About Torah Observance
It’s been a long time coming but The Messianic Movement: A Field Guide for Evangelical Christians from Jews for Jesus is finally in print. One of the eleven chapters explores Torah observance among Jewish believers in Jesus. (We’ve slightly abbreviated it here for space considerations.) Torah observance is a “hot button” for many as it touches on important matters of theology. Whether or not you struggle with this issue personally, it is one that very much affects the Messianic movement, as well as how we are seen by the larger body of believers. After reading this, if you have any comments to add, we’d love to hear from you.
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 Christ and the Trinity, to theologically aberrant. Essentially, these groups present themselves as following the Old Testament Law of Moses, thereby living a life they believe more closely resembles that of first-century followers of Jesus, or is more in keeping with God’s will for today.
Looking at the Law
Martin Luther once observed that no sooner does someone fall off a horse on the right side, than they get back on and proceed to fall off on the left side. The Torah-observant groups are in part a reaction against negative views of the Law found in some Christian circles. It is the unfortunate case that in much of evangelical Christianity the Old Testament is hardly taught, rarely preached on and little understood by the average congregant. Where the 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. The Law in the Old Testament 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 Law itself is not bad; it is sin, the misuse of the Law, and the way that human traditions can end up supplanting the Law, that are bad. The principles of the Law, especially the Ten Commandments, have become the bedrock of Western civilization and of the Church itself—even those churches that portray the Law negatively.
Having said this, the Christian Church has universally recognized that the Law of Moses is not meant to be kept as a body of law by Christians today.4 The Law of Moses was part of a covenant that God made with Israel at a particular time and in a particular place. With the coming of Christ, the New Covenant prophesied by Jeremiah has come into effect and we are no longer under the Old Covenant.
The fact is that for the past two thousand years it has been impossible to observe all the commandments of the Law of Moses 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 Law 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 that the recognition that we are not intended to keep the Law of Moses today does not mean that Christians believe in lawlessness! The specific commands of the Law of Moses each reflected something of the nature of God, and behind each commandment is a principle. Those principles, reflecting God Himself, are still incumbent on all Christians today.
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 of Moses are debated among Christians, but with an understanding that the Church, including both Jewish and Gentile members, is not mandated to keep the entire Law of Moses. 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, and hopefully pause to those who would rush into attempting to observe the Law of Moses today.
- It is no longer possible to keep all 613 (if we accept the traditional rabbinic enumeration) 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 “lawobservance.” For the most part, the emphasis is on holy days, Sabbaths and festivals, with perhaps some attention given to other parts of the Law. In essence, these are not so much Torah-observant as 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, which is distinctly post-biblical, or must 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. So there can be no question of this being an authentic, first- century way of observance.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 Christ, the Torah observant 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 Jesus. Perhaps they would argue that their obedience to the Torah is faithfulness to Christ, 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. This is not only unbiblical, but it also separates these groups from the rest of the Body of Christ in an unhealthy way.
- Since much of the Torah-observant movement is a reaction to negative teaching about the Law, there is likewise a failure on the part of this movement to recognize that large segments of the Church take a very positive view of the Law. This is particularly true of Reformed and Presbyterian churches, which include a positive emphasis on God’s Law within their confessional statements, and in their preaching and teaching. What they mean by God’s Law, however, is not the specific 613 commandments of the Law of Moses—which was part of the Mosaic covenant intended for that time in redemptive history—but the principles that God intends for us and commands us to live by. For many of these churches, those principles are embodied especially in the Ten Commandments, which comprise the standard for all Christian obedience.
- Actually, the obedience required under the New Covenant is more radical than that under the Old 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 Law of Moses: “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required” (Luke 12:48). To stress obedience to the Law of Moses 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 Old Testament laws, 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. Jesus 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 much Old Testament law functioned to distinguish Israel from the nations. While there is indeed distinctiveness to the Jewish people, not all the Old Testament distinctions apply. For example, one can make a good argument that the food laws were intended to symbolize the separation of Israel from the nations. Under the New Covenant, Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus become one in the Messiah (Ephesians 2:14) in a way not realized under the Mosaic Covenant. As a result, one can build a good case that the mandatory keeping of kosher laws is no longer required for a Jewish believer in Jesus.5
- 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.
Questions arise about whether or not particular Jewish observances are proper for a follower of Jesus, 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 Law of Moses in the life of a Jewish believer. Some Messianic congregations have a Sefer Torah, a scroll of the Law. Many, even if they do not own a Sefer Torah, 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, this is something quite different from the intentions 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, to be a story to other Jewish people, or simply as a mark of personal Jewish identity. If done voluntarily, without a belief that one accrues higher favor with God for doing so, there is freedom in Christ to do these things. 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 such celebrations 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 Christ 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.6
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.
- Romans 7:12, 16.
- “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15).
- 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).
- Many divide the Law into civil, ceremonial and moral laws. Whether those are valid distinctions is another matter, but it is instructive that no one insists that we need to keep them all. Most Christians who view the Law along those three divisions accept an ongoing validity to the moral law, particularly as embodied in the Ten Commandments. A minority view is that of Theonomists, who believe that the civil law with its penalties should continue to function in some way today.
- For a good discussion of the laws of kosher food in Leviticus, see Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Eerdmans, 1979).
- See Bruce J. Lieske, “Jewish Feasts in Gentile Congregations”.
Scholar in Residence, Missionary
Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.