WHICH LAW DO WE KEEP ?
Tikkun Staff Writers
Ever since the famous Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15, there has been discussion as to the relative position of Jewish and Gentile believers with regard to the role and function of Torah in the believing community and how the two groups of believers are to observe it while remaining true to Rav Sha'ul's clear picture of the One New Man.
We believe there is a simple answer: each to his own.
The Rabbinic Background
In their search to define what law is applicable to whom, the Rabbis determined that while the covenant made at Mt Sinai is applicable only to Jews, there is a body of universal law that applies to all mankind. This is derived from two quotations from the creation accounts: B'resheet (Genesis) 1:28:
And God blessed [Adam and Hava] and said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth;
and B'resheet 2:16-17:
And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, "From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.".
The first Scripture makes it clear that there is a surviving command that is incumbent upon all mankind to live in and occupy this world. In the second Scripture, the use of the word 'command' is taken to emphasise that God didn't just offer advice, He did issue commands to man. With some clever midrash, it was possible to read six commandments into these verses: prohibition of idolatry, blasphemy, adjudication, homicide, illicit sex and theft1. The significance of the command was noted also by other early writers such as Sirach2 and Philo3.
From this, the Rabbis concluded that there were three sets of people and two sets of law. The people groups are the Jews, Gentiles living among the Jews, and Gentiles living apart from Jews; There is Torah for the Jews and gerim, and the universal law for everyone else - with the universal law being a particular small subset of Jewish law.
Acts 15 - The Definitive Moment
Acts 15 gives us a record of what happened at that meeting in Jerusalem. The first verse sets the context for the Council and makes it plain that the question is really about what Gentiles must do in order to be saved (see also verse 5). Peter replies, particularly in verses 9 and 11, that Gentiles have already been saved as Gentiles - not as Jews or Jewish proselytes, but as Gentiles. So James' statement in verses 19-21 is not so much a decision as an explanation of the halakhic position that follows from what God has done. It is interesting to notice that his four points bear a remarkable similarity to the Noachide Laws4 later to be formalised by Rabbinic Judaism in the 2nd Century, but widely known to be extant in several forms in 2nd Temple days.
Does Rav Sha'ul accept this?
Is this a decision that Rav Sha'ul can live with? Does it follow through in his writings, or is he (as commonly held in some circles) always bucking against the Jewish restrictions imposed by the Council?
Read carefully, Sha'ul's letter to the Galatians - addressed as it is to a mainly Gentile audience - tells us that Gentile believers should not seek to pick up or observe Jewish obligations as a means of salvation. Gentiles don't need to be in Jewish space or doing Jewish things to be believers. God has already saved them as Gentiles. It can be argued, indeed, that Jews, on the other hand, are still obligated to keep Torah: Every man who receives circumcision is under obligation to keep the whole Law (Galatians 5:3). By virtue of God's covenant with the Jewish people, and therefore, who they are in their very beings, Jews remain committed to keeping Torah as a critical part of their witness to the nations (Romans 11:29). This is not to say that as part of a believing Jewish community, Gentiles may not voluntarily observe the Feasts of the Lord or keep kosher - and indeed, it may be a condition of remaining within that community, as the community is an expression of Jewish faith - but they are free to worship elsewhere at any time as the Lord directs and know that their salvation stands totally apart from their practice. On the other hand, if they do choose to convert (though not for the purpose of salvation), they are obligated - as Jews are obligated - to keep the Torah.
Writing to the Corinthians, Rav Sha'ul says: Let each person live the life the Lord has assigned him and live it in the condition he was in when God called him. This is the rule I lay down in all the congregations (1 Corinthians 7:17, CJB). The key phrase here is "the life the Lord has assigned him": this is the person that G-d has created and called you to be. If a Jew, then a Jew and if a Gentile, then a Gentile. On the other hand, there are less common instances in which conversion is legitimate, such as Sha'ul's conversion of Timothy. The Jewish scholar Shaye Cohen, in his important work, The Beginnings of Jewishness (University of Chicago Press: 1999) argues that in the period before the codification of the Mishnah, Timothy would have been viewed as a Gentile and that his circumcision represented a formal conversion to Judaism. Matrilineal descent, according to Cohen, though the normative criteria for determining Jewish identity today, was not the standard in the time of Rav Sha'ul and Timothy.
But which law are we obligated to? Where are the boundaries of the regulations that affect each of us? Michael Wyschogrod writes: "The distinction that needs to be made, therefore, is not between the law before Christ and after Christ, but the law for Jews and for Gentiles"5.
Essentially, Jews live and are called as Jews, in covenant relationship with God, keeping the Law that has been given to them. Jewish believers are now alive to God in Messiah Yeshua, having true atonement and fulfilment in Him. As written earlier, Rav Sha'ul tells us that the gift and calling of God is irrevocable (Romans 11:19). There is a body of Scripture that assures us that God has not revoked His covenant with the Jewish people; Yeshua Himself famously saying,
Do not think that I came to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Torah, until all is accomplished (Matthew 5:17-18).
