Halakah and Messianic Judaism

Who needs Halakhah?

Actually, we do for various reasons. The most obvious is that it was the people of Israel collectively, rather than individuals as individuals, who were called into covenant with God, to honor God by living according to the Torah. This collective call meant that all Israel was responsible for the covenant fidelity of its individual members. A breach by anyone put the entire people in covenant jeopardy - the status of having broken the covenant - which triggers dire consequences.

The clearest illustration of this principle is found in Joshua 7, when Joshua and the people of Israel are unexpectedly repelled in their attempt to capture the city of Ai. Hashem had forbidden the people to take any spoils from the city, and the chapter opens by attributing their corporate defeat to an act of individual disobedience: "But the people of Israel broke faith in regard to the devoted things; for Achan the son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of the devoted things; and the anger of the Lord burned against the people of Israel" (Judges 7:1). Notice how the sin of one man, Achan, is portrayed as the entire people having bro­ken faith with God - entering into covenant jeopardy. This is why, once Achan is singled out, the entire people must participate in the enforcement of the judicial decree against him (Judges 7:25). Just as the people as a whole were required to obey, so it is the people as a whole who must deal with the consequences of disobedience.

Halakhah is our understanding of what we are holding ourselves and each other responsible to do in honoring God through Torah obedience. We simply cannot hold each other responsible without such a standard. So it is that we in our congregations need halakhic guidelines to function as kehillot kodesh - holy communities.

Secondly, we all need Halakhah because it provides wonderful freedom. We all remember what it was like when we were kids and we said to our mothers, "Ma, I don't know what to do. I'm bored." Halakhah gives us guidance as to what do to in every area of life. This comes as a special gift when we keenly want to know "What does it mean for me to glorify God in this situation?" In fact, this is arguably the key question in Jewish spiritual life. Halakhah builds upon the distilled wisdom of countless generations of our people who took seriously their obligations to God and Torah. Halakhah helps us to identify the shape of obedience, so that we might retrace with the stylus of our own lives patterns of holiness worn deep by generations of our forbears. And when we do so as our gift of love to Hashem, it brings joy, not only to us, but also to Him.

Finally, we all need Halakhah because it not only binds us to a standard of holiness but also looses us from needless guilt and worry. A case in point: David was offended by something Isaac said. Isaac went and apologized to David, but David was not able to forgive - he was too hurt by the offense. Isaac felt terrible about what he had done, and so he returned to David, and apologized a second time. Again, David responded coldly. Now Isaac was desperate. What could he do? He decided to go to David a third time - with the same result.

Isaac then spoke of his dilemma to a friend knowledgeable in Halakhah. His friend told him: "Don't apologize again. Based  on Joseph's experience with his brothers, Halakhah sets the limit of three times in asking someone to forgive an offense - lest one forever be in thrall to a bitter person unable or unwilling to forgive." Great wisdom! And more than that, great freedom. By telling us not only what to do, but also by setting limits on what one must do, Halakhah has the power to set us free.

When Isaac heeded the voice of his friend and the wisdom of Halakhah, and stopped apologizing, he was free from David's inability to forgive and his own self-recrimination. They were both able to get on with their lives - and they are still friends today!

When we interpret and apply Halakhah with wisdom and love, it brings freedom rather than bondage. When we treat Halakhah as an extension of God's Law, a guideline for communal obedience and relationship, we experience the character it shares with Torah, "the perfect Law that gives liberty" (James 1:25).



Halakhah: Our Approach

In Jewish tradition as a whole, Scripture is of paramount importance and authority in the development of Halakhah (the concrete application of Jewish law to daily life). In principle, issues become halakhic because they are connected to some area of life in which Scripture reveals certain authoritative norms. In addressing those issues, Scripture is not the only resource consulted. However, it is always the source of greatest sanctity. Thus, when Rabbinic literature distinguishes between laws that are d'oraita (ordained by Scripture) and those that are d'rabbanan (established by Rabbinic authority), precedence is always given to those that are d'oraita.

