Archive for September, 2015

Liturgy and the Sense of the Sacred

by Geert ter Horst

Traditional Synagogue Service

Traditional Synagogue Service

Every great religion is much focused on the distinction between the sacred and the secular. It is the basic religious distinction. This distinction is particularly relevant in public worship, by which it is made visible and tangible. There are sacred times and secular times, sacred places and buildings, and secular ones. But modern Christianity has very much destroyed the sense of the sacred because of its anti-ritual bias and its liturgical amateurism. Protestantism in particular has almost lost all real liturgical spirit, or fallen into the modernist error of confusing liturgy with art and performance. Even Catholicism, in its post Vatican II fashion, has fallen prey to this. The modern Mass betrays a mindset which is more concentrated on the community than G’d. Liturgy, however, is theocentric. It is about such things as “facing east” when praying, about following the rubrics, not the personal whims of the minister or the momentary wishes of the congregation. Only traditionalist Catholics and traditional Jews have real liturgies today.

Liturgy is about a consistent line of behaviour in all things which happen in the church or synagogue, for instance about not deviating from the calendrical structure and giving the proper weight and emphasis to each particular occasion. First and foremost it is about a theocentric spirit, which is to be cultivated by such things as the minister facing the Altar or the Holy Ark instead of the congregation, by acts of bowing and kneeling and really making the building a sanctuary. The modern cult of spontaneity and informality is deeply at odds with all this. This ‘spontaneity’ is secular and fed by the idea that we should follow our passions and emotions. This leads to arbitrary acts and an embarrassing informal way of behaviour which is very much the contrary of the aristocratic spirit which permeates traditional liturgy. The modern standard of informality is infected with the ideology of equality and betrays a lack of respect and revence.

Liturgy is not without emotion and passion, but its emotions are evoked and cultivated by reverence for G’d and all things sacred. It is based on making clear distinctions: between the sacred and the secular, and between degrees of sacredness, in a hierarchical order, and on upholding these distinctions in our solemn celebrations. It is essential for Messianics in Torah communities to maintain in their liturgy and worship this sense of hierarchical order, because this is the way we are related to G’d. The basic framework of Scripture is about the hierarchical order between G’d and creation, between the angelic world and the material creation, between the celestial bodies in the firmament and the things here in this earthy world, between men and women, parents and children, between kings, priests, levites and other ministers and lay people, &c, &c. This scriptural framework should be mirrored in the solemnities of messianic liturgies, as indeed it was from times immemorial mirrorred in traditional Jewish and Christian liturgies. Any intelligent person will know what liturgy is about by visiting just once a traditional, tridentine mass or an orthodox synagogue service.

For Evangelicals and Messianics the idea of liturgical worship is often associated with stiffness, constraint, and dulness. This may often be due to their Protestant background. Because of its abrogation of the Mass, Protestantism historically has practically lost the art of celebration. In fact neither the traditional Catholic Mass nor the traditional Synagogue Service fit this characterization of stiffness. Proper liturgical worship is characterized by aristocratic elegance and fluency. In contradistinction to Protestant and Evangelical worship it draws no attention to the person of the minister but only to his function. Perhaps a quote from C.S. Lewis’ A Preface to Paradise Lost (ch. III) is appropriate here:

To recover [the old idea of solemnity] you must think of a court ball, or a coronation, or a victory march, as these things appear to people who enjoy them; in an age when every one puts on his oldest clothes to be happy in, you must re-awake the simpler state of mind in which people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in. Above all, you must be rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a wide-spread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connexion with vanity or self-conceit. A celebrant approaching the altar, a princess led out by a king to dance a minuet, a general officer on a ceremonial parade, a major-domo preceding the boar’s head at a Christmas feast–all these wear unusual clothes and move with calculated dignity. This does not mean that they are vain, but that they are obedient; they are obeying the hoc age which presides over every solemnity. The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual.

The sense of the sacred and of reverence for G-d can only be maintained and cultivated in a traditional liturgical culture. Tradition and liturgy elevate us to a higher order, the aristocratic order of the Kingdom of G-d. The liturgy thus explicitly and ceremonially reflects our true created being and eternal destiny.

A Scriptural Deduction of the Seven Noachide Laws

by Geert ter Horst

noahide-lawsIn Genesis chapter IX we see that G-d gives several commandments and instructions to Noach and his descendants. The conspicuous examples are the prohibition of “shedding blood” (murder) and eating “flesh with the life thereof”, (often interpreted as the consumption of blood).

