Messianic Quandaries about the “Oral Torah” of Rabbinic Judaism

by Geert ter Horst

Carl Schleicher — A Matter of Contention in the Talmud

Torah observant Messianics need to reflect on the status of what is called the “Oral Torah” — and Jewish tradition in general — for their religious practice. On the one hand it is clear that Yeshua followed many of the traditions of the Pharisees of his days, while on the other hand it cannot be denied that he opposed at least some of their traditions (cf. Mark 7:1-23).

Because of our adherence to Yeshua, we seem to enter quandaries and conundrums as soon as we get into the specific details about how actually to practice Torah. For example: It is a divine obligation to recite the Shema twice daily? Are we to follow the rabbinic guidelines about daily prayer, the halachot of Shabbat, &c?

We are in a dilemma here that cannot easily be solved and that carries with it many paradoxes or even outright contradictions. It is very difficult to accept one part of the “Oral Torah” and to reject another, and yet it is clear that we as Messianics cannot accept all of it, because this would imply our rejection of Yeshua. I have made a short list of the difficulties involved, to give a first impression of our whereabouts in this complex field

As already stated, it is part of the “Oral Torah” to reject the claims of Yeshua. Because this rejection is considered essential for Orthodox Judaism’s definition of the Jewish faith, full acceptance of the “Oral Torah” by Messianics is out of the question.

The “Oral Torah” cannot — per definitionem — be identified with any written document. It is actually nothing else but the living voice of Rabbinic Judaism in its own understanding of the normativity of Jewish tradition. For the “Oral Torah” requires the system of rabbinic authority. However, in the same manner as it is clear that we cannot accept Judaism’s rejection of Yeshua, it is also clear that we cannot without qualifications accept the authority of the Rabbis who are the embodiment of the “Oral Torah”, including its rejection of Yeshua.

According to the “Oral Torah” Gentile Messianics are simply Gentiles and nothing else. Paradoxically, our subjection to rabbinic legislation is not accepted by Judaism itself. If a Gentile Messianic should inform an orthodox Rabbi that he is obedient to the Jewish part of the “Oral Torah”, this Rabbi would contradict him by saying that in fact he isn’t obedient at all but instead very disobedient, perhaps even defiantly disobedient. For, the Rabbi would argue, while knowing quite well that Gentiles should only obey the Noachide laws, he tries to observe the laws of Israel that were never meant for him. The proper subjection of Gentiles to rabbinic authority should mean their obedience to only those parts of the “Oral Torah” which are clearly for Gentiles. Thus, on the basis of the prescriptions of the Jewish part of the “Oral Torah” itself it appears that Gentiles in fact disobey it by the very fact that they attempt to obey it. Such an attempt is completely illegal from a rabbinic viewpoint, and from the orthodox perspective it can be compared to the attempts of Korach and his followers who wanted to be priests. The only exception here is the case of giur (proselyte conversion). Gentiles are permitted to obey the Jewish parts of the Torah if they make serious efforts to become orthodox converts.

The Apostolic Writings are in the category of prohibited books by Orthodox Judaism, and this prohibition is certainly part of the “Oral Torah”. So, if we accept the entire “Oral Torah” we — eo ipso — reject the Apostolic Writings.

If we say that we as Messianics have our own viewpoint, and that we in part accept the “Oral Torah”, we seem to run into a predicament. For the very splitting up of the “Oral Torah” into parts seems to be something that, properly spoken, cannot be done at all, because it is clear that the living voice of Judaism is undivided. By its very definition the “Oral Torah” is an undivided whole which is not written and which can never be identified with its written historical sources, e.g. the Mishnah and the Talmud. This seems to exclude that Gentile believers can have proper access to the “Oral Torah” at all. For whatever written sources of the “Oral Torah” are studied by them, these sources, when detached from living Judaism, are not the “Oral Torah”.

The statement that as Messianics we accept certain parts of the “Oral Torah” needs further clarification. Above all, it requires a criterion that can provide us the instrument to decide between which parts of the “Oral Torah” should be accepted and which parts of it should be rejected. But where can that criterion, or instrument, be found? There seem only two available candidates here: The Apostolic Scriptures and the authority of the Christian Church. Of these two the authority of the Christian Church be a easily dismissed, for nothing at all of the “Oral Torah” and very little of the Written Torah is accepted by the Church. If, however, we try to find our criterion in the Apostolic Scriptures we face the big problems that, (1), these Scriptures do not nearly cover the whole domain of the “Oral Torah” and that, (2), these Scriptures were canonized by the same Christian Church which rejects the “Oral Torah”.

Only a few items of the “Oral Torah” are discussed or touched upon in the Apostolic Writings, and it is very difficult to develop from these the general instrument required to judge what to accept of the “Oral Torah”. Although we can safely conclude that for us as Messianics no part of the “Oral Torah” or rabbinic legislation may be accepted which contradicts the words of Yeshua and his Apostles, yet this negative rule of contradiction is by far not sufficient to provide us the criterion we are searching for. From this rule we can only conclude which parts of the “Oral Torah” should be rejected but not which parts should be accepted — except those of course which we find to be observed and taught in the Apostolic Writings.

In particular we cannot, by means of the Apostolic Writings, know which later halachic delopments would have been accepted and authorized by the Apostles, had they lived in our times.

If we accept the “Oral Torah” in part — which seems to be the only possibility for Messianics — then not only a formal criterion is required for determining what parts should be accepted, but also a ruling halachic authority able to make these decisions. But it is by no means clear where this authority is to be found. We don’t have Apostles anymore nor any other undisputed authoritative body.

These difficulties should be duly recognized and as long as they remain unsolved we should try to be moderate in all things and not by our personal acceptance of disputable rabbinic halachot implicitly or explicitly lay burdens on the communities we belong to. However, in order to prevent individualism and sectarianism in our observance, we should accept rabbinic halachah where it is practically undisputed and not in any conflict with either the Written Torah or the other Scriptures, including the Apostolic Writings, as the default option for our observance. In this way we can accept much of it theoretically albeit hypothetically as well as practically.

And we should take heed of the warning expressed by David Stern in his Messianic Jewish Manifesto (p. 172) about making modifications in Jewish liturgy and ceremonies, when he said: “It would be wise for us to make such modifications only after much thought and prayer. For we are dealing with ceremonies weighted with intellectual, emotional and spiritual meaning. Ad hoc changes are likely to prove tasteless, offensive, theologically erroneous, or all three”. In my opinion this warning is not only applicable to ceremony and liturgy, but to the entire framework of halachah.


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