Derek Leman, a messianic rabbi from Atlanta, GA in this guest post for Jewish Studies for Christians deals with an issue of whether or not Jews and Gentiles are bound by the same commandments. While there are other well-argued opinions, I am happy to present his post to you for your careful consideration and engagement. (You are cordially invited to visit one of his blogs “Messianic Jewish Musings” of this talented and prolific author. To do so, please, click HERE).
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Whose commandments are they? That is, for whom were they laid down as stipulations? Does that still matter or did something change, such as God issuing a new covenant that made the original commandments a law for everyone? Or did a new people come to God who were then transformed in some way, made to have the same relationship to God as this first people, the Jewish people?
The logic of “one law” or of the divine obligation of all people of faith in Messiah to the same laws as those given to Israel is usually based on one of a handful of arguments. Aren’t non-Jews grafted into the Jewish tree through Messiah and if so, doesn’t this eliminate the Jewish-Gentile differentiation? If a commandment is holy, then isn’t it unholy not to follow it? Since the Torah is the only ordered list of God’s requirements, it has to be for everyone, because God nowhere gives a “law for the Gentiles,” right?
People often base their opinion about the commandments on their experience and not on the Bible. I am not against the importance of our personal experience with God. It’s just that experience can be misinterpreted. It seems to be far better if we interpret our experiences with reference to the great ideas that are in the Bible and find answers which bring together Bible and experience.
So, for example, a Christian may experience a deep awakening upon discovering the joys of Passover and Sabbath and the rhythm of the Torah calendar. Likewise, eating a restricted diet can feel like intensifying holiness. And the whole experience of becoming a Torah-observer may feel like getting very close to God. Then, when encountering Jewish beliefs about Torah — that Torah is a covenant between Israel and God, not between the nations and God — such a person might feel as if they are being denied membership in an exclusive club.
I would like to explain why, in simple terms, God’s way is not one law for everyone, and suggest a middle path for non-Jews who want to have a closer relationship with Israel’s Torah.
First, it would be helpful if people would go back to the giving of the Torah from Sinai in Exodus 19. Would Jewish people be asking too much if we say, “Please keep in mind the importance of this event as something special between us and God?” When you read Exodus 19, can you not see God is making a covenant with the Jewish people? Yes, there are clever work-arounds such as “Gentiles were there too in the form of the mixed multitude.” But those tortured arguments look like a way to deny the simple truth: Torah was given as a covenant to Israel. The commandments are the stipulations of the covenant.
Second, what is in the Torah? Do people who want to read it as “one law for everyone” actually take into account what is actually contained in it? Many things in Torah no longer apply to anyone today, Jewish or non-Jewish. Do you need laws about how to treat your slave? Have you seriously entertained the idea of taking a war-bride after giving her a month to mourn her father? Were you considering stoning your rebellious teenager? Reading the Torah calls for some maturity in reading, some willingness to learn history, to see the difference between the ideal in Torah and the time-bound social and civil legislation it contained for an ancient nation in a barbaric world.
Third, when people talk about how they are “Torah-observant” or say that they “keep the commandments,” they mean only a handful of them. What they are really talking about is the observances given to Israel which the church has not made part of its practice: Sabbath, dietary law, circumcision on the eighth day, tassels on one’s garment, and festivals. There is no Temple anymore, so the laws about offerings and giving the tithe to the priests cannot really apply. But these few commandments that differentiate Israel from the nations — which can be referred to as the sign commandments, since they are signs of Israel’s uniqueness — are a cause for controversy. It may help (or maybe not) to point out that the Sabbath is specifically said to be such a sign: “Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations” (Exod 31:13). When God said this, it is clear the “you” was Israel, and Israel’s generations are still very much alive today.
Fourth, it is possible — and I try to get people to see this — that what is holy and required for one person is not holy and required of all people. One person — a priest in Israel — may not be able to attend a burial or walk in a graveyard. If the whole world follows the “one law” principle, none of our dead will ever be buried. One person — someone under a Nazirite vow — must avoid wine and even grapes and raisins. If the all-commandments-apply-universally notion is followed, well, we will all miss out on some great Cabernet and the joy of raisins in our oatmeal. Likewise, it is possible that Sabbath is a holy sign of Jewishness (just like Exodus says) and that it is not holy for Gentiles. It may be that Israel’s diet was restricted and this marked them as a different people in the ancient world, but that there is no reason why pork is inherently unclean — just as Genesis 9:3 suggests.