Within Tanakh, Jewish tradition has always regarded the Torah (the Pentateuch) as possessing unique authority in the development of Halakhah. While the Prophets and the Writings amplify and clarify the intent of the Torah, the Torah is always foundational in matters of Halakhah.

In addition to Tanakh, we as Messianic Jews have another authoritative source for the making of halakhic decisions: the Apostolic Writings. Yeshua himself did not act primarily as a Posek (Jewish legal authority) issuing halakhic rulings, but rather as a prophetic teacher who illumined the purpose of the Torah and the inner orientation we should have in fulfilling it. Nevertheless, his teaching about the Torah has a direct bearing on how we address particular halakhic questions. As followers of Messiah Yeshua, we look to him as the greatest Rabbi of all, and his example and his instruction are definitive for us in matters of Halakhah as in every other sphere.

In addition, the Book of Acts and the Apostolic Letters provide crucial halakhic guidance for us in our lives as Messianic Jews. They are especially important in showing us how the early Jewish believers in Yeshua combined a concern for Israel's distinctive calling according to the Torah with a 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.

Just as teaching associated directly with the person of Moses is foundational in relation to other material in Tanakh, so teaching associated directly with the person of Yeshua is foundational in relation to other material in the Apostolic Writings. This 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 a Shali'ach (Apostle).

As Messianic Jews we affirm the special precedence given to Scriptural law in Rabbinic Halakhah. However, we also affirm the Scriptural character of the Apostolic Writings. While the Torah is foundational in relation to the teaching of Yeshua and the Shelichim (Apostles), the writings that record that teaching (the New Covenant Scripture) are also inspired, and they offer us an entirely reliable guide to the meaning and intent of the Mosaic Torah.

In principle, Scripture always has highest authority in the halakhic process. However, in practice other sources play as significant or a more significant role. 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. In order to add concrete substance to halakhic decision making, we must have recourse to the way the mitzvot have been understood and observed by Jews throughout history and in the present.

The Torah is Hashem's gift to Israel. While it includes teaching of universal significance and application, and has special bearing on the life of those Gentiles joined to Israel through Messiah, its primary purpose as a halakhic document is to shape the corporate way of life of the people of Israel. Rabbinic tradition holds that Hashem has given substantial authority over the practical outworking of the Torah in Israel's corporate life to the people and its 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 those days rested in the hands of the people of Israel and its leaders.

This principle finds support in Yeshua's teaching in Matthew 23:3 which urges obedience to the decisions of the Pharisaic Torah-teachers. This verse echoes Deuteronomy 17:10, the key text in Rabbinic tradition undergirding the authority of Israel's sages. Thus, while we may critique traditional rulings, and argue for alternative positions, we should be reluctant to depart from halakhic rulings accepted by Jews throughout the centuries and held today by most of the branches of Judaism and most committed Jews. At the same time, Yeshua did found a new sub-community of Jews (the ekklesia of the Circumcision) whose life is marked by an anticipatory experience of the powers of Olam Haba (the world to come), and who are to have a special relationship with a body of Gentile worshipers of the God of Israel (the ekklesia of the Uncircumcision). As such, he imparted to this sub- community and its leaders halakhic decision making authority for its common life (Matthew 18:18). Thus, when the Apostolic Writings and the Good News warrant it, we may need to strike out in new directions.

As followers of a Messiah 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 be toward inclusion of 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.

Therefore, like Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism, we recognize that the new circumstances of the modern world require adaptation in traditional practices. Our halakhic decision making will require thoughtful reflection on these new circumstances, and the changes they may require. In this process, we should pay special attention to the halakhic analysis and rulings of these branches of Judaism, and learn from them.

Responsible engagement in the halakhic process places enormous demands on Jewish leaders. We will need to devote ourselves to serious study, prayer, discussion, and corporate decision-making. 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 booth of David within the people of Israel.