The Torah of God: Road Back or Road Block? A Look at Law in Judaism and Christianity
Through the centuries, one of the major areas of misunderstanding between the Jewish and Christian faiths has been the issue of the nature and role of the Torah as revelation from God. Judaism, on one hand, insists that no revelation supercedes that of the Torah revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Some Christians, on the other hand, interpret the Bible to mean that there is such a radical discontinuity between the Torah and Jesus that there is no relationship between them at all.
The Nature and Role of Torah
It is necessary to uncover some theological ideas and concerns common to both faiths pertinent to the human condition without which there would be no basis for discussion. The first is that God is God and there is no other like him. From the side of Judaism, as Israel struggled to emerge from the polytheistic morass from which it arose, a progression can be traced. The Hebrew Scriptures show that the mighty God that delivered the children of Israel from their bondage in Egypt is not only more powerful and greater than other gods, but, in his ineffable greatness, is revealed to be the only God. His reality renders all other objects of worship worthless, null and void. To this day, this confession is enshrined in the Shema, the liturgy of Judaism: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One,” and in the common formula of blessing, “Blessed art Thou O Lord our God King of the universe.” The holiness and transcendence of God seems to be one of the few things the rabbis unanimously agree upon.
From the side of Christianity, the transcendent majesty of God has been no less strenuously upheld. Jesus’ teaching itself testifies to a strong determination not to undermine the authority and “wholly otherness” of God. “Why do you call me good? No one is good, except God alone,” (Luke 18:19) and “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can only do what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does,” (John 5:19) are only two of many instances of Jesus’ confession of the kingship of God the Father.
In its early struggle with the polytheistic culture of the first century, the Jewish apostles zealously defended the oneness of God as the reality upon which the gospel of Jesus rested. See Paul’s and Barnabas’ words and actions at Lystra, recorded in Acts 14. Mistaken for gods by the residents of Lystra, Paul and Barnabas tore their clothes in protest as any good Jew would under the circumstances, and hastily assured the crowd, “We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them” (Acts 14:15).
Moreover, as Christian confession began to sort itself out in the early centuries of its existence, the early creeds witness to the determination of the church to preserve the confession of one God, the Almighty, from 1 Corinthians 8:6: “Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live…” to Nicea in 325: “We believe in one God, the Father, all governing Creator of all things visible and invisible.”1
So far, this brief overview has shown that the confession of one God, distinct from the created universe, is foundational to both the Jewish and Christian faiths.
The second area of common ground that is necessary to establish between Judaism and Christianity is that human beings are dependent on a gracious God. On one hand, a merciful and gracious God loves, nurtures and preserves humanity through his covenant faithfulness, and on the other hand, beckons us into right relation with him. It is this idea, almost as much as the idea of one holy and righteous God, that is Judaism’s gift to the understanding of humanity’s place in the economy of God’s creation. In no other ancient Near Eastern literature is there anything like it. Both the creation story in Genesis 1 and the more particular promises to the patriarchs speak of a God whose concern for us is expressed through his saving acts and by providing a means by which we could respond in the context of close relationship with him.
The Christian proclamation of John 3:16—”For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”—could not have been made without this prior understanding of God’s desire to cherish his creation and his desire for creation to respond to him. And it is in this area, the means by which humanity is brought into right relationship with God, that the difference between the Jewish and Christian faith are most vividly revealed.
The gap between a holy and transcendent God, unknowable through merely human initiative, and a humanity that stands in need of a bridge to span that awful abyss is acknowledged by both faiths. Both faiths posit that God’s revelatory self-disclosure is necessary for the distance to be bridged. But where are the blueprints for the bridge? Of what material is it to be constructed? It is these issues around which the centuries-old conflict between Judaism and Christianity is joined: How does God come to us, and how do we come to him?
The Function of Torah in Judaism
The word “torah,” taken from the Hebrew verb yarah, means to throw or shoot, or point in a direction. In its Hiphel form, it means to direct or teach. The literature it refers to is first the Pentateuch, then the whole Bible and thirdly any authoritative teaching. Rabbinic interpretation of Exodus 34:27 posited the existence of an oral as well as a written law, and opened the door for the “whole corpus of Jewish traditional law from the Bible to the latest development of the halachah” to come under the rubric of Torah.2 It is also worth mentioning that the translation of the word torah to nomos in Greek, law, and from thence to lex, which is Latin for law, has perpetuated the unhappy myth that Torah necessarily means legalistic observance.
