Jewish Renewal: A Book Review in Parts, #4

The topic du jour is discovering the commandments and a Jewish view of Christian theology that is not flattering. This is the fourth in a series on Duties of the Soul edited by Niles Goldstein and Peter Knobels. It is a book by the Reform Roundtable, a group of Reform rabbis considering the need for a commandment-based Judaism (renewal of tradition in Reform).

In chapter 2, author Arnold Jacob Wolf’s topic is, “Back to the Future: On Rediscovering Commandments.” He opens with a wonderful line:

Only something that offends us will define Judaism.

What is the something that offends? It is better to do something under command than by choice. He means by this that living for God should be about giving up our freedom to live under the greater freedom of commandments. This is opposed to classical Reform Judaism in which human freedom takes priority over divine commandment. It is also opposed to a lot of easy-grace forms of Christianity (not all Christianity by any means). Finally, this is opposed to a lot of so-called Messianic Jewish congregations where Torah-observance is (as Boaz Michael eloquently put it) silly and self-defined.

Wolf notes that Reform Judaism has always had people who were mitzvah-based. His family, five generations of Reform Jews, never once ate on Yom Kippur or had bread during Passover. But observance only went so far. There are many technical mitzvot, more obscure observances, that his family never kept. He gives as examples sha’atnetz (restrictions on mixed-fiber clothing) and taharat hamishpachah (family purity, especially regarding menstruation).

Why did his family fast on Yom Kippur but feel free to ignore other mitzvot?

In the interpretation of lay Reform Jews, obedience is largely a matter of pick-and-choose. We will decide which mitzvot we accept and which ones we don’t. We are in charge of our own religious lives. This, I believe, is the original sin of Reform Judaism. . . . The whole point of an ethic is that it comes to you. It is discovered; it is not chosen.

This should be plastered on the doors of every Messianic synagogue in the world. Who are we to pick and choose?

Wolf’s suggestion going forward to Reform Judaism is to “ritualize the ethical commandments and ethicize the ritual.” This is a fairly difficult concept for many Messianics and Christians to grasp. We are so caught up in freedom that we deemphasize obligation. What he means is this:

1. We need to make ethical observances a matter of habit. It is a flat rule not to talk about others (lashon hara, slander) so habituate the act of not talking about other people. It is a flat rule not to look on others with lust, so habituate keeping your eyes to yourself. It is a flat rule to eat only what is permitted in Torah, so habituate your eating.

2. We need to make or follow rituals for honoring Shabbat and holy days. We need to have rituals to add intentionality to observances that are not directly moral. We need to use prayers and blessings to mark our observances as holy.

Next post: We will see the unflattering picture of Christianity that Wolf has and ask where this picture came from.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, Messianic Jewish, Niles Goldstein, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Jewish Renewal: A Book Review in Parts, #4

  1. Sean Morris says:

    Dear Derek,

    Perhaps you will get into this subject later on in your blog, in which case I can wait. And perhaps this is an already answered question for Messianic Jews and I am just unaware of the answer. I am very new to Messianic Jewish thinking and practice. I was wondering what your particular stance is on halakhah. I know that there is not yet any one accepted pattern on this, and that Messianics widely differ in their observance. I read an article recently( dicussed the importance of developing halakhah for Messianic Judaism while at the same time expressing the need for great caution and wisdom. Do you, in your own life, have a particular “Set Table” to which you adhere? I am curious only because I find halakhah to be extremely significant, and I want to know more about how to live as an observant Messianic Jew, following a set halakhah that is in agreement with belief in Yeshua as Messiah. What might be the place of the Shulkhan Arukh in the life of a Messianic Jew? Should there be a norm for all of us, or is it pick and choose? I know that Yeshua told his followers that they must do what those who sit in Moshe’s Seat say, and also that David Stern believes Rabbinic law to be nonobligatory due to Yeshua’s statement to Shimon Kefa regarding binding and loosing. But what does all this mean in actual practice? What does your daily routine look like? I hope this is not too intrusive a question? Thanks.


  2. Sean:

    Let me give you an honest answer. I am seeking the answer to these questions myself. I have gone in and out of certain observances. I have considered different viewpoints. I have not settled them in my mind.

    Here is what I think needs to happen. Messianic rabbis need to form rabbinical councils (there is now one in existence, made up of some rabbis in the UMJC). These rabbinical councils need to work together on these questions. We need a communal answer, not private answers.

    What to do in the meantime? One option that some of my colleagues follow (and I am considering) is to follow Conservative halakhah. Orthodox, I think, clearly goes too far. Isaac Klein’s A Guide to Religious Jewish Practice is the standard text. I must admit, I do not follow that level of halakhah myself.

    Sorry not to have a crystal clear answer for you. I am a student and I want answers also. Perhaps in time Messianic rabbinical councils will make these matters easier for us all.


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