Halakhic Approach

1.2 The Halakhic Approach of the MJRC

In this section, we will discuss the function of Scripture, tradition, and new circumstances in the halakhic process.

1.2.1 Scripture and the Halakhic Process

Our approach to halakhic decision-making is based on a recognition of the paramount importance and authority of Scripture (i.e., the Tanakh and the Apostolic Writings) in the development of Halakhah.

In accord with Jewish tradition as a whole, we recognize the unique place of the Tanakh in matters of Halakhah. Within the Tanakh, the Torah (the Pentateuch) articulates the mitzvot and is therefore always foundational in the development of Halakhah. In principle, issues become halakhic because they are connected to some area of life in which the Torah reveals these authoritative norms. The Prophets and the Writings amplify and clarify the intent of Torah.

As Messianic Jews, we affirm the special precedence given to scriptural law in traditional Halakhah, while likewise affirming the scriptural character of the Apostolic Writings (i.e., the New Testament) and the unique ways in which they contribute to halakhic development. These writings convey to us the teachings of Yeshua and the Apostles and serve as an entirely reliable guide to the intent of the Mosaic Torah.

Just as teaching associated directly with the person of Moses is foundational in relation to other material in the Tanakh, so teaching associated directly with the person of Yeshua is foundational in relation to other material in the Apostolic Writings. This principle is evident in the way Paul contrasts halakhic instruction deriving from the teaching of Yeshua with his own rulings on related matters (1 Corinthians 7:10, 12, 25), without detracting from the authority he possessed as an Apostle.

In the Gospels, Yeshua acted as Israel’s pre-eminent prophetic teacher who illumined the purpose of the Torah and the inner orientation, we should have in fulfilling it. We consider his teaching and example as definitive in matters of Halakhah as in every other sphere and therefore his teaching has a direct bearing on how we interpret the Torah as a whole and on how we address particular halakhic questions. At the same time, we recognize that most of his teaching was only indirectly halakhic in character, and that care must be exercised in interpretation so that prophetic hyperbole not be read as binding legislation (e.g., Matthew 5:29–30).

The Book of Acts and the Apostolic Letters provide crucial halakhic guidance for us in our lives as Messianic Jews. They are particularly important in showing us how the early Jewish disciples of Yeshua combined a concern for Israel’s distinctive calling according to the Torah with recognition of the new relationship with God and Israel available to Gentiles in the Messiah. They also provide guidelines relevant to other areas of Messianic Jewish Halakhah, including (but not restricted to) areas such as distinctive Messianic rites, household relationships, and dealing with secular authorities.

1.2.2 Jewish Tradition and the Halakhic Process

In addressing matters of Halakhah, Scripture always has the highest halakhic authority and sanctity. Thus, when traditional Judaism distinguishes between laws that are d’oraita (i.e., ordained by the Tanakh) and those that are d’rabbanan (i.e., established by rabbinic authority), precedence is always given to those that are d’oraita.

Nevertheless, in the real-life unfolding of the halakhic process other sources often play a more visible role than Scripture in the formation of halakhic principles and the detailing of halakhic norms. While all Halakhah is rooted in Scripture the text usually provides limited information on how the mitzvot are to be lived out and how they are to be adapted to new circumstances. Over the centuries, our rabbis deliberated and developed other sources for the halakhic process, central among them are the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmuds, with the latter having special relevance for mitzvot observed by Jews living in the Land of Israel. In order to add concrete structure and substance to our present halakhic decision-making, our first consideration is the way the mitzvot have been elaborated in these sources and understood and observed by Jews throughout history and in the present.

Jewish tradition holds that Hashem has given substantial authority over the practical outworking of the Torah in Israel’s corporate life to the people and their recognized leaders. This principle is symbolized most powerfully by the ancient role of the rabbinic court in announcing the New Moon and in intercalating the calendar. The pattern of holy days was established in the Torah, but the determination of precisely when those days were to be observed rested in the hands of the people of Israel and its leaders in the Land of Israel (b. Rosh Hashanah 25a-25b) who relayed this determination to the Jewish people everywhere (Sefer Hamitzvot 153). As noted above, this principle finds support in Yeshua’s teaching in Matthew 23:3, which urges obedience to the decisions of the “Scribes (Torah Teachers) and Pharisees,” echoing Deuteronomy 17:10 and resembling later rabbinic use of the same text. As disciples of Yeshua, we are reluctant to depart from those halakhic practices that have been formulated by the Sages, accepted as normative by Jews throughout the centuries, and acknowledged by most branches of Judaism. On this basis, we do not need to justify adherence to such practices.

It is sufficient to show that they are widely accepted and observed traditions. To depart from such traditions, on the other hand, we must be able to provide some reason – theological, exegetical, or practical. The weight required for these reasons will vary for each halakhic tradition according to its centrality in the framework of Jewish life and the consensus it enjoys among committed Jews.

