Halakhic Authority

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 and Halakhic Authority

Halakhah refers to the authoritative application of the rules of the Torah in the form of concrete decisions in response to the circumstances of daily life – all in the context of the covenant life of the people of Israel. Because every age, location, culture, and socio-political circumstance is unique, new questions inevitably arise which lead to fresh developments in Halakhah. Thus, while rooted in a stable ground of well-defined and universally-recognized laws, Halakhah remains dynamic, a living and growing organism rather than a static and inflexible legal code.

Halakhic authority consists in the communally acknowledged competence to interpret, develop, and apply the rules of the Torah for a particular situation and social group.

Halakhic Authority, the Jewish People, and Rabbinic Tradition

The Torah calls for the establishment of a central court possessing the authority to deal with complex judicial cases where the application of the law is unclear and where the final ruling will presumably constitute a significant legal precedent (Deuteronomy 17:8–13). Later Jewish interpreters understood this text as authorizing not only the communal judicial process but also the expansion, explanation, and application of Jewish law in non-judicial contexts (b. Shabbat 23a). These interpreters likewise claimed that the Sages of the rabbinic tradition constituted the legitimate successors to the central court of Deuteronomy 17.

Matthew 23:2–3 alludes to an interpretation of Deuteronomy 17 resembling that which appears in the rabbinic literature of a later era, and affirms that the “Scribes (i.e., Torah Teachers) and Pharisees” are in some sense the proper heirs of Moses. While the book of Matthew as a whole – and Matthew 23 in particular – levels fierce criticism at the conduct of many of these “Scribes and Pharisees,” its
terminology and halakhic orientation have much in common with what we know of the early rabbinic movement. It is likely that the book’s author knew segments of the early rabbinic movement, embraced and promoted many of their core tenets and halakhic perspectives, yet found some of their primary leaders lacking in character, spiritual discernment, and good judgment – as reflected especiallyin their response to Yeshua and their treatment of his disciples. In light of the high tensions of the period, the transmission of this qualified endorsement of the “Scribes and Pharisees” in Matthew 23:2–3 – with its allusion to Deuteronomy 17 – is remarkable.

While halakhic authority is vested in particular leaders and groups of leaders, it is fundamentally bestowed by Hashem on the people as a whole (Deuteronomy 16:18; 17:14–15; Esther 9:23, 26–28) – “catholic (i.e., universal) Israel,” as it was called by Solomon Schechter. Though the worldwide community of “catholic Israel” has always been diverse in thought and custom, its wisdom concerning
covenantally faithful Jewish life becomes manifest in the general consensus of those Jews who acknowledge Hashem as Israel’s sovereign and affirm the Tanakh as the sacred written medium of divine revelation. Over many centuries this worldwide community has placed its seal upon the rabbinic tradition as the central vehicle by which the Torah – and its halakhic expression for the life of the Jewish people – has been authoritatively transmitted from generation to generation. The MJRC believes that this communal determination faithfully represents the divine purpose for the Jewish people, a purpose which we see as already implicit in Yeshua’s recognition of proto-rabbinic Pharisaic authority in Matthew 23.

Halakhic Authority, the Bilateral Ekklesia, and the Wounded Two-Fold Tradition

Though the Sages of the rabbinic tradition are legitimate bearers of halakhic authority, they are not the only leaders with such competence. As the embodiment of heavenly Wisdom and the living Torah, Yeshua himself is the ultimate earthly source of halakhic authority. While he acknowledged the authority of some leaders in the wider Jewish community, he also formed his own messianic subcommunity and bestowed upon its designated leaders – the Apostles – the authority to bind and loose (Matthew 16:16–19; 18:18). In doing so, Yeshua was authorizing the Apostles to regulate the life of the messianic community according to their Master’s interpretation of the Torah and according to the guidance of his Spirit who writes the Torah on the hearts of his disciples (Matthew 28:18–20;
John 14:26; Jeremiah 31:33; 2 Corinthians 3:2–3). Following their Master, the Apostles respected the authority of the wider Jewish community and its leaders for the governance of public Jewish life (Acts 23:4-5) but also asserted their freedom to diverge from its rulings when they were clearly incompatible with the commandments of the risen Messiah (Acts 4:18–20; 5:27–32).

The halakhic authority given to the Apostles by Yeshua had a bilateral character, in conformity to the bilateral character of the ekklesia in which it was exercised. (The ekklesia of Yeshua is inherently bilateral in that it is constituted by two distinct yet united corporate spheres – one which is primarily made up of Jews and the other which is primarily made up of Gentiles.) The halakhah appropriate to the Jewish ekklesia differed from the halakhah appropriate to the multinational ekklesia (Acts 15:19–21; Acts 21:17–26; 1 Corinthians 7:17–19), and it appears as though each of the Apostles had a mandate to function primarily in one or the other sphere (Galatians 2:7–10).