As to the function of Torah in Jewish life; it is manifold. Even within the Bible itself it is evident that its place in the community and worship of Israel is far more than just the set of regulations received by Moses by which Israel was to order its religious and social life. In the Psalms especially, the Torah is revered as a sign of God’s loving watchcare over Israel. Psalm 119 refers to the Torah as “complete and unblemished.” It particularly extols the Torah as being full of wonderful things, as bearing God’s grace, as precious, and as carrying with it the blessing of God’s peace to those who love it. Such expressions of devotion should put to death once and for all the notion that the law is nothing more than an impersonal taskmaster whose task is to make us bleed and give us nothing in return. Rather, the praises of the psalmist indicate a genuine joy on the part of the worshiper, and a deep appreciation of the privilege of obeying the law of God. It is interesting to note that within this love psalm to God, the persistent theme of the relationship between Torah and salvation crops up in vs. 166: “I wait for your salvation, O Lord, and I follow your commands” and in vs. 174: “I long for your salvation, O Lord, and your law is my delight.” Conversely, lawlessness is tantamount to separation from God’s promise, as vs. 118 demonstrates: “You reject all who stray from your decrees, for their deceitfulness is in vain.”
To sum up, even a cursory study of the Hebrew Scriptures reveals the Torah as not only “letter,” but as object of genuine devotion akin to that of lover to beloved. It is to the growing identity and role of Torah, especially as saving agent of God we now turn as we trace its development through the rabbinic writings.
The Torah and the Rabbis
As we have found, there is a movement within the canon of Scripture that speaks of a parallel development of both the identity of the Torah in terms of object of love, and the role of Torah in terms of agent of salvation. Both of these developments became much more pronounced and intensified in the rabbinic writings and played a large role in detaching Judaism from its biblical moorings.
The first quantum leap beyond Scripture was the rabbinic idea that the Torah was identified with preexistent, personified Wisdom of Proverbs 8.3 The wedding of these two concepts is best expressed in the apocryphal wisdom of Ben Sirach:
Wisdom was created before all things, and prudent understanding from eternity. The source of wisdom is God’s word in the highest heaven, and her ways are the eternal commandments. (vs. 4-5).4
Although not accepted by all rabbinic authorities, this idea has gained a strong foothold in Judaistic thought. R. Joshua b. Levi said:
When Moses went up to God, the angels said, “What has a son of women to do among us?” God said, “He has come to receive the Law.” Then they said, “The beautiful Torah, which Thou has hid away since creation, and for 974 generations before creation, cost Thou purpose to give it to one of flesh and blood? ” (Shab. 88b).
Akiva called the Torah “the precious instrument by which the world was created” (Avot. 3:14).5 Although later philosophical movements within Judaism tended to at least downplay this idea, the Cabalists retained this notion in their system, identifying the Torah with Hokhmah (God’s wisdom), the second Sefirah, Tiferet (God’s beauty), the sixth, or Malkhut (God’s kingdom), the tenth.6
Judah Halevi spoke of the Torah as preceding the world by design, arguing that because God had the Torah in mind when He created the world, and “the first of thought is the end of the work,” the Torah is said to have existed before the world (Kuzari 3:73).7 Solomon Schecter expands on this concept:
…the Torah, having been long destined to become a main factor in God’s government of the world, its creation must have been predestined before He called the world into existence.8
Philo, who sought a synthesis of Hebraic and Greek thought form, wrote of the pre-existence and role in creation of the Word of God (logos), and identified the Word of God with the Torah.9 It is not difficult to see how the Gospel of John enlists this concept in its proclamation of Jesus as Word of God.
Along with pre-existence, the rabbis endowed the Torah with another trait that must be classified as personal identity. In speaking of the fear the children of Israel felt at Sinai, R. Levi said: “But the Torah interceded for them with God, saying ‘Does a king, when he gives his daughter in marriage slay the sons of his house? All the world rejoices and Thy sons are dying!’ At once their souls were restored, as it says, ‘the Torah of the Lord is perfect, it restores the soul’ (Ps. 19:7).”10 This intercessory role is repeated as we find the Torah called upon to bear witness against Israel at the destruction of the Temple but refuses to, at the insistence of Abraham, who said, “My daughter, were not my children the only ones that received thee, when thou wast rejected by other nations?”11
But the personification of the Torah goes far beyond its role as pre-existent agent of creation, daughter of king, or even intercessor for the people. As Schecter observes, “As soon as the Torah was identified with the Wisdom of Proverbs, the mind did not rest satisfied with looking at it as a mere condition for the existence of the world. Every connotation of the term Wisdom in the famous eighth chapter (of Proverbs) was invested with life and individuality. The Torah, by the same process, was endowed with a mystical life of its own, which emanates from God, yet is partly detached from Him.”12 As the personified individuality of the Torah grew under the authority of the rabbis, it is only natural that the role of Torah as agent of God would grow also, particularly as the ineffable transcendence of God began to be more greatly stressed. This was partly in response to Christian teaching. This handing over of activity from God to Torah is particularly evident with respect to doctrine of salvation.
