Posts Tagged 'Torah'

Obedience by Choice: A Contradiction in Terms


3e69c3664951866f6cd7d23978ea5481It is not easy to make sense of the recent stream of publications flowing from the FFOZ ministry on the subject of their “Divine Invitation” theology. This is probably due to the fact that self-contradictory ideas don’t allow for much clarification. These ideas can only survive through their conceptual vagueness and power of confusion. Clarity is their enemy, because it brings out the incompatibility of their contradictory parts.

The latest slogan to promote the “Divine Invitation” doctrine seems to be “obedience by choice”. That is at least at the heart of Toby Janicki’s article: “We are the God-Fearers” in the just released Spring Issue of Messiah Journal (# 103). This article is such a specimen of vagueness and confusion that one scratches one’s head about where to begin to clear things up. For this reason I’ll limit myself to some purely logical remarks on the two inherent contradictions present in it, both in Janicki’s description of the Gentile position and in his concept of obedience by choice.

Janicki essentially classifies Gentile believers in Messiah as G-d-fearers, and describes their position in relation to Israel as follows (p. 36):

Although the Gentile God-fearers have not been given the Torah in the same manner as the Jews (i.e. they “do not have the law”), they nevertheless choose to obey it”.

At the end of the article we find a more extensive and theologically framed depiction of the Gentile position (p. 38):

God-fearers were not compelled to keep the Jewish aspects of Torah such as circumcision or Sabbath by decree or law. They did so out of a sincere and intense love for God’s Torah and his ways. They saw the light of Israel and sought to draw themselves close to it, so that they might warm themselves in its glow. As Gentile believers today realize that Messiah has spiritually grafted them into the nation of Israel, they feel drawn to the Jewish people and desire to worship alongside God’s chosen as fellow-heirs of the covenants and promises.

One of the curious things is here that Janicki says that the Gentile believers are “fellow-heirs of the covenants and promises”. This implies that he considers them to be members of the covenant. But it is clear without any further burden of proof that the ancient G-d-fearers — and their modern-day Noachide successors — are not considered as covenant members. For exactly this status would make them liable to the covenant obligations found in the Torah. This is the first contradiction of the article. It both includes Gentiles believers in and excludes them from the covenant.

The other contradiction is found in the concept of obedience by choice. Let me first clear up a possible misunderstanding here, by pointing out that, obviously, in a sense all real obedience involves choice. A child has to choose whether or not to obey the instructions of his parents and teachers, and an employee has to choose whether or not to obey the instructions of his employer. In morally normal cases the choice between obedience and disobedience here is the choice between good and bad, or between good and evil. In these normal cases disobedience is not morally permitted. It is simply the possibility of the wrong choice, and deserves punishment.

The position of the G-d-fearer or the Gentile follower of Messiah is not about this type of choice, however, in Janicki’s eyes, at least not for a considerable part. The kind of choice which is prevalent here is the choice to obey the Torah — or at least parts of the Torah — without being under the obligation to do so. The Gentile believer may choose to obey the commandment of the Sabbath, for instance, but he may equally choose not to obey it. He is free to obey or not obey. He may do as suits him, particularly in the domain of the ritual mitzvot.

This whole idea is, however, hopelessly contradictory, in more than one way. First, it is completely unclear, under the hypothesis of this theology, what the Gentile who “obeys” a certain mitzvah, e.g. Shabbat or kashrut, really does. More specifically, one can ask in what sense he is “obeying” these commandments. I’ll elaborate a bit on this.

To get more clarity in this matter let us ask the question whether a Gentile who keeps the Sabbath while supposedly not being legally obligated to do so really keeps the Sabbath. In other words: Is it really the Sabbath which is the thing kept by him? The answer must be negative. Keeping the Sabbath is only possible by obeying the instructions and commandments of the Torah pertaining to it. But obeying a commandment is only possible if the commandment is directed to you. If you are not the intended and proper addressee of a particular commandment or instruction, then it is impossible for you to obey it. It is simply not for you, and even if you “do” it, this is only so in your own imagination but not in reality. If a passer-by accidently hears the instructions given to a group of police officers on the street and decides to carry out these instructions, he’ll soon find out that by doing so he’ll be found a transgressor instead of a doer of the law. The necessary presupposition for the very possibility of obeying a commandment is that this commandment is given to you, directed to you.

This means that no matter what a believing Gentile does to keep the Sabbath, in reality he does not keep the Sabbath if he is not commanded to keep it. He may meticulously “do” all the scriptural commandments pertaining to the Sabbath and even “follow” the Oral Torah laws according to the strictest schools of rabbinic halachah. But no matter whatever he does, or whatever this “doing” may be called, it is not keeping the Sabbath and it is not doing the Sabbath commandments. It is simply not an act of obedience. For it is only logically possible to obey if one has also the possibility to disobey. However, under the presupposition of “Divine Invitation” theology a Gentile may neglect the Sabbath without any disobedience involved. From the perspective of this theology he does not transgress any commandment by not keeping it. Consequently he also doesn’t fulfil or do any commandment by “keeping” the Sabbath. His Sabbath “keeping” can only be called a purely superfluous and fictitious act. It is a “keeping” of the “Sabbath” which in reality is not a keeping of it; nor is it the Sabbath which is being kept by this “keeping”. It is a self-contradictory activity.

“Divine Invitation” theology is thus not compatible with the idea of obedience. Real obedience presuposes obligation and where there are no obligations there is nothing to obey. Moreover, the “obedience by choice” introduced by this theology cannot repair the fundamental logical flaw detected above. Obedience by choice is no real obedience at all. If I have the free choice of obeying a commandment or not, and if I don’t transgress by disobeying it, then my choice of obedience is no real obedience of HaShem. Instead of obeying HaShem I’m obeying myself and my self-styled religion.

This is a concept which may well suit and flatter the modern and the post-modern man of a secular epoch. It is in fundamental conflict, however, with the idea of obedience found in the Torah. In the Torah man is a dependent creature, who simply ought to follow the commandments given by his Father in heaven, whether he feels inclined to them or not, whether he loves them or not. Following the commandments because he feels inclined to do so is not a good reason for obedience. For if the inclination is the decisive criterion, then it is the inclination which is obeyed instead of HaShem. One of the purposes of the commandments of the Torah is to liberate us from own caprices and whims, and to elevate us to a sphere which transcends our own arbitrary self-will. Obedience of self is contradictory because it is not true obedience. It is autonomy. A Gentile who does the commandments because of his own choice ultimately belongs to a completely different religion than the Jew who obeys his heavenly Father because He says so.

Does this mean, then, that love is not a motivating force for doing the commandments? It is, but in another way than is understood by “Divine Invitation” theology. For to sincerely love HaShem’s commandments is to love them because they are commanded, and not consider them to be commanded because they are loved by us. Our love is unreliable and unstable. HaShem’s commandments are firm and reliable. His love is based on engagement. It does not leave us “free” or unobligated. It is a love that binds us to Him and which commands us to a response which is binding and lasting: “Hear O Israel, HaShem, our G-d, HaShem is One. And thou shalt love HaShem thy G-d with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might” (Dt. 6:4). The love of HaShem, and his commandments, is a love which is itself commanded by HaShem.

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