Among those groups that are sometimes considered part of the Messianic movement are those organizations and congregations that call themselves "Torah-observant," or that emphasize obedience to the Law of Moses by another term. These groups can vary from the theologically orthodox regarding the person of Messiah and the Trinity, to theologically aberrant. Essentially, these groups present themselves as following the Tanakh (Old Testament), thereby living a life they believe more closely resembles that of first-century followers of Yeshua, or more in keeping with God's will for today.
Looking at the Torah
Some Torah-observant groups are in part a reaction against negative views of the Torah found in a number of Christian circles. It is the unfortunate case that in much of evangelical Christianity the Tanakh is hardly taught, rarely preached on and little understood by the average congregant. Where the Torah (or Law) is mentioned, it is often portrayed as merely a burden from which Christians are now free.
The biblical picture of the Law is quite different. In the Hebrew Bible, the Law is spoken of as a gift from God, a guide to life, something to be cherished and enjoyed, as well as something to be obeyed under penalty of punishment for disobedience. It is intimately bound up with the covenant wherein God graciously reiterated His relationship with His people.
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul reminds us that the Law is good.1 The idea of obedience is continually highlighted, from the Sermon on the Mount to Jesus' words in John's Gospel2 and in the epistles.3 In fact, nine of the Ten Commandments are explicitly reinforced in the New Testament.
The Torah itself is not bad; it is the misuse of the Torah, and the way that human traditions can end up supplanting the Torah, that are bad. The principles of the Torah, especially the Ten Commandments, have become the bedrock of Western civilization and of the Christian church itself—even those churches that portray the Torah negatively.
The fact is that for the past two thousand years it has been impossible to observe all the commandments of the Torah because so many of them depend on the existence of a Temple, a priesthood, animal sacrifices, and living as a theocratic nation within the Land of Israel. Orthodox Judaism recognizes this, and when the Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, Judaism was reconstructed as a religion without a Temple or a priesthood, a religion dependent on the authority and decisions of the rabbis. Reform Judaism, a recent movement of the past 250 years, views the Torah as often antiquated and outdated, but useful as a reminder of our history, a symbol of our people, and a source of ethics.
It is, however, equally important to note while we don't believe it is our adherence to the Law, or lack thereof, that determines our salvation, we do not believe in lawlessness! The specific commands of the Torah reflect the nature of God, and behind each commandment is a principle. Those principles, reflecting God Himself, are still incumbent on all followers of Yeshua to this day.
A Response to Torah-Observant Groups
In evaluating the Torah-observant groups within the Messianic movement, there are several things worth considering. To be sure, the exact nature and function of the Law are debated among Christians, but with an understanding that the Church, including both Jewish and Gentile members, is not bound to keep it in its entirety. The following, then, is not intended as a final word by any means (as if it were possible in just a few paragraphs!), but is meant to give food for thought.
- It is no longer possible to keep all 613 laws because we no longer have a Temple, or a priesthood, or live as a theocracy in the Land of Israel. Because of this, the Torah-observant groups end up being extremely selective in their "law observance." For the most part, the emphasis is on holy days, Shabbat, and festivals, with perhaps some attention given to other parts of the Torah. In essence, these are not so much Torah-observant as they are festival-observant groups. And since the Temple and priesthood are gone and a majority of Jews live in the diaspora (outside the land of Israel), even the festivals, for instance, must be observed differently than they were in biblical times. Perhaps without their realizing it, Torah-observant groups must either depend on rabbinic tradition or construct their own traditions. For instance, members of such groups do not send their men to appear before the Lord in Jerusalem, as required in the Law of Moses, nor do they offer sacrifices. Moreover, among the commandments of the Law are penalties for its violation, including the death penalty in many cases. Torah-observant groups do not apply the death penalty to those who are not Torah-observant. Indeed they cannot, for if they did, they would be subject in modern society to criminal charges in a court of law! We no longer live in a theocracy subject to the penalties of God's Law.
- One gets the impression that, far more than they emphasize faithfulness to Messiah, these groups emphasize Torah-observance as their distinctive, and in fact imply that they are being more obedient to God, or have a deeper spirituality, than other believers in Yeshua. Perhaps they would argue that their obedience to the Torah is faithfulness to Messiah, but there is a distinct imbalance in their approach. Inadvertently, perhaps, they have created a two-tier system of believers: the more spiritual ones who observe the Law and the less spiritual ones who do not. Not only does this contradict Scripture, but it also separates these groups from the rest of the Body of Messiah in an unhealthy way. (Matthew 7:1-5; James 4:11-12, 17; Romans 14)
- What goes largely unnoticed is that the obedience required under the New Covenant is more radical than that under the Mosaic Covenant. For instance, in Deuteronomy 22:8 it is required for one to build a parapet around the roof, a safety feature in a time when the roof functioned as both a living room for entertaining and a bedroom. I doubt that the Torah-observant groups require such parapets. But under the New Covenant, much more is required. That particular commandment is an example of how to follow the general rule to love our neighbor, and is an outworking of the sixth commandment, "You shall not murder." In principle, its application today would range from preserving safety for our family and guests all the way to working for national security or in public policy. The New Covenant broadens and deepens the requirements of the Torah: "For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required" (Luke 12:48). To stress obedience to the Law without stressing the fuller applications of the principles embodied in those laws is to miss the point. (Galatians 3:24)
- The Torah-observant groups justify their position on the basis of selected verses, while ignoring others. Much is made of the term "forever" used in regard to some laws of Torah, while verses such as Hebrews 8:13 that speak of the first covenant as being "obsolete," are not dealt with. Further, they ignore what theologians commonly call the "history of redemption," the progress of God's dealings with humankind throughout history. Yeshua has indeed brought something new, but the Torah-observant groups minimize the newness that the coming of the Messiah has meant. In addition, they minimize the way the Law functioned to distinguish Israel from the nations, and point the way to the Creator of the universe, and ultimately, the Messiah.
- Many in Torah-observant circles are not Jewish. Thought should be given as to why non-Jews are so eager to observe a law never intended for them, and to the New Testament teaching on the place of the Law of Moses in the lives of Gentile Christians. (Acts 15:1-35)
Questions arise about whether or not particular Jewish observances are proper for a follower of Yeshua, and these questions have been debated among Jewish believers. One problem is that it is often hard to separate cultural from religious expressions. For an Orthodox Jew, celebrating Passover is a fulfillment of a divine command, and is done in accordance with the accretions of 2,000 years of rabbinic tradition and rabbinic law. For a Reform or secular Jew, celebrating Passover is often simply an opportunity to enjoy doing something Jewish: having a get-together with the family, going through a few traditions familiar from childhood, and sharing a meal. Is Passover then a cultural expression or a religious one? Similar questions arise pertaining to other aspects of Judaism, because Judaism today is not a monolith when it comes to religious and cultural expression.
Therefore, a word needs to be said about the place of the Torah in the life of a Jewish believer. We believe in the value and holiness of the Torah. It is God's word and will not pass away (Matthew 5:17-20). We believe as Jewish people we are still called to be a light to the nations. That is why we maintain our Jewish identity. Within Messianic Judaism, you will find some who follow Torah strictly and some who don't. Some Messianic congregations have a Sefer Torah, a scroll of the Law. Even if they do not own a Sefer Torah, many incorporate readings from the Torah that correspond to the passage being read that week in synagogues in their services.
Many Jewish believers choose to celebrate the holidays or keep kosher. Usually, though, their intent is quite different from those of the Torah-observant groups. For instance, all the above examples might be done to show solidarity with the rest of the Jewish community, to express worship in a Jewish manner, or simply as a mark of personal Jewish identity. If done voluntarily, without believing these actions earn salvation, there is freedom in Messiah to do these things.The bottom line is that we don't believe it is our adherence to Torah, or lack thereof, that determines our salvation and atones for us. It is our faith in Yeshua's sacrifice and resurrection. Our salvation has always been dependent on our faith in God and the sacrifice which made atonement for us. However, the emphasis of Torah-observant groups is on mandatory law-keeping as an expression of greater obedience to God. So in their case we are dealing with something quite different.
A word also about churches that enjoy celebrations such as Passover: this is also something quite different from the Torah-observant groups. Churches that have an annual Passover Seder generally do so as a teaching and worship tool, with fulfillment in Messiah as the focus, and an emphasis on enriching the observance of Communion. In such circumstances, it is not done as part of a mandatory requirement to observe the Law of Moses. As such, this activity should be encouraged.4
In summary, if you hear of a group calling themselves "Torah-observant," keep in mind the above responses and remember that it was never the Law, only its misuse, that the New Testament criticizes.
3. For instance: "But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does" (James 1:25); "If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, 'Love your neighbor as yourself,' you are doing right" (James 2:8); "What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?" (James 2:14).
4. See Bruce J. Lieske, "Jewish Feasts in Gentile Congregations".