Torah Observance and Messianic Judaism

3300 years ago on Mt. Sinai, Moses received the Torah from God, 2000 years ago the Messiah came and brought a renewal and ratification of the Torah in His life of Torah observance and his atoning death on the stake. We now stand in the beginning of the third millennium since the coming of our Messiah to live amongst us and the question that we must ask is, what have we done with His Torah and how are we living out the Torah in our day-to-day lives, and specifically for our discussion here, what about Messianic Judaism? Though many talk about Messianic Judaism and Torah observance in our day, what are we as individuals doing to live out a Torah observant Messianic Judaism and on a corporate level, being that Judaism is corporate rather than individualistic, where is the Messianic movement in the progression toward being a Torah observant Messianic Judaism? Is there a move or not? I will put forward some thoughts that I have personally been working through individually and also in concert with others. This is hopefully a beginning of dialogue and debate and I hope that the reader joins the discussion.

The issue of non-observance by individuals and in congregational policies I believe is based on some factors detailed below:

• Torah negative views from the Church that influences individuals and congregational leaders.

• Pragmatism that sees Torah observance as “too hard”, so then not observing Torah commands is alright if it’s too much work or an inconvenience.

• Liberal views, not unlike the Reform movement, that sees the Torah as a past document and only adds back into Jewish life those aspects that are “meaningful and life-giving”.

On the issue of Torah negative views from the Church, this is an evident problem. We have many people that may wear kipot and talitot in our synagogues but their core philosophy ranges from aversion to the “Law” to an outright “anti-Torah” attitude. For the last 1800+ years the Church has defined itself as against legalism and against the Law (Torah) and this is well ingrained in the thinking of many Messianic Jews and Gentiles that have come from Church backgrounds. This poses a great trouble in that this aversion to the Torah is not quelled even by those leaders who refer to themselves as “Torah observant” or “Torah positive”, even though this is one of the greatest of errors of Christianity-the belief that Torah is done away with by the coming of Yeshua. This error has caused much suffering physically for the Jewish people through pogroms, the Holocaust and other persecutions, but this also has brought a spiritual suffering in that these errors have kept countless Jewish people from the message that their Messiah has come. We cannot allow for this Torah-negativity to grow, it must be brought to and end if we are going to have a Messianic Judaism. Though many people have been drawn to Messianic Judaism via the Church, we have to realize that the anti-Torah attitudes fostered in the Church cannot be a part of our corporate life.

Secondly, comes the issue of the problem of pragmatism, that sees Torah observance as “too hard”, so then not observing Torah commands is alright if it’s too much work or an inconvenience, like for example taking the effort to buy only kosher food, rather than going to the local Taco Bell or McDonalds. The issue of pragmatism I believe is a major problem in that it is not ideological like Torah-negativity or the next issue liberalism, but a philosophy based on doing what is easy rather than what is right. Living a Torah life is not an easy life but it’s not too hard to be undoable. Our American worship of convenience has spilled into our synagogues and has made living out a Torah life something that clashes with our convenience mindset. Buying kosher food takes discipline and some effort, fortunately in Los Angeles it is easier than other areas to find kosher butchers and kosher restaurants, but the extra effort to buy kosher food clashes with a convenience mindset. Sadly obeying God is made secondary to doing whatever is easier and more convenient. We need to see that this view of Torah observance or lack thereof, that is based more on laziness than any other perspective is not coated in a palatable way to be an option for those who for the sake of convenience violate God’s Torah. I believe that many people in our movement fall into this category, not based on an ideological aversion to the Torah fostered in the Church but fueled by a desire to live like everyone else in society while outside the synagogue walls. Though most people live their life of Torah neglect based in laziness and neglect they can find a spiritual grounding in the following viewpoint that takes the ideas of the Enlightenment and the Reform and Reconstructionist movements to reconfigure Judaism as a “Choose your own Mitzvah” religion.