Rabbinic Judaism teaches that these commandments and instructions can be summarized in seven rules, called the Seven Noachide Laws. These are considered to be the basic laws for all mankind, in particular the non-Jews. The deduction of these laws and their detailed implications from the scriptural text is viewed as a process guided by the Oral Torah. Acceptance of the Noachide Laws thus logically entails the acceptance of rabbinic authority. As explained by Clorfene and Rogalsky in: The Path of the Righteous Gentile,

The hurdle that must be cleared in preparing for observing the Seven Noachide Commandments is the acceptance of the idea that mankind’s way to the Father is through the Rabbis. Rebellion against the sanctity of rabbinic authority and tradition has been with us since those first days in the Wilderness of Sinai when the followers of Korah led a revolt against absolute rabbinic authority, as we learn in the Torah […] [1]

From this perspective it is impossible to obey the Noachide Laws without obeying their rabbinic interpretation. Obedience to G-d is defined as obedience to the Rabbis. The authors of The Path of the Righteous Gentile are aware of the fact that this creates a particular difficulty for non-Jews:

When G-d gave the Torah to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai, the people all accepted the Written Torah willingly, but G-d had to lift the mountain over their heads and threaten to drop it on them to persuade them to accept the Oral Torah, that is, the rabbinic interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. If the Jews had difficulty in accepting the Oral Torah as no less divine than the Scriptures themselves, how much more difficult must it be for the non-Jews. But accept the Rabbis they must, for the source of understanding the Seven Noachide Commandments is found in the Talmud and the later rabbinic teachings, and nowhere else. [2]

It doesn’t need much argument to demonstrate that the approach outlined by Clorfene & Rogalsky is unacceptable for Messianic Jews and their Gentile co-religionists. Messianics cannot uncritically and axiomatically believe in rabbinic authority without damaging their obedience to Yeshua and his Apostles. This is abundantly clear from the fact that Judaism views obervance of the Noachide Laws as the Gentile’s way of earning a place in the World to Come.

By observing G-d’s commandments, a person becomes connected with G-d’s infinite will and wisdom and therby elicits a godly light which shines onto his or her soul. This godly light is eternal, and in it the soul earns eternal reward. By observing the Seven Noachide Commandments, a Gentile fulfils of his creation and receives a share in the World to Come, the blessed spiritual world of the righteous. [3]

For Messianics it is non-negotiable that the way to the Father is essentially through Yeshua and that all other mediatorship can only be of value if it is subservient to and directed to the mediatorship of Yeshua. Messianics cannot but reject the idea that a place in the World to Come can be merited by the observance of the Noachide Laws. And however high a view Messianics may have of Jewish tradition and rabbinic authority, it is simply not possible for them that to affirm that the Oral Torah “has the same inviolability as the Holy Scriptures themselves for the Written Torah and the Oral Torah are two halves of one thing”. [4]

At this point, rabbinic theology goes off-track. By stating that Jews inherit a place in the World to Come by observing the 613 commandment of the Torah and Gentiles by observing the Seven Noachide Laws, this theology betrays its lack of insight in the depth of the problem caused by the entrance of sin. It simply doesn’t see the necessity of a renewal of human nature by being born again by water and the Holy Spirit, prior to any requirement of observance. [5]

From a messianic perspective the Naochide Laws are not meant to provide a way for the Gentile nations to enter the World to Come. They are regulations imposed on mankind for upholding a basic framework of justice in this world. They are thus bound to the order of this world and will remain relevant as long as this world will exist.

The number of these commandments is never given in Scripture, but the rabbinic arrangement of Seven Laws can be easily be detected by considering the context and practical implications of the explicit instructions given in Gen. 9:1-7. The following is an attempt to deduce the Seven Laws from these scriptural instructions.

If the Creator G-d reveals himself and gives laws and instructions, it is obvious that a person should not blaspheme this G-d or turn to other gods, particularly so after the terrible judgment of the flood. So the prohibitions of blasphemy and idolatry are reasonably included in the concept of the one true G-d revealing himself as Creator, Sovereign and Lawgiver.

Normal sexual relations are presupposed by the instruction to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 9:1), which is of course to be interpreted in its historical context of the situation after the flood. We should have in mind here that the corruption of marriage was one of the reasons why the flood came, according to Gen. ch. VI, and thus it should be taken for granted that Noach and his family knew that they had to keep the purity of marriage intact by abstaining from sexual promiscuity.

That a system of law enforcement should be set up is implied by the injunction that the blood of man and beast will be required by G-d, through the hand of man (Gen. 9:5-6). This requirement implies setting up a system of human government.

The interesing prohibition of eating the limb of a living animal may seem a bit peculiar at first, but it follows from the prohibition of consuming blood in Gen. 9:4 and the later Torah legislation for Israel, which permits the stranger to eat that which has died of itself (Dt. 14:21). That which has died of itself inevitably contains blood. This verse thus implies that the non-Israelite may consume blood — although this concession is perhaps limited to this particular case of eating an animal which has died of itself. [6] Because of this permission it is inferred that the prohibition of Gen. 9:4 cannot be a general prohibition of blood but is literally only about “flesh with the life thereof”, i.e. the limb of a living animal.

Finally, the prohibition of theft and robbery is logically contained in Gen 9:2, where the creatures are given into man’s power. This is not a permission for a power struggle of all against all in order to grasp as many possessions as is possible for each individual or family, for this would result in endless bloodshed. It would defy any peaceful system of government to permit man to simply take what is perceived to be already in another man’s possession. So the prohibition of theft is derived from man’s dominion of the lower earthly creatures in combination with the general idea of maintaining a system of law and justice.

