One of the frequent objections to Messianic Judaism is the accusation that we follow the traditions of the Jewish rabbis—men who did not even know the Messiah and who were without the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The charge is partially true; Messianics do use a lot of Jewish traditions in our worship, such as lighting the Sabbath candles, praying the Amidah, wearing the kippah (or yarmulke), and so on.
However, let us recognize that just because a particular tradition is not mentioned in Scripture, that does not automatically make it un-Scriptural. For example, the traditional hymns sung by most Christians on Sunday are not in the Scriptures, but we recognize them as valid expressions of worship, like the Amidah. Many churches traditionally require women to wear hats, or have a certain dress code. A church may celebrate the anniversary of its foundation with a pot-luck dinner. Ministers in certain denominations wear a particular set of robes. None of these are mandated in Scripture; there’s nothing unbiblical about them either, with a caveat that I’ll get to in a moment.
How then should a Messianic regard the Oral Torah, the body of rabbinical traditions which were enshrined in the Talmud and which most, if not all, Orthodox Jews regard as every bit as authoritative as the Written Torah. I had this discussion with an Orthodox Jew not too far back, and I surprised him by saying that I believed that at the least, at least some of the Oral Torah did go back to Sinai. How could I say this? I point to the Torah itself:
“If the place where the LORD your God chooses to put His name is too far from you, then you may slaughter from your herd and from your flock which the LORD has given you, just as I have commanded you, and you may eat within your gates as much as your heart desires. Just as the gazelle and the deer are eaten, so you may eat them; the unclean and the clean alike may eat them. Only be sure that you do not eat the blood, for the blood is the life; you may not eat the life with the meat. You shall not eat it; you shall pour it on the earth like water.
The above highlighted phrase, though not completely clear in the English translation, indicates that there was a particular way that God showed them to slaughter their meat. This method is not described in detail, but has been passed down orally for 3500 years–the animal is hung up by its legs and its throat cut so as to let the blood all drain out.
Too, God did give the judges (or rabbis) of Israel the right to make binding judgments based on the Torah in Dt. 17:8-13. Just as previous judgments by judges provide legal precedent in our society, these rulings provided the precedents that became the Oral Torah in Jewish society.
The problem is not that traditions of men have arisen. We are, after all, men, and any way we apply a specific commandment is going to be our ‘tradition.’ The problem is that classical Judaism assumes that the oral Torah (represented by the laws of the Talmud and subsequent codifications of those laws) is just as binding and authoritative as the Bible itself. The oral Torah is regarded as equal to the written Torah.
What are believers to do with oral Torah? Admittedly, the concept of an oral tradition does seem to make sense. Much of the oral Torah is ancient and some of the contextual implications it provides could well go back to the generation of Moses. Yet it is far beyond the realm of credibility to suggest that the body of the oral Torah’s legislation is all derived directly from Moses . . . and therefore carries the weight of Scripture. On the contrary, the majority of the teachings of the oral Torah are inferences and extrapolations created by the Sages in their attempts to clarify and explain Torah. These elucidations and referred to in Judaism and the Gospels as the “Traditions of the Elders.”
–Lancaster, D. Thomas, Restoration: Returning the Torah of God to the Disciples of Jesus, p. 138
Now, it’s a common assumption that Yeshua argued against all of the oral traditions of the Jewish people. That’s not true. Rather, He debated those traditions which directly or indirectly contradicted Scripture or which added to it to the point of making it a burden–both of which are forbidden by Dt. 4:2.
On the other hand, He did uphold many traditions, and even enshrined some as a part of NT worship. For example:
– As I’ve pointed out before, the use of wine as a part of the Seder dinner is not mentioned in Torah, but is an important part of the traditional Jewish observance of that feast. This carried over into the Christian Lord’s Supper even when the elements of the Seder that were in fact commanded by the Torah were set aside.
– The Torah commands that we bless God after a meal (Dt. 8:10). Yeshua upheld the oral tradition of blessing the food before the meal as well (cf. Lk. 24:30). Heck, most modern Christians do this one.
– Though not immediately obvious in the text, we see in Yeshua’s travels that He made it a point to say within a Sabbath’s day journey of Jerusalem on High Holy Days (i.e. in Bethany). This is reflected in Mt. 24:16, where He says, “But pray that your flight will not come in the winter, or on a Sabbath.” The written Torah does not forbid travel on the Sabbath–oral Torah does.
– Baptism (Heb. mikva), while derived from the ceremonial washing for uncleanness discussed in the Torah (cf. Lev. 13-17, Num. 19), is nowhere directly commanded. But in Yeshua’s time, it has become a traditional act symbolizing cleansing from sin and repentance as well as cleansing from ritual unseemliness. Yeshua Himself underwent a public mikva at the start of His ministry so as to “fulfill all righteousness” (Mk. 3:15)–despite the fact that such an act is nowhere commanded in the written Torah or the Tanakh. I don’t have to explain that this tradition carried over into the Church.