Fifth, it is fairly easy to see — but clever and specious arguments are used to avoid seeing what is obvious — that the apostles believed Jews in Messiah should keep all the commandments but that the Gentiles did not need to “keep the law of Moses.” They did not mean by this that Gentiles in Messiah were free to steal and murder. “Law of Moses” means the covenant stipulations from Sinai as a total system. It is clear in reading Paul that he taught his Gentile adherents they were not bound by diets and days and the use of flint knives to remove a foreskin. To many people, this makes Paul seem problematic, anti-Torah. Did it occur to anyone he was being a good Jew and interpreting Torah according to its true sense?
Sixth, it is also fairly easy to see that the church went too far in distancing itself from Torah and the Jewish people. Christian theologians regularly write about this and recovering the Jewishness of Christianity is standard form today in many circles. Yes, plenty of Christians remain oblivious to what the theologians and historians within Christianity are saying about Jewish roots, but the church has definitely turned a corner. It is possible now to argue that Christians practice a form of Judaism and to point this out entirely from Christian thinkers and scholars.
Seventh, it is often overlooked that Christians keep most of what is in Torah, at least what I call the ideals of Torah. Love God and neighbor is the ideal center of Torah. It is expressed in ways we treat the powerless, honor one another, serve those in need, form community, and repair the world. Christians have always been very involved in love and service and good works.
Eighth and finally, there is a middle way for people who want to keep some of Israel’s Torah without those same people denying Israel’s unique relationship to God. It is not necessary to say, “I am grafted into Israel’s tree and so I am virtually an Israelite now.” It is not necessary to say, “All the commandments are holy for everyone and there are no distinctions.” It is possible instead to adopt the philosophy of one of the earliest writings of the Yeshua-movement, the Didache (pronounced deed-ah-KHAY). The Didache came out of the first century Messianic Jewish movement and a few decades after Paul died, the Didache argued that Gentiles could keep Torah. It is possible to see that in Paul’s time this could have been dangerous, it could have rendered Messiah null and void. But after many Gentiles came in, it was possible some of them would want to live close to Jewish communities and worship with them.
So in the Didache, Gentiles were encouraged to “keep as much Torah as they are able” and to live in fellowship with Jewish disciples. The audience of the Didache, then, were Messianic Gentiles — as we often call people today who are in Messianic congregations or, even if not members of a Messianic congregation, live a Messianic Jewish lifestyle and maintain friendships with Messianic Jews. And the Didache does not encourage these Gentiles to simply act as if they are Jewish. Some distinctions remain.
So, for example, in Messianic Judaism today, Gentiles have a welcome place. The best practices of Torah will include making distinctions without discrimination. It is possible to distinguish and not discriminate.
And it is not necessary that Gentiles who choose this middle way should claim that all Christians must do the same. Living as a “Messianic Gentile” (or just as a “Messianic”) does not make a person holier. It is one way and God has many ways for people. The most important commandments are not Sabbath and dietary law anyway. To over-exalt these is to practice a form of cheap self-righteousness.
Jewishness is not a privilege. It is a responsibility. Jewishness is not a status of higher blessing. It is a calling to be a distinguishable people and to pass on that identity to children and children’s children forever. Gentiles who love the Torah should not try to erase Jewish distinction, to render Jewishness inert, to say all Messiah-followers are essentially Jews.
It does matter whose commandments they are. And the ideals of Torah apply to everyone even if some of the specifics are about Israel’s peoplehood. One law for everyone fails to read Torah according to its own distinctions. Being grafted in is a way of explaining how Gentiles come into the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant, one given long before Sinai and which included Gentiles from the beginning (Gen 12:1-3). God did not ever say, “I now take the commandments given to Israel and make them apply to all of Messiah’s people.” But Paul did show his Gentile adherents how they could derive from the Torah what was required of them. And like Abraham (Gen 26:5), it is possible to keep all of God’s statutes without having a specific law-code.
The Torah is not one law for everyone. But neither do we have to forbid people from keeping it. There is a middle way.
What do you think?