Soteriology and Torah
For the purpose of this paper the issue of salvation may be thought of as occurring within the framework of God’s summons to Israel through the prophet Malachi: “Return to me, and I will return to you” (3:7). Both act of God and response of man are necessary. This is true of both Judaism and Christianity. However, as we shall now see, there is a vast difference between what Judaism teaches about what these two factors are and how they are related, and evangelical thought. We will turn first to the question of whether the Torah functions as saving agent in rabbinic thought, and if so, how.
We have seen so far that in rabbinic thought the Torah began to take on aspects of status and role that might almost be seen to parallel New Testament claims made by, or on behalf of, Jesus. The Torah was seen to be pre-existent. John 1:1 teaches: “In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Torah was personified by the rabbis. John 1:14 tells us: “The Word became flesh.…” The Torah was thought to be an agent of creation. John 1:3 informs us: “Through him all things were made.…” It is interesting to note how closely John’s use of the Greek concept of Word (logos) to describe Jesus parallels Philo’s use of the same concept to describe the function of Torah. To this add the intercessory role we have already seen ascribed to the Torah by the rabbis. The question arises, can we go so far as to say that the Torah, as perceived by the rabbis, functions with respect to salvation in Judaism in a similar way to Jesus’ role in the Christian faith?
In order to frame this question adequately, some basic differences in Judaism with respect to doctrine of sin and doctrine of man, need to be brought out. First, although Judaism and Christianity both teach that man was created in the image of God, and both teach that there is sin, they differ in describing man’s created nature and its relationship to sin. And this difference, in turn, leads to a different understanding of man’s need for and God’s way to salvation.
Although there are roughly 20 words for sin in the Hebrew Scriptures, the most common, hata, carries with it the meaning, “to miss” or “to fail.”13 So, if the word torah means to “shoot at” God’s will, the word hata means to fail to hit it. The Hebraic concept of sin refers not primarily to man’s condition, as will be seen presently, but as in specific failures and offenses against God’s law.
The most important difference between rabbinic teaching about the nature of sin and evangelical thought is that in rabbinic literature there is no doctrine of original sin. The Encyclopedia Judaica states unequivocally, “The much discussed question of whether there are any parallels to the Christian doctrine of original sin in Rabbinic literature can be disposed of by simply noting that there are no such parallels.”14 Although the philosopher Philo, influenced by Hellenistic thought form, distinguished between Pristine Man, and the first historical man, and between him and his descendants, the rabbis did not.15 According to their thought, the story of the sin in the garden is meant simply to establish the relationship between transgression and punishment.16 R. Akiva maintains that from the first, man was placed under the yoke of the commandment, and was given permission to choose between the way of life or death. This right was not abrogated, and remains within man’s power to this day.17
Rabbinic writings disclose the belief that the propensity to sin was intrinsic to the created nature of mankind, and not the result of a fall from a formerly uncorrupted state. R. Berediah said,
In the hour when God was about to create the first man, He saw that both righteous and wicked men would issue from him (Gen. R. Bereshit).18
R. Tafdai said in the name of R.Aha:
The upper beings (the angels) are created in the image and likeness of God, but they do not increase and multiply. The lower beings (the animals) increase and multiply, but they are not created in the image and likeness of God. So God has said, “…behold, I will create him with something of the natures of both; if he sins he shall die, if he does not, he shall live” (Gen. R. Bereshit).19
The propensity to sin, known as the Yetzer Ra, or evil inclination, is conceived in rabbinic thought as a deeply seated tendency toward rebellion to God that rests in the heart and imagination of people, and is manifested most frequently in the areas of idolatry and lust. There is much in rabbinic literature on the subject. However, the activity of the Evil Yetzer was neatly summed up by R. Simon b. Lakish, who said:
Satan and Yetzer and the Angel of Death are One.20
However deeply lodged the Evil Yetzer is in humanity’s makeup, it is important to reemphasize the fact that according to rabbinic thought, it is not the product of original sin, but part of the original human creation.
God regretted the evil inclination and He said, “What damage have I wrought! I regret I have created it in my world”(Tan. d. b. El p. 62).21
Without the burden of original sin, and with sin conceived primarily as transgression against God’s law, it is a relatively easy leap to a perception of Torah as the remedy for sin. There is ample rabbinic evidence that the Torah is the means by which the people of God are rescued from the Evil Yetzer. Raba said:
Though God created the Yetzer ha-Ra, He created the Law as an antidote against it (Bab. B. 16a).22
So God says to the Israelites, “I created you with the Evil Yetzer, but I created the Law as an antidote. As long as you occupy yourselves with the Law, the Yetzer will not rule over you. But if you do not occupy yourselves with the Torah, then you will be delivered into the power of the Yetzer, and all its activity will be against you.”23
These teachings very clearly teach two things:
- the Torah stands in a protecting role between man and the consequences of sin proceeding from the Evil Yetzer, and
- the protection is efficacious only if the law is carried out by man.
Summing up, we have seen so far that although rabbinic thought differs from Christian teaching in its perception of the condition of mankind and the nature of sin, it recognizes the problem of sin and asserts the Torah as a crucial factor in sin’s remedy. The questions we are now ready to ask are what is the role of human response with regard to salvation in the area of Torah obedience, and what was Jesus’ relationship with Torah?
In commenting upon the role of Torah in life, Jacob Neusner has this to say, “For Judaic tradition the way is absolutely central…The purpose of revelation is to create a kingdom of priests and a holy people. The foundation of that kingdom, or sovereignty is the rule of God over the lives of men.”24 It is to the question of how this way provides a human response by which people are reconciled to God that we now turn.
Part of the answer to this question lies in the Jewish concept of atonement through the sacrificial system provided by God, as the Scripture bears witness. The sacrifice was not meant only to cover specific sins, but also to renew the covenant fellowship between God and his people. However, with the destruction of the Temple, such sacrifice was no longer possible. Confronted by a need to find a substitute for what God had ordained, rabbinic teaching “solved” the dilemma by elevating Torah obedience to the status of sacrifice, as if sacrifice were not part of that same Torah. “The Law acts as surrogate for the Temple. Where sacrifices would have atoned certain classes of sins, now that the Temple has gone, the Law, if Israelites occupy themselves with its study, serves as an equivalent.”25
This represents another major departure in rabbinic thought from scriptural basis. It shifts the burden of reconciliation from the gracious provision of God effected by the sacrificial system to human attitudes and actions that are under the aegis of the Torah. Under the rabbinic interpretation, the things that ought to accompany sacrifice, themselves became the means through which atonement is made. It is for this reason teshuvah (repentance) has gained such a prominent role in Judaic thought.
Repentance, which was originally meant to accompany sacrifice, must now do the work of sacrifice, now that sacrifice can no longer be made. R. Jose ben Tartos said,
“Whence can it be proved that he who repents is regarded as if he had gone up to Jerusalem, built the Temple and the altar and offered upon it all the sacrifices mentioned in the Law? From the verse, ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit’ (Ps. 51:17) (Lev. R., Zaw, VII, 2).”26
The concept of human act as atoning sacrifice is not restricted to repentance. Suffering and death are also means through which forgiveness may be achieved. To these add prayer, good works and all fruits of godliness that were originally meant to proceed from a right relationship with God, but could not themselves produce such a right relationship.
It is at this point that the difference between Judaism as it is promulgated by the rabbis and Christianity is most acute, particularly in the writings of Paul. Even as the first Jewish believers in Messiah sought to define themselves within the context of first century Judaism, the question of whether righteousness could be achieved through works done under the law was a pressing issue, particularly as more and more gentiles were believing in the Jewish Messiah. Paul’s writings in Romans and Galatians, and Luke’s account of the council at Jerusalem in Acts 15 attest to this. At the core of this issue is the relationship of the sinner to the Torah, and while rabbinic literature presents the Torah as the cure, Paul speaks of it as the problem. And the resolution of the issue of where humanity stands in relation to the Torah of God can be discovered only in the relationship of Yeshua himself to the Torah.
Yeshua and Torah
The relationship of Jesus to Torah is best expressed in Matthew 5:17-18. Although these verses appear in the context of Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom, Jesus clearly teaches that there is to be no “end run” around the Torah. “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
How is this to be understood? The answer is found in Jesus himself. Acting on behalf of Israel and all of us, he does what Israel would not or could not do: obey God, and in doing so fulfill the law. Dietrich Bonhoeffer observes,” Jesus, the Son of God, who alone lives in perfect communion with Him vindicates the law by coming to fulfill it.”27 In doing so, now Jesus, and not the law, stands between us and God as living Torah, revealing God to us from on high, and acting for us from below, including us in his perfectly obedient response to God.
Returning to an earlier theme, Malachi’s summons, “Return to me and I will return to you,” is fulfilled by Yeshua from both sides. As God’s Torah, Jesus summons us to return. As the perfect, Torah-keeping man, he returns on our behalf, and includes us in his teshuvah, as we believe in him.
It is for this reason that the believing person’s relationship to the Law has changed so radically. R. Kearsley writes: “…Paul gives recognition to the Torah’s power both to provoke disobedience and to produce condemnation…he also announces a radical break with the law both as it concerns the individual believer and the redemptive economy.”28 Put simply, Messiah’s work does not change the law’s relationship to us, but our relationship to it, replacing the rabbinic idea of Torah and Torah keeping as a means to salvation with faith in Jesus who is, as Romans 10:4 has it, “the end (telos) of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” The word telos does not merely indicate the point at which a thing is complete, but rather the goal toward which the process was pointing all along. Put another way, the goal toward which the Torah pointed all along is Jesus the Messiah, and his Kingdom. Reflecting on the significance of this, O. Kvarme writes: “The Torah is to be realized in a new righteousness, and this righteousness belongs to the Kingdom of God, the new salvific realm in which the Torah is fulfilled by Jesus.”29
- Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, III vols. 6th ed. (New York and London: Harper Brothers Pub. 1877, reprinted New York and London Philip Schaff 1919) 1:27.
- Encyclopedia Judaica ed. 1971, s.v. Torah.
- C. G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, A Rabbinic Anthology ( New York: Schocken Books 1974), 169.
- Encyclopedia Judaica ed. 1971, s.v. Torah.
- Solomon Schecter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (New York: Schocken Books 1961), 128.
- Encyclopedia, s.v. Torah.
- Montefiore, Anthology, 677.
- Schecter, Aspects, 129.
- Encyclopedia, s.v. Sin.
- Ephriam Urbach The Sages, Their Concepts and Beliefs Jerusalem: Magnes Press 1975), 227.
- Ibid, 421.
- Ibid, 263.
- Montefiore, Anthology, 87-88.
- Ibid, 421.
- Schecter, Aspects, 244.
- Montefiore. Anthology. 87-88.
- Ibid, 295.
- Ibid, 296.
- Jacob Neusner, The Way of Torah: An Introduction to Judaism (Belmont: Dickenson Publishing Co., Inc. 1970), 25.
- Montefiore, Anthology, 118.
- Ibid, 317.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: MacMillan Co., Inc. 1963, reprinted. New York, 1976), 138.
- R Kearsley, “Paul, the Law and the Covenant” (Mishkan 4, 1986), 5.
- O. Kvarme, “Jesus, the Kingdom and the Torah” (Mishkan 4, 1986), 32.
- Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1963; reprinted ed. New York, NY, 1976.
- Encyclopedia Judaica ed. 1971 s.v. Sin.
- Encyclopedia Judaica ed. 1971 s.v. Torah.
- Kearsley, R. “Paul, the Law and the Covenant” Mishkan 4 (1986).
- Kvarme, Ole Chr. M. “Jesus, the Kingdom and the Torah” Mishkan 4 (1986).
- Montefiore, C. G., and Loewe, H. A Rabbinic Anthology. N Y: Schocken Books, 1974.
- Neusner, Jacob. The Way of Torah: An Introduction to Judaism. Belmont: Dickenson Publishing Co., Inc., 1970.
- Nouwen, Henri J. M. The Wounded Healer. Garden City: Image Books, 1979.
- Schaff, Philip. The Creeds of Christendom, 3 vol., 6th ed. New York and London: Harper and Brothers Publishers 1877, reprint ed.
- New York and London: Philip Schaff, 1919.
- Schecter, Solomon. Aspects of Rabbinic Judaism. New York: Schocken Books, 1961.
- Urbach, Ephriam E. The Sages, Their Concepts and Beliefs, 2 vols. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1975.