Approaching Rabbinic Tradition

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Controversy over Rabbinic Tradition

A few months ago an intense controversy was ignited in the Messianic Jewish community here in Israel. An Israeli leader in the Messianic community who is supportive of Rabbinic Judaism, sent an invitation to fellow leaders to come together to discuss our relationship to Jewish rabbinic traditions. Another leader replied to all concerned, intensely rejecting the very idea of having any positive relationship to this tradition. Using Yeshua’s terminology, he called it “the leaven of the Pharisees” and issued very strong warnings. Following these intensely divergent communications, a meeting of leaders was called to discuss this controversy. The discussion was very heated and many people talked passed each other. However, some progress was made.

Two primary factors feed into the very negative response to Rabbinic Judaism in Israel. One, the secular mentality of the majority of Israelis; they see the ultra Orthodox Jews as a parasitic movement in Israel. They regard the ultra Orthodox as anti-Zionist. They point out that many are supported by welfare and do not want to work for a living, instead spending their days studying in Yeshivas. The Orthodox settler movement is seen by many as hindering the peace process and increasingly militant in their demands and behavior. In contrast, Modern Orthodox Jews serve in the military, work and pay their taxes. Yet, the negativity from all this is quite great. Two, the influence from some strands of Christianity do not have a positive view of the Torah. Add to this that the religious Jews in the land oppose us, and you get a good picture of the situation.

Tikkun and its related ministries have an approach to the rabbinic heritage of our people that I believe is both helpful and important both from a theological perspective and a practical contribution to Israeli society.

Rabbinic Jewish Heritage is a Mixture

The Bible exhorts us to give honor to whom honor is due (Rom. 13:7). Those who have given us the post biblical Jewish heritage are to be honored for all that is good, true and beautiful in the legacy of our people. Most cultures have honorable traditions and practices due to the grace of God given to all people. For us as Jews, the Jewish heritage comes from our ancestral fathers and out of our covenantal relationship before God as His people. The wholesale rejection of that which is good and true in that heritage is tantamount to a rejection of our ancestors and the covenant. It violates the command to honor fathers and mothers; it denies God’s faithfulness and His continued involvement with our people. When we think of Judaism, we do well to remember that the traditional prayer book is full of biblical material. The Siddur asserts again and again that our salvation is only because of the grace and mercy of God. It accurately affirms God’s promises to Israel and for the redemption of the world. It includes a great confession of faith (the Amidah) based on the promises of the Bible which goes back to the time of Yeshua.

There is much more that is good. There is the wonderful recounting of Passover and even a ceremony that grieves over the suffering of the Egyptians. Our children answer four questions on why Passover night is different from all others nights. There are the three matzot (unleavened bread), the breaking of the middle matzoh, the broken matzoh being hidden away and returned after the dinner. This is in all probability a memory of Yeshua, being broken and hidden in burial until His resurrection. There are the practices of the Jewish wedding, the bringing of the bride under the special bridal canopy (the chupah) and the symbols of blood covenanting. We have the joy of the family gathering on Erev Shabbat (Friday evening), the festive meals and the deep sense of entering into rest.

However, we also have to be honest and point out that which is not good. There are rabbinic laws which contradict Scripture, and the multiplication of regulations based on Temple purity laws. All Jews are enjoined to observe these laws. It is as if the Rabbis wanted to bring every part of life under some kind of control. There are laws on how you can clean off mud on the Sabbath and how you cannot, laws on milk and meat dishes, and many more restrictions. Perhaps most troubling is a deep commitment to the tradition that rejects the uni-plural nature of God and opposes any idea of the incarnation of God in the Messiah. These are only a few examples of the many problematic issues found in Rabbinic Judaism.

A Right Heart Evaluates Rightly

Sometimes those who are enamored of the rabbinic heritage end up defending the indefensible. It is part of the human tendency to worship self or one’s own people; pride takes over. Our view of the rabbinic heritage is that we must be discerning – approving what is good and rejecting that which is not good or not in accord with the letter and the spirit of the Bible. In addition, our adoption of any tradition not commanded in the Bible, even if it is good, should only be embraced as we are so led by the Spirit; there is to be no rule beyond that.

Only a person who has a renewed mind (with their heart priorities in order) can correctly evaluate these matters, since evaluation is a function of the whole person. I have traveled to many countries and pleaded in my teaching that we must all understand the centrality of Yeshua and the power of the Spirit as primary. If this is not established, we will not be able to evaluate with mature judgment. Yeshua is to be explicitly central and pervasive in our preaching and our worship. In John 5, Yeshua declares that the Father desires that we honor the Son as we honor Him. Only then can we have God’s powerful Presence among us. We must teach people to seek the presence of the Spirit and to appropriate His power, without which we cannot accomplish God’s works of love and service.

To emphasize this teaching I have devised an acrostic: F.Y.S.T.R. The acrostic represents the priority of emphases that we should seek. First, we emphasize the Father and Yeshua in our worship and preaching. This is in accord with the devotional expression in the New Covenant Scriptures and the consistent and pervasive affirmation that Yeshua is fully deity and fully man. Then we emphasize the Spirit, without whom we do not have the power for obedience or the ability to extend God’s kingdom. The gifts and power of the Spirit are critical. Then there is the Torah – the teaching of God’s ways – the very commandments themselves. Last in priority is the Rabbinic heritage, which has its proper place, but only in accordance to the relative emphasis of the acrostic.

Post-biblical Christian understanding is also a source for wisdom provided that it too does not contradict Scripture. I think that if we keep this proper order, we will see a strong and vibrant Jewish expression of our faith. I emphasize this again as in my previous article on the quest for Jewish authenticity (see, Israel’s Restoration, March ’06). It does bear repeating!

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