What is Torah Anyway?
Let us think about language for a moment. There are many people around the world who consider themselves followers of Jesus Christ, but who prefer to call Him by His Hebrew name, Yeshua, and by His Hebrew title, Messiah (Moshiach, the Hebrew term for Christ). These people may be classified as Messianic Jews if they are Jewish, but most of them are not. They are non-Jews, people whom others would call Gentiles, but who resist that term because they understand that their faith in Messiah Yeshua takes them out of the category of “Gentile” (meaning “of the nations”) and into the category of “Hebrew” (עִבְרִי, Strongs H5680). The term “Hebrew” derives from the father of our faith, Abraham the Hebrew (Genesis 14:13), the man who answered YHVH’s call to cross over the Euphrates River and leave his homeland in Mesopotamia to inherit the Promised Land of Canaan (Genesis 12:1-9). According to the Apostle Paul, everyone who acquires new life offered by the grace of YHVH through faith in Messiah Yeshua similarly crosses over from death to life and inherits the identity of a son or daughter of Abraham (Ephesians 2:1-21; Galatians 3:1-29). For that reason, these non-Jewish Yeshua followers are rightly called “Hebrews”, or “Hebrew Roots believers”. They are also entitled to the identity of “Israelites”, because Israel is the name of the nation YHVH established through Abraham’s descendants.
We would not call these people Christians in the traditional sense because they have left behind many of the characteristics of Christianity. Make no mistake, they have not walked away from Jesus Christ as the author and finisher of their faith, nor have they walked away from the New Testament as Scripture delivered by Holy God to humanity through His designated messengers. They merely prefer to call Jesus Yeshua, and to refer to the New Testament as the Apostolic Writings, or by the Hebrew term Brit Chadashah (New Covenant). For that reason it is incorrect to classify these persons as Jews. For one thing, they are not born Jewish and do not claim any physical descent from Jewish ancestors. For another, they have no desire to convert to Judaism, which really would require leaving Jesus behind. They see themselves as part of the nation, commonwealth, and kingdom of Israel along with Jews and Christians. This commonwealth exists because of three things:
- Our mutual faith in YHVH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob;
- Our adherence to the same body of Scripture (well, everything from Genesis to Malachi at least);
- Our hope in the same Messiah (even though some do not yet recognize who that Messiah is, and others do not fully understand what Messiah is to do).
Having now defined who we Hebrew Roots believers are, let us consider something of what we believe. Or, more accurately, what we do not believe. This is something that requires considerably more attention than this blog post can provide. The immediate motivation is a post written by my friend Pete Rambo which he titled, “How To: Building Bridges with the House of Judah”. Pete has much to say about the issue of language, noting how the use of certain terms can create offense and division simply because they mean different things to different people. As usual, Pete invited discussion from his readers. Here is my contribution:
Another language issue to overcome is the meaning of “Torah”. What do we mean when we use the word? When I use it I refer specifically to the foundational instructions, commandments, and laws established by YHVH and delivered through Moses in writing. All of them are in those first five books of the Bible, not in some oral tradition handed down through the centuries as a kind of parallel secret knowledge about what YHVH really meant. When I say we are returning to Torah, I mean that we from the Christian side are coming back to some very important instructions, commandments, and laws that our church upbringing set aside, such as:
- Shabbat (Sabbath) (Genesis 2:1-3; Exodus 20:8-11, 23:12, 31:13-16; Leviticus 26:2; Deuteronomy 5:12-15);
- Appointed Times (Moedim, or Feasts) of the Lord (Leviticus 23:1-44);
- Dietary commandments (Leviticus 11:1-47; Deuteronomy 14:3-21).
True Christians already keep the heart of the Torah. They live as best as they know how by the two greatest commandments of loving YHVH and loving their neighbor (Mark 12:28-34; Matthew 22:34-40; Luke 10:25-28; 20:1-45), and they do well at living by the principles of justice, mercy, and faithfulness, the things Yeshua identifies as the weightier matters of the Law (Matthew 23:23). With such a foundation it should be easy to understand and begin to apply the rest of the Torah.
This is where we get to the difference between Hebraic and Christian disciples of Yeshua. We on the Hebraic path are coming to understand that all of Torah is still valid, although the circumstances for applying much of it do not presently exist. For example, the laws regarding the priesthood, the sacrificial worship system, Temple regulations, and ritual cleanliness have no application at the moment because there is no Temple and no priesthood. One day all of those things will exist again, and at that point they will become something more than merely academic debate. For now, since we begin with the premise that all of Torah is still valid, we accept on faith that those things which we do not understand will be made clear in due time, but we dare not throw anything out as being of no value to a follower of Jesus (Matthew 5:17-20).
And now we come to the language problem. It is simply this: Christians and Jews for the most part think that “Torah” means “Oral Torah”. In brief, the Oral Torah is the foundation of rabbinical Judaism (see “The Oral Law – Talmud & Mishna” in the Jewish Virtual Library, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/talmud_&_mishna.html). It is the traditions and commentaries of the Jewish sages, much of which originated during and immediately after the Babylonian Captivity. These commentaries carry the same authority as scripture, being on the same level as the books of Moses and the writings of the Prophets. A century after the destruction of the Second Temple, these oral commentaries were codified into the Mishna, and in later centuries the commentaries of Jewish scholars on the Mishna were compiled into additional volumes called the Talmud. The most prominent version of the Talmud is the one compiled in Babylon in the 5th century CE. Today the term Talmud generally embraces the Mishna as well as the rabbinical commentaries. Unfortunately, the distinction between the Talmud and the Torah is blurred in the minds of Jews and Christians alike.
Since rabbinical Judaism considers the oral traditions to be scripture, Talmudic teaching holds the same or greater authority for most Jews as does the Pentateuch (the Greek word for the five books of Moses). That means our observant Jewish brethren still consider the traditions and doctrines of men greater than the commandments of God. When Jews read in the Apostolic Writings (New Testament) about Yeshua reprimanding the scribes and Pharisees in Mark 7:1-23 and Matthew 23:1-39, they think He is preaching against Torah. That, unfortunately, is the same thing our Christian brethren think. Very few have ever studied for themselves to see what Moses actually wrote. They therefore assume, for example, that Yeshua’s healing on the Sabbath broke the laws set down by Moses rather than the traditions men had established to “clarify” the instructions of Moses. It is these traditions which constitute what the Apostle Peter describes as “a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10). The Torah as delivered through Moses is “not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach (Deuteronomy 30:11-14; see also Romans 10:5-13). That is why Yeshua came to teach the Torah correctly, advising His followers to take up His yoke (teaching) of Moses, which is easy and light (Matthew 11:28-30).
This misunderstanding on both sides leads to a division over Yeshua the Messiah. One side thinks He has contradicted Scripture by disregarding the man-made Jewish traditions, and the other side thinks He has changed Scripture by throwing out whatever God commanded by the hand of Moses. This is where we who are coming into a Hebraic understanding of the entire Bible can provide a valuable service. We are uniquely equipped to build bridges between the Jewish and Christian portions of God’s chosen people. Perhaps that is why those who have opposed YHVH’s covenant of redemption and restoration have sought to separate Jews and Christians for the last two thousand years. Each has a vital part of that covenantal understanding, but the full revelation comes only by putting the two halves together under the revelatory leading of the Holy Spirit.
No pressure, but the fate of the world depends on our faithfulness to this calling.