Torah and Messiah, Part 1

ChumashTorah is one word with many meanings. Depending on the person using it, they may be referring to the first five books of the Bible, also called the Pentateuch. Or they may mean a leather scroll kept in an Ark in a synagogue on which is written the first five books of the Bible (a Sefer Torah, pronounced SAY-fehr toe-RAH). Or they could mean the the whole living tradition of Judaism, since “Torah” is often used by Jewish speakers as a comprehensive term for Jewish teaching about life, faith, and God. The essential meaning of the word, actually, is “teaching.”

Two things about Torah in Judaism are of equal importance: the act of studying it and the act of living according to its teachings. Engaging in Jewish style Torah study is about the experience, not about finding answers or discovering something inspiring. Even discussing mundane matters of Torah can lead a person to experience God during the active process of reading, discussing, and considering. Living the principles of Torah includes such things as g’milut chasidim (act of lovingkindness), tzedakah (giving to charities), hospitality, visiting the sick, guarding your speech, mussar (forming traits of goodness through spiritual exercise), and z’manim (keeping holy times and seasons).

It is easy to see, if you are around Judaism for long, that keeping Torah is about more than just the words in a book. At Sinai people witnessed the Presence of God on the mountain. Studying and living Torah are the way people now experience the same God.

Not only that, but Torah commands many things without giving the specifics of how to do them. Therefore, many common Jewish practices, such as lighting candles on Friday nights, are not found in written Torah. Instead the written Torah simply commands such things as “keep my Shabbats” and “sanctify it.” Lighting candles and saying a blessing is part of the way Jewish people have agreed to “keep” and “sanctify.” This is an example of oral Torah, which means unwritten definitions and teachings about how to fulfill commandments found in written Torah.

Another example of something stated in written Torah but not defined is the term totafot (sometimes rendered “frontlets”) in Exodus 13:16; Deuteronomy 6:8; 11:18. The original audience of Torah knew what the word meant. Jews today accept the definition of the rabbis and regard tefillin (leather boxes with scripture inside to be worn as a headband, also called phylacteries) as the fulfillment of the command. It is impossible for the Jewish community to keep Torah without at least some oral Torah to define and regulate it. The most authoritative books explaining oral Torah are the Mishnah (c. 200 CE), the Jerusalem Talmud (the Yerushalmi, c. 400 CE) and Babylonian Talmud (Bavli, c. 500 CE).

To explore the topic of “Torah and Messiah” means thinking about two difficult questions.

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First, what did Yeshua teach regarding people living by the Torah? Many suspect that Yeshua came to overrule Torah and to set up a new “religion.” Even many Messianic Jews have subscribed to the common notion that believing in Yeshua makes living some parts of the Torah obsolete. Some Messianic Jewish congregations disregard basic Shabbat laws and dietary laws. The majority of Christian teaching throughout history has included the idea that no one, Jew or non-Jew, is bound by certain portions of the Torah. Is this what Yeshua would have wanted? How do his teachings impact Torah living for Jews?

Second, how would Yeshua, the meaning of his identity and accomplishments, be perceived in relationship to the things taught in Torah? Two thousand years of accumulated misunderstanding leave people thinking of Yeshua and Judaism as oil and water. Glaringly erroneous examples of finding “Jesus in the Old Testament” have demoralized people who might want to find a real connection. This is a disgrace needing to be put right, a travesty seeking an authentic interpretation. When Yeshua told some disciples about the words in the Torah and prophets that referred to him, he meant the core ideas of Torah which were signposts of his mission and identity.

8 Comments

  1. The Torah is replete with warnings against Israel disobeying Hashem and the Jewish people forsaking the Torah. Yeshua’s central message was always, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” What were they supposed to repent of? Disobeying God and forsaking His Torah. It would seem then that Yeshua, in seeking repentance for Israel, was simply re-enforcing God’s original message to them to obey Him.

    Yeshua had other functions, specifically as the mediator of the New Covenant which foreshadowed Israel’s ultimate redemption and the writing of Torah on Jewish hearts so it, in effect, would become natural for them to obey God. He also came to usher in the age where the nations would finally turn to the God of Israel. Many in Hebrew Roots confuse Yeshua’s teaching Jewish return to Torah with his role as New Covenant arbiter and believe that “one size fits all,” so to speak, but this is not the case. The message to the Goyim was a subset of his overarching message of repentance.

    Jews were/are to repent of the sin of not observing the mitzvot. Gentiles were/are to repent of the sin of worshiping false gods.

  2. In regards to oral Torah, what about the Karaite Jews that do not accept oral Torah?

    I agree that when oral Torah gives a possible clarification that one should use it and not be contrarian, but I see Jesus and apostles teaching that in some cases oral Torah was to be ignored when it contradicted Scripture. Thoughts?

    1. Donald:

      To understand Oral Torah you have to stop thinking like a biblicist and think like a person living in Jewish community keeping the Torah as a lifestyle.

      1. I can agree that there are lots of aspects that only can be experienced, but it also seems to me that Jesus said that SOME of the traditions were to be ignored, those that negated Scripture. For example, the hand washing ceremony before eating is not required, contra the teaching of the Pharisees and their descendants of today the Orthodox Jews. I attended a Messianic Passover this year with my family and they actually omitted a section of the printed seder they were using that said that the hand washing ceremony was from God; they gave no explanation but my assumption was their rationale was that Scripture does not claim this and Jesus was against it being required. I wonder how you handle such things in your congregation?

        1. Yes, and if that is the only point you made (that Oral Torah must be judged by Written Torah) I’d have agreed with you and so do the rabbis. As for hand washing, Yeshua had no problem with it, but did not see it as a requirement.

        2. Donald, there is a significant difference in interpretation between saying that Yeshua sought to exonerate his disciples from wrongdoing in the eyes of the accusing Pharisees, versus saying that He was invalidating completely the tradition of handwashing.

  3. ISV Mat 15:19 (Jesus speaking) “It is out of the heart that evil thoughts come, as well as murder, adultery, sexual immorality, stealing, false testimony, and slander.
    Mat 15:20 These are the things that make a person unclean. But eating with unwashed hands doesn’t make a person unclean.”

    My understanding is that the Pharisees taught that to eat with unwashed hands made a person unclean (and that the details can be found in the Mishnah), Jesus denied this. My understanding as to why what the Pharisees taught broke Torah is that it did not maintain the clean/unclean distinctions of Torah, that is, to claim that something is unclean when it is actually clean violates Torah. Since I am not Jewish, I have no doubt I might be missing something or making an invalid conclusion somehow, but if this is the case, I want to learn better.

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