I am here at a conference in Atlanta. It is a international gathering of Jewish Mission agencies called The Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism. (I’m a little embarrassed, because we are a member agency, and I just learned what the name of the organization is! I’m pretty sure our calendar calls it the Lausaunne Conference…oh well.) For the sake of ease, we call ourselves the LCJE, and this is the 27th Annual North American Conference.
I find that the accepted method of presentation at most academic conferences is that the presenter will read his/her paper, and then take a few questions. Usually, while the questions are interesting and often stimulate thought, I still think that it would be better if the presenters would provide the papers to the conference goers in advance, let us “read, study and inwardly digest” them, and then use the full hour for discussion. What I do really appreciate about LCJE is that all of the papers are published to their website afterwards, so we do get the papers to study, albeit too late for interaction. But that’s just my opinion…and someone once told me that opinions are like belly buttons…everybody has one.
But this year, one of the conference presenters (in fact a few of them), did not bring a paper, but just engaged the participants with his ideas. Now, this presenter is a luminary in the Messianic Jewish community (at least to me). I’ve known him (or of him) for many years, his ministry has greatly blessed mine, and I respect and love this man. But that’s as far as it goes. He’s passionate and provocative, and (again this is just my opinion) dead wrong. Well, that’s perhaps too harsh, but he presented something I have trouble buying into.
His primary premise is that Torah was given to the Jews and therefore, it is only the Jews that are obligated to Torah. This is not a new idea, and one in which I am in relative agreement with, as far as that goes. The import of this for unbelieving ethnically non-Jewish people, i.e., Gentiles, is that they are not under the same obligation to Torah as the Jews. OK, that part is easy. But now it gets messy.
With this premise in mind, he presents what he calls the New Messianic Jewish Agenda. I’m still a little hazy on why this is new, or why this is an agenda, but we’ll leave it at that. The New Messianic Jewish Agenda asserts that since Gentiles are not under the obligation to Torah, they don’t sin against God by breaking Torah. Their sin is somehow more generic, and therefore the repentance that they must undergo to receive forgiveness is also somehow generic. But for Jews, the import is more specific. Since Jews sin by breaking Torah, then their repentance must necessarily include keeping Torah. He used the example of a husband who promises his wife to take out the trash but does not. It is not sufficient to simply say “I’m sorry,” but must be accompanied by taking out the trash. Therefore, Jews who repent and come to faith in Y’shua, and receive forgiveness of sins, must then be “Torah observant.” (Interestingly enough, while he is making this assertion, he is wearing a yarmulke [not a commandment of Torah] and is sans tzitzi [the tassels on the corners of the garments commanded in Torah]).
Now the call to Torah observance for believing Jews is nothing new, and in fact, I spend much of my ministry working with Messianic Jews and Gentiles who put themselves under the unnecessary and impossible burden of trying to keep the 613 commandments that God gave to Moses. And the call to Torah observance is nothing new for the LCJE. We often get participants who insist on Torah observance for Jewish believers. In fact, one year, we had a spirited discussion with a the leader of a Messianic congregation who insisted on Torah observance for himself and his congregation, even though he was not ethnically Jewish, nor were most of them.
Maybe I’m just lazy. Certainly, having worn a kippa for much of my childhood, I miss wearing one now. I still wear a mezuzah, and I wear a tallit in worship. These are for me warm fuzzies and important cultural and religious symbols. But I don’t equate them with being Torah observant. Because therein lies the rub. What is it to be Torah observant?
The presenter was asked this question twice, and twice he skillfully ducked the question. But I think we make this issue harder than it should be. I will go on record as saying that I believe that all believers, Jewish and non-Jewish should be Torah observant. But let me answer the question posed above.
First of all, I reject (except for the sake of convenience and perhaps missiology) the distinctions made between Jewish and Gentile believers. Sha’ul (St. Paul) says many times that there is no difference between Jew and Greek, he uses a tree metaphor (Romans 11) to describe those who are grafted in, and receive all the benefits of the natural branches. So if Jewish believers should be Torah observant, then all believers should be Torah observant. But being Torah observant is not a matter of keeping Kosher, keeping Sabbath, wearing tzitzi, or any of the other 613 commandment in Moses. Frankly, I’m not certain that God ever expected nor anticipated that we would be able to. (For an interesting discussion of this, to to thewww.lcje.net and look at the paper by Seth Postell on the Old Testament’s Use of the Old Testament, and note his argument on the literary inclusio of Genesis 1 and Deuteronomy 34.)
So, I’ll wrap this up with a good Lutheran distinction, (because I know this is too long). Torah, in the narrow sense is the first five books of Moses. But in the wide sense, Torah is simply God’s instruction, which I will argue is the whole of Scripture. To be Torah observant is to be a student and follower of the Word of God. Jeremiah tells us that the new covenant is not like the Sinai covenant (Torah in the really narrow sense). God releases Peter from kashrut, Y’shua says that Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath, and the writer to the Hebrews tells us that this covenant is “obsolete.” (By the way, for another good presentation on the authorship of the Letter to the Hebrews, see David Allen’s presentation on “A Hebrews View of Scripture.”) To insist in Torah observance in the narrow sense is to diminish the work Y’shua did on the cross, paying for our sins, and freeing us to live as mature children of God.
And the best commentator on God’s Word that we have is God himself in the man Jesus. He gave us instruction. He said, when challenged to give a drash on the greatest commandment, that we are to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And a second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. This sums up the first table (the vertical) and the second table (the horizontal). And at the intersection of these two commandments is Jesus, no longer hanging on the cross, but now living and through whom we are able to be Torah observant.