So then, the issue for Yeshua (and by extension, His followers) was not jettisoning all tradition, but in getting rid of all tradition which conflicted with the written Scriptures. Thus Sha’ul was able to say, “Men and brethren, though I have done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers . . .” (Ac. 28:17). As I’ve pointed out before, he remained a Pharisee to the end of his days–which means he was either a hypocrite, or that he considered most of the traditions and teachings of the Pharisees to be right.
Strangely, some Orthodox Jews are rediscovering the Jewishness of Yeshua where Reform Christians continue to deny it. For example, Dr. Pinchas Lapide, an Orthodox scholar, writes:
Jesus was utterly true to the Torah, as I myself hope to be. I even suspect that Jesus was even more true to the Torah than I, an Orthodox Jew. . . Jesus never and nowhere broke the law of Moses, nor did he in any way provoke its infringement—it is entirely false to say that he did … In this respect you must believe me, for I know my Talmud more or less … This Jesus was as faithful to the law as I would hope to be. But I suspect that Jesus was more faithful to the law than I am—and I am an Orthodox Jew. . .
–from The Resurrection of Jesus
Now, in regards to Gentile believers, I certainly don’t think that the oral Torah is authoritative for us, but I don’t think that we should disparage it where it serves to illuminate rather than over-complicate the Scriptures. Thus, where I see the Messiah accepting an oral tradition and even investing it with new meaning, like immersion in water or wine at the Passover, I delight in discovering the original tradition and in the insight it brings to the NT–for example, clearing up once and for all the whole “sprinkling” vs. “immersion” issue.
Seeing which traditions Yeshua upheld and which He condemned also gives us marvelous insight into the proper interpretation and application of God’s commandments. Moreover, seeing that both He and His Apostles respected both proper (i.e., Torah-based rather than perverting) traditions dismisses the idea that the rabbis had it all wrong.
So then, to sum up all of the above: I respect the Oral Torah, but I don’t give it the same authority that I give the Written Torah or Living Torah. I believe that when Yeshua gave His Apostles the authority to bind and loose, He gave them the authority to, in effect, create the Church’s own Oral Torah–within the limits that just as Jewish traditions must not be allowed to contradict the Written Torah, neither could any “binding or loosing” of the Church.
The fact that they didn’t just immediately toss out all of the “traditions of our fathers,” but were instead very careful in using that authority should be a guide to us as we do the same. Therefore, neither do I simply ignore the Jewish traditions regarding the Torah, especially those which can be traced to the time before Yeshua. If Yeshua and the Apostles treated them with respect except where they did contradict Torah, who am I to do otherwise?
Rather, I will respectfully follow a tradition within a congregation which meets the test of Dt. 4:6:
1) It may not add to God’s commands. A tradition may be followed beyond the word of the Scripture provided that it is recognized as the tradition of a particular body and not as a binding commandment. Thus, a Messianic congregation contains a lot of Jewish tradition as the cultural flavor of their worship, while a Presbyterian church has its own traditional observances; neither may judge the other on the basis of those traditions.
2) It may not violate (subtract from) God’s commands. Calling Sunday the Sabbath violates the Scriptures, and thus subtracts from God’s commands. Saying that there is no more Sabbath does the same. By the same token, the Jewish tradition that charity and good works have replaced blood sacrifice as atonement for sin also violates the Scriptures.
That is, IMHO, the only proper way to apply tradition to Scripture.
To my Sunday brethren—and I do consider you brothers and sisters in the Lord, regardless of our doctrinal differences—who object to Messianic Judaism on the basis of its acquiescence to rabbinical tradition to the detriment of Scripture, let me pose a question to you:
Is it anywhere directly stated in the New Testament that the Sabbath has either been moved to Sunday or that it has been done away with?
If the answer is no, and you do not rest on the true Sabbath and set it aside as holy in obedience to the Fourth Commandment, then you have been following a tradition of men in contradiction to the Scripture. “But,” you answer, “we live under Grace, not under Law.” True, but nevertheless, the Torah remains as God’s eternal standard for behavior and worship (Mt. 5:17-19), telling us what sin is (Rom. 7:7), and how to be “holy, just, and good” (v. 12). Therefore, while no longer being under the curses the Torah pronounces against those who violate it, we should still seek to follow it so that we might become more like our Savior. And no, I’m not judging your salvation or your walk on this issue; I’m just trying to provoke some thought.
But moreover, those critics of the Messianic movement who plead grace over the issue of the Sabbath should likewise show grace to those with whom they disagree on other issues, just as I, who have often sinned both in ignorance and in willfulness, must show grace to everyone who does the same.