The tragic disappearance of the Jewish ekklesia and its halakhic tradition disrupted the transmission of this bilateral halakhic tradition. In losing its Jewish center and its bilateral context, the entire community of Yeshua’s followers suffered a grave wound which disfigured its understanding and application of the Torah. Nevertheless, in its many diverse historical expressions and traditions
the multinational ekklesia retained its commission from the Messiah to shape a covenantally faithful way of life. Along with this commission came a type of “halakhic” authority (for a community of non-Jews attached to Israel) and the presence of the Spirit; the risen Yeshua continues to speak and act in its midst.

The disappearance of a messianic ekklesia within the Jewish people also damaged the halakhic and prophetic capacity of “catholic Israel” – which remains incomplete without the presence of Jewish disciples of Yeshua at its very heart, and without a living connection to the multinational ekklesia which has been joined by the Messiah to Israel as its extension among the Gentiles. Nevertheless,
in their many diverse historical expressions and traditions, the Jewish people and their recognized leaders have retained their legitimate halakhic authority, and God continues to operate among them and through them in order to shape their life in accordance with the Torah.

Halakhic Authority and the Modern Messianic Jewish Movement

As participants in a movement larger than itself, the MJRC affirms its conviction that Messianic Judaism emerged in the 20th century as a work of Hashem with the twin aims of restoring a Yeshua-following community within the wider Jewish world and a Torah-observant Jewish community within a renewed bilateral ekklesia. While claiming to be the resurrected form of a lost community of the
past, the Messianic Jewish movement also undeniably lacks direct historical continuity with its ancient prototype.

Messianic Jews see themselves as participating in a movement of spiritual renewal bringing healing to the wounded and divided people of God. We are not ourselves the goal, but are servants of a greater purpose for the two communities to which we are bound in diverse ways. As the Pietist movement of the 17th and 18th centuries breathed life into the Christian world, and as the Hasidic movement of the 18th and 19th centuries opened new doors for the revitalization of the Jewish people, so we believe that the Messianic Jewish movement is called to become a gift to the entire two-fold people of God.

As such, the authority of the Messianic Jewish movement is prophetic rather than institutional. In keeping with the historical pattern of all such renewal movements, its legitimacy is not something that can be determined unequivocally in the present. The prophetic claim of the Messianic Jewish movement now remains a disputed proposition which can only be definitively confirmed or disconfirmed by
its future fruit and by the eventual recognition or non-recognition it receives from the wider communities in which it claims a prophetic role.

Halakhic Authority and the MJRC

Within the context of the Messianic Jewish movement and its prophetic role, the MJRC sees itself as called to serve a particular halakhic function. The MJRC does not view itself as the only halakhic authority in the Messianic Jewish movement,nor does it claim to be the movement’s highest halakhic authority. It does, however, believe that it has halakhic authority for its own immediate sphere and for those beyond that sphere who look to it for guidance. The MJRC believes that its role is to be a pioneer in the development of a halakhic way of life among Messianic Jews, and thereby to stimulate serious halakhic thinking and practice within the movement as a whole. It holds this conviction for the following reasons:

  1. The MJRC was founded by Rabbis ordained within the first congregational association in the Messianic Jewish movement (The Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations or UMJC), an organization distinguished within the wider movement for its appreciation of the Jewish and Christian traditions in all their richness and diversity, and for its support of theological education;
  2. The MJRC is characterized by a commitment to active participation in the community and tradition of the Jewish people, and to respectful and teachable partnership with the community and tradition of the multinational ekklesia;
  3. The MJRC includes some of the finest scholars in the Messianic Jewish movement and rabbis who are capable of interacting knowledgeably with classic Jewish texts and halakhic tradition;
  4. The MJRC tests all of its decisions through a process of practical and pastoral application in the congregations in which its member rabbis live and serve;
  5. The MJRC is the only leadership body in the Messianic Jewish movement that has engaged in the halakhic process over an extended period of time, laboring together since the beginning of this century to develop corporate standards of Torah observance, in faithfulness to the biblical text and with sensitivity to the Spirit of Yeshua.

As is the case for the authority of our movement as a whole, the legitimacy of our claims cannot be determined unequivocally in the present but awaits a divine judgment to be rendered in the course of future events. If our claims are justified over time, then we are an integral part of a process in which the bilateral halakhic authority of the apostolic tradition is being restored, the bilateral ekklesia is being healed, and a corporate Torah-faithful witness to Yeshua is restored to the Jewish people.