The Seven Commandments of B’nei Noach are covered by this analysis. They are divided into six prohibitions and one positive commandment. The positive commandment of establishing a government is a kind of meta-commandment intended to make it possible to enforce and maintain the six prohibitions, which are: (1) blasphemy, (2) idolatry, (3) sexual promiscuity, (4) murder, (5) theft and robbery, (6) eating the limb of a living animal.

As to religious worship, blood sacrifice is permitted under the Noachide Covenant, but it is not strictly required. It is not possible to deduce its obligation, neither exegetically, nor by implication. While the prohibitions of blasphemy and idolatry are direct implications of the true G-d revealing Himself, a positive commandment of sacrificial worship cannot be derived in this manner.

It seems, however, that the majority opinion is that after the introduction of the Torah of Sinai, by which Israel was constituted the priestly nation, the Noachides are no longer permitted to sacrifice. The sacrificial service was now transferred to Israel on behalf of them. For the very reason of Israel’s election is to be a Priestly Kingdom on behalf of all mankind.

[1] Clorfene & Rogalsky, p. 4. [Chaim Clorfene & Yakov Rogalsky, The Path of the Righteous Gentile. An Introduction to the Seven Laws of the Children of Noah, Targum Press — Southfield, Mich., Jerusalem 1987]

[2] Ibid, p. 5.

[3] Ibid, p. 4.

[4] Ibid, p. 128, n. 6.

[5] Cf. John 3:5.

[6] If this interpretation is correct, the interesting conclusion is that the prohibition against the consumption of blood in Acts ch. XV is not a repetition of a Noachide commandment but the imposition of the later Torah prohibition — and perhaps the requirement of Shechitah — of the Sinai Covenant on Gentile believers.

Why G-d Permits Evil

by Geert ter Horst

Michael the Archangel Casting Satan out of Heaven (Apoc. ch. XII)

Michael the Archangel Casting Satan out of Heaven (Apoc. ch. XII)

The fact that G-d permits evil to develop and grow is at first sight confusing and unconvincing. Why would an almighty G-d, who is the source of all goodness, permit evil? That’s the tempting question which often arises and which causes some even to doubt G-d’s existence. Why does G-d permit evil to exist at all? Why did He not destroy Satan in his first act of rebellion and prevent creation from being polluted by sin?

The position that if G-d didn’t want evil or Satan around, He could easily destroy them — or even prevent evil from coming into existence — fails to recognize the full responsibility of creatures. If a creature chooses evil, then G-d, according to the gist of the biblical story, wants to confront the creature with the full consequences of his choice, both individually as well as collectively and historically. It is as if G-d says: “Do what you want to do, follow your own way, and face the consequences”. The Jewish-Christian sense of history is that it gradually shows us all the possible ways man can err and make choices against G-d. All the wrong paths of ideological and moral destruction are explored and gradually becoming clear. And this makes deep sense. For if G-d had destroyed Satan in his first act of rebellion, or had prevented Adam & Eve from sinning, would such an act have fully revealed G-d’s wisdom and supremacy? Would the “debate” about the moral possibility of following one’s own ways, against G-d, which was opened by the rebellion of Satan, have been silenced effectively? No, because the full consequences of sin would not have been clearly revealed.

It was thus necessary for the creatures to be confronted with all the evil and impossible consequences of their wrong choices. By making all these consequences clear on the theatre of world history, G-d will be fully justified in the end, in establising that all deviations from his instructions naturally end in disaster.

“Facing East”

by Geert ter Horst

Keriat Torah While

Keriat Torah While “Facing East”

Many aspects of the liturgy are simply about applying basic biblical principles of Torah obedience and worship. “Facing East”[1] as it is called — and which is often regarded by Messianics as just an orthodox Jewish tradition — is one of these basic liturgical principles of Scripture. In the times of the Tabernacle and the Temple the people naturally turned their faces toward the Holy Place while worshipping. The whole architecture of the Sanctuary is so deviced that the attention of all present is drawn to the same direction. In the Dedication Prayer of King Salomon the recurring refrain is “if they pray toward this place”, or: “pray toward their land, and toward the city which thou hast chosen, and toward the House which I have built for thy Name” (II Chr. 6:26, 38). If the prophet Daniel obeyed this principle when praying alone (Dan. 6:10), how much more should it be obeyed in common liturgical prayer and worship. It is thus merely a matter of Torah-based logic that the interior of a Synagogue and the manner of performing the service should mirror this model.

This is in harmony with the function of congregational leaders in the Apostolic Scriptures to reflect the position of Messiah. The Chazzan or any worship leader in a messianic context represents and symbolizes the Lord Yeshua as leading his Assembly in the worship of the Father, in the heavenly Temple. These basic theological facts should be mirrored in the liturgy.


[1] “Facing East” is the terminus technicus for facing the Aron HaKodesh, which normally is oriented towards Jerusalem. From the perspective of the diaspora communities in Western Europe this is East- or South-East-ward. The Temple itself was facing the West, not the East. So worshippers standing in the Temple court were facing the West, directed toward the inner Sanctuary. Worshippers in Jerusalem and elsewhere were facing the Temple (whatever direction this was).