Nevertheless, if the teaching and example of Messiah Yeshua and the Apostolic Writings warrant a departure from certain traditional rulings, we are responsible to strike out in new directions. One of the most significant of these new directions follows from the teaching and example of Messiah Yeshua, whose mission took him more to the sick than to the healthy, and who, while welcoming the righteous and the pious, eagerly pursued the am ha’aretz (those less scrupulous in their observance). We recognize that our halakhic orientation must take into account those Jews who have been alienated from their own heritage. Eager to heal the wounds of Israel, we also seek to lead those of ambiguous Jewish status back to the way of their ancestors. While we are committed to not diluting the demands of the Torah, we want to bring many near to Torah who are now far from it. When we depart from certain traditional rulings, we do not depart from tradition itself but seek its repair.

We recognize that the new circumstances of our times require adaptation in traditional practices. The various branches of contemporary Judaism take this into account in their corporate responsa, with varying degrees of willingness to depart from traditional norms. Our halakhic decision-making too requires thoughtful reflection on these new circumstances, and the changes they may require. In this process, we review the halakhic analyses and rulings of all branches of Judaism to learn how they have responded and are responding to many of the same challenges we face. The halakhic way of life commended by the MJRC should not be viewed as an endorsement of any one of these branches as either the functional starting point or goal of Messianic Jewish life. We do, however, seek to honor those practices which have withstood the test of time.

1.2.3 Christian Tradition and the Halakhic Process

As noted above, the halakhic authority given to the Apostles by Yeshua had a bilateral character corresponding to the bilateral character of the ekklesia of Jews and Gentiles in which it was exercised. The disruption in the transmission of this bilateral tradition caused by the tragic disappearance of the Jewish ekklesia disfigured the understanding of the Torah passed on within the ekklesia of the nations, but it did not nullify the ekklesia’s enduring apostolic authority in its own proper sphere. This means that in certain matters we must learn not only from Jewish tradition but also from ecclesial tradition.

We have already stated our acceptance of the Apostolic Writings as Scripture, and the central role those writings play in our interpretation of the Torah. In doing so, we are recognizing as authoritative a collection of books which, while composed mainly or exclusively by Jews, has been canonized, preserved, and transmitted to us by Christian tradition. We are grateful to the ekklesia of the nations for this treasure which it has cherished and kept and which now enriches us.

However, the disappearance of the Jewish ekklesia and the growth of anti-Jewish sentiment and belief in the historical church undermined the authority of ecclesial teachers in their halakhic interpretation of the Apostolic Writings as applied to the distinctive features of Jewish life. Nevertheless, some elements of the halakhic approach of Yeshua and the Apostles (e.g., the centrality of the two love commandments) were equally applicable to both wings of the bilateral ekklesia, and in its treatment of such matters ecclesial tradition retains much wisdom which can benefit Jews as well as Gentiles. Similarly, some elements of the non-halakhic teaching of Yeshua and the Apostles (e.g., concerning the deity of Yeshua) were equally applicable to both wings of the bilateral ekklesia, and in its treatment of such matters ecclesial tradition is again worthy of our study and discerning reception.

The Apostolic Writings also command certain practices (e.g., Tevilat Mashiach and Zichron Mashiach) without providing concrete detail on how they are to be observed. Just as the practices given through Moses cannot be adequately lived-out apart from the living tradition of those Jews who have sought to do so from generation to generation, so the practices ordained by Yeshua cannot be adequately lived-out apart from the living tradition of those disciples of Yeshua who have sought to do so from generation to generation. As disciples of Yeshua, our manner of living out the commandments given through Moses will sometimes diverge from that of other Jews, but serious engagement with and learning from Jewish tradition is essential to the formation of that manner of life. Similarly, as Torah-observant Jews our manner of living out the commandments of Yeshua will sometimes diverge from that of gentile disciples of Yeshua, even though the commandments themselves are shared in common. Nevertheless, serious engagement with and learning from Christian tradition is essential to the formation of our practice of those commandments.

1.2.4 Our Challenging Task

We cannot know how the bilateral ekklesia would have developed had its Jewish corporate expression survived and thrived. Similarly, we cannot know how Jewish tradition would have developed had the Jewish disciples of Yeshua been accepted and respected by our entire people at an early stage of the development of Halakhah. We do not strive to articulate or re-create what might have been. However, we cannot avoid engaging in the task of shaping today’s Messianic Jewish practice from the textual sources and other resources available to us today. This task places enormous demands on Messianic Jewish leaders, requiring of us a serious devotion to study, prayer, discussion, and corporate decision-making in a spirit of humility and charity. At the same time, we believe that the resurrected Messiah dwells among us and within us, and we rely upon his ongoing guidance as we seek to carry on his work of raising up the fallen tent of David within the people of Israel (Acts 15:14–18; Amos 9:11–12).