspective.

Andrew T. said...

I would be interested to know how much experience you have had within the Messianic movement. How many Messianic communities have you fellowshipped with in your time? Perhaps I have a skewed perception as to the diversity of opinions of that movement?

Peter said...

Hello Andrew,

I have "fellowshipped" in person with several hundred messianic and sabbatarian Christians. The distinctions between messianic and sabbatarian Christians are not always clear aside from general differences in emphasis. As far as numbers of "communities" I have a hard time numbering them as there are some communities whose numbers are denominational (e.g., seventh-day adventists) and others whose numbers are limited to a family. In addition to the in person connections, I have dialogued with two to three dozen messianic and sabbatarian Christians online.

Obviously, I have not met every messsianic and sabbatarian christian, so my knowledge will always be incomplete, but I feel that I have a pretty good understanding of the permutations.

Though there is a significant degree of diversity, there are some clear unifiers. I will leave it there.

Andrew T. said...

"Though there is a significant degree of diversity, there are some clear unifiers."

I would be interested to know, what are some of the clear unifiers of most of the Messianics you have met? How strict are they about halakha? I ask you because you have an abundance of experience.

Peter said...

Hello Andrew,

Well, looking at the topic of Sabbath observance itself one finds a great deal of diversity and unity. In general, most Messianics and Sabbatarian Christians that I know will cook on Shabbat even if such cooking involves the use of fire. A slight minority of these same groups refuse to cook but will reheat food. Nearly all agree that “Jewish stringencies” such as the prohibiton against Shabbat driving or the issur against harvesting for same-day use are bogus. And, most will defend the behavior of Jesus’s disciples in Matthew 12 on the basis of there being no violation of the Torah.

Theologically most are incredibly indebted to Evangelical Christianity and its epmphasis on individual peity and the perspecutiy of the Bible. This results in a sectarian potential that is not found in any other of the enduring religious traditions.

Andrew T. said...

"A slight minority of these same groups refuse to cook but will reheat food."

Assuming you agree that electricity does not constitute fire, it is OK to microwave food on Shabat. Rabbinic opinion has not kept up with modern technology in this case.

"And, most will defend the behavior of Jesus’s disciples in Matthew 12 on the basis of there being no violation of the Torah."

Yeshua was advocating a less-strict interpretation of Shabat laws that fell in line with those of the school of Hillel. He opposed the endless fences and ritual minutae of some of the Pharisees.

Peter said...

Andrew,

Evidence and site a single Orthodox rabbi that allows reheating food on Shabbat. the issue is not fire or electricity.

Second, provide a single source for a Jewish sect that would have accepted the Matthew 12 violations as kosher for sabbath. It is clear that this passage, Jewishly understood, is meant to convey a sabbath breaking.

Andrew T. said...

"Evidence and site a single Orthodox rabbi that allows reheating food on Shabbat."

As I said, rabbinic opinion has not kept up with modern technology. No Modern Orthodox rabbi wants to get ostracized as a heretic by Chareidi posekim for ruling the "wrong" way on something like this.

"the issue is not fire or electricity."

What is the issue, then? What prohibition in particular is being violated by putting food in a microwave to reheat it? Heating is not cooking. A toaster, on the other hand, would violate Shabat as it cooks the bread.

"Second, provide a single source for a Jewish sect that would have accepted the Matthew 12 violations as kosher for sabbath. It is clear that this passage, Jewishly understood, is meant to convey a sabbath breaking."

Sorry, but since I believe that Yeshua kept Torah flawlessly, I don't think in Matthew 12 he was teaching against keeping Shabat. Matthew 12 is a difficult passage and I don't understand it completely, but in my lack of full understanding I have faith that he was actually advocating for interpretative leniency, not (God forbid) teaching Yehudim to break the Shabat. I suppose that kernel of faith makes me a fundamentalist?

Peter said...

Hello Andrew,

I am sorry, but you misunderstand the issues here. Direct reheating any food, regardless of heat source, is prohibited on Shabbat unless said reheating is done by a timer. Is putting cream in one’s coffee and thus making the cream hot a form of cooking or just heating? I am not an halakhic authority, so I recommend that you look to the rabbis for an answer on this.

I plan to address Matthew 12 eventually on this blog. It is clear to me that the message of Matthew 12 is missed if the Torah-Shabbat violation is voided. Why do you think Yeshua is presented as justifying his disciples’ action with two scenarios that relate to the violation of the sacred—the priests on Shabbat and David’s men with the showbread? If Yeshua did not see a violation, why does he reply with justified violations of Shabbat and the sacred from elsewhere in Scripture?

Peter said...

Just a thought…

If Yeshua is meant to be the model Torah keeper, it should strike the believer quite odd that the Gospels are anything but legal literature. Compared to the legal literature of the Qumran sect, the legal musings of Philo, the halakhic literature of the rabbis, etc. the Gospels appear to be nothing like a legal treatise on how to keep Torah. The Gospels present Yeshua weighing in on larger ethical matters like divorce, forgiveness, bitterness and grudges, etc. but where does Yeshua ever delineate the how-to’s of Torah observance? He never does; instead, we see Yeshua breaking Shabbat, weighing in heavily against ritual purity priorities, and stepping over the threshold of orthodoxy with his comments about ritual defilement (Matthew 15 and Mark 7).

Now, because I do not necessarily expect the Gospels to present a unified picture of Yeshua, it means little to me when verses are drawn from Matthew 5 or elsewhere to paint Yeshua into a Torah champion. The Gospels were *not* meant to be read together – each Gospel was a stand-alone presentation that its author expected to be self representative. By reading the four Gospels as a single unified account the reader manufactures a fifth account which never existed in the minds of any of the individual Gospel authors. As a result of the above observations, I accept each of the Gospels for its individual voice and texture. Sorry….rambling a bit….

Andrew T. said...

Hello Peter,

I am going to go read up on Shabat at askmoses.com. I am admittedly not well versed in the details of Shabat observance. I must remember that I am the one talking to the near-convert to Orthodox Judaism (under Chareidi auspices, no less).

"If Yeshua is meant to be the model Torah keeper, it should strike the believer quite odd that the Gospels are anything but legal literature."

Yeshua's ministry was centered around prioritizing the oft-neglected ethical fundamentals of Torah over the ritual elements. He delegated the how-tos of observance to others (Matthew 23).

Peter said...

Yes, Andrew, you are the one talking to the near Orthodox convert.

Andrew T. said...

Peter,

I have to respectfully disagree with your statement that Messianics are "antisemitic". It is true that Messianics, with few exceptions, selectively reject halakha, but they are no different than Reform or Conservative Jews in this respect. Furthermore, unlike Karaites, most Messianics do not take an absolutist stance of rejection of Oral Law.

You wouldn't call Samaritans, Karaites, or liberal Jews antisemitic, so you shouldn't apply the smear to Messianics.

Hypocritical and logically inconsistent? Possibly. Antisemitic? I think not.

Peter said...

Hello Andrew,

I call them antisemitic not because they actually hate the Jewish people but because their theology of the Jewish people is faulty. Their rejection of torah-halakhah stems first and foremost from a theology that deems the Jewish people as wholly dispensable relative to the meaning of the Pentateuch. That is, they believe that they can read, understand, and observe the dictates of the Pentateuch as they are without deferring to centuries of pious Jewish application and discussion.

It is this dispensability of the Jewish people that makes messianic readings of the Pentateuch and rejection of the Jewish Torah process antisemitic.

Andrew T. said...

Peter,

By the same token, are Karaites antisemitic? They claim to have an authoritative understanding of Torah that thoroughly dispenses of how it has been practically applied for centuries by the Jewish mainstream.

Peter said...

Hello Andrew,

Many historical Karaites participated more in the continuum of Jewish tradition than the modern iterations.

Tenth century Karaite cleric Qirqisani, for example, emphasizes the importance of Karaite learning from rabbinic sources and how it is important to give rabbinic traditions the benefit of the doubt, i.e., to assume their correctness as part of the common Jewish burden of inheritance.

Likewise, the Karaites have developed their own traditions and customs--they themselves represent an enduring tradition within Judaism. Yet, how many Messianics with "karaite leanings" accept and embrace Karaite torah observance? In some areas Karaite observance might be easier than rabbinic, but in others it is much more challenging. Check out, for example, this Karaites commentary on Shabbat:
http://www.orahsaddiqim.org/halakha/HolyDays/YamimTovim/Shabbat.shtml

and Kashrut:
http://www.orahsaddiqim.org/menus/Kashrut_General.shtml

I think you would agree, it would be far easier to maintain rabbinic kosher than to dabble with the above.

Back to messianics....

Where Karaites, to varying degrees, accept the concept of "burden of inheritance" by which they accept status quo Jewish understandings and dogma as innocent until proven guilty, Messianics jettison the entire system.