Thirdly comes the most polished ideological viewpoint namely liberal views, not unlike the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, that sees the Torah as a past document and only adds back into Jewish life those aspects that are “meaningful and life-giving”. Under the mantra, “meaningful and life-giving”, this philosophy grounded in liberal Jewish thought, basically throws out the Torah in total as a binding document on the Jewish people for all time and allow each generation and by extension each individual to be the one who decides what in Torah they want to observe or ignore based on whether they consider it “meaningful and life-giving”. I am one to not be as concerned with what someone says as much as what he or she mean by what they say and what their statement or philosophy means in extension. The “meaningful and life-giving” philosophy rather than uniting our community truly fractures us into many individuals. The outworking of this philosophy is that there is not one Torah being taken around the synagogue during the Torah service-the one Torah given to Moses at Mt. Sinai, but it makes for 10, 25, 50, 100, 200 or more Torahs, based on the size of the congregation, dependent on how each individual slices up their responsibility to the Torah based on what they found to be “meaningful and life-giving”, rather than living out the words of the people at Mt. Sinai:

“And all the people, answering together, said, “Whatever the Lord has said we will do. “And Moshe took back to the Lord the words of the people” (Ex 19:8) 

This makes for disunity in that each individual will have his or her own Torah. This is fine for Christianity, which is a faith, based on the individual, but Judaism, as a communal faith needs community for survival. Torah observance under this philosophy is no longer a matter of obeying God’s Word and living a life of holiness in service to God, but it builds up a “Messianic Judaism” that is truly just “playing Jewish” without having the soul of Jewish life and that is obeying God and living out Torah. The issue of Torah observance is an issue of obeying or disobeying God and not just merely doing “Jewish” practices. If we are doing “Jewish” practices and having Torah services detached from observing Torah then we are truly deceiving our ourselves, by thinking that we are being “Torah observant” if we observe only the Torah commands we find to be “meaningful and life-giving” and also we are being deceptive to the larger Jewish world to have Torah services and call ourselves “Torah observant” or even “Torah positive” if we are only observing and honoring the Torah of our own design, rather than the Torah that God gave to Moses. We need to see that this philosophy is challenged and seek to live Torah lives that show forth that living Torah is not just external “Jewishness” but an internal walking in God’s ways and a life focused on God, infused by the Messiah who gives us life.

This philosophy is bound up in an ideology that has swept over much of the American Jewish world, being that Orthodox Jews make up only 5-10% of Jews in the United States. But rather than emulating the falling away from the Torah and obeying God that is epidemic in the larger Jewish world, should we not stand for Torah and obeying God? The fact that the larger Jewish world is not Torah observant leads to the push to make this philosophy normative in Messianic Judaism for the sake of “outreach” in that we will reach our communities because we are being like the community in which our congregations are located. Are we going to start having séances at our Messianic synagogue because that was done at a local synagogue or start embracing homosexuality as acceptable because of acceptance of homosexuality in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, including having gay and lesbian Messianic rabbis? Are we going to violate the Torah to draw people into our synagogues? This makes as much sense as Rav Shaul’s rhetorical phrase, “should we sin that grace may abound?” both questions have an implied “NO”. We cannot sacrifice Torah observance to fit into a secular Jewish community or fit into Christian society or to amalgamate into secular society and become “Americans of the Jewish persuasion”. The Torah is not a pick-and-choose document and it’s not alright to violate it’s commands for fitting in or making our congregations more appealing to secular Jews or to meet the approval of Christian denominations that give funding or organizational support to our synagogues.

The “meaningful and life-giving” philosophy is the most insidious of the three examples because it clothes sin in a coat of “reaching our community”. So then we can sin by violating Torah so that we can draw people to Yeshua, so they can then become Torah violators with a spiritual seal of approval? This needs to be remedied and sadly this philosophy is entrenched to the point that to live a life of Torah observance in a congregation whose organization is founded on this philosophy makes for a difficult situation for the one who truly seeks to live a Torah life and seek to honor God, because the one seeking to follow God has to deal with compromise and even to violate their conscience and sin to be a part of congregational life. Sadly I see the Messianic movement losing those who come to see Torah as life, but stand as rebels to the overriding philosophy of their congregation and for the Messianic movement as a whole. Those who seek to live Torah observant lives and seek to obey God are outsiders in most Messianic congregations, yet those who seek to be a Torah Observant Messianic Jew or Torah Observant Messianic Gentile, know that among Torah observant communities in the Rabbinic world they are also outsiders for being Messianic, and doubly if they are a non-Jew. So then those who live Torah have to live as a man or woman without a state, not able to be a full participant in either world.