Gentiles, on the other hand, live and are called as Gentiles, now in covenant relationship with God as Rav Sha'ul makes clear in Ephesians 2:12-13, 19. Gentiles lived in the midst of the Jewish community from the earliest times: the Exodus narrative shows that some Gentiles came with the Jews when they left Egypt; the Torah explicitly instructs the Israelites to watch out for and protect the alien or stranger in their midst, extending legal protection and privilege to the gerim as to the native Israelites. The famous quotation from the Levitical code,
You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself, (Vayikra 19:18)
is paralleled only a few verses later by,
When a stranger (ger) resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself (19:33-34).
Gentiles are expected to live as Israelites in the Jewish community and were admitted to the celebration of Passover if they had been circumcised.
Maintaining the Distinction
Many of us live in societies that are, to a greater or lesser extent, pluralistic democracies, where people have become used to doing what they want to do without being concerned about the various differences that used to separate people. It is surely a good thing that race, gender and age are no longer considered good reasons for denying access to education, healthcare, employment and many other social benefits and activities.
Nevertheless, there are certain God-given distinctions that we ignore at our peril because they are built into the very fabric of who we are and the way in which society is designed to operate.
In what is perhaps one of the most abused verses from the Scriptures, Rav Sha'ul makes a deliberate point of grouping together some of the most clear-cut distinctions in order to underline the way in which God's grace, His free gift of salvation in Messiah Yeshua, is extended to all people in spite of those distinctions:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Messiah Yeshua (Galatians 3:28)
Men and women are similar and equal in both being made in the image of God. At the very same time they remain distinct because of physical, psychological and role differences. Hands up those men who have had a baby recently! In the same way, Jew and Gentile stand together in Messiah, co-workers with Him in the kingdom of God, but called to different roles and responsibilities. Often Jew and Gentile will work alongside each other - in the same mission, congregation or area of ministry - yet each serving God in their own unique way.
As Messianic Jews, we understand that the Bible is our final written authority. For us, Jewish tradition does not have that same level of authority, but it does have a powerful formative influence upon us as a people and as individuals. When Gentiles begin to do things according to Jewish tradition - all the while thinking that they are doing things biblically - they not only obscure the distinction between Jew and Gentile, but also the difference between Scripture and tradition.
Celebrating the Feasts
The celebration of the biblical feasts, as laid out in Vayikra 23, B'Midbar 29 and elsewhere, is a case in point. How should Jews and Gentiles celebrate the feasts - together, according to Jewish tradition, or separately in their own distinctive ways?
Nevertheless, a Jewish celebration of a feast is a definitely Jewish occasion, with liturgy, symbols (e.g. the lulav and etrog at Sukkot), music and even traditional foods. Gentiles can participate either with the Jewish community of which they are a part, or as invited guests, but should not attempt to copy Jewish tradition in the absence of any Jewish people. It has been suggested that it is an unconscious and subtle (though sometimes conscious and not so subtle) form of identity theft when Gentiles -- if they do not connect with the Jewish past, participate in the Jewish present, and invest in the Jewish future -- do Jewish things.
How could one celebrate Shavuot, the Feast of Firstfruits, in a uniquely Gentile way? By the bringing of first-fruit and freewill offerings from crops and crafts; by sharing readings and songs from Scripture and other writers, celebrating and proclaiming God's bounty and goodness - and all without needing to use any Jewish liturgy or Hebrew language. Similarly, Shabbat can be kept without adopting traditional Jewish customs - several Christian groups have been doing so for years! One major Messianic Jewish leader has advocated that various nations could develop Pesach-like ceremonies to celebrate the time of their national freedom (for Americans, this could be the 4th of July; for the French, Bastille Day), but in Scripture-based terms.
This is not to be unwelcoming - we are aware of the groundswell of interest that is developing within the Christian churches for Jewish roots, a desire to know and appreciate the Jewish understanding of the Scriptures. Isaiah prophesied,
Also the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to Him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be His servants, everyone who keeps from profaning the sabbath, and holds fast My covenant; even those I will bring to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer (Isaiah 56:6-7).
Gentiles should be welcome to come and participate as regular guests in Jewish space while they are considering whether they have been called to live within the Jewish people.
Our position is that Jews are called to live as Jews, continuing their unique covenant role given by God. Gentile believers living within the Jewish community, for example as members of Messianic Jewish congregations, have been called to live as their community lives, on a voluntary basis - in love, unity and fellowship with their Jewish brothers and sisters; sharing a common vision for reaching the Jewish people as Jews. Gentile believers who do not live within the Jewish community are free to live as Gentiles, not obligated with regard to Torah save as explicitly applied to them by the Scriptures, but still a part of the one Body of Messiah.
1 B'rsheet. Rab. 16.6; cf. 24.5; D'varim. Rab. 2.25; Cant. Rab. 1:16; b. Sanh. 56B Pesiq. Rab Kah. 12.1
2 Sir. 17.14
3 e.g. Leg. All. 1.90-108
4 Based on God's words to Noah in B'resheet 9:1-8, the Rabbis formulated seven commandments which are held to be the definitive set of law that is incumbent upon all mankind
5 Wyschogrod, Michael. 1988. 'A Jewish Postscript'. In Encountering Jesus: A Debate on Christology, 179-87. Ed. S. T. Davis. Atlanta: John Knox Press.