Hopefully as the Lord draws more people to a true encounter with Torah, we may one day see truly Torah observant Messianic congregations that observe Torah in the context of Messianic faith. Sadly those congregations that have called themselves “Torah Observant Messianic Congregations” have for the most part denied the deity of the Messiah and are usually a part of the Netzrim movement, a movement that accepts Yeshua as Messiah yet denies that Yeshua is God. This is not mere heresy, but an apostate movement.

So then comes our quest, the desired outcome, a true Torah centered Messianic Judaism. I have sought to detail this important issue that needs to be dealt with in our movement so that we can be a legitimate expression of Torah observant Messianic Judaism. I have sought to address the problem of non-observance of Torah in our movement and how Torah violation is justified based on Christian anti-Torah values, pragmatic laziness and the philosophy of “meaningful and life-giving” commandments. Calling us a “Torah observant” or “Torah positive” movement while violating the Torah is dishonest and deceiving ourselves and deceptive to the larger Jewish world. The issue of Torah negativity exposes us to being seen as either ignorant of Judaism and Torah or an outright sham, that we are using Judaism and Jewish rituals in our Christian churches to draw in those Jewish people who fall for our trap. Sadly we can’t deny the charge of being inauthentic in expressing one thing with our mouths while violating it with our actions. Judaism is not something you can do however you want add in Yeshua and Messianic dance and oila it is Messianic Judaism.

In the book, The God of Israel and Christian Theology, by R. Kendall Soulen, Soulen lays out the argument that the Jewish people in their “No” to Yeshua were saying “Yes” to the God of Israel. Though a disturbing phrase at first glance, I personally did not like this phrase until over time I came to grips with his point that for over 1800 years the Jewish people have been offered or forced a Yeshua that was stripped of Torah and Judaism, out of fidelity to the Torah and the traditions of their forefathers the Jewish people have said “No” to this Yeshua and His gentile religion, Christianity.

Sadly this is where we are as the Messianic movement, in embracing a Torah apathetic or even Anti-Torah stance we are truly embracing the Christian tradition of presenting a “Torah-free” Yeshua and because of fidelity to the covenant the larger Jewish world can never take us seriously as being one with the Jewish people. We are packaging Christian beliefs and values with Kipot, Talitot and a Magen David necklace and the larger Jewish world sees that we are not truly dealing honestly with the encounter at Sinai. Even Reform and Humanistic Jews can criticize us for being outside the bounds of Jewish life without the Messiahship of Yeshua ever being an issue. We are coming off as confused about Judaism or even worse deceptive Christian missionaries trying to steal Jewish souls.

We have been given a great gift, whether Jew or Gentile, God has brought us to understand Him in the context of Messianic Jewish faith. We can build a credible Messianic Judaism, built on Torah observance and faith trust in Yeshua and bring back together the breach between Torah life and Messianic faith that has kept the vast majority of Jewish people in history from knowing their Messiah and the life that He can bring. But with this gift comes the responsibility to live Torah, to walk in God’s way and stand tall for His Torah. We need this for our own relation to God, but also to be the light that we need to be to draw the Jewish people to their Messiah and to be a light to all the world that we are people who know the God of the Universe and we live as a distinct people, bound to our God by an eternal covenant made at Mt. Sinai and put on our hearts by the atonement of Messiah Yeshua. So then the challenge is for each of us to live this Torah and to seek God’s face to see that our movement may turn back to God’s Torah and that more people’s eyes will be opened to God’s Torah. The Messiah has come, we have found Him and now it is up to us make Him known by lifting Yeshua up before the world by living a life totally given to God and His Torah. May the Lord grant you his